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

Is it just me, or does the "Civilizing the Jungle Fox" tagline for the propaganda poster seem a little insensitive towards kitsune? Or are species relations in House BlackSky so good that isn't potentially offensive?

There is a bit of that. And a surface view of Diyu Demons is they see Kitsune as tricksters. Ones that like the Forest People are from the woods. Though Kitsune are, in general, more aesthetically congruent to succubae which is both a boon and a curse for relations. Note how Reinhild is able to have most broodlings be putty in her hands.

That said I would presume most Diyu Demons in House BlackSky would think that species relations are that good. Some Kitsu may disagree. There is a reason that BlackSky has a hands-off approach to many "traditional land claims" of the various other species on the House (and even among Diyu Demons living out far off, related to the "You'll Never Leave Silas Alive")

And among the Great Houses, House BlackSky is far from the worst in species relations. One can argue that Alecto and Andromache are more fair, and Elena is more equitable, though Elenese equality and social harmony comes at a cost...

This puts some subtext on how Tauria's habit of Kitsune servants (she has just Reinhild for now, but reputations are what they are) is seen a bit "rougher", a bit "provincial", a bit "eccentric".

Tanya should be triple glad that this is War Chronicles and not The Sex Chronicles of a Little Demon. With all the Succubae
Hah, she has had time co acclimate and she's already engaged. And even that is overwhelming her a bit.

Hah. It is funny that for all the Diyu related stories, there hasn't quite been a full on lemon yet.

Even here on QQ
Chapter 23: Cat's Cradle
The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

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

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

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

Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

C&C as always is wanted.

Chapter 23: Cat's Cradle

It would be fair to say that I maintained significant reservations with the mission that had seconded my unit to the HFV Tarantula Hawk. The cloak-and-dagger work, the nebulous objectives… None of it sat well with me. However, I couldn't help but admit that the small, status-obsessed part of me that fretted endlessly about how my career looked to others drew satisfaction from being assigned to such a clearly important task.

The aft starboard Ritual Plate maintenance bay was Third Squadron's domain: My domain. The bay and its port-side twin were slightly smaller than the forward bays, which were First and Second Squadron's, but I saw no need to quibble about the assignment; we didn't need the spare room quite as much as the four Fleet Pilots assigned to the Tarantula Hawk, whose gear collectively was stowed in both forward bays.

Having another Harmonia Flight to assist First Squadron was good, but they were... frustratingly aloof, to put it kindly. Even considering my experience with the cream of the imperial capital's RP pilots, as well as wrangling the Flight of snooty nobles placed under my own command, I felt that these Fleet girls were exceptionally haughty. I could only hope that their skills justified their arrogance.

I was fully aware that I might be judging the Fleet fliers with unwarranted harshness. There was, after all, always some degree of rivalry between the Household Fleet and the Imperial Legions, but that degree tended to be minimized between Fleet Pilots and Legion Fliers. Ritual Plate doctrine, training, hardware, and organization was nearly identical between the two service branches. At the end of the day, though, they were still shippies to the core and my soul, dyed in army colors twice over, couldn't help but hold it against them.

Of course, the Fleet could hardly claim to monopolize arrogance, though with Fleet Pilot Crystal Candida and her Flight assigned to our little task force that claim was a bit… strained.

For all that, I could not entirely fault Primus Baroness Crystal Candida. Stiff-necked habits and choleric-humor aside, she was a skilled pilot, commander, and trained her Flight well. They were also First Squadron's problem. I was happy to let Prefect Mila Caenis deal with the green-haired witch.

So I'm sure it was pure coincidence that the gold-eyed, blue-haired Prefect Caenis had come to my maintenance bay.

That's unfair, I privately chided myself, and besides, everybody deserves a break once in a while.

The head of First Squadron and I had served together since Vualia and through the entirety of the tour of the Crocelli Jungles. There was no need for me to be unnecessarily uncharitable to her, especially given my prior experience with her.

And furthermore, after my time riding herd on the academy students, I felt a great deal of sympathy towards any officer tasked with managing brilliant yet infuriating martinets.

"Any issues getting all your equipment on board?" Caenis asked as she sipped her amber tea. We were standing off to one side of the bay, tucked away in an alcove set up as a miniature preparation and refreshment area. A pilot could get out of the way and have a drink, splash some water on her face, or even stretch her wings a bit without worrying of knocking over a box of spanners or whatever. It was also, conveniently enough, where I'd had Gibbs bolt down a fleet-issue coffee machine.

"The yard dogs have been cooperative," I admitted, and turned to watch my Ritualista and Pilots as they ran diagnostics, went over checklists, and checked over the inventory.

Caenis snorted. "Compared to the rest of the kit they have to get loaded onto the Tarantula Hawk? No wonder. Must be easy street."

"Fair," I admitted, then took a sip from my mug. A dozen Polyxo suits plus all their maintenance equipment, parts, munitions, and other components would add up, but it was still a mere sixty percent of the mass of even a light VTOL.

"Besides, that's not the real problem of getting our gear loaded." Caenis let the implication hang as she took a drink. "The speed's not really the choke-point here."

"Security is remarkably tight," I admitted, fully understanding Caenis's unvocalized frustration.

Everything coming aboard had to be taken apart and inspected. While I could understand the concerns, it was on some level farcical. After all, a Ritual Plate suit was a platform with advanced weapons and scrying systems. They were supposed to be filled with gear that could only be called highly suspicious. Though that was why Legion Counter-Intelligence, and the Fleet's equivalent office, focused more on the interpersonal dimension than the technical. That wasn't to say that the risk of arcane infiltration was neglected, but they were more interested in catching potential Person, and Personal, Intelligence weaknesses. That is, the greatest concern on missions like ours was that someone involved had been suborned, blackmailed, turned, or had secretly always been an enemy agent.

However, this was an Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance operation. And the CSR lived and breathed PERSINT, which made their detailed examination of our gear all the more unexpected in its intrusiveness. Their heightened scrutiny was even more disquieting for how entirely transparent their motives, and means, were.

"Remarkably tight, she says." Caenis gave me a look that was not quite withering as her tail flicked. "I suppose knowing Invidia helps," she drawled.

"Tribune Quirinus has known Centurion Nihilus for longer than I," I said mildly. Left unstated was that Mila Caenis had also known Quirinus for just as long.

"That is true." The commander of First Squadron exhaled. "Have your Ritualista brought their tribute to the ship's Spirit Board?"

A scale model of the Tarantula Hawk's Embarkation Deck graced the Landing and Launch Ops with its presence. Four and a half feet long, the model was studded with tokens denoting the status, condition, and, when they were on the ship, location of the carrier's VTOLs, Ritual Plate, and other deployable assets.

The various wooden tokens that represented individual Ritual Plate and VTOLs used magnets to keep their spot on the board even if the carrier pitched and rolled. The winged demoness and plane-shaped tokens had slots to hold markers that denoted their status and condition as well as carrying one other thing.

That was what earned the Spirit Board its appellation. Each intricately-carved token contained a small piece from the air-asset it symbolized.

When receiving VTOLs and RP that were not assigned to their ship, Landing and Launch Ops kept extra tokens in a bucket. They lacked the thaumaturgical linkages but having visual representations of their status and the space they were taking up, was useful.

And it was the thaumaturgical link that was the main benefit. Due to the nature of the tokens used and the number of symbols on the board, the thaumaturgical link was low-bandwidth and its location data dropped precipitously with range, especially past the ship's own wards. However, the link did provide tracking and telemetry data, which was a nice backup to suits' datalink. The limitations suited Landing and Launch Ops just fine. They were less concerned about the greater tactical battlespace, which was Flight Ops' responsibility, and more concerned with making sure the various aircraft and RP coming and going didn't crash into each other or the carrier, and the spirit board gave them another way to prevent midair collisions.

"Optio Gibbs has made the regular collections," I said. "Why?"

Tail flicking, Caenis took another pensive sip of her tea. "It took a bit of doing to get it done for all the Flights under my command," she sighed, her drawl a bit thicker as she took advantage of our comparative privacy to let a touch of her exasperation slip through. "But in the end, we managed it."

"Ah." I noted her careful wording. "Problems with our Fleet allies?"

"It is something you have experience with," Caenis said cryptically, reigning in her accent. Her gaze went across the compartment to where Centurion Lavish RoseTalon was intently listening as her Ritualista team pointed out the repairs they had made to her suit. "Nothing you can't handle, though."

I enjoyed some of my coffee as I considered my reply. I had my issues with the Fleet brew, but it was plentiful, which allowed me to sock my own supplies away for later. "Do you want a training exercise as an object example? Or is this more leveraging my own reputation as the Ace Countess?"

She laughed. "I know you hate the infamy of that appellation almost as much as being called the Jungle Fox. That's why I'm willing to talk to you, but your status is useful." Left unsaid was that we were the same rank, despite me being many years younger than her. While we were both protegees of Tribune Quirinus with considerable honors, I was a countess and daughter of a duchess and Caenis was... not.

My tail swished. I could just take her at face value. I was more than capable of being the opposing-force anvil to her training hammer, but there was more to this. "Mila, we've fought together since Vualia. And while I share your frustration at our high-borne Fliers, it hasn't been a problem until now. Is this about Baroness Candida and her Flight of Fleet brats? Or is there something else awry?"

"Just wanted to catch up and see if you had any final issues as we get ready for lift off," Caenis demurred, shaking her head and sending her blue tresses flipping about, but her tail, flicking with agitation, told another story.

Normally, I would take her at her word. Mila was a professional, an officer, and an adult. As a Legionary Flier, she had more experience in dealing with the politics, friction, and hassle that came with membership in the Legions. Besides, if she really needed someone to talk to then, surely she would go to a friend or a peer to find a shoulder to cry on.

Buying time with a nice long sip of my coffee, I quickly tried to sort out the meat of the situation from the gristle. Mila, Caenis, had known me for quite some time, even if she didn't exactly like me. The other two squadron leaders, Fabia and Julia, were as new to her as they were to me; they could grow into confidants, but that would take time.

Perhaps when it comes to people her own rank, I'm actually the only one readily available? Perhaps… that's why she came to me? Not in spite of our previous relationship, but because of it?

"Standing around isn't very comfortable," I offered, pairing the olive branch with a reassuring smile. "I heard the smoking lounge just got some new chairs as part of its refurbishment."

Caenis blinked, gold eyes focused on me. "You want to go to the smoking lounge?" she asked with slow, deliberate enunciation.

"Regulations are clear that the smoking lamp is only lit with the captain's approval and only when the ship is in the air," I said, a touch smugly. "People looking to indulge their habits right now must resort to one of the hangar's smoking areas."

"And it's just been cleaned with most of the furniture replaced so it doesn't even smell," Caenis noted before laughing. "Fine, sounds like a plan. Lead on, Countess."

Collecting our mugs and stowing them with the other drinking vessels, I gave Lavish a little bow and informed the Ritualista where we were going. The two of us left the compartment, traversed a passageway, and climbed a ladder up to the second deck.

There, the direct route to the smoking lounge was blocked by a corridor closed for maintenance. A group of Fleet ratings had dismounted some decking and the cabling beneath to maneuver up some replacement power conduits, chanting as they levered up the deckplates to access the ratnest of cable boxes below.

A small smile on her face and tail twisting, Caenis paused briefly to listen to their work song. I did have to admit that the shanty's chorus was catchy, if a bit morbid with its reference to how the sisters of a ship's crew would soon be "sleeping in the cold below".

After the detour, it was just a short trip aft a few frames to our destination at the smoking lounge.

Fire was a major concern on any warship, and perhaps on airships most of all. Much like any naval warship, any given airship had plenty of fuels, lubricants, power systems, munitions, paints, and other alchemical compounds aboard that would burn quite happily. Unlike those seaborne vessels, our hull and structure were quite lightweight, which made sealing compartments in the event of a fire a challenge, and we also lacked a functionally unlimited supply of water with which to fight said fires.

At least we did not have to worry about our lifting cells being combustible air bombs unless things went very, very wrong.

That eye for safety made it so that open flames were restricted to certain parts of the ship, mostly kitchens, and specific mechanic's alcoves. It was a very important rule common to airships all across Diyu, given that everyone with demonic ancestry aboard the ship could make their own fire whenever they so pleased. As a result of this abundance of caution, in addition to the presence of more than an average amount of sprinkler systems, the smoking lounge enjoyed two sets of doors, in case one was blocked by fire, and was furnished entirely in non-flammable materials.

Still, the small compartment had a cozy atmosphere despite itself, the couple of couches, the tables, and a bar complete with stools producing a generally welcoming ambiance. Even the furniture was surprisingly comfortable; the chairs had springs and thin coverings that despite their appearance did not feel like plastic. I pushed aside my ponderings on the materials science of the cushions and savored a deep breath. The walls were freshly cleaned, with the smell of paint completely replacing that of smoke. It wouldn't last, but for now the room smelled perfectly clean.

We had the room to ourselves. Caenis sat down after me.

"So," I began, "what's the problem with your baroness?"

"She's not my baroness," Caenis snorted, her drawl coming out in irritation. She exhaled and stood back up. "Drink?" she asked, scanning the mostly bare bar. "Um, water?"

I nodded as she scrounged around and found a couple more cups. I regretted leaving our mugs back in the maintenance bay.

Caenis came over with a pair of metal cups filled with what I thought was lukewarm water. Mine was full of water, but an astringent plum-smelling scent wafted off her cup. Both had been stamped with the crest, name, and hull number of the Tarantula Hawk. I was briefly amused at the idea of Invidia considering such decorations an affront to operational security.

Cup in hand, I gave my fellow Squadron Commander a questioning look.

"I was going off of duty before talking to you anyway," Caenis said, sipping the Fleet-issue rotgut and wincing at the taste. "Ugh! You'd think the prissy Fleet girls would have something worthy of their fancy titles."

"You don't seem to mind other baronesses," I noted, unwilling to be distracted so easily.

Caenis gave me a baleful look. "You keep your LoveBlood on a tight leash."

"Not literally!" I protested, the objection coming to my lips reflexively

That only earned me a smirk from the woman. "Oh?"

I opened my mouth but stopped before I could dig myself down any deeper. I took a sullen sip from my cup, letting the taste of tepid water wash away my thoughts.

After a moment of luxuriating in her own little victory, Caenis's smile eventually fell and she sighed. "It's not her. It's not even really a problem."
"You don't mind other noble pilots."

"Noble Legionary Fliers," Prefect Mila Caenis stressed.

"Ah." I took another sip of tepid water. In many ways, the Fleet was more... political than the Legions. Patronage and social rank were even more important with who you knew and who your mother knew. This wasn't a matter where I was particularly well-placed to throw stones though, given how much my own connections had accelerated my advancement through the ranks. But it did seem that the Legions were a bit more aggressive in finding ways to puncture the pride of spoiled noble brats early on. "Is Primus Baroness Crystal Candida that bad?

"Please!" Caenis snorted, "Spare me. I know you find her to be uptight, cryptic, and needlessly aloof."

I bowed my horns. It was not the most flattering interpretation of my private thoughts on the Primus, but Mila was upset and there was little point in needling her. "Outside of her suit, Primus Candida can be… difficult to work with at times," I admitted, in the spirit of meeting Mila halfway.

"And that qualifier is why I'm gripping to you instead of going through official channels with our Tribune," Caenis replied flatly, tossing back another mouthful of her horrible liquor.

I considered that for a moment. Caenis was close to Quirinus. The Tribune was her mentor as well, which meant that such concerns had already been informally raised. "Do you need someone with a higher social rank?" I quietly asked. I would not be happy with it, but it was something I could do.

"I'm not sure that would make it better. I don't really know these noble games." She looked at the glass. "Really, I just wanted to talk to someone who could understand."

"I mean. I have had to deal with noble nonsense," I admitted.

Taking a sip, Caenis snorted. "Between your baroness and your elevation, yeah."

"Is this about my childhood?"

Caenis shrugged.

I frowned. I did not know much about Mila's life before the Legions. "Is this her first deployment?"

"She's not a greenhorn. She and her Flight have been in a few colonial bushfire postings and before that in Voduri."

"Ah, but have they had a shipboard posting? And not just to a battlewagon that spends most of its time in a hangar or circling around our coast." My tail flicked in thought. "Spending a few months in a flying box tends to smooth off one's edges … Well, that or sharpen them. One or the other."

Mila chuckled. "That is why most of us pilots start with a rotation in the Scouting Branch, crammed asses to elbows on the smallest of airships."

"Well... now mention it, I don't recall Baroness Crystal having any such deployments." She shook her head and stared into the metal cup full of the strong-smelling Fleet-issue liquor. "But that raises questions on why her Flight was even tapped for this in the first place."

"It's supposed to be a fairly short endurance mission," I stated, vocalizing the same response I'd come up with in answer to my own, similar concerns.

"Which goes back to why us? Over fifty BlackSkyvian Ritual Plate isn't very subtle. Why not a Demi-Wing in Alecton export suits? Why not one of our Dissimilar Instructor Wings?"

I nodded. Those units were equipped with Ritual Plate sourced, by various means, from other Houses. Their main role was to provide realistic training for Fleet and Legion Pilots, which meant that not only were they equipped with the RP of other Great Houses, but also that they had studied their tactics and methods.

It was also patently obvious that BlackSkyvians who could pass as foreign Ritual Plate Pilots would be very useful to Invidia and her ilk.

I exhaled. "Clearly, they want our target, whoever they are, to know it was our House who were behind this raid, whatever it will be."

"And why our Demi-Wing?" Mila groused. "We've got a fair number of greenhorns of our own. Your Third Flight and much of Fourth Squadron for starters. I know veteran units are in high demand, but if anyone had enough pull to grab them, you'd think it would be Invidia and her associates."

"It could be they simply drew from what was available." My counterpoint was fairly lackluster. "Alternatively, they want us specifically… But that only raises further questions."

Mila sighed. "Fabia's rookies have been drafting letters."

"Ah." My tail went limp. "Have they at least written wills?"

My fellow Prefect Centurion laughed. "Always so prudent."

"If one is to die in combat then the last letter is a way to tell them your feelings. It is for their benefit, as is making sure that the disbursement of your assets will be properly done."

"My.... Your honor name really should have been Prudentia," Caenis's tail swished as she teased me, before sighing. "If only Fabia's girls took your advice."

I bowed my horns to her. "Let me guess, more poetics and less estate planning?" I asked. I did not want to admit that the most prudent option would be to draft one's last letter back on Mursam just in case the Tarantula Hawk was destroyed, but that would be a bit too grim to state openly.

"Epic poetry, to hear Fabia's quiet complaints. And tedious at that, though, if that helps concentrate a pilot's mind..." Caenis shrugged.

"I'll admit to some... dramatics in the last letters of my more noble Legion Fliers," I shrugged. "I suppose it helps that VioletBlood's view on such things is rather… restrained. She went through her subordinate's letters personally with a red pen and a gleeful expression some might call unbecoming of an officer of the Legions."

"Really? I would have thought she'd well... enjoy an epic poem of glory and tragedy," Caenis leaned back on her chair; her tail flicked in thought. "Ah. Personal experience?"

I nodded. "LoveBlood is a firm believer in the concept that the beneficiaries of a last letter should be those who are still alive, not the maudlin pilot fretting about her mortality."

Caenis gave a morbid little laugh, a half-snorted chuckle. "Fitting. And she is well-placed to deal with your noble greenhorns."

I nodded. "Our Demi-Wing is coalescing nicely, but we could still have used a bit more time."

"And that crunch's truthfully a bigger problem than haughty Fleet nobles," Caenis sighed. "Worse is why CSR wants everyone to know we were behind this raid. Taken together…"

As Caenis drifted off into brooding silence, I wondered if she was less looking for a solution and more for a sympathetic ear. That was an unusual role for me, but I have patiently listened to, and talked down, VioletBlood's various complaints of wounded pride, vainglorious grudges, and spurned attention. If I could endure my fiancee's frankly incredibly petty rants, I could lend a hand to my colleague.

"I won't do anything rash," Caenis assured. I tried not to frown as I surreptitiously glanced down to see if my tail was betraying my emotions.

Before I could see anything, the doors slid open. As I tilted my head to see who had entered, I was met with two surprises: one large, one small.

The small surprise was still rather large. Over twenty pounds of rectangular, leonine cat sauntered into the smoking lounge, swaggering with imperial majesty. One of the ships' cats, the robust feline, rejoiced in a fluffy coat of thick silver fur. Her pale green eyes met mine. Long shaggy tail held high, the cat sauntered straight towards me and then sat down expectantly.

Behind the cat, the larger surprise negotiated his way through the doorway, angling his shoulders and lowering his head to avoid the low-for-him lintel. Thankfully, the Forest Person managed to enter the smoking lounge without so much as a minor head injury and closed the door behind him.

More than occasionally, I'd begrudged my short stature. While I was rather petite, I was still within the normal height distribution for my age, if decidedly towards the lower end of that spectrum. Nonetheless, my lack of stature was an advantage when it came to going down the more claustrophobic passages on Fleet airships. It also helped the bare handful of times I traveled the smaller Legionary ground vehicles. The Nyx scout in particular was notoriously cramped.

And the Fleet did try to make their vessels, at least their sky-borne ones, accommodating to most above-average height Diyu demons. House BlackSky's submarine fleet however was small by many definitions.

Either way, our newest guest, four feet taller than me, had to exert great caution when traversing the Tarantula Hawk's corridors.

"Lares!" I warmly greeted, bowing my horns and trying to ignore the silver-cat's imperious gaze.

"Countess." He nodded to me. "Centurion Gibbs told me where to find you."

Caenis nodded to him. "You were stationed at FOB EmeraldInferno with us two years ago, weren't you?"

The large Forest Person nodded as he looked around for a seat that could handle his bulk. "Aye, it was good to see the end of the Crocelli jungles."

My tail flicked. "Your team is attached to this mission?"

Lares gingerly sat down on one of the couches and we all paused for a moment, waiting for the ominous creak of overstressed furniture. When no such creak was in evidence, I hoped for a moment that the cat would use the opportunity to pester him, instead the feline only stood up, stepped closer to me, and sat back down again, resuming her attempt to stare me down.

"Aye, they are." Lares leaned forward to accept a cup from Caenis, the meager thing looking positively dainty in his giant hand. Noticing my disquiet, his chest rumbled like an earthquake. "I noticed the coincidence too, Countess."

"Does Invidia have anything on you?" Caenis asked bluntly.

He gave a tectonic shrug. "You know how it goes for us Auxilia, especially those with my people's... talents."

"That is what has me concerned," I murmured.

There were relatively few Forest People in the Legion's Auxiliary service, but those few were absolutely invaluable. More than their raw size and strength, their skill with tracking, their naturally high magical aptitude, and of course their ability to turn functionally invisible in woodlands were perennially in high demand. The number of soldiers who could serve as arcane specialists and heavy infantry while also completing infiltration and deep-penetration scouting missions was small, to say the least.

The cat trilled insistently at me, lowered her head, and butted against my leg with a surprising degree of force.

I pulled my leg back and managed not to hiss at the smug little predator. Both Lares and Caenis laughed. Even that cursed cat gave me a smugly aloof look.

"Oh, just pet the poor thing," Caenis sighed.

"She started it! And Lares let her in."

"There are few places denied to the ship's cats," Lares said sagely, "and it's said that being a poor host is bad luck."

I huffed. There were a lot of superstitions around these cats, and for being in a military branch where offerings to spirits were an everyday mundanity that was saying a lot. Ship's cats still retained their vermin killing role, but given their efficacy, that responsibility was practically vestigial. Still, they offered a key companionship role and were a critical part of establishing that a ship was more than just a vessel, it was part of what made it a home. And that allowed for a threshold to form, which was a critical standing magical resonance that acted as a foundation allowing many other arcane constructs to be anchored to the ship.

Looking into the cat's arrogant jade eyes, I fully believed that she was aware of her own importance. Tiring of waiting for an invitation that would never come, she took the opportunity to leap onto my lap, her surprising weight forcing a gasp from my chest at the impact, and then took her sweet time stretching herself out. Having been forced to deal with my fair share of smug nobles, I could honestly say none managed such an effortless air of aloof dominance and superiority as this silver feline did, luxuriating herself on my lap like it was her personal throne.

Then, of all things, she had the gall to look up at me and meow expectantly.

