Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha

Jaded Marble

 

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Chapter 5

 

Why now? Of all times, why now?

She wasnft prepared for this. Oh, of course she had dreamt of it. Fate still loved her mother, her biological mother that is, but deep down inside she knew that she never really loved her. And she was dead too.

But never the less, she had dreamt that she would meet her mother again, with her older, yet younger sister Alicia.

Now they were really here though, and Fatefs mind had become a battlefield of rationality. She kept replaying the events of eleven years ago through her mind. Her mother was being surrounded by the Administration Bureau... Fate had offered to help... Her mother refused... The floor she was standing on then collapsed and she fell into a dimensional rift, along with Alicia whose body was within a life pod. Fate could still clearly remember her mother smiling with relief at the childfs body as they fell into oblivion. She had finally got what she wanted. Apparently Al Hazzard lay beyond the light you could see in the dimensional rifts, though no one had returned to prove it. Perhaps it was too good to leave.

That was the only bit of rationality that survived the battle. Al Hazzard was too good to leave. Who would want to anyway? All that fabled technology... it would be a scientistfs play ground... wouldnft it? Yeah. It would.

Then reality came along and gave the lone surviving rational a quick fist in the guts and whispered in its ear as it doubled over, If Al Hazzard is such a great place, then why the hell is she here?

She stared vacantly at the figure beneath the thin canopy below, staggering through the forest frantically looking everywhere but up (because foolishly, people never look up when looking for something, or someone) as Fate pleaded for some more rationality as the surviving one sank to its knees and passed out.

She got nothing. Nothing but reality, which slapped her in the face, pointed down and told her that her mother, her real mother was here, and thatfs all she needed to know.

Fate suddenly realised that someone was calling her. It was Nanoha. The communication feed was still open.

eFate-chan...? Are you okay?f she asked, full of concern.

It took Fate a bit of time to collect herself again. The battle of rationality had taken its toll. eUm... yeah, Ifm okay. Hey... Nanoha?f

Fate finally looked to her friend. eI donft know what to do... I need orders...f

 

 

Gently, and without a sound, Fate landed behind a tree, out of her motherfs sight. Hayatefs gordersh were rather simple. She was to bring Precia Testarossa back to the campsite. How she brought her back was up to Fate. She could bring her back by leading her to the camp, or she could bind and gag her. Precia was still an inter-dimensional criminal. Shefd taken her sentence to the grave, and now that she was back, Hayate wanted her to wear it.

Although, she didnft have to worry about throwing her in a cage or anything. They were sharing one at the moment.

The orders at least told her what she was supposed to do now... She still had the issue of talking to her mother now. She had no idea how that would turn out. Last time she spoke to her, Fate was treated like a cockroach running through a bin. She had a feeling that things wouldnft get any better.

She peered around the trunk of the tree she hid behind. Her mother was walking away from her, looking around frantically and calling out for Alicia. It pained Fate to see her mother like that. The mother from Aliciafs memories still remained dominant in her mind, and it pulled the strings of her emotions.

Might as well get this over with, she thought, and stepped out from behind the tree.

eMother...f she called. The woman ahead of her stopped in her tracks and spun around. At first, she looked relived to have found her daughter, almost to the point of tears. After she took a few steps forward, she realised that the person who had called out to her wasnft in fact, the daughter she was looking for. Confusion washed away her relief, and then anger set in.

eWho the hell are you?f she said, anger sinking into her voice. Her brow wrinkled slightly as she peered closer, still approaching Fate, but carefully now.

Fate stood steady, but was panicking inside. Why she was panicking, she didnft know, but she was damn nervous. Her motherfs eyes scanner her critically; hair, eyes, chest, arms, legs, jacket, boots, bardiche, arms...

Preciafs gaze landed back on the device, and her frown turned into a scowl.

eYou!f she hissed.

Fate had hoped that, just maybe, her mother would look at her slightly differently as Alicia had been brought back to life. That hope just had its head lopped off.

eWhat are you doing here?f Precia growled. eWhat have you done with Alicia?f

Fatefs head started to spin. Oh, this is what she was panicking about. She had no idea how to confront her mother. She was older, stronger than before, she knew that, but the torturous punishment still ran havoc with her nerves and stunned her to stupidity.

eMother, I...f she started, not even sure what she was going to say.

eDonft you gmotherh me!f Precia roared. eYoufre a puppet, a tool; youfre not my daughter! Alicia is my daughter, tell me where she is!f

Somehow, that flicked a switch in Fatefs mind. Thatfs right. Ifm not Fate Testarossa anymore... Ifm Fate Testarossa Harlaown. Lindy Harlaown is my mother, Precia Testarossa used to be my mother. But she isnft anymore. That means I can do things like this...

ePrecia Testarossa,f Fate said, composure flowing back into her body, eyoufre under arrest for attempted large-scale dimensional disturbances.f She didnft wait for a reply, or any sort of action before she cast a quick bind spell, tying Preciafs hands together, and then strengthened the initial bind with a more complex, stronger one.

The move took Precia by surprise. eWhatfs the meaning of this!?f she roared again, her eyes maddening. eHow dare you shackle me! Who do you think you are?f

eWho do I think am I?f Fate asked her, and to her own surprise, yet alone Preciafs, she drew herself to within inches of her former motherfs face. eI know that Ifm Senior Enforcer Fate Testarossa Harlaown of the Time-Space Administration Bureau, thatfs who I am!f

Fate then turned on her heals and headed for the camp site. eWefve already found Alicia,f she said without looking back. eFollow me if you want to see her again.f

 

 

The trip back to the campsite was long, and surprisingly quiet. Precia had followed Fate wordlessly. Not only because Fate had hinted that she knew where Alicia was, but mainly because Fate knew where she was going, and Precia didnft.

However, it wasnft until they were almost at the campsite, that the silence was broken.

eHarlaown...f Precia muttered out loud. She tried to make it sound like she wasnft talking to anyone, but it was obvious that she was trying to poke verbal sticks into Fate. eWhere have I heard that name before...?f

eThe name of the officers who came to arrest you,f Fate replied flatly. She didnft want to play any mind games at the moment.

eOh yes, I remember now...f Precia continued. Fate could feel her eyes boring into her back. eDid the Bureau take pity on the poor little doll?f

eI was charged for aiding you and forced to be a temporary officer for half a year.f

eYou begged for mercy?f Precia scoffed. eYou clung to life like a parasite, living off the sympathy of others?!f

Fate stopped in her tracks and spun around so quick that Precia flinched.

eI clung to life with the support of my friends!f Fate yelled. eFriends, Precia, friends! Try to remember what the word means! My mother adopted me because she wanted to be a part of my life! She realised I was more than just a child born in a test tube and accepted me as a living human being with those troublesome things like emotions and a heart, those things that you sorely lack!f

Fate stopped, realising that she was once again, inches from Preciafs face, reeled back and made her way towards the campsite again, trying to stop herself from trembling. eShut up and keep walking. Wefre almost there.f

Once again, the pair made their way silently towards the campsite, though Fatefs mind was jittery with nervous triumph. Oh god, did I really yell at her like that? I canft believe I did that to her! Ifll hit her good and hard next time though!

She never got the chance though.

 

 

eI can understand everyone elsefs call signs... but gChiefh?f

Tiana and Subaru were sitting on the stairs of the old breakfast cottage that was the official unofficial gateway to Earth, waiting for Admiral Lindy to arrive so they could be further briefed and continue with their mission. The rest of Subarufs squad were floating around the general vicinity, trying to spot the difference between this planet and every other planet theyfd seen. They werenft having much luck though.

eWhat? Donft you like it?f Subaru replied, leaning back with her arms resting on higher steps.

eHmm... not really, it just sounds a bit... pompous.f Tiana was leaning forward, resting her head on in her hands which were braced on her crossed knees.

ePompous?f Subaru was giving her a cheeky grin.

eWhat?f said Tiana, slightly irritated. She could never tell what Subaru was going to do when she had one of those grins on her face, but she did know that it was either going to be something stupid, or something physical and stupid. But to Tianafs surprise, Subaru just shrugged her shoulders dismissively and leaned back a little more.

eWell, I suppose it is...f she said. eMind you though, it wasnft me who made the name up. The team just started calling me Chief. Ainft that right, Vixen?f

Tiana then felt something brushing through her hair. Startled, she twisted around to find the one known as Vixen crouching down behind her, smiling pleasantly.

eThatfs right Chief,f she said standing up, then sat behind Subaru and started platting her hair all over again. Tiana nervously checked her hair, and to her relief found it not platted. She then watched as Vixen continued to silently plat her commanderfs hair, slightly bewildered that Subaru continues to act as if itfs not happening.

She then realised something, and went to ask Subaru about it, but hesitated as she remembered something else.

Subaru, how much does your squad know about you...? she asked.

What do you mean?

I mean, about your body and all.

Oh that. Yeah, they know all about it. Subaru shifted on the step, and Vixen, almost in perfect sync, shifted with her. With the missions we get, therefs no telling what kind of injuries we get, and I canft have Blue freaking out because my bodyfs not just flesh and blood. So I told everyone about me before the first mission.

eWhat you talkinf about Chief?f Vixen asked, not taking her eyes off her self-imposed task.

eTia just wanted to know if I told you guys about my body.f

eAh...f Vixen tilted her head slightly towards Tiana. eYou know that ever since we were told, bulldogfs been trying to beat Chief at arm wrestling?f

eHasnft won yet, though.f

eChief, a vehiclefs approaching!f Bulldog bellowed from further down the clearing.

eThatfll be Admiral Lindy,f Tiana stated as she got to her feet and brushed down her backside.

eOkay guys!f Subaru yelled, eForm up!f

 

 

It would be fare to say that Alicia was nervous. She assumed the lady beside her was just as nervous, but the erratic way she was trying to talk to her and the fact that she wouldnft shut up, and occasionally went blue in the face from lack of oxygen, also made Alicia a bit scared.

The fact that she had no idea where she was didnft help either. The last thing she remembered was being with her mother in their home, where she was... what was she doing again? Anyways, thatfs just minor details. She was home with her mother, then she was here, in a forest without her mother.

And some of the people here, in this camp site, knew her. She certainly didnft know them. Those people were very cautious with her. In fact, the one with the long brown hair and white suit was approaching her now, cautiously.

She noticed how different that person was from everyone else. She seemed to demand authority, which can be a very scary thing when you have no idea what the authority is, every movement had a purpose, and she was dressed in a more extravagant outfit.

The other one, the one in black and with short dark-brown hair was the same, but she didnft have the feeling that she could quickly inflict a lot of pain if she didnft like what she was seeing.

Everyone else treated her like some sort of research specimen.

eYuki, donft smother her,f The white clad person said as she got closer. The erratic one responded to the name, and for once, shut up.

eOh Nanoha-san!f Yuki almost spat the sentence out. eI was, uh, just entertaining our guest.f

eIfll take over then. Why donft you get her a glass of water?f the one called Nanoha said. Alicia noticed a small figure that was sort of hiding behind the white dress as Yuki scurried away. She remembered seeing children, but this one seemed... different.

eSorry about that...f Nanoha said a bit after Yuki left and took a seat beside Alicia, but just out of arm and leg reach, and the realisation surprised her. She then wondered if it was an act to comfort her, or for her own protection. eYuki can be like that when shefs nervous.f The threatening air around the lady seemed to lift seamlessly as she took the seat. She was no longer the one in charge, but now the friendly stranger who wanted someone to talk to. Alicia reminded herself that itfs the friendly stranger who often walks away with your purse without you know it.

Wait, how do I know about that? Ifve never spoken to strangers before... She shook the thought out of her head as something else caught her attention. Alicia could clearly see the girl who partially hid behind the woman now. Her eyes were different colours: one red, and one green. But that wasnft the feeling she wasnft getting from her, it was something else.

A hand was then placed on the girlfs head, and Alicia then noticed that the woman called Nanoha was smiling at her.

eThis is my daughter, Vivio,f she said as she lifted the girl onto her lap with a grunt. eYoufre getting heavier, Vivio. I wonft be able to sit you on my lap soon.f

eItfs ecus Ifm getting bigger,f the girl said distantly, her mind obviously focused on Alicia. The curious gaze was getting on her nerves.

eWhere are my manners, I havenft introduced myself yet. Ifm Major Takamachi Nanoha of the Time-Space Administration Bureau, headmistress of the Northern Midchilda 4th Military Training Academy.f The lady hesitated. eItfs... um... a pleasure to finally meet you, Alicia. And Ifve got good news for you. Wefve found your mother, Precia. Shefs being led here as we speak.f

Relief fell over Alicia like a bucket of water, but it was short lived. Something nagged her. A pleasure to finally meet you...?

eHow do you know me?f Alicia finally asked. The lady seemed to be dreading the arrival of this question, but was expecting it to come anyway. She sighed heavily.

eYou could say that I know your sister,f she replied reluctantly.

eMy sister? I donft have a sister!f

eNot that you know of. Youfll find out soon enough, anyway.f Yuki scurried back with a glass of water and carefully handed it to Alicia. She would have rejected it, but she felt she needed something, anything right now and gratefully accepted it. She sculled it down in one go, feeling slightly better, but wished it was something heavier.

Something heavier? Soft drink? She realised she was having trouble thinking straight, and handed the cup back to Yuki, who was dismissed with a very dismissive thank you from Nanoha. It was amazing how much authority you can put into so few words.

eCan I ask you some questions Alicia?f Nanoha asked when they were somewhat alone again. Nanohafs daughter was still on her lap, and every now and then some people would drift past.

eWhat kind of questions?f Alicia said.

eThe usual type that a police officer would ask someone who doesnft know where they are.f Nanoha smiled again.

Oh, those questions. Those? I know these questions? e... Go ahead...f Alicia carefully chose to say.

eWhat was the last thing you clearly remember before you found yourself here?f Nanoha asked.

Oh I do know these questions. But how? Ifve never been questioned by a police officer before. In fact, Ifve never seen a police officer before, not that I can remember, but I know what one looks like. How do I know all these things? And what was the last thing I clearly remember? Everything seems like a blur. Oh, wait, I remember being with mother on that field, making flower wreaths... but that was a long, long time ago, almost ten years. Sometime ago we moved houses and –

eAlicia? Are you okay?f Nanoha asked. Alicia stared at the lady, not sure how to answer her. She then realised her palms were sweaty, and her throat was getting dry again. She even felt panicked, and probably looked like she was panicking if she could see herself.

She went to speak, but croaked and cleared her throat.

eVivio, can you get her another glass of water?f Nanoha asked her daughter, who simply nodded, and then with one last careful glance, jumped off her motherfs lap and jogged away.

eWhy are you asking me questions anyway? Canft you just send my mother and I home?f Alicia managed to ask.

A pained look washed over Nanohafs face and she leaned back. eThatfs the problem you see...f she said, gazing to the sky. Alicia realised that the sky was unusually difficult to look at, and trying to do so stained her eyes.

eWefd like to know how to get home too...f Nanoha continued. eWefre trapped here. We donft know how, donft know why... But we do know that the hazy sky is whatfs trapping us in. Youfre the first person to arrive here since we were trapped here, you know?f

Nanoha then seemed to realise that Alicia was looking at her awkwardly and then she just shrugged. eIfm not asking you to believe me though,f she said, ebut a lot of unexplained things have been happening.f

eLike what?f Alicia asked.

eWell... all of our vehicles wonft start, no matter what we do. Communication devices are dead. We donft run out food, it keeps re-appearing from nowhere. Wefre attacked by extinct creatures at night, and...f Nanoha paused for a while, as if working out how to say the next part. eWell... then youfve appeared. So has your mother.f

eWhatfs so unusual about that?f

eWell, if we canft leave, then itfs safe to assume that no one could get in.f

Thatfs not right, Alicia said to herself. eWait, just because you canft get out certainly doesnft mean you canft get in, thatfs not how barriers work\e Alicia realised that once again, she knew something she shouldnft.

eOh, youfre familiar with the principles of barriers? Good, that makes a lot of things easier for me...f Nanoha said, being overly cheerful like someone who was glad to change the subject.

eThat still doesnft explain why itfs so unusual for us to be here though,f Alicia reminded her, and Nanoha sighed heavily again.

eYoufre not going to believe this... but itfs because youfre dead Alicia. So is your mother. I was there when Precia died. You were too... sort of. See, I told you that you wouldnft believe it, and neither would I if I wasnft there to see it happen, so please stop looking at me like that. Oh good, herefs your water.f

Vivio returned with a glass filled to the rim with water, some of it spilling over the edge, but the little girl did an amazing job of keeping almost all of the water in the cup. Alicia didnft though, her hands were trembling a bit. Today was shaping out to be a very bad day.

Then the black clad lady arrived.

eNanoha-chan, any luck?f she asked. Alicia assumed that she was asking if she got any information, and found it slightly annoying that she seemed to ignore the fact that the subject was right in front of her.

Nanoha shook her head. eAliciafs too startled to be able to give us any information right now,f she said, and then turned her attention back to Alicia. eWefll continue this sometime later, okay?f

Alicia nodded. She didnft want to continue it later at all, but she knew that the question was rhetorical. She will be questioned later, whether she liked it or not.

eFate-chanfs not too far away now,f the black lady said as Nanoha stood back up. Nanoha tensed, and suddenly seemed unfriendly again. A staff then appeared in her hand out of nowhere, and Alicia flinched. It was a magefs staff, and mages specialise in combat, and that means her threatening aura isnft just for show.

Nanoha noticed the reaction in the corner of her eye, but paid it no mind. eReally?f she said, in her friendly tone, ethen I suppose we should get ready for her.f

 

 

Subaru and Tiana were expecting a van, or small truck to arrive, something that would carry the squad as well as Admiral Lindy and the driver. They werenft expecting a removal truck.

It turned out that Lindy wasnft the only one who had come to brief them. Signum and Vita were also there, as well as an entire technical team who took up most of the room in the back of the truck with their large machines and equipment.

As soon as the last person was in the truck, the doors were slammed shut and they were moving. There was a sense of urgency in the air, and nervous excitement from the technicians.

eWefll brief first, then ask questions later,f Lindy said shortly after the truck started moving. She sat in front of a strange and complex machine with a few technicians by her side, who ignored the new arrivals and were fixed to the displays.

eFor those of you who donft know, Ifm Admiral Lindy Harlaown, and this is Captain Vita and Captain Signum,f she said as the two captains pushed past the technicians. eTheyfre your backup for this mission. Questions later please, Subaru.f Subaru put her hand down.

eFrom what I know, youfve been told that three high ranking officers and a group of civilians have gone missing on this planet. Thatfs not the entire story. Six days ago, there was a massive dimensional disturbance from the region that our officers went missing. The disturbance was so great it was picked up from Headquarters.f

eYes, youfre lucky to still be here, Admiral. I could say the same for this entire star system...f a freckled technician said as he stared at a gauge while tapping it with his pen. Lindy ignored him.

eThatfs the reason why the gcoatsh are with us. Theyfre gathering data from this incident.f It didnft take much to figure out that Lindy as well as Signum and Vita disliked the presence of the technicians. In fact, you could go as far as to say they despised them.

ePhenomenon, Admiral, itfs an unexplained yet significant natural event, and therefore, a phenomenon,f the technician said with a sigh.

eNatural my ass!f Lindy snapped. eThis is a planet with no magic in its history, how could it possibly be a natural event!? Something caused it! And may I remind you, yet again, that there are people caught up in this phenomenon, which makes it an incident!f

eAdmiral I assure you, nothing made by man could have the power to cause a disturbance this great, yet alone do so and not fracture the regionfs dimensional space. These readings are absolutely incredible!f The technician finally looked away from the displays, only to show them to Lindy and the rest who had no idea what they were looking at. He coughed nervously when no one gave him any reaction.

eBut I must ask you Admiral, are you sure youfre suitable for this task?f he asked.

eWhat are you implying?f

eWe all know that your daughter is involved! Isnft this a little personal for you?f

eKnow your place, technician!f Signum yelled. eYou do not have the right, nor the rank to question the Admiralfs actions!f

eCaptain Signum, I know about your rather interesting relationship with Colonel Yagami as well. I could question your involvement in this operation as well. Captain Vitafs too, for that matter.f

While the officers and technician continued bickering, Subaru leant closer to Tiana and whispered, eIsnft this a little strange?f

Tiana gave Subaru an odd look. eHow strange? I donft blame them for being angry at the technician. Hefs a total tool.f

eNo, not the argument... Signum and Vita. Ifm surprised Signum hasnft decked the technician yet, and Vita hasnft spoken a word. She looks like shefs spacing out.f

Tiana looked to the two captains again. Indeed, Signum hadnft moved a single step and was resorting to verbal fighting. Normally this wouldnft seem unusual, but the last time Tiana questioned a superior in a not-so-friendly manner while Signum was around, Signum punched her in the face without saying a word.

Vita on the other hand is known to be very reckless and brash, and when Hayate is involved or insulted, Vita is also known to become very aggressive, almost uncontrollable. But now, as insults about Hayate are thrown freely from the unsavoury technician, Vita hasnft moved an inch. She even looks glazed over, and threatening to collapse at any second.

eMaybe theyfre not feeling well...f Tiana whispered back to Subaru.

eYou think?f Subaru gave them another glance again. ePerhaps... I think it might be something more than that though...f

eWhat makes you think that?f Tiana asked.

Subaru shrugged. eJust a hunch,f she said.

There was a small explosion and the technician shrieked as he franticly patted out a part of his white coat that was now ablaze.

eAll your damn bitchinf has woke me up, damn thickhead...f a young yet highly irritated voice said before it yawned loudly. eWatch the way you talk to my lord. Ifm not as tolerant as she is.f

eAgito?f Signum said as she leant back against one of the machines, gently touching the side of her head. eYou neednft have done that, Agito...f Signum sighed. The miniature girl flew out from behind some other machines in the back of the truck and straight to Signum.

eAw, cfmon Signum, the guyfs an ass. Ifm surprised you didnft do it yourself.f Agito sat with both her arms and legs crossed in mid-air in front of Signum. eAnd besides, wefre partners, so your master is my master.f Agito spun around and thrust her face into the technicianfs as he just managed to pat out the burning coat. eAnd I donft like my masters being insulted like that,f she growled.

eThatfs enough, Sergeant.f Lindy said and Agito loosened up, looking a bit guilty. Lindy looked to the technician. eJust remember that youfre here because wefve allowed you to be here. I can easily send you back if I think youfre getting in the way. Now shut up and do your job.f

Lindy turned to the team again and cleared her throat. eNow... where was I? Oh yes, the dimensional disturbance... these clowns are here to monitor the area. Theyfll also let us know if itfs getting too dangerous to be here, in which case wefll... withdraw to headquarters...f

There was a momentfs pause as Lindy herself came to terms with the order. Then she activated a display of her own which had a map. eThis is the region in which our officers went missing. We will drop you guys off... here,f Lindy pointed at a spot on the map a fair distance away from the original point. eAt this service station, therefs a van which is parked there for you. You are to drive in the van from service station to where our officers were last known to be.

eNow at the camp site, there is a mostly civilian search team assembled. It is lead by the Defence Force, however, they are only overseeing the operation because they know the area best, the civilians are doing the actual searching. You are to join in the search as civilians, and you will follow the officer on chargefs orders, even if you do out-rank him or her.

eEvery day at 0900 hours, 1300 hours and 1800 hours Captain Signum, Vita or I will contact Tiana and Subaru for an update on how the search is progressing, plus anything you notice that will shine light on whatfs happening out there. I want you guys to look out for anything. If you find an unusual twig, I want to know. Subaru, Ifll take your question now.f

eHuh?f Subaru blinked a few times. eQuestion? What question? Oh, the question... right... Um... How come wefre the ones doing the mission? Captain Signum and Captain Vita lived here once, didnft they? Wouldnft they be more suitable for this mission?f

eTrue, we did once live here,f Signum said, still resting against the machine. eHowever, it is for that reason we are the most inappropriate for this mission. It would be problematic if anyone we knew saw us. As you can see, we havenft aged much in the past six years.f

eYou two donft look that well either,f Tiana said.

eWell...f Signum looked to Lindy for help.

eDo you know about the Book of Darkness incident?f Lindy asked.

The team looked to each other.

eWasnft it the incident where the highly dangerous Lost Article, the Book of Darkness, formally known as the Tome of the Night Sky, went berserk on this very planet?f Church said. eIt was brought under control by the collective effort of the three officers that we seek, if I am not mistaken.f

eOh, thatfs right. I remember being told about it,f said Tiana. eSignum and Vita were heavily involved in it, werenft you?f

eThatfs correct. Vita, Shamal, Zafira and I are the Guardian Knights that protect our Mistress Hayate and Reinforce, the name our Mistress gave to the Book of Darkness after she was able to gain control over it.f

eBut wasnft the Book of Darkness destroyed?f Church said. eFrom my knowledge, the Guardian Knights were a program of the Tome. If that is the case, then destroying the Tome would mean destroying you too.f

eYoufre very knowledgeable Constable,f Signum said with a faint smile. eReinforcefs last gift to us was to separate the Guardian Knight system from herself so that we could remain by our Masterfs side.

eWe were effectively dependant on our Masterfs magic for a while until our cores stabilised independently. However, it seems that we still havenft fully earned dependence from Mistress Hayate. I feel sluggish and weak now that wefve been separated like this. Vita probably feels it worse than me. Rein can barely stay awake.f

eRein is here too?f Subaru asked.

eYeah, the pipsqueak is staying at the Admiralfs house with Shamal and Zafira,f Agito answered. eWhat?f she cried after a short silence.

eNothing... itfs just Ifm still getting used to you being on our side,f Subaru said sheepishly.

Agito threw her head back. eTo let you know, Ifm not on your side. Just Signumfs...f she averted her eyes. eAnd... I suppose seeinf as Signumfs on your side then...f

eHuh... Tiana? Subaru?f Vita rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn. eWho are the other guys?f

eWelcome back Vita,f Signum said.

eYeah... how long was I out for?f

eAbout three-quarters of an hour. This is the 47th Emergency Response Squadron. Subarufs their commander.f

Vita nodded at the team drearily.

eUm... Captain Vita, if youfre still tired... we wonft mind if you rest,f Subaru said, stepping forward nervously.

eDonft worry about me,f Vita said with a yawn, then turned to Signum again. eHow long until we get there?f she asked.

eAround two hours,f Lindy answered instead. eYou can do what you want until then.f

 

 

The campers slowly trickled back into ring of tents where Alicia was sitting. Hayate was idly talking to her, but Alicia couldnft pay attention to her because of Viviofs constant stare. The campers were unnerving her too. She knew that she was the centre of their attention, and the topic of their conversations, but she couldnft help but to feel that she was being sized up, or compared to something... or perhaps someone.

There was another reason why the campers were unnerving her though. Alicia had never been before been surrounded by so many people before. She felt so insecure, mainly because they seemed to be so critical of her.

Alicia didnft want any of it though. She just wanted to go home, and be with her mother again.

eAlicia!f a voice called. Alicia knew it was her motherfs voice, and she saw her just behind Nanoha as she returned to the ring of tents. Her mother looked relieved to see her.

eMother!f Alicia cried as she jumped off her seat, but someone pushed past her mother before she started to run to her. She pushed past her mother.

Wait, thatfs not right. Ifm here; I canft be there... who is that person? And why is mother glaring at her like that? Does she know her... or is that really me? If so, then who am I?

eHello Alicia,f she said. eIfm Fate\e

eDonft you dare talk to her!f Precia roared, but was held back by Nanoha. Alicia then realised the binds on her motherfs wrists, shackling her hands together.

eDonft be like that, Precia, theyfre both big girls now. They know how to look after themselves,f Nanoha said with a now commanding voice which seemed out of place for the words she was using. eItfs the first time the sisters have met, so let them get to know each other. Or at least let Alicia get to know Fate.f

Sisters? Nanoha did mention that I had a sister before, but she looks older than me... I should at least know if I had an older sister... And why is mother being held like that? Did she do something wrong?

eThat person is not a member of my family!f Precia cried, pointing an accusing finger and unwilling fist at Fate.

ePerhaps, but your blood will say otherwise,f Nanoha replied bitterly, grabbing Preciafs shoulder and spinning her around so she could take hold of her hands again. eNow why donft you be quiet for a change?f

eWhat have you done with my daughter?f Precia hissed, pulling herself intimidating close to Nanoha. It had no affect though.

eWe gave her food and drink, and asked her a few questions. Sorry. Perhaps we should have thrown her in a cage instead, if thatfs what youfd like. Should we have tortured and interrogated her instead?f

eWhatfs going on!?f Alicia cried. There was a momentfs silence as everyone turned to look at her.

eIfd like to know too,f Murano said, tapping some ash off the tip of cigarette. Much to his disappointment, cigarettes werenft magically appearing like the food and he was forced to ration what was left in his last packet. Some other campers agreed with him though.

eWell, you see Alicia...f said Hayate. eFate over therefs your younger sister\e

eBe quiet, you!f Precia yelled, only to be jerked forward by Nanoha.

eMy younger sister? But shefs older than me!f cried Alicia.

eRemember what I told you about you dying Alicia? Fate was born after you had died.f Nanoha added while holding Precia at bay.

Alicia shook her head, and then changed the subject. eWhy are you holding mother like that? Whatfs going on?f

eYour motherfs done some bad things since you died,f Hayate told the young girl. eShefs wanted for several crimes, and unfortunately... itfs our job to arrest her.f

eYoufre not making any sense! Tell me what happened, why all this is happening! Tell me!f

eUm... Fate?f Hayate suggested. Fate however, had her eyes downcast.

eIfm sorry, Hayate...f she said, looking up briefly. She looked depressed. eIfm going to go back on patrol... we donft have any time to spare...f She then turned and hastily left the ring of tents.

eIfll go too!f Nanoha called out after a momentfs hesitation, pushing Precia to the ground and running after Fate. eSorry Hayate, could you tell them what happened?f

eSure... but I wasnft there! And what about your break?f

eIfll be fine!f Nanoha said as she left the ring of tents too. All eyes turned to Hayate.

With a sigh, she stood up and helped Precia to her feet. eYou wonft need these now...f Hayate said as she dispelled Fatefs binds. Hayate didnft need to be looking at Precia to see her grin. She knew shefd plan something as she walked behind her.

eNow... I donft like doing this...f Hayate said softly in an unwilling voice. She was close enough to Precia to feel the woman conjure mana into her body as she prepared a spell. eUnfortunately, youfre not going to give me a choice.f

Before Precia could do anything with the mana she was gathering, Hayate placed her hand on the womanfs back, just below shoulder blades. She then pushed her hand through, and it appeared from between Preciafs breasts, with a large purple glimmer sitting in her palm. Precia gasped and her body tensed up. Alicia and some of the other campers screamed.

Hayate looked to Alicia with saddened eyes. eIfm sorry you have to see this, Alicia...f she said. eBut your mother is a powerful mage, and I canft let her cast any spells here.f

eWha... What is this...?f Precia gasped.

eItfs an ability Ifve inherited. Ah... careful! Please stay standing, Precia; Ifm holding your Linker Core in my hand. You should know what would happen if I separated it from your body.f Hayate chuckled at her own self-amusement. eYou know, itfs ironic... When the Administration Bureau learnt how to mimic this ability of mine, the first person they used it on was me...f

eWhat are you doing?f Precia said, her knees quivering, staring at Hayatefs hand that stuck out from her chest. A white Belkan emblem then appeared on in front and behind the Linker Core with the shimmering sound of magic shearing against physical elements in the air.

eIfm going to constrain your Linker Core; putting a cap on it, if you will. From the documents Ifve read, youfre a double S ranked mage... That puts you on par with me.f A white sphere then covered the Core. eLetfs bring you down to... a B rank. No... a C rank.f

The sphere then slowly started to shrink, and Precia cried in agony. Moments later, the sphere stopped shrinking at a quarter of its original size, and Hayate drew her hand out from Preciafs chest.

Precia slumped to the ground and Alicia ran to her motherfs side and shot Hayate a hateful glare. It hit its spot. Hayate looked away, feeling guilty.

eIfm sorry...f she muttered, and then noticed Murano making his way toward Precia. She reached out and grabbed his arm. eDonft worry, shefs fine. Shefll just feel weak for a while, thatfs all.f

eYou put your hand through her chest, Hayate,f he growled, shaking her hand off his arm. eIfll be the judge of her health, not you!f Murano made his way over to the stricken Precia, only to spat at when he tried to help him up.

eI wonft be touched by a lowly creature such as yourself\Argh!!f Precia tensed up again, clutching at her chest again. Alicia gave a panicked and worried cry, and Murano spun around to see Hayate squeezing a white sphere in her hand.

eHayate!f he cried.

eDonft think youfll be getting off freely because I donft have a cage to throw you in Precia...f Hayate said softly. Her voice was haunting. eMy spell still allows me to manipulate your linker core, even if Ifm not directly holding onto it. This is your cage... for now. Try to behave. I really donft enjoy this, but I will do it if you force me to.f

eHayate! That is torture!f Murano yelled at her.

eTorture? No, this isnft torture. Precia would know about torture.f

eWho are you? What gives you this authority?f Precia moaned, getting up on her elbows.

eOh, we havenft been introduced yet, have we? Ifm Colonel Yagami Hayate, commander of the Time Space Administration Bureaufs Lost Article Section 4.f

eColonel...?f Precia said. She had caught her breath back, and was now sitting up somewhat. eHow old are you, girl?f

eGirl is hardly the right word, but Ifm twenty-five.f

Precia laughed. She honestly found it humorous. eColonel at the age of twenty-five? Who did you sleep with to achieve that?f

eYes, funny...f Hayate muttered. eNot the first time Ifve heard it though. No, youfll only find high ranking officers here unfortunately.f

Precia laughed harder, but Alicia found little humour in the situation. eColonel, why is my mother under arrest? On what charge?f she cried.

eIfm not sure if I can name them all from memory...f Hayate said as she sat down again, eBut shefs under arrest for attacking an Administration Bureau warship, assaulting officers of the Administration Bureau, using artefacts with the intent of creating a large-scale dimensional disturbance... I do believe she was also wanted for questioning over the incident that you died in, Alicia.f

eI had nothing to do with that!f Precia hissed.

Fear shot through Aliciafs body. Nothing to do with that...? What does she mean by that? Alicia gasped. eYoufre not denying that I died?f

Precia looked up to her daughter, and Alicia could see the panic set in her eyes.

eYoufre just as sharp as Fate is,f Hayate commented. eIfll tell you what happened, why youfre motherfs under arrest and what she did. What was the last thing you remember while you were living at Midchilda?f

Alicia thought hard. Most of her memory was an obscure blur, but she kept searching. eTherefs this one time...f she said after some thought, ewhere mother took me to her work place. I was excited because mother never took me to her work.f

Precia tensed up, and Alicia could feel it.

eHmm... that must have been the time, right Precia?f Hayate glanced to the mother with inquisitive eyes. eFrom what we found at the laboratory, your mother was working on some illegal research. It was research for life after death, a way to raise the dead, or whatever you want to call it. Am I correct, Precia?f

eI wonft deny it. I was foolish then,f Precia said defiantly.

eBut there was an accident, wasnft there? An explosion. Your illegal and dangerous research killed your only daughter.f

eIt wasnft an accident!f Precia roared, her defiance tumbling to anger as she rose to her feat. eThat was deliberate!f

eSit down please, Precia,f Hayate warned as the white sphere shimmered into her hand again. eOr at least, calm down.f Precia faltered.

eThank you. So you deliberately blew up the facility\e

eIt wasnft me! I didnft kill my daughter! I was dragged into that research and used! That scumbag used me and killed my daughter, all for his precious little experiments!f Precia cried.

eAnd who would this scumbag be?f Hayate asked.

eScagliettie! Hefs the man you want!f

There was a short silence as Hayate thought about it. eHow can I believe you?f she asked.

Precia gave a short exhausted laugh. eYou know about him, donft you?f

Hayate opened her mouth, then hesitated. eSix years ago, Jail Scagliettie was arrested by Enforcer Fate Testarossa Harlaown. And I still donft have a reason to belie\e she stopped short as there was a sickening sound from the crowd.

Mai was doubled over and vomiting while her mother and Vivio were attending to her.

eShefs telling the truth, Hayate-san...f Vivio said. eMai saw it.f

 

 

Precia stormed through the corridors of the laboratory. Alicia had gone missing. This was one of the reasons why she hadnft taken her daughter to her work place before; the little girl was bound to get lost while excitedly exploring the vast corridors, rooms and strange objects.

She cursed herself from her own stupidity and was anxious about her safety. There were many objects that were dangerous, and a lot of chemicals that would be fatal if it made contact with the human body. And there was Scagliettie.

Precia was always doubtful about the man. His research was brilliant, she had to admit that, but there was that look in his eye that she never did trust. He seemed to be working with an agenda, rather than for the common good, or to find out more secrets of the universe.

But why would one person want to break the secrets of re-animation? Surely it was to unlock another secret of the universe; he even told Precia that it was for that purpose he did his research. And he wanted her assistance. Never before had she been badgered so much to assist in an assignment.

Precia doubted him now. He acted strangely, he contradicts himself too often, and there was that look. The look of greed. Working with him was starting to look like a bad idea. But now, her daughter was missing. Finding her was now top priority.

She stormed into one of the laboratories, one that Precia was never told what it was for. There was the hum of machines working to a fine tune, and the occasional hiss of gasses being released from valves.

eAlicia!f she cried out, searching franticly.

eWhatfs this? Doctor Testarossa?f a voice called eerily. eWhat brings you here?f

Scagliettie was bent over, inspecting some gadgets and dials on the other side of the room. He turned his head to look at Precia, and there was the look. His eyes were narrowed with immense anger, but his grin cracked his face, his lips slightly separated even though he couldnft spread his grin any further. His eyes looked maddened. It freaked her out every time she saw it, but she never saw it this intense before.

eScagliettie, Alicia is missing! Have you seen her?f Precia had to look away. His mad eyes were boring into her and she feared they were contagious.

eAlicia? Who would this person be?' he asked as he moved over to a panel on the other side of the cluttered lab.

eDonft be coy with me Jail!f Precia yelled as she looked around the room herself. eMy daughter! Alicia! Help me look for her!f

eNow, now, Doctor Testarossa, you mustnft panic. Youfll only have more difficulty finding her that way.f The panel in front of him slid open. eOh. Here she is. See what I mean?f

As relief overwhelmed her, Precia spun around anxious to see her daughter again.

Relief quickly turned to horror.

The panel wasnft large, about the size of those narrow rectangular windows in doors that are there just to make sure you donft slam the door into someone on the other side. It was, however, big enough for Precia to see her daughter strapped to a chair in a very small chamber, about the size of a life pod that only just fit her, and she was screaming for her mother.

eHow did she ever get in there?f Scagliettie asked with insane amusement.

Rage took control as Precia grabbed Scagliettie by the collar and pinned him against the nearest wall.

eWhat the hell do you think youfre doing to my daughter?f she screamed, slamming him against the wall a few times as she did.

Scagliettie didnft say anything in response. Instead, his grin widened further, the corner of his lips turning purple from the stress. His eyes widened, and his pupils shrunk. The madman was using her as a guinea pig!

eLet her out! Let her out now!f Precia screamed.

eAs you wish, Doctor Testarossa,f Scagliettie maintained his insane grin. eIf youfd just kindly unhand me...f

eNo! No, you tell me what to do. Youfre not pressing anything!f

Scagliettie looked away, and tried to look puzzled but his grin ruined the attempt. eOh silly me, I forgot to label the equipment and buttons again!f He chuckled insanely.

eScagliettie!f Precia screamed as she slammed him against the wall again. He was staring at something. She followed his gaze to a large red button on top of a black and yellow striped box. It was unmarked, as were the rest of the dials, gauges and buttons. There were lots of buttons too. There were tools littered all around the place too. A spanner was closest and she quickly picked it up, holding it to him threateningly.

eTell me which one it is!f she yelled, spanner held over head.

eDunno!f the man laughed.

The spanner came down.

It landed on his shoulder with a sickening crack, digging further into the shoulder than it should have. Scagliettie cried out in pain and sunk to the floor, clutching his arm. Precia left him groaning in pain on the floor as she scurried from button to dial to gauge, trying to understand what each one did. She had no idea what the experiment he was trying to conduct was for, but if it involved strapping someone to a chair, it was bound to be unpleasant.

Precia looked back to the big red button. It looked exactly like the emergency stop buttons that were used throughout the laboratory. She walked over to it as Scagliettie started to giggle again, finding the blood seeping out of his shoulder rather humorous.

Precia looked to her daughter again as she put her hand on the button. Her eyes were pleading for her.

eNo, not that one!f Scagliettie cried before laughing madly again.

Angrily, Precia slammed the button down. The machinery hum stopped. The hiss, however got louder.

Then the machines whined back into life. They got so loud it was almost deafening. Fear ripped through Preciafs body. Did she just activate the machine?

eI told you not to press that one!f Scagliettie laughed.

eWhatfs this machine for!f Precia screamed, lifting the man from the ground. eTell me!f

Scagliettie gazed at her again. His eyes were glazed with madness, and he wasnft exactly looking at her, just at her general direction. eItfs known that the Linker Core slowly degrades when the body dies, but doesnft die with it! And the Linker Core is also said to retain a personfs memory as well! Like muscle memory, without the muscle! If we can preserve the body within the Linker Core, then we can re-create it later! Itfs simple! Nothing to fear! Itfll decompose the body and then the Linker Core will magically absorb the elements! Youfre daughterfs body will simply be preserved within her Linker Core!f He broke out laughing again. eWe can bring back the dead easily! Memories and all!f

Scagliettie slipped from Preciafs hands and fell back to the floor again. She went pale with fear as she stumbled to the panel. Her daughter looked around the chamber franticly, then her eyes laid upon her mother, filled with terror. The chamber seemed to glow.

Then she imploded.

Blood stained the glass of the panel, but through it Precia could see the shine of a golden yellow linker core. It took a while for her to comprehend what happened, before she cried out in grief and agony.

eSuccess!f Scagliettie cried triumphantly as he propped himself up with his good arm. eIt worked! Ifm a genius!f he laughed.

Preciafs grief turned to rage at the sound of his voice. She picked up the spanner again and brought it down on his head, but her grief and rage made her aim poor and it came down on his good shoulder with another sickening crack.

eGive me back my daughter!f she cried, breaking his nose with the spanner this time. eGive me back my Alicia!f

As she brought the spanner up again, there was an explosion. The machine had failed to shut itself down and overheated, igniting one of the gas cylinders. Shrapnel ricocheted around the room, imbedding into other machines and gadgets, puncturing other gas cylinders and liquid canisters, and one piece into the arm holding the spanner.

The bloodstained tool fell to the ground as Precia cried out in pain. A long shard of metal was sticking through her arm and she gazed at it in shock. Without thinking, she grabbed one end and pulled it out of her arm. The pain was unbearable and she sunk to the floor, clutching her wound.

She concentrated her magic, using it to stop the bleeding and aid the healing process. She knew it would take some time for her arm to fully heal, but she had to start now. She needed the arm. She had to continue the research to save her daughter. It was the only thing she could do now.

The fire from the destroyed gas cylinder was spreading now, and coming dangerously close to several leaking chemical canisters and some other gas cylinders. Precia forced herself to her feet, walked over Scagliettiefs limp body and to the panel again. She found what she was looking for, a panel near the floor, pulled it out and the wall around the panel slid open.

In the small chamber was the child size life-pod, suspended in the air by an anti-gravity platform attached to the roof of the pod. She refused to let the grief take over her again. She had to get somewhere safe first.

Carefully, she pulled the pod out of its chamber and guided it to the door.

As the doors jerked open, there was another explosion, followed by several more, and several shards of twisted metal ripped through Preciafs chest.

 

 

eIs that rightf Hayate asked.

Mai weakly nodded her head as she sat on one of the chairs in the ring of tents. Her mother was by her side, rubbing her back and Vivio sat next to her holding her hand.

eWell then, Precia, would you mind continuing? Tell us what happened next.f

Precia glanced to her daughter. Her shocked expression was painful, but she figured her daughter would also want the recollection to continue.

eI managed to get out of the laboratory before it went up in flames. I held my wounds together with magic. God knows how Scagliettie got out of there. I decided to continue the research, but I was running out of time.f

eYou couldnft heal your wounds?f Hayate asked.

eI needed medical treatment. Without it, the wounds would have been fatal.f

eWhy didnft you go to the hospital then?f Yuki asked this time.

eYou think theyfd just agree to treat me?f Precia laughed.

eThey wouldnft,f Hayate told the campers. ePrecia was exiled for her part in the experiments. Unless she found a doctor elsewhere, she couldnft be treated.f

eThatfs right... Your Bureau wanted me dead.f

eBut the research wasnft progressing, wasnft it?f

eThat damned Scagliettief Precia cursed. eHefd never work on a thesis, hefd just experiment. We donft have the technology to extract anything but magic from a Linker Core. I managed to extract memories, but physical elements... Only Al Hazzard would have such technology!f

eAnd thatfs when Fate came into the picture.f

Precia laughed again. eCame into the picture... Created you mean. A doll to help me by as I strived to bring my Alicia back, but just a doll! She could never be as brilliant as Alicia! So I used her as a tool to get what I needed so my research could continue.f

eWait, what do you mean by created?f Murano asked.

eDuring our research, we accidently created Artificial Mages,f Precia explained. eImperfect clones. Hastily created and their growth can be accelerated to which ever age you like. Your friend, Fate, is the first I created.f Precia grinned at the campersf reaction.

eBut you werenft satisfied with Fate were you?f Hayate said.

eOf course not! Shefs nothing like Alicia. She never smiled like her, never laughed like her... she pales in comparison!f

eAnd then you heard where you could find Al Hazzard.f

eNo,f Precia shook her head. eI researched it! The light that comes from the interval between the dimensions! Thatfs where Al Hazzard is!f

eAnd...?f

eAny Lost Logia would work, but itfs near impossible finding one. I was lucky to spot some being transported, but I only managed to damage the ship. It crashed on this damned planet. I was in no shape to get them myself, so I sent Fate.f

eBut she failed.f

eThatfs right... another mage was already after them and Fate was too kind to take them from her...f Precia looked up as something occurred to her. eWait. The other mage, the white one... She was the mage from before!f Precia broke out laughing. eOh I knew she was a useless girl! Befriending the enemy!f

 eAnd because Fate didnft take the Jewel Seeds from Nanoha, you tortured her! You whipped her until she was unconscious!f Hayate yelled, jumping out of her chair.

eThatfs right! Itfs my doll and I can treat it as I like!f

eYou planned to use the Jewel Seeds to create a dimensional disturbance, believing in some fable that Al Hazzard is in the interval between dimensions!f

eAnd it was! Ifm still alive arenft I?f

The white orb materialised in Hayatefs hand, and she squeezed it with anger. Precia gasped and clutched her chest in agony.

eThe disturbance you wanted to create could have destroyed this entire star system, and yet you didnft hesitate! You placed one life in front of billions others, and therefs no telling what damage the shockwave would have done to other civilisations in other dimensions!f Hayate released the orb and it vanished, and Precia slumped to the ground once more.

eIf it werenft for Nanoha and Fate, none of us would be here. This area of time-space would have buckled and collapsed on itself,f Hayate told everyone. She pointed a finger at Precia. eAnd she would have been the cause of it. Always remember that she is an inter-dimensional criminal. A very dangerous one of that.f

Hayate turned and walked away from Precia and Alicia, towards the exit of the ring of tents. eLetfs go, Arisa, Suzuka... Wefve got work to do. We all do.f

 

 

It was several hours later before someone next came to talk to Alicia. She had left her mother to rest in the largest tent in the campsite; the spell Hayate had cast seemed to sap a lot of her energy.

Alicia was sitting on a stump near the edge of the clearing, looking at the unusually hazy sky when the white magefs daughter, Vivio and the other girl who was always with her approached.

Vivio energetically jumped up on the log and sat annoying close to Alicia, but the other girl cautiously sat next to Vivio. The blonde girl didnft say anything. It annoyed Alicia.

eWhat?f Alicia asked.

Vivio looked at her stupefied. eNothing,f she said before gazing out to the forest again. eJust thought youfd like some company.f

Alicia glanced to the other girl, only to see her avert her eyes to the forest. Eventually, Alicia lost interest in her and then gazed up to the sky again. Something didnft seem right about it.

eItfs fake apparently...f the other girl said. eAnd my namefs Mai.f

eFake...?f Alicia asked, glancing at the girl suspiciously.

eYeah. Mama says wefre stuck in some really powerful barrier. If we walk through one edge of it, we appear on the opposite edge.f

Alicia thought about that. eWhat would happen if you were to fly to the top of the barrier then?f she asked pointing to the sky.

Vivio opened her mouth, hesitated, then shut it again in though. eYou know... I donft know...f

They sat in silence for a while.

eSo...f Alicia said eventually. eI died, huh?f

eYup,f Mai said.

There was another silence.

eBut you were brought back,f Vivio added. eSo youfre alive again.f

eDid mother really do all those things?f Alicia asked the two girls.

eYes...f Mai said solemnly, eshe did do all those things.f

eBut...f Vivio said in mid thought, eFate-mama told me once that it was because your mother loved you. She loved you so much that she broke.f

Alicia turned to look at Vivio. eWait... gFate-mamah?f

Mai chuckled eStrange isnft it?f

eWhatfs strange about it?f Vivio complained. eShefs my godmother, so Fate-mama!f

eBut when you were young you treated her like your mother!f

eYeah, when I was young!f Vivio paused again. eWait... I never told you that...f

Mai looked away cheekily.

eYoufve done it again, havenft you! Stop going into my head without my permission, you!f Vivio playfully pushed Mai. They giggled before silence returned.

eMaifs psychic,f Vivio explained to Alicia.

eIs that why she knew everything about what happened to my mother?f

Mai nodded. eI saw it. All of it.f

eIsnft this... strange though?f Alicia asked. eI died, but Ifm alive again. Arenft those who died supposed to stay dead?f

eWould you like it that way?f Vivio asked in return.

eWell... no...f Alicia looked down, confused. eBut... all this science stuff... Is it right? Creating people with science and bringing back the dead...f

eIt is wrong... but that doesnft mean that the people who were made are wrong.f Vivio said.

eWhat do you mean?f

eWell... the things the researchers have done. Thatfs wrong, and they should be punished for it. But the people who were created from that research... what have they done wrong?f Vivio looked to Alicia. eShould you be punished for what happened to you?f

Alicia thought about it. eI donft think I should...f

eYou shouldnft,f Vivio told her. eYou did nothing wrong. Neither did Fate-mama.f

eNeither did you, Vivio,f Mai said cheerfully.

Vivio froze. eWhat do you mean, Mai?f Vivio said slowly, not turning around to face her.

eYoufre an Artificial Mage too, arenft you? Cloned after someone who died some thousand years ago\e

Vivio spun around and slapped Mai. eYou did it again, didnft you! You went through my head without my permission! That was a secret, and yet you blurted it out like it was nothing! I hate you!f

Vivio jumped off the trunk and ran into the forest crying, leaving Alicia alone with a stunned Mai.

Alicia looked at the other girl. Tears started to silently run down her face and her cheek reddened slightly. Without a sound, she got off the log, and returned to the tents.

That was sudden, Alicia thought, and she returned her attention to the strange hazy sky above.

 

 

Meanwhile, at a service station just off a not too busy highway that ran near the camping site, an unmarked removal truck pulled in. No one paid attention to the driver who began to top up the tank, nor did they pay attention to the boxes being inspected in the back of the truck that occasionally gave brief human-shaped static shimmers.

And no one paid attention as Subaru, Tiana and the rest of the crew waved farewell to the truck driver as their red mini-bus pulled onto the highway, heading for the campsite.

 

 

Mai slowly made her way back into her tent and wrapped her sleeping bag around her tight. All the adults were too busy to pay her any attention. Some were floating around Hayate, waiting for instructions, others were busy preparing some food and the rest were busy talking to each other. Which was just as well; Mai didnft want to be near anyone. Chances are shefd end up reading their mind again.

She wasnft upset. Just... depressed. Too many times has she lost a friend because she found out something she wasnft supposed to. She was used to it. But it still hurt. And she thought that she could get along really well with Vivio... After all, all this time she never knew that she was special. Only a handful of children each generation are born with great magical potential, Nanoha told her, and she was one of them. Most of these kids donft even know how special they are because they donft know how to use it.

But Maifs ability started using itself. At first it was confusing. Shefd hear snippets of thought, think specs of memories that werenft her own. After a while, curiosity took hold and she tried to hear more thoughts, see more memories, and over time, they came. But now theyfre not leaving.

Sure, the ability can be a blessing. Shefd have be warned beforehand if someone wanted to do something bad to her, shefd know the answers to the questions the teacher was asking, and shefd know if the stranger in the street was really lost or not. But all too often, her ability was proving to be a curse.

In books and television shows, the hero with super-powers has to focus and concentrate in order to use them. For Mai, it eventually became the opposite. She used her ability so much that she forgot how to turn it off, and now has to focus and concentrate to keep the thoughts and memories out.

It was harder to do when surrounded by more people. The more people there are around, the more thoughts and memories she has to ward off, and the more she has to concentrate. Her school work was hindered by it, and sometimes she couldnft cope with the pressure of so many thoughts trying to force their way into her head that shefd break down in tears, and was sent home sick. Letting the thoughts in wasnft an option either. Too many thoughts gave her sharp and powerful headaches. Her brain canft cope with too many extra strains of thought. Thankfully she can cope with the number of people the camp site has.

What happened with Vivio was an accident. She let her guard down when Precia was telling everyone about what she did. When she told everyone that she had created Fate as an artificial mage, Vivio thought gjust like me...h Her thought was heard by Mai unwillingly, but before she could hear any more she forced herself to stop.

Maybe that wasnft the best of ideas...  Maybe if she had kept listening, she would have heard that some mean lady had told all her classmates about it, and had forced them to hate her before she hurt Vivio.

But itfs too late now. Ifve hurt her, and now she hates me.

Mai reached into her pocket and pulled out the green sphere she found before placing it before her and tightening her sleeping bag around her. She lost herself gazing into the infinitely deep sphere, watching its different shades slowly meld into various different shapes.

I think I saw her go in here... I hope shefs alright.

It was a thought, but not Maifs. Her mother must be approaching the tent. She knew what her motherfs thoughts sounded like. Thoughts donft have the ownerfs voice, itfs the voice the speaker hears when theyfre speaking, not the voice you hear when they speak. Not many people recognise their voice the first time they hear it being played back to them.

She quickly tucked the sphere back in her pocket and then covered her head with the sleeping bag. She heard the tent flap open.

eMai...?f her mother called.

She is in here after all... Whatfs wrong with her? Her mother thought.

eNothing, Ifm just tired,f Mai responded.

What? How did she... eMai, donft do that,f her mother said.

eI canft help it! Itfs hard to control!f Mai yelled in frustration.

There was a pause for those who couldnft hear the thoughts of others. For Mai, it was filled with various confused arguments her mother was having with herself, before she ultimately came up with a reply.

eWhat happened?f her mother asked as she crept into the tent and sat down next to her. A comforting hand was placed on Maifs head.

eI hurt Vivio...f Mai responded solemnly.

eHow?f

eI said something I wasnft supposed to know. It was a painful memory for her, but I didnft know that...f

There was another pause, filled with thoughts of pity and concern for Mai.

eDid you apologise to her?f

Mai shook her head. eShe ran into the forest before I could say anything... she hates me now!f

eCome on now, Mai,f Her mother said as she patted her head. eYou donft know that.f

eYes I do! She was screaming it in her thoughts Mum! She hates me!f Mai began to sob softly.

Gently, her mother lifted her into her arms and held her firmly, still stroking her hair. eYou know, Mai,f she said, epeoplefs thoughts can be very treacherous. Itfs like talking to yourself really... you can still lie, and say hurtful things, even if you donft really mean it. Ifm sure Vivio thought that because she was hurt.f Her mother didnft say any more. There was nothing else to say. All she did was think about Mai, and comfort her. And it was helping to calm the little girl.

I wish she wasnft born like this.

Mai froze. So did her mother. Panic ran through her motherfs mind, but all her thoughts had the same message: Did she hear that?

Mai didnft move from her motherfs embrace. eDo you hate me now...?f she asked nervously.

Her mother pushed her back so Mai could look straight into her motherfs eyes. Like Maifs her face was streaked with tears. There was no thought to read.

eDonft you ever think that!f her mother told her firmly. eI could never hate you! Never! Understood?f

Mai nodded softly. eIfm sorry Mum,f she sniffed, and her mother held her tight again.

eThat what I mean by peoplefs thoughts can be treacherous... I meant it would have been better if you were born without this ability of yours...f But youfre born with it, so therefs no helping it. You poor thing...

eItfs okay Mum... sometimes I can control it...f

eBut itfs difficult isnft it? Perhaps if we can train you...f Her mother paused. Wait a minute... we have a teacher here donft we? eSay, Mai... why donft we go see Nanoha later?f

 

 

An hour after it pulled away from the service station, the red mini-bus arrived at the last known destination of the missing officers and was greeted by a scratch military checkpoint, made by a short barbed wire face, two military trucks and some armed guards. One of them approached the mini-bus.

He gave a quick look to Subaru who was at the wheel, then to the rest of the crew.

eVolunteers?f he grunted, giving Subaru a suspicious look.

eYes sir,f she answered with a wink and a cheeky grin.

The soldier gave her a long sideways glance as if he was measuring up Subarufs character, but lost interest after a moment. ePark yer car with the rest, then see the L.T. in the red tent. Off ye go now.f

eNo problem,f Subaru responded before she slowly drove past the guards towards a group of cars parked not too far off to the left. Tiana leant back over her seat to look at the rest of the crew.

Okay guys, wefll assist them while we do our own little investigation from here on. All communications regarding our investigation are to be telepathic only. No visual feeds either.

Sure thing, Boss! Jazz responded with a playful salute, which everyone but Subaru and Church copied. Tiana turned to Subaru, slightly confused.

eEr... Boss?f she asked her.

Subaru laughed softly. eEveryone who wefre collaborating with whofs higher ranking than me we call Boss,f she explained.

eOkay... why?f

eItfs easier than having to remember someonefs name, especially when itfs long or when youfre not getting along with them. And chances are you arenft going to see that person after the missionfs complete.f

Tiana sat back down in her seat and thought about it for a bit. eMakes sense...f she admitted. eWhat about if you out rank them? What name do you give those guys?f

eDepends. gKidh gets used if theyfre young, gPunkh if theyfve got an attitude; sometimes we just call them gHey Youh.f

eThere was that guy we called gScumh once...f Bulldog added.

eOh yeah, that guy was a total asshole!f Flash chirped in.

eHe was indeed worthy of such a title,f Bishop soberly added.

eI had this feeling he was always trying to hit on me...f Bluebird reminisced.

eA feeling?f Jazz turned to look at her. eWhat kind of feeling? The damn fool had trouble keeping his hands offa you!f

eI called him gPrickh,f Vixen said. eHe seemed to like it,f she added with a shrug.

Subaru eased the bus between a car and a truck, pulled on the hand brake and killed the engine.

eAlright guys, letfs get to it!f she said as she threw open the driverfs door and jumped out.

The team casually made their way through the make-shift car park towards a moderate sized red marquee tent just inside the large clearing. There was an exasperated sigh from Jazz shortly after they got off the bus.

eYo Chief!f he called out. Subaru turned around and he jerked his neck towards Church, who had his nose in his bible again. Subaru sighed as well.

Corporal, what are you doing reading your bible here, of all places? She asked, slightly annoyed. You were told to wear unmarked clothes, did you honestly think that it would be alright to read a book written in Midchildan script?

Terribly sorry Mafam, I donft know what I was thinking. He said as he swiftly pocketed the book.

Media, three o-clock Chief, Bluebird informed. Surely enough, to their right was a news crew setting up for a news report.

More media at seven and far eleven o-clock, added Vixen.

Media, six o-clock, high and far, Bulldog added. A few heads turned back and looked up. It was just a spec, but a helicopter was hovering over the forest in the distance.

eNice eyes big man!f Jazz patted his friend on the back. You want us to call out the armed troops Chief?

No, I think itfs obvious where they are. Just keep an eye on the men in green.

Sure thing.

Tiana turned looked at her friend, slightly surprised. Why are you keeping an eye on the media?

The media will be working with the military hand-in-hand. Anything they catch on film will be seen by whoeverfs on charge here first before it goes back to their office.

I knew that...  Said Tiana, slightly suspicious. But what I donft understand is why you know that, and why youfre paying so much attention to it. Arenft you guys supposed to be some elite rescue squad?

We are. Wefve been sent on surgical strike missions where the main objective was to rescue hostages and leave the hostiles red in the face. Subaru grinned cheekily. And in those missions, especially if itfs some sort of rebellion, the easiest way in is through the front door.

A rebellion? Tiana cried. When was there a rebellion?

Therefs always a rebellion happening somewhere, Boss, Flash explained. Theyfre just on Non-Administered planets; the non important ones that never make the news. Sometimes the Bureau would send in an Inspector to see how the planetfs progressing...

And then some town would think wefd listen to them if they kidnap the poor bastard, Jazz added.

Then they send us in to get him out underneath the townfs nose. No casualties, either side. Subaru said.

Lots of fireworks, though, the husky voice of Boomer added. There was a cheer from Jazz.

eThatfs my man!f he cried as they high fived each other.

Therefs normally lots of media trying to make a big deal of the situation. One of our missions were flawed because of the media... we almost didnft make it out of there. Wefve decided not to make the same mistake again.

The red tent had two green uniformed men with rifles standing guard outside the tent flap. They gave the group a look mixed with suspicion and lack of care before they went back to looking at nothing again, a sign that the party were allowed in.

It wasnft a very large tent, but it was big enough to be surprisingly furnished. There was a desk littered with reports and maps, a whiteboard to one side which also had a map on it and several notes jotted randomly around it, and on the other side, for some unknown reason, a row of filing cabinets.

There was only enough room for the squad to stand in a double line while Tiana and Subaru approached the desk, where the man they presumed to be gL.T.h sat and glared at them. He was greying, and his face was heavily wrinkled, even though he didnft look that young. Tiana and Subaru presumed he was wrinkled because he probably permanently wore the glare he was currently giving them.

eWhat is it?f he barked. eIfm a busy man here!f

Tiana cleared her throat, which was also a sign for Subaru to keep her mouth shut. eA lot of armed guards for a search and rescue operation... Lieutenant?f

The glare sharpened. eThe security I have here is none of your damned business!f he snapped. eWhat are you lot, volunteers?f There was a noise as someone else entered the tent, and the lieutenant paused to look at the new arrival, then quickly turned his attention back to Subaru and Tiana. eWhat nationality are you lot?f

eWhat?f Tiana blinked. eWhat nationality are we? Whatfs that got to do with anything?f

eShefs got a point Iwasaki,f the newcomer said as he leant back against the filing cabinets. There wasnft much to him apart from a large scar that ran from his forehead down past his left eyebrow and cheek and running off his jaw. Remarkably, the scar didnft stretch his face.

eWatch yourself Raiden! Ifm your superior officer now, and youfll address me accordingly!f Iwasaki scowled at the newcomer. eYour attitude is appalling. Itfs no wonder you were demoted.f

The newcomer responded only with a short laugh as he put his hand behind his head and looked to the roof of the tent.

eAnswer the damn question woman!f Iwasaki barked again. eWhat bloody nationality are you lot?f

Tiana looked to the newcomer, who shrugged dismissively. eWefre from New Zealand,f she answered.

eNew Zealand? Hah! No, you canft fool me like that!f Iwasaki laughed again. eWhat, you leave your accent in the bus?f

Oh wow, another Prick, Vixen said absentmindedly.

eBegging your pardon, Lieutenant, but I told you where we are from, not where we grew up.f Tiana replied, slightly offended.

eWhat, you trying to argue that youfre Japanese?f

eI speak the language fluently, donft I?f

The lieutenantfs amusement ran out and his sharp glare returned. He held it at Tiana for a while before deciding he wasnft quite as good at it as she was.

eNever the less, youfre a foreigner.f He dismissively waved the squad away. eWe donft need the likes of you here. Get lost.f

Tiana and Subaru opened their mouths to protest, but the newcomer Raiden beat them to it. eOh cfmon Iwasaki – Sir – we need all the damn help we can get! Therefs a few thousand acres of forest out there and all we have is a few squads that were on leave and a handful of local volunteers!f

eAnd wefve got only a handful of volunteers because therefs no local interest in finding a bunch of wayward campers, and there certainly isnft any international interest in this little incident either!f Iwasaki argued.

I have to admit, gPrickh puts up a good argument, said Church. Raiden seemed to agree.

eFine. You there,f he gestured to Tiana, etell us your occupation.f

ePrivate Investigator, sir. One of the missing is my partner. The rest of the crew are volunteers from our local Special Emergency Services. Theyfre experienced hikers as well; I think youfll find them to be of great assistance.f

eThatfs right, sir,f Subaru added, with added nods from her squad.

eYou guys done stuff like this before?f Raiden asked.

eSearch and rescue is our specialty, sir,f Subaru responded, with added nods from her squad.

eFinally! Experienced personal have arrived, and an investigator as well!f Raiden cried as he became very animated. eWe need these people Iwasaki – Sir – and you want to turn them away just because theyfre foreigners?f

eSounds like theyfre all spies to me...f Iwasaki glared at the squad suspiciously. Raiden laughed in frustration.

eSpies? What are they going to spy on? The flora and fauna of Japan? Mount Fuji? Your damned paranoia – Sir? Therefs nothing out here but us, a bunch of lost campers and a whole lot of trees!f Raiden stormed to the desk and slammed his hands down onto it. eWe need more helpers Iwasaki – Sir. And if they do turn out to be spies, Ifll take full responsibility.f

Iwasaki opened his mouth to argue but hesitated. Then his face relaxed, and for those who were trained to spot the smallest details, like Tiana, Subarufs entire squad and possibly even Raiden, you could see a small grin creep over the lieutenantfs face as he figured something out.

eFine then, Raiden, you take care of them. Keep them under constant surveillance! Now get out of here, the lot of you! Ifve got things to do!f

 

 

Meanwhile, inside the barrier, Murano tripped over a packed tent that was never there before as he left the ring of tents, and wished he had a new pack of cigarettes.

 

 

eYou guys have no idea how glad I am that you turned up,f Raid said after they left the red tent. He waved some troops that were loitering around over to follow him and the rest of the crew as they walked though a small maze of tents. eBut unfortunately, unlike our brave and courageous Lieutenant Iwasaki, I have to make sure things get done properly so that we donft get kicked out of this glorious defence force.f

He entered another tent, and the rest followed him. This tent wasnft furnished like the red tent. It had a foldable table for a bench that held just a laptop and a clipboard with files underneath it, a heavily used whiteboard, a sleeping bag and two more troopers who stood on the inside, rather than the outside. Tiana had a feeling that Raiden was more in charge of the operation than Iwasaki was.

eRight, now I need ID. From all of you.f

eTo make sure wefre not spies?f Subaru asked. Raiden grinned.

eYes, to ease Iwasakifs paranoia. But I also need to keep track of everyone whofs running around here. Therefs a lot of forest here, and itfs easy to get lost. I want to know if I have to search for anyone else. Passports will do, I just need anything with a photo thatfs come from your local government.f

ID cards and passports were placed on the table. Raiden picked one up and his face went a bit pale as he opened his mouth anxiously. eEnglish...f he muttered. eEr... you donft mind if I keep a hold of these until I can get someone who can read English?f he asked sheepishly.

eSure,f Tiana shrugged. eI donft mind.f

eThanks...f The passports were placed underneath the clipboard. eFor now, why donft you guys set up tents? Lunch will be served up soon; therefll be plenty to go around. We always seem to make more than we need. Ah, sorry what was your name again?f Raiden asked.

eTiana Lanster.f

eTiana... nice name... what kind of investigations do you deal with?f

eThe usual.f Tiana shrugged again. eMissing items, stolen goods. Tracking loved ones to make sure they donft play up. They wonft actually admit it, but the cops sometimes get Fate and I in on their investigations too.f

eGood. Come with me, the rest of you are free for the time being.f

Not too far from the tent, further into the clearing was an area cornered off with gdo not enterh tape fixed to hastily hammered posts. Raiden crouched under the tape.

eI want to know what you make of this,f He said, gesturing to the area within the tape. eOur brightest canft make much of it, but then again, that doesnft say much.f

Tiana crouched under the tape and looked around. The area was fairly large, taking up about a third of the clearing. It didnft take Tiana long to find something unusual.

eThis grass...f she said, crouching down near the patch she was pointing to. It was a square patch, about one and a half meters each side. eItfs been pressed down and starved of light. And here... therefs four of them. Something was here not too long ago, itfs still moist.f

eYup,f Raiden said as he absentmindedly rubbed his scar. eKeep looking.f

Tiana did. She found more patches, varying in size but all square. eIt looks like a car was sitting here...f she commented as she walked over one of the patches. eThe grass is only pressed down in four corners, but the rest is just faded.f She kept moving.

eAnd a fireplace...f she crouched down near a scorched patch of earth and went to place her hand on it. eItfs still hot... this fireplace was used very recently... Whatfs this about, sir?f

eJust call me Raiden. None of our men bothered to check that, you know... I did though. The interesting thing is, this are hasnft been used since we got here early yesterday.f

eTherefs no charcoal either...f Tiana got back to her feet and looked around again.

eNow, Ifm surprised that you havenft pointed out that it doesnft make sense yet,f Raiden commented.

eWhy should I do that when I could spend more time looking for something that does?f Tiana said. Raiden grinned.

eWait, this pattern...f Tiana pointed to the larger patches of pressed grass that surrounded the fireplace. eTheyfre tents... pressed together like that with only one gap, itfs a defensive circle. The cars are sitting behind the tents to add protection.f

eVery good Tiana,f Raiden complimented. eSo far apart from myself, youfre the only person to notice that. Maybe now Iwasaki will take that into consideration.f He paused in thought. eTell me, how do you know about that?f

eThe same reason why Ifve been calling you gsirh, Raiden,f Tiana said naturally while still looking for other possible clues. eIfve had some military experience.f

eIs that so? How much?f

eNever made it out of training.f She bent over to pick up a small stick.

eSergeant!f another soldier called from beyond the tape. Raiden looked up and made an irritated noise.

eIfll be right back,f he said before jogging off to the soldier.

Subaru, Tiana called as she walked back to the fireplace.

Tiana? Whatfs up? Came the reply as Tiana crouched down near the scorched earth again.

Raiden took me to where the tents were last set up... She poked the earth with the stick, and it slid in easily. The stick then began to glow red, and eventually licks of flame sprouted from it.

The tents were set up in a defensive circle, she continued as she stood up, pushed the stick all the way into the dirt and then walked to one of the patches that she assumed was a tent. The site looks like they were here just a few minutes ago.

Tiana brushed her hand against the moist grass. The grass flattened, but it wouldnft rise any further. Then something caught her eye.

In fact... she watched carefully. Small oval shaped depressions appeared in the grass heading towards the campfire. They zigzagged forward, much like footprints. I think theyfre still here...

Theyfre still here? You mean stuck inside a barrier?

It seems like it... But something tells me itfs not that simple. Raidenfs coming back, Ifll talk to you later.

eFind anything else?f Raiden asked as he returned.

eNot yet... I doubt there is anything else to find.f

eWhat a shame... though I doubted there was anything else to see either. I have an aerial shot of the site now,f he passed a large photograph to Tiana that had a picture of the ring of pressed and discoloured grass. Tiana took her time examining it though.

eSeeing as you appear to be the person whofs really in charge, Raiden,f she said as she examined the photograph, eperhaps you can tell me why therefs such a large military presence here. And why youfre all armed.f Tiana only looked at him when he didnft respond for a while. He seemed to be measuring up the weight of the question and whether she was reliable enough to be given an answer.

eWe know this land,f he answered, giving up. eWe frequently use this area for training.f

eAnd why the guns?f

eBecause we know what you can find here. Any other questions?f

eJust one.f Tiana gave the photograph back. eWhy is it that you have more control over this operation than your superior?f

eHAH!f Raiden laughed as they turned back to head for the tents. eIwasaki is no superior of mine. Most of the troops here know that too.f

eSo whatfs the deal then? He mentioned that you were demoted. Ifve got the feeling that you were once his superior.f

Raiden stopped in his tracks and turned to her. eYou said you only had one question. What, am I under investigation or something?f

eNo, not at all... Ifm just curious. Plus I donft want to say anything later on others might find to be stupid.f

Raiden began walking again. eFair enough,f he said as he crouched back under the tape. He looked up to the sky and gave a disapproving look to the clouds gathering in the east. eItfs all to do with the new General,f he said. eHe wants Japan to have a military again. His grandfather was in the Second World War you see. Apparently he adored him. Now he wants to gbring back the might of Japan!hf He mocked the voice of an older, gruffer man.

eWhat do you think?f Tiana asked carefully.

eWhatfs the point? No onefs stupid enough to start a major war these days in case the yanks drop the big one on them. No one except the General, that is. This country has prospered since its military was disbanded after the war, and the General wants to send it back to a warring nation.f

eSo whatfs this got to do with Iwasaki?f

eHefs a brownnoser,f Raiden said as he passed the photograph and other files in his hands to an idling trooper. eHefs taken up the Generalfs views and is supporting him all the way he can. Thatfs why you got such a warm welcoming from him. As for me... Well, I opposed the Generalfs decisions, and earned myself a demotion. Iwasaki and I effectively switched roles overnight.f

eIfm sorry to hear that,f said Tiana.

eDonft be.f Raiden gave a sinister grin. eNow I take orders from Iwasaki, I get to choose how to comprehend them. A Sergeant still has a fair amount of power.f

eEspecially if hefs quick on the uptake,f Tiana complimented.

eThank you.f

Tiana grinned. eEven if he does miss the more noticeable details. You should have known that our passports would be in English.f

eYeah, well when you spend so much time looking at the big picture, the details start to blur,f He returned the grin with a playful scowl. eCome on, letfs find your friends.f

They found Subarufs squad as they were finishing setting up their tents.

eHey Boss,f Vixen said Tiana returned, ewe couldnft find your tent pack, so wefve decided youfll bunk with me tonight.f Vixen winked at her.

eWhat? Wait, what?f Tiana turned to Subaru.

eShefs just playing with you Tia,f Her friend told her.

eOh thank god... so wherefs my tent?f

eHmm? Oh, she wasnft joking about that. It really has gone missing.f

 

 

eWherefd this come from?f asked Fate as she finally decided to swap shifts with Hayate, and she was looking at the packed tent that Murano had tripped over. eThis is a standard issue Administration Bureau tent.f

eWhatfs that mean?f Yuki asked.

eIt means itfs not from Earth, Yuki...f Ren moaned in annoyance.

eMurano tripped over it not too long ago, Fate,f Tomio said.

eWherefs Murano?f

eHefs having his last smoke.f

Fate turned the packed tent over a few times, trying to find any possible clues. None presented themselves.

eYou know, isnft it ironic how two more people turn up at our campsite, and then out of nowhere a tent that can hold two people appears.f

eSo what do we do with it?f Ren asked.

eWell we canft have Alicia and her mother sleeping out in the open... letfs pull some tents back and set it up.f

There were moans of complaints from the men surrounding her, but she understood why. It was a tedious task which took a lot of effort to do, but it needed to be done. Now that Precia was under their custody, they had to look after her.

She also wanted the tent put up as soon as possible. It was difficult to see through the haze of the barrier, but the thick eastern clouds were building fast and driving the heat towards them. She wasnft sure if it was going to storm, but she knew it was going to rain heavily, and soon.

As she was helping Ren to move one of the tents back to expand the ring, Tama came out of her tent.

eUm... Fate, can we talk?f she asked nervously.

eSure, go ahead.f

eIfm worried about Vivio... Mai seems to have hurt her...f

In a combined effort, the tent was pulled back about half a meter. eOh that?f Fate said as she fastened the tent to the tent beside it. eI know about that, Nanoha found Vivio in the forest not too long ago. Could you help me with the next tent?f

eYeah sure,f As Ren moved onto the next tent, Fate and Tama moved onto the one after that. eIfm sorry about what happened...f

eWhy?f Fate asked.

ehWhy?h My daughter hurt your goddaughter didnft she?f Tama said as she pulled one of the pegs supporting the tent out of the ground. eHow is she anyway?f

eVivio will be fine,f Fate said as she untied one of the ropes between two tents. eShefs upset, but shefll get over it.f

eNanohafs a magic instructor, right?f Tama asked.

eA military instructor, but yes, she can teach magic to others.f Another rope came down. eWhy do you ask?f

eMaifs having a lot of trouble controlling her ability... I was wondering if Nanoha would be able to teach her how to control it.f The last peg securing the tent to the ground came out.

eHmm... Nanoha specialises in combat training and aviation magic... Take that side. But I donft see why she canft try.f Together, they pulled back the tent to align with the one Ren was pulling back.

eDo you want me to ask her?f said Fate as she began tying the tents together again.

eNo! I want Mai to ask.f

eFair enough,f Fate said with a smile.

eThat should be enough space, right?f Tomio asked as he approached. Fate craned her neck to look past a few more pulled back tents.

ePlenty,f she said with satisfaction.

eAll right, Ren, letfs set this thing up.f

eOh Fate,f called another voice. This time it was Jujiro. eHave you seen this?f

eSeen what?f she asked, waving a thanks to Tama as she parted ways.

eThis, over here,f Jujiro was gesturing towards an unused part of the clearing. eCome with me, Ifll show you.f

With a sigh, Fate reluctantly followed the man. eI was doing some sketches of the area. You know, passing time, when I noticed something rather odd.f He came to a stop and gallantly gestured to the ground.

eNoticed what?f

eLook at the grass.f

It took Fate a moment to realise that most of the grass in the patch he was standing, was flattened. Normally it stood about an inch or so off the ground, but now most of it was bent over, and in some places, completely flattened.

eThat is odd...f Fate commented as she knelt down to inspect the grass.

eIsnft it? And if wefre lucky, we might get to see some footsteps too.f

eFootsteps?f Fate asked. Then she saw them. A big group of them. Pairs of invisible feet flattening the grass under their weight.

eWhatfs up, Fate?f Hayate asked as she glided back towards her with Nanoha on her wing. Within Nanohafs arms was a delighted Vivio. It seems that all the girl needed was some time in the sky with her mother to cheer her up.

eHayate, Nanoha... What does this look like to you?f Fate asked before they could land.

eHmm...? What is that, bent grass?f Nanoha asked.

eSquare patches... Lots of them too,f said Hayate.

eTents, maybe,f Fate contemplated. eAnd over therefs a group of footprints.f

eLook at that, youfre right!f Hayate exclaimed. eOur search party perhaps?f

eI hope so. And Ifve got a feeling that at least some of them are from the Administration Bureau.f

eWhyfs that?f asked Nanoha, landing next to her friend and letting Vivio stand on her own again.

eBecause Murano tripped over a packed tent. Standard issue Bureau equipment too.f Fate pointed over to the tent that was hastily being set up. eWefre going to have Alicia and her mother use it. By the way, what brings you guys back so early?f

A droplet of rain hit Fate on the head. Not long after, a gentle blanket of rain covered the clearing. Nanoha and Hayate raised a finger to the sky.

eThat,f they said in unison. eWe saw it coming a few minutes ago,f Hayate finished.

eHey Mama, look at that,f Vivio said, pointing to the ground. Invisible feet made footsteps in the grass as they scurried for square patches of flat grass.

 

 

People on both sides of the barrier took shelter within their tents as the rain set in. Precia and Alicia got comfortable in their new temporary home. Hayate chose the down time as an opportunity to catch up on missed sleep. Raiden returned to his tent as he waited for his translator to arrive from headquarters, wondering if the complete lack of people who could speak or read English was yet another show of Iwasakifs patriotic paranoia.

And Tiana had reluctantly refused Vixenfs kind offer of sharing her tent to bunk with Subaru.

eSo you think theyfre trapped in some sort of barrier then?f Subaru asked as she rolled out her sleeping bag. Tiana was already lying on top of hers, giving Cross Mirage his daily polish.

eWell... Thatfs the only explanation I can give,f Tiana said. eIf it is a barrier, itfs an odd one.f

eWhyfs that?f

eMost barriers would create a dimensional bubble, creating a tiny, individual dimension within the current... Wait, why am I explaining this to you, you should already know about it!f

Subaru dropped onto her sleeping bag, propping herself up with her arms stretched out behind her. eWhy should I know about it?f she asked.

eWe did a tutorial about barriers at the academy! It went for an entire week!f

eDid we really? I canft remember it...f Subaru looked up in thought. eMaybe I was asleep...f

eYou werenft! I made sure you werenft, you had your eyes open during the entire lecture!f

eYeah. I think I was asleep.f Subaru was giving Tiana an odd little look. It was cheeky yet sincere, and reminded Tiana that Subaru could do things that she couldnft.

eYou didnft!f Tiana cried.

Subaru giggled before triumphantly crying: eShutting down!f and falling onto her back laughing.

eSubaru, you little...!f

eNo, but seriously,f Subaru said as her laughter subsided, ehow do barriers work?f

eHow is it a barrier, though?f One of the guards in Raidenfs tent asked. eItfs just reef, right? The Great Barrier Reef.f

eWhy are you asking this?f Raiden sighed as he rummaged through his baggage.

eI dunno sir... Maybe itfs that New Zealand lot.f

eThe Great Barrier Reef is in Australia genius,f the other guard said as he sat on his helmet. eAnd itfs a barrier because it protects the eastern coast from tidal waves.f

eHow?f

eBecause itfs a reef. Itfs like a speed bump in the ocean. The waves come in, hit the reef and then collapse. Itfs not a hard concept.f

eOh, I do have some...f Raiