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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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    One way to deal with Tayna is to give her a fait acompli that is not unduly unpleasant to her, and she'll go along with it. And yeah, she is a *bit* coffee-obsessed. It also gave her a prop to have fun with.
     
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  2. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I mean, I would hope for the V's sakes that Tanya finds the two to be much more than not unduly unpleasant.
     
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  3. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Hehehehe. I mean Tauria's description of them does seem to get more fond in this chapter as well.
     
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  4. Extras: Image: Reinhild SunShower and more Tauria suiting up.
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    And now some art!

    We've got a piece of VioletBlood showing off Tauria's new maid



    The outfits aren't quite how things happened in the chapter, but there's plenty of time for them to dress up and for LoveBlood to tease her countess.
    [​IMG]

    Next we have a variant with Reinhild offering some advice to a nervous Tauria
    [​IMG]



    Now this one is another detailing of Ritual Plate. This time with Tauria having her suit checked out by her whole Ritualista team.
    [​IMG]


    Going counter clockwise from Optio Suzette Gibbs (upper left) we have: Flavia, Laurentia, and IvoryTail.
     
  5. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Tanya looks really weird in pink. Not sure why.
     
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  6. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Maybe it's because her colors are so pale and pastel there's no contrast? The pink was picked because it's pink to maximize her annoyance.
     
  7. Extras: Image: Duchess SilverFlight dressing up her Daughter
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    I've got two pieces of a common theme for this story. Namely: Tauria's adoptive mother dresses her youngest daughter up in something frilly much to Tauria's chagrin.

    First we have a wonderful piece from Lexikimble (warning some possible risque content)

    [​IMG]

    Full Size


    And then from FieryJinx we have this amazing sequence (and this is one I really recommend looking at in full size to appreciate all the details and expressions.

    [​IMG]

    Full Size
     
  8. Extras: Tauria getting dresed by her other mom and some updates
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    So a few updates:

    • Ch17 is progressing at about 3k words.
    • I have an omake for another Tanya cross that is at about the same length and some of you may enjoy that when it comes up.
    • I've also gone though an update, edit project for Little Demon, all the previous 16 chapters have been cleaned up and made a bit more readable with some typo and other corrections. So that'll make reading the story better.
    • And for the Return (a story set in the same world as this one) I've finally posted chapter 5 of Book 6 Bonding Allure which can be read here.
    • Finally there's some new art from PlayerError 404

    We've seen plenty of art of Duchess SilverFlight dressing her adoptive daughter up much to Tauria's frustration and annoyance. But we have not seen her other mother Sister Clementia indulge nearly as frequently. Here we see them sharing a memorial ceremony, I don't see why Tauria is so worried, this is a good sign!

    [​IMG]
     
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  9. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I mean, at least the dress she's in isn't super pink or girly.

    Transparency might be the concern though...
     
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  10. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    True it could be worse. Though Tauria would also be worried about the whole nun's habit and the rest of the novitiate's uniform.
     
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  11. moon so bright

    moon so bright Shining Light

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    I really hope to see how the newbies shape up. Also, I want to reactions to her training. The new maid seems fun - mischievous maids are magnificent - and I like how the relationship between the three of them is shaping up, though I think hope she comes out to Loveblood and her mothers about her and Visha’s past. I think that will help her grow as a person. Also, will she accept a true adoption, eventually?
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2022
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  12. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Hopefully! Otherwise that'd be such a waste of human-demon talent. And they should have a good time training, totally ;p

    Hehe yeah kitsune are prefect for mischievous maids. And yeah Tauria does trust issues which if she gets over would be a good sign of her development. As well as her getting closer to her mothers.

    Thanks so much!
     
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  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: Mandatory Mentoring, Rivals and Reunions.
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Return Verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic thingy.
    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/


    Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
    http://fukufics.com

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 17: Mandatory Mentoring, Rivals and Reunions.


    After she finally got my clothes squared away, SunShower switched her focus to my hair and wings. I patiently sat and let her work. "You are quite tense," my new maid noted.

    "Is it that obvious?"

    The kitsune glanced meaningfully at my tail, which hung stiffly with the tip curled down.

    "Fine."

    "I don't see why you're so worried." She put the hair brush down and fussed with the gem at my throat, adjusting it minutely one last time. "Is this truly any more stressful than your survival training?"

    "They're a pack of little spoiled brats," I said, not at all put-upon, "They're all going to pester me about my 'heroics'."

    "Dare I presume you're exaggerating, Ma'am?"

    I wanted to glare at my maid, but the angle wasn't right.

    Her ears pulled back slightly for a moment before springing back up. "You have expressed fondness for them in the past, after all..."

    I sighed. "Yes, yes, I know. I just need to endure their prattle; if I mouthed off at them and let them know what I really have to say about 'heroics', I'd never hear the end of it."

    "Their mothers would be quite upset."

    "And we wouldn't want that," I exhaled, forcing my irritation away. "How do I look?"

    "Like a princess," Reinhild assured me. Her tone was sickly-sweet, and I could see the way her eyes crinkled with amusement in the mirror.

    This time I did glare at her. The obstreperous maid remained entirely unquelled.

    I abandoned the glare as futile and stoically suffered through the indignity of being patted on the head.

    "At least my lady won't need to wear a habit or other novitiate accessories for this event," the kitsune offered.

    I sighed at the subtext. "Indeed not today. You have some lead time. The church attire must be ready when Mother visits next month; I am scheduled to go on a tour of local religious sites with her."

    "Very good, Ma'am. Everything for today is ready; your guests should be arriving shortly."

    Exhaling, I flexed my gloved hands and nodded to the door.

    In her own prim, purple, ruffled uniform, SunShower went a couple steps ahead of me as if to clear a path. By the murky technicalities of noble etiquette, she should have been a few steps behind me; if she had to be in front of me, then she should have been waving a censer, but that was frankly a line I wasn't willing to cross. Thankfully, burning incense was a bit too much pageantry for my older sister's tastes as well as my own. I didn't even chide SunShower for her minor breach of etiquette; at this point in my life, I was thankful for any amount of informality I could get away with.

    As we reached the top of the stairs, the correct place for a formal greeting, SunShower held up a hand and we waited in silence. I tried not to fidget with my gloves or pull at the waist of my clothes.

    "Are you sure the timing is correct?" I asked, breaking the quiet after a minute.

    Lilly, one of the mansion's senior maids, waited by the entryway down in the lobby with a coterie of three more household servants. She looked up at us, nodded, and held up two fingers that she twirled. before returning to her demure, hands-folded waiting pose.

    "See, they're nearly here," my kitsune assured. "It won't be too much longer, My Lady."

    "Yes... I think I can hear their vehicle now." I was fully aware that this was the only venue where I could plausibly receive my guests; my duchess's "townhouse" was my official residence in the capital, and receiving aristocratic guests anywhere but my official residence would constitute a dire insult. Still, I couldn't say I was comfortable with the imminent invasion of my home by a gaggle of little nobles barely above imps who all dreamed of being real Ritual Plate Pilots.

    "What about LoveBlood?" I asked, more to distract myself from the dire future that awaited me than out of curiosity. "Where is she?"

    "Alas, she is running a bit late. Getting Centurion Shadow dressed took longer than expected," SunShower explained, before falling silent as her ears rotated towards the entryway. I could hear the hooves on the exterior stairs as well.

    It was time. The guests had arrived at last.

    The grand doors opened and as Lilly and the rest of the maids greeted their guests with low bows, I put on my professional smile and began descending the stairs, carefully lifting my gown a few inches so I wouldn't tread upon the hem and send myself tumbling down in the full sight of my guests. The only thing more embarrassing than wearing such a frilly, sequined pink confection would be proving myself unable to walk in the damned thing.

    There was a sober moment as the new arrivals made their observances to the altar commemorating our fallen family members before, seemingly as one, a swarm of little broodlings in poofy party gowns all turned and looked up to me with a shout of "Aunty!" and "Countess!"

    My nieces, at least the youngest among them, had arrived.

    ++++++++++


    "Talia, get down from that tree!" I ordered. "You're going to ruin your dress!"

    The little broodling peered down at me from where she had sunk her claws into the trunk about twenty feet up. Her eyes were wide and luminous. "But I'm up high now!"

    Looking up at those big green eyes, I cursed myself for turning my back on her, and underestimating how fast children could climb at this age. For a moment, I considered asking a maid to bring me one of the groundskeeper's chainsaws, but the tree was tall enough that it might fall upon the house if cut.

    "Yes, that is the problem," I stated calmly. The buffet of snacks had only been a temporary attention-holder for my other nieces and now they were clustered around me in a swarm. Several maids were also in the backyard, all of whom were more than happy to leave this task to me.

    "How come she's allowed to climb?" One of the broodlings asked in a tone well past curious and deep into pouting territory. Worse, a few of the others were sidling over to the oak Talia had climbed as well as other trees in the glen.

    "She's not," I firmly replied. "Talia is being bad. She's too little."

    "I'm a big girl!" Talia pouted as her green wings flapped. "I fly."

    I really did not want to explain to ArgentShroud how I let her youngest daughter break her bones in a fall. At least the broodling had her tail wrapped around a branch, that probably gave her some stability.

    "Ma'am, I could help get her down safely," SunShower said, quietly appearing by my side.

    "You can climb?"

    "I am a fox."

    "True foxes can't climb trees."

    My maid gave me an amused look.

    And then the ground level broodlings all began gushing over her and, of course, immediately started squabbling over who got to pet her fluffy tails.

    "Girls!" I called in my command voice.

    As one they turned and looked up at me, their expressions petulant and covetous. Baby demons were disturbing, in an all too adorable way. They were vicious little predators with sharp claws and fangs, but because they were cute, at least biologically, older demons were wired to protect them. "Miss SunShower is my handmaiden, and if you want to play with her you will have to ask nicely and do what she says."

    There was some dissent but then the broodlings seemed almost hypnotized by the kitsune's swishing tails. Nodding my thanks to Reinhild, I stomped closer to the treed Talia.

    "Fluffy tail!" she cried.

    "You'll have to come down first." I was utterly calm.

    After shaking her head, Talia looked up and seemed to study the trunk above her.

    "No, don't climb any higher. Don't make me come up there."

    "But you'll get your pretty gown dirty and that's against the rules," she giggled.

    My wings spread out. "Don't make me get you down."

    "Oh?" She peered down at me. Her wings flexed a bit and her legs tensed. "You'll fly up?"

    That seemed to break the spell my kitsune had on the others.

    "Aunty's gonna fly?" many of them asked as they looked up to me. At least I was not the shortest person here. That was worth something.

    Talia looked down with a mad, challenging smirk and leapt.

    Wings snapping down, and my Zephyr helping, I accelerated up. Talia squealed seemingly with surprise, when her little wings spread out and she clumsily glided.

    I was nearly at her altitude and had reached out to grab the little terror when I felt the air spirits around my niece coalesce and with a giddy yell she tried to accelerate off.

    Adjusting my course for interception, I rushed forward just in time for, Talia to slam into my chest in an impact of lace, ruffles, and bows. Wrapping my arms securely around her, I trimmed my wings and went back towards the ground.

    "Again!" Talia cheered once my shoes returned to the ground

    "No, it's my turn!" Liata, her fraternal twin sister, demanded.

    "No, mine!" came the chorus of half a dozen other little voices.

    "You have your hands full," VioletBlood noted with obvious amusement as she strode up Visha by her side.

    Ah, so those were the gowns that had delayed them. I was jealous that Visha could wear a simple almost evening dress-style affair of elegant black and silver. VioletBlood was wearing a more elaborate gown in gold with lavender trim.

    Talia squirmed in my arms with her tail thrashing about as she tried to get comfortable.

    "No more climbing trees," I ordered my nieces.

    "But Talia got to climb!"

    "Life's not fair," I stated.

    Still in my arms, Talia smugly nodded along. To my horror, the broodlings all suddenly had incredibly calculating looks on their tiny adorable faces.

    "So, we need to be first to get away with it?" Liata, the apparent spokesdemon asked. What did I do to get saddled with little monsters too clever for their own good?

    "No." My tone was firm, but it was hard to be imposing while carrying a broodling.

    Worse, Talia had started imitating my body language and expressions, causing giggles among the rest of the broodlings.

    VioletBlood gave me a strained look, trying for gravely sympathetic. Her swishing tail betrayed her poorly hidden amusement. "I suppose this look does suit you."

    I glared.

    "Aunty Countess is best Aunty," Talia said.

    "Oh no...." I put her down. While my other sisters could handle that in good humor, it was risky to be seen as the "favorite".

    "Maybe you can tell them a story?" Visha offered.

    "Yes, war story!" "A bloody one!" "Where you chased down the enemy and ate them!"

    I twitched a bit at the bloodthirsty little war maniacs. Truly ,children were monsters in need of civilizing. Glancing over to LoveBlood did nothing to calm me; judging by her grin alone, she was just as bloodthirsty as the terrible twins themselves.

    "How about some lessons on finding, befriending, and training Zephyr?" I offered. "Especially since Talia found one."

    "Yay! Zephyr!" Talia cheered. The broodlings then turned to Talia and seemed to sniff the air as they circled around her with a mix of jealousy and cheer. For a moment I wondered if they were going to hug her or bite her; fortunately, it was the former.

    Nevertheless, I stood by to make sure none of them bit her, or clawed at her dress or pulled her hair. At least the her dress hadn't been damaged climb or by her short flight.

    "The cake is nearly ready," SunShower quietly said by my side.

    "Oh good," I said, smiling glassily. My birthday had been three days ago, but this was as much for my family, or at least the younger part, to celebrate. I was less worried about being at the center of attention, and more at the idea of giving a lot of sugar to a veritable terror of broodlings. Yes, clowder is the collective noun for a group of us who were not immediate relatives, but terror was more fitting for ones the age of this particular subset of my nieces.

    "I caught a peek when we arrived; it's very impressive," Visha confided.

    "As long as we can last until ArgentShroud or Sam arrives," I murmured. At least no one had gotten hurt yet. In some ways broodlings were very robust and could bounce back from injuries, in other ways they were very fragile, something that still kept pediatrics as a major medical field.

    "Sam?"

    "Short for Samael," I explained before turning back to the broodlings. "How about we go to the gazebo and we can talk there?"

    The terror of broodlings watched and I managed to draw them deeper into the back yard to the small building that stood by a fish pond. The architecture was more of the blending of Baroque and Roman and the fish were not koi, but it was still vaguely familiar, a setting conceptually similar to the ornamental ponds of my first life.

    I stood with my back to the pond while the broodlings scrambled in, their dresses swooshing as they took seats in the gazebo.

    I clapped my hands. "Right, who here knows what a Zephyr is?"

    "We all do!" Talia cried.

    "Yeah, get to the good stuff!" one of her cousins yelled.

    I crossed my arms and tried to give them a stern look. That was a bit more difficult given the visible amusement that VioletBlood and Visha who were watching from the very back hadn't even pretended to hide. There would be, I decided, a reckoning later.

    "Fine," I paced a bit. I had to kill some time as the maids got the cake ready, and my nieces should be informed. "Zephyr are elemental kami. More than that, they are kami of the wind, of air. Do you know what that means?"

    The broodlings looked at me if I was being obtuse. "That they're spirits of air," Talia eventually stated.

    I sighed and idly pushed back one of the campaign ribbons Reinhild had pinned in my hair. "For them, the world is open and free. They care little for borders and the squabbling of the Diyu Houses. Few places are blocked to them. Everywhere there is air, there is some element of them," I waved a hand and idly flicked a gust of wind through my audience.

    "So?" A baby-faced purple-haired broodling pouted.

    I gave a crooked smile. "They are capricious and playful, mostly with short attention spans but amused at the schemes and folly of demon princesses and war mistresses. In short, a lot like you."

    "Is that why I got a Zephyr?" Talia tried to pet the wispy spirit that had curled around one of her wings.

    Liata watched with a jealous look caught between trying to pet the spirit herself and pouting.

    "In part. There are many kinds of air kami. And Zephyr rank among the more powerful when it comes to direct physical influence."

    "Well yeah, aunty! They can make us fly extra fast and push airships around." Liata tilted her head. "How big of an airship have you been on? Oh! Were you ever on a Celestial? Did you get to fly on the Imperatrix's airship?"

    I smiled. "No, but I did see a Celestial class lift an enemy submarine out of the ocean. A big set of claws came out the bottom and scooped it out." My simplified explanation was met with a very impressed bunch of broodlings.

    "Did you really get a vision from DarkStar that told you how to defeat the enemies?" a younger broodling with curly silver hair asked.

    I blinked. "Well, um... no?" That was a bit close to my past life.

    "You know like in the comics, Aunty!" she clarified enthusiastically.

    My tail certainly did not flail in confusion. I turned to VioletBlood; she still read many DarkStar comics. "I'm in the comics?"

    Another broodling interrupted first. She had short black hair. "Not the real ones but the fan-drawn ones in the back of the issues," she said with that mix of overwrought exasperation and enthusiasm only the very young could pull off.

    "I'm in doujinshi... zines?" I fumbled for the right term.

    "I don't know exactly those terms but... yes," VioletBlood nodded. "There's some good comics but nothing picked up by any of the broadsheets or major publications."

    "Maybe it's because you're still in active service?" Visha offered perhaps misreading my confused look.

    "I can get some if you want." VioletBlood then gave a wicked grin. "And maybe you can sign them for your fans," she said, gesturing to the broodlings who cheered.

    "Um... maybe," I exhaled. I knew religious figures and rites got commercialized but it was... odd to be an unwitting part of it, even peripherally. Maybe I could negotiate likeness rights? No maybe about that; one way or the other, I needed to confirm what I had control over, in regards to my presence in the media. I knew the Legions had been able to commission several propaganda pieces based on my combat actions, but that was different, since I'd carried out those actions while under Legion command. I would also have to see if the Church held any claim onto me, given my status in that organization.

    " Girls, any other questions?" I asked, turning my attention back to my audience.

    "Where do the Legions get all their Zephyr?" Talia asked then gestured to the one that seemed fascinated with the bells on her ponytail. "I can see pilots providing their own, but what about the Fleet?

    I smiled, it warmed my heart to see my family, adoptive as it may be, being concerned about logistics at such a young age. "That is an excellent question. Zephyr are in quite the demand, but it's not just producing them, they have to be trained and helped to grow in power and endurance. It's done in much the same way that the Legions will procure enough raptors or food animals."

    "They farm them?" Talia asked while the others giggled.

    "No, they contract out to farmers who raise them, obviously," Liata waspishly said before the two girls growled at each other.

    I held up a hand. "It's more like a ranch, but yes. There are certain regions that are especially fruitful in developing elemental kami, where Zephyr can quickly grow in awareness and ability, and where they can be more readily attracted."

    "Attracted? Like with wind chimes and pinwheels?"

    "As well as prisms, prayer wheels, whistles, and other things to attract the curiosity of a kami."

    "But I got one!" Talia cheered.

    "Yes, they sometimes get attracted to sensitive succubae," I eyed my niece. "Or ones they find entertaining."

    "Maybe if I climb higher I'll get more!"

    "No, we are doing story time," I stated.

    "Yeah," Liata whined. "You got yours, leave some Zephyr for the rest of us."

    "That's not a concern for you," I said, striving to intervene between the twins,
    "as I'll describe about how the air kami grow and mature, the bottleneck is not at finding-"

    "You're just jealous because you're too slow!" Talia stuck out her tongue and waved her tail. I noticed the other broodlings tensing and getting... eager?

    Liata's skin darkened to a purple as her wings flapped. "I am not!"

    "Are too! You can't even fly with those stubby-" Talia was cut off by her twin pouncing onto her. The two broodlings started scratching and biting as they tumbled along the floor of the gazebo, bits of lace flying everywhere.

    For horrified moment, I stood still, until I noticed there was no blood spraying out. Thank DarkStar for that. But judging by the yelling and the cheering from the other girls I had little time before they joined the fracas.

    "It's not your Zephyr!" Liata screamed as she pulled her sister's hair.

    "She found me!"

    "That's because you were up in a tree!"

    Pushing past the broodlings, I reached into the circle and picked up each sister by the scruff of their neck. Giving little growls they tried to scramble back at each other even as I pulled them apart. "Girls!"

    "She started it!" they said in perfect synchronicity and renewed their efforts to try to resume their tussle. Seeing their teeth flash, I strengthened my grip. I did not want to lose a finger today.

    "And what will your mother say?" I demanded as I had my own Zephyr push in both of their wings and reduce their angry flailing to more controllable struggles. I took care not to hurt them; I did not want to have to explain wounds to ArgentShroud.

    The two broodlings went from eye-flaring and hissing to pouting with shocking speed to looking adorable and forlorn. Their lips quivered and they gave me doleful expressions.

    "I'm not buying it," I flatly stated; it was obvious neither was sincere.

    "You're no fun, Auntie," Liata pouted.

    The broodlings around me echoed the sentiment. And I became acutely aware I was surrounded by tiny, hungry demons who were upset I had spoiled their fun. That they were dressed up in little party dresses was small comfort. It was a veneer of civilization.

    "Lilly, Reinhild is the cake ready?" I asked tiredly.

    And as one nearly a dozen sets of eyes went from me to the maids.

    The two maids, Kitsune and demonic, managed to keep their composure. Though I did note Miss SunShower maneuvered the dessert cart so that it was between her and the broodlings.

    "Girls!" I called in my command voice. That actually slowed the murder of broodlings a bit. "Form a line, let's be civilized about this."

    "Do you need any help?" Visha asked. VioletBlood standing next to her, made no such offer to help. Indeed, the baroness's tail swished with unconcealed amusement.

    "Do you have experience with broodlings?" I asked, then winced. Visha had many younger siblings; VioletBlood no longer had any siblings.


    "I have a younger cousin," VioletBlood said, peering at me, "and in my experience with LavenderFang, she gets very upset if you hold her up too long."

    After a moment, I dropped the two broodlings I had been carrying. That is to say, I carefully put them back down so their dresses wouldn't get any more damaged, and also used my Zephyr to keep them from falling too hard.

    Talia's spirit interacted with mine and briefly joined the other spirits. She had found a strong one.

    That was good for her right now, but that likely meant she could end up a Fleet Pilot or a Legion Flier. It would be her choice but with so many members of her immediate family... On the other wing, not everyone in my Duchess's family became a pilot. Maybe she could escape the cycle that consumed my adoptive family.

    And then she and her sister ran off to get cake. She had a few years before...

    VioletBlood stepped up to me. "What's wrong?"

    "Nothing!" I bristled.

    Stepping closer, Visha took my hand. "It's okay," she said, using the same voice someone would when calming an agitated dog. Which was odd, coming from her, I always thought she was more of a cat person.

    "I'm fine!" I assured her, my tail flicking. The girls had stopped fighting and were even eating their cake in peace. At least until the sugar high kicked in. Hopefully, there would not be any hair-pulling or biting. Though with the spike of avarice and jealousy I was feeling from.... wait.

    A pair of arms went over my wings and shoulders. "Is it them? You're still young," VioletBlood exclaimed as she pulled me into an embrace.

    Using my years of experience in ballet and as an aerial mage and pilot, I was utterly graceful in my motions and certainly did not fail backwards into the taller demon's arms. "That's not it, LoveBlood!"

    She smiled down at me. The serene look on her aristocratic lavender-tinged features was... off. At least her green eyes still burned with intensity. She hugged me tighter. "I can imagine a family event could be overwhelming, especially for girls in our position."

    Baroness VioletBlood smiled at Visha. "Victorious, can you be a dear and get us some refreshments? I'll hold onto our countess and make sure she doesn't get into trouble."

    I could pull out of the embrace, and I would have if not for a pair of very valid reasons. VioletBlood did make the situation less awkward by taking a seat in the gazebo which allowed me to sit while she still had her arms around me. As our Zephyr were getting along, I was loath to separate our air spirits and cause them any trauma.

    I was mindful with my tail, after all when we were cadets LoveBlood had proven sensitive to such things.

    "You don't need to be jealous," VioletBlood said, clearly trying to be soothing. She was not the most empathic of demons, but I gave her credit for making the attempt.

    "I'm not."

    "Really?" Her tone was playful. "Your mother is still the patron of many orphanages, and still helps give young girls Ritual Plate training. Ah, maybe you'll be helping her."

    "I do support the orphanage where I was raised, yes," I stated, evenly and in control. It was helpful, having some who I knew valued me close by. VioletBlood's presence helped me relax, even as she chattered on.

    Visha returned, balancing a platter laden with plates of cake, drinks, and silverware. She was a very competent aide and had become... more, somewhere along the way. For a moment, I worried she might be jealous at seeing VioletBlood acting so forward.

    But that momentary worry dissipated as her tail merrily swished, seeing us. "I made sure to get plenty before the little ones ate everything," she said as she perched next to us.

    VioletBlood snagged a plate of cake for herself I to share. She held the plate high over my head for a moment before lowering her arm down enough for me to grab the cake. It was a bit hard to eat while being cradled and, I had my pride, but the Black Forest chocolate cake was too tempting.

    "I do apologize for my girls," a smooth voice purred from somewhere nearby. "I hope the twins were not too much trouble."

    Holding a fluted glass, Lady Castellan ArgentShroud strode up to us on silvered hooves. She wore a grey bodice, a dark green jacket and a matching skirt that, while of very fine make, looked rather business-like for a family gathering. I wondered if she was handling some of mother's commercial interests today; perhaps a guild negotiation on the side of the get-together. On Diyu, guilds provided many social services including mutual-aide, collective bargaining, apprenticeships both for foundlings and adults, lending, and other benefits for members and their families.

    At least I hoped that was the reason ArgentShroud was not wearing a gown, because if business casual were acceptable to wear to this party, then I would have been cross.

    "Talia got her first Zephyr today," I stated, swallowing my bite of cake.

    A hint of regret crossed my older adoptive sister's face, but it was quickly followed by pride. "Oh? And at her age? Incredible!"

    "It's a strong one too," I noted, pushing aside the concerns I'd had. "She has potential."

    "Lovely," ArgentShroud stepped closer and bowed to Visha and VioletBlood. "Forgive my rudeness. It's always a pleasure to see you, Baroness VioletBlood and Volantes Centurion Shadow."

    "It's good that you could make it," Visha replied with a smile before gesturing to a vacant space on the gazebo's bench next to us. "Want to join us? There's plenty of room!"

    ArgentShroud sipped her drink. "Oh, I couldn't possibly get in the way of such a delightful display of affection."

    I blinked. Yes, I was sitting very close to my two Vs and yes, both had at least one arm around me. Some allowances had to be made for cake. "Well... " I looked at them imploringly.

    "It is a party," LoveBlood said, in the tone of one pointing out the obvious.

    I frowned. What was that supposed to mean?

    "And we have a bit of time before the sugar kicks in for the little ones," Visha added.

    "We don't have to keep you," I offered. "You should say hi to your girls."

    ArgentShroud gave a toothy smile. "Or, I could just call them here, couldn't I?"

    "They are your daughters," I allowed.

    My sister nodded as if that was a somehow insightful argument. "Liata, Talia," she announced, making her presence known to her cake-smeared offspring.
    "Mother!" The two girls squealed excitedly in stereo as the other broodlings turned to face us.

    ArgentShroud called out each and every one of the broodlings by name, which got rousing choruses of cheering "Other Aunty!" and "Aunt Argie! in reply.

    "Are you having a good time? Enjoying your cake?" My sister asked the clowder of little broodlings, who were seemingly torn between gamboling about as they ate and charging towards us.

    The air was positively electric with their energy. Dozens of eyes with pupils dilated wide open gleamed at us as their tails flicked about slashing through the air. I could see their muscles quivering with the sugar rush from clear across the gazebo.

    For some reason VioletBlood pulled me closer and Visha patted me on the head. I stewed impotently; I was not that worried, and I didn't require reassurance in the face of my unruly nieces! Though I could see how such a gesture would be reassuring.

    Sipping from her glass, ArgentShroud gave a beatific smile down at me. It sharpened as she looked up to her daughters and our nieces. "Girls, have you thanked your Aunty Tauria? Maybe she'd like a group hug?"

    My stomach dropped out as the murder of pint-sized broodlings with their big eyes focused on me with a vibrating hunger. And then as one they charged, plates and cups forgotten, quickly were collected by the attentive maids who saw an opportunity to reduce the eventual mess and exploited it to maximum effect.

    I was swarmed!

    Not only were my nieces cuddling but they were also clambering and squirming. "Hey! Stop biting! Don't eat my cake! No, don't use your claws to climb onto me! What's wrong with you?!"

    My stern gravitas was undercut by VioletBlood and Visha's giggling. Traitors! Did they not realize we were being overwhelmed by the clambering, purring, bewinged horde?

    "They're trying to be nice," ArgentShroud assured me unnecessarily as she intercepted the twins. "Talia, try not to bite or tear her dress."

    I frowned up at my sister as Talia nodded groggily before yawning. "But I got my Zephyr!" she announced as my sister picked her up.

    "Not fair!" Liata whined as her mother took her with her other arm. ArgentShroud reassured her soothingly and the twins managed not to bicker.

    It was a slight reduction in the load I was under, but I still had to deal with ten of the demons. However. the true horror of her sinister plan hit me as a whole terror of broodlings grew steadily more drowsy and heavy. If I could not extract myself soon I would be entombed by a pile of sleeping demons!

    I failed in my attempts to squirm free.

    But only because my perfidious maid put a giant fluffy cashmere blanket over all of us while the townhouse's staff brought out milk and other soporific refreshments. I was soon torn between upsetting my elder sister by waking up the broodlings or suffering with as much dignity as I could muster.


    ++++++++++


    While Silvana made common use of funiculars, there were some routes that did not require an inclined rail. Most prominent among these werehe numerous blissfully flat lines that roughly followed the course of the Phlegethon river.

    Our journey took me, my Flight and each of our head Ritualista from the more central Silvana locations where we lived and worked near the War College to the massive Fleet and Legion bases east of the city. It was also the region that housed the considerable rail yards, factories, stock yards, warehouses, and dock yards that made Silvana one of the great centers of productivity on Diyu.

    Corresponding with the more working class demographics of the area, the buildings surrounding the tracks were increasingly variations of apartment blocks, row houses, or other forms of lower income housing. Notably, there was a lack of the kind of teeming tenements that frequently populated industrial areas. At least, a lack within our view from the train.

    The four Optios who headed each of our maintenance teams sat ahead of us in the train cabin. Gibbs, my crew chief, was engrossed in a pulp novel while two of her compatriots quietly chatted. The fourth was quite wisely catching a catnap.

    "Are you looking forward to visiting MuArc Amalgamated? Visha asked, in a bid to make small talk. Among their many subsidiaries and products, MuArc manufactured the Polyxo and the Harmonia.

    "Of course. It should be informative and hopefully we can help guide the next iteration of their display systems. As well as provide our input in regards to the various issues we've noted." I shrugged. "Maybe we will learn when they'll have production support for the next Gorgon Rig model."

    "And maybe we'll see some interesting things," VioletBlood sighed.

    I shrugged as I watched the city pass us by. It all seemed interesting to me, but I knew my opinions weren't always universally held.

    The baroness frowned at me.

    "I dare say our baroness is bored," GreyDawn glanced up from her paper.

    "There's nothing too interesting outside," VioletBlood sniffed.

    "It looks like a lot of buildings and people flying, there's even a few parks, churches, libraries and even businesses," Visha countered.

    VioletBlood gave her an indulgent smile. "Yes, it's fine for commoners."

    "You're not... wrong," I admitted. "They seem like rather nice places to live."

    "I've lived in worse," GreyDawn remarked.

    "When we first moved to Amber Island, my family lived in some apartments in Mourning that were a bit cramped," Visha added.

    "When it comes to slums and tenements, Silvana isn't that bad. It's bigger than Bovitar."

    "That's good," Visha optimistically said.

    "The Imperatrix, in her wisdom, has encouraged building codes to ensure a minimum quality for low income housing," VioletBlood piously stated.

    I lifted an eyebrow at her. There were several reasons for the lack of true slums; the Baroness had picked the most sycophantic.
    GreyDawn chuckled. "I'm surprised you didn't insist that the stalwart, industrious workers of our House, ennobled by labor, refused to live in substandard housing, and through the canny savings by those who know the value of an aureus and those who strive to improve their lot in life purchase quality homes."
    VioletBlood's tail flicked. "Well? Is that false?"

    "Eh, not always. With luck and good boots, anything is possible," GreyDawn's tone was very dry.

    "The Guilds, Churches, and Public Libraries help," Visha said. "My family were refugees who fled when Elena took over the island we lived on. Charity, support, and even some vocational training kept us afloat until we got back on our hooves."

    VioletBlood nodded along. "See, good work leads to good lives."

    "Which naturally meant the Guilds and Churches should be given more donations and support to continue their good work," GreyDawn cynically said.

    "I'm surprised no one's insisted that we refuse to live in fetid squalor due to our sensitive noses and empathic senses," I stated.

    "Well..." VioletBlood coughed and glanced around the train car; none of the other commuters seemed to be paying attention to us. Our Ritualista were also busy with their own conversation.

    "It may be true but.... you don't just say that, Countess. It's not like humans and the other species in the Empire could be packed into rotting apartments just because our kind were too good for outright slums."

    GreyDawn gave a long sigh. "You are a humanitarian, LoveBlood." She glanced over to the Ritualista who seemed to be pointedly ignoring their Volantes Centurions' conversations. Well maybe, Gibbs's book was just that engrossing. It was a wise move; when centurions, especially Pilots started talking, a wise Legionary would keep her horns down unless she wanted to catch being volunteered.

    "I'm trying to be nice!" VioletBlood stomped a foot.

    "A cynic would merely point out that property values are high enough in Silvana, and even the eastern lowlands, that the real slums would naturally be located outside the city," GreyDawn noted.

    VioletBlood sniffed. "What do you think, Countess?"

    "Personally? I think it's a combination of the above factors, and two you missed."

    "Those being?" Visha asked.

    "My pet theory involves something banal and boring: our fire codes." The others blinked at me. Maybe it was due to the historical biases in my first life, but I was aware of how strong cultural norms with respect to fire can be especially when there is a history of using inflammable building materials.

    Switching to a new page on her paper, GreyDawn made a thoughtful murmur

    "We have a populace that by dint of biology lives with a heightened risk of structural fire; after enough city-crippling fires, urban planning would eventually try to mitigate that," I said.

    VioletBlood pouted "I... suppose."

    I spread my hands. The baroness had been the one to suggest building codes at the start. "Other than appeals of nobility or honest labor or charity, I feel that Silvana's remarkably free of slums because such areas were horrific fire traps, especially when crammed full of people who all had access to pyromancy. It would not take many riots for the problem to self-correct."

    GreyDawn laughed. "And I thought I was cynical."

    "There is a related aspect. Much as how tenements can be at great risk of burning down, they can also be at great risk of generating spiritual trauma." I tapped my lips. "Both the to spirits of the people who live there and to any kami in the area."

    GreyDawn gave a begrudging shrug. "Well, if we cared so much about spiritual health, then the Great Houses should be far more reluctant to go to war. Your trauma can accumulate in a slum as easily as it can in a trench, if you get enough bad luck and violence."

    My mind flashed back to the Rhine Front. I suppose that was a difference: the trenches weren't intended to be long term habitations. "No argument here."

    "Our House is reasonable," VioletBlood sniffed. "The others just need to stop being so petty and aggressive, and then we'll have peace on Diyu."

    'They say the same about us," Visha idly pointed out.

    "But that's different!" The baroness hissed. "You should know this, Islander girl! Your family fled from Elena's aggression."

    GreyDawn gave a slow blink at the other noble pilot. "It was better when you were opining about how commoners lived."

    VioletBlood huffed and pointedly looked out the window.

    "Peace." My tone was less derisive than I had expected. "Humans can't manage it, what hope do we have? On Diyu the Great Houses will rise, fall, and fight."

    "Humans?" GreyDawn chuckled. "No, short of us, they're the most quarrelsome species, even by themselves they'll make enemies."

    VioletBlood showed remarkable restraint by not making a comment about humanity.

    "The train ride is nice," Visha offered.

    "At least there's no staff car or hoof-slogger acting as a chauffeur to deal with," GreyDawn noted after a few awkward moments of silence passed.

    "They're not that hard to sign out," Visha assured.

    "The facility is reasonably close to the station," I noted glancing out the window. We had just passed the baroque mass of the Downslope DarkStar Cathedral. And with the scaled gleaming copper dome of the Baha'i Faith's Shrine of Avnalis ahead of us, that meant we were nearing our stop. By this point, the train was running along an elevated track, which made street crossings far easier by eliminating at-grade intersections.

    "True, but if we had a Tribune..." GreyDawn trailed off.

    VioletBlood gave a small smile.

    "But we do not," I reminded. "And without such an august personage we can avoid a dog and pony show."

    "Instead, we merely have a noble bearer of the Preserver Crown who, in addition to making waves at the Imperial War College, has more indirect influence with MuArc than most Legion Fliers," VioletBlood idly noted.

    Smirking, GreyDawn's tail swished.

    "I don't have that much influence," I huffed.

    "But if they think you have the duchess's ear..." Visha delicately said as the train slowed around a curve.

    "Be that as it may, even someone with the power of Duchess SilverFlight, including her lands and commercial interests, pales before the might of an organization like MuArc Amalgamated."

    "While she can buy a squadron of RP suits..." VioletBlood pondered.

    "MuArc manufactures them by the Air Group," GreyDawn concluded.

    "On a quarterly basis at least while at max, peacetime, production," I noted. With a roughly forty percent market share, MuArc Amalgamated was House BlackSky's largest Ritual Plate manufacturer.

    Although, that statement was something of a simplification, as my Duchess was able to buy Ritual Plate out of personal funds without liquidating her primary assets. Besides, just because MuArc was able to purchase all the components and pay the artificers to assemble that many sets of Ritual Plate did not mean that they had an equivalent amount in liquid funding. The example was, however, illustrative of scale, especially given MuArc produced more than just Ritual Plate.

    In fact, most of their production was dedicated to the manufacture of components and subsystems which were sold to other conglomerates and trusts for installation in what were professionally termed as "weapons platforms".

    Instead of speeding up when the track straightened, the train continued to slow. There was a chime. "Next stop Hatheg Avenue. Next stop Hatheg Avenue. Please wait until the train has come to a complete stop before disembarking," the conductor said over the loudspeakers present in every passenger cabin.

    "Finally," VioletBlood said, immediately getting up and stretching her wings. In the process, she eared both a disapproving look from me for her flagrant rule breaking and a huff from GreyDawn as she batted the baroness's wing away from her face.

    There was a slight jostling as the train stopped, and then I stood and took up my valise. After making sure my Pilots hadn't left anything behind, I quickly walked to catch up to the Ritualista.

    '"Ma'am," Optio Gibbs said, acknowledging my presence; she carried her own case full of notes and reports.

    "Any concerns?"

    The stern-faced Ritualista gave me a patient look as we stepped off the train and onto the platform. "Not really. While this is my first time giving field reports to MuArc artificers about the Polyxo, I have reported to them about the Harmonia."

    I swallowed my slight embarrassment over my minor faux pas as we sidestepped to allow people board the train and to give my people a chance to collect themselves. The Harmonia was the other major Ritual Plate model manufactured by MuArc and made up the lion's share of their overall production. And given that about a third of BlackSkyvian Ritual Plate were Harmonia air superiority and interceptor suits, it was a critical defense asset.

    "Oh? Anything in particular?" I asked as I guided my small group around the crowds by swinging wide around the platform to the exit stairs. "I'd like to hear about your previous reporting sessions, especially if your experience can help with today's meetings."

    Gibbs gave a slight smile, taking my compliment. I was sincere. For every Polyxo advanced MuArc manufactured, they made nearly six Harmonia. Given the years it had taken to build up the number of Harmonia in service there was a wide variety of versions and marks. I could see MuArc wanting to increase the number of advanced multi-roles the Fleet and Legions purchased.

    "I was part of the group that transferred Legion Ritualista experience with the Mark Eighteen Harmonia back to MuArc."

    "Ah, the mid-life refit?" I asked, more for politeness's sake than authentic curiosity. On an annual basis, MuArc made a greater profit refurbishing and retrofitting the existing RP fleet than they did producing new suits. Not that every squadron was updated to the latest Mark Twenty-Five Harmonia, often it was sufficient, and cheaper, to go with an update to the venerable and common Mark Eighteen.

    She nodded. "The Legions may not operate very many Harmonia but we do have some unique perspectives on their care and repair."

    "Meaning you have to keep a suit flying from a maintenance bay carved out of a trench instead of on a nice airship."

    "As you say," Gibbs confirmed with a twinkle in her eye.

    "Anything with IBF's Tac Air?" I asked as we started going down the stairs to the street. The second largest RP manufacturer in the House, Imperial Blimp and Freight's Tactical Aviation Division made the Telephe strike suit, the Sarpedona ground attack model, and the Occultia broad-range scrying platform. Altogether, it came to a bit over a thirty percent market share of BlackSkyvian RP.

    Her tail gave a swish. "I'm a Legionary chief Ritualista, of course I've talked to them about issues with the Sarpedona. Mostly about targeting system integration. Helmet displays used to be far less intuitive, especially when separating-out ground clutter."

    "How did talking with them compare to MuArc?" I inquired as we stepped out onto the street. I was kicking myself, well, trying not to flagellate myself with my tail, for not speaking with her earlier. An experienced Optio like Gibbs was a wealth of institutional, and informal, information.

    There were still trees on both sides of the avenue which provided some shade, though their leaves were a bit of a paler shade of green. The air had a slightly metallic smell and when the breeze shifted one could tell we were near the stockyards.

    Gibbs looked a couple blocks down the avenue to the hulking complex that was MuArc's main Silvana Ritual Plate servicing plant, artificer enchantment clean-rooms, and system integration offices. The black-haired woman made a thoughtful murmur.

    "You can speak freely," I said, trying to sound reassuring.

    "Both are rather responsive. And keep in mind I only talked with IBF's Sarpedona designers."

    "As opposed to their Telephe and Occultia design teams?" I asked, simplifying slightly. Any major "weapon platform" development was a collection of teams many of which coordinated with teams in other companies and guilds.

    "Yes, Ma'am. The Legions don't use dedicated Strike Suits, nor do we have many Occultia, mostly relying on the Fleet for such support." From my crew-chief's slightly stiff tone, I could tell she harbored reservations about the Imperial Legions relying on the Household Fleet for much of our theater-scale scrying capability.

    "And the Fleet doesn't use very many Sarpedona," I mused.

    Gibbs agreed with me before pausing to talk to a couple of the other Ritualista and I took the moment to wave over GreyDawn who inclined her horns to me.

    "Maybe tell the Vs that they should have a quiet word with their crew chiefs, especially if they have any last minute words of experience," I said in a whisper.

    Sensibly choosing to walk under the shade of the trees, my senior Pilot chuckled. "Victorious gets along quite well with her Ritualista, but I see your meaning," she stated a hint of approval in her voice, though I could tell by the curl of her tail that she was also amused that I was suggesting such a thing now, practically on MuArc's doorstep.

    "Yes," I sighed, "we should have talked with them on the train instead of letting LoveBlood go on about how the common folk live."

    "As you say, Ma'am."

    Right, GreyDawn would have told me to keep a good relationship with my Ritualista. Better than what I thought I had with Optio Suzette Gibbs at least. I nodded to GreyDawn and she slowed her pace to spread the word to the rest of the flight.

    Gibbs approached me.

    "If the Sarpedona team is responsive to the Legionary Flier and Ritualista perspectives, then what about MuArc?" I inquired.

    "It's not quite like that, Ma'am," Gibbs demurred. "Yes, most of the Harmonia and Polyxo are used by the Fleet, but that's just because the fleet uses far more Ritual Plate than the Legions." She shrugged. "No, the problem is that MuArc has the Harmonia and the Polyxo."

    "Meaning?" I sniffed. I could smell a bit of incense in the air. I wondered how much of the stuff MuArc went through. It had to be comparable to the bulk lots the Legions and Fleet purchased.

    "They make the Harmonia Air Superiority Suit and the Polyxo Advanced Multi Role," she clarified with added emphasis.

    "Ah. They think they're too clever by half?" I had experience with that type of scientist. Even before Being X corrupted him, Schugel had been a man too enamored with the brilliance of his own designs to worry about such things as robustness or failure modes.

    "To a degree. Their designs are a bit more maintenance heavy."

    "Especially the Polyxo?"

    The Ritualista gave a fanged smile. "More than that, that capability encourages Fliers to be a bit more reckless with the hardware."

    "Understood, Optio."

    "This does mean they will push back more on critiques of balky components or complicated designs."

    "Which makes up a large part of the issues we're raising." One advantage of getting closer to the plant was that the smells of the stockyards and the slaughterhouses were fading. Though on Diyu there was less of a stigma. And butchers were a vaunted position, as they got plenty of meat and life energy. As working class neighborhoods went, this one was full of opportunities for craftswomen in skilled trades.

    "Why, yes, Ma'am." That sharp smile returned as we continued to walk past a set of office buildings as we neared an intersection. I glanced back to see that Visha and her Ritualista had made a quick stop to a sausage and fruit vendor that had set up on the sidewalk.

    "What about the Polydora? Does the Inter-House Mercantile Aviation Company have the same attitude?"

    Gibbs shook her head. "I have not talked with them as much, but it's a different culture."

    "They are the smallest of the big-three manufacturers," I noted. The Inter-House Mercantile Aviation Company had nearly a fifth of the House's production but gamely held on by making the humble Polydora multi-role and the very expensive Svalinna.

    "And once the Polyxo came out, they knew the Polydora would only be kept in service if they could keep costs down," Gibbs replied with a nod.

    "Really? Switching over to all Polyxo would be prohibitively costly." I pondered. "That'd reduce the number of multi-role squadrons by quite a lot."

    Gibbs bowed her horns to me. The light changed and we crossed the street. "But why have two separate lines of multi-role suits if there's not much of a price difference?"

    I had to agree to that. Most Great Houses only kept one multi-role model of Ritual Plate suit in front-line service. "So Mercantile Aviation's boffins, realizing they couldn't compete on performance, worked to compete on price?"

    "Which is more than the initial per-suit cost. Parts and refurbishment were also driven down to improve competitiveness." Gibbs shrugged. "Which pushed the other firms to increase their cost reduction programs, so presumably it will all even out in the end."

    "You sound so optimistic," I laughed. This close to the MuArc facility the office buildings had started to thin and across the street a collection of large warehouses and a freight yard squatted.

    "You've flown a Polyxo and a Polydora," Gibbs pointed out, "which do you prefer?"

    "The Polydora has its charms," Visha said as she came up and handed me a sausage in a sesame bun and a pear. She gave a similar set of treats to Gibbs from the bag her Ritualista carried before going to the rest of us.

    Gibbs eyed the pear as she, like myself, tried to juggle the food and our valises. "Does she know MuArc will be feeding us?"

    "Visha's instinct is to get food whenever it's available."

    "That is... sensible," Gibbs admitted before taking a bite of the sandwich.

    "The Mercantile Aviation also makes the Svalinna," I noted.

    Gibbs swallowed. "Yes, they have the expertise to build the high evocation power systems for its broad-range ward projectors. Rather vital for a defensive warding suit."

    "An interesting mix," I noted. The Polydora was a common budget suit, while the Svalinna was the most expensive and the second rarest suit. Requiring Pilots who were especially skilled with warding magic, a Svalinna was a major investment, but the capability to project a powerful if short-lived, ward shield that could intercept a missile barrage, protect an installation, or add more protection to Fleet assets was very often worth the trouble.

    "The also make the Lance emitters, flasks and power systems used in the Telephe and strike packages for multi-role suits. They may be in third place, but Mercantile Aviation has plenty of expertise and products."

    "Something about not underestimating someone because they're small?" I joked before taking a bite. The sausage was good. It might have been pork, but it was spiced and just savory enough to satisfy.

    Gibbs laughed. "Compared to the other Ritual Plate manufactures? They're still large enough, Ma'am."

    That was true; the roughly ten percent remainder of the Ritual Plate market was mostly smaller firms making the other main models under license as export versions or as extra industrial capacity.

    We finished the buns in silence as we got halfway to our destination. "We are only talking about the primary suit manufactures."

    "Ma'am," Gibbs agreed before biting into her pear.

    "What I mean is, the conglomerates who made the various weapons, power, navigation, scrying and other systems are a whole other intricate web. Similar to how Mercantile Aviation makes high evocation systems for suits manufactured by their competitors."

    "And IBF's Tactical Air Division makes the majority of RP scrying systems including the Gorgon Rig."

    "Whereas MuArc Amalgamated does a lot of the integration for the illusion magic of the display systems and the sprit sanctums and arcane power feeds for the Zephyr."

    "Correct, Ma'am. They acquired Visionary Enchanting a decade or so back and made it into a subsidiary; Visionary still makes much of our Veiling systems."

    "Just Ritual Plate? Or VTOL, lighter than air, and ground systems?"

    Gibbs gave a slight exhale. "I believe they work with Imperial Blimp and Freight for the large airframes, given how much the power increases with size."

    I nodded. Veiling roughly scaled with the square of an object's size, approximately based on the surface area that had to be cloaked in illusion. There was also a dramatic increase in the Veiling requirements if attempting to make an object blend in; active camouflage versus true invisibility. Whereas reducing such things as the arcane, and mundane, energy signatures increased with the cube of an object's size. Though the power output was the dominant factor.

    "I'm surprised there's that much crossover," I admitted. "An RP suit idling at min forward velocity used far less power than one at max dash velocity. And either paled next to the emissions of a VTOL or an airship."

    Gibbs made a non-committal grunt. "Maybe not for a Spatha Light VTOL. Though as always it's the smaller airframes that can be more reasonably made quiet. You do not see many low-observable Pugio Heavy VTOLs."

    Finishing the sausage, my tail swished in amusement. The idea of a full veil on a dropship that could transport tanks was absurd.

    "Though..." Gibbs paused and thought as she ate some more of her pear. "We both know which part of the Household Military makes use of such assets."

    "Especially the airships," I sighed. The basic kind of Veiling was near universal on airships, though that was little more than a system that made sure the hull's coloration roughly blended into the background. True invisibility was far more expensive, to the point that only a handful of Lua Light hulls had been converted to use it and the more numerous Kolibri Patrol and Venture Scouts were still considered to be specialized units. The visual signature was not the only part that needed to be managed for combat airships.

    "If you want to see the pinnacle of Visionary Enchanting work, all you have to do is ask," Gibbs noted.

    I thought back to Invidia, the snake from the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance. That intelligence outfit had found many uses for extremely hard to detect fleet assets capable of inter-dimensional travel. "I would prefer not to be roped into providing air support for some clandestine mission."

    Gibb's expression was approving. "Part of why Visionary was taken more or less intact; so much of their work is hush-hush."

    I looked at the looming edifice that was the MuArc facility's office complex. It was only three stories tall, but the offices spread out in two massive wings flanking the main entrance's lobby. Secrecy was important, but it was a question of knowing what to conceal, especially as that increased cost and time in a nonlinear fashion the more of a project was kept secret.

    "I don't think we'll be touching on anything too sensitive at today's meeting," I said as I enjoyed my pear. "Not like we're talking about comms, veiling, or scrying."

    "Other than your standard push to get more Gorgon Rigs," Gibbs smiled. "But no, we're not talking about the secret sauce to the precious widgets. But the tactical lessons on how to improve their systems are, if anything, more valuable."

    I gave the Optio a hard look. "Which is why we're talking about background and history now, and not on our presentations."

    "Ma'am," she noted with just enough respect to pass muster, before finishing her pear. Experienced subordinates were worth their weight in gold, unfortunately they knew that and they were experienced at being subordinates.

    I let the issue rest. I did not want my head Ritualista angry at me. She was a very experienced and valuable team member. And was my contact with the other fifteen Ritualista under my command and the so-called Optio Cartel of Legionaries in logistics, maintenance, security and other roles.

    GreyDawn was my old hand in the complex layered world of centurions which was a broad category of officer ranks in charge of everything between Centuries, Pilots, and vehicle Troops. However, below them was the world of Optio, Tesserarius, and Decanus ranks; those got things done by organizing the line hoof-sloggers.

    "Your presence is critical for this meeting," I noted. "You can do things I can't."

    "You don't think you'll be taken seriously?"

    "Quite the opposite." I found the pear to be crisp and delicious.

    "Ah, the propaganda and legend?"
    My tail flicked. "Yes, the whole Heroine Countess and her Bloody Baroness nonsense."

    "Surely once you show you actually know how a suit works you won't be patronized."

    I shrugged. "Maybe, but what if I attract the glad-handers and sycophants? What good is my knowledge if I get swamped by people who don't know how Ritual Plate works? You and the others can talk to the actual arcanists and designers."

    Gibbs smirked. "Ah, a very noble sacrifice on your part, Ma'am."

    "Very funny. I hope the dog and pony show part is quick, but if I have to fall on my sword to ensure this meeting isn't a waste of time, then so be it."

    Head cocked, she looked me up and down. "But you're not wearing your mother's sword."

    "I get enough of that from LoveBlood," I sighed as we were now passing the fences that surrounded the MuArc campus. In a world where flight was common, fences were used more to formally demarcate boundaries than serve as actual barriers. Teleportation, shape shifting, scrying, and other capabilities made securing facilities... challenging. The security staff that MuArc had on hand, mostly retired Legion, were the actual deterrent.

    "She has a point, Ma'am. It's like your crown, if you don't order it yourself, someone, likely your duchess will do it for you."

    My tail stilled. "You are not... wrong."

    As we neared the various entrances onto the MuArc Amalgamated campus, I looked back to make sure we had not lost anyone. Adjacent to the guard shack complex was an employee entrance with something that looked like a turnstile, a roadway with a lifting barrier, and a visitor entrance that led up to the squat building.

    There was also a painted and lighted crosswalk that went to a parking lot on the opposite side of the avenue. Given the car ownership rate in Silvana, and the rest of the House, it was surprisingly large, which showed the high pay rate the skilled laborers working for MuArc could demand. Which was right and proper, even if for many their guilds took a cut; after all retirement stipends and other benefits were paid by such dues. On the other wing, I felt the guilds themselves had too little competition amongst each other. On the hypothetical thirds wing, I was not here to reform labor relations.

    However, the parking lot did show that we could have driven here, if I was willing to check out a car from the War College motor pool. Though I would have needed GreyDawn, or someone else to drive. I did note with some irony that I was a Legion Flier but I did not have experience with a simple automobile.

    I appreciated that the guard shack, what was functionally a concrete pillbox, was dressed up slightly to look less aggressive and brutalist. Going under an archway in the fence my horns felt the tingle of quiescent wards.

    Well, that made sense. MuArc purchased plenty of ward emitters from Mercantile Aviation and would know how to construct, or simply order a large defensive system. Though fixed defenses would only be part of it. This was a facility that built Ritual Plate. And they employed many test pilots. Their security staff had to have at least a couple squadrons of Ritual Plate.

    The security was also important as the whole campus butted up to a Household Fleet base and they even shared some landing facilities, hangars and traffic control.

    "Name?" the blonde guard asked. Her hair was pulled back in a tight braid and she wore a red tunic with black trim and pants. There were a few other security personnel in the shack, one of whom was at a scrying station.

    I kept in a little sigh. "Primus Volantes Centurion Countess Tauria Magnus DiamondDust. My flight and Ritualista have an appointment with the Polyxo Enchantment Systems Integration team."

    The guard nodded and asked for my identification. I handed her over the leather billfold that contained my Imperial Legion paperwork, my library card, and my certificate of novitiate status in Sisterhood of Our Hallowed Lady.

    The blonde curled her lips and looked to her companion at the scrying station who nodded. She then motioned for me to step to the side and repeat the process with my companions.

    I could see a few areas with room for improvement in their security procedures, but overall I appreciated their caution. At least having a uniform and a title was not enough to get in. The gate slid back and the guard motioned that we could proceed.

    Once on the campus proper, the air had more of a hum and the scent of incense was somehow fresher. The smell of hot metal and the bitter caustic chemicals used for etching also tickled my nose. Still, the grounds were nice enough. I took some comfort in the simple design of landscaping.

    If the walk from the guard shack to the lobby had been full of lush gardens and indulgent fountains I would have been more worried about MuArc's priorities when it came to funding.

    The lobby was a cavernous affair with white-painted girders and sparkling tiled floors. Several hallways branched off of the lobby but they were all behind doors with security staff standing sentry. Numerous banners dangled from the ceiling as well as a variety of wind chimes.

    A small crowd of workers bustled in and out, along with a handful of other Legionaries and Fleet personnel. There was even a group of Fleet Pilots in their dress whites escorting a pair of dark-blue uniformed Alecton Navy Pilots.

    Our group had slowed as the Vs and many of the Ritualista stopped to inspect the displayed sets of Ritual Plate standing on plinths either side of the lobby. The display looked like it included all the major variants of the Polyxo and Harmonia as well as their predecessors, including a number of prototypes and arcane demonstrator models.

    Gibbs saw me briefly studying the bulkier lines of a Polyxo Mark 3. "It's a mock up," she noted.

    "Yes, obviously it's been stripped down, and all the armaments have been replaced by etched sheet metal formed to approximately the right dimensions and color, but the basic framework of the suit itself is original."

    My chief Ritualista shrugged. "I suppose keeping them here does amuse the local Zephyr."

    "And do they play in the suits?" Visha asked with glee.

    Gibbs gave her a gimlet stare and evaluated my wingwoman. "Yes, that's one of the reasons why the suits have been deactivated."

    "But they're still Ritual Plate suits. Or they were," Visha inspected the suit, her tail swishing. "I mean, these aren't sculptures made to look good in the lobby."

    Gibbs nodded.

    "Which means they have a thaumaturgical echo as Ritual Plate suits. The components that actually power Zephyr and interface with our wings may be gone, but the gestalt still remains."

    "That is not incorrect," Gibbs grudgingly allowed.

    Visha brightened. "That must be very fun for the air spirits!"

    "It very much is," a perky voice chirped.

    I turned to see a prim woman with an emerald pageboy hairdo and short silver horns, hooves and tail. The membranes of her wings and tail fins were a shade of green just lighter than her hair. She wore a crimson ribbon tie, charcoal coat, dark pencil skirt with red pinstripes, and a matching bodice. Tattooed on her cheeks were a pair of silver vortexes.

    Her cheeks dimpled, she smiled at me and bowed her horns. "It's great to see you, Primus Centurion DiamondDust."

    "Artificer Melamed? Charmed. It's good to finally meet you in person."

    Asher Melamed's grin grew and she introduced herself to the others. "I'm looking forward to talking with you about your concerns and I know the rest of the team wants to talk to you."

    My tail slowed slightly. The whole team? That had to number dozens of people, far too many to have an actual useful back and forth. Though I suppose we could at least present our findings.

    Asher had an infectiously warm if adamantine disposition that had us going along with her. Literally, in that we followed her to a reception area where we got guest badges and then out of the lobby and through one of the security doors. She chatted happily with everyone though seemed to get along particularly well with Visha.

    "Did the itinerary change? I suppose we could do our presentation as a lecture. Will we be presenting in an amphitheater? Do you have a lectern with projection capabilities?" I inquired as we went down a long hallway with widely spaced doors on the walls.

    The artificer blinked. "Oh no, the itinerary is still the same. The plan is to have several meetings with different members of the team."

    I gave a slow nod. That seemed reasonable. "Sounds good, I look forward to a productive day."

    Melamed's smile was reassuring, but Gibbs gave me a cynical look while GreyDawn's tail flicked awkwardly.

    ++++++++++

    If not for the MuArc Amalgamated having decent coffee I would have been most cross. In concept, having separate meetings with a variety of the members of the Enchantment Systems Integration, Polyxo Division, would provide space for topic specific conversations where our concerns could be properly matched to the stakeholders who owned the specific issues at hand.

    Instead the multiple meetings proved to be a frustrating morass of institutionally diffuse responsibility. For three hours we went to various sub-teams: power management and heat bleed, runic design and engraving, life span and fatigue, controls and spirit binding, and component assembly.

    Each group agreed with our issues but would suggest that the ultimate responsibility was another group's. After the first couple fruitless meetings, I had my team split up to tackle more in an attempt to narrow things down.

    The only mitigating factors, other than the caffeine, was that Melamed seemed to be genuinely trying to assemble the correct people and that the designers and artificers we were talking to also wanted to help; they were just too hidebound by the rules of their institution.

    It was frustrating to deal with people so inflexible. I knew they'd implement whatever changes to fix our issues, if we presented them with forms to that effect signed by their supervisors.

    But now, things were better. At the very least, the people sitting around the polished wood table in the conference room could actually make these calls and knew what we were talking about.

    The room itself was a long rectangle with a dog-leg at one end. On the second story, a whole wall had a row of windows that overlooked an open manufacturing floor. The view was partially blocked by an overhead crane mechanism that was parked on one side, but it did give a view of a large receiving dock, a long line of machining stations, inspecting and testing jigs, and at the edges of the view were engraving and etching baths with their tanks of caustic fluids, containment runes in isolation circles, and various fire suppression equipment.

    I could not see any completed Ritual Plate from all the way up here, or even anything that looked remotely suit-like. Not that I had much focus on what was out through the windows. I had more interest in who we were talking with.

    Artificer Melamed was still here, for once not looking nervously apologetic. With her was a comfortable family-looking woman with long dark blue hair wearing a set of Pilot fatigues. It was no affectation; she had been flying just beforehand. Former Household Fleet, SwiftSapphire was MuArc's chief test pilot. She was also a key consultant and one of the approvers to modifications to production suit designs.

    She was wearing a flight suit because Melamed, in a show of foresight, had called her away from testing a prototype suit as soon as feasible. I was not sure what oversight had led to the original scheduling conflict.

    SwiftSapphire was an experienced lifer who I wanted to impress. Not just because her word carried a lot of weight among the Polyxo project team, but because, as a test pilot for a major Ritual Plate producer, she had my dream job.

    Sitting next to her was a sweetly-smiling, zaftig woman with curled horns and amber hair pulled in a messy braid. Glasses perched on her round face, although the impression of curving softness was somewhat marred by the set of harsh, almost spearing lines tattooed across her cheeks. The tattoos were the only indication that she was a weapons designer.

    If SwiftSapphire radiated a maternal rigor then Sophia Subiaco, evocation guild mistress, was a playful aunt. While her expertise was in evocation emitters, Mistress Subiaco was very familiar with high-powered and precision arcana systems and had a remit that crossed several teams. After she had attended the third meeting in the fruitless morning portion, she decided to simply tag along, much to Melamed's relief. Subiaco was one of the few people who could sign off on our work, but her abundance of caution had kept her from committing to anything as of yet.

    Rounding out this group was a rarity: a human. Mashiyat Ayyub was a mage. A bit more on the abstract end, he worked on integration and optimization. Much of the olive-skinned man's work lay in taking an existing schema and figuring out how to decrease manufacturing cost, reduce power bleed in operation and increase life span.

    Essentially, his work seemed like blend of using computational suites where spirits of intellect dwelled to come up with theoretical solutions and running small pre-production batches off to test those solutions on. Clean-shaven with a skinny tie over a grey waistcoat, and sporting a flat-top crew cut, Magus Ayyub looked little the part of a wizard's wizard, at least until you gazed into his cold blue eyes and spotted the badge of his own guild he wore on a chain from his waistcoat or the steel staff that flickered with the occasional rune as the crystals within fluoresced with minute changes in air pressure.

    Like Mistress Subiaco, he was skeptical of my proposals, but while originally invited he had declined to attend the earlier meetings. Apparently, he loathed meetings and had planned to spend the day in his laboratory. However, Mistress Subiaco's continued attendance as well as Chief Pilot SwiftSapphire's vote of confidence in us had piqued his interest sufficiently to earn his attendance.

    There were a few specialists and other experts who would float in and out, but this quartet made up the core of this improved batch of meetings.

    A sheaf of semi-translucent paper sat on the table. On it was a set of layered blueprints that depending on which page you were on could peel back the layers and subsystems of a Polyxo Mark 15.

    Upon seeing this visual aide, Wizard Ayyub gave Mistress Subiaco a dry look and summoned up a coherent display over the table that was a three-dimensional illusion of the suit. Subiaco returned with an indulgent smile and took out a grease pen to make a few notes on the hardcopy blueprints.

    "Okay, I think that's settled the lubrication issues on the upper vambrace gasket," Melamed stated as she made some notes.

    As a person-sized flight suit, Ritual Plate had a lot of moving parts, and the interior of the suit was designed to be pressurized to allow for operation at altitude. That meant there was a whole host of joints, seals, and gaskets. And that was just on the suit itself, while most of the arcane systems had fewer moving parts, they did require their own treatments. There were bigger seals and ones with more range of motion but because of that those seals had extra reinforcement. Though the vambrace problem would only happen under a specific set of circumstances. The fact that the mounting points for various weapons emitters and their feed lines went through that area still made it a notable concern.

    "I warned Purchasing that switching to that supplier would cause issues in cases of snapping from extreme humidity to high altitude," Magus Ayyub grumbled.

    "And they thought it was a lower order risk," Mistress Subiaco sipped her tea. "That, and the supplier's test data seemed solid.

    Ayyub just glared.

    "There's a reason a lot of field Ritualista will do a full seal swap, and if they can't justify that, clean and redo all the lubrication." Pilot SwiftSapphire eyed Optio Gibbs with a small grin. "Though, you'll be surprised at how fast parts wear out in the field and end up getting pulled early due to some surprise defect."

    "Ma'am," the Ritualista flatly stated. "We adhere to all maintenance protocols."

    "Including the ones allowing field expediency to maintain Pilot survivability." Shrugging, SwiftSapphire gestured to the report we had brought. "I'm not accusing you of slipshod work, Optio. Having a Primus who commissions a report like this indicates a centurion who knows what's important for her maintainers and what's not."

    I gave a small smile. The vote of confidence was helpful. I would need to see if I could arrange for a meeting with SwiftSapphire. Maybe GreyDawn, or even Reinhild, could figure out what her hobbies were.

    "If we can convince the tallymen that we're wasting money on a bunch of gaskets that get replaced anyway, then we could try to go back to the old supplier." Magus Ayyub frowned. Fiscally, suit maintenance was... complicated. Depending on when something was replaced, and why, a lot of the labor and parts could be charged back to MuArc.

    "What if the new supplier goes with a better grade lubricant?" Subiaco asked.

    Ayyub, Melamed, and the Ritualista grimaced. "That would require recertification," Melamed admitted, her sunny disposition cracking. "Which would take time."

    "And to think you gave up flying for this," Wizard Ayyub joked to SwiftSapphire before he ate some of the cheese he'd taken from the refreshments arrayed on a side table.

    "Eh, I was just doing some energy distribution testing on the Pinnacle's maneuvering and Zephyr power array," the Pilot shrugged.

    "The Pinnacle is your arcane demonstrator?" VioletBlood asked.

    "It's a test rig," SwiftSapphire sipped coffee that looked just as thick as Fleet issue. MuArc had better coffee; it had to be her preference.

    "Still, it must be exciting. Are there improvements in maneuverability and speed? What subsystems?" the baroness eagerly asked, making her presence known. I managed to keep from wincing. Was she trying to help me with my goals? Or was this networking on her own.

    "That's a bit beyond today's discussion. But later we can give you some brochures and test footage." SwiftSapphire gave her an indulgent smile, as if she were talking to a broodling.

    "The Pinnacle is also refitted every few months, I don't think it's been armed in a year." Ayyub noted.

    "We did some live fire calibration testing with a new scrying system six months ago," SwiftSapphire corrected.

    "Oh, but, still, it's cutting edge," VioletBlood insisted, more to herself than anyone else.

    "Which is why it's a hangar queen that requires a dozen Ritualista and can fly a couple times a week." The pilot ate a strawberry. "Well, I exaggerate, slightly. A lot of that maintenance work is to keep the telemetry systems operating, and we have a slower tempo because all the data collected with each test needs to be analyzed."

    "But enough about experimental rigs," Melamed was all smiles. "Optio Gibbs, I believe you have some questions about the starboard flight stabilizer array?"

    As Gibbs paged through her notes Visha flipped to the relevant section on the blueprints and Ayyub similarly adjusted the illusion he had cast. "There is a type 44-C Amplification rune on the starboard flight stabilizer array but not on the left. What is it there for?"

    "The manual says it's for an auxiliary power unit, but that's actually what the type 60-A rune closer to the array's feed-line does," Visha's chief Ritualista noted.

    The MuArc employees were a mix of confused and perplexed at this revelation and leaned over the various diagrams of the arcane energies as they went through the details of that array.

    After half a minute, Melamed gave a frown. "We are not sure."

    I managed to keep my composure. Ritual Plate was massively complicated, and even if these people had been on the original design team, which not all of them were, it would be unreasonable to expect them to know every component by heart."

    "What would the Type 44-C do here? I've only seen them used in scrying systems where very carefully regulated power needs to be supplied to receivers."

    Mistress Subiaco, the evocation specialist, had a thoughtful frown as she studied the blueprints and then pulled a manual and some other documentation up.

    "We don't know," Wizard Ayyub frowned.

    My concern increased slightly. "Can we have that as an action to figure it out?" I diplomatically asked.

    A bit of his gruffness fading, Ayyub nodded. "We can add it to the list of the parts to pull in the next iteration of the Polyxo. What pointed you to this? Was it a parts survey? Or did the amplifier fail and cause the stabilizer array to fault?"

    "I was rebuilding both stabilizer arrays after combat damage and noted the differences. They're not identical, mirroring aside, there are things like the port array being a bit smaller to accommodate the hydration tubes passing through, but even accounting for all that, there's still some differences," Gibbs stated.

    Right, that was when I had been shot up over the jungle... or was it after the sea engagement? I had seen more flippant weapons developers, but it was still concerning that, when shown something they had no idea about, an inflight system they had been producing for years no less, they treated the issue more as an interesting puzzle to solve than a horrific oversight to immediately correct. Though... it's not like the issue was big enough for me to kick it up to Quirinus and her superiors to demand an immediate investigation.

    GreyDawn's innate cynicism seemed to keep her from being surprised, meanwhile VioletBlood was pouting and Visha, ever the optimist, looked hopeful.

    "We appreciate your patience," Melamed tried to be cheery while her companions began to converse amongst themselves.

    "Asher, it's not the first time a suit was stuffed with extra parts it didn't need," SwiftSapphire noted. "On the Mark 18 retrofit project we found a bunch of things in the Harmonia that, due to being out of spec or installed incorrectly, ended up being used for different, unintended functions."

    "Yes, development's idea of a secondary warding power system ended up being used as a backup Ballista energy feed. Component integration and project team simply changed the manual and swapped a few lines and called it good," Ayyub sighed as he pushed his notes over to Mistress Subiaco who smiled.

    "And that worked, until the retrofit exposed all those issues and the patchwork fixes." SwiftSapphire shook her head.

    "Ah! That's what it's there for!" the evocation mistress cheered.

    We turned to her with interest.

    "This Type 44 Amplifier was originally planned as an auxiliary power supply, but later design iterations replaced that role with a component that had greater throughput and less precision," Mistress Sophia Subiaco said as she paged through a thick binder. "Now, you'll be saying that we all know that, so why was it retained? Well look at this."

    The arcanist pulled out a picture of the starboard flight stabilizer array. However, unlike the depictions in the blueprints it was not an abstracted diagram showing the various components and their links. Rather, it provided the actual physical layout of the array.

    Gibbs tilted her head, frowning minutely.

    Ayyub rotated the blueprint ninety degrees and grunted.

    "See! The 44 is on a cantilevered section of the array's substrate right between these two support pads. I don't know about you but it looks an awful lot like a strain gauge. Especially if it's energized."

    "Yes, but the positioning gyroscopes and load gauges are lower in the stabilizer arrays. This is just a... vestigial component, it doesn't do anything," Melamed frowned as if unsure of her own words.

    SwiftSapphire and Visha gave a long blink. "But it can be used?" the test pilot asked.

    "That's my theory! I'll have to dig into the design documentation of this iteration but I think we're seeing the legacy of a sort of... calibration system."

    "Well someone's using it," Gibbs stated. "There's enough wear on that Type 44 to indicate use."

    "Are the Zephyr using it?" Visha asked.

    The room grew silent for a moment as we all pondered that.

    Ayyub laughed. "Figures they'd play with something in the suit. Like putting in a wind chime, or a hollow orb full of beads." The wizard stroked his beard. "But... "

    "Are they playing or working?" I asked. "Air spirits are clever. They can intuit a lot of the inputs and instrument feedback."

    Gibbs sighed. "I suppose this means we can't simply yank them out of the array? I would hate to deprive the Zephyr from their fun," she stated utterly deadpan.

    "It does explain how we've gone through over a dozen production iterations without anyone else deleting this component," Ayyub stated as if he was personally affronted that some aspect of the Polyxo design had escaped his notice over the years.

    "We'll have to spin up a project to examine what happens with and without the Type 44. Though, if this is helping the suit's performance then we could try to formalize it and make it work even better," Melamed brightly said.

    "It wouldn't be the first time we lucked into an elegant design solution," SwiftSapphire snorted. The test Pilot then glanced over at us, the active Legionary Fliers. "You didn't hear that."

    "We did not," I agreed. Hopefully, this bit of professional courtesy would help purchase a little good will from MuArc's team, and it would help my future goals to be on good terms with a test pilot.

    "Next item then?" Melamed looked down at our list. "Ah, issues with the tool access working inside the sabaton support struts."

    My interest rose as I sipped my coffee. Not just because Gibbs complained about the poor angles the access hatches gave and I was eager to hear the end of that particular bellyache, but also because I was suddenly filled with the slender hope that a redesign of the Polyxo's boots could lead to something a bit more practical to walk around in.

    "Is this due to a structural issue or something with the layout?" SwiftSapphire asked as the diagrams and blueprints zoomed to focus on the suit's lower legs.

    There was a knock on the door.

    Puzzled, Melamed stood up and let a woman with long white hair into the room. Just like Melamed, the new arrival wore red-accented business-wear. "Apologies," she bowed her horns. "But we have a pair of visitors in the lobby."

    "Oh?" Melamed asked.

    "Yes, a pair of Optio- I'm sorry Cadet Optio Legionaries. They say they're part of Countess DiamondDust's party." the receptionist shrugged. "They were quite insistent on the countess part."

    I tried not to sigh as the collective attention of the room focused on me. "Tell me, did one of them have pink hair and emphasize her family name?"

    Tail flicking, the white-haired woman nodded. "Yes, she did mention that she was Lavish
    RoseTalon of the Belum RoseTalons."

    "I didn't realize you had additional people visiting us," Melamed said diplomatically.

    "I did not." Standing, I momentarily wished my vinewood discipline staff was close at hand. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go and determine if my... subordinates, somehow, have a valid reason to be here or if I need to provide correction."

    ++++++++++

    The banners fluttered angrily as I entered the lobby. As my tail flicked from side to side, I spotted RoseTalon's distinctive pink hair, long enough to just barely brush the collar of her tailored cadet uniform. She was not alone. In addition to a fawning MuArc secretary, another one of my cadets stood beside the vexsome noble.

    A disappointed noise may have escaped my lip as I identified RoseTalon's companion. Pulivia was one of the more promising students in my class. She knew the right questions to ask, and more importantly was capable of putting her ego aside while in the air.

    The wind at my back and my boots clicking on the tile floor, I strode up to the trio who stood examining the line of earlier Polyxo variants on display.

    "What has brought two so very promising Optio cadets such as yourselves so far away from your busy studies this fine afternoon? And whatever bought you to visit our fine friends at MuArc Amalgamated today of all days?" I asked archly.

    Pulivia lowered her gaze as if she could hide behind her jade green bangs. Lavish, on the other hand, adopted the confused yet affronted expression I found so common among a certain type of noble utterly lacking in mental agility. "I'm here to help!" she sniffed.

    I? Not we? Fascinating. I stared the heir of the RoseTalon family down before giving Meritus Pulivia a fractionally less harsh look. Pulivia looked visibly hurt by the possibly inadvertent exclusion. I wondered why RoseTalon had even bothered dragging her along.

    "Help." My tone was not acidic, mocking, or even sarcastic; it was simply dismissive. "That is why you were several hours late?"

    "Nothing gets accomplished in the first few hours at meetings like this," Lavish scoffed.

    That the senator's daughter was correct in that particular was the proverbial straw that pushed me over the tipping point and into outright, if still controlled, anger. Before I could begin the tongue-lashing Lavish so richly served, I noticed, something about her statement had made the other cadet, Pulivia, frown. How interesting...

    The MuArc secretary, correctly reading the mood of the conversation, picked up the tray of refreshments and quietly stepped back to the reception desk. Quite the wise move on her part.

    "Cadets, what do you think your role here is, exactly?" I managed not to hiss through my teeth.

    I also somehow resisted the impulse to rip the patronizing, smug expression from Lavish's face along with her oh-so-carefully pampered hide. "Countess, I do have a special perspective on high level negotiations such as these."

    "Ah, I see there are some severe errors in your understanding of your current role in our House's service." My smile was all fangs. "First, allow me to say that I am skeptical as to what actual experience you have with such events, other than being feted as a pretty up and coming bauble by sycophants eager to suck... well let us simply say suck up to a Senator."

    Lavish's cheeks flushed purple. Normally I eschewed crude speech, but I was a Legionary Flier and my DarkStar-cursed reputation gave me more latitude. I held up a finger cutting off any angry retort either cadet might be foolish enough to make.

    "Either way, even if you two had some insight into such negotiations, the sensible course of action would have been to bring them to my attention beforehand. Then I would have been able to decide what to do with your information, as well as with the both of you."

    Pulivia almost looked like she wanted to hide behind her wings. Though I suppose the strong breeze in the lobby was not helping. Then her curiosity got the better of her. "Ma'am... What is the second part?"

    My tail flicked. "Ah yes. The first problem was the assumptions about your knowledge and the utter incompetence displayed when you attempted to leverage that presumed information. The second problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what this meeting is about and whom I am meeting."

    "You're meeting with movers and shakers in MuArc," Lavish stated confidently, glaring insolently back at me.

    "And even a test pilot, one of the Pinnacle fliers," Pulivia added, more timidly and with less of a confrontational air.

    My eyes smoldered and it took effort to not set anything aflame. "Today's itinerary," I ground out, "consists of presentations and discussions with a list of concerns and lessons learnt from field service. This is not just my own work, not just my squadron's time in the jungles, or even the experiences of all of the units who served in that whole theater, but is indeed collected from Polyxo users and maintainers from across the Legions."

    "Then this meeting is very important!" Lavish rallied. "Therefore I must respectfully insist that my skills are vital for such a-"

    With the blade of my hand, I cut her off. "Cadet, you are under the mistaken belief that important equals glamorous. Let me assure you that in the Imperial Legions that is a dangerous assumption to make."

    "The prototype?" Pulivia asked hesitantly.

    "We're not here to see some arcana testbed. We're talking about gaskets, and extra parts in flight stabilizers." I gave the jade-haired cadet my full attention. "Why are you here? Are you trying to impress me with your family connections as well."

    "I asked her here," Lavish interrupted, her tail straightened and pointed to the ground like a spear. "Ma'am, that is I ordered her to drive me."

    "She was your ride? Oh, do explain." I slowly enunciated as I kept my ire up. I wanted to throttle the young RoseTalon, but having the sense and esprit de corps to not sell out a fellow was a virtue. And not quite the vainglorious sacrifice she doubtless dreamed of making.

    "Cadet Pulivia has a Mammon Motors Hornet and since I did not have my own car, nor access to the staff motor pool, I pressured her into driving me," Lavish explained, straight-backed, stiff tailed.

    The Hornet was a speedy little coupe, and Mammon Motors had a reputation as reliable if rather upscale cars. Not exactly what a darling of society would be driving around in, however.

    My gaze flicked to Pulivia who nodded. "My older sister picked up a used one for my birthday last year and helped me repair, detail, and repaint it. It was a fun project," she admitted.

    "Frugal, family-bonding, and learning skills all in a single project. Well done." I gave a brief bow of my horns. A spike of worry and... jealousy came off of Lavish.

    "You, on the other hand," I began, turning back to RoseTalon, "have shown that you are in possession of dangerous amount of free time coupled with a lack of... refinement in your judgment about how to use that ever scarce resource."

    "Countess, um... Ma'am, Lavish did have a personal reason for the suddenness of our arrival," Pulivia said, her words coming out in a tumble. "She did not plan to, ah, well... just crash the meeting and to be so late, but events beyond her control came up."

    Lavish's eyes narrowed and she stared at the other noble brat. "What are you doing?" she hissed

    Pulivia crossed her arms. "You insisted that I pick you up early this morning., but instead of leaving promptly you spent four hours with your little sister."

    The color drained from Lavish's face. "Leave her out of this."

    I put a hand to the base of my left horn. "Is this family drama germane to your poor life choices? Please be aware that I am still considering exactly what your punishments will be."

    Assuming a confident and amenable expression, Lavish bowed her head. "Perhaps we have taken enough of your time, Ma'am. We can, of course, receive our discipline at your convenience."

    "At my convenience?" I flexed my hand. "Oh, it's too late for that. You brought me down here, Cadet. Perhaps you should have simply spent the day with your little sister."

    "Leilah would have been happier with that," Lavish admitted.

    "I thought she wanted a test pilot's autograph?" Pulivia asked.

    Lavish's tail twitched.

    I gave a slight grin. "Broodlings can be like that. My nieces would be just as enthusiastic, but we're older and more mature than them. Or at least, we're supposed to be."

    Both cadets stared at me. Lavish hesitated for a moment but then simply nodded.

    "I know, I don't exactly act my age." My tone was a bit disarming. I cursed my gregarious nature trying to put them at ease. I was going to punish these cadets. I had already spent too much time indulging them in conversation.

    "And Leilah is sort of the opposite," Lavish noted bitterly.

    "She's a very sweet sister, I had a great time with her this morning and-" Pulivia's encouraging tone curdled off when Lavish glared with something new, a powerful protective urge.

    I held up a hand. "This isn't about your sister, I'm sure she's a lovely young broodling."

    "She's older than you," Lavish snapped. "Her orphanage was not quite so well appointed," the heiress' tone was hard and sharp, the pure prim diction of someone leaning on elocution lessons for self control.

    My tail slowed. Ah. That did explain the "opposite" comment. With time, food, energy, and treatment our bodies can heal most any physical wound. Unsurprisingly, this did little to temper my kind's cultural arrogance. And it also meant that we did not like to dwell on the non-physical wounds that we had trouble healing. Oh, we had plenty of support, especially in the Fleet and Legions for those with trauma accumulation, and empathy and psionics provided excellent diagnostic tools and in some cases direct treatment.

    But it was known what most medical discharges were for psychological traumas.

    It was also true that Fleet Sailors and Legion Troopers were not the only ones to suffer from trauma accumulation. Most of pediatric psychology consisted of trying to ameliorate damage sustained by broodlings who had endured a variety of horrifying traumas. If Mother Clementia had not been there for me.... and I was one of the lucky ones given My Duchess's support.

    "I did not know your mother was a patron of the orphanage system as well," I observed, keeping my tone even. I was still upset with these bumbling cadets, but I was unsure why such personal topics had come up.

    "She had it shut down for gross abuses, and did what she could for the girls who couldn't get adopted or transferred to... better institutions, ones like yours," Lavish's tone was frosty. "But she loves Leilah; we all do."

    I gave a tiny bow of my horns. I did not know Senator RoseTalon, and I had only met one of her daughters. Perhaps Lavish was covering for her mother adopting an orphan as some way to signal her compassion, perhaps it was sincere love. Or maybe Lavish had such ire because she knew her mother's heart. However, it seemed no coincidence that Lavish had her... issues with noble orphans such as myself and VioletBlood.

    "Maybe we can talk about....." Pulivia's tail straightened.

    "Your punishment?" Flashing my fangs, I rallied, glad to be on stronger ground. "I have mentioned it before, but given you have too much time on your claws, and since you obviously want to improve, perhaps you should join the War College Ballet Troupe. They have stage performance and precision team flying. I know that young, and young at heart, demons do find it thrilling."

    Lavish managed not to snort in amusement. Which was good because that lack of respect would have added to her punishment.

    "Now for your punishment." Tail swishing, I clasped my hands behind my back. "Tomorrow you will report to Optio Gibbs. You will request a set of diagnostic tools and you will accept the equipment she gives you."

    The two cadets wisely held their tongues.

    "Working together, you will complete a full takedown of your Polydora trainers. I expect a full subsystem power trace. You will compare your findings with the maintenance logs."

    The two stared. Pulivia winced while the Senator's daughter gawked. "That... is very involved, Ma'am," Pulivia allowed. That was an understatement. Even a full Ritualista team would find that to be a full shift of effort.

    "You wanted to help," I smiled in return, "and to show your value, did you not? You wanted to prove that you deserve to attend meetings like this."

    Lavish glanced around and nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. It will be done."

    "Good," I said brightly. "Because that is only the first part of your punishment. Once your analysis is complete, I expect you to present your findings, methodology, and lessons learnt to the rest of the cadet squadron, and to submit a formal report to the War College."

    Pulivia gave a thoughtful nod while Lavish frowned.

    "If you want to become Legion Fliers then you will need to be capable of your own research and then disseminating your findings. Information is power, but it is useless if it is not cataloged and used to teach."

    Lavish looked like she was about to speak but Pulivia took her hand and shook her head.

    I chuckled. Let Lavish think she was getting off easy. Giving my cadets more of their own coursework would make my job easier. "You can go now. Dismissed."

    Their relief was amusing as they saluted and made for the lobby's exit,

    "Oh, Cadet RoseTalon, when I get back to the meeting I will ask if SwiftSapphire can autograph something, for Leilah."

    Tail flicking, Lavish stopped after a moment she bowed her horns to me. And then the two cadets were gone and I could get back to my work. The banners had finally started to calm down.

    ++++++++++

    This life was one of penance.

    I had been born into a world where our natures as fallen creatures, our statues as beings of sin, was made blatant in the extreme. The unambiguous clarity was its own balm. Every time I looked at my reflection, I saw the price I had paid for my arrogance, for my wrath.

    A representative of the Almighty had ushered me into this world, a being of terrifying absolute moral certainty. By His grace I had been offered a choice, face my ultimate Judgment or be reborn to undergo a penitent journey.

    For my failures, for my sins, for my cowardice to face Judgment, I had chosen to be reborn, with the humanity given to me by the Creator stripped away. Justly stripped away, for I had proven myself unworthy to be made in His image. But God was not without His forgiveness.

    My fingers ached as I finished my prayers. I liked to think that was a sign of my faith, that I was a true penitent. Sadly, I knew the pang was just one of many lingering pains from the surgeries I had eagerly embraced as part of my path to redemption.

    There was a knock on the door of my quarters.

    "Enter," I said, raising to my feet. At least I had avoided the indignity of a cloven hooved form in this strange and infernal new life.

    Another fallen being, one in the black, glossy habit of Our Hallowed Lady, stepped into the room. We were both chaplains in the Andromachin military.

    However, for Sister Euphoria, being a sister was her primary role, where for me being Sister RedLash was a secondary duty. I rubbed my hands looking at the inlay-like silver lines that streaked down my arms to my fingers.

    "You're looking well," Euphoria smiled, showing her fangs. It was not an aggressive display; she was trying to be reassuring.

    I nodded and made sure my light sandy-brown hair was pulled back, that I kept some modesty. Integrating into this new life might have been easier had I been born with more of a demonic form, like some of the others, but I suppose the recognition of trace of my own true faith in the reflection of the young demoness I was growing into was part of the punishment, the enlightenment. It was a cruel, barbed thing, as insidious and damaged as a hook without the simple remedy presented by removal and stitches. It benefited the scourge of the Most High.

    And yet, even in this hellhole, I had been shown compassion. As I had born into this world as a demon, I had no father to lose. A small mercy, but one I was thankful for. I hoped I would one day reunite with my own father, though I doubted he would ever recognize me.

    "Are you taking well to the binding surgeries?" Euphoria asked, her hooves clicking on the concrete floor.

    "The doctors are impressed with my fortitude, my faith," I stated. The Angel made it clear that my choices, my penances were up to me.

    Euphoria smiled. "I am glad. It is momentous that you have gotten so far, and so young and..."

    She trailed off. The demon did not need to speak. We were both members of the Church of DarkStar. And despite my loyalty to my new home, demonic though it was, there were still rumors that we were spies for House BlackSky. Not that it mattered, we were Andromache, the smallest Great House. At the crossroads of Diyu, we had many faiths, cultures, and languages. We had to be cordial with all of the big three Houses to keep the medium Houses from invading. I felt the familiar rage at being part of a smaller nation bullied and exploited by larger ones.

    Just because I understood did not mean that I liked it. House Elena was arrogant and prideful. Luxon reveled in being fallen, little more than a pack of libertines. And then there was House BlackSky.

    I cared little for the propaganda House BlackSky pumped out and called high culture: opera, ballet, racing, gladiatorial games.

    There was always a fresh crop of warlike young noble pilots who were the "hot new thing" in House BlackSky. Maybe they will be useful, but I had learned what happened when you flew too high, when you let rage and righteousness blind you.

    I tried to avoid the glitz of it all. I was a simple pilot; I had been a fantastic air mage. I personally found House Andromache's means of bonding enchantments and spirits into a pilot to be mortifying. But I took every surgery, every time my bones were engraved and inlaid as part of my penance. Unlike most other Houses, we eschewed bulky external suits, instead our Ritual Plate components were integrated with us, within us; my Zephyr were a part of me. I could feel them inside my wings, running along my tail.

    I took every cut and procedure with the minimal analgesics. That did hasten my healing, and once it was proven that I could handle the trauma, Operations allowed the surgical artificers to do more precise work in a given session.

    This suffering was deserved. If not for my weakness in battle, if not for my sins, I would not be living this life of punishment. No... for my sins I deserved Judgment. It was by the love and forgiveness of the Almighty that my penitent request had been granted.

    "Are you feeling okay?" Euphoria asked, she sounded sincere. She sounded empathic and friendly. With her open face, long black hair, and her kind soul, I wondered what great sins she had committed to earn her punishment here, in this corrupted realm. "Maybe we can go out? I know you won't be cleared to fly until the doctors have had another look at you..."

    I turned my head away and thought of my oaths of chastity, poverty, and charity. "Maybe, if I can get off base."

    "This is your first time in Myr," Euphoria offered. "And I'd love to show you around."

    "It is more green than being back up on Lantia." My younger years had been spent on the smaller of Diyu's two moons. It had been easier to have a youth of penance in isolation. But my dreams of... of atonement came true when I had been tested. Andromache was a small power and needed every edge it could get.

    It was determined that I had an affinity for air spirits and magic. As soon as that discover was made and brought to my knowledge, that was that: I had found my path. The Angel had been correct in its assertion that I would, not that I had any justification to doubt an emissary of the Almighty.

    "Maaria?" Euphoria asked as she led me out of my quarters. I was a newly bonded Pilot, so I rated my own room, at least until I recovered from my operations. I did enjoy the solitude. I had tried to get to know my fellow pilots so we could work as a team, at least when in the air, but had met with minimal success.

    I gave her an apologetic smile, realizing I had lost track of the conversation. "I'm sorry, Sister. Please forgive me. I missed what you were saying. Diyu proper is still a bit overwhelming to a simple girl like me."

    We stepped out into the sun of a terrace that overlooked Myr, capital of Andromache. The city was lovely, and Euphoria laughed. I took in the view of people seemingly enjoying themselves, even using boats and pleasure craft. There was a lesson. My punishment was not ashen skies and lakes of fire. The only tortures I faced were the ones I brought upon myself.

    And those were for clarity and spiritual power.

    It did not take long for us to get to a cafe that served hot noodle dishes. "May She one day return to us," we both intoned after finishing grace and starting on a sour and spicy soup.

    "I have heard rumors about that," Euphoria noted.

    "In Silvana?" I noted with a little smile. DarkStar had suffered for her Faith: she had been betrayed and tortured and torn apart. Of the many and strange religions in this world it was the one that... called to me.

    "That is where her family lives, Maaria."

    I shrugged. "BlackSky claims ownership to the Faith and what do they use it for? For cheap knick knacks and blasphemous comics."

    "They're not all bad," Euphoria defended. "Some are valid scripture, just made in a way more accessible to broodlings."

    Stretching my heavy crimson tail, I sipped my tea. The tingling in my tail-fins was getting better. The temptation for self-flagellation was there, but there were regulations about Mortification both in the church and the military. "Do tell."

    "Okay, fine. A lot of it is total bunkum, like these new ones with where the pious Jungle Fox prays for Her help to smite the Houseless unbelievers."

    "Who?" I put my cup down.

    "Countess DiamondDust? The Ballerina Ace? She's a Pilot, a Legionary Flier. She was all the rage several years ago when she made Ace up in House RedStorm with just her Faith and her Mother's sword. It was in all the broadsheets."

    "Sister, I was living on Lantia at the time," I stated, but something... I tried to drink from my cup but my hand shook a bit. Was I arrogant enough to assume... I knew I was not the only penitent on this world...

    "Are you okay?"

    "Just some tremors, they say that can happen when you're healing."

    Euphoria bowed her head. "Apologies. I think you might like the Countess. Yes, she is BlackSkyvian bloody-handed nobility through and through, but she was raised by members of our Order and is a novitiate sister herself."

    My mouth was dry. "Tell me more about this countess."


    End ch17


    Uriel did warn Tauria about this way at the start of things.

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Readhead, Scarlet Fox, Afforess, WrandmWaffles and Preier for checking and reading over this chapter.

    And special thanks for Readhead for giving this chapter some extra polish, especially with Tauria's insecurities, her voice, her ire for nobles, and all of Mary's... issues.
     
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2022
    illerayn, Kyryst, Rock1244 and 14 others like this.
  14. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Somehow I forsee Tanya demonstrating how she is with kids backfiring on her once she and her waifus are out of service.

    Also Mary has returned. Going to be real fun to see Tanya and Visha discuss her if they recognize her or if she recognizes either of them.
     
  15. False Angel

    False Angel Getting sticky.

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    Eh, couldn't care less about Mary. She can trip down a flight of stairs and die and i wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in amusement at it i care so little.

    Anyway, was enjoyable chapter. Especially seeing Tanya being run over by broodlings.

    Edit: Though i imagine she would have an interesting reaction seeing that Tanya has angelic wings.
     
  16. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Yeah, the two Vs were quite observant, and VioletBlood is making her intentions very blatant. She kinda has to given how thick-headed Tauria is.

    Hehehe, yeah having those three "back" has some great potential.

    That's fair. Mary always lacked in depth. Hopefully here she has a bit more of dealing with her worldview so broken by the events of Operation Götterdämmerung: dying at Tanya's hands, then having an Archangel tell her about how Being X ruined her life, and being reincarnated as a demon.

    And then.... seeing Tanya again, but now Tanya's the one with angel wings.


    And thanks! I was really looking forward to having Tanya dealing with her nieces.
     
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  17. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Being the one to carry the broodlings will probably help. I can't se Tanya enduring a pregnancy if she can help it.
     
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  18. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    That is something she would want to avoid if she could. Even though the maternity leave for being pregnant is longer than for having your mate be pregnant...
     
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  19. Extras: Omake: Knight Sirens Ch1
    ellf

    ellf Not too sore, are you?

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    So, this is the start of a multi-chapter future-set sidestory that may or may not be canon, kind of up to Sunny here. This stars a pair of other Diyu demons.

    Without further ado,

    Knight Sirens

    Chapter One

    Go faster, sis. We need to outrun them. I sent over our telepathic link as I weaved through the trees in an attempt to ditch our pursuers. We would have used our suit comms, but our telepathy was far more secure. Trees to my right, trees to the left, and above, my older sister in a similar rig, matching my speed. Her wings stretched as wide as mine did as we jetted through the forest, our zephyrs pushing themselves to their limits. I checked the sensors, and there were even more closing in on our position.

    Outrun them? They’ve got us surrounded, Frost. It’s a plague. Her worry rippled through our link, and there was a growl to her ‘voice’ that I could hear. I worried too. The suits we were in weren’t equipped for combat, especially not with an unknown enemy force. Whatever these things were, they seemed to be nothing but rage and something far, far worse. Normally, emotions are easy to identify. Everything feels something that maps to a normal emotive spectrum except for those beings that are really just wrong. There really were only so many ways emotions could be configured in a living being. But whatever these things were, their emotions had been stripped bare, leaving just what we felt. I couldn’t even begin to guess what that worse thing was, save for what I felt at the pit of my stomach.

    I’ve got an idea. I tucked my body in, pulling my feathered wings around me, even encased by the suit’s enhancements, and I dug my clawed toes into one of the trees, slowing almost instantly to a stop. This maneuver hurt, even with the zephyrs helping dampen the stop, but it was necessary to be able to pull off any sort of win here. Sure, the custom suit had its upsides, but I knew the ritualista would be upset with me when I returned for dinging up their (my) suit. We can’t run, BlackFire. You know it. We can’t hide. Given our lack of onboard weapons, fighting them is probably suicidal. There’s only one option.

    Where are you going with this? My sister peeled off her flight and perched on a branch near me as we looked upon the cloud of creatures approaching. They were demons, certainly, yet not of a rival House. They weren’t from Diyu at all, really, and nothing in my education or training covered what they might be. They were masculine with mouths full of sharp fangs, unburdened by lips. Within their gaping maws, a glowing orange light nested. Their eyes were bulbous, sticking out the sides of their head.

    We jump, I sent. There was only one real option. These suits were too valuable to let fall into any sort of enemy hands, and I didn’t want to make a sacrifice play. We needed to leave this area, get away from the demonic swarm. I can hold them off while you get the way open. Hurry.

    We’re nowhere near our rendezvous point, Frost. We have no clue where we’ll end up.

    Anywhere is better than here. I drew my sword with my left hand, and I gathered my power in my right. Cold, dark shadows coalesced around my claws, and underneath my visor, I bared my teeth. These things had no clue what they were about to face. We were a species that was constantly underestimated. I switched to vocalizing aloud. “Hey! You demonic pretenders! Come and get me, if you dare!”

    I was unsure if they understood me, so I took advantage of the linguistics training I took over the past few years in Fleet, and I repeated myself in four other languages. I must have hit something that they knew, or they just decided on their own, because they started spiraling down toward me. I flourished my blade in anticipation. Whatever these things were, they were going to bleed. They were going to die. As my sister prepped the jump portal, I adjusted the sensory suite to record. I’d be fine because of her. My Zephyrs practically sang in anticipation of what was coming.

    “Come on!”

    The first demon dive-bombed me, and I pushed off the tree, swiveling around so I could slash at it with my blade, Shiro. Most pilots don’t bother wearing a blade, but my sister and I both carried. Most pilots never even considered them necessary, but this was one of the situations where carrying them was right. The holy sword sliced through the demon’s body, leaving a trail of green fire and spewing ichor. I bared my fangs, and followed up with a slash of my claws toward the next demon. Unlike many of my Fleetmates, my flames didn’t burn. They froze. They sprung forth from icy shadows, and they sprung forth from the tip of Shiro as I swung him. I unleashed a wave of fire, ice and shadow onto the first group of creatures, igniting several, but more were on their way.

    “Any time now,” I said, curling my right talons and dragging more shadows out toward them. “I’m not sure how long I can keep this up…”

    “Nag, nag, little sister,” said BlackFire. “There’s protocols for this sort of thing. You know them. You’ve memorized them. We could end up anywhere.”

    “Better than here,” I said, unleashing another burst of ice and shadow, following with a cutting blast from Shiro. This was far more draining than if the Ritual Plate had their weaponry built-in. Just because we’d been trained to fight without the suits didn’t mean we liked doing it. I jumped at another demon, driving Shiro into its bulbous eye, and then I kicked it. “Better than being swarmed by these things.”

    “Could end up swarmed by something else,” she said, but her power surged. Magic, our kind of magic, was very will-based, and we studied to perfect it.

    I brought my free hand to join my left at Shiro’s hilt, and I sneered as I gathered shadows and ice. The zephyrs in my armor trilled, clearly interested in what I was about to do, and I didn’t dare to disappoint. I seeded the sky with my shadows, cold, and I drew the heat from below, creating differing charged air. Physics took hold.

    One of the demons seemed to yell something almost intelligible, but it didn’t finish as lightning struck my sword, then got redirected toward it. A wave of electric energy, wrapped in my icy flames, slammed into several approaching demons. It knocked many of them from the sky with frozen over or paralyzed wings, but the cloud of them only got darker. More lightning struck above as they swarmed.

    I landed next to my sister, panting, resting a hand against the trunk of the tree. That had taken a lot out of me. “Get it open now! I don’t like our odds against a million of those things.”

    “The protocols…”

    “Bypass them,” I said. “We can’t let them get these suits.” Or us.

    “Fine, got it,” BlackFire said, and she drove her claws into the air, and she pulled a portal open. This wasn’t the normal Fleet jump style, but we didn’t have time for doing those calculations manually. A cylindrical opening formed in reality, slowly taking the shape of a door-sized portal. We saw buildings on the other side, skyscrapers, and it had to be better than here. “Go, now, FrostShadow. I can’t keep holding it open. There’s something on the other side, blocking.”

    “You need to come with,” I said.

    “Always,” she said, and I pushed off the branch after letting off a final blast of icy shadows. This one was more to obscure us than deal any damage. I dove through the portal, closely followed by my older sister, each of us uncaring of what would be found on the other side. Whatever it was, it was better than here.

    **********************************

    Cities are rarely completely dark, even at night. Silvana, the city we grew up in, is no exception, even with the exceptional night vision of the majority of its residents. The city that my sister and I ended up in on the other side of the jump portal, however, seemed dark even with our night vision. It was uninviting, like the city itself didn’t want you there, nor did it care how you would leave. The lights that were there glared angrily down on the street corners, their rage-filled gaze causing them to flicker like an out-of-control disco ball. Too many were out, as it were, and the dark streets felt off, even from as high up as we were.

    The buildings were extremely gothic in design with some art deco, even for a city designed by humans. For this city certainly was designed by humans, given the sheer soullessness of some of its construction. It simultaneously resembled buildings we’d seen in versions of New York, Chicago, and Toronto all at once. Wherever we were, obviously was none of those cities. BlackFire and I flew over the rooftops, taking the scrying intake with our Gorgon Rigs, looking for anything familiar. The city’s darkness was oppressive, and it almost seemed to be there in the composited maps we were building up . There was an aura that the city held, one of rage, fear, and a lack of sanity, with only a hint of light fighting back the darkness. The two of us were far from home, yet something about this place was familiar.

    None of those demons that had been chasing us had managed to follow through BlackFire’s portal, and there wasn’t anything that shared that sort of signature anywhere nearby. There was something to the north side of the city, an area that read as high in magic relating to death, and there were certainly humans capable of using magic within the city. We circled one of the taller buildings twice, keeping our Veils up to put us out of sight of any visible watchers or cameras that were picked up by our rigs, and then we landed on the building’s rooftop. Well, to be more accurate, BlackFire landed on the rooftop, and I took up residence on the edge of the building, perching next to a stone gargoyle.

    Something about this city seemed deeply familiar, though I knew that none of the Earths that BlackFire and I had been to with the Fleet had a city like this. At least, we hadn’t been to the city like this.

    “So, we landed on an Earth,” BlackFire said as she walked up behind me. “I don’t think we’ve been to this one before.”

    I shrugged and I swapped to a more mundane mode on my Gorgon Rig’s scrying. Someone on the development team had suggested expanding the radio signals we could pick up and the processing modes would be useful for any infiltration force, and our Ritualista had agreed to make those modifications. We did have plenty of examples of various “earth standard” broadcast protocols. s. I was able to identify several broadcast radio signals, each overlapping on my helmet’s interface, but I hadn’t chosen to isolate any of them. I was tempted to look beyond the shielding that my suit and training provided for my empathy and unleash it on the city, but… Even through the shields, I could feel it. “This is an English-speaking city, or at least a language that is close to it. And… well, there’s something… the people…”

    “They’re scared, angry or both,” BlackFire said. “I feel it too, Frost. Something is wrong here, and I can’t even figure out what. This city’s got issues.”

    “Issues on top of issues,” I said, looking out over the city. A spotlight from a nearby roof drew my eye to the sky, and I blinked. “That… might be a clue of sorts.”

    “What do you..?” BlackFire followed my pointing finger. “Oh. Are we sure that someone’s not celebrating something?”

    “Or filming something?” I shrugged. The searchlight in the sky shone brightly, projecting an image of a familiar symbol, one all too familiar. In Cadet School, someone had snuck in some translated comic books imported from one or two Earths, and our whole Flight ended up doing a few movie nights with subtitles regarding this very item. We even managed to find a smaller opera house in Silvana that was running a production, though they had taken a few liberties with the localization; for one, male ballet dancers were a hot commodity. The symbol had two prongs for the ears and spread wings in black upon the lit background. “... I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I think we’re in Gotham city.”

    “The between is supposed to connect to many different Earths, in addition to Diyu, but…” BlackFire shook her head. “I didn’t think this would be possible. The Catographer’s Guild will want to talk with us when we get back. There’s worse places we could have ended up, and worse times. Imagine us showing up in Metropolis, fresh from that portal. In daylight.”

    We wouldn’t have had time to camouflage. Here, we did, but by being on the roof and not being out in public, we didn’t outright need to. Not yet, anyway.

    “I am less worried about the big guy than some of his villains,” I said. Then I cocked my head. My Gorgon Rig alerted me to two signals approaching from upwind moving fast up the side of the building. Humans, determined ones, moving quicker than normal. Clearly, they were using tools. The two pulled over the side of the building, landing on the roof, and their smell wafted over on the breeze. Some of it was tied to their emotional state as well. The rig detected several weapons on their persons along with analyzing one to be older, maybe between early adulthood and middle age, while the younger was a teenager. Both were determined people, and the younger felt… giddy? Interesting. Company.

    I know, Frost. I got them detected too. The two of us turned toward them, each grinning under our helmets. It wasn’t every day that you got to meet genuine superheroes. Not that they’d be able to see our grins behind our closed helms.

    Two dark figures slipped from within the shadows, and even with the good night vision we had, it was tough to make them out or get a good look at them until they were completely in view. The Gorgon Rig in our suits kept us aware of where they were the entire time, but they were very good at using the shadows to hide their approach. When we finally got a good look at them, it took nearly all my willpower to not make a gleeful noise. I had read many an imported book about this pair and seen a few films.

    Batman was almost required reading in our first flight in the Household Fleet. I blamed our first Primus Centurion for that, primarily. All the movies and drawings couldn’t compare to the human in front of us. Batman was taller than my sister, even without counting the pointed ears in the cowl that hid his eyes so well. He felt like he towered over me. His suit was gray and armored with a black bat sigil over his chest, yet there was no yellow background to it. He also had his utility belt on his waist along with a long black cape that draped down his back.

    His companion was Nightwing, surprisingly. He wore a black bat-shaped domino mask to cover his eyes, and he wore a black suit with a blue bird sigil on the front. He was younger than I expected, barely looking older than me, far younger than I would have expected him to be if he was wearing that costume.

    “Well, that’s a new sight,” Nightwing said in English as he approached. He stuck close to Batman, even if we could tell he felt the urge to do something more. “I almost wish KF were here. I’m sure he’d make some interesting comments about the two of you ladies. You are ladies, correct?”

    KF? Huh. I wondered if that was short for Kid Flash. Maybe a teammate from when he was on the Titans? It had been some time since I’d managed to acquire any comics with Nightwing in them. They were all imports and thus a bit expensive. He certainly looked somewhere between BlackFire and I in age, but he could have been younger than me.

    I cocked my head to the side, and my tail swished behind me. English was not one of my strong languages. It could get confusing at times. Especially with contractions. “One would think that someone who studies under a person that dresses up like a bat to fight crime would have little room to judge.”

    “Who are you?” Batman’s voice came out a little on the rougher side, like he was pitching his natural voice down a little. However, he wasn’t using any technology to change it. Likely he used a different persona when he was out of the costume to better differentiate himself from his costumed self. He didn’t sound angry, and a bit of suspicious curiosity came off his emotional aura, even if it didn’t appear in his voice.

    “I’m BlackFire,” my sister said, and then she gestured to me. “And this is my little sister, FrostShadow.”

    “And you are the Batman and the Nightwing, caped crusaders,” I said. “I am certain that you have far better things to deal with this evening than us.”

    “Perhaps,” Batman said, and despite his eyes being covered, I got the feeling that he was looking us over. It was a little uncomfortable for us to be unable to meet our eyes, but who knew what we’d end up seeing? “You are costumed and in Gotham, and you’re new. For what purpose?”

    I frowned under my helmet. With the faceplate down, he wouldn’t be able to see my face, but I made sure to keep my tail still. “It was not our intention to come to this city. We were testing some new equipment, mapping some new travel routes and overshot our destination.”

    “We intend no harm to anyone in this city, Batman,” BlackFire said. “As my sister said, we had no intention to even come here. We knew of this city, but we had not ever planned on coming here.”

    Mostly because we didn’t know that it actually existed on an Earth somewhere. Most of the Earths we had interacted with simply had this as a comic book. It was curious. I was not looking forward to the debriefings where our suit’s logs would be dissected.

    Batman studied us for a second, and it felt similar to being looked at by a Tribune. It was all I could do to not preen under the gaze, to try and make myself seem even more approachable. Was it wrong to want to look good for a superhero like this one? He had a presence to him that was just raw intimidation, and even knowing he was completely human, I had no doubts that he would stand strong against anything thrown at him.

    In reality, he would be a very good one of us, were it to happen. Maybe that little opera wasn’t so outlandish.

    “And just what were your plans for the equipment?”

    “In the most generic of terms, transfer the data to the research teams, who would then translate it into upgrades for future production models,” BlackFire said. “The production models would then be used to protect our people and the interests of our state.”

    Batman nodded, and then he frowned. My sister and I tilted our heads slightly. Our hearing is far better than that of humanity, not to mention our Gorgon Rigs had audio processing in addition to the other intakes, so we could hear the voice in his ear. An older man with an English accent was speaking over the crackling radio.

    “Sir, Commissioner Gordon is waiting. It’s the Joker, sir,” said the voice that could only be the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Involuntarily, I shuddered. Of course, if we were in Gotham City with Batman and Nightwing in front of us, the Clown Prince of Crime was real too. As fun as reading about his escapades could be, the idea of a real Joker did not sit well with me.

    “Hey, the two of you all right?” Nightwing asked. He gave us a grin, showing his fangs a little. Teeth. Not fangs. Humans didn’t have any. “You look a little discombobulated right now.” He suddenly turned contemplative. “I’m going to need you to get nice and combobulated.”

    “... What does that even mean?” I asked. “Is that a real word?”

    “No, Frost, it isn’t,” BlackFire said. “It’s not a thing.”

    “Is so,” Nightwing said with an even smugger grin. “I just made it one.”

    “Enough,” Batman said. “Nightwing, head toward the police station. BlackFire, FrostShadow, I assume you can fly in those things?’

    “Yes,” we said in unison.

    “Good,” Batman said. “We can continue our conversation later, but in the meantime, I want you to follow us. Stay back and away. Jim doesn’t need to know about you yet, and I have more questions. However, the Joker needs to be stopped.”

    He didn’t give us a chance to respond. He simply ran and jumped off the building, his cape fluttering in the wind, and Nightwing followed him. Mere seconds later, we heard shots fire, and as we looked over the building, we saw the two Caped Crusaders each swinging along a grappling line. Impressive.

    “They certainly seemed human,” BlackFire said, returning to our native tongue. “But then they go and do something like that.”

    I shrugged. “They’re heroes. Peak human condition, right? Imagine if they were like us.”

    BlackFire’s tail swished, and she spun up her RP. I did the same, and we flew off after them. This time, instead of going overtop of the buildings, we flew between them, keeping just enough distance back that we could follow Batman and NIghtwing as they moved.

    It was interesting. Batman’s movement seemed to be the most like a Diyu demon not wearing any sort of RP. He spent half of his time between swings using his cape to glide. He hung on the air about as well as the average one of us. His cape behaved a lot more like my sister’s wings.

    Nightwing, on the other hand, did far more acrobatics in his movement. He would push off the buildings, grab onto handrails and swing, but even he had some wingsuit properties to his costume, some webbing between his arms and his legs that only seemed to appear when it caught the air. It was truly an interesting sight to watch.

    I made sure that I was getting as much information as I could with my Gorgon Rig, while also taking advantage of my suit’s feeding options. I was still hungry after expending that energy against those demons that existed between.

    The two of them landed on the edge of the police station roof, and my sister and I hovered over a nearby building. We could hear the people on that roof quite clearly. Something seemed off about one of the men, a suited one wearing a hat,, but I couldn’t tell from this angle. I started running some scrying with the Gorgon Rig on him.

    “Gordon, we’re here,” Batman said. “What’s going on?”

    “It’s the Joker, Batman,” said an older man’s voice, but while the voice came from the man that drew my attention, it didn’t come from his mouth. It came from something in his pocket, a tape recorder? His hands were in there, manipulating something. His companions seemed nervous, but they were looking down.

    “I’ve been informed,” said Batman, stepping closer to the man. His hands were at his belt, and at this distance, I got a feeling of resignation off of him. Had he realized something was off about the older man as well? “Where is he?”

    “I’m surprised, Bats, truly I am,” said the man, his voice different this time. This was his voice, and as he turned, my sister and I tensed. The man had a white face, almost the pallor some Diyu demons had, green hair, yellowed eyes, and for some reason a painted-on grin that looked anything but happy. This was the Joker, and what I felt from him was a sense of murderous glee. “You’re usually much quicker on the uptake than this.”

    It was surprising how quickly Batman made it across the rooftop to lift Joker by his lapels. “I already asked you once, Joker. Where. Is. He? Where’s Gordon?”

    “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about old Jim,” Joker siad. “You’d be better off worrying about your not-so-little sidekick anymore. What was his name again? Some little bird? It’s a Thursday, after all, and I wouldn’t want him to take ill.”

    The Joker let off a maniacal laugh, and warnings blared on my sensors. A large source of necromantic energy was detected, and a large meaty fist reached up through the building’s roof to grab Nightwing. How? How had that thing managed to stay hidden so well until now? Yes, we hadn’t been scrying specifically for it, but surely we would have felt… oh.

    Emotion is more or less a universal thing to an empath. Emotions, for most beings, all come down to feeling the same way. Joy feels like joy, sadness like sadness, arousal like arousal, no matter the species. I’ve met spirits, demons, humans, and many other things in between, and each of them have had the same basis for their emotions. They just had ever so slightly different flavors, if you will. It’s not usual that anyone can surprise us with feelings that far out of the norm, and it usually came from those either severely impaired with drug use or with minds so alien that their feelings are more color than anything else. I swear, once I met a being who quite literally felt purple, of all things.

    This thing. This massive undead creature, had feelings so dull that they faded to background noise. If it had any sort of actual feeling to it, it was muffled by everything, by the fact that it was already dead. A zombie, of sorts.

    “Born on a Monday… Christened on Tuesday…” Joker laughed again. “Say hello to Solomon Grundy!”

    Grundy roared, and my sister and I had already taken to the air. Batman tossed some sort of explosive at the arm that held Nightwing just as electricity arced across the arm. Nightwing must have had some sort of electrical prod. The hand spasmed, dropping NIghtwing, who rolled away before the explosives struck. The resultant explosion blew the hulking zombie off the roof and slamming him into a wall.

    As the smoke cleared, Solomon Grundy became visible, and my sister and I scanned him with our Gorgon Rigs. Targeting data came up on the display which was helpful but utterly useless at the moment. Gray skin, two and a half meters tall, and made entirely of coiled muscle. There were parts rotting within him, held together by some sort of necromantic energies that were both magical and nonmagical. Confusing, to say the least. He had white hair, wore a torn suit jacket and trousers cut off at the knees. It reminded me of the poem, which my mother had read to me when I was little.

    I shook my head. Joker had even quoted it and referenced a later line in the nursery rhyme.

    We should help, I sent my sister. What I got back from her was an irritated feeling coupled with some sarcasm.

    Of course, the Ritual Plate we wore were test suits. Which meant that they were unarmed. Normally, in Ritual Plate combat, we would use our weapons and attack from range, taking out whatever unlucky enemy failed to dodge out of the way of the attack. There rarely was any sort of reason to get up close and personal. We were Fleet Pilots, not infantry. The Imperial Legions had their ground pounders, we were Fleet. However, after a Legionary Flier Countess had the unlucky experience of being forced to fight in an unarmed Ritual Plate a few years back, the Fleet added some trainings on what to do if you were in a situation where either your weapons were disabled or you were flying an unarmed suit. And that was after the Legions had put in their own program.

    Pilots were often better prepared than they thought. Given the magical talent necessary to even be able to operate the suit’s systems and their air spirits, Pilots could often repurpose some of that power for other reasons. The Verutum launcher was a prime example of a weapon system that used more of a Pilot’s magical skills.

    My sister and I were on the higher end of that aptitude curve, so we had offensive spells to back up additional physical activities, as we demonstrated on those additional demons earlier. They just lacked the range and dedicated power that the normal weaponry would have on a Ritual Plate. Of course, this did require dumping a lot of power into evocation type spells or attacks, something we were not especially adept in. The remaining power in our suits was going to be a concern in a matter of hours. Our skills were far better utilized in observation and fine detail work, which was a large part of why we ended up on this operation to begin with.

    Still. I wanted to see if we could pull off being superheroes. And as much as my Ritualista would hate me for it, there was something I could do without burning a whole lot of power.

    My sister had the same idea.

    We slammed into a growling Solomon Grundy, using a burst of power to increase our speed and lift to get the overly large zombie out of the wall. I turned my head toward Batman and Nightwing. “Deal with the Joker, we’ll handle the zombie!”

    Friction was overcome, and Grundy went flying onto the ground four stories below. My sister and I followed, circling around him as he climbed to his feet.

    “Hard to believe he got married on a Wednesday,” BlackFire said in English. If we weren’t flying around, I was sure her tail would be swishing.

    “Grundy not like you!” said the hulking thing, clearly a little woozy.

    “That’s your own problem,” BlackFire said, sneering. Her claws lit up with the blackened flames of her namesake. She dove at him, raking burning claws as she passed him by across his chest. Grundy howled in what had to be pain. “We’re perfectly likable!”

    I followed my sister’s dive with one of my own, but I shifted mid-air to a kicking motion, reversing the thrust of my RP to aid my kick. My talons dug into his chest when I struck, forcing him back half a meter. Shadows gathered at my talons, and I pushed off him, leaving a frozen wound in the overly large zombie. This was a supervillain fight. Banter was important. But I needed to do it in English. He wouldn’t understand Silvan. “Come on you big dumb ugly… man thing. Show me what you can do!”

    Grundy snarled, and in the process, he released a wave of… something that distorted my vision and sensors. That… was not expected. In the least. The zombie charged me, leaping into the air, and I banked to his side, hoping to avoid any sort of charge. His ham-sized fist slammed into me mid-maneuver, sending me hurtling through the air. I slammed into the concrete wall of the nearby police station and crumpled down the wall until I landed on the ground.

    Ow.

    This was why a certain Countess’s lecture on melee combat in Ritual Plate started with “Don’t” before going into how to do it if you had no other choice.

    “Frost!” BlackFire slammed her hands together, and then she brought them apart, forming a bow made of black flames. She snarled out an incantation in what sounded like Luxon, and she launched an arrow of flames from the bow.

    A wave of fire sizzled its way into Grundy before he could hit the ground. It blew him off his feet with an accompanying concussive blast, and the smell of long pork filled the area as his skin cooked in the fire. BlackFire followed up by launching another arrow.

    I took a deep breath as the world stopped spinning, and I glared at Grundy. I gathered shadows around me, folding and molding them. I shaped them into a lance, and I reared my arm back, throwing them at the hulking zombie. The lance struck true, driving further into Grundy’s chest, and he howled in pain.

    The gray-skinned behemoth jumped at my sister once more, and he caught her tail in his big meaty hooks. He squeezed down, and I snarled, readying to launch another lance, but he swung my sister at me. She did her best to slow herself, but we collided, sprawling out onto the ground, edged up against a police cruiser. Grundy attempted to follow up, chasing toward us. An explosion and burst of smoke intercepted him. My sister and I glanced at the source.

    Nightwing saluted with an escrima stick, and we climbed to our feet. I glanced down to assess the damage, internally wincing. I was going to get an earful from Augusta, our crew chief, about damage to the RP, but it would be worth it.

    Still, this fight had gone on longer than necessary. My sister and I moved in lockstep as Grundy snarled at us once more. Drawing on a familiar power source, one that I was certain should not have been accessible in these suits, my sister and I each leveled a hand at the oncoming zombie man, splayed out our fingers, and then we pointed. With a snarled incantation, we used one of the strongest evocations in our arsenal, combining them with our natural abilities. Twin razor-tipped cyclones erupted from our pointed fingers, each one sheathed in our respective namesakes. Then, the cyclones combined into a single cyclone of shadow, ice, and flame. We were BlackFire and FrostShadow, and we would demonstrate why we had those names.

    Our cyclones struck true, carving their way through the hulking zombie’s torso, cleaving it in twain. We shifted slightly, and we finished quartering him before beheading him completely. After he dropped to the ground, in pieces, we fed on the ambient energies released from the zombie’s second death. Perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps it was less. The energy helped to restore what we had lost in the fight against him and the demons we’d faced earlier.

    “And that was the end of Solomon Grundy,” I said, raising my hand once more to gather the parts into a pile. Getting rid of the remains seemed appropriate, and my sister clearly agreed as she raised her own hands.

    “Wait,” Batman said authoritatively as he landed nearby. BlackFire and I cocked our heads slightly. “Don’t burn Grundy’s remains. He should be returned to his proper resting place, Slaughter Swamp. I can make arrangements for that to happen.”

    “Slaughter Swamp, hmm?” I asked. “Such wonderful names you have for places here in Gotham,” I said, relaxing a little. “I hope that they are not all like that.”

    Nightwing made a shrugging motion after he landed. “No, not really. Some names are just wonder-less. Those are just plain boring. Nothing happens there at all.”

    “Nightwing,” Batman said in a cautionary tone, and the former Boy Wonder stepped back a couple times. “Where are the two of you staying?” He asked, looking at us.

    I looked around. “What about the Joker?”

    “On his way to Arkham as we speak,” Batman said. “But that doesn’t answer the question, FrostShadow.”

    “We just arrived in the city,” BlackFire said. “And on your world. We don’t have--”

    Batman held up a hand. “You’re coming with us, then.” He pressed a button on his belt, and a dark black motor vehicle drove up to us. I was hesitant to call it a car, but it was long and wide, with two spoilers that resembled bat wings on the back. There was apparently some sort of jet engine-like exhaust that was below where the trunk would be, and the top of the vehicle slid off, revealing two seats.

    “There is no way that thing seats four,” I said. This iteration of the car, the Batmobile, appeared to be a two-seater, after all, but it looked so cool. If it weren’t for my RP, I’d be willing to sit in my sister’s lap for the duration of the ride though.

    Luckily, Batman was prepared. He raised his right gauntlet and pressed two buttons that seemed almost blended into it. Hydraulic noises came from the Batmobile as the superpowered car expanded. It lengthened a little over a meter and widened by slightly less. The glass covering slid and separated, revealing enough room to seat four humans comfortably. “A little forward planning never hurts. The two of you can fold your wings in, correct?”

    I wrapped my wings around me, even covered with the Ritual Plate’s armoring, my dark down feathers were soft against my skin. I would have hidden my wings, but the armored parts of the suit were not currently designed to hide the same way, and it was more efficient to keep them out than to try and re-suit them. BlackFire copied me. We also calmed our Zephyr and to have them spool down the suit’s systems as the air spirts cooled off and went quiescent.

    Nightwing did a hand-flip into the passenger seat of the vehicle, and he patted behind him on the seat. “Come on in, you two!”

    I smiled. You can really tell he comes from a family of gymnasts.

    Wonder how he’ll try and keep the route hidden, BlackFire sent back as the two of us climbed into the back seat. We curled our tails around us to make the seating even more comfortable.

    Once Batman settled into the driver’s seat, he looked back at the two of us and frowned. Our faceplates covered our faces completely, even if they were shaped into approximations of similar faces. “Blindfolds aren’t an option here. We’ll have to talk more when we get to our destination.”

    Even with blindfolds our suits had navigation systems that would give us a fair idea of where we had traveled. Which Batman likely suspected, and he probably was pondering a way to defeat them.

    He flipped a switch and the roof slid back into place. BlackFire dipped her head a little bit to avoid her horns scratching the vehicle’s roof. Two more switches had the windows around us turn opaque and dark.

    Nightwing looked back at us. “Sorry. We just need to keep where we’re going a secret. “

    “We understand,” I said. “But where are we going?”

    “Somewhere safe,” Batman said. “It won’t be long. Relax.”

    He flipped one more switch, and a divider rose between the two rows of seats, equally as opaque and dark. Of course, neither of them had any way of knowing that the scrying suites on our suits was as detailed as they were. We weren’t going to outright tell him either. We bet he had his suspicions, but there was no reason to confirm them.

    Then the glass had a current running through it. Not enough that it would cause physical problems, but enough that it would cause interference with electromagnetic detection. Smart. Of course, Gorgon Rigs worked primarily on magical and thaumaturgical scrying. The electrification would have agitated the Zephyrs if we weren’t focused on keeping them calm here. They knew we were calm, so that helped with them as well.

    The Batmobile started moving, and I smiled. How much do you think that Jocasta would be jealous of us here?

    She’s your friend, Frost, BlackFire sent. She shook her head and looked out the opaque window. Our masks could adjust some for the darkening, letting us see beyond, albeit in a shadowed manner. But she’s taller than me. Her horns might be scraping the ceiling.

    I shrugged. If Neira had her way, our horns would be too. Which would be even more awkward for me. Outside the window, the outlines of the buildings were more visible than their details. Still, the iconic W of Wayne Tower glittered in the distance. Gotham City certainly was a sight to behold, from ground level or as we saw it when we arrived. There’s no way we’re headed to the main cave.

    Wouldn’t even bet against that, BlackFire responded. We’re unknowns here. We also killed Solomon Grundy. Who was oddly filling. That was a lot of energy off of him.

    I nodded. Might be enough to keep him down for good. And it’s not even Saturday, according to Joker.

    Blackfire snorted. Still possible that he ends up rising from Slaughter Swamp.

    I shrugged, and then the Batmobile made a sharp turn toward a building. The street physically rose up before us, revealing a ramp downward into a tunnel. Yes, definitely not the main cave.

    Pity we don’t really know the details about the auxiliary ones that well, BlackFire said. That was more BlitzFlame’s thing than ours.

    The ramp led to some sort of underground bridge, and there was something further that caused the Gorgon Rig’s sensors to glitch out. I couldn’t tell what we were crossing save for that it went very far down. Another hydraulic door opened ahead of us, and we drove into… somewhere. Once the door closed behind us, the windows on the Batmobile grew more transparent, revealing the cave beyond.

    This auxiliary Batcave clearly was some sort of secondary training facility used by the Batclan. Tubes along the wall held spare costumes for both Nightwing and Batman, should one of them need to change. There were even a few Robin costumes in some of the tubes, some clearly too small for Nightwing himself. Curious. Perhaps there was another Robin already? A large computer lined one of the walls, and placed precariously on a pedestal above the ground nearby was a very large penny. Strange. Though, to be fair, the weirdest thing in the room was the long ringed hallway that was on the wall opposite the computer. Interesting.

    “Oh, that seems to be a teleporter,” BlackFire said. “I didn’t know they had that sort of technology available here.”

    I would have cocked an eyebrow at my sister at that moment, but my face was covered. Instead she simply felt my indignation. Really?

    Her smirk was palpable. We’re alien to them here. He already knows that, and we do come from a far more advanced society. Humans lock up their criminals and don’t bother to reform them. This place is even notorious for it.

    Still… I shook my head. Yes, House BlackSky was far more civilized than most human societies, and this Earth especially had some interesting proclivities with how their criminals failed to reform. Still, this wasn’t Diyu. We couldn’t criticize it too much. It wasn’t like it was our place. I suppose we can play it up.

    BlackFire’s tail swished some. She probably even flashed some fang, but our suits covered our faces completely. The Batmobile came to a complete stop, and the roof retracted, letting us stand and stretch out our wings.

    “Welcome to the Batcave,” Nightwing said. “You aren’t overwhelmed are you? Just the right amount of whelmed?”

    I tilted my head at the Boy Wonder. “Suppose you could say that. This is impressive. Why bring us here?”

    “You said you have nowhere else to say,” Batman said as he got out and opened the doors for us to do the same. BlackFire and I walked out of the Batmobile, and the platform the car was parked on lowered, and there was a mechanical whirring that shut a platform overtop of it. That certainly was impressive both in the technological achievement and the funding this must have taken to have those gadgets available. “You’re new to Gotham, to Earth, and your suits were damaged in the fight with Grundy.”

    “You two showed him!” Nightwing said encouragingly. “Grundy’s down and out.”

    “What about your police commissioner?” I asked, tilting my head. “Did you manage to find him? Shouldn’t you be looking for him?”

    Batman’s lips quirked into a smile for the briefest of seconds. I doubted many humans would be able to catch that microexpression. “That’s a part of why we’re here as well. Follow.”

    He turned and we could practically feel Nightwing roll his eyes behind his domino mask. “Come on, ladies, let’s go to the Bat-Computer.”

    “...is everything Bat-something?” BlackFire asked. “I mean, do you have something like Bat-Shark Repellant or anything like that? Bat-Bats?”

    Nightwing snorted. “Actually, I think there’s a design for the first one in the computer. There’s a metahuman known as King Shark that I think Batman used it on once.”

    “... Ah,” I said, and I pursed my lips. As we approached the computer, I saw numerous screens light up. Batman took something out of his utility belt that smelled vaguely sulfuric, like gunpowder, and had the scent of a dead something to it. Something remarkably familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

    Not before Batman placed the residue into the computer, anyway. “Computer, analyze base components of the residue and cross-reference with previously known Joker hideouts.”

    I forced my tail to be still. It was interesting to watch Batman in detective mode, investigating something like this. Impressive and, if I was being honest, kind of attractive. Batman was a strong, virile person, whose aura just felt like it would be worth it. Still, no. I was not going to attempt to feed on either him or Nightwing. Superman… maybe. Wait. No, that was a worse idea. At least with Batman, I knew Bruce had the reputation of being a womanizer, but Clark Kent? He was with Lois Lane.

    Oh, Frost. I know the hero you’d much prefer anyway, BlackFire sent. She’s a Wonder. A mental image of a cartoon demoness pulling down her eyelid and sticking out her tongue passed through our connection. Our tails and body language stayed as deathly still as we could though.

    “Now, while that’s analyzing,” Batman said as he turned to us. “We can talk about Grundy, yourselves, and what happened. First, I would like to thank you for helping when you did. You didn’t need to step in, but I’m grateful for the assistance.”

    “It was uh…” BlackFire stumbled over herself. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting Batman, of all people, to thank us for help.

    “A pleasure to help,” I said. “It… it’s what we do.”

    Batman smiled, nodding. “You went against an unknown for you in an unknown city. You used your own technology, which you admitted are test rigs for potential future military use. You clearly do have some sort of heroic drive to you though.”

    We nodded, nothing that he said was completely unexpected.

    “You also killed Solomon Grundy,” Batman said. He held up a hand before we could say anything in response. “Cyrus Gold has been dead for over a century. Occasionally, someone or something revives him as Solomon Grundy. Killing him here was a mercy, sending him back to the rest that he surely deserves. However, the methods you used on him would be lethal a lot earlier if used on someone not nearly as enhanced.”

    “Part of the point,” BlackFire muttered. We didn’t want him getting back up again.

    “You two are soldiers, not traditional heroes,” Batman said. “At least not the way we define them here. You aren’t invaders, but perhaps you are forward scouts. But you weren’t lying when you said you didn’t intend on coming here. Wherever you were intending on reaching… this wasn’t your intended scouting destination. So… let’s be a little more open here. Who are the two of you, really?”

    I frowned, but I stood at attention, my sister doing the same. “Primus Centurion FrostShadow, and this is my sister Primus Centurion BlackFire, of the BlackSkyvian Fleet. Currently tasked as test pilots and route scanners.”

    “And your plans for this planet?”

    “Wait. You two are alien, not metahuman?” Nightwing asked. “Or demons?”

    “Well…” I shook my head. “We could be considered both aliens and demons. We are from Diyu.”

    Batman nodded. “And your intentions?”

    “Nothing untoward,” BlackFire said. “As we came here by accident, the most we would want is to learn.”

    “The planet does seem interesting, and we would love to learn more,” I said in agreement.

    Batman nodded. “You’re clearly young for your species. Perhaps in late adolescence or early adulthood. Given your predilections for heroics and the lethality of your actions, you will need some training on how to operate here. Given you don’t have anywhere to stay…”

    Nightwing looked at Batman. “I’m not sure that they’ll like this. Adding new members to the Team without warning? Kid Flash will be insufferable, and Superboy and Miss Martian… they won’t like the lack of choice. Artemis won’t either. You know we prefer to invite new members ourselves.”

    I glanced at Nightwing.

    “It’s not that anything is wrong with the two of you,” he said. “But I just met you. You’re both pretty awesome with what you did, but I can’t trust you yet. He taught me that.”

    “I’m not asking that you have them join the Team,” Batman said. “Just that they be allowed to stay in the Mountain.”

    “Perhaps it would be easier for you to trust us if we disengaged our armor,” BlackFire said, nodding to me.

    Nightwing blinked. “You aren’t worried about your identities?”

    “What identities?” I asked. “You have our names, and you know we are not from this planet.”

    Without waiting for further assurances, we initiated a disengage routine with our Ritual Plates. The self-repair aspects for our Ritual Plate could repair themselves when the armor was disengaged, and the designers had managed to incorporate something new into the design of these armors. It required a lot more Pilot capability and was in some ways uncomfortably like the Andromachin method of Ritual Plate. That was another system we were testing which given the costs, expensive even by Polyxo or Svalinna standards, might limit them to scouting or infiltration roles.

    The Plate retracted into a sub-dimension that the armorers had thought to use, basing upon similar principles to what DarkStar’s mate’s people used. Our Zephyrs went to sleep in the process. All that remained on us from the armor were gem-encrusted chokers around our neck. BlackFire’s had a ruby inset in onyx while my own had a sapphire. We wore jet-black bodysuits under our armor, and they retracted into leotards. A red skirt appeared on BlackFire that went down to mid-thigh, and a blue one appeared on mine.

    BlackFire’s a taller demon than me, and her skin’s a bit darker purple than my own. Our tails are both tipped with crimson spades, and they whipped out around to wrap our bodies. Unlike me, my sister had more traditional demonic wings with red skin-like membranes between each rib of it. Her red horns were much shorter than mine, barely sticking out of her forehead. My own wings were made of dark, black feathers, and my red horns curled upward. My powder blue hair fell in tightly curled tresses that went down to the small of my back, hiding my pointed ears, while my sister’s violet hair was cut in a pageboy style and straight.

    BlackFire’s skirt shifted to a pair of leggings and then red tight pants over the leotard after a few seconds, and she slipped on a jacket, with her wings sticking out.

    “Wait, you’re shapeshifters and have biomorphic armor?” Nightwing asked, his enthusiasm plentiful. He also was grinning widely. “That’s amazing. Miss Martian will definitely like that. And Kid Flash will love the fact that you’re both very pretty. Honestly, you’re a lot.”

    I nodded with a brief grin. If she was anything like the Martian Manhunter, she would be interesting to meet. “Perhaps. Do you think they would mind us staying?”

    Nightwing shook his head. “We’ll have to discuss adding you to the team. But really, FrostShadow and BlackFire? Are those really your names?”

    “It’s how they translate to your language,” BlackFire said.

    “How would we pronounce them in your native tongue?” Nightwing asked, and Batman stepped back toward the computer.

    We told him, and he attempted to repeat them. He came close with my sister, but when he got to mine, he got a little tongue-tied. Silvan wasn’t an Earth language though, even if it shared similarities to Latin.

    “Interesting,” Nightwing said. “I’ll stick with the translations for now. I bet KF will be completely whelmed when he sees you. Of course… if the computer’s responded…”

    Batman shook his head. “I can get Jim, Nightwing. Take them to the Mountain. I’ve set them up guest access in the Zeta tubes.”

    “You sure, Batman?” Nightwing asked.

    “I’ve got it. Go and see your friends,” Batman said.

    “How do the Zeta tubes work, exactly?” I asked.

    “They are a teleportation technology that we developed, and they are designed to work well with most systems,” Batman said. “It should work fine with what you have.”

    We nodded. “So, what do we do?”

    “Nightwing will put in the coordinates for the Mountain; you just need to walk through.” Batman nodded to us. “If you do join the Team, you will be given permanent access and shown how to use the tubes yourself.”

    “Do you want to wear some masks?” Nightwing asked as he approached the console next to the now-named Zeta Tube.

    I shook my head. “What for? We have no secret identities to hide.”

    “Fair,” Nightwing said as he tapped at the console. He gestured toward the hallway. “Go on through, then. Should be an experience. I remember my first time. You’ll get to really feel the aster.”

    I blinked. That… was not a turn of phrase I’d learned in my English studies. The what?

    Frost, he’s human and maybe your age at most. Let it go, BlackFire said. She gestured toward the doorway. “So, when should w ego?”

    “Right now, actually,” Nightwing said. “Once you walk through, you’ll be at the Mountain.”

    We exchanged glances again, but we decided together. We might as well go through. It wasn’t likely to do anything close to killing us, and at worst, we could just recover from it afterward. As we stepped into the tubed hallway, the rings started to rotate around us, and a voice came on over a speaker.

    “Recognized, BlackFire, G09, FrostShadow G10.”

    We stepped further in, and in the blink of an eye, the Batcave vanished. So too did any form of shielding that we had set up. The world disappeared into an ocean of emotion.

    What a disaster.
     
  20. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Smells like Young Justice if I'm not mistaken? Could be an interesting cross for sure...
     
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  21. ellf

    ellf Not too sore, are you?

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    Yep, Young Justice. It's been fun to write it.
     
  22. moon so bright

    moon so bright Shining Light

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    That looked quite fun. Thanks for crafting this possibly, ellf.
     
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  23. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    And now BlackFire and FrostShadow have entered the story. I think folks will really like where this goes, especially if they're a fan of Young Justice.

    And in other news, ch18 is being edited right now. And there's another surprise, something that's a bit of a fad among some Tanya crossover writers.
     
  24. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Doesn't Starfire have a sister named Blackfire?
     
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  25. ellf

    ellf Not too sore, are you?

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    That is indeed a translation of her sister's name.

    Starfire is named Koriandr and Blackfire is Komandr.
    Blackfire is different than BlackFire though.
     
  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: "Old Acquaintances and Uninvited Guests" Part 1
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Return Verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic thingy.
    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/


    Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku
    http://fukufics.com

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 18: "Old Acquaintances and Uninvited Guests" Part 1



    Gibbs tapped my plate as the last step of the unofficial ritual and gave me a thumbs up. After I returned the gesture, the restraints retraced, and I stood from the arming chair. A traitorous part of me felt that it was good to be overseeing a mission again, to be wearing my Polyxo Flight Armor after so long outside my machine shell. Even if I was wearing it in the forward bay of a Household Fleet RP Carrier, a sufferance to any Legion officer.

    Fortunately, I had already regained my airship legs, so even with the weight of the suit I didn't sway as I strode over to the cadet squadron.

    I'd allowed them some Ritualista help, just enough to make the process slow instead of plodding, as well as to make sure no cadet overlooked a step in the preflight procedure. Thankfully, the cadets were very diligent in their checks; I made sure to emphasize the importance of detail in their training. I gave an expansive smile as the cream of Silvan nobility worked with what looked like quiet professionalism. Their tension was admirably low. Despite that, the air was still thick with their focused nervousness, a pungent odor almost smothered under the expected smells of etching compounds, incense, and the ozone tang of energized fuel cells and munitions.

    After nodding to GreyDawn who had just finished suiting up, I clapped to regain the attention of the cadets. "Tonight, the Fleet has been generous enough to act as your transport and even provide a free meal. I'll be brief; you're here because you've started to prove yourselves to no longer be an embarrassment to the Imperial Legions. I haven't had to use the hose in over a month. That said, we will be doing carrier operations. Remember your training, follow Flight Ops' orders for launch and recovery, and you will do fine."

    Short speech over, I stepped aside, unconcerned. I knew all of these cadets could perform carrier landings, at least on a sedate airship circling over an airbase. This was by no means a combat deployment, but there was a bit more risk.

    "Are you giving them the soft-soap?" GreyDawn gruffly asked as she strode up. As my tallest Legion Flier, she cut an imposing figure, especially when encased in advanced Ritual Plate. "Just getting off the ship is the start of your night, girls."

    Pulivia looked up from Lavish's armor and handed the checklist to a purple-skinned cadet to give a double check. "Have the training mission parameters changed?" the jade-haired cadet asked.

    I gave her a thin smile. That was not the most uncommon training trick. Missions would change, often at the last moment, sometimes mid-mission. However, throwing too many surprises defeated the purpose of training. "I may have had a little wager with a Fleet Pilot. It turns out you're not the only training squadron on this airship tonight."

    "What are the stakes, Ma'am?" Lavish asked as she lifted up an arm to allow the feeds of her weapons to be connected and fitted out. Her Flight, Third, was configured in strike mode. I eyed the conformal flasks bolted onto her suit which contained the bracingly powerful alchemically-boosted evocation charges. They were quiescent now and quite stable, but they still represented quiet but potent well of power, contained for now.

    Part of me was... worried about giving a Senator's daughter enough evocative power to blow up a capital ship, but so far she had denied me a sufficient failure to kick her out of the cadet program. After her punishment had turned into a rather diligent analysis and credible presentation on the finer points of Polydora subsystems, Lavish had surprisingly maintained her new focus moving forward. Maybe getting SwiftSapphire's autograph to give to her little sister helped in its way. The MuArc test pilot did have some promotional images of her standing by the Pinnacle test suit.

    Which, in a way, made me even more paranoid. I pushed those feelings down, as my smile grew. "Well, I'm no gambler, so..."

    "She asked for my help," GreyDawn stated. "And I decided to go with something that would be very motivating to a gaggle of young cadets."

    "The tradition is to wager spirits. However, I have little personal use for liquor," I remarked. "But... I can always use more cadets to clean the deck and my armor."

    "Maybe if you embarrass the Legions with your flying, you can become credible Fleet maids," GreyDawn added in pure career centurion dry cynicism.

    I couldn't help but laugh at the expressions of horror on these spoiled nobles. "I think you picked the right stakes for my wager, well done," I bowed my horns to GreyDawn.

    "I can't take all the credit," GreyDawn nodded to the rest of our Flight. I smiled at my two Vs.

    "It was easy," VioletBlood smirked. "I just picked a task that would horrify the most insular, I'm sorry, most cultured members among our fellow peers."

    I thoughtfully nodded.

    " That you think cleaning up on an airship is something to be ashamed of, well... that's punishment enough. After all, anybody who finds a week's worth of menial tasks horrifying, well... I'd hate to see how they would take living in a forward post deep in a sinking jungle for months on end." My baroness flashed her fangs at the cadets, almost all of whom were older than her, casually reasserting her dominance.

    Once my Flight was finally ready, I motioned for my Ritualista to help the maintainers check off the cadet squadron. I also wanted them to triple-check the settings in the cadet's instruments and display suite. Their scrying intake and data compositing had to be set to training mode.

    Over a dozen maintainers helped make the processing go far more speedy, but I still had a chance to step off to the side to talk with GreyDawn. There was an alcove conveniently open into the forward side of the middle port RP maintenance bay out of the way of foot traffic and the maneuvering of carts of munitions, fuel cells, and parts.

    I left VioletBlood in charger of supervising the Cadets. They were not the only ones getting training.

    "Concerns?" GreyDawn quietly asked.

    "Maybe not the ones you're thinking of," I murmured.

    "You're not worried that Pulivia's Flight has charged Lance flasks?"

    "If I was really worried about that I would have grounded them." I exhaled as my tail curled then straightened. "No, they have to start using live ammunition. It's that or kick them out."

    "They have made progress these last couple months," GreyDawn allowed.

    "I know they've gotten a lot more suit time than you ever did before you got deployed."

    My senior pilot shrugged her armored shoulders. "You're right, Ma'am. This is the cadet squadron we have and they've been cleared. I'm pleasantly surprised at how few washouts we've had."

    I nodded. The cadet squadron had two voluntary washouts in the aftermath of my introductory speech two months ago. One had almost immediately taken up my offer to write them a letter of recommendation, if she withdrew from the program.

    The second washout was Cornelia SpiralHorn, the daughter of an Armis Legate who had an incredibly unfortunate problem for a woud-be Ritual Plate Pilot: motion sickness.

    The nausea, vertigo and other issues only came when she was under extraordinary stress, such as when ordnance exploded outside of her suit. And Visha thought the artillery training was just a hazing ritual! We had tried to help her overcome her problem providing the cadet with special tutoring, counseling, and medical evaluation. Ultimately, we had to make the call.

    She was transferred to something more in line with her mother's branch. I had duly sent the letters of recommendation, and one of consolation to Armis Legate SpiralHorn. The letter to Cornelia's instructor at the Castra Frontier's Legion Armor School outlined her potential and her risks. Though if a tank rolled over one of the crew, getting sick was the least of their worries.

    As sad as that was, those were the easy cases. I had been forced to dismiss one of the remaining cadets from the program. GreyDawn made a bit of money off of Visha, who had bet that no one would get ejected. However, GreyDawn lost a few aurei to LoveBlood because it was not Cadet RoseTalon.

    I had managed to avoid being forced to mete any floggings, but the daughter of an executive at Standard Alchemical Products, whose second cousin happened to own the house neighboring my Duchess's Silvan townhouse, came very close.

    Lavish had actually been the one to prevent the insolent girl from challenging me to a duel. Another reason to be upset with Cadet RoseTalon I suppose.

    "You're thinking about Domitia Oesus?" GreyDawn ventured.

    "Am I that obvious?"

    "You are growling, Ma'am."

    I laughed. "At least I just made one noble enemy, and Lady Domitia isn't even landed gentry."

    "No Ma'am, her family merely owns one of the largest chemical processing and fuel extraction conglomerates on Diyu."

    "And now she's in the Fleet learning how to pilot a Hasta bomber."

    GreyDawn's expression and emotions made it blatant that she was skeptical if someone who did not have the attitude to conform to the standards of a Legion Flier would be able to make it as a Fleet Pilot.

    "She will start out training to be a co-pilot, and if she's successful with that, she will have fewer opportunities for her poor judgment to lead her into trouble." Attitude aside, it was a better fit; Domitia could attune to spirits and had taken a lot of expensive tutoring, but in terms of multi-tasking capability she was one of the weakest fliers in my class. Though in more desperate times she likely would have been flogged and thrown into Scouting Branch to fill out the complement of a Venture scout airship watching some backwater colony.

    "Yes, and if she challenges you to a duel once she becomes a qualified Ventus Centurion?"

    I shrugged. "It would be tedious but I could manage."

    "And if Domitia purchases her own Hasta bomber and a pair of Fujiwara Torpedoes? Or maybe she simply loads her bomb bays with five tons of Vel missiles?"

    My tail stilled. "That would be..."

    "Ruinously expensive," GreyDawn's eye glinted. "But if she still holds a grudge after earning her Ventus qualification and then decides to liquidate her inheritance for a bird and dozens and dozens of missiles, well, that would be challenging."

    I just stared. "That is crazy." Such a duel would be absurd, but a Hasta bomber could replace two Fujiwaras it normally carried with half a dozen pods full of Vel missiles. The exchange of range for capacity had some real potential and turned a Torpedo bomber into an air defense platform with nearly two hundred missiles. It was an anti RP concept we were not the first to explore, nor the last in all probability.

    "Honestly, it's a smarter move on her part than buying her own RP suit, getting tutoring, joining a mercenary guild and biding her time. I would take odds on you against any sell-sword Pilot."

    "But a bomber full of anti-air missiles is another story?" I asked while pondering. The Hasta had some limitations in a local air defense role; it was designed to fire standoff weapons, not clouds of relatively short range missiles. However, that very missile loadout would make it a somewhat thorny target, even more so if it were escorted by RP suits providing additional protection and targeting data. Something I was counting on for tonight.

    GreyDawn cracked a smile. "As you say, it’s absurd."

    "Lovely." I rubbed my face. "No cadet, current, former, traitorous or otherwise, is not my primary concern with this training mission"

    "Location?"

    "That's it."

    "We are over a hundred miles from the border," GreyDawn mused.

    "So we have a few minutes' warning. And the target location is well within Shoreline Province, but we're going to be over Lacus Superum."

    "You're worried about the cadets accidentally leaving the training area?"

    "They'll have to really get far off course to enter Elenese airspace, but I don't want to be surprised if someone starts to... wander."

    GreyDawn nodded. "Understood."

    "And I do mean wander, they're going to be under a lot of pressure and juggling a lot of balls, and things could slip their mind."

    "Drifting that far of course?"

    "Doubtful, but that's why I want eyes to catch anything before it becomes a problem. We'll punish them for any failures later."

    "You don't sound very confident about your wager," a Fleet Pilot said playfully as she strode up to us, clad in her Polyxo suit. Primus Centurion Horatia Wencesla was several times my senior age-wise, but still about my height.

    There was a smirk on the woman's finely delicate features, but her green eyes were warm. "It's good to see you, Countess," she then bowed her horns in greeting to GreyDawn.

    "Primus," I nodded to the Fleet Pilot, "and this time, we meet under pleasant circumstances."

    She laughed. "Yes, there are worse things than babysitting cadets."

    "You haven't seen ours, Ma'am," GreyDawn murmured.

    Wencesla shrugged. "Plenty of prissy little fops go into the Fleet. Maybe more, given our reputation for softer racks, better food, and no mud. You did agree to wager against my lot."

    "Not to mention the prettier uniforms," I stated. Wencesla was likely looking at her own squadron command. While she was much older than me, she had only a decade more experience as a Pilot, that did put her at a more typical advancement rate.

    "Yes, Fleet whites are spiffy." Her green eyes sparkled. "You have concerns?"

    "We should keep an extra eye on our cadets, and be mindful of our location."

    "We will be over water for most of the training," Wencesla nodded. "Border issues aside, if one of them has to ditch it'll be harder to splash down than land in some forest."

    "Depends on the forest," GreyDawn stated.

    "Shoreline Province's woodlands are pretty tame," I noted. "Lot of farming, old growths are further south anyway. The coastal lowlands would be pretty fine to walk out of.

    "Provided you survive the crash," Wencesla's tone was quite dry.

    "Obviously, if you don't survive, you no cause for worry." I glanced back to the arming chairs and caught Visha's eye. She gave a thumbs up.

    "Impressive skill in suiting up," Wencesla said observing my Cadets.

    "To get them to keep from dawdling, incentives have been used during that module of their training, with greater penalties for mistakes," I gave a toothy smile, "while most of the equipment in a Maintenance Bay is not quite waterproof, field expedient arming chairs absolutely are."

    Wencesla blinked. "Did you turn fire hoses on them?"

    "Of course not," I said, horrified. "That would be a waste of critical damage control equipment."

    "Not to mention the water pressure might damage something," GreyDawn stated.

    "But tapping into a hangar's grey water return line, on the other hand..." I shrugged.

    Wencesla shook her head. A moment later one of her Flight came up to her and said that her cadets were ready.

    "Shall we go to the briefing room and tell the girls what they're really going to be doing tonight?" I suggested.

    ++++++++++

    We were on the Mellona class medium carrier HFV Hornet. As Ritual Plate carriers went, I was rather fond of the Mellona class. Capable of deploying and maintaining a light wing of six Squadrons, it had better facilities than the Damocles light carrier or the tiny Kolibri patrol carrier. At the same time, it was faster and far more common than the higher capacity Nova fleet carriers or the hulking Avalon heavy carriers.

    Much of the Hornet was set aside for this training mission, including the briefing rooms which Wencesla, myself, and our Flights strode into. Unlike some of the frankly ridiculous tiered auditoriums on an Avalon, this was just a room with several rows of seating, enough for forty occupants all told. Though I suppose in the Avalon class's defense, when you had a crew of over three thousand supporting an RP Air Group of nearly four hundred Pilots, faculties with a higher capacity were useful. They could double as recreational amenities for one.

    The two oversized cadet squadrons only took up the first third of the seating. Despite the chairs being reinforced to bear the weight of Ritual Plate to a pilot the cadets chose to stand in their Polydora suits.

    "We'll make this brief," Wencesla stated as a map appeared on the wall projection behind her. It was a diagram of the part of central Lacus Superum we were flying over. The sprawling great lake bordered four Great Houses and had many islands and fjord-like arms. There was a rippling groan from the cadets as they digested the symbols on the map, specifically the ones denoting targets and opposing forces.

    "As some of you have feared, there will be a slight change in tonight's plans." Wencesla almost sounded apologetic.

    "At least this time there won't be any artillery," I joked. I smiled at the hearty laughs from my cadets while the Fleet girls glanced about and could at most muster nervous chuckles.

    "Quite," Wencesla nodded to me. It was nice to have someone I did not have to look up to. "Your target locations are only notional. It will be up to you to find the actual spot. Please note that the targets are still within the clearly demarcated confines of the Adria Testing Range; both the land and water parts."

    "For those of you with itchy tails I have good news and bad news," I gave a smile. "You will have to face opposition while you take out your targets. Because this is a live-fire exercise we will be using both enemies simulated on your instruments and display as well as training drones."

    There was some murmuring.

    "Now, since these remote operated golems were provided by the Fleet it's not my budget that gets it if you knock them out of the sky," I continued, noting that while my bloodthirsty nobles relished the chance to destroy some flying enemy, any flying enemy, Cadet Pulivia was thoughtfully studying the map. Hopefully, she realized that no one had said what kind of training drones were being used.

    House BlackSky had a large variety of training aides, mostly designed to augment opposing force training and simulating enemy capabilities, if not in full performance then in areas of maneuvering and relative-observability. Several shortfalls in the drone's capacity could be made up for by tweaking and supplementing a Pilot's display. Modern BlackSkyvian Ritual Plate was designed for data sharing, which gave great training potential.

    It also was a vulnerability if our comm systems were compromised. That was why a suit's own scrying intake was processed separately and took primacy when displaying data. This was also why a Ritualista had to manually change settings to enable the training mode, simulated enemies would still be marked as such, but they would not be filtered as spurious.

    Wencesla gave a prim smile. "These are target drones, destroying them is anticipated. However, if you destroy anything other than designated targets then you will face the full weight of the BlackSkyvian military law."

    The apprehension grew on the cadets. Giving a warm, toothy smile to reassure them I gestured to the map. "The entirety of the live-fire portion will take place within the bounds of the Adria Testing Range. You will have plenty of buffer between the range and the border to the joint airspace zone." I pointed to the wide strip that ran east to west across the middle of the great lake. By agreement of the four Houses bordering the lake, it was an area cleared for free air transit. There was a similar waterborne trade corridor for shipping, both passenger and cargo, down on the lake's surface.

    "If your navigation system fails you will contact Flight Ops and one of the instructor Flights. You will then drop out of the mission. If your comms system fails you will use your warning lights to signal distress, and drop out of the training exercise. If you see a fellow Pilot in distress you will report it to Flight Ops. The Hornet will have a Search and Recovery team on standby.

    "Let us go over your approach corridors and what you'll know about your targets," Wencesla adjusted the projection and a couple vectors appeared.

    "You will have your pick of a number of cleared approaches into the testing range." This time my smile had more teeth. "I strongly suggest that you use the opportunity to pick an approach path that maximizes your ability to find your targets and to evade the enemy forces."

    "Speaking of which, here is what we can tell you," Wencesla said, beginning her explanation of the variety of simulated opposing forces. Most were second line Elenese airborne assets. That still allowed for a good mix of Ritual Plate and airframes, both golem and piloted.

    Noting the cadets' disquiet at being outnumbered and dealing with enemy patrols, I took the baton. "We cannot give you locations of your strike targets because they are moving."

    There was a sigh from the cadets but the map had made that much clear. Sharing a glance, Wencesla and myself decided to let that pass. Pilots were allowed some small measure to, quietly, grumble when the Brass Horns gave them frustrating orders.

    "There is a squadron of old remote-operated Yew Patrol boats motoring in the Testing range. You will find these small craft, which will be marked in the following way," I updated the display to show the cross hatch paint job that had been applied to the boats, "forward your scrying data to Flight Ops. You will hold your fire until you receive positive confirmation. "

    Looking cocky, RoseTalon gave a confident nod.

    "Yes cadets, your two strike-equipped Flights have more than enough Lance strikes to take out this many small unwarded boats. Please ruminate on that. Any questions?"

    Wencesla shot me a mildly surprised look.

    Cadet Optio Lady Pulivia VibrantFang lifted a hand. One of the more promising cadets, she was a third daughter to a Duchess with considerable holdings in Lentia Province, if I remembered correctly. "If we lose all of our Lance-equipped Polydora, will it be possible to proxy hit the targets using the weapons on our other suits?"

    I nodded. "That will not count as a destruction of the target, but for the purposes of this exercise, enough Ballista hits it will count as a mobility kill which will be a partial score."

    "Any others?" Wencelsa asked in a tone that indicated she would strongly prefer if there were no more questions. She glanced at the clock on the bulkhead. "Outstanding. Everyone up and make their way to the Launchers."

    "Legion Fliers to the port Launchers, Fleet Pilots to the starboard," I ordered, feeling a bit generous by not calling them cadets.

    The two squadrons slipped their helmets on and helped get the latches and catches around their horns. Though I did note that my cadets were a bit smoother in that evolution.

    Another nice aspect of the Mellona class's design was that the walk from the pilot briefing rooms to the Launchers was rather simple and could be done without overly blocking up the corridors, even if it did require going around a Torpedo room.

    I had my Flight split up. Each of us stood before one of the port Launchers and preformed one last check on the cadets and their suits. A visual inspection would only detect the most egregious of failures in fitting out, but it also gave me a chance to make sure the instructors were getting valid telemetry from their suits.

    Satisfied, I gave a nod to the daughter of the head of the Mason and Runewright Guild as she stepped past me, across the hazard stripes and into the launch tube. A Fleet rating checked to make sure her feet were secured into the catapult's shuttle.

    "Lovely night," I said as Cadet RoseTalon stepped up. "Lift your arms up," I commanded her so I could inspect their articulation for any disconnects. "Do a pilé."

    "What?" Even wearing a full mask I knew Lavish was confused.

    "A dip: turn out your legs at the hip joints, then bend your knees over your toes. Mind your balance, but try to bend deeply while keeping your spine straight," I stated as the haughty cadet complied.

    "Ah, a mobility check," she nodded after I confirmed she could stand back up.

    "And a basic ballet move," I flatly stated. She would have known this if she had taken my advice and signed up for the War College ballet troupe. But, that a senator's daughter was not familiar with this part of high culture was interesting in and of itself.

    Before she could even think about a retort to cover up her faux pas of showing cultural ignorance, the Fleet rating waved at her.

    I slapped her on the armored shoulder. "Go, we don't have all night."

    Still confused, Lavish stomped over to the catapult.

    I focused on giving a final check of the next cadet. There were only a couple more before everyone would be in the air. And even Lavish could ride a launcher.

    Soon it was down to just my Flight. We slipped on our helmets and went up to the launchers. I linked my comms with Flight Ops and the voice of the fleet officer in the port forward observation overseeing launch operations came in. "Diamond Flight, you have a clearance to launch."

    "Confirm Ops, how is Training Squadron Two looking?" I asked more out of camaraderie and tradition. I could see the status of the four Flights of Legion cadets on my display, as well as Wencelsa's girls.

    "They're still in the air," Flight Ops dryly replied as the Fleet rating checked that my boots were secured into the catapult's shuttle.

    I reflexively tensed and locked myself into the bladed bent-forward position as I spun up my Zephyr. My wings strained. There was a countdown, the lights flashed, and suddenly I was shooting down the launch tube.

    My Zephyr added to the acceleration and I shot smoothly out into the night.

    The carrier vanished behind me as I formed up with my Flight. The water was deceptively calm, far below our boots. The larger moon, Emuria, hung nearly full far above our helmets, while her consort Lantia was but a small crescent peeping out across the sky.

    "With the boffins back on Hornet handling the opposing force we'll be taking care of our cadets," I said over the Flight Channel.

    "Each of us still taking a Flight to monitor?" VioletBlood asked.

    "Correct," I glanced over my display. One instructor proctoring a Flight of four would allow for her to keep an eye on their performance. "But we won't be splitting up."

    "You don't want to have us hovering right over their wings?" Visha asked.

    "More that she doesn't want us to split up into lone units," GreyDawn suggested.

    "That's correct, at worst we'll split up into pairs, but even on a training mission I don't want us to get into the habit of flying alone," I said, then switched to the command channel. "Diamond Actual to Jade Actual. Wencelsa, how are we looking?"

    "I trust you can read a display as well as I, Countess," Wencelsa dryly replied.

    "They're doing things by the book," I allowed, double-checking the formations the two squadrons had taken. Each had three Flights of fighter-configured Polydora and one Flight strike-configured. Both Squadrons had fallen into a staggered escort box with the strike Flight in the center with two Flights running ahead at different altitudes and the last Flight running close-protection.

    "Safe, uninspired, and easy to maintain." Wencelsa paused. "But that's why the formation's in the book. Those are all positives."

    "Most of the time," I agreed. "At least they're staying in the corridor and trying to scout."

    "Leading elements in that formation are too tight for scouting," Wencelsa noted.

    "They'll learn or they won't," I noted with a verbal shrug. There were other solutions. They could reduce the escorts to a pair of Flights and send one Flight out as scouts, but that had limited coverage even if they split the Flight into two pairs. So much of command boiled down to managing finite resources.

    "Flight Ops confirm status of OpFor?" Wencelsa asked. Our displays showed the locations of the various drones, but if the staff back on Hornet were not ready to play the simulation, then this would be a very easy exercise indeed for our cadets.

    "OpFor team is ready. They're confirming uplink right now," the smooth voice of the dispatcher responded.

    "Interesting," I noted. My display updated as the marks denoting where the enemy Ritual Plate would be appeared, but only part of my attention was on that.

    "Oh?" Wencelsa paused. "You're not looking at the sims." She got a bit of playful irritation. "Your people aren't passing hints to Cadet SkySpear are they?"

    "Not unless yours are passing notes to your cadets," I lightly replied.

    Cadet Optio Baroness SkySpear, daughter of a Navarch in command of a Grand Fleet Emuria formation consisting of multiple Landing Defense Flotillas and a Bombardment Flotilla, was the squadron commander for tonight. Pulivia VibrantFang was her second in command and was also in charge of the strike Flight.

    And it seemed that one of them, or both, had ordered the forward Flights of their squadron further out and in a broader formation that covered more airspace.

    My Flight and Wencelsa's were largely focused on our respective cadet Squadrons. Both entered the Adria Testing Range's airspace without issue and started running a search pattern. Reassuringly, neither group of cadets went on a direct vector to the last known location of their mission targets.

    They swung around in two formations that, despite the competition, were mutually supporting. They were a bit more cautious than I expected for their experience level, but it was a balancing act. The more circuitous, or cautious, their route made it less likely they would be jumped, but that meant their mission would take that much longer, giving the OpFor more opportunities to find them.

    And the enemy was going to find them, which was a whole other factor. If you knew it was going to be a contested mission, then positioning was vital.

    "They've detected the Svarog Flights running picket," I noted as the forward two of my Cadet Flights pulled back into a more protective positioning as an equal number of, simulated, Elenese light anti-air Ritual Plate pursued them.

    "First blood goes to yours," Wencelsa noted as SkySpear's wingwoman took out a Svarog. The Fleet officer then gave a whistle when she saw the rest of SkySpear's personal Flight pin the other three Svarogs with a chasing engagement. The other escorting cadets dashed over, plunged down, and cut through the virtual enemies. Those suits cleared off the cadet's displays as the hits were registered by Flight Ops

    "Well done," Wencelsa admitted.

    "They had a numerical and positional advantage. And the early Svarogs lacked the hardening necessary to compensate for their lack of higher-envelope maneuverability," I said, not at all defensively. The Svarog was not a bad design, as a ground attack suit. It was relatively inexpensive, but the first iterations had been pressed into a supporting anti-air role that they struggled with.

    "I have the boffins simulating current Svarogs, ones that aren't death traps," Wencelsa stated wistfully.

    I laughed, not at all nervously. "One moment." I switched over to the channels for my cadets' First and Second Flights. "Commendable work girls. Those were peer level suits you went up against. But don't get all fat-tailed about it, you did outnumber them."

    "Thank you, Ma'am. Understood," SkySpear's voice clearly came out, it might have been a bit strained as she kept her composure. Well, she was managing a whole heavy Squadron. Their channel was free of idle chatter. Good, the comms discipline lessons might have stuck.

    I switched back to my Flight channel and there was a pregnant silence.

    "That was a... colorful motivational message," Visha remarked. "Brief but turgid."

    I blinked but before I could reply...

    "This isn't the first time the Countess has used her tail to motivate a poor baroness cadet!" VioletBlood wailed, humorously overwrought except for the hint of prickly jealousy.

    "It was very inspiring, Ma'am. Just bursting with the proud traditions of the Imperial Legions," GreyDawn drawled.

    "I didn't use my tail!" I gasped.

    "Don't worry,' GreyDawn assured. "You're a Legionary Flier, being a bit crass can be forgiven, especially in the heat of the moment."

    "Maybe tutoring lessons twice a week at Mima Lumina Academy isn't enough," VioletBlood mused.

    "That's enough, LoveBlood," I tried not to growl. In abstract, I understood the role of etiquette lessons for young nobles, but I was a Centurion and I had gotten plenty of cultural refinement as part of becoming a Soloist in the Ballet Troupe. What was the point of becoming a ballerina if you couldn't use that to prove you were plenty ladylike?

    "Yes, Primus Centurion Countess," she soberly stated.

    I let that slide and focused my attention on the tactical map.

    The Fleet Cadets had taken out their own Svarog Flight, but the OpFor had gotten quite close to their Strike assets and it had taken the Cadets multiple passes with their escort units to take them out. The problem was that even with their Veils up and a reasonably large amount of airspace, the OpFor commander would know something was wrong.

    The locations where two of her Flights were destroyed was a clear indication of an oncoming attack. And hence, both Cadet Squadrons dropped in altitude and slowed their speeds increased their Veils. It was a fair plan to break contact and try to relocate.

    The sum of the OpFor's simulated scrying intakes would show there were no nearby enemy units, when they scanned the cadet's vicinity, but they knew they were out there. If the OpFor had a scrying specialist unit like the Mokosh, the cadets could still be tracked, Veiled or otherwise, even if the rough Elenese equivalent of our Occultia was relatively rare. House Elena preferred to use the Yaryla whenever they could.

    A mid-sized aircraft with a crew of three, the Yaryla obviously had a far larger footprint than the Mokosh and required a runway, albeit a short one, but it had a greater endurance than a Ritual Plate, and was the less expensive option.

    The Cadet Squadrons raced over the waves. My students had taken the leading edge position and seemed like they wanted to push as fast as they could without compromising their stealth. I knew they would accelerate to full dash speed once they decided that they had broken contact.

    Meanwhile, Wencelsa's girls were more cautious and from the way their formation had spread just a bit more and had taken the lower altitude slot, I could see they were being more cautious, as if they could sneak up to their targets for a surprise strike.

    As far as plans went, it wasn't entirely wrongheaded, but if they wanted to work in cooperation with the Legionary students they needed to coordinate their overall doctrine: speed or stealth. The rest of my Pilots were busy evaluating their assigned trainee Flights so I checked in on SkySpear's channel.

    "It makes more sense if we work this way," SkySpear stated.

    "But what about the bet?" The Fleet Cadet paused. "If we do this, aren't you kinda throwing the wager?"

    "DarkStar's Blood! I don't care if I have to play maid on an airship! Do you think the Countess really cares? The mission is key and the odds are not in our favor."

    There was a pause. "Fine."

    SkySpear's tone softened. "Balbina, you already want to go with the cautious strategy. If I've learned one thing is: make the best decision you can, the quickest you can and then commit fully.

    "Right," the Fleet Cadet sounded more confident. "We'll separate, but take a curving approach; that'll minimize the separation with my Squadron being slower."

    "Fine," SkySpear laughed.

    I gave a thin smile. It sounded like they were embracing their differences in tactics. The Legion Cadets would go in fast and loud, while the Fleet would sneak in. It was not a terrible plan. One Squadron would provide a diversion and depending on the attacking force the other Squadron could reinforce or dash to the target boats.

    However, there was a flaw to the cadets' plan: two of the drones flying out there were standing in proxy for a formation of Yaryla recon aircraft. The cadets' Veils were less effective than they had assumed. The question was how the cadets would react when it was clear that their Poyldora were being picked up at greater range than they expected.

    The OpFor had repositioned their recon assets, regained contact with the intruding formations, and was vectoring in interceptors.... now. The instructor display updated as a squadron of Perun strike suits accelerated towards both cadet squadrons. That would be a bad force balance for the simulated RP, except the Opfor had support. Two other drones were filling in for a pair of Kupala air-defense bombers.

    Something like a smaller, greater-ranged Hasta, the Kupala was mostly a platform for carrying anti-air missiles, though it could work in a direct bomber role. It had a crew of two and had about two-thirds the payload capacity of a Hasta.

    Its main function was to provide extra firepower for forward air units who sent back targeting data. It could fight by itself, but that came with far greater exposure which was rather risky for an airframe optimized as a long-endurance, ordnance transport.

    "Everyone keep an eye on your cadets," I said over my Flight channel. Back on the Hornet, all of this was being recorded. Our presence was to give direct impressions, notes, and as a quick reaction in case anything went wrong. We also just happened to be between the cadets and the nearest border out of the Testing Range.

    It worked the other way, just in case some aircraft tried to wander into restricted airspace. And while most of the traffic was to the north in the joint transit corridor, the sky was rarely truly empty.

    "If mine even get through this," VioletBlood noted. She had been assigned to the Flight with the strike-equipped Polyxo that had Pulivia, Lavish, and two rather promising cousins, both from a ranching concern that was one of the larger land-owners in Rundani Province.

    "They've still got good escorts," I stated a second too soon as a Pilot in Flight Two was shot down. "Visha?"

    "Already on it," she said before switching to the Pilot's channel to give her the heading to exit the Testing Range and return to the Hornet. They would be vectored with the pair of Fleet cadets who had been knocked out shortly before them.

    At least it was not too far of a journey, since we were still in the more northern expanses of the Adria Testing Range. Realizing they had all been detected, the two squadrons formed up, seemingly as they spotted the Kupala bombers.

    I switched back to SkySpear's channel. "Yes, Pulvia I am risking your Flight," the cadet-leader stated with just a bit of a frustrated edge in her tone. "But you're our longest ranged weapons and if you don't take out those bombers then we'll never make it to the target boats. Execute."

    Good. Someone was thinking. "Balbina I need you to send your strike Flight out, with escort," SkySpear transmitted to the head of the Fleet cadet Squadron. "Transmitting you coordinates now. We've got a window before the Kupalas can launch their missiles."

    "I'll send one Flight to do close escort for them and commit the other two to help you finish the Perun RP," came the strained reply. It sounded like she was pulling a fair G load. Glancing at the display did confirm her suit was doing an impressive maneuver to avoid being bracketed by simulated fire.

    Despite their simulated opponents being an older version of the Perun, it was still a strike suit, which meant that they had a fair bit of range, even with their lower-powered higher capacity loadout. But an early heavy strike suit versus fighter-configured Polydora was a reasonable challenge, in my opinion at least.

    "Break... Break. Break!" SkySpear shouted as her squadron split in twain, half committed to keeping the enemy RP engaged while the rest dashed off to take out those bombers. The Fleet Cadets were not quite as smooth when they executed a similar maneuver.

    It was a bold plan and one of their better plans for dealing with an enemy with superior fire support. And it was not like SkySpear dismissed the concept that the enemy bombers would have their own escorts. She sent both Third and Fourth Flights.

    Which was reasonable, as there was a Flight of Svarog protecting the two Kupala air-defense bombers.

    Pulivia had command of the two Flight detachment and showed no hesitation. She actually accelerated her Flight and fired a pair of Lances at the Svarogs while speeding at max velocity towards the bombers, which turned slightly and the display was suddenly full of a stream of virtual missiles.

    Losses started to come in for both cadet teams. Mostly on their run against the bombers but the forces left to finish off the Prun Squadron had a couple casualties. But then six Lances from the strike-Polydoras stabbed out and blasted apart the two drones. The explosions were satisfying and the tactical display shifted just a tiny bit to respond to the loss of their scrying input.

    And VioletBlood was directing Optio Cadet Lavish RoseTalon back to the carrier. In Lavish's defense she did score the best hit on the second bomber. At the cost of getting closer and holding a flight path that was a bit too predictable.

    The remaining missiles were easier to evade as they had to fall back on their onboard guidance. Soon, both formations of virtual enemies had been mopped up and a pair of no longer over-strength cadet squadrons reunited.

    "Two bombers in the drink," Pulivia proudly reported.

    "Outstanding work, Flight Leader," SkySpear replied with perhaps a touch too much gusto but I could not blame her for having her blood up.

    "Ma'am, I suggest that we proceed and find the targets with best speed," Pulivia suggested.

    "Oh?" the Cadet squadron commander for this exercise asked.

    "The enemy was still on us, I don't think we ever dropped off their displays," Pulivia suggested. "That means one of two things."

    SkySpear sighed. "And our Countess is tough, but she's not a cheater."

    "Not with an evaluation," Pulivia agreed. Well, that was reassuring.

    "Right, good call Flight Leader," SkySpear switched to the other Flight leaders and patched into her equivalent on the Fleet Squadron. "Everyone, it looks like the enemy has some long range, or low observable, scrying systems. It has been suggested that we make best speed to the targets given all the remaining enemy assets have to be well aware of where we are."

    "I.... agree," a gasping voice came in from the Fleet end. Checking the identification, I saw that she was the second in command of the Fleet Squadron. Ah, yes, her superior had been taken out in that last action. Well, learning how to take sudden command was part of the training.

    "Everyone take a quick drink," Pulvia suggested.

    "Thank you, Flight Leader," SkySpear sounded a bit chastised. "Alright, here's the course. It's not the most direct but it gives us a good time-savings and with the right formation, we can try to punch through whatever they'll put up."

    "But what about the competition?" a Fleet Flight leader asked.

    "It's a distraction, a head game to see how we react," Puliva dismissed. "Do you have any idea how expensive this test is? Do you really think people like our instructors really care about some bet involving us playing maids?"

    "Agreed," SkySpear stated. "You have your orders Optios, get to it! Fleet Leader, I've folded my Second and Fourth Flights together into one unit. I suggest you do something similar with your losses."

    I gave a thin smile. Their plan was direct. But they had shown a fair skill at coordination and now were able to take casualties without shattering. At least simulated ones.

    "It is good that they have such an inspiring instructor," GreyDawn noted over my Flight's channel.

    "You think just because the Flight you're babysitting doesn't exist that you don't have any work to do?" I asked with a touch of humor.

    "The Legions' capacity to create work is infinite," GreyDawn groused.

    "I think they've got heart!" Visha chirped.

    "That's only because we haven't dropped the hammer on them," VioletBlood purred.

    "Diamond Actual. Diamond Actual. This is Flight Ops," a smooth voice said on the override transmission.

    "This is Diamond," I stated and reflexively went over the map. For all they had been fighting, the cadets looked to be in no actual danger. A few were actually well on their way back to the carrier. Was there a problem where they couldn't land on the Hornet? Couldn't they be diverted to one of the escorting airships then? Other than the remaining drones and us, the sky seemed clear. There was some traffic north of us in the transit corridor. Oh.

    "A patrol from one of our Venture scouts detected possible observer craft at the following coordinates," the dispatchers stated in the same tone as if she were giving me a weather check or telling me that an enemy battle group had teleported in.

    "Confirm. That's on the border?" I inquired.

    "Yes, Diamond Flight. The scrying intake shows they're moving in a rough racetrack pattern. Our estimate is a light Elenese Recon Squadron consisting of a Flight of Mokosh RP plus escorts."

    "Understood. Thanks for the heads up Flight Ops."

    There was a pause. "Actually Diamond Flight, Praefectus Commodore HoofBridge requests that you go out and investigate."

    "She does," I stated. Lady Eliza Bellus HoofBridge captained the HFV Hornet, and while she was not directly in my chain of command, for the purposes of this joint training mission her requests had weight.

    I sipped some water. "Will the training exercise be canceled?"

    "No. Flight Ops is vectoring our Combat Air Patrol and launching out standby Flights to provide more support. Scouting assets from a second Venture are also being repositioned with a detachment of escort elements."

    "Understood. Diamond Flight will investigate the possible incursion," I declared, putting emphasis on that word. I wanted to make it clear on Hornet's flight record that I was not going out with the intention of engaging the Elenese forces. It would take a little bit of time for one of the Hornet's escorting Kolibri class corvettes to get into position, but I wasn't too proud to take Fleet backup.

    "That's what the Praefectus Lady wanted to hear," Flight Ops said, a bit of color entering the dispatcher's voice.

    ++++++++++

    Raging against my fate, I gave a tiny internal scream. Of course some aggressive hard-charging Fleet Officer would throw the Heroine Countess, the youngest bearer of the Preserver Crown, at some Elenese spies to make them flee, tails between their legs.

    After taking a few calming breaths, I exhaled and switched channels. "Jade Actual. Jade Actual."

    "Flight Ops was also informing me," Wencelsa stated. "My Flight will take over proctoring the rest of the training mission. We're in the endgame anyway."

    "Thanks, we'll go over the results afterwards?" I asked.

    "Will do. I do wish my Flight got requested as well."

    I made a noncommittal noise. "Well, with all this chaos and with the final challenges for our students, more of them will be flying back to the Hornet. It would not be imprudent if your flight moves a bit further North to make sure none of them... strayed on their return flight."

    Wencelsa laughed. "Understood, Countess. Happy hunting."

    Sighing I cursed the absurd reputation I had accrued, and went to the Flight channel. "Change of plans. An Elenese Recon Squadron is camping by the border in the free transit corridor, and Flight Ops and Hornet Actual have requested that we investigate them," I stated as I shared our new heading.

    "I see," GreyDawn noted there was a pause as she digested our course. "Ah," she stated with some approval. Reading the nuances of a map-plot was trivial for a Pilot with her experience. I had no intention to get into a saber-rattling across the border with elements from the one Diyu Great House larger than ours.

    "Yes, Countess," VioletBlood acknowledged, a bit of a pout in her voice, "But we should be ready for Elenese trickery." Of course she was disappointed. It was that reputation for bloody-minded aggression that had gotten us into this mess, a reputation that preceded us to the point some Fleet Officer thought we would be perfect to throw at some Recon Squadron to get them to scurry back to their side of Lacus Superum.

    "Our role is to assess them and determine their intentions, not to get into a shootout," I stated as we flew out of the restricted airspace of the Testing Range. Wencelsa's Flight was moving slower, not quite on our heels, purely to make sure that no cadets strayed too far north.

    "They're clearly watching our training mission to determine our intentions," Visha pointed out. It was true; the Adria Testing Range was rather close to the border and little that occurred here could reasonably be considered secret. Which was why House BlackSky had far more private testing ranges, some of which that weren't even on Diyu.

    "But why else are they here?" I asked. "Intel has it that they have a full Flight of Mokosh Recon suits out. That's an expensive and high demand bit of kit. If they just wanted to watch some training exercises, they could have stuck a Yaryla Recon aircraft in the transit corridor."

    "Maybe the Hornet's skipper's request has more going for it than we first thought," GreyDawn murmured. "We are all equipped with Gorgon Rigs, that would give us more of an idea of what's out there."

    An officer who thought herself clever was many times worse than one who was all blood, viscera, and glory. "You aren't helping my calm, Centurion. I suppose that's what happens when I push to get us with the best suits and scrying kit."

    "Sorry, Ma'am, but someone who runs a carrier would know Elena using their special Recon assets would be a reason to... investigate."

    I pondered over the map display. Even at max dash, which we were not traveling at, it would take some time to get to where the Elenese squadron was waiting. That presumed they were there in the ten or so minutes our slower and slightly less direct path would take.

    "It's going to be rather hard to hide from a Flight of Recon suits even if they're using passive scrying," GreyDawn stated. "Their Mokosh isn't as good as our Occultia but if they were watching our training mission then they already know we left."

    "That's why we're not even trying," I stated. "With Fleet assets repositioning, even if we went under full Veil and broke contact they would have the strong suspicion that someone had been sent out to investigate."

    "But we don't want to go in full-bore?" Visha asked.

    "Negative. A direct charge is a known course, and we don't know what else is lurking out there," I stated. As the largest Great House, one underestimated House Elena at one's peril. "We may have been tasked with poking them with a stick, but I see no reason to go about it rashly."

    "Also charging right in makes us seem desperate and panicked," VioletBlood added. "If they smell fear, the double-faced curs will attack."

    "Broadly put," I allowed.

    "Shame none of us are configured for Lance Strikes, that might give us more options," VioletBlood pondered.

    "It is a trade-off. Right now I'm happy we have uniform capabilities and are optimized for air to air." My intentions were to avoid combat, but I had long ago learned that what I wanted had little to do with what actually happened.

    We grew quiet as we continued to fly across the dark surface of the lake. The various icons on my map display slowly, inexorably moved, vast distances making even the fastest of Ritual Plate seem slow. The training exercise was reaching its bloody, simulated, conclusion. I guess I would have to congratulate the cadets. The HFV Hornet and her escorts, Combat Air Patrol, and Scouts shifted to more advantageous positions.

    And that Elenese Recon Squadron continued to circle the sky in a lazy, elongated oval right on the border. Until suddenly, their scrying systems went from passive to active. Most of their focus was on our direction. It had to be more than just a paranoid reaction.

    "I don't think they lit their Mokoshs up like Yule trees just for us," GreyDawn remarked, echoing my sentiment. Plenty of House BlackSky's major, and minor, religions had winter holidays, including a Remembrance Day in the Church of DarkStar, the very traditional Saturnalia, and a Midnight Mass observed by the Silvan diocese.

    "They're sending a message to us, want to be sure we're not hiding any Veiled assets or..." I frowned. "Keep an eye on your scrying intake, with the output of four Recon suits there's going to be a lot of interference." A very crude analogy was that they had shined four bright flashlights on us, that made them very obvious as we could see them in the light-up night, but it was blinding.

    "They're flying the same pattern: fat and happy, showing off for all of Diyu. They're up to something," VioletBlood spat. "It's a treaty volition at the very least."

    "That is... correct. Good point, LoveBlood," I noted. Per the terms of the Four Party Agreement that set the borders within Lacus Superum, that Squadron was technically within the joint transit corridor, but that corridor was just that. Parties entering it had to use it to go from one port to another. There were some exceptions, like surface fishing vessels, but fisheries agreements were a whole other batch of issues.

    "Flight Ops. Flight Ops. Diamond Actual here. Has there been any communication with the Elenese Squadron?" I asked.

    "That is a negative, Diamond Actual."

    "Would the Praefectus Commodore Lady HoofBridge object if I entered into communications with our guests?"

    "One moment." There was a brief pause and in a shorter time than I expected the dispatcher replied. "Hornet Actual has no objection."

    "Confirm." I went back to the Flight Channel. "Which of you speaks Thokavian the best? Visha?" For my plan to work. it was best that the message was delivered in Elena's own language. My wingwoman had grown up on an island near their sphere of influence. Until Elena had conquered it, of course, in order to secure another natural harbor.

    "After joining the Legions, I did get some additional training to build on what I learned in school," Visha admitted.

    "Excellent!" I cheered. "I have a simple message for you to deliver."

    A couple minutes later, Visha started transmitting on the unencrypted open channel. "Unidentified Elenese Ritual Plate Squadron. Are you in need of assistance due to mechanical, arcane, or navigational fault?"

    After a moment of silence, Visha continued, sounding rather natural, at least far better than I was at the slippery language. "At your altitude, you are a navigational hazard in the transit corridor. If your comms are down please flash your warning lights and we can provide assistance."

    We were close enough to have reasonable locations and headings of the members of the Elenese Squadron. To my great disappointment, there was no signaling via their lights. However, their formation did shift with one Flight ranging out as if to intercept or screen, but then they pulled back.

    "Guess, they remembered the proper reaction to being asked if you need help is not to charge across the border," GreyDawn laughed.

    "That rattled them," I noted with some disquiet. I gave the orders to increase speed and shift to a more direct heading. "Visha, repeat the offer to help our friends, if you please."

    With my wingwoman transmitting again, as chipper as one could be, I took a moment to study the map. The data was not perfect. The active scrying pulses from the Elenese Recon suits were still causing issues. Fleet Ops provided composited data sets made by comparing scrying intake from multiple sources, which helped somewhat, but only somewhat. After all, my Flight was on the bleeding edge, by far, the furthest out. The data from Flight Ops provided little that our Gorgons hadn't already revealed.

    "BlackSkyvian forces, this is Pukovnik Emilia Armin, thank you for the offer," an elegant voice said over the open channel. The Pukovnik spoke Silvan Latin with just enough of a cloying accent that I wondered if it was an affectation. Pukovnik was a rather high rank for squadron command in the Elena military, roughly equivalent to a Tribune, but then again a Recon Squadron was a very high-value asset.

    "We're happy to help. No RP Pilot wants to go down in the middle of the sea," I replied, thinking back to fighting Trosic Pilots over the southern Gaudia Sea. "Salt or Freshwater," I appended frowning over the display map. There were echoes and scrying artifacts, nothing that even raised to the status of a blip or ghost contact but I was not above jumping at shadows. Incautious pilots did not last long.

    "Ah, BlackSkyvian hospitality," the Pukovnik chuckled. I suspected she was in one of the Marzanna air-superiority suits running escort on the Mokosh. Those Recon models were still saturating the sky with active scrying pulses but there definitely was something odd about it, more than just that their pulses were more towards the south than in our direction. It was like they were making shadows where our own passive intake was weaker.

    The relative clarity of the Recon Squadron gave me unease. VioletBlood, for all her faults, was right, about Elenese tactics. And we could see the Recon Squadron with painful clarity down to the markings on the smoothed faceplates House Elena preferred in contrast with the more sculpted death mask BlackSkyvian style.

    In contrast with the clean lines of our Occultia Recon suit, the Mokosh was all external scrying arrays set with crystalline solid-state receivers and thick tracery of thermal management enchantments. Compared to that, the Marzanna air superiority suit was a smoothed and sleek armor built for maneuverability and speed. Marring the clean lines were the spots where plates had been replaced to allow for extra warding projectors and power systems, showing that these were Generation Two refit models.

    "Elenese Formation, are you having mechanical or navigational difficulty?" I demanded, my mouth dry. Our distance was rapidly closing and soon force would be more than a theoretical option. Glancing, I confirmed that my Ballista projectors were ready.

    "Your offer for assistance is very generous, as our navigation system failed," Pukovnik Armin stated in a smooth purr. It was an obvious lie, every RP suit had multiple navigation systems: compasses, gyroscopes, star charting, and more. For a dozen suits to have all their systems fail was next to impossible, unless it was some kind of sabotage.

    Not to mention they were unable to call for assistance? Clearly the Pukovnik had a form of functioning comms. One of the purposes of the open channel was to call for such assistance. However, it was an expedient lie. And there was time. The Fleet was sending in corvettes and other support, but Ritual Plate was the second fastest asset they had, and airships were far slower than that.

    "While I'm happy they're finally talking, I am out of trust. Get ready for an active pulse on my signal.," I privately ordered my Flight before going back to the open channel.

    "I am sorry to hear that such a misfortune befell you. Thankfully you did not accidentally stray into our territory," I enunciated, using those elocution lessons from the Mima Lumina academy to sound courtly, or at least non-confrontational. My fingers flexed. VioletBlood's paranoia was far from baseless; Elena had a habit of flashing conciliatory smiles, right up until they dropped the mask of civility.

    "We would be happy to take you up on your offer... Countess?" Confusion and a bit of disquiet touched Emilia Armin's voice.

    I could have cursed my relatively unique wings, which when coupled with there only being about a thousand Polyxo Legion Fliers, made me easily identifiable. Instead, I noted that this meant their Recon suits were good enough to detect the minute differences between a Fleet and a Legion Ritual Plate model at our current distance.

    The Pukovnik's comments aside, my focus was on my Flight. "Active... now! Full Dash." We had a moment of distraction. Our suits could not cancel-out the pulses from an equal number of Recon RP, but to go with the extended light metaphor, we were now shining our own lamps into the darkness behind their lights. We also had four Gorgon Rig scrying systems which, while not as powerful, were still very capable systems.

    The display bloomed with markers, most of them were tenuous sensor echoes and partial hits, but that was enough.

    "Multiple squadrons! Volos pattern!" I shouted over the Flight channel and back to Flight Ops. Four rare and expensive Recon suits was one level of commitment, but dozens of their latest low-observable air superiority suits was something else. This was no squadron we were dealing with, this was a Vanguard Strike unit, something analogous to a Demi-Wing.

    "Break, break, break!" I ordered as I led my formation into a steep dive. The three Volos squadrons accelerated, their higher outputs shedding the heavy veils they were lurking under. At least that bit of CSR Intel was confirmed. The Volos' powerful Veiling systems were not able to contain the full output of combat maneuvering. Part of me wondered why they were here. Nearly forty of those suits had to be a significant fraction of Elena's Volos fleet.

    "Duplicitous Elenese! They must have used their accomplices as cover!" VioletBlood cried with more than a bit of jealousy in her outrage.

    "We can congratulate them on a trick well setup later," I replied through gritted teeth as we gained more speed, corkscrewed half a turn and raced off on an obliquely southern heading. We could have snap-maneuvered into a turn, but that would have slowed us down, and the one advantage we had was that it would take the Volos just a bit of time to fully power out of stealth mode and accelerate to combat maneuvering mode.

    "Diamond Actual, this is Kestrel, do you need assistance!" a new dispatcher called in, just a bit of heat on the Fleet officer's words. The HFV Kestrel was a Kolibri Torpedo corvette. A small, relatively quick vessel that still carried over half a dozen Fujiwara Aerial Torpedoes which gave it a fair bite.

    I appreciated the offer but the range was far from ideal. "Kestrel, we could use some fire support, but I'm a bit concerned about this spiraling out of control." Beyond the Kestrel there were multiple Household Fleet squadrons incoming. But they would all arrive in time to avenge us.

    "Volos Squadrons are about to cross the border," GreyDawn stated her voice cold and clinical as she confirmed the headings. At least our suits would get good location data for the enemy RP, for a while.

    I swore at the map display. Escape was not yet impossible, not quite yet, but I gave the enemy a three in five chance of killing all of us.

    "Understood. Half of our magazine are Skofnung anti-air Torpedoes," Kestrel offered. "If you can draw them, we can flood the sky with nearly a hundred Vel Missiles."

    The offer was appealing, but the range was still a problem. Oh, we were within the hundred and forty mile range of a Skofnung; the problem was that even a supersonic missile would take a few minutes to cross the distance between us.

    I doubted we had that much time. Map distances flashed over my eyes and I sighed. There... were options. I had drawn out combat with enemies many times before. Rarely ones equipped with such good sensor support, there would be no hiding my location this time.

    "We can hold them, down sell ourselves and let the missiles harrow them and the fleet mop up," VioletBlood suggested, echoing my first option. Haughty but stern, she sounded like so many BlackSkyvian nobles trying to find scraps of glory in the cold calculus of war. "Besides, we've got an Ace who's fought nine-versus-one and won. Have they?" Her question was light, but unlike Narvos this time... this time she would stay at my side.

    "If it comes to that, we'll do our duty," I promised her before changing the comm channel. "Kestrel, do you have any Ascalon Torpedoes?"

    "Uh, yes four," the comms officer seemed befuddled.

    "Outstanding! Fire two of them on the following course with terminal guidance and detonation on my mark."

    "But Diamond Actual, you wanted things to not spiral out of control?" I could not fault the dispatcher. The Ascalon was a ship-killer with over half a ton of special alchemically enhanced explosives. The same speed as the Skofnung it still had the same timing issue.

    "Yes!"

    "Torpedoes are already away," she replied a bit testily. "Uplink should be active in three, two, one..."

    My display updated. "Flight, follow my lead."

    "What's the plan?" Visha asked.

    Beneath my faceplate, I pulled back my lips. "I'm going to be diplomatic."

    End Chapter 18


    Just a training exercise...
    Don't worry ch19 is already written *and* edited! You won't have to wait long for that.

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Readhead, ScarletFox , afforess, WrandmWaffles and Preier for checking and reading over this chapter.

    And a couple bits of news, there's a Diyu Demons / Young Justice fic called "Knight Sirens" being written by Ellf that you can find in this thread, that you might enjoy.


    And there's now a Discord for Little Demon. It's another place to talk about the story, ask questions about the world-building and the like.
    https://discord.gg/D67nxj4VwX
     
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2022 at 6:54 PM
  27. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Oh boy. Another probable war started due to assholes fucking about with borders intentionally. At least Tanya isn't just a trainee and all alone this time around.
     
  28. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Maybe she will be diplomatic about it. And Tanya does have a lot more resources this time around.
     
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  29. averagejoe32

    averagejoe32 Not too sore, are you?

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    Actually, a quick question. Did Tanya ever get that autograph?
     
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  30. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    She did! I'll go make it explicit in the chapter.
     
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