"The baroness will be very cross that I did not take a picture of you and Miss Chippy," Caenis sighed as she reached over to scratch the cat's chin.

The arrogant little monster allowed the offering with lordly disdain but kept her green eyes upon me the whole time.

"Cameras aren't allowed on the Tarantula Hawk," Lares noted.

"I have my ways," Caenis smirked as she continued to pet the cat until Miss Chippy's patience waned. She then studied the Forest Person. "That's an Eastern Province accent?"

"Aye, County Larium to be precise."

"Really?" Caenis gave me a sharp grin. "Isn't that a small world, Countess?" she asked her own Midlands accent thickening.

"She is a fair and proper landlady, Prefect Centurion," Lares assured. "We have discussed business arrangements for our lives after the Legions."

Smiling, Caenis tried to resume petting Miss Chippy. The cat would have none of that, however. "Do tell."

"Just a trifle," I waved off. "How is the family? Last I heard you were on leave and spending some time back home."

Lares nodded. "It was good to catch up and stretch my legs. See some familiar places. I heard you were stationed in the capital."

I shrugged. "I was. It had its positives, but it was very busy."

Lares laughed. "You going to play the provincial country noble?"

"Why not? I am from Eastern Province," I retorted.

Even the cat looked up, as if she were taking the opportunity to register her doubts.

Caenis seemed to study us. "If it's no trouble me asking; what business have you two considered?"

"No trouble at all, Ma'am," Lares bowed his head. "Some timber assay, it'd be foolish for the countess to not reach out to the Forest People in her county for a lumber concession, but mostly mushroom farming."

Blinking, Caenis turned to me.

"It's an underutilized resource and there are plenty of varieties available in County Larium. Not just culinary too, but plenty of medicinal varieties as well." I crossed my arms, not at all haughtily.

"Well... it's not as bad as the underground resources in the county I hail from."

"Northeast Midlands?" Lares ventured.

"Silas County." Caenis looked down into her cup then made her way back to the bar for a refill. Her bangs and wings rustled a bit; it seemed her Zephyr were a bit upset.

Lares nodded in recognition.

As that locale was unfamiliar to me, I attempted to indulge Miss Chippy with a belly rub. The gesture placated the beast, momentarily, then the claws came out because of course nothing would ever truly satisfy the damnable girl.

"I take it you've never had the pleasure?" Caenis asked me, as I nursed a finger. "I'm surprised your friend knows of it."

"There's some good timber in that area, hard to get to," Lares' deep voice grumbled. "It's more kitsu territory though. My folk tend to be more in the southern half of the Midlands."

His tone was offhand but I could tell he was a bit affronted. That made some sense; the Kitsune and the Forest People had cherished a rivalry for centuries, and though most of its heat had long since dwindled, the shades lingered. Both preferred similar woodland terrain and both served in the Legions as Auxilia Scouts. To tell the truth, I had been a bit relieved when Reinhild peacefully agreed to stay here on Mursam. Forest People and Kitsune conflict aside, I was not going to be the kind of snooty officer who insisted on a spare bunk so she could bring a servant. I was already pushing my luck far enough with my billeting situation; I didn't need to make matters worse by indulging in true excess. I wondered if Lares could smell Reinhild's lingering scent. The Forest People did have excellent noses, even by Diyu standards.

Caenis, however, merely shrugged and offered to refill his cup.

Lares nodded before continuing. "Course, timber's only a small part of what the northern hill counties are known for. That's coal country ain't it?"

I turned to Caenis. She gave me an even look. "I was young and well... Momma got laid off from the mines and it was either the Legions or...." She took a sip of her liquor. "There ain't much work out in Silas County. I suppose the Church helps, but they don't go out into the hollers. The hill-folk still hew to the old ways. And while the current Countess of Silas is in the pocket of the mining guilds, she knows how things go out in the Midlands."

"I'm sorry?" I said, trying to keep the uncertainty out of my voice as I hoped she was looking for a sympathetic statement.

Caenis snorted. "Don't be. I told you, I know you're not a spoiled brat. Besides, once the recruiters tested me and found I could pilot well... that made things a peck easier."

The way her spirits riled about the room, however, put her words into doubt.

"Did they?" Lares asked. Even he noticed the brief gust of wind in the compartment.

"Well, I got the fancy Volantes flashes on my uniform." Caenis's smile was rueful. "I suppose this way I'm a more direct part of the BlackSkyvian war machine."

"Mostly bituminous coal?" Lares asked after a moment's thought.

I raised a brow, about to get myself involved in the topic now that it was sliding into something I could sink my teeth into, when the cat pressed her head into my hand again, insistent upon my attention.

"Aye humble, soft steam coal, powering industry." Caenis saluted with her cup. "Silas county had a small anthracite vein to the west. And a couple... other... things. But that wasn't the trouble, not that trouble, no the real trouble was over twenty years ago after the miners went on strike after some breaker girls got flogged..."

The officer was quiet for a moment. "The old countess called in mercenaries from Ixia Province. And then the rail line they were traveling was blown a hundred miles down from the pass through the Vyhraj mountains."

Lares gave a sad nod.

"I'm guessing by people who had a grievance and access to explosives?" I ventured while evading a clawed paw batting at me.

Caenis gave a bitter smile. "The Legions had to be called in before the mine was set aflame."

That caused the tension in the room, already dense as coastal fog, to crystallize fully. House BlackSky was ruled by an Imperatrix; we were the Imperial Legions. As a territory, the Midlands was technically Imperial lands as opposed to the Household lands of proper provinces.

All of that was true. What was also true was that, when it came to domestic issues, Imperatrix BlackSky preferred a light touch. Light, at least, by Diyu standards. Sending in the Legions on the other hand, was anything but.

Mila laughed at our expressions. "Oh, come now. What do you think happened? That they lined the railbeds with impaled strikers?"

"That's what Luxon does," I stated plainly, drawing on my lessons on the internal politics of the other Great Houses.

Caenis nodded, as if bowing to my expertise. I did hail from the border with House Luxon, after all.

"That's… fair enough, I suppose." Caenis began to draw herself up, only to deflate into a weary sigh. "I understand where you're coming from, but no, Countess." She carefully stated, her Midlands accent once again passing from her voice like the sun behind clouds. "No one was nailed up on the crossbars. It was all quite bloodless. In fact, even the old Countess Silas was found strangled, and the position fell to her estranged niece."

"The mining guild lackey?" Lares inquired.

"The same," Caenis confirmed. "But Midlands Mines and Refineries are greedy, not stupid. This is their one chance, and if they screw up again..."

"The Imperatrix seizes the mines?" I asked, giving my fellow officer a critical look. I wondered if her mentioning an ambitious noble murdered under questionable circumstances was, in part, a lesson to me.

"It wouldn't be the first time. And now the Guilds and the new countess are in the same spot as the rest of us, caught between the Imperatrix and what's out in the hills."

I nodded. Even BlackSky herself left much of the empty places of her House be, for they were never truly empty, and one did not become a millennia old demonic empress without gaining the wisdom to let the silent hills lie.

Caenis gave a shrug and then picked at her uniform. "Still, I don't exactly flaunt my dress blacks when I go back home for a visit, if you get my meaning. My family might be happy enough to use the Legion and Fleet Bank branch that was opened when the new countess came into office, but, well… it's just not good taste to push any further."

"I could see why," I nodded. "And as for the banks, that's a sensible choice as well; their loans have quite reasonable terms."

The L&F Bank started out as a pension system for Legionaries and Fleet sailors. It grew in scope into a member cooperative with a nonprofit charter that became one of the House's more pervasive, if quite conservative, banking and investment organizations.

"Well, it ain't much of a secret where that reduced usury comes from," Caenis shrugged, her drawl rising up again.

By limiting those who could make use of their financial services, it was said the L&F Bank could offer more favorable loans. The truth was a bit more complex and dealt with the fact that they were the default bank that handled the Imperial Legion and Household Fleet's payroll in addition to their pensions, which was a considerable amount of guaranteed business.

"The Guild and the nobles weren't the only ones being given a warning," Lares grumbled.

Caenis gave a little nod. "The Imperatrix was very gracious. There were many pardons."

"With the understanding that next time they may not be so forthcoming?" I sighed and resumed petting the irritable fluffy monster that had claimed my personal space. "At least there was minimal waste."

Lares eyed me.

"I'm talking about people's lives!" I huffed.

Caenis huffed a breath that was half a laugh, half stress release. "Though not wasting a mine full of top-grade coal is also nice."

Receiving a small measure of gratitude from the cat, I petted Miss Chippy anew. I wondered if a full survey had been done of that part of Midlands Territory. Coal deposits rarely happen in a vacuum, there could be other things deep underground: possibly more fuels or precious minerals, or rare metals. However, Silas County was not my responsibility, and I had enough on my plate.

I also did not pity the new Countess of Silas, given the figurative sword that hung over her head. Juggling the interests of local townies, country gangs, hill-folk, guilds, and her own greed and desire for power would be precarious. All made worse by the fact that the Imperatrix had made it known that she, or more accurately, her agents, were watching things.

Thankfully, my mother had given me a calm and easy county to administer. I gave Lares a grateful nod.

The Forest Person coughed and sipped from his stamped metal cup.

"If you do need help with Primus Baroness Candida you need only ask," I assured Caenis.

Flicking her tail, she gave me a thin smile.

Glancing between us, Lares then pointedly looked down at his cup.

"Oh, don't worry," I assured. "It is just some inter-service rivalry."

"Speaking as someone who is neither Fleet nor Legion, I thank you for the heads up," Lares said as he pulled at the dark green of his uniform tunic. "I have enough to deal with training up my team."

"Congratulations on the promotion, by the way." I bowed my head to him. Then I paused and mulled it over. "That is, if you wanted it, anyway."

It was a rare mission that would have just one Forest Person. The Tarantula Hawk only had about a hundred slots for the ground mission.

"They're good lads, and are used to the training, as odd as it is."

Caenis and I gave him a level look. Though the sobriety of my expression was marred when that infernal cat decided to nip at my hand.

Lares leaned back, trying to get as comfortable as his size could allow in the, to him, cramped compartment. "The four of us have been training on a lot of varied terrain and climates. Fortunately, they're all compatible with our strengths."

"Ah, so we're going to a place that has trees. That narrows it down... technically," Caenis gave an amused huff.

Lares shrugged apologetically. "I can't speculate much. It is a nice change of pace from sweltering jungles, but that you are here is... reassuring but also..."

"Ominous?" I said while trying to get the cat off my lap. Miss Chippy felt like a fuzzy sack of leaden flour on my legs. "The reaction was similar on our part."

"Bunks could be worse," he admitted.

"Really?" Caenis asked.

"Yeah, had to get some longer beds and we're in a compartment that normally sleeps eight, but I've had worse billets."

"We all have." I snorted, giving up trying to dislodge the cat.

The cat, sensing victory, looked up at me with wide green eyes, and let out a long, loud, demanding meow. I tried to ignore her.

"Quite so, Countess," Caenis gave me a coy look.

"What? It's great that they can get some bunks that aren't too small for them." I frowned as the needy silver cat meowed again, arching her back and demanding her scratches.

"I suppose, and you don't seem too surprised that one can get large bunks on this ship."

My tail flicked. "I... suppose not."

Lares tilted his head.

"As senior staff for the Ritual Plate Demi-Wing, we get officer billets. Two to a compartment," Caenis explained, daring me to correct her.

The Forest Person seemed only vaguely interested. "Privilege comes with rank. Did you get large bedding, Countess?"

I shook my head. "No, that would make it more cramped..." I winced.

Caenis chortled.

"You share a bunk with Quirinus!" I cried.
"Yes, but, I prefer having the compartment closer to the baths."

I had to give her that. A ship the size of the Tarantula Hawk may not have the relatively palatial bathing faculties of a fleet carrier or larger, but they were comfortable enough.

"And I'm not engaged to the Tribune," Caenis added airily.

I did not flush. "There are five of us; being the odd officer out, it was rational for me to take in other pilots. That we are engaged is immaterial; we're all Legion, so sharing bunks isn't anything new."

"Oh, I wouldn't dare presume anything untoward was going on with you sharing a compartment with your lovely Vs." Caenis's warm laugh turned bittersweet. "Leaving a mate, or two, home when you go to war isn't great, but neither is bringing them with you. But you can make that choice. In a way... I'm a bit jealous." She emptied the cup. "And it's not like you have any broodlings, yet."

"Mila, is this really appropriate? I haven't even! That is...." My eyes darted around the compartment to look for assistance. Lares's craggy face was set with mild confusion as if the tribulations of Diyu demons were incomprehensible to him, and Miss Chippy had rolled over and looked up at me with the absolute smugness that only felines were capable of.

Giving a light chuckle, Caenis shook her head. "Oh, if you insist. I'm not teasing you. You're hardly the first officer to be in your position."

Lares gave another vague shrug. I did not blame him. Doubtless, he was glad to be a step removed from us "crazy demons".

Caenis held up her hand, her gold eyes sober. "I am not mocking you. Yes, you are a teenager, but you're still a bit young. If you're showing restraint with your betrothed, that is your choice and is none of my business. We all know you're quite the ascetic, so this type of self-denial is an admirable gesture of piety."

I stared at her. "That's not why..." I put a hand to my forehead and then shrugged. I was well into my teens. In less than a year I would be at the normal age for enlistment in the Legions. "I'm not that devout."

My comrade gave me a level look. "Countess, I'm a bit worried at the type of zealot you would consider to be religious."

I sighed, reaching for some way to get her to understand. "I was raised in a Church orphanage and one of my mothers is a nun."

Caenis looked skeptical. Miss Chippy gave me a far more judgmental expression, but that was because, apparently, I was petting the wrong part of her back.

"Is it really a big deal?" I asked. "Communal bedding is the norm isn't it?" It was not my experience, but I was orphaned at a young age and I was only adopted on my twelfth birthday. And while VioletBlood was also an orphan, Visha did come from a large family.

"It's not strange at all," Caenis assured. "And we've all spent time in the barracks."

Lares tried to look supportive but was clearly out of his depth.

Giving me a bored look, Miss Chippy rolled over before jumping off my lap and back down onto the floor. Walking over, she went to the door and gave it a scratch. Tail high, Miss Chippy turned to look at me and gave an imperious meow.

Sighing, I stood up and moved to let the ship's cat out.

When I did, I realized I had silver fur all over my uniform.


Rolling a bit, I got into a more comfortable position in the middle of our bunk. The Tarantula Hawk was underway and the gentle rolling of its cruising through calm skies was hypnotic, almost as much as VioletBlood's snores. Sprawled out, the taller noble took up most of the bedding in our small compartment. I was actually laying on one of her splayed wings and had to keep nudging her legs and tail aside with my foot.

After a couple more minutes I put down the latest edition of the Journal on Air Combat. Visha had already abandoned her own maintenance logs and was giving drowsy murmurs. I steeled myself. While VioletBlood would often give a credible impression of a poorly-lubricated band-saw crossed with an amorous octopus, Visha tended to roll, talk, and even get punchy in her sleep. Her wings were the worst offenders. Most nights they would pop out, and at full extension, they could fill the entire room. VioletBlood's, at least, were easy to control, Visha's were just as chaotic as the rest of her sleeping form.

The arrangement was far from the luxurious bacchanalia that Caenis implied.

I would not deny that I found their company... comforting. One snorer and one flailer each was certainly a mighty improvement from the old days. I had been nothing but honest in agreeing that we'd shared far worse billets before. Compared to the Rhine front or the Crocelli jungles, sharing a bunk with people who merely slept loudly whilst flailing their limbs was a treat and downright relaxing. Fatigue and stress were going to erode our effectiveness during this mission if we were not careful, though.

Many of my subordinates had already begun displaying textbook signs of stress these last few days. The 78th Infantry Legion's Epsilon Demi-Wing had boarded the Tarantula Hawk without knowing our mission or destination. Thankfully, I had so far managed to distract my pilots and Ritualista from their justifiable worries with training and exercises. I was hardly the only one feeling the strain, however; the last few days had seen a continuation of the assault carrier's earlier shakedown cruises, only now with the ship fully crewed.

Meanwhile, Invidia would only answer questions about our mission profile with hollow platitudes about how we would be fully informed just as soon as was practical. That we had teleported from Mursam to Vikram, one of our smaller colonies, earlier today would have been a good opportunity for the CSR spook and her associates to illuminate us. Instead, we'd had another "impromptu" exercise to contend with. Though this was a step up, with the Tarantula Hawk's Ritual Plate, VTOL, and Infantry assets all being deployed from the carrier for the first time, all to an islet seemingly picked at random.

The whole tempo of this operation filled me with a disquiet I dared not openly express. Even in this compartment, I was loath to upset my Vs. Tomorrow's schedule seemed relatively free of training exercises, which had less stress, but might result in more idleness among my subordinates.

Tossing the journal over to the small vanity, desk, and table, with a sink hidden under the hinged surface, I stared at the ceiling and shifted my wings. Visha had taken the blanket while LoveBlood had pulled the sheets. At least both were warm and comfortable enough to serve as proxy bedding, especially supplemented by my own wings. Though that had its own cost as my Vs, unsatisfied with taking the blankets and sheets, would then make use of my feathered wings as a defacto comforter. It did, however, seem to help them calm down and stop being so fidgety when they slept, plus the action provided me with additional warmth. The ergonomics involved made it a bit uncomfortable but our situation was overall quite efficient and gave me an entirely rational sense of satisfaction.

Visha's murmurings quieted down to a purring rumble and a quiet snore, and while VioletBlood was still snoring, her saw-like grating had also shifted into a lower register. At least they were easier to keep happy than Miss Chippy or any of the other arrogant ship's cats prowling aboard the assault carrier.

Above my head, various pipes and conduits snaked, all with color coded paint. There were also sprinkler heads, the speaker for the ship's Primary Circuit, and hooks for straps and tie-downs. I could only imagine the quantity and variety of head wounds Lares would sustain, should he attempt to walk unbowed through the cabin.

Concentrating, I could hear the tick of my pocket watch over two snores and three sets of purrs. I felt my eyes get heavy and slipped into a perfect moment of comfort and warmth.

A moment that, sadly, was not to last.

My clock began to jingle as a tiny bell within started to ring. Giving a little snarl, I stretched my tail and used the fins to flick the watch off the vanity. It flew towards the bunk and would have hit VioletBlood in the neck if not for my wing intercepting it and tumbling the ringing timepiece into my waiting hand.

With a twist of the knob, the alarm ceased and I began the process of untangling myself from my betrothed. There were some murmured protests and some grasping at me, but, with reluctance, I slipped out of the suspended bed and stood up.

I went to one of the lockers and pulled out some clothes before securing the vanity's counter and lifting it up to access the sink. While I did have time for a quick shower, the three of us made use of the starboard baths before having some downtime.

Fortunately, I was well acquainted with cleaning up using nothing more than a bit of water and a towel. Some cleaning gel did help. A brush got my hair to an... acceptable state. Satisfied, I pulled on my uniform. Once dressed, I inspected my pants, tunic, and sash. Everything was a bit ill-fitting, slightly wrinkled, and out of place. I concentrated at my reflection and things started to shift a bit as creases sharpened and the drape of my uniform corrected itself. Tying my Preserver Order award around my neck I inspected myself in the polished metal mirror.

I suppose there are some advantages to being part of a species and culture that had access to sartorial and cosmetic magics.

Soon enough, Visha woke up and murmured a greeting.

"Don't forget you and VioletBlood have a Flight Leader meeting in an hour," I said as I checked her watch to make sure the alarm was set.

"I won't forget," she languidly said, rolling over to watch me as I finished touching up my appearance.

"Good. Make sure LoveBlood and Lucia behave," I nodded to her with a smile as we both seemed amused at the still-snoring VioletBlood. All in all, I actually felt reasonably refreshed, in addition to well-rested when I left the compartment.

Signifier GreyDawn was waiting for me in the corridor. The senior non-commanding pilot in my Squadron saluted, fingers to exposed neck.

I returned the salute and eyed her. She was also in full Legion blacks. Typically, when about ship-board or equivalent duties, pilots would wear an unbuttoned jacket or tunic over an inner flight suit. Technically unofficial, longstanding tradition allowed for it as it allowed a pilot to be suited up that much faster.

The tall grey-skinned woman gave me a respectful nod, but there was a hint of amusement in her eyes.

"You seem quite chipper this morning," I remarked by way of greeting. The Tarantula Hawk was running on a universal Diyu time synchronized to the capital. But I could see why the Fleets, and Legions, based on Mursam would synchronize to that day cycle.

There were still some old-salts in Fourth Fleet who bemoaned this change; a couple decades back the Colonial Fourth Fleet and the Fifth Landing Fleet used Mursam time. I maintained it was far better now that all eight fleets had the same timekeeping, even if it made it so Fleet officers had to use two clocks on Mursam. That was inevitable with off-world operations, as we were currently on Vikram, a colony with its own length of day and seasons.

"Long experience has shattered my normal sleep-cycle and sense of time," GreyDawn stated with such a casual deadpan that it was only due to our long acquaintanceship that I could tell my subordinate was joking.

This portion of the ship was mostly accommodations for my Squadron's pilots with Ritualista nearby. As we went aft down the corridor, I noticed a higher than normal number of people lingering about. The tiny recreation area, really an alcove bench seating built into the walls and a couple of tables right by the baths, was crammed with a surprising number of my people, particularly surprising considering the early 'morning' hour.

They all seemed a bit amused, but very respectful and... happy for me?

I gave GreyDawn a quizzical look.

"It's not the first time we've all billeted in close quarters," she stated.

That much was true. Senior pilots slept two to a room, myself excepted. Typical line pilots slept four in a room that was a bit larger. And Ritualista, not including Gibbs and her seniors, were in the more general eight to a compartment.

The lack of privacy for most of the ship's complement was why the ship had a number of "recreation" rooms that could be signed out to allow for some private time among crew and others on the ship. In abstract, given our culture, I could see the importance of morale and as an officer, I did have a number of passes that I could distribute to my subordinates.

I told myself it was no different than giving out weekend passes when stationed base-side. I was not naive; I knew the kinds of entertainments Legionaries would get up to.

"Speaking of, now that we're underway, are there any issues?" I asked after we went down a ladder to the Embarkation Deck.

"There's no excessive use of the Squadron liquor stock," GreyDawn said.

"And the gambling?"

GreyDawn looked down at me and blinked as we stepped to the side to let a team of Fleet pipe-fitters pass. "Visha didn't tell you?"

"She mentioned that Adriana and Cardino were cut down a couple notches at yesterday's card game."

"Nothing too bad," GreyDawn assured. She paused seeing my cross expression and crooked tail. "But when they and the rest of Flight Three get done with their Combat Air Patrol, those two may want a rematch."

Lucia's Flight and the Fleet Flight were currently out on patrol. Virkam was friendly territory, which was why we had only two Flights airborne. Two more flights from First Squadron were suited up near the Catapults in Standby. Where in theory they could launch to provide backup and by more time for the rest of the RP Pilots to suit-up.

I shook my head as we resumed walking aft. "Do be careful."

"Of course, Ma'am. I won't do anything reckless."

"She didn't clean them out?" I asked, a bit surprised that the two would even have anything to do a rematch with.

"I wouldn't say that," GreyDawn's tone was carefully neutral.

I rubbed my forehead. "I'll have a word with Visha,"

"As you say, Ma'am."

"If they're looking to get even and get their pride back.... Well, Adriana is more than willing to use her charms," I cautioned.

GreyDawn gave me a dry look. "Of course, Ma'am."

I laughed to myself. "I presume you're more than experienced in dealing with young hot-shot pilots."

"Somewhat," she allowed. My senior pilot seemed still amused at the concept of Adriana trying to seduce her, or at least use favors in exchange for leniency at the card table.

"Anything else? How's the rumor mill?" I asked as we went past one of the Legionary staging compartments. I noted a handful of Broadcast Recon were chatting with a couple of Lares's Forest Scouts. The tactical teleportation specialists had an almost ethereal air as they moved which, despite the large size of the Forest People, was something they had in common.

"There's plenty of wild chatter, but no firm scuttlebutt. Some of the pilots think it's ill-omened that we're traveling alone."

I made a vague grunt of acknowledgment. It was a bit odd that the Tarantula Hawk was traveling without escort, scouts, or cargo support.

"I think some Fleet superstitions are rubbing off," GreyDawn admitted.

"Just grumbling?" I asked. As the senior non-commanding pilot in my Squadron, GreyDawn was a mentor figure for many.

"Not even that, more like vague muttering. I've been pointing out that we're bound to rendezvous with other elements and it's likely that scouts are already in play."

"Well, we'll know soon enough," I concluded with a shrug. "What about the Ventus Centurions?"

"VTOL Pilots are easy to keep happy."

"As long as we give them good escort they'll be happy with us. But they might have heard more about this mission."

We entered into a staging compartment. This one took up most of the width of this part of the starboard side of the airship and had a set of massive doors on the aft wall. There were rows of crates and other bits of cargo tied down to the deck. This compartment and its mirror on the port side were used for staging vehicles.

"It's interesting that we're carrying the VTOLs we are," GreyDawn noted.

"Oh?" The Tarantula Hawk carried two Umbra Medium VTOLs.

"Yeah, if they skipped out on the bigger VTOLs we have... nine, maybe ten Spathas total. They'd be easier to hide and we'd have more airframes."

"You think it's because the mission will need something that big?"

GreyDawn shrugged. "The Umbra can do a lot that a Spatha can't, like delivering an Arachne artillery system, a Nymph Light utility vehicle, a Nyx stealth scout, or even one of the rumored Eris project vehicles."

"The Eris is real," I assured her.

"Not like we're bringing one of those to this mission. I suppose it's a good thing CSR didn't think we needed an infantry support gun," GreyDawn nodded.

Based on the Nymph and Nyx hull, the purported Eris was a tracked vehicle armed with the same caliber gun as the Vestal scout tank or the Triarii IFV. However, unlike those vehicles, the Eris Project, in order to fit in an Umbra, was very small and lightly-armored.

"I have my misgivings about the concept, but I can see the appeal," I admitted.

"Right, right. It's an eggshell with a hammer but it'll be able to fit on a ubiquitous workhorse of a VTOL instead of the unwieldy Gladius and Pugio heavy VTOLs the rest of our armored vehicles require to be transported." GreyDawn frowned. "You're thinking about commanding combined arms, Ma'am? Should we be fitting you for a Legate's scepter?"

I glared at my subordinate.

"Of course, Ma'am." She bowed her horns. "Your point stands. Instead of a couple armored vehicles, CSR has decided a couple Squadrons of Sarpedona RP is good enough."

I shrugged. "This mission seems to have a light ground footprint. The only ground vehicles we've got are some Marius Mules."

The remote-operated Golem strider was a Legion mainstay.

A group of maintenance crew and Ritualista were going from Mule to Mule with a set of tools and diagnostic equipment. Most of the models were the basic half-ton cargo hauler, which could also double as a stretcher carrier. Though a good number had eight-shot Vel Missile launchers. A fact I couldn't help but find interesting.

GreyDawn gave me a look.

"Was this one of the rumors?"

"Just something I noticed," Prefect Fabia HarrowFang said as we approached. Slipping a small pulp-novel away in a pocket of her flight suit, the Sarpedona Pilot eyed the collection of anti-air assets. "Yes, there's about an equal number in the other staging bay."

"Call it eight launchers? Sixty missiles?" I said, pondering. "That's not a bad impromptu air defense network."

Especially not when the speed and ease of deployment was taken into consideration. The advantage of a Mule was that it could basically be kicked out of a landing VTOL and sent to scurry off and it would connect and set up a network then and there. Even so, that was a lot of Mules to bring down. On the other wing, these were cheap enough that they could be scuttled in place.

"And if they bring reloads?" GreyDawn asked. A Mule could carry two sets of reloads, but the reload packs, and indeed the missiles that would go in the launchers, were stored in a different magazine. One that was more secure, fire resistant, and sporting a collapsible floor that could easily jettison the munitions in an emergency.

Fabia nodded. "Then add that there's at the very least our four Squadrons. That's quite an abundance of scrying data to feed into the missiles."

"They expect the ground team's mission to be at risk of an aerial counterattack," I nodded. "That implies a longer mission or... that our target is close to a base or ship with reinforcements."

"Or maybe they'll be using the Vels as ground-to-ground missiles," GreyDawn suggested. The Vel was not particularly well-suited against heavily-armored vehicles, but it could serve in that role if it had to. If nothing else, the sheer volume of fire would make up for its deficiencies.

As an air-to-ground close air support specialist, Fabia looked affronted for a moment. However, she took a moment to ponder and her eyes widened. "So... instead of a mass air counter-attack, you think we risk a counter of enough ground forces that two Sarpedona Squadrons will need to call upon a hundred missiles as fire support?"

GreyDawn shrugged. "Maybe either option is likely, Ma'am. Hence using a flexible, if sub-optimal, platform."

"True enough. Anyway, I was out here waiting for our meeting," Fabia said, absently patting the pocket where she stashed her book. "But there's one other thing." She led us over and pointed to one of the missile launcher Mules and one of the cargo variants. Both had extra prongs attached to the articulated footpads at the end of their spindly legs.

"Ice treads. And cold weather gear," GreyDawn noted and gestured to some extra insulation built onto the joints and anti-icing features on the scrying systems All were features that took up extra weight and complexity and were thus omitted unless... unless they were needed.

Harp's World did have polar regions and their northern hemisphere was having winter right now. That did narrow down our possible targets somewhat…

Unless, of course, Invidia was playing some CSR game within a game, and the ice gear was just another nested bluff… But that way lay insanity.

"That fits with the last few training sessions," I added, pulling myself back on track. Our exercises had run a gambit of environmental conditions, but there had been a pronounced tendency towards storms, heavy winds, and cold across the last few. Part of that was admittedly bias, as clear days with unlimited ceiling and no precipitation did not make the training harder and were thus less memorable, but still...

Fabia nodded. "Right, which is why I'm curious what scenarios the VTOL Pilots have been running."

"Speaking of... tomorrow is pretty much clear of training missions for us," I noted.

"Perhaps Quirinus has an all-hands debrief planned? I heard from a Fleet Steward that the big briefing room was reserved for most of yesterday. She and her team are going to have to square everything away early in the morning," Fabia offered.

"Maybe," I allowed. Our Demi-Wing did have enough pilots that it would require a good-sized room to accommodate everyone. However, it was not Quirinus's style to have that be a surprise. Is the Tribune here yet?"

Fabia shook her head. "I think she's talking with the ship's captain. Julia will warn us when she gets down here."

I looked to the aft doors.

Tail flicking, Fabia seemed to weigh my unstated question: How much did the VTOL pilots know about this mission?

An experienced centurion, GreyDawn took a discreet step back and faded into the background, content to let the officers hash it out.

"Quirinus wouldn't object if we just talk with our fellow pilots, and besides she might get delayed; you know how the brass-horns are."

I pointedly did not say that as a Tribune, Quirinus counted as a brass-horn herself.

Fabia frowned.

"We could go to the aft ventral observation station," GreyDawn offered. "That's up in VTOL country, but wouldn't have us directly intruding on our Tribune's meeting. And we would be ideally placed where a runner could find us if she is regrettably detained, and we must start the meeting without her."

"Well put, Signifier." Fabia bowed her horns to GreyDawn. "I see the countess has an eye for talent."

"I have been with her since she made Flight Leader," GreyDawn respectfully stated.

"No, you can't poach her," I said with a smile as we went to the aft of the compartment. The giant vehicle-sized doors had smaller ones inset in their frame and we passed through them.

The Tarantula Hawk's aft hangar was the largest compartment in the ship. Running the full width of the lower deck and tall enough to fit an Umbra VTOL, the space was roughly a square two hundred feet to a side. The aft-most corners were chamfered and there were a few other areas where the compartment was trimmed, as the space was within an airship. As large as this space was, it was utterly dwarfed by the equivalent compartments in Nova Fleet Carriers and other vessels in that displacement range or larger.

At the very aft of the space on the ship's centerline were the doors and landing track for the ship's VTOLs. And to our side, and mirrored on the port of the ship was one of the angled launch doors. The immense room was full of activity as dozens of crew and maintainers worked around the five VTOLs carried aboard.

Even tied down to the deck they looked sleek and aggressive. The standard model Spatha and Umbra VTOLs were the Legion and Fleet's doughty utility transports. They were armed and could provide ground support, their primary role was moving troops, vehicles, and materiel.

These were different. While most of the vehicles in BlackSkyvian inventory had various semi-active camouflage systems it was far from invisibility. Those were generally more of a type of bulk color-matching with contrasting segments that helped blend a vehicle and break-up its silhouette and shape.

Veiling systems provided a broader range of stealth, and at their higher levels could render functional invisibility. Instead of the normal rust-red and splotchy grey paintjob of a standard VTOL, this Squadron was coated in a sullen almost-matte dark-violet that, despite seeming to absorb the overhead lights, still gave off an iridescent sheen that formed rainbows arcing over the hulls.

I suspected the strange effect was due to some arcane property of the surface materials manifesting even in their unpowered state. When their Veil projectors were powered up these aircraft could vanish like a heat-shimmer. While I had plenty of scrying data on how their Veiling systems performed, as to their exact mechanisms I had little but speculation and suspicions.

"I'm almost jealous," Fabia said as we walked on the edge of the hangar, careful to stay clear of any tool trucks, maintainers, fuel bowsers, parts carts, and other hazards.

"I do wonder how much more expensive all of these accessories make them compared to the standard model," I said as we made our way to the observation post.

"I'm just noting that between the Tarantula Hawk herself, the VTOLs, and the ground crew... we're the only assets who don't have extra secret spook stealth on-board," GreyDawn's tone was dry.

"We've already got Veiling systems on our suits. Maybe that's sufficient?" Fabia shrugged with an admirable degree of seeming indifference.

Indifferent or otherwise, she was correct, at least by the standards of "the book". BlackSkyvian doctrine mandated a baseline Veiling capability on all suits and to upgrade with each iterative advancement. I supposed MuArc Amalgamated or maybe Imperial Blimp and Freight's Tactical Aviation Division was using those scans my Flight got from the Elenese Volos stealth suits last year as part of that work.

GreyDawn appraised me with a thoughtful look as we reached the aft ventral observation post. I was not sure why she was focused on me. I was just one of about fifty.

"Or…" Fabia mused as we went down the half-deck to the actual lowest part of the ship, "maybe the quieter suits are already there?"

"I would be shocked if a Venture with a few Occultia wasn't already lurking somewhere near the target," I said.

The Occultia was a rather quiet suit, primarily to make a hard-to-detect passive scrying platform. While the Occultia was armed and could work in a stealth combat role, it was not the best use of a rare platform that required specialized pilots.

"No one would send a squadron of Occultia in a ground support or escort role, let alone two. That's a malicious waste of resources," Fabia snorted, echoing my thoughts.

"But an Occultia with the advanced scrying systems stripped out might be useful..."

I shrugged as we entered the observation post. There were rumors about a so-called "Occultia Light" as a sort of very quiet, very expensive, and somewhat anemic stealth raider. "Even without the scrying it would still be a rather expensive platform, and as Elena found out with the Volos you have to pick between high level Veiling and combat maneuver power or active weapons. Everything is a trade-off, there are no magic bullets."

GreyDawn turned from looking out the windows to blink at me. At least her concern was subdued enough to not undermine my authority in front of another officer.

Fabia also gave a slight laugh. "Countess, all of the Legion's bullets are magic. Or at least have an alchemical core." She held up a hand as if to forestall my correction. "Yes, training rounds are inert. It would be a waste otherwise."

"Well yes, but that's not what the phrase means..."

"I know," Fabia replied, waving off my protestations. "I'm just having fun." She went back to the sight below us.

Like most Fleet airships, the Tarantula Hawk had a handful of ventral observation posts. Some were built near the caissons for the ship's landing gears, others, like this one, were placed with an unobstructed view.

Landing and Launch Ops kept an observer here to monitor the approach vectors of various incoming, and outgoing craft: Ritual Plate, of course, VTOLs using the aft landing gate, and any heavier craft docking via the ventral well deck in the middle of the airship just forward of this position.

The position was staffed. A Fleet Airship, especially a carrier, nearly always had some assets in the air. During lulls between heavier operational tempos, the observation post was generally kept half-staffed, and the empty seating provided off-duty crew with something like a de facto lounge.

As long as no one distracted the observers, and the post did not get crowded, we would be allowed to make use of the space. Oh, there was some excuse that tried to justify pilots having an interest in the area. We were, after all, the ones who would interface with Landing and Launch Ops and clearly just wanted to make sure the observers and their tools were working properly.

But everyone knew the real reason we had come here to linger. A little unspoken agreement that, as long as everyone played their part, left everyone walking away satisfied.

And as such, these posts ended up being a place for pilots to hang out. I preferred the bow observation post, and that was not just because Ritual Plate country was at the front of the ship. Though I would not deny that there was something satisfying about seeing RP Pilots being launched out of the ship's Catapults.

Similarly, the aft observation posts were more the domain of the VTOL Pilots.

There were two Imperial Legion Ventus Centurions who had taken one of the spare seats and were looking down at the rolling deserts below us.

Vikram was generally considered a relatively wet world with grasslands that rolled down into considerable marshlands and fens before reaching coastal bayous. But that was only a part of the world. Yes, that was the area that had the most settlements, but Vikram had a gambit of biomes. Biomes such as the desert we now found ourselves over.

"We're not staying by the coast?" GreyDawn quietly asked. "We had a pretty good jump to the beacon of Castra Tilly out by Pearl Landing."

"That's busy airspace," one of the VTOL pilots drawled, green eyes sparkling. She had short dark purple hair and long golden horns. Given her uniform had the rank of Prefect Ventus Centurion, she had to be Beatrix Pollux, commander of the VTOL Squadron.

Prefect Pollux had two Primus Centurions, one each in charge of the Umbra and Spatha contingents. There were a total of nine Ventus pilots, including copilots and spares. Over twenty Ritualista and Load Mistresses who helped maintain and run the VTOLs were also under her command.

Compared to Ritual Plate, VTOLs were far more forgiving in swapping out pilots for a given airframe. Having extra meant that a VTOL's aircrew could be swapped out which increased operational tempo.

Meanwhile, Volantes Pilots took the opposite approach. Instead of having spare pilots, we retained spare Ritual Plate suits. That is, among the collected parts and major components stockpiles, a Squadron's Ritualista could generally find enough material to assemble a spare suit or two in a pinch. Given such a suit would have to be fitted to a given pilot it was thought best and easiest to just keep the parts as spares. Especially as those components would often be far more useful for keeping multiple Flights patched up than splurged on building a new suit out of whole cloth.

"And so we're flying over to the Vokan Wastes," Fabia stated.

Despite us being only a few hundred miles from Vikram's major base, the desolate land below drove home just how far from our homeland we had come. I was left with the fanciful vision of us crashing onto one of those dunes and the ship's desiccated, crumbled carcass being buried by the sands until centuries later a shifting of winds or happenstance revealed the Tarantula Hawk's bones to a civilization that knew nothing of Diyu Demons or the great concerns of the Great Houses.

While her companion looked up and nodded to us, Prefect Pollux gave a sharp smile. "You're here early. You getting in before your Tribune?" the VTOL officer asked with that slight lilt.

After listening to Mila Caenis, I could tell that Pollux was simply imitating a Midlands accent. Affectations like that were hardly uncommon among Ventus Centurions, though I was surprised to find that hearing Pollux's faux twang caused my tail to flick.

"Just wanted to spend some time at the observation post before our meeting," Fabia assured.

"The Tribune is with the ship's captain right now, but should be here shortly," I added.

"Ah," Pollux's tone was noncommittal but I could sense a bit of relief that she did not have to deal with such "political" issues, as well as just a hint of jealousy that she was not the lead pilot for this mission.

There was a slight rivalry between the Volantes and Ventus specialties. Some Ritual Plate Pilots looked down on VTOL Pilots as glorified truck drivers delivering troops and supplies whereas some VTOL Pilots saw RP Pilots as lay about glory-hounds in too-expensive, too fragile kit. Neither was correct as the Legions depended on both. Mitigating the rivalry was that we were all Legionary Fliers here, united against the Fleet Pilot clique as the rougher, more underdog BlackSkyvian military branch. The caustic Prefect Crystal Candida 's Flight of four Fleet Pilots excepted.

I could see CSR's logic in assembling the parts of this operation. The bulk of the airborne aspects were people with an institutional focus on supporting ground-based missions. Yes, the Tarantula Hawk and her crew were all Fleet, but there was no avoiding that. I suppose it was a bit reassuring that the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance was not such a power unto itself that they could independently operate their own warships.

Gesturing for us to take a couple of the open observer seats, Pollux crossed her legs. "I think the exercise went well today. It seems like the ground teams will have adequate support, judging by the dry runs, and I feel you'll be able to provide good escort, especially with such Imperial Heroines protecting us," she said, coyly looking between Fabia and me.

"But?" Fabia asked, ignoring the slight jab.

Pollux and her subordinate shared a smile. "But two things. First: how up to date are you with inclement weather precision fire support?"

GreyDawn gave Fabia a cautioning look, but the Volantes Prefect smiled. "Why, our Countess here helped write the book on air-to-ground strikes," she said, exaggerating my meager updates to the training guides based on my experiences in the Crocelli jungles.

I managed to not fluff my wings in irritation. Though it was harder when Pollux gave me a predatory smirk.

"DarkStar's Blood, Caenis helped just as much as I did," I grumbled.

Somehow, the entirely logical argument did not help my case.

"And the second?" I asked, apprehension growing.

"Neither my pilots nor the ground teams have any exercises for tomorrow," Pollux smugly stated. "And we don't have all that many days before we get to Harp's World."

Fabia gave me a knowing smirk.

"Do tell? Our schedule is also cleared, and the big briefing room has been reserved," I said, with more confidence than I felt.

"That's it then," Pollux laughed. "The brass horns are finally going to brief us?"

"After we make transit to Forlorn Prospect and are charging our teleport runes, if I had to guess," Fabia offered.

I shook my head. "Not a full briefing, but they'll tell us more. Like maybe where we'll be attacking. You and Prefect Pollux have to know where the ground teams will be sent; can't rightly do your jobs without that."

Laughing, Pollux nodded. "We'll get plenty of bad news tomorrow, but they'll keep plenty in reserve."

"Invidia and her associates are generous like that," I said with mock levity.

End Chapter 23

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

And special thanks Readhead for polish, especially in Tauria's voice. And metaldragon868 for the chapter title.

Chapter 24 is written and is being edited now, and Peer Rivals Part 2 is nearly done as well.
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Well this mission just keeps getting more and more sus. Quite the cast of characters assembled for whatever the fuck is going on. With that noble that Tanya talked to her friend about being real fucking sus herself. Was also really fun to see Tanya's sleeping conditions and to see her getting teased for having her betrothed and mistress bunking with her. Still this line in particular
"Not literally!" I protested, the objection coming to my lips reflexively
makes me think Tanya doth protest too much. Also feels like a delinquency record reference. Regardless, I can always support a Tanya that likes to put her girl(s) in some form of bondage or another.
Well this mission just keeps getting more and more sus. Quite the cast of characters assembled for whatever the fuck is going on. With that noble that Tanya talked to her friend about being real fucking sus herself.
Hahhaa, yeah it's quite the sketchy scheme that CSR is setting up.
And yeah... CC is... special.

Was also really fun to see Tanya's sleeping conditions and to see her getting teased for having her betrothed and mistress bunking with her. Still this line in particular
makes me think Tanya doth protest too much. Also feels like a delinquency record reference. Regardless, I can always support a Tanya that likes to put her girl(s) in some form of bondage or another.
Heh, Tauria would try to rationalize it out, and she wouldn't get her own bunk so why not pick who she shares it with?

Well, it's not a conscious delinquency record reference, but there have been a few references in Little Demon about Tauria's relationships, not to mention Victorious Shadow's machinations.
Images: More Ritual Plate, nobility, and cosplay.
Status update:
Little Demon ch24 is being edited and is making good progress in the cleanup and revision process. Chapter 25 is being outlined and well... is the culmination of a bunch of things. The draft of Peer Rivals part 2 is also nearly done.

Also some of you may have noticed a stealth edit. Chapters 1 to 20 are now grouped into Book 1: "What Comes After"
With the next being Book 2 : "More than a Shadow"

And a music update.

Also the Little Demon Sountrack has had a few additions to it many thanks to @Readhead and @metaldragon868 (Appologies for anyone I have missed)
And yes, there is over 80 minutes worth of music there. I'll also stress that every piece in there is reader suggested. So if you enjoy any of the selections thank the other readers. As I thank all of you for your suggestions.

Now there are a couple pieces that doesn't have its full version, and that is Jon Charles Dwyer's - Panthers on the Mountainside and Landon Blood's As Above So Below. Both part of Old Gods of Appalachia which has some themes with how Diyu is in the hills, hollers, and woods. And if you want to pay for these or any other musical works, I'll have no objection

And now.... the art

First from PlayerError404 we have House BlackSky's two rarest Ritual Plate models.


Left is the Svalinna a defensive suit that projects far ranging wards, useful for giving an extra layer of protection to fleets or major ground operations.
Right is a variant on the Occultia a low observable suit that also has massive theater-grade scrying systems. Both suits are quite expensive and require speicalist pilot skills.

From Lexikimble we've got a bit of cosplay



VioletBlood seemed to be a natural for playing hte part of the hot-blooded, haughty redheaded pilot. Gee seems to be a lot of those.
As for Tauria playing the amoral scientist, don't worry about it.

Also from LexiKimble we have another in Luxon and Elenese Ritual Plate models series.
(The next one will be a Trosic and a Zioxan suit)



Variant Without Helmet

Left is a Luxon Neith, a scrying heavy suit. Their version of a Occultia or Mokos
Right is an Elenese Marzanna (Gen 2), an air superiority suit. Their version of the Harmonia or Tjardu

From Deepay we've got another mother-daughter bonding of Volantes Tribune (Rorarii) Duchess SilverFlight and her youngest Prefect Volantes Centurion Countess Tauria Magnus DiamondDust.



And finally from Beige Paladin we have another take on the Svalinna. (You might have seen an earlier version of this posted elsewhere)


Also don't worry about the apperance of art of the rarest, most in demand, and epxensive RP models in BlacSkyvian service or that of a major peer air-superiority suit.
Yeah, that's Young Girl's Weaponization of the Mythos
Not really. Tanya shows repeated concerns with morality in that fic. She's just stuck between rock and a hard place as she accidentally created the mythos magic. Stepping away from the development of the mythos weapons at that point, would just put someone less concerned with consequences of development in charge.
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Yeah, that's Young Girl's Weaponization of the Mythos


Not really. Tanya shows repeated concerns with morality in that fic. She's just stuck between rock and a hard place as she accidentally created the mythos magic. Stepping away from the development of the mythos weapons at that point, would just put someone less concerned with consequences of development in charge.

Which is the dilemma that Tanyii tend to have.

For example, while Tauira has the political connections that she *could* quit this upcoming operation. (Though at a great cost to her reputation). It would leave the rest of her squadron behind her.
It does show a very Tanya-like commitment to her procedures and controls. Which is a big reason why she's so successful with her Mythos projects.
Indeed it does.

It also makes the fact that so many of her occultists are barely controlled spare nobility with enough magic to make trouble if responsible individuals don't keep an eye on them all the more entertaining.
Indeed it does.

It also makes the fact that so many of her occultists are barely controlled spare nobility with enough magic to make trouble if responsible individuals don't keep an eye on them all the more entertaining.

Yah, where on Diyu the magical research is more controlled and industrialized. And they totally aren't doing shady or elrdich shenanigans. Nope, not at all.
Chapter 24: Adversary Anticipation
The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

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

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

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

Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

C&C as always is wanted.

Chapter 24: Adversary Anticipation

I was starting to dread the Tarantula Hawk's briefing rooms. I was no eager young officer, brimming with youthful vigor and national zeal, disdainful of long meetings when I could be winning glory on the battlefield. I understood the importance of patience, organization, and careful coordination over brash action.

However, even my maturely rational self found Invidia's parsimonious habits when it came to the sharing of information frustrating. I could understand, it and even see a certain level of logic in it for the intelligence operative, but something about the way she seemed so gleeful in the withholding seemed almost sadistic to me. It felt almost as if she were some detached observer, poking and teasing us with just enough detail to tempt our minds before dropping the oh so ruthless hammer of "classified, I'm afraid."

We were no longer on Vikram nor any place so pleasant. Instead, we had temporarily weighed anchor, or however the shippies put it, on the cold and desolate Alecton colony world of Forlorn Prospect to allow our teleport runes time to cool-off before the next charge-and-jump cycle that would take us to House Alecto's main colony world of New Batavia. It was the end of the second day in our journey crawling down the Dimensional Spine; we were about halfway to our destination of Harp's World.

Perhaps our advanced location had shaken some urgency loose in Invidia's mind, because in a pleasant break from routine we had not been kept waiting long, although it had been awkward standing around the conference room while Invidia set up the display screen. The crowd in attendance mostly consisted of troops in their Legion Blacks, but a sizable contingent in Fleet Whites were also present, along with a smattering of Auxilia Greens. Quite soon after the projector winked to life, a stark woman I didn't recognize strode into our conference room, closely followed by another CSR Centurion cut in the same smarmy mold as Invidia, whom I recognized by sight as the liaison officer to the ground teams. The door locked behind the new arrivals as the red light over the header lit up.

Most of the new woman's hair was white and put up into a severe, prim bun, the exceptions being a few black-tipped bangs on her right side that seemed shockingly insouciant. She wore a thigh-length starched black skirt with silver thread with a matching bodice and jacket, all of which were cut more reminiscent of a stern governess than an imperial officer.

Notably, nothing she wore bore any insignia or rank badges, no hint of anything even slightly military or official.

The woman had pale grey skin with stern, faintly aristocratic features that took on that mature set that accompanied "women of a certain age". Maybe old enough to be my duchess' mother, she had grand curled black horns and pale membranous wings that trailed behind her almost like a cape. From the effortlessness in her stride and the unconscious deference Invidia gave her, if she was not an elder demoness, then she was very close. Her bright blue eyes went over each of us with a deliberateness for a moment, as if she were updating some sort of mental catalog.

Invidia gave a bow to her before turning to us. "This is Legate Lady Angela Prudentia JadeJavelin."

"Thank you, Invidia," Angela stated in a smooth voice that had just a hint of an Alecton accent. "Today, I will be briefing you on Operation Epimetheus. As you have guessed, this operation will have considerable compartmentalization. I do apologize for the inconvenience.

"It is, however, entirely necessary. Regrettably, informing you why this is so would also be detrimental to operational security." Her precise diction left no room for sincere concern.

I repressed a sigh. I knew it was going to be one of those operations.

The Lady Legate studied the collection of specialists with her penetrating gaze. Ancient eyes seemed to cut right through us and measure every fiber of our being, like our very souls were laid bare before her. "First, yes this operation will take place on Harp's World. Obviously."

Invidia dutifully put a slide into place and a map appeared on the room's forward screen. It was a map of the southern hemisphere of Harp's World, centered on the continent of Leng.

Tail still, Legate JadeJavelin turned as if to contemplate the map. "East of the Free City of Keli is our target: the Onyx Institute," she explained, taking a pointing stick Invidia offered her.

"Nominally an independent arcane research facility, the Institute is an Elenese proxy. It is a sprawling facility, lined with testing grounds and sporting a wide range of artificers' workshops and barracks. Between allied intelligence and our own scouting efforts, we have pieced together a fair idea of the happenings within the Institute. And yes post solstice, Leng is rather balmy this time of year, but don't expect a balmy night," she added with something that might have been a half-hearted attempt at levity on a less severe woman. With the Lady Legate, however, it merely sent alarm bells ringing through my head.

The interest in the room grew. I noted that most of the ground components of our mission group didn't seem very surprised, despite Lares's excellent attempt at a poker face. No matter how good he might be at studied blankness, feigned surprise sat poorly on his craggy features.

Invidia switched slides, and now the screen displayed a layout of the vast Onyx Institute compound. It seemed rather nice, with ample green space and recreational facilities. In addition to the residence buildings, research space, and various ancillary buildings, it also appeared to house several relatively isolated testing cells. Further out from the main compound were various notations denoting the presence of defensive installations, including missile launchers and symbols indicating light naval assets beyond the coastline.

"You're all bright ladies; I am sure you can see where this is going. A technically-not-Great-House research facility coincidentally located off of Diyu, a rather bluntly equipped CSR operation, complete with a ground component…" The elder demoness gave us a joyless smile. "We are on the same page, I believe."

I wasn't sure about that, but I had begun pulling some of the pieces together; honestly, if anything the new insights only raised more questions. If the CSR simply wanted to destroy whatever it was Elena was working on, there would be no need to have hoofs on the ground for starters. At most, only a small recon element would be necessary to achieve that objective. And yet, here we were with a reinforced Century worth of troops.

Invidia's mask slipped, revealing just the slightest edge of concern. When we first met on this ship, back when it was still in dock, Invidia had been insistent that the ground component was a backup plan. Perhaps she had been telling the truth back then. If so, then clearly plans had changed. Perhaps despite her best efforts, perhaps not.

I suppose this is what you get when you work with spooks on black operations. I grumbled to myself. Shifting mission plans, secretive objectives, a twisting snake pit of plots within plots. I really shouldn't be surprised.

"Simply put," Legate JadeJavelin continued, "this is a recovery mission. House Elena has been toying with some decidedly sensitive stolen property, and we in the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance merely wish to put it back in more…deserving hands. Return the stolen goods to their rightful owners, if you will."

The elder demoness gave us a smile as bright and warm as a dead star. "And if House Elena elects to obstruct us, we will simply have to educate them on the depths of their error."

I buried a cold shiver at the implications.

"The target object in question is codenamed SilverHold," JadeJavelin continued, moving briskly onward with her briefing. "Beyond that, we get into compartmentalized information. Suffice to say, the relevant members of the ground element will be briefed on SilverHold's features at a later point: how to find it, how to render it quiescent, and how to transport it. Time permitting, they may even recover other assets."

Well…that explains those Vel Missile launchers. Based on the map, there were ample assets in close proximity, readily placed to respond to an attack on the Onyx Institute. Having an impromptu air-defense network setup on hand would help with the "recovery mission".

From her spot next to me, I felt Visha's increased concern, and I couldn't help but agree. Everything about this recovery mission stank to me. Whatever this artifact was that House Elena was performing arcane research on, it had to be something of terrifying importance. Something critical enough that the task force deployed to capture it couldn't even be told what it was or who the "goods" had been stolen from. The fact that we were bothering with a recovery mission at all instead of simply blowing up the entire Institute spoke volumes. Perhaps worst of all, as far as warning signs went, was that even House Elena had seen the wisdom in doing this research on an obscure colony world under someone else's flag, rather than on Diyu itself with their best facilities.

Everything about this was expendable, dangerous, and spoke of a potential fallout that soaked my bones in dread.

And that was before the Great House politics came into play. "Allied intelligence" had to be a reference to House Alecto. That wasn't exactly difficult to figure out; they were our only real ally on Harp's World, not to mention that they had objected strenuously to recent Elenese actions, including making overtures to Alecto's main rival. An Elenese-Trosic alliance would leave Alecto in a precarious situation. Convincing their ally, BlackSky, to hit a major yet deniable research facility would be an attractive method for House Alecto to make their displeasure known while maintaining discretion and nominally clean hands. Conversely, it seemed CSR wanted to make it blatant that House BlackSky was behind this operation.

"All mission elements have received preliminary training on countering SilverHold and derived assets. As we transit to the operational area, we will expand on this training, with the assistance of the arcane support elements."

The Legate nodded to herself before her eyes fell on our arcane specialists and Tempestarii before looking to the VTOL and RP pilot contingent, seemingly satisfied by what she saw. I felt a bit of prickly anxiety hovering over Prefect Pollux and her girls. They had steeled themselves, but in this moment their concern was open for all to sense.

"There is another factor that you all need to know," Legate JadeJavelin added. "The SilverHold is being studied by Elenese tactical meteorologists. Weather conditions for the operation could become... complicated. Especially after they realize that they are no longer alone on Leng."

I tried not to glance at Quirinus. Despite the news, I felt nothing radiating from her but resolve; even by her unflappable standards, the woman was focused and calm. Like the VTOL Pilots, none of the briefings revelations seemed to have come as a surprise to her. I suspected she had already been read-in, giving her plenty of time to process Operation Epimetheus.

Rank, apparently, still had its privileges. No wonder some were surprised I elected to not bring my personal maid on this operation. Beyond the honor name that entitled Lady Tribune Quirinus, my commanding officer did not have much ambition for noble titles. Which wasn't to say that she lacked ambition, however, as her quiet desire to one day bear a Legate's scepter indicated.

Thinking back, I had noted that many of the training missions Invidia and Quirinus had put us through were staged during inclement weather. While the SilverHold's full nature was still occluded behind the walls of compartmentalized intelligence, it seemed obvious that it, in some way, augmented the ability of a Tempestarii to influence the weather. Which was enough reason for Elena to want to study it in a remote area, and ample reason for us to deny it to them.

Quirinus coughed as she stood. "You are all bright girls. While the exact nature of the SilverHold is not ours to know, it is obvious that Elena would not be putting this much effort to study it if not for the potential to give their Tempestarii a considerable advantage. The implications onto aerial operations Fleet and Legion should be obvious."

The Lady Legate's expression was carefully controlled but she made no comment, which was ample commentary in and of itself.

"Further," Quirinus continued, "the restrictions around knowing who the true owner of the SilverHold implies a being of considerable power and one whose patience in this matter may wear thin."

The disquiet in the room grew. We were collectively absorbing the heavy implication, but the Tribune had just spelled it out and made it explicit. House BlackSky would not be going through all this effort to acquire this artifact and then simply give it up.

Not unless the act would benefit our House, that is. And not unless the "rightful owners" of the mysterious item in question were fearsome indeed.

"In full disclosure, Operation Epimetheus does have two options," JadeJavelin's tone might have had a ghost of wry humor. "Which we take will depend on what the observational elements in the vanguard find. Option Kai will consist of purely aerial components. Option Gerda will involve both the aerial and ground mission groups."

The refined woman didn't so much as glance at Invidia, but I could feel her presence weigh on her all the same. Like a gentle hand on her shoulder, an oh so simple gesture just to remind Invidia that she was there, that she was in charge. Even Invidia clamped up under the pressure.

JadeJavelin's smile was a cold and mirthless thing. "Note that Option Kai is very much our fallback position, one that will act as a pure asset denial. Denying SilverHold to Elena is only barely tolerable as a partial solution. If it is at all reasonably possible we will execute Option Gerda."

I bit back a furious scowl. Technically, this matched Invidia's creative interpretation of the truth she'd revealed back when we had first boarded this ship. The only fly in that ointment was the oh so important fact that the supposed high risk "Plan B" was actually the primary plan. The one that my feathered hide was getting dragged into in order to support the most brazen black op I'd ever heard of.

Option Kai, the plan that Invidia seemed more inclined towards and the one she had tried to sell my unit on, sounded almost tailor made for my team. Given that my Squadron was the only RP asset on the Tarantula Hawk capable of launching Lance Strikes, much of the heavy lifting involved would undoubtedly fall to us. Unfortunately, that option was also quite clearly the backup plan disfavored by the elder Demoness. It was little wonder, then, that she had Invidia on such a tight leash.

In mere moments, the faint hope of this mission being anything short of a complete clusterfuck was snuffed out.

Unfortunately, my realization hadn't slowed JadeJavelin down in the slightest. Her briefing continued as she began pointing at various elements on the map while she spoke. "Allow me to stress that the operational plan is high level. My associates and I will be having detailed briefings with each section; we brought you for your expertise and it would be foolish for us to not cite you. However, flexibility will be key as our forward assets are still collecting data."

The display changed at an unobtrusive twitch of Invidia's fingers. Now the maps of the institute and outlying areas were covered in multiple tracks and notations for observed naval, air, and ground assets. "As many of you have suspected, we already have a ship on station, but alas, the HFV Tamora is a Venture Scout. Yes, a very specialized Venture, but she still has a very limited capacity."

From her position a few seats to my left, Fabia gave me an approving nod. I had suspected as much yesterday. It was a reasonable supposition. As the smallest airship in the Fleet capable of teleportation, the Venture was the easiest to convert to a low-profile configuration and could be made into a simulacrum of an empty patch of sky with far greater ease. Furthermore, with Occultia on hand and a mission profile dedicated to stealth reconnaissance, the Venture Scout's minimal Ritual Plate capacity wasn't an issue.

The brief flash of pride at being proven correct withered as I took a second look at the formidable list of assets marked across the map. While I had seen more well-defended targets, I had yet to suffer the privilege of attacking them, at least in this life.

The Lady Legate took in the sobering emotional signatures filling the room and nodded gravely in response. "Indeed. The Catalan Company, a Minor House Umic allied force, has recently had their security contract expanded. Officially, they have been hired to protect the Free City of Keli's seaport, fisheries, and surrounding environs. In reality, their flotilla of Alecton surplus fast attack craft are securing the Institute's seaborne approach."

She paused to study the display. "Comparable to our Mulberry, the Blauvelt is a fast, well-armed ship. An older design, the hull is not the most robust and lacks endurance even by the standards of coastal defense ships. It also has middling air defenses, but they are better than nothing and can support Ritual Plate and scrying systems."

I frowned. There were enough ships noted that a patrol would be active at all times, sometimes two patrols, with a considerable reserve of sister vessels ready to go at the first sign of trouble. The ships themselves were small and relatively cheap, but according to the diagrams could be equipped with a downsized model of Alecton export multi-purpose cruise missiles still large enough to be a threat even to the Tarantula Hawk. Though that was the anti-shipping warhead, their payload could also be used in an air-to-ground or anti-Ritual Plate capacity.

"Our dear allies in House Alecto are willing to sell these as surplus to anyone with the money. But for us," JadeJavelin gave a smile utterly without warmth, "they are willing to provide a package of information on the Blauvelt's scrying systems and structural weakness. They have also confirmed that the Catalan Company exclusively uses Archer and Yeoman RP suits."

There were flickers of amusement and a few muttered comments about "Perfidious Alecto", which the Legate studiously ignored. Harp's World was a snake-pit of backstabbing factions, which was made worse when cutthroat Great House politics were thrown into things.

"While I am no expert in such things, I suspect that Third Squadron will encounter little difficulty conducting strike missions against these second-hand coastal assets," the Elder demoness said with a dry geniality as her blue eyes locked with mine.

I gave a confident, if curt, nod. Her message, complete with its tone of assurance that she would be proven correct in her assessment, was not lost on me. Besides, the Blauvelt, while on the small side, was precisely the type of target the Lance system was intended to strike. The additional targeting information would only simplify a theoretically easy mission, provided we had surprise. If their entire flotilla was on active patrol with air cover then they would be a tougher nut.

Still, that cold auditing gaze assayed me, searching for signs of weakness or flaws in my armored confidence. For an instant, my chest tightened and I felt cold sweat bloom across my spine. Then, the Legate's expression thawed ever so slightly.

"You won't be alone in your dance with the coastal hirelings, Countess," Lady Legate assured. "We will be rendezvousing with the corvettes HFV Desert Strix and HFV Nightjar. They will be providing supplementary fire support and some fleet defense for your planned strikes and the primary mission. In the event that we are forced to fall back to Option Kai, well, their role in our secondary plan should be obvious."

There was a bit of murmuring, not in surprise but more in acceptance.

The two corvettes and the scout ship added a combined twenty-four more Ritual Plate suits to the mission assets, but more importantly their inclusion meant that our little flotilla would have a total of twenty Fujiwara Torpedoes. For a purported short-ranged and speedy raid on a research institution, albeit one with a considerably stronger campus security force than was standard, that was an almost absurd concentration of firepower. Admittedly, those magazines would almost certainly be split up and parceled out to account for several different objectives and to fill several roles, and in prolonged combat munition budgets had a tendency to be rapidly expended anyway. Broadly speaking, the stock of Torpedoes wasn't all that large; a single Mace Destroyer had about the same capacity as the entirety of our formation and a Maul cruiser stocked more than double the number of Torpedoes.

Furthermore, Tarantula Hawk was by far the largest asset of this planned formation. It was over four times the displacement of a Kolibri Corvette and nearly fifteen times that of the tiny Venture. Two-thirds of the four ship formation's mass would belong to this assault carrier alone.

At least this explained where the scouts and escorts I had expected were hiding. Even with their inclusion, our formation was still a bit light on scouting; normally a Medium Carrier Singularium would have two or three Ventures. There had still been no mention of any Fleet cargo ships attached to this mission to provide extra fuel, munitions, and supplies, an exclusion that betrayed an... optimistic view of the expected duration of this operation.

Or perhaps a worryingly conservative one.

"I will note that the HFV Desert Strix and HFV Nightjar have been equipped with some of the new Hrodwulf light interceptor Torpedoes carrying the Vel Sprint Missile, as well as a couple other things from the Konoe program," the Lady Legate said, as if she were revealing some great, unlooked for advantage.

I suppose she had some level of justification to think as much. Carrying five low-endurance Vel Sprint Missiles, the Hrodwulf was smaller and had shorter range than the Skofnung, but an airship could carry eight of the Lighter Torpedoes in the same standard container used for a single Skofnung with its twenty standard Vels. The Hrodwulf was intended for use against Fleet Escorts where the shorter range was an acceptable trade for roughly twice the capacity in interceptor missiles.

Diverting some of the early production munitions from the Konoe Light Torpedo project for this mission made sense. Invidia and her associates had clearly grabbed for every firepower advantage they could hunt down and had scraped their results together into a pile and shoved it at this mission. The new revelation about the extent of their scraping did, however, give me cause to wonder exactly what Torpedoes were stored in the Tarantula Hawk's relatively modest magazine. The Fujiwara family of Heavy Torpedoes contained quite a few… esoteric models.

"The extra RP Squadrons will be put under Tribune Quirinus's command," the elder demoness nodded to my commander. "The corvettes will be contributing a heavy Squadron Harmonia air-superiority suits, and one Flight of Svalinna warding suits."

That got everyone's attention. The ship-grade, but miniaturized and thus extremely expensive, ward projectors infamously required considerable magical talent to operate. That stiff requirement made the Svalinna the second rarest BlackSkyvian Ritual Plate fielded, second only to the Occultia, which also had a Flight dedicated to this mission. The Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance was more than willing to tap deep into House BlackSky's capabilities for this mission.

"My current plan is to align the extra RP as per conventional doctrine," Quirinus said with a noncommittal shrug. "Tamora's Occultia would provide theater-level scrying. The Harmonia would provide fleet defense, and act as a reserve, though they do have numbers to perhaps conduct a mission of their own if we risk it. The Svalinna Flight will be used to help blunt the inevitable counterattack both to the ground operation and if the enemy finds our ships. This frees my Demi-Wing for Option Gerda."

Those contributions increased our Ritual Plate complement by fifty percent, opening new options for us by giving us a total of seventy-four Pilots: two Squadrons of ground-attack, a bit over two Squadrons of air-superiority, a multi-role Squadron, and one Flight each of the House's more specialist suits. New options opened up for us.

"Sensible," JadeJavelin agreed. She glanced over at Invidia, who was pointedly studying a wall clock. "Ah, well, we are running early, but perhaps we can take a short refreshment break? I think the forward mess bakery has something sweet on their cooling racks presently."

The mood in the tiered auditorium was immediately buoyed by the promise of pastries, even pastries of Fleet provenance. Invidia, for her part, busied herself with policing up the slides, locking them away, and shutting down the projector as the assembly rose as one to their feet. The red lamps over the doors were extinguished.

"Be back in fifteen minutes," JadeJavelin ordered with a bit of a smile. "And note, no discussion of the contents of the briefing is permitted outside of a secure ship compartment. Go, enjoy yourselves


Checking my watch, I was already feeling better by the time I stepped back out into the corridor. Thankfully, the line to the heads had moved fast, freeing me from at least one distraction. I went forward and soon was accosted by fresh distractions in the form of my wingwoman.

"Prefect!" Visha cheerfully greeted me, passing over a cup of coffee and a wax-paper cone filled with fried and sugared strips of twisted dough. The scent of her and the food combined to soothe away my hunger and anxiety.

"Thank you," I took the offered snacks. "Did you get a chance to use the bathrooms?"

"I went down a deck and skipped the line," Visha shrugged as we made our way to a quiet alcove off the corridor where we could eat in peace and without getting in the way.

I laughed. "You'd think a ship like this would have bathrooms attached to the briefing rooms. Without the need to pass into and out of a secure room, perhaps briefing attendees would have an easier time focusing on the information presented? At the very least, less traffic in and out surely would improve security… Wouldn't you agree that that would be more fitting for a ship built to spook specifications?"

"This is a retrofit," Visha pointed out with an eloquent shrug, "but... I suppose the Lady Legate could have catered. Even light refreshments, even just water, would have been a nice gesture… A little goes a long way, sometimes..."

"I'm not sure creature comforts are high on Lady JadeJavelin's priority list," I murmured, my tail flicking sullenly as I ate. The fritters, if that was what they were, were good but I had little time to savor them. I just wanted my stomach to stop complaining.

"We've had worse missions," Visha said quietly, her tone clearly alluding to far more than the tour among the jungles.

"That's not exactly reassuring," I replied with a frown while glancing down the corridor. The line at the head had vanished and most of the officers attending the meeting still seemed preoccupied with getting a quick bite and something to drink, all our firm time budget allowed. "But at least the CSR don't seem to want us going in entirely blind."

"That's not what you're really worried about, is it?" Visha asked as she took a bite out of her pastry. Despite the contents of the meeting so far, she seemed serene and accepting of the fact that soon we would have to go back to hear more threats, lies, and mad schemes.

I nodded, admitting that Visha was, as usual, correct. "My real fear is.... with us in the meeting, that means LoveBlood holds unfettered, unchecked command over the Squadron completely unsupervised."

"Oh, she won't be that bad."

I gave her a flat look. "Perhaps not, but she'll still be Baroness VioletBlood. Such things are evaluated on a curve."

Visha laughed but her expression sobered. "She has to learn sometime, you know."

Silence grew between us. "I might not make Tribune before I get out," I stated. "It's far from assured, even with my duchess's backing."

"I know you." Her gaze was supportive in its knowing disbelief. "Besides, even without the rank tabs, you're clearly following in Quirinus's footsteps. A few more missions like this as a squadron commander? Plus your connections? Oh, it may take a few years, but the House needs officers like you." She stepped closer, and put an arm around my shoulder.

My tail straightened, especially after she wrapped one wing over my back. "Assuming we all survive," I sighed, finding myself unable to avoid appending that major and cheerful caveat.

"Assuming that," allowed Visha with a soft smile.

"Our only way out is through," I continued briskly, annoyed by the way my heart leaped in my chest. "I just wish that the CSR wasn't trying so hard to be cute with their plans. This is all so unnecessarily complicated."

I felt the remaining fritters crunch in their cone, but ignored them. I might not be able to finish my snack, but it was more important to spend the last few minutes before we had to go back to the briefing room to be with someone I could trust. I knew which seemed to settle my stomach more. It was a bit of a challenge to juggle the pastry cone and my mug into one hand, but that did free an arm which made it easier for me to support myself by putting it around my wingwoman's torso.

"Why yes, Countess." Visha's grin grew. "But we both know you relish a challenge, and you will do your best to make sure we get through this mission."


Several minutes before the scheduled end of the break, every officer was back into their briefing room seats. Quiet anxiety filled the room as officers of two species and three services waited to hear the wyrd CSR had ordained for us; for some reason, nobody had been in the mood to enjoy their break to the fullest. At the front of the room, Invidia was counting heads judging by the movement of her fingers as her mistress serenely sipped from a mug. Satisfied with her findings, Invidia pushed a button, activating the magnetic locks in the conference room's doors with a dull clang. As the flat sound ripped through the silent room, the red light over the door smoothly lit back up without any flicker.

"Is everyone comfortable? We had left off at the enemy air station Dola Gorod, yes?" JadeJavelin asked, rising from her chair as she twitched a meaningful finger at Invidia, who immediately hopped back onto projector duty , loading its hopper and uncoiling the remote's cable.

Holding my own mug full of the salted boiler compound the shippies passed off as coffee, I adjusted my shoulders as the familiar concerns returned as the brass-trimmed projector hummed back to life. The little we had been told about the target of our raid and the enemy's seaborne assets was bad enough. And now, we were going to learn about all the other things the enemy was using to defend the Institute.

At the Lady Legate's prompting, Invidia powered up the projector to reveal a slide showing the aerial photos and analysis of the assets at Dola Gorod. The base itself was rather well defended. The only upside was that it was far enough from the Onyx Institute that we would have some warning. If anything, JadeJavelin was underselling their capabilities. I could spot eight combat aircraft visible in just that one photograph alone, with possibly dozens more in the base's many cavernous hangars. If the SilverHold was as valuable as JadeJavelin was making it out to be, House Elena would surely throw all of them up to stop us.

About half of the planes I could see were the Kupala light bomber which would be unpleasant enough to any exposed ground troops or air assets. Worse, a Flight of Zoyra heavy fighters was sitting there all stark aerodynamic curves looking eager to take off into the air.

Based on a Luxon design, the Zorya was an updated, but still effective, conventional fighter platform. While limited to bases with runways, the Zorya was bristling with assets including ones that allowed for short and rough takeoffs. Most notably it could carry missiles and fire Lances and with the expected capabilities of a heavy fighter. Those systems, and the required caster for a pilot, made it also rather expensive. All told it carried fewer missiles than a Kupala but was more capable as an air-to-air platform.

The small part of me that still had optimism before a mission hoped that the Desert Strix and the Nightjar had some anti-air Torpedoes loaded. A few Skofnungs, or dozens of those newfangled Hrodwulfs, would do wonders at trimming down those Elenese assets.

"While the Catalan Company has a couple RP Squadrons, the main airborne threat will be coming from the Elenese Air Station Dola Gorod. Which hosts a Vanguard Strike Unit that we believe is composed of two squadrons of Marzanna air-superiority suits, a squadron of Kupala bombers, and a squadron of Zorya strike-fighters. A Flight of Yarla recon birds was also observed but has since missing."

My stomach sank. Not that those numbers were unexpected, given the size of the base and the airframes I could see, but having it confirmed was still quite unpleasant. We still outnumbered them seventy to fifty in terms of air assets, but as the attackers, only slightly outnumbering the enemy was far from ideal.

"More than their relative distance from the Institute," JadeJavelin continued, "Air Station Dola Gorod has some additional limitations. They are restricted to just two runways, only one of which is of a reasonable length for launching fixed-wings, impacting half of their Vanguard Strike Unit. The limited runways also restrict any expansion of the garrisoned force as well as the dispatch of reinforcements to the base. Morseo, allied intelligence has supplemented the work of the HFV Tamora's Occultia to ascertain the defenses and patrol patterns of the base."

I nodded. It would wear on equipment and pilots to keep those Squadrons ready to defend the Institute, even more, when they were doing defensive patrols. Not to mention any other obligations Dola Gorod had. Garrison forces spread overly thin was a perennial problem out in the colonies for all the Houses.

The Lady Legate gave that stiff not-quite-a-smile. "But, we cannot neglect the ground threat. That is after all what most of us will be facing."

This time it was Invidia's fellow CSR centurion who put up this slide in the projector. The focus went back to the Institute's grounds with several notations on observations.

I saw Fabia and Julia tense as they studied the estimates. This was what their Squadrons were for, why CSR wanted two dozen Sarpedona ground-attack RP on this mission. And there were several images of various assets that had been caught coming and going from the large hangars and storage sheds that made up the complex.

"The Onyx Institute has an almost respectable level of internal security," JadeJavelin dryly stated, the understatement as scorching as desert sand as she gestured at the screen. "From the imagery, you can see they never have more than two Baalshem combat golems out at once. However, we have spotted multiple configurations on their weapon pods."

Julia kept her outward composure but I could feel her resolve harden from across the briefing room as well as a blood-thirsty urge spread from her. I could not blame the novice officer for her war-mania; the Baalshem was the result of generations of development and refinement by Elenese war-planners, kabbalists, golem directors, and Ritualista, all working in concert to perfect her natural enemy.

Or perhaps, the perfect implement to deliver glory to her on a silver platter. The glory of victory, the anguish of defeat… all a trick of perception. Until the first shots were fired, at least.

As I pondered the implications of that new threat, Invidia fetched a glass of water for her superior. It was somewhat amusing to watch the CSR officer scurry like a browbeaten adjunct, even though the display only further underlined JadeJavelin's dread power.

The head of Fourth Squadron shifted her gaze to meet the Lady Legate's eye as she sipped and raised her hand. JadeJavelin nodded to Fabia. "Ma'am, just how many of the cobble-heads do you estimate there to be?"

"Cobble-Head" was a mocking nickname for the twenty-ton bipedal war machine, whose already formidable frame could be bulked up with several additional tons of armor, various arcane directors, and extra projectile weapons mounts as necessary for their mission profile. The Baalshem also boasted good mobility on broken terrain, though at the cost of a high profile and considerable expense in both manufacture and maintenance. Much like the Luxon Anker quadruped golem, the Baalshem was intended to be an infantry support platform.

It was designed to help Elenese troops tear through enemy infantry and light vehicles. While it could carry anti-air launchers, or lug a heavy mortar for indirect fire, the Baalshem's deceptively-squat and broad-shouldered eighteen-foot frame was more commonly mounted with rotary cannons similar to our Mertis, but in a slightly larger caliber. In addition to this selection of heavy armament, the Baalshem would typically carry at least one heavy arcane projector as well.

Another shared development with Luxon, the projector's crystalline-cored, steel sleeved barrels were constrained by a somewhat limited life, made all the shorter when hooked up to the golem's power systems to provide an anti-armor capability. The golem presented a large target, heavily armored and warded with an eye to resisting BlackSkyvian anti-tank weaponry, but it was also fast, deceptively so. Like an enraged cave bear, the platform's strength and durability were so self-evident that it was frightfully easy to forget how quickly the things could move when the situation called for it. The Elenese treasured it as a break-through vehicle for infantry assaults.

The Lady Legate put down her glass. "Analysis of the structure of their cranial armor and foreheads has us believe there are no less than six of these golems. A study of the track patterns was inconclusive, though."

I nodded. Six units was the standard Elenese ground armor formation size, but there was still an abundance of room for things to get worse. For starters, there were certainly other golems stationed at the Institute.

"And anti-air golems?" Fabia asked.

"We have only seen a few Loew class anti-air platforms but we suspect there will be at least a full battery. If present, they will almost certainly be tied into the fixed scrying and launcher network for improved targeting and coordination," JadeJavelin admitted.

Based on the intensity of her glare I was almost worried Fabia's gaze would burn a hole through the projection screen. Judging by her fire, she had experience with the Elenese missile platform under her belt and was more than eager to avenge past injuries. Rather like an overgrown Trosic Villeneuve anti-air golem, the Loew moved on six sturdy legs and carried a dozen missiles that were comparable to our Vel.

She was far from alone in her grudge against the platform among the pilots present. House Elena saw House BlackSky as their main rival and, given our extensive investment into aerial combat doctrine, it was only natural that the Loew would be attached to many Elenese heavy ground units to add to their air-defense capabilities. As a result, practically every BlackSyvian Ritual Plate pilot who had fought against puppet forces backed by Elena had tangled with them at least once.

"Ma'am, I'm not seeing any images of Vilna golems or their more modern replacements. Do you estimate there will be any presence of heavy armored vehicles?"

"You are correct that we have not detected such a platform." Legate JadeJavelin's stony face furrowed into a small frown. "You are also correct to be concerned."

Weighing over twice a Baalshem, the Vilna hovered awkwardly in the space between a light tank and a heavy tank, too heavy for the former and far too light for the latter. With a low-slung hull on articulated treads, the Vilna was built to be a Vestal light tank and Triarii IFV killer. Its main gun was ideal for dispatching anything smaller than a full tank and its efficiently-armored hull had enough room to carry adequate ammunition and great enough elevation for it to act independently in a fire-support role. Capable of operating without a crew, it was also quite expendable, ideal for placement in ambushes or riskier assaults.

The expendability was further accentuated by the Vilna's age. After years of service, the venerable old frame was slowly being phased out of active service. The initial run had proven somewhat thinly armored, with more armor and warding projectors added in the years since to provide an acceptable level of anti-air protection.

However, rumor was that the armor-add-on kits complicated maintenance access, which made Elenese Ritualista less willing to do preventative maintenance, and then the extra weight further wore down on the parts. Unlike the Baalshem, a more conventional, if slightly larger, armored vehicle could and did replace the Vilna, leaving the existing units to be put into secondary and colonial roles until they wore out.

"I agree that it would be odd to find a colonial posting of this value without a Vilna or two," the Legate said. "It's possible our sisters to the north have finally emptied the warehouses, but I would not be optimistic in that regard."

"The Elenese do like tucking them off into low-tempo posting as an extra punch," the Centurion in charge of the Forward Recon scouts noted. The most mundane of the ground team, and the most numerous, Forward Recon were, to a woman, Evocatus veterans with experience in stealth assault and infiltration. They also had a higher proportion of grenadiers in their formations.

The Lady Legate nodded. "And there is certainly enough infantry stationed at the Institute to keep a number running." The older CSR officer nodded to Invida and there was now an image of several of the barracks buildings with notations.

"We estimate that since the SilverHold arrived at the Institute, billets adequate for about two Centuries of troops have been constructed on the grounds. This is in addition to the existing facility guard force. We have some idea as to their specializations, but much like their vehicles, we are left with questions."

"Ma'am, is there any intel on the composition of these Elenese troops?" a lithe Broadcast Recon Centurion with short grey hair asked.

"Some." The tip of JadeJavelin's tail curled. "We can say that at least half are operators and support staff for the various golem assets, bolstering the operators already present as part of the Institute's research staff. Reports have indicated that testing on SilverHold has increased in recent weeks."

Perhaps that is why this mission seems so rushed? I frowned, turning the thought over in my mind. It would certainly answer a few of the questions this briefing had raised, most prominently the compressed schedule. It was abundantly clear that everyone involved in this mission would have preferred that the constituent elements have more time to train together and to get used to operating as a team, let alone practicing for the operation itself.

"Ultimately, that only leaves around sixty personnel available for infantry roles," the Lady Legate concluded.

"Given the size and importance of the facility, sixty troops is... rather understrength." Lares mused out loud. "They're going for quality over quantity, then?"

"The Onyx Institute's advantage is its relatively remote location. But, that remote location is also an advantage for us. Elenese equipment has to be flown in from Air Station Dola Gorod or transported through the seaport between the Institute and the Free City of Keli," JadeJavelin explained. "While they can take in more troops, that would draw more attention to what they are doing."

"In that case, are they using something like a group of Sixth River Detachment commandos?" the Forest Person asked.

The Sixth were amphibious troops originally trained for shoreline raids, but their remit had expanded to a general specialist infantry role. Despite this change, the Sixth River remained notable in their tenacity. In some ways, they were like an Elenese version of the Luxon Janissaries' Reborn Regiment, at least in esprit de corps if nothing else. These were not troops who would take garrison duty as an opportunity to slacken-off.

"That is not an unreasonable estimate," the Lady Legate stated with a ghost of a smile. "However, we are fairly confident that only one Vod is stationed at the Institute, and a light one at that."

Lares glanced at the Forward Recon Centurion, who returned his perturbed look with a nod. Doubtless they were concerned about meeting troops of their own caliber during this operation and were less than reassured by the Legate's platitudes.

A Vod was an Elenese unit similar to a Century but was sized to about fifty troops. Their doctrine put more emphasis on smaller, more specialized units to compose their basic tactical unit. Where a BlackSkyvian Cohort had six Centuries, an Elenese Bataljon had eight Vods.
"Not Sightless Specters?" the Broadcast Recon centurion asked, prompting a grunt from Lares.

JadeJavelin gave a dry but demure cough. "At least one fireteam of Specters was spotted at Dola Gorod recently. Their current whereabouts are unknown but, given their nature, that is only to be expected."

Named for their smoothed masks, reminiscent of Elenese RP helmets, the Sightless were their answer to Broadcast Recon. Instead of teleportation, however, they emphasized the tactical uses of intangibility or invisibility. Now the presence of a team of Forest People made sense. As capable as the Sightless Specters could be, they were still Diyu Demons and Lares and his boys were far larger and stronger, not to mention that the grounds of the Onyx Institute were thickly forested.

"It could be worse. We have not detected any signs of Fire Talkers or so much as a single Stone Coat," the Lady Legate said in a pro-forma tone of false reassurance.

Even Invidia glanced away as her tail flicked at that pronouncement.

Little was known about those esoteric arcane sisterhoods, but a group of the Fire Talkers could act as their own anti-air offense or defense. Stone Coats, on the other hand, were an order of extraordinarily talented golem puppeteers, able to manipulate platforms such as the Baalshem with lethal levels of fidelity as well as enhancing their stony surrogates to greater levels of power as well.

JadeJavelin flashed her fangs. "I hope that this intelligence shines some light on your previously assigned training. Broadly speaking, while it is clear that Elena has assigned a number of elite troops to the defense of the Institute, it is equally clear that they are few and swamped by numerous commitments, weaknesses that you will take full advantage of."

"What about enemy airborne fleet assets, Ma'am?" Mila Caenis asked.

Elena had an airship fleet that, while smaller than the BlackSkyvian Household Fleet, remained a capable enough branch of their navy and a factor only a fool would dismiss entirely. Our fleets at full strength might be the best in the skies, but that didn't mean another House couldn't make us bleed for our arrogance. And the Fleet girls would hardly be bringing full strength for this operation.

"Absent. No Elenese airships have been observed at Air Station Dola Gorod, the Onyx Institute, or the Free City of Keli," JadeJavelin stated. "However, the potential risk is why we will be supported by two corvettes"

"And why the two Fleet RP Squadrons should be in reserve," Quirinus stated.

The Lady Legate bowed her horns to her a barely noticeable fraction of an inch. "I suppose that covers it: a flotilla of fast attack ships with anti-air capability and their own aerial assets, a Vanguard Strike Unit of four Squadrons plus recon elements, and about sixty commandos with support by an anti-air battery, a number of medium tanks, and a troop of combat golems. The enemy has many assets, but we can mitigate them."

As her mistress spoke, Invidia discreetly projected a summary chart that diagramming the enemy's troop concentrations and the estimated number and composition of all of the units mentioned in the briefing. There were a daunting number of question marks and "UNK" annotations scattered across the diagram, bracketed by a decidedly menacing mixed force. As I studied the display, Visha pulsed reassuringly at me, clearly aware of my dismay. And dismayed I was; one could make an argument that we have rough parity with the defenses in terms of assets. In some areas we had more than the enemy, in others, they had the edge. However, I felt that going into battle with an on par enemy was something to be fervently avoided, even with the marginal advantage of surprise on our side.

JadeJavelin, meanwhile, seemed entirely unconcerned as she paused to sip from her glass. "I understand your trepidation. None of you are cowards, I'm sure each and every one of you would proudly give their life for the Imperatrix," the last part was almost sardonic, the slight Alecton accent giving a veneer of class to the common soldier's complaint.

Perhaps the CSR Brass horns were more aware of the motivations and sensibilities of Legionaries than rumored. Frankly, they would have had to have been, considering how uncharitable some of the mess chat could be.

"The Imperatrix has invested much time and considerable resources into developing your talents. And yes, your lives are being weighed against the value of the SilverHold. And Elena, clever Elena, will not leave her plunder unguarded."

Quirinus turned slightly in her position down the row to give me a cold smile, her fiery-orange eyes shining with fierce pride. My tail straightened involuntarily as my eyes widened at the brief contact. My mentor, the officer who took me under her wing, who I had always considered abundantly sensible, was thoroughly committed to this mad scheme. I had my own suspicions as to why this would be. While eminently qualified, my commander's promotion to Tribune with a Demi-Wing of her own had arrived with remarkable speed. Quirinus was no mere grudging soldier dragged along, she was diving feet first into hell, and pulling me down with her; a payment for services rendered, perhaps, or a favor repaid.

JadeJavelin nodded to her. The Volantes Tribune stood.

"It is a matter of how we organize our forces," Quirinus asserted, voice ringing with a cool confidence that plunged daggers of dread into my heart with every word. "We have a hundred troops making landfall. Yes, I would prefer that our Legionaries had more than a two to one advantage when it came to hoof-sloggers, but we have our Auxilia, Broadcast Recon, and combat casters to augment their strength."

"And the Elenese tanks and Baalshem?" Prefect Fabia asked, playing her part in an exchange that could have been pre-rehearsed for all of the spontaneity and surprise in each officer's voice. Fabia too was no stranger to the games of favor and patronage in the Legions.

"That is where you and Prefect JadeTalon's girls come in. Two squadrons of Sarpedona will make short work of such a force, no?" Quirinus asked as her eyes tracked over the room until they fell upon me.

So, it was my turn. I was, I realized, doomed to the inevitable, all hope of escape or sanity lost. Given my own superior officer and what CSR desired, I had only one option, I had to pretend to be onboard with this scheme and willing to do my best to make it succeed. That was not much of an acting stretch, as despite my misgivings I knew operational success was key to my own survivability..

I stood, feeling the cold winds of fate blowing against the nape of my neck, exactly where the rite for common executions called for the headsman's sword to fall. At least I was not feeling phantom pain in my palms or wrists. "Elena hopes their pickets will give them early warning of our assault, or if bypassed, be able to vector in as reinforcing elements. It is a trap, Onyx Institute is the bait, and Air Station Dola Gorod and the Catalan Company are the jaws. We can defeat any of the three groups but at the cost of alerting the other two."

My words were not a gesture of defiance, nor a plea for sanity. Delivered in the crisp voice of cool professionalism, they slid perfectly into place within the facade Quirinus and JadeJavelin had built around my newest prison. To all it must have looked like I too attended that theoretical rehearsal as well, I realized, as Quirinus nodded, entirely unsurprised by my observations.

"Quite, Countess. And how does one defeat a trap?" the Lady Legate inquired with an almost believable hint of curiosity that perfectly complemented her hint of an accent..

"Do you want the Fleet way, the Legion way, or the CSR way?" I asked in return, speaking words that barely felt my own as I swept my arms in a broad arc encompassing the lecture hall-like room. Perhaps I was wrong, perhaps after multiple lives of dutifully serving too-clever commanders these words were mine. "But why pick just one? There's more than enough of our Imperatrix's troops here to refine the operational plan."

And like that, for better or ill, the die was cast above Harp's World. Iacta alea est.


I controlled my breathing as my Ritualista finished bolting my Polyxo around me, taking in the scents of incense, oil, astringent alchemical products, and sweat that all swirled together in the bustling maintenance bay's heavy air. The deliberate act of breathing helped force me to focus on all of the preparations we had completed in advance of the landing on Harp's World, rather than all of the things that remained wildly outside of my control.

The last two days of travel, departing from Forlorn Prospect and journeying across a further three jumps to Harp's World, had been spent refining our mission plans. Thankfully, though the Lady Legate expected results, she had proven herself not a micromanager. Indeed, she was refreshingly perceptive at times, fully willing to accept when some element of the plan was too optimistic, too inflexible, or too ambitious. Not that this light hand had done much to put my mind at ease about the mission overall.

We had arrived at Harp's World using the beacon of Port Java, a secondary Alecton base, as our touchstone relay, homing in on our notional ally's signal across the stacked dimensions to the surface of the colonial world. The good news was that luck was with us and the beacon's navigational aid deposited us within a hundred miles of our destination, instead of, say, on the other side of the planet or somewhere... else. Traveling the Dimensional Spine could be dangerous. The bad news was that it put us about three thousand miles from the Onyx Institute.

Coming into Port Java, we looked like just like a venerable normal Mellona Medium Carrier, indistinguishable from any other military surplus vessel enjoying a second life as a Minor House's flagship or perhaps under an especially ambitious free company's banner, here for exercises with the small Alecton Navy task force and their auxiliaries. So unremarkable were we that none of those auxiliaries seemed to notice our presence as we first attached ourselves to the flotilla as it weighed anchor, nor when we ditched them late one night, out at sea and far from prying eyes.

Through that maneuver and by following an indirect heading around the coast of Leng, we minimized our exposure to civilian maritime and airborne traffic following the usual trade lanes and all but the smallest and most dispersed fishing vessels. In all, our winding course added nearly two more days of travel-time to our journey, every hour of which we used to refine our plans and make a thousand infinitesimal adjustments.

As we endlessly polished the mission details, the Tarantula Hawk's crew busied themselves with double-checking the ship's systems, carefully bringing the sophisticated Veil online with practiced ease to prevent any mysterious holes appearing in any adversarial Scrying net. It was clearly a well-drilled evolution, and I found myself wondering what other operations this particular strain of shippies had found themselves party to across any number of other obscure theaters. White they were new to this particular hull, they were clearly experienced being CSR's taxi service.

Being the Squadron with the greatest concentration of Gorgon Rigs, my pilots and I played a minor role in this massive evolution, periodically skimming out across the waves, only feet above the crests, or going to our max operating altitude to try and scry out the massive vessel, reporting back on how the Veil wrapped the hull in nothingness as the process advanced. There was no cloaking fog, there was simply an absence, and that was eventually smoothed out into just more sky.

It was... unnerving to witness how skillfully something so large could hide itself. The Tarantula Hawk almost seemed to take on a phantasmic character as it slipped in and out of thin air without so much as a whisper or errant breeze left in its wake. It made landings especially harrowing as we were utterly dependent on our instruments and the data being fed to us by Landing Ops's spirit board.

A ghost ship on a damned mission, my traitor imagination supplied unbidden.

At a half-heard order from my maintenance crew, I flexed my left hand and rotated my wrist, feeling the motion of the cool, articulated plating through my suit liner as the Ritualista checked the connections.

The true test of our quiet talents came with the scheduled rendezvous with the HVF Nightjar, as the two airships and their accompanying RP formations tried to find each other without screaming out our presence to all those with ears to hear, eyes to see, and horns to feel. Thankfully, the barren patch of ocean we were scheduled to meet over was far from any normal patrol route run by the Catalan Company or any other Elenese-affiliated naval force, making the risk of detection minimal. Still, paranoia remained our newly combined force's constant companion as we sailed on.

Thankfully, before we got underway again we had time enough to use one of our special Umbra transports to transfer over some relatively fresh food to the tiny corvette, some mission-critical supplies, and a handful of Ritualista from my Squadron to help bolster their own support staff for the mission ahead.

It was not that the HVF Nightjar did not have their own Ritualista, but given the ship's nine Ritual Plate consisted of two Flights of Harmonia and two of the Operation's four Svalinna suits, they lacked some of the munitions and mission-modules required for the primary plan. They were also more trained in keeping Harmonia operational and swapping out the specialized ward projectors their Svalinna used.

An errant clang pulled my attention back to the present. I could feel the nervous tension mounting all around me, invisible pressure rising until all present seemed to almost thrum in place, hovering at the cusp of snapping. The air thronged with flights of excited spirits and even with the fog of calming incense there was an air of acute anxiety permeating the Ritual Plate bay. This mission would mark the first time my Squadron went into combat as a unit, and for three of my pilots, it would be their first time seeing combat in earnest.

I found myself somewhat regretting my choice to lump all of my greenhorn Legion Fliers into VioletBlood's Flight. Talented as she might be, she was as new to command as they were to fighting for their lives. I had given her Flight special attention these last couple days, but there was only so much my training and lessons could do for them in the face of live combat. Still, this was what they had signed up for.

Who was I, after all, to deny the flower of BlackSkyian nobility the chance to earn their own red badges of courage?

The clamps retracted, the ritual continued, and as tradition Centurion Gibbs offered a helping hand and hauled me to my metal-shod feet. I was the first up; everyone else in Third Squadron was still being suited-up. Due to the transfer to that corvette, some of the other Ritualista teams were a bit short handed, but thankfully not to the extent that performance was significantly affected. Perhaps if we were to be doing round the clock sorties the reduced maintainers would tell, but if that happened then the mission would have far greater problems than short-staffed Ritualista.

The pre-flight checklist was extensive. The squawk-list of maintenance items for every Polyxo was winnowed down during the time spent since we learned about the Tarantula Hawk weeks ago. Despite that, suit systems had to be checked, survival kits surveyed and confirmed, Ballista cells were charged, environmental settings such as gravity and sea level pressure were confirmed to be set to Harp's World, water flask topped off and broth cubes restocked, magazines of pebbles for the Verutum Launcher filled, fresh power cells slotted in, until finally the bracing and fiddly part... bolting the conformal Lance Batteries firmly into place.

For a moment I had the luxury of an immobile, captive audience, still in the process of being suited up in full strike-mode package. A hush fell over the maintenance compartment as I strode to the front, steel boots ringing against the deck in the sudden silence.

"Ladies! A moment of your time," I ordered, my stern voice letting it carry without yelling. Nobody respected a screamer.

Eleven pairs of eyes, some already behind the lenses and death masks of their helmets, turned to face me. The Ritualista, characteristically, ignored me;they had more important things to pay attention to than any pep talk I could deliver. I cast a critical eye over my pilots; none looked or felt overly terrified, meriting an approving nod for their pluck.

Oh, I could see their nerves and even the traces of poorly concealed fear crowding the corners of their faces, and feel their anxious emotions swirling amongst the compartment, but those were acceptable; sensible even, given the munitions strapped to them and the mission with which we had been tasked. Oh yes, fear was quite reasonable indeed...

I lifted my faceplate, opened my gauntleted hands in apology, and gave them all a broad smile that challenged that lurking, all-too-reasonable dread. "I know you're disappointed," I called out, "I was quite upset myself, hearing that we won't be the first to launch, that an honor that should be ours has been given to the Occultia Flight! I was incensed to learn that we will not even be the second! That would be our Fleet cousins on the HFV Desert Strix and HFV Nightjar, who no doubt are rejoicing in the honor of bringing our Imperatrix's express displeasure down upon that wretched excuse of an Elenese Air Station!

"Instead, we will be settling for the third blood, I am afraid. Fitting perhaps for Third Squadron, eh?"

There was polite laughter. It was a poor joke but it broke some tension. Combined with my theatrical display of mock irritation about not flying first into the teeth of our target, the stress of the moment began to subside and strained faces started to relax. From adjoining maintenance bays came the rattle and shouted orations of the other four Squadrons and Prefect Crystal Candida's Flight making their own preparations. And truth be told, the Nightjar would be doing more for us for this phase of the operation than the Fleet Pilots.

That we could even hear the pilots in the starboard bays shows the magnitude of their gusto. I knew that the VTOL pilots and the entire ground mission contingent would likewise be making their own final rituals and listening to the exhortations of their own officers. The Tarantula Hawk almost vibrated with the frantic movements of all of the personnel readying themselves for the launch.

"Despite our poorly drawn lot, let's take a moment and get the administrative work out of the way," I said before buttoning up my helmet and activating a communication channel. "Flight Ops, this is Third Squadron Actual, requesting a comms and data check."

The procedure was painlessly and professionally completed as Flight Ops confirmed that each Polyxo had linked up successfully. I also verified that my Squadron-level channel and the Flight-level channels of the three Primus Centurions under me were all valid, clear, and received by Ops, and that all requisite data-sharing and recording protocols had been enacted.

Satisfied with the results and not wanting to take up more of Flight Ops' time, I popped my faceplate back open and addressed my Squadron again.

"The Onyx Institute is well-defended with layered assets of complementary types. A suspicious amount of substandard military material has been dedicated to protecting a provincial research station, but thankfully our friends in the Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance have been quite forthcoming in their intel briefs." I smiled joylessly. "One could even say that they have done their homework quite thoroughly, and now it is up to us to hand it in to whatever fools the Elenese dignify as professors!"

There was another smattering of laughter at my strained joke, more than it honestly deserved. I could hear the layers in that laughter; part pity-laugh, part the humor of demons who would laugh at anything now that they were placed in the most absurd of all situations, when all the lies about the value of life, the nobility of honor, and the richness and joy of the individual experience were stripped away. Through it all ran a knowing amusement, even from the rookies; that I was not being sarcastic about the forthrightness of the CSR was a source of grim humor. Every Legionary hoof-slogger knew that the only thing worse than the spooks keeping you in the dark was when the spooks actually answered your questions.

"Ladies," I continued, "we have a busy night ahead of ourselves. All of us have busy nights. But for us, first and foremost, the Catalan Company awaits." I lowered my arms and took in the rows of suits, each costing millions of Aurei and piloted by a Legionary possessing dedication, skill, and rare talent. Even Lavish RoseTalon deserved to be here, as much as any of us deserved what was soon to come; I would have kicked her out otherwise.

Perhaps she would have thanked me for it eventually, remote though the possibility may be. Other noble brats I had cut from the cadet program had done just that, but most of them had more sense than her.

"A flotilla of about eight Blauvelt fast attack ships await us. Kindly keep in mind when you greet them that you are not backwater mercenaries nor manic broodlings; you are Imperial Legionaries." I was stone; my voice permafrost. "There will be no bounties or competitions to see who sinks the most. There will be no celebrations nor individual flights of fancy, showboating, or exhibitions of prowess. This is not training, it is not dueling, and neither is it entertainment. Nor is this the time for complacency. Even knowing we will be facing maybe a Squadron of Archers and a Squadron of Yeomen, even knowing the weaknesses of their ships, we will be nothing but consummate professionals, all of us."

Thanks to the Alectons, we knew the presumed weaknesses in the Blauvelt's scrying system. The vectors, altitudes, and Veiling profiles that would allow us to enter undetected, hopefully, into Lance-range as well as information detailing what points on the tiny hulls had the least warding protection were all known to us, a practical embarrassment of tactical detail. I had some personal doubts about the practical utility of our information, as surely the Catalan Company also knew at least some of these limitations and would have taken steps to address such weaknesses. Surely that would inform the deployment of their RP Squadrons in the defense of their flotilla.

My Squadron knew the mission and had been briefed as fully as was necessary, but this was my last chance to fully impress its gravity upon them and to get a final read on my troops.

"The Company's tiny fleet doubles as the Institute's southern warning system and the cruise missiles those ships carry represent both a threat to our airships and to any landing ground elements. An unimpeded barrage will ruin this mission and leave the lot of us stranded far from home, especially if some Elenese pilot feeds them targeting data. The flotilla must be sunk."

The mission planners, including the other Prefects and I, were loath to split our forces but the early phase of the operation had all but demanded a multi-pronged approach. All three sites needed to come under simultaneous attack. The marginal advantages we enjoyed were so thin that we needed to maximize the benefit of surprise before the Elenese could properly rally and counter attack.

In that necessity rested my concern. While the Catalan Company and Onyx Institute were at least somewhat deniable Elenese assets, Air Station Dola Gorod was a House Elena base under the Elenese banner. Given we expected to fight Elenese troops and golems at the Institute, it was a rather technical point, but from such technicalities sprang the causi belli that sired wars. The CSR appeared blithely confident that there would be no escalatory retribution for our actions tonight.

I did not share their optimism.

"The SilverHold is not our concern," I directed. "Making sure the people who are putting their hooves on the ground are able to survive long enough to grab it, fight their way back out, and return safely to this ship with the package, however, is." I studied the three Flights under me. "That means that it is our job to clear a path for our friends by cutting down every obstacle in our area of operation and to hold that path open for as long as it remains necessary."

I met GreyDawn's gaze: she was also evaluating her fellow Legionary Fliers and our eyes met over their armored shoulders. My senior pilot nodded. Beside her, Visha gave me a confident smile, sapphire eyes burning with a fiery trust I wasn't sure I deserved. I knew, in my heart, that if I asked her to help me storm the gates of Hell or Heaven, she would be there right behind me, rucksack over a shoulder, weapon in hand, and a merry grin on her lips.

Though given how well that worked out last time I tried it, I suppose I couldn't blame the girl for her enthusiasm.

Standing with her Flight, VioletBlood gave me a cocky grin as her tail flicked. Her green eyes smoldered with defiance as she closed her faceplate and motioned for her crew chief to pull her up to her feet. Part of me still felt worried as I watched her, an irrational fragment of my heart that twisted when it thought of all the ways things could go wrong for the young demoness. It was doubly irrational as, ignoring past lives, she was older than me and had been fighting by my side since we were both cadets. I pushed the fear aside, placing my faith… my trust in her skill and composure I had seen with my own eyes, rather than what might happen.

Besides, if VioletBlood is true to form, her post-mission celebration will be far more demanding than any enemy action, I reminded myself.

And that left the head of Flight Three. Lucia Hood remained a bit of a mystery to me, but her purple eyes were all serious. To her three pilots, she was a stabilizing anchor, but I still found myself wondering if she trusted me enough to allow me to anchor her as a commander should.

For a brief moment, our eyes met. The Lantian woman gave a tiny smile. It was a ghost of LoveBlood's mad grin, but still, it was there.

I made a show of looking at the clock bolted to the bulkhead. Given how most of the Great Houses had eventually adopted our timekeeping, a Diyu day had twenty-four hours. That House Alecto used said clock for their international shipping was a major factor in its general adoption. Thus, the clock on the bulkhead had a double marking system, the hour hand making a full rotation every twelve hours, but each hour had two marks.

There was something comforting about seeing simple mechanical clocks with a double-marking system. Time-pieces like this had been in use across all three of my lives. Though I had little personal experience the first time around, it remained a unifying factor.

In this case, the clock was running on Diyu time, specially Silvan, but that was fine; that just meant that local dawn was at some nonsensical hour.

VioletBlood was the first to join me. My betrothed sized me up for a moment before bowing her horns and stepping to one side to let Visha approach.

"We're ready, Countess," VioletBlood promised.

"This is not quite what I expected our first mission as a Squadron to be like," I lied smoothly. Something of this nature had been among my list of fears when I had accepted the promotion.

Also on that list were a Corpus Incursio-sized landing, supporting a long-term occupation, and a variety of other types of skullduggery. Compared to the types of things CSR got their talons into, a raid to steal some high-value artifact seemed almost straightforward. Of course, given how secretive the Lady Legate had been about the artifact in question and the general trajectory of all my lives, I sincerely doubted it would stay that way.

"But we will rise up and complete the mission," Visha assured.

"The Islander Girl is right," VioletBlood said, seemingly with a degree of fondness for her fellow Flight Leader.

More pilots stood with Ritualista assistance as their checks finished and Lucia approached me after her Flight found their feet again. Her eyes were hidden behind the saintly death mask that made up her helmet's faceplate. The features were a bit customized, but at least they were not modeled after DarkStar's features.

I might have had to say something if they were. While there was no rule against wearing the mask in her likeness, it was seen as quite presumptive and could reflect badly on the entire unit in the wrong eyes. Even I, with my undeserved reputation, could not get away with such a thing. While the Church had given me not so subtle hints that they would not mind if I had taken upon a more overtly religious death mask, one in DarkStar's likeness was, thankfully, still beyond me.

My deflection was that the face-plate was part of the gift my duchess had given me for my twelfth birthday and I wanted to honor the martial traditions of my adoptive family. Though in the interests of mollifying ecclesiastical interests, I had over the years added more iconography to my suit. Indeed, I had only actually approved of some of those additions after the fact; upon my inquiries, Gibbs had mildly indicated that she was merely echoing my sartorial choices and that such symbols were far more prevalent on my off-duty wear.

An unlikely story, but I'd had the sense not to push any further.

As if in response to my appraisal of her faceplate, Lucia in turn lowered her head to take in the gold four-pointed stars adorning my greaves and breastplate. Ostentatious ornamentation aside, they were hardly unique. I was far from the only person in my Squadron to bear such marks, and they fit within the regulation requirements. When taking Veiling into consideration, such coloration hardly mattered.

Besides, my wings would be far more noteworthy.

"Flight Three is ready," Lucia stated with every confidence as she walked up; her hooves ringing on the deck.

Her confidence was commendable, though I supposed it was easier to project surety when speaking from behind the cover of a mask. Even if her eyes could not be seen, at least she had visible eye-lenses; it made her visage more... relatable, as opposed to the featureless style of helm the Elenese heathens preferred. With her faceplate down, her voice was a bit distorted given it had to go through the external speakers, something that gave her a bit more gravitas.

I nodded to her. "I have no doubts." I pointedly did not look at VioletBlood and her Flight of greenhorns.

GreyDawn had also risen to her feet and now was lurking off to the side and watching as the rest of the Squadron got up. A dozen Legionary Fliers in gleaming white, gold, and black Ritual Plate with enough munitions to take out a battleship formation was satisfyingly intimidating.

It was a short walk forward from the maintenance bay to the port Catapult gallery. Fitted between First Squadron's bay and Third Squadron's, the gallery housed a battery of four Catapults. Outboard of the gallery were the RP landing tunnels, with the takeoff, landing, and touch-and-go angles all carefully laid out to prevent any interference, a feature left thankfully untouched in the ship's conversion.

By the time we arrived, the gallery was already bustling with technicians tending carefully to the advanced machinery and consoles. Only a handful of First Squadron, including the Fleet Flight, had arrived yet, though they had taken the opportunity to monopolize the area directly around the launch cradles. Sleek in grey and black Harmonia armor adorned with gold trim, the shippies and Caenis's girls managed to look irritatingly fast even while standing around waiting.

Primus Baroness Crystal Candida had her faceplate up and was glancing about the gallery in a way that barely concealed her disdain for just about everyone in the compartment. I supposed she would have preferred this to have been a purely Fleet operation as I nodded in recognition towards her, a perfunctory smile stretching unseen below my mask.

There were a number of Fleet personnel checking the launchers and coordinating with Landing and Launch Ops. I had a bit of amusement at the mental image of the sober operations personnel moving a dozen mankin-like tokens on their big display board. Given all the forces about to deploy, they would be very busy right now.

There was a bit of relief from the shippy techies when they saw my Squadron approach, fully suited and early enough to count as "on time".

The Primary Circuit chimed and the overhead speaker activated. "This is Praefectus Commodore SharpTail," the Fleet officer said in a gruff but precise voice.

Normally a Mellona would be captained by a Trierarch, but given the value of the Tarantula Hawk, it made some sense that her commander would be a grade higher.

"Launch operations are about to commence," SharpTail continued. "The importance of this mission cannot be overstressed, and for this mission to succeed, the landing parties require an intact ship to return to. I expect everyone aboard this ship to do their duty. Ladies, you may launch when ready."

The speaker cut off.

Relieved by the brevity, I turned to look at my pilots. "You heard the Praefectus," I stated, pitching my voice to carry through the compartment. "We've got our task laid out for us. If you'll line up and be patient, we'll be in the air before you know it."

The tension crept back for a moment before the Flight leaders took their Pilots in hand, busying themselves with chivvying the Ritual Plate-clad demons into a queue.

The launcher technicians finished securing the Catapult tunnels and a woman wearing Optio's badges motioned for us to advance by Flight, as a quartet of Catapults would launch us four at a time.

Which was how Lavish RoseTalon ended up standing behind me, queued up behind the Number Two catapult. With her faceplate down, the Senator's daughter seemed composed enough.

"Prefect, I would like to thank you for giving me a chance," she nodded to me, her voice a little bit tinny, an artifact of when the external speakers were dialed down. Her tail was kept rigidly straight.

"You did earn it," I acknowledged, my own voice having the same effect.

"Yes, but you could have..." She coughed into her hand. The affectation rendered a farcical pantomime given her gauntlets and her mask's non-functional mouth. "Encouraged me to take another path."

"You earned it," I repeated. "Centurion, we've known each other for a year. These are just nerves. Listen to VioletBlood, remember your training, you will be fine." The platitudes slipped past my lips with the ease of practice.

Nodding, her stance almost furtive, she began to speak. "I've made arrange-"
I cut her off with a raised hand. "There's no need to tell me about your last letter. I know you did everything right. You need not worry. Focus on your duty now."

She straightened up, a bit of her heroine worship still shining through, despite the months of intense training and my best attempts to beat such idealism out of my trainee's heads. "Yes, Prefect Countess!" she saluted sharply.

With my speakers off, I returned the salute. At least it was easy to keep in my sigh and frustrated groan. I had to get used to the closed-in environment of breathing recycled suit air anyway. I gave her a nod and turned on my heel. Sometimes the ridiculous footwear had some advantages.

I stood in the hangar, awaiting my time in the launch queue. I knew intellectually that the wait was short, but it still felt like a subjective eternity. My heart thrummed in my chest with every second, respirators whirred in my ear, and artificially chilled air blew on my nose and mouth. All these background nuances brought front and center, consuming every scrap of attention and patience I had while I watched the clock tick down, second by second.

Finally, one of the Fleet ratings motioned for me to step forward.

My heels locked into the Catapult's shuttle, already vibrating from the power in the charged accelerators.

I started spinning up my Zephyr, the air spirits were excited and eager to leap to my call. I could practically feel them whirl across the surface of my suit, churning with barely contained energy. I started to kindle my Veils.

Guided by the business-like contact from the launch crew, I leaned forward and took the proper stance as the team went down their checklist. Air blew around my suit as the Zephyr started to push my locked legs against the shuttle, their exhaust deflected into ducting.

Licking my lips I went down the indicator lights at the corner of my vision, checking and rechecking to make sure every last piece was in order. After confirming that they were all green, and with blood pounding in my ears, I finally gave verbal and physical confirmation. The launch rating nodded and with one arm raised up unlocked a control lever.

Yet still, more waiting; the launch boss who controlled the gallery wanted all four Catapults to be ready. The delay was short, but with my air spirits pushing both my body and my will and my eyes focused on the spot of darkness at the end of the yawning tunnel before me, the handful of seconds seemed to draw out.

Then the lights around the launch tunnel flashed.

Suddenly, it felt like I was hit in the chest with a battering ram. The crew and the launch gallery vanished from sight. My stomach lurched. My breathing stopped. My Zephyr pushed against my straining wings. I shot down the tunnel, vision narrowing to a point and turning gray.

Then I hurtled out into the open night sky, wings aloft, spirits humming, and breath catching. As the last bits of stress fell into the well worn grooves of routine in my body and mind, my suit's display updated.

For Third Squadron, Operation Epimetheus had begun.

End Chapter 24

And here we go. Just a simple smash and grab.

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

And special thanks to metaldragon868 for helping expand the final scene. And to Readhead for elevating a lot of Tauria's dialog and for most of the Latin and literary references.

Also Peer Rivals Parts 2 and 3 have drafts that are being edited now
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I think Tanya should have simply said "Well, based of my previous experience, all plans should assume there's double the numbers the spooks just said. Good luck to you all."

Seperate note, I think the "Item" is a person. Likely the kid of somebody impressive. I get the feeling they're the daughter of the Royal Elenain family.
One of these days, Tanya is going to get her Vs to behave. How many shopping bags worth of BDSM toys that takes is up for debate though.

They behave, mostly, when on duty. And yeah now that the engagement is formalized, the clock is ticking. Tauria can only delay a wedding for so many years. Especially with all the pressures on her to do so.
And while I'm not sure she'd have anything too specific, recall that Visha did bring her to that "leather goods" store when they were in the capital.

I think Tanya should have simply said "Well, based of my previous experience, all plans should assume there's double the numbers the spooks just said. Good luck to you all."

Seperate note, I think the "Item" is a person. Likely the kid of somebody impressive. I get the feeling they're the daughter of the Royal Elenain family.

Hehehe, Tauria could have said that. She is trying to be a bit more diplomatic. Though how well that works....

That's an interesting idea for the item. Though that does raise the question of said daughter being a research asset, and some non-Diyu power thinking she was stolen from them. So... perhaps not quite that.
This is clearly going to be a smash-and-grab, emphasis on smash. Timing also probably shouldn't be simultaneous. Depending on insertion methods, the ground team should be trying to maintain stealth as long as possible before the alarm is raised. First target to be hit should be the boats. Once alerted, they can probably offer long-range missile support effectively immediately. The air station should be hit a little later - long enough for them to get their aircraft out of the shelters, but not long enough to get them in the air.

Also, do ground bases have RP catapults for combat launches, or is that exclusive to mobile RP platforms?
This is clearly going to be a smash-and-grab, emphasis on smash. Timing also probably shouldn't be simultaneous. Depending on insertion methods, the ground team should be trying to maintain stealth as long as possible before the alarm is raised. First target to be hit should be the boats. Once alerted, they can probably offer long-range missile support effectively immediately. The air station should be hit a little later - long enough for them to get their aircraft out of the shelters, but not long enough to get them in the air.

Hehe, yeah quite the smash. And quite so, the opening phases would be staggered based on their roles. And the ground attack does have a stealth phase before things get... loud. As they have troops for a quite sneak and sabotage, with the eye towards setting up the larger ground combat to secure the SilverHold and pull it out.

Also, do ground bases have RP catapults for combat launches, or is that exclusive to mobile RP platforms?

Quite so! It would be more for established ground bases given the setup and power requirements.
They behave, mostly, when on duty. And yeah now that the engagement is formalized, the clock is ticking. Tauria can only delay a wedding for so many years. Especially with all the pressures on her to do so.
And while I'm not sure she'd have anything too specific, recall that Visha did bring her to that "leather goods" store when they were in the capital.
The wedding itself is probably going to be rather interesting, depending on how involved in the planning and stuff that Tanya has to be involved with.
The wedding itself is probably going to be rather interesting, depending on how involved in the planning and stuff that Tanya has to be involved with.

And how much her mothers get involved. As that has a chance for some noble and church influence. Not to mention Tauria is an up and coming officer.

So it could be quite the big to-do.
Chapter 25: Smooth Sailing
The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

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

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

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

Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.

C&C as always is wanted.

Chapter 25: Smooth Sailing

Flight One of Third Squadron skimmed over the waves, toes all but touching the dark salt-sea below us. Our altitude was low enough that we each had to direct-guide our Zephyr to keep from kicking up rooster-tail wakes behind us.

Our Veils thrummed with arcane energy, their gains cranked all the way up to max power and pitched to counter the Scrying systems of our target: a formation of three Catalan Company Blauvelt fast attack boats. Sailing at a good velocity and in a somewhat dispersed pattern, the enemy ships were an inviting target. According to the local clock, it was quite early and the local star wouldn't rise for hours to come; the ship's crew should be deep into the back half of a long, dull nightshift.

Inviting though the target was, I could not invest much attention towards it. Indeed, I had to resist the urge to adjust our heading; this wasn't my show, I reminded myself. For now, Volantes Primus Centurion Victorious Shadow was in charge of Flight One. Micromanaging her would both undermine her command and detract from my responsibilities, namely that my Squadron had two other Flights.

"Flight One, adjust heading to West, 292" Visha calmly ordered over the Flight channel, easing my tension as she demonstrated her competency yet again. In addition to resetting our sea level pressure, gravity, and atheircs, the compass and other navigation systems were also reset when we arrived on Harp's World.

Then I looked at the larger tactical map and that gnawing tension returned with interest. While my responsibility did not seem insurmountable overall, the greater context of the operation gave me pause. The Catalan Company had eight Blauvelts, three of them in port, two patrolling well to the west of here, and the final three that we were rapidly approaching.

That their Elenese mistresses had not ordered the Catalan Company to sortie all of their vessels indicated that Operation Epimetheus still had the element of surprise and that the Onyx Institute was unaware of the impending raid. But still...

There is just so much room for something to go wrong here...

I sipped some water from the hydration tube, trying to distract myself from the fruitless worry. "Diamond Actual to Flight Two Actual," I said, opening up on the Squadron command channel before switching to a private one-to-one sub-channel.

"Flight Two Actual here, go ahead," VioletBlood crisply replied. My heart swelled, she actually sounded the part of a Legionary Flier Flight Leader.

"How is your approach?" Of the three targets, Flight Two's were closest.

"Functionally there. Keli's civilian air traffic control systems are limited, they won't spot us and only one of the Catalan ships in harbor has an active scrying array. The others are cold."

I blinked. It was a bit surprising, the apparent good fortune at the Catalan's lax procedures, but the Baroness was the commander on scene and I would trust her judgment. "Confirm two boats are cold."

"Confirm. They must have been doing some maintenance earlier or maybe they're saving on fuel, either way it'll take some time to get up to steam," VioletBlood practically purred the colloquialism. From the briefings, she knew as well as I did the Blauvelt class didn't use steam engines. "I have passive intake from four Gorgon Rigs."

The offer was unspoken. She could send me the imagery and scrying intake. It was my prerogative, but I trusted LoveBlood and I did not have time to double-check her work.

"Good, that'll be useful for damage evaluation after your strikes." I paused. "What about the secondary targets?"

"They are all feasible, especially if we can get those two ships before they can power up any intercept systems," VioletBlood's confidence bleed through the voice channel as she expressed a complete lack of qualms about her mission.

This was why I had given VioletBlood this task: it presented easier targets for her rookie subordinates to gut their teeth on while remaining important enough to require one of my most personally loyal centurions, someone who would not question the choice of secondary targets. Reminding myself of those points made suppressing the brief qualms I felt easy. "Have you detected any enemy Ritual Plate?"

"A Flight well north of the city," came the prompt reply from VioletBlood, accompanied by the scrying output. It was still long-range, with only partial plots available. "Performance curves are likely too advanced for Archers. Flight Ops suspects those were Elenese Marzanna air-superiority suits on the southern end of their patrol circuit with a lower order likelihood that these were Volos pattern suits pretending to be Marzanna, but that sounds like boffins hedging their bets to me."

"And they've already turned heading back north?" I asked, studying the map display. The enemy flight path, now being tracked by our Occultia, would bring them close to the Institute.

"No doubt First Squadron will be giving them a warm welcome," VioletBlood gleefully stated.

"Probably," I allowed, holding myself aloof from her enthusiasm.

"Will this affect the timetable? Flight Ops does not think so but... well, you do have local command for this mission phase," the Baroness finished showing nobility's eye for ruthlessness, technicalities, and plausible deniability.

I kept in a sigh. I had no one to blame but myself for this. I picked VioletBlood for this task because she would trust me over Flight Ops or the mission planners. "No, we stick with the timetable."

"Unless some unexpected complication plants a barb in our eyes," VioletBlood countered, aggressive as always in expanding her margins.

"Yes," I conceded, "unless that. I'll get back at minus two with all the Flight Leaders. Diamond Actual out."

"Understood," VioletBlood replied.

I took a moment to exhale and center myself before going to a new sub-channel. "Diamond Actual to Flight Three Actual."

"This is Flight Three," Primus Centurion Lucia Hood promptly replied. "Our status is green, nothing to report."

I paused; her reply was brusque, but within communications etiquette, if barely. "That in and of itself is noteworthy."


"You didn't detect any enemy Ritual Plate," I stated.


"So where are the Catalan Company's Squadrons?" I asked.

Much to my frustration, that particular formation had been lost in the shuffle of our preparations. This mission did not have enough Occultia to keep up a persistent watch, especially since all four of those suits were to be active right now. Flight Ops estimated that the mercenary Plate had been split up to accompany the three formations of Blauvelts, but I now found myself doubting that guess. Splitting your forces into penny-packets risked defeat in detail; a fear of just that sort of defeat had begun to set in and was squeezing my chest right now as the three Blauvelts continued their merry way, unencumbered by any aerial assets.

"Ah," Lucia sighed, realizing the issue. "You would have updated me if they had been spotted."

"Myself or Flight Ops, yes," I kept any chastisement out of my voice. Primus Hood was new to my command. Yes, we had trained extensively, but this was a true combat operation, and even the best simulation paled before harsh reality.

"The weather is nominal, but I suppose we're far enough out to avoid any of the SilverHold's effects. Whatever that thing is," Lucia said, grumbleding in my ear.

Glancing at the map display projected to the side of my vision, I automatically expanded its range. Despite my cheerleading before we'd launched in third in line, my Squadron was likely to get first blood.

The other formations simply had targets that were further out. Air Station Dola Gorod was the furthest to the north with the Institute roughly half as far. An additional factor was that the Fleet assets also had to reposition.

"I expect that to get worse once we have hoofs-on-the-ground," I admitted as I adjusted my heading a bit per the instructions Visha had transmitted.

"Especially if we secure air superiority," Lucia noted, doing wonders for the pulsing knot of tension wrapped around my throat.

"There is that a concern as well," I sighed in agreement. If the Elense troops found that they no longer had to worry about allied forces in the air, then they could use whatever arcane weather magic they had access to brew up a mighty tempest and drive our forces away, possibly freezing them right out of the sky.

"We've done all we can, and the die has already been cast. What will happen will happen, and our task is merely to play our roles to perfection. Everything else is in DarkStar's hands now." Lucia's tone was fatalistic, her reply doleful.

"I'm not prideful enough to demand she intercede on my behalf," I said, conceding the point while resisting the urge to snap at her to fix her attitude. "At minus two I'll have a check in with all the Flight Leaders."


"Diamond Actual out," I transmitted and sighed, wishing I could rub the bridge of my nose. Sadly, the suit kept me from that particular stress reliever, never mind the more metaphorical mask my responsibilities demanded of me. Speaking of which, said responsibilities meant that I had yet another call to place. I changed to a new channel. "HVF Nightjar this is Third Squadron, Diamond Actual."

There was a brief pause. "HFV Nightjar, go ahead Diamond," said an almost gratingly chipper voice in the carefully smooth tones of a comms dispatcher.

"Status check-in," I said before checking the handshake and sending my Flight's position data, and then confirming the receipt. "We are go for the strike."

"We are also in position," the dispatcher said as my display updated itself with the Nightjar's data.

From within the privacy of my helmet, I frowned and asked, "Nightjar, you are closer than I had expected. Not your support isn't welcome, but is everything okay?"

As the Catalan Company had dispersed their ships both to watch a larger area and to prevent them from clustering as one large target, there were some limits to what one Kolibri class corvette could do, at least not without emptying her magazines. And the Nightjar's sister, the Desert Strix, had already sailed off to the north-east to support the incipient raid on the Elenese Air Station.

It was a delicate balancing act for the colonial mercenaries, as even if they sent all eight of their Blauvelts on a broad picket line there would still be considerable space between them. The sheer expanse of sea they had to secure was simply too large for their available forces. That said, their scrying systems would still detect most ships, which was why this operation was using four specialist highly-veiled Fleet vessels and why my Squadron was approaching on the attack vectors they were. But, by concentrating closer to the shore, the mercenaries would at least have some chance to relay an early warning to the Onyx Institute and the Free City of Keli.

"Negative Diamond. Based on enemy readiness, command has authorized closer support from the corvettes for the initial phase," the dispatcher said breezily with a blithe confidence that truly did grate on my stressed nerves.

"I see," I exhaled. I would have preferred to have been kept in the loop on this matter, but the mission had so far been just one frustration after another. What was yet another to throw on the pile? Legionaries were expected to carry the load no matter how heavy.

"The Occultia have confirmed that the enemy's stockings are down and their garters are nowhere to be found," the dispatcher chirped solidifying her place on my shit-list.

"I see," I replied flatly, my stomach tightening with anxiety. I wanted to believe we would get lucky on this mission, despite all my experience screaming to the contrary, but so far the sheer lack of any flies in the ointment was only raising my hackles. The longer we were on "smooth sailing" the heavier the impending boot hanging over us.

"Well, why don't you send us a pair of Svalinna just in case?" I asked with as much noble hauteur as I could summon to make it clear I was joking. Our entire flotilla had only four warding suits, and for this phase they were being placed to intercept anything the air station or the mercenary flotilla launched towards our landing forces.

"Oh, you know? Maiden Two has been diverted to provide direct support. I'll patch you through!"

My entire face twitched, and I had to hold my tongue before a curse could escape it over the microphone. "Does Flight Ops know about this diversion?" I carefully asked instead, keeping the anger out of my voice. It was not like this dispatcher was the one making these choices, including not keeping the field commanders informed.

"You'll have to ask Maiden Two, they're the ones who informed us."

"Ah, by all means," I allowed. At least now I could make some adjustments to the plan.


The mission clock read minus two. It had taken some prompt and succinct discussion with Flight Ops to unsnarl the... improvisations. At the root, someone in Flight Ops, upon seeing the enemy's seeming torpor, had decided to adjust things. That was all fine and good, but she had then failed to push the update to all the relevant field commanders, which was decidedly not.

I got the brief pleasure of hearing Lady Legate JadeJavelin cut into the channel to express her displeasure by using the aged expertise of her sardonic wit to rapierlike effect. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, the comms channel had gone private shortly after that, putting that diversion to bed. Interestingly, based on the differing distortion it did not sound like the Lady Legate was onboard the Tarantula Hawk, an insight into a further difference from my understanding of the mission that I could have done without. Frankly, my goblet was already overflowing with these "little surprises", and I was running quite low on patience for any more diversions from CSR's already overly-complicated plan.

"This is Diamond Actual," I said over the channel. "We are counting down to the strike. Catalan Company RP is still absent. I want a go no-go from each of you. If you aren't in position, if the enemy did something surprising, if you have a mechanical fault, kindly tell me s much."

I exhaled. "Flight One?"

"Go, Prefect," Visha stated, her tone crisp and clear.

"Flight Two?"

"Go, Countess," VioletBlood purred, her Flight had dropped down in altitude and was on a vector that would take them over much of the shipyards

"Flight Three?"

"We are Go, Ma'am," Lucia tersely stated.


"Birds are in the air," the Corvette's dispatcher cheerily replied.

"Maiden Two?" I asked. I would have preferred more time to get them to rendezvous to provide direct support, but the timetable was too tight, and I could count myself lucky to have them at all.

"Go, Diamond Actual," Lady Primus Felicity IvoryQuiver stated with the precise diction of an alum of a Silvan finishing school. Despite her apparent refinement, I found the Fleet Pilot and her wingwoman professional enough in our quick conversation. Though the elite Svalinna pilots seemed oddly diffident to me.

"Confirm," I stated, then centered myself. "Flight Ops. Flight Ops. This is Diamond Actual. Third Squadron is ready. Commencing attack runs now."

A dozen Polyxo Advanced Multi-Role suits accelerated with Zephyr at max sustained output which was a tithe below redline. Fuel burn went from high to prodigious soon our struggling Veiling systems would be overwhelmed. The faster a Ritual Plate pushed, the more it strained the systems. This early into such a demanding operation I was not willing to risk my Squadron's suits more than I had to.

Time was the Blauvelt fast attack boat's main defense, and distance was of course a function of time. Using our Veils and Alecton intelligence, my Squadron and other assets were still lurking, doing our best to erode that armor as much as possible before we were detected. But as the distance shrank between our targets and my oncoming swarm of Ritual Plate, the power of their Scrying systems grew inversely stronger. It was a race to see if those systems would pierce our Veils before we were close enough for it to no longer matter.

Of course, the mercenaries had the advantage of terrain, so to speak. Flying across an open sea left us with no cover to hide behind, no environmental factors to strengthen our hand. VioletBlood's flight over the shipyard also limited her Flight's concealment options, though nowhere near as much as my other two Flights. On such a clear approach, any detection of an incoming strike would prompt a launch of anti-air missiles, followed soon after by rapidly scrambling Ritual Plate. If we only targeted a single boat, the others in the flotilla would be able to respond.

Hence, the dilution of my forces to hit the entire flotilla. Hence, the altitudes and astern approach vectors. Hence, trusting Invida's associates. Hence, trusting Alecton assurances on the Blauvelt's weaknesses.

That last part was my greatest concern and the one that squeezed my heart every time I considered how much depended on the word of Perfidious Alecto. My breath caught in my throat as I watched my Squadron dash toward the enemy ships. Around each of the three formations on my readout were thick concentric lines, the outermost of which was an orange line representing the nominal detection range.

My pilots hit the line and... started to cross. The half dozen active mercenary attack boats continued their present heading.

The center of my display was filled with passive imagery of BL-03, my target. The narrow little ship was gliding over the sea with her two companions following at either side.

And then we were on the other side of the line. Nothing rocketed up from the enemy ships. I exhaled and my heart rate crawled down from its murderous pace. My Flight Leaders were busy giving orders and checking everyone's targeting. I knew better than to meddle at this stage and merely confirmed to Visha that I had acquired my target.

At this point, my role was to confirm that each Blauvelt remained unaware and to be ready for when things went wrong. The next set of circles was even thicker and glowed a venomous red.

Glancing at the broader display, I could see that Maiden Two and the NightJar were doing their part.

A dozen indicator lights inched closer and closer. We were irrevocably committed now. Red was when despite all our tricks, despite all our schemes, we were at risk of being detected. The boffins had assured us that there would be a margin that we would be in firing range before they could detect us. None of us shared their confidence. The Catalan mercenaries would have to be asleep at their screens not notice the streaking distortions coming in.

"Flight One, decrease altitude," Visha commanded her voice calm over the Flight channel. As one, the four of us dropped almost to sea level. It felt like we were riding the waves in towards out quarry.

The three ships in the little formation ahead of us looked close enough to touch. But still tantalizingly outside of Lance range. While the Blauvelt class's main offensive armament was its clutch of cruise missiles, the bigger threat to us were the trio of anti-air missile launchers running from the bow to forward of the superstructure and finally on a stern housing. Of the ship I was facing, it was that aft mount in particular that loomed in my display.

"Fire at target lock," Visha ordered, seemingly utterly unflappable.

BL-03's aft launcher suddenly sprang into life as the launcher arms were fed a pair of Broadhead missiles and it rotated back.

"Enemy launch!" GreyDawn shouted a second before I could make the same declaration.

My stomach lurched as I threw myself into a hard evasive course, muted thumps along my armor as chaff deployed from Verutum launchers in an attempt to throw off a target lock. Even still, I flew ever closer to the looming vessel, until finally BL-03 inched into the fringes of our range. Eight eye-searing beams from all four of us in Flight One cut across the night. Anyone on deck was at risk of being blinded. Especially when the Lances impacted with the ships' wards.

A Blauvelt had only so much power available for their ward projectors to tap into and it was only the extreme range of the blast that kept those flimsy shields from failing utterly. If we could have closed even a third of the remaining distance, the wards on all three of the ships would have popped like soap bubbles. Regardless of the suboptimal range, BL-02 was hit by both Octavia and GreyDawn; the combined fire causing the ship's wards buckled and collapsed in a shower of orange light, sending uncontrolled flares and corposant racing over its hull.

The patrol ship shuddered and, as if hit with a convulsive fit, started blindly launching all of its anti-air ordnance, like a desperately flailing animal in its death throes. By the time the first Broadheads reached us, we had already fired our Ballista projectors and popped smoke to intercept and confuse the missiles.

"Can you two kindly put that thing out if its misery?" Despite firing her own second volley, Visha's voice held all the emotion of a mess hall request for them to pass her the garum.

In the bare frenetic chaos of initial contact,our Lance accuracy was gravely diminished, but such was par for the course; at such intimate ranges, it was evade or die. But even with that handicap, these were pilots of the Third Squadron. Pilots trained to my standards. We had few Lance shots in our capabilities, and none were wasted even despite our frantic heartbeats.

Irritatingly, BL-03 had survived and, worse yet, had somehow managed to rekindle its wards in time for my second attack. At around the same time, the missiles it had launched finally began to orient themselves onto my vector.

Teeth clenched, I fired again, determined to finish the job. By the time my Lance emitters were smoking and my flasks were empty, BL-03 was a listing wreck, and most of her thin superstructure a flaming charnel house. Octavia finished the wretched thing off with a single Lance to the cruise missile farm, detonating the remaining munitions and shearing the sternmost quarter away. The three ship formation was a collection of pyres surrounded by a halo of a few bobbing lifeboats that the optimist in me hoped at least some of the crew had managed to reach.

Before they had gone to their deaths, though, the three ships had done their best to launch as many missiles as possible, doubtless wanting us as their escort to the afterlife. They had fired more than just the Broadheads, the Alecton export knockoffs that were something like early generation Vels, that had briefly filled the sky. BL-01 managed to launch her Arbalest cruise missiles before getting her keel snapped. Thankfully, only half of those had made it into the air; the rest were caught in the ship's conflagration or, lacking guidance, fell back onto their mothership.

Still, with a spiteful resolve I couldn't help but find admirable, some now-deceased technician had managed to program Flight One as the targets for the remaining cruise missiles.

I had a moment to wonder where the Catalan Company's Ritual Plate had gone when Lucia Hood's squawking transmission made their location abundantly clear.

Well over a Squadron of Ritual Plates, all Alecton export models, had scrambled up from BL-05, the trailing ship of the pair targeted by Flight Two. I had suspected that the mercenaries had concentrated their air assets and I was apparently proven correct. BL-04 and BL-05 were in the middle of the three formations, and that had been where the Catalan Company had consolidated their suits.

While consolidating their strength made sense, I found myself baffled by their decision to not have a Flight airborne serving as an early warning element. Perhaps the Catalan Company's readiness had been too low to call for such active measures, or maybe their squadron commanders had been in the middle of a late-shift meeting when we had attacked. Even so, the elements active were still only two-thirds of their estimated RP complement. Where were the others? Had they been asleep when their ships were attacked?

Lucia had reacted to the enemy RP launching with ruthless aplomb.

Lance Strikes were far from the most efficient anti-air weapon system, but Ritual Plate launching under their own power were uniquely vulnerable. If not for the fact that Flight Two was simultaneously attacking a pair of active, warded warships, their fire on the enemy RP would have swept the cold-launched Archers and Yeomen from the air long before they achieved any appreciable attitude.

Unfortunately, the chaos of the moment bought the mercenary Pilots just enough margin to avoid such an easy end.

The sector of the map display detailing the central formation quickly devolved into a mess. Lucia and her pilots had the range and performance edge, but the Alecton export suits had the weight of numbers on their side. They also profited from direct fire support courtesy of the two Blauvelts, who were rapidly disgorging the entirety of their anti-air magazines. However, said ships were both sustaining a rapidly increasing number of hits; already their wards flickered, on the brink of complete collapse. Her incoming fire began to slip through the patchy defenses and below holed decks, ruptured compartments erupted into flames.

And Flight Two was not without their own fire-support; the Nightjar had already begun to lend the embattled Pilots some help.

Fighting my own battle, I sucked in a breath. Flight Two would achieve their mission; BL-04 and BL-05 were not going to survive the night, that much was certain, but the cost they could still exact in their death-throws remained an open question.

Closer to home, Flight One was already pressing onward, leaving a trio of burning wrecks in our wakes. Again, the mercenaries had earned their wages: before they had dived overboard or died at their stations, the ships' crews had fired off their parting shots. We were pursued by a cloud of four dozen Broadhead anti-air missiles, with a trio of Arbalest cruise missiles lagging behind. As such weapons went, the larger Alecton leftovers were marathon runners to the sprinters that were their smaller Broadhead companions. The Arbalest was designed to take out large far-ranged targets, hence the risk my Squadron had shouldered to sink these damnable little ships before they could hurl their payloads at our own naval assets, or worse, our ground team. Dangerous though the Arbalests were, they were spectacularly ill-suited to take out nimble Ritual Plate.

But much like our now depleted Lances, the large ordnance could be haphazardly pressed into the anti-air role, especially with their narrow speed advantage. But the big missiles were a problem for the next minute; first, we had to deal with the Broadheads.

They were less of a threat to us now that the hands guiding them had sunk still-burning below the waves, but their simple seekers would continue to draw them after us. Our choice of response boiled down to either slowing down and kindling our Veils to lose them, or maintaining our headlong rush to draw out the closing time, increasing the window before impact so we could pick them off as they approached. All four of us were already shooting down the lead missiles as they entered our sectors, depleting our secondary weapon's magazines in the process.

A third option presented itself as a pair of bright purple symbols blinked onto my display. "Maiden Two to Flight One, we are on intercept set markers." Lady Primus IvoryQuiver said, her tone snootily detached as if the battle was figuratively as well as literally beneath her.

The Svalinna was a fast Ritual Plate. Which technically added to the suit's overall expense, but given the astronomical total cost, not by much. After all, a defensive interceptor would be of little use if it could not rapidly reposition. Fortunately, IvoryQuiver and her wingwoman had proactively begun moving into position before I had even thought to call them into play.

It took years of training to not overstep my bounds. Besides, I had both a wider and narrower tactical picture to deal with as I kept abreast of the other two Flights and continued firing my Ballista. Lucia's Flight Three was dealing with an RP formation that, while inferior in performance, heavily outnumbered them. Flight Two though...

Flight Two showed that VioletBlood had the luck of the damned.

Overwhelmed by four Polyxo who had found concealment within the harbor buildings and cargo yards, BL-06 had managed to get off some shots before being sunk. BL-07, on the other hand, must have either been refueled, had unstowed munitions left out on deck, or some other improperly stowed flammables because it had gone up like a feast day firework. The resulting explosion also took out BL-08, neither ship getting a chance to shoot back at the plunging suits that sent them to their doom.

But my Bloody Baroness had not been content with only three ship-kills to her name. Instead, she had plunged on, rapidly fulfilling secondary mission objectives to the letter.

"Three ships sunk, Countess!" She crowed with justifiable pride. "And then Lavish took out a tank farm. And oh! This is the best part! SkySpear spotted a barge that was being pushed out the harbor's main channel, and we managed to sink it in place!" My baroness was quite proud. "Let the colonials try to fix that!"

"Good work, Primus," I stated. Chastising her for her zeal and lack of professionalism over the comms would come later; for now we had a mission. And she had completed her tasks with minimal casualties. It was unfortunate that Flight Two was too far away for either of its sister Flights to provide support. "Proceed to the rendezvous point for rearmament."

"Confirm, Prefect!" she practically chirped.

I exhaled, relieved. That was one fewer plate I had to keep spinning, and I allowed more of my focus back to the flight I was in. Flight Three's own support was inbound at least.

"Flight One, Maiden Two, go to the following waypoint. Priority on the Broadheads, if you please," Visha effortlessly ordered.

There was a light, but oh so polite, chuckle, as if Visha had told Lady IvoryQuiver a slightly too risque joke for polite company. "Don't worry Flight One, just focus on catching any stragglers that escape our net."

"You heard the maidens!" Visha stated over the Flight channel. "Reorient to the following vectors on my mark," she ordered as new headings populated my display.

There was a beat as the two Svalinna present in Maiden Two descended and came in on an oblique intercept track.

The four of us in Flight One turned and made a pattern that was something like an elongated blooming flower as our formation expanded. Normally a Flight would fly in a pattern that, while dispersed, would still give mutual support, but now we were supporting something entirely different.

Lady IvoryQuiver raced towards the cloud of Broadheads and their following Arbalests. Having been launched at nearly the same time and at functionally the same location, they were less dispersed than we were, but the missiles still filled an arc of the sky.

That was, of course, before Lady IvoryQuiver and her wingwoman dropped their Veils and charged up their potentia ward projectors. A Svalinna had two ward systems, a conventional personal warding similar to any Ritual Plate as well as the specialized and powerful wards that defined the suit's role. The resulting signal was broad enough that the two Svalinnas spiked on my own scrying intake. It was a signature that the missiles could not ignore.

More advanced warheads, such as ones with spirit guidance, would notice that the signals were too strong, as would any scrying teams providing missiles direction. But the personnel who would have manned those scrying teams were dead now, that or huddled in lifeboats, and neither the Broadhead nor the Arbalest mounted a sufficiently-advanced guidance system to compensate for their loss.

Thus, dozens of Broadheads and all three Arbalests zeroed right in on Maiden Two, who was now flying right at them. The range rapidly closed in and IvoryQuiver triggered her potentia ward projectors.

What had been a spike on my scrying intake was now a massive pulse as suddenly a capital ship grade ward blossomed out in front of the IvoryQuiver. More like a giant comet than a proper bubble that easily encompassed herself and her wingwoman with space to put a small airship, however, all the strength of the energy shield was in its front which smashed into the incoming barrage.

The Alecto export missiles were smart enough to detect the ward and tried to preemptively detonate. Against a normal Ritual Plate grade warding, their safeguard detonation would have burned right through the wards, leaving the suit horribly vulnerable. But the Svalinna's entire purpose was to carry warding far beyond that mounted upon a normal Ritual Plate, warding sufficient to intercept just about any threat.

So instead, over three dozen Broadheads and a single Arbalest spent their energy on a ward that ignored their fury with contemptuous ease. Strong though the adamantine barrier was, it was equally short-lived. In seconds, the vast comet burned itself out. And there were still at least twenty Broadhead anti-air missiles and a pair of cruise missiles flying right toward Maiden Two.

But then IvoryQuiver's wingwoman activated her potentia wards and brushed them aside. I couldn't help but be impressed by the brilliant display of pyrotechnics, magic, and teamwork. Despite training alongside them and the rare deployment, it was the first time I had been this close to a pair of Svalinna in combat. The warding suit was breathtakingly expensive but, as my yet unblemished Flight could attest, certainly worth every Aurei.

There were still a handful of Broadheads left after the second major ward failed, but the cupping formation I and the rest of Flight One assumed took them out while Maiden Two moved back to a slightly more protected position.

A Svalinna could only activate her potentia wards a handful of times before the pilot had to go back to a carrier for refueling and swapping out a fresh set of projectors. The spent projectors could be refurbished a number of times, but that was a time-intensive process. There was no reason for them to waste more than two charges on us. Besides, my pilots were more than capable enough to mop up the mindless stragglers.

While we faced undirected missiles, the mercenary RP pilots were nowhere near so lucky.

The supporting fire from the Nightjar was not as flashy as the Maiden Two's contribution. At the Go, No-Go check in, they had launched a trio of Hrodwulf Light Aerial Torpedoes. One of the shiny new munitions CSR had earmarked for this mission, each carrying five Vel Sprint Missiles. Unlike its sister variants, the Vel Sprint was little more than a guidance package, warhead, and a sustainer rocket engine for terminal maneuvering.

Compared to the mighty Skofnung, which carried a breathtaking twenty full size Vel missiles, the Hrodwulf was less impressive. On the other wing, the Hrodwulf was far smaller, and an airship could carry eight of the smaller munitions in space required for a single Skofnung.

Lucia eagerly accepted control of the three Hrodwulfs when they entered her area of operation. Unlike with a Skofnung, which could practically be pointed in the vague direction of an enemy Squadron and be expected to shatter it, its smaller sister had to be guided with greater care.

Still, Flight Three now had fifteen Vel missiles of their own to play with. Against an enemy already whittled down to a mere baker's dozen enemy Ritual Plate, that could make all the difference.

On my display, I saw that Centurion Charity BreezeFlower's icon had an amber diamond. Her suit had sustained moderately damage but was still reasonably functional; the same could be said for the pilot. She had pulled back to the protective aft position in the Flight's staggered diamond formation.

The Catalan Company's Pilots were proving themselves reasonably proficient in the skyward dance. They had fallen into a formation that, while unimaginative, was at the very least cohesive. Those in the glorified-trainer Archer suits had been placed at the leading edge of the assault, a decision that displayed a willingness on the part of their commander to make some rather ruthless calculations. Behind the more expendable Plates, a number of the remaining Broadhead missiles were being directed by the Yeomen from their relative safety in the rear.

Overall, it was a formation that, for being thrown together in the middle of the night on a hectic launch while their ship was sunk from under their boots and with many of their number already blown out of the sky, was certainly impressive by the standards of an off-world mercenary company. It also showed a foolhardy optimism in their chances of success. Were I in their place, I almost certainly would have opted to surrender or at least opt for a more defensive posture. I suppose that was the cost of having a ruthless commander.

The mercenary pilots already had plenty of their sisters-in-arms who were bobbing in the water. They could be fishing them out of the water and into the lifeboats. They could be watching the lifeboats in case one capsized. At the very least they could be calling Keli's port for a ship to come and pick up the survivors. However... not only were they implementing none of those loss-prevention measures, but VioletBlood had blocked the port's main channel, cutting off outside avenues of help. The only chances any of their wounded had of recovery was through their intervention.

And instead, they had opted to pick a head-on fight against us. Crazy demons.

Lucia had tightened her formation with herself as the lead element as they used their superior speed and maneuverability to spiral about to try to flank the incoming mercenary formation.

And then the trio of Hrodwulfs dropped down on a near vertical descent. Like the larger Fujiwara Torpedo, the Notus spirits provided remote guidance, and, at Lucia's prompting, the three centered on the aft half dozen Yeomen. The Torpedoes split apart and disgorged their munitions. The stubby anti-air missiles' engines lit and fifteen Vel Sprints utterly swamped the formation. A few Yeoman managed to fire off flares, but given the plethora of data being fed and directed, almost all of the Vels ignored the distractions.

An entire Flight's worth of enemy RP was simply deleted from my display, with two more spiraling out of control. Then Lucia revealed her next trick; Flight Three still had Lance munitions. A pair of searing beams shot out of Charity's suit and erased the last two undamaged Yeomen. Without direction, the mercenary's own missiles went to local control, defaulting to their onboard guidance systems.

Formation stumbling, the Archers tried to close in. They still had numbers and some missiles. I wondered who the too-young, too-proud, too-brave mercenary officer was leading the remains of her Squadron to their deaths before the question ceased to matter.

Flight Three launched their own Black Fog countermeasures and utterly shredded the enemy Archers.

To call what happened next a dogfight was to call a pack of hungry wolves descending on a wounded fawn a pitched battle. Flight Three simply outmaneuvered, out-thrusted, and their secondary Ballista projectors outranged the Archer's rather underpowered weapons. The Yeomen, with their superior weapons, performance, and air direction capabilities, on the other hand, would have had a chance.

Which was exactly why Lucia had killed them first.

Exhaling, my eyes scanned the display. The scrying intake cleared and the local map was left with nothing but the Maiden Two, HFV Nightjar, and the twelve icons of my Squadron.

No matter what was happening in the rest of the opening phases, and I could see a number of icons vectoring into Air Station Dola Gorod, my Squadron had made it through this phase at least. After sipping some water, I hissed through my teeth. All my Pilots were alive, but upon looking at their statuses they were not out of the woods yet. Charity had some real damage that would make for a complicated landing.

"Flight Ops, Flight Ops, this is Diamond Actual. Phase One complete. I repeate Phase One complete. The Catalan Company is neutralized," I stated, putting the weariness out of my voice as I activated the broth heater. The night was still early.

"Excellent news, Diamond Actual," the dispatcher acknowledged. "No plan deviations. Commence to the next phase."

"Confirm, Flight Ops. Diamond out," I transmitted. I took a sip of the bland, nutritious broth. Its warmth helped. I toggled over to a private channel. "Fight Three, this is Diamond. Well done."

"Uh, thank you," Lucia replied. "Are we proceeding to the resupply? Because-"

I cut her off. "Correct, and I need a no bullshit assessment on Charity."

"Yeah... I have eyes on her right now. I was going to call you about this."

"Can she make a carrier landing?"

Lucia laughed. "She's missing her left leg below the knee."

I swore. That... complicated things.


The Kolibri class was small, fast, cheap, and came in many variants. Some didn't even have Teleport Runes. The Torpedo Corvette version was basically a flying missile boat: its hull and gondola had been designed towards supporting its ability to carry and launch a full eight Fujiwara heavy aerial Torpedoes. However, as shown tonight, it could swap some of those spots out for a larger number of smaller munitions.

Really, it was shocking how single-mindedly the Torpedo Corvette variant had been oriented towards its singular specialist role. Even the Ritual Plate complement and maintenance bay was secondary to the great munitions the tiny ventral deck was built around. The Kolibri Corvette's Light RP Squadron could expand their ability to find and provide target guidance to have at least some capability to put up a Combat Air Patrol.

Even the HFV Nightjar fell into the same role. Yes, the specialized equipment she carried made the ship far more expensive than the standard corvette, but the Nightjar was still far cheaper than the larger highly-Veiled ships in the Fleet. With her capability to sneak past enemy defenses and launch over half a dozen large munitions, I was sure the Nightjar and her sisters kept many enemy war-planners up at night. I wondered if any of those feverishly dreaming war-planners had ever considered the use we were about to put the Nightjar to in those anxiety fueled dreams. Somehow, I doubted it.

This ship did technically have a Landing and Launch Ops, but it represented a tertiary function at best; most of the ship's crew were singularly focused on caring for the large Torpedoes slumbering in the bow half of the ship.

Tonight, however, the on-board Launch crews would certainly be earning their pay tonight given the... unconventional Ritual Plate landing awaiting them. A landing so unconventional that the whole thing had gripped me with a rather unpleasant feeling of powerlessness.

With one leg, Centurion Charity BreezeFlower couldn't make a normal landing. There were procedures, of course: if we were over ground, she could land in place and a Search and Rescue bird would pick her up. Even with the sea below us, the VTOL earmarked for that role in this phase of operations had been warmed up, but whether it would arrive on time to fish her out before she drowned was a question of distance and time I didn't want to ask without knowing the answer in advance. There were procedures to have a Pilot eject her suit, which was vital over a water crash, but right now her suit's systems were what was keeping her from bleeding out. In extremis, another Ritual Plate could grab onto the stricken Pilot, but that would slow both down.

The issue was further complicated by the lack of assets on hand. While Nightjar was the closest friendly vessel, it did not carry any VTOLs. On the upside, its aft hanger was large enough that a Spatha or a larger Umbra could land. Instead of directing Charity to the rather small RP landing tunnel, Nightjar's Landing and Launch Ops was directing her towards the yawning aft mouth of that hanger while the crash netting was rapidly spooled across the decking of the vacant VTOL berth.

All Charity had to do was make it to the Nightjar's largest portal and then effectively go limp, falling safely into the crash-netting, hopefully without sustaining further injury. What worried me, however, was the suit's tourniquet system, currently the only thing keeping my pilot alive. Hopefully it was redundant by now; hopefully Charity had healed up enough to not bleed out the moment the techs popped her suit open.

Yet hope was a debased currency in the face of uncaring reality. That she had gotten this close under own power already had surprised me. That she could still succumb to her wounds even now, so close to the finish line, consumed my mind.

As her Flight Leader, Lucia was flying wingtip to wingtip, standing ready to catch Charity in case the wounded flier lost consciousness. IronTalon and Adriana, the other two members of her Flight, were running close escort.

My eyes were fastened to the display, thoughts pensive as I watched the final approach. The most I could do, the most First Flight could do, was adjust our heading and act as pickets just in case something tried to jump Third Flight or the Nightjar. I had ordered VioletBlood's unit to take a similar slight deviation on their side of the vessel.

It was not that I was without authority. At any time I could jump into the channel I was monitoring where the mission-wide Flight Ops dispatcher handed off authority to Nightjar's Landing Ops. Yet, to what end? A key aspect of leadership was knowing when not to try and "fix" things by sticking your tail into already turbulent waters. Further stressing an already harried dispatcher and the wounded pilot who seemed to be still flying solely via gritted will would sooner get someone killed than bring her home safe faster.

"Altitude match, heading confirmed. Reducing velocity to intercept," Charity enunciated through clenched teeth.

I glanced at my status update, and while her suit had not tossed out any more alerts, I was less than happy with her physical condition. But there was nothing I could do now, not at this point. She was on final approach; if anything happened, it would be up to Lucia to catch her

Charity's icon approached the Nightjar from the aft. The two icons grew closer and closer on my display.

While I had other plates to keep spinning, and other pilots to keep in mind beyond Charity, this was very critical. Thankfully, that was why I had subordinates. Checking to make sure VioletBlood was monitoring the situation, I pulled my attention away to check my other two Fights and to update Quirinus. I only took up a brief moment of her time, she was busy with Phase Two of tonight's operation.

With Air Station Dola Gorod neutralized, the Catalan Company on the bottom of the sea, and many of the Onyx Institute's defenses sabotaged by Broadcast Recon infiltrators, the primary assault was about to commence.

Slowing, Charity's Polyxo wobbled onto a stable path before going between the Nightjar's twin ventral tailfins. The stricken pilot had to hit a target forty feet wide by twenty-five feet tall, well over ten times the area required for a normal carrier landing, and was doing so at a far slower speed than normal

My body tensed. Not only was she being guided in, but Charity's status was monitored, and Lucia was right behind her. It would take something extraordinary for everything to wrong now-

"We have her!" the Landing Ops dispatcher said, excitement slipping past her training. Lucia landed right after Charity, though with far less trouble and without the swarm of responding Ritualista and Medicos.

I heaved a sigh as the stress flowed out of me, every muscle relaxing for a single glorious moment. Then, break time over, I concentrated on getting the rest of my Squadron to the Nightjar. The two remaining pilots for Flight Three circled around to take a more conventional landing approach.

Normally I would have done this in stages, keeping at least a Flight in the air to give the Nightjar some semblance of a Combat Air Patrol, but time was of the essence, and it was not like we would be lingering in the area after we refueled and rearmed. Maiden Two had already redeployed.

Thankfully the other ten landings proceeded routinely. Shortly thereafter, I found myself in a cramped RP maintenance bay sized with only nine arming chairs. Save for a corridor on the port side to allow for the transport of Torpedoes from the aft hanger to the magazine and launchers on the bow, the compartment was almost the full width of the Nightjar's slender embarkation deck. Forward of the starboard RP landing tunnel and aft of the RP Catapults the maintenance bay was a bare twenty-five feet by sixty feet.

Maybe the compartment would have been more comfortable with the normal amount of RP and Ritualista, but this was not my Squadron's bay, and save for the handful of maintainers we had shipped over before the operation commenced, these were not our Ritualista. The whole affair had a slightly awkward feel to it. We were, after all, strangers to this ship and its spirits. Even our spirits had a bit of anxiety, reflecting our own worry back at us. The incense thankfully did help soothe them, though even that was a slightly more sandalwood and sharp-smelling blend than we were accustomed to back in our home berths. It took the edge off, but barely anything more.

Despite their failure to be our usual Ritualista, the maintainers worked quickly to replace the flasks for our Lances with fresh cells for my first two Flights. Flight Three, the earliest to land, had more time on deck and was getting a bit more attention, along with Octavia. I supposed the speed was partially due to the help provided by our own loaner Ritualista, and partially due to the Nightjar being the home of seven Harmonia and a pair of Svalinna. While most of the girls on deck weren't my Ritualista, they were certainly still experienced with quickly swapping out high energy arcane components..

Sipping some fleet brew, I took a moment to go over the damage list that had been thrust into my hands almost before I'd exited my Plate. All told, it could have been a lot worse and I had no right to complain.

Charity, on the other hand... I bit back a grimace.

Handing the clipboard back, I walked over to the casualties. After being stabilized on the hangar deck, my injured pilot had been carried forward to the maintenance bay. Partially because the Corvette was small enough that its sick bay did not have much in the way of a surgery, partially because her suit did need to be peeled off of her, no small task with one of her legs mangled.

"Ma'am!" Charity said with a vague salute, her eyes a bit glassy with analgesics. This end of the compartment stank of blood, though I was happy to note that the maintainers had mopped up enough to keep anything from dripping onto the deck.

"Centurion." My tail flicked as I took in the damage. Below the knee her leg was gone completely, and what was left of the joint was a twisted ruin of splintered bone and wet shredded cartilage. Even with the medics and Ritualista working, there were still glittering metal shreds peeking out from pulpy red flesh, the remnants of the exploding plate that had sheared through her leg. I did not stare.

I had seen worse countless times. I had survived far worse injuries myself. I knew Centurion BreezeFlower would recover, given time and proper feeding. With just over a hundred on billets, the Nightjar was too small to have a proper surgeon, but even a Fleet Medico could keep someone alive. Charity was done for tonight, that was true, but it wouldn't take more than a couple days of good feeding and medical care to get her ready for duty again. It would have to wait until the doctor signed off on it, and at the moment the medical staff wanted to wait until we returned to Mursam, but it might only take a week for Charity to be back on her feet. It'd almost be like it never happened.

Physically, at least. Just because we could heal almost any physical wound did not mean that we didn't get scars. When it came to matters of the mind, psychological trauma could be far harder to see, let alone treat, than something as trivial as a lost leg. I would make sure to have a quiet word with Lucia on if there was any trauma accumulation and that Charity really was ready to pilot again.

"I can still go out," the older pilot assured, gritting her fangs as the medicos removed a bit of shrapnel. "I don't need no legs to fly."

"You did good tonight," I stated, ignoring the logistics of how a one-legged pilot could use a Catapult. "We'll take the rest from here." I nodded to Lucia, still in her arming chair.

She would have been here but the Lance emitters and their power cables had been removed from her suit and she was still waiting for her new mission modules to be broken out. She also still needed to have her ward emitters swapped out before the maintainers would sign off on her readiness. The same explosion that had taken Charity's leg had also burnt out Lucia's emitters. If things had been a bit different, I would have been down both of those two, likely permanently.

"Of course, Ma'am," Charity said before the Ritualista moved to unbuckle her torso armor and remove the breastplate.

"Don't feel guilty," I said and raised my voice so the whole maintenance bay could hear. "An enemy flotilla has been sunk because of you all. You sank your number in enemy ships, while us officers were just along for the ride. In a just world we would all be celebrating back on the Tarantula Hawk."

This time the cheer was more ragged, but I allowed it. They were tired, distracted, and focused on getting ready.

"But this is Harp's World, and the reward for good work is more work." My smile sharpened, brimming with teeth. "Check your systems, get some water in you, use the head if you have time. We will be returning to the air soon, ladies."

Not all of the Medics had clustered around the tall blonde. There were a couple with a Ritualista on the next chair over. One of VioletBlood's rookies had her helmet off, which was handed to me by VioletBlood. The right side behind the horns to the nape of the neck was just.... dented.

For once my cocky betrothed looked subdued. Expecting the worst I looked to Pulivia VibrantFang. Instead of a shattered skull, there was only a bit of blood matting her green hair.

"Countess!" she said with a slight slur. I noticed one of her eyes was not quite focusing. "I told you we could do it," she stated with a slow, deliberate diction.

"If I had known... I'd at least have had her take the crash landing in the aft. She was flying just fine," VioletBlood babbled as her tail curled.

"I saw the readout from her suit and agreed," I said, and gave her a reassuring emotional pulse.

"We don't think there's anything broken, but if an explosion went by close enough to her head..." the Medico gave me a careful look, adjusting her gloves "I can patch her up but...."

My hand went up. "I'm not having her fly."

"Primus Countess, I can do it!" Pulivia cried to me.

I kept in a wince at her getting my rank wrong. "Centurion. I need someone to keep an eye on Charity, can you do that for me?"

Her nutmeg features flushed with concentration as she nodded.

I patted her on her armored shoulder. "Charity, I want you to help her too. You'll be wingwomen for the rest of the night."

The far older and far more lucid pilot gave me a knowing nod.

I motioned for VioletBlood to follow as I went to Lucia.

"It happened after we took out their harbor facilities. You said if we had the opportunity..."

"And you took it," I assured her. "AT that moment the Elenese up at the air station weren't sure what was going on. They didn't know if they would be facing an attack or if the Free City of Keli was being softened up for a raid."

At least that was the intention of the mission planners. I was not certain if our ruse would fool the Elenese, and to be honest neither were Invidia nor her associates. But they did figure that the lives, and livelihood, of some offworld stevedores and merchant sailors were worth it. That was how the Great House game was played.

"We're down two pilots," I stated without preamble once we reached Lucida.... No her name is Lucia, Primus Centurion Lucia Hood.

Her Polyxo had almost been fully switched over to air-superiority mode, but that still gave me a captive audience. Her purple eyes looked up at me with a haughty uncertainty.

I pushed that aside. "Octavia's being seconded to your Flight."

Her rearming also concluded, Visha approached. I was poaching one of her pilots from First, but as Squadron Commander, this was my prerogative.

The Lantian woman nodded. "Giving us a full Flight of Air-Superiority, and two light Flights of Strike units."

"We will be working closely together," I nodded to VioletBlood.

The Second Phase of the operation was where our Squadron's flexibility would come in handy. We would be kitted out depending on what Quirinus needed to help secure the landing zones

"Not breaking us up?" VioletBlood asked.

I shook my head. "That will be up to Quirinus. When I talked to her she wanted us all as one strike unit with organic escort elements."

"Can't spare First or the Fleet Harmonia Squadron?" Lucia asked, flexing a hand as the Ritualista worked on swapping out her mission modules.

I shook my head. "Fleet girls are rearming on the Desert Strix. The Second Phase is getting into a touchy spot and we will be supporting the main landings."

Visha nodded. "Anything about the remaining Elenese strength?"

"Fleet Girls and the Strix say they neutralized the Air Station so the landing's northern flank should be secured."

"You sound skeptical." VioletBlood's smile was all fangs.

"I would not so easily dismiss the Elenese," I replied, and gave her a measuring look. "How are you two doing?" I asked my betrothed and Lucia, lowering my voice.

"Charity will pilot again," Lucia said with an exaggerated shrug. While the gesture was partially due to her armor, the fact remained that despite her longer experience she still had yet to lose a pilot in combat.

"I'll make sure to correct Pulivia for her mistake later on," VioletBlood promised with her classic hauteur, but it felt thin now, exposing a hint of the raw undercurrent of concern underneath. The noble family running Barony of Lilla had given their lives in the Imperatrix's service to the level that the whole thing was all down to just VioletBlood and, to my understanding, a cousin of some sort.

My LoveBlood knew she could die. A tour at FOB Emerald Inferno would dissuade even the most stubborn of their illusions of mortality, but this was the first time she was responsible for the lives of others.

"Make sure she deserves it before you get too harsh," I said, sipping some water.

"You always were too kind with your rookies," VioletBlood softy chuckled.

"The countess's training shows she cares about their well-being," Visha happily agreed.

Tail flicking, Lucia gave her fellow Flight Leaders a gaze of barely-concealed concern as her eyes darted toward the exits.

I nodded. "Right, get your Flights up and checked out. I want you to make sure one of our Ritualista has verified everyone's Lance flasks or conversion to air-superiority."

My subordinates nodded as one. It was not that we distrusted the Nightjar's Ritualista, but they had little practical experience with Polyxo or Lance systems. Besides which, it never hurt to be too prepared when flying head first into carnage.

"Visha tell Launch Ops that we'll be ready shortly. With only one Launcher we can focus on the first Flight with everyone suited-up, but I don't want to penny packet us into the air and-" I stopped as there was a chime in my ear. "One second."

I keyed my comms system. "Diamond Actual here." Tapping my ear, I motioned for my Flight Leaders to patch into the channel.

"This is Flight Ops with an alert to strike elements. The barometer is falling across all fleet and airborne elements, the strongest drop is nearest to the Institute. Temperature has drop slightly. Fleet Tempestarii have reported ill auspices on the auguries observed with their scrying. Forward elements are trying to counter this effect."

"Repeat pressure dropping, temperature to follow, ill-omens. Command suspects the SilverHold is being activated," the dispatcher said with the same mild tone she was trained to say everything with."

"Confirm Flight Ops. Diamond Squadron is down two pilots. Will be launching in," I paused to take in the maintenance bay and the amount of work left to be done, "Four minutes."

"Understood Diamond, will update once you get in the air. Flight Ops out," the dispatcher closed the connection.

I held out a bit of a breath I had been holding. In a previous life, I would have had less latitude to ground two of my pilots. A singular raid was far from a major conflict. Though if things went wrong, this could be the opening shots in the Fourth Great House War.

"That long?" Lucia asked. "We can push the Ritualista and get in the air in half the time..."

My Vs gave her withering looks.

I put up a hand and lowered my voice. "If it were our Ritualista team? I would trust Gibbs to know what checks to skip and not have one of our girls blow up when she tried to charge her emitters. No, we do this by the book. the last thing we can afford right now is losing anymore of our girls to rushed maintenance of all things. Go to your Flights and see what our Ritualista need to get your pilots flight ready."

The three saluted and strode off, their heels clanging on the deck. I took a moment to watch their armored forms before I closed my faceplate, I had enough time to get an overall tactical update and call Quirinus to get orders and her sense of things.

I knew that it was going to be a long night.

End Chapter 25

Phase One complete

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

Thanks to Metaldragon for the chapter title.

Apologies for the delay. Good news is that drafts of chapters 26 and 27 have been written and are being edited right now so there's a good buffer of content being worked through. So there's a good part of this arc that's already written-up.
Well this was an interesting update. Tanya's true feelings were leaking out more than usual, Loveblood was being more horny and bloodthirsty than i really remember her usually being, and some sort of superweapon is being activated if I'm reading things right. How delightful.
I had a moment to wonder where the Catalan Company's Ritual Plate had gone when Lucia Hood's squawking transmission made their location abundantly clear.

Well over a Squadron of Ritual Plates, all Alecton export models, had scrambled up from BL-05, the trailing ship of the pair targeted by Flight Two.
What's this? A missions suddenly turns way more dangerous than expected and it didn't happen to Tanya's flight? What heresy is this?!

Great chapter as always, looking forward to phase two.

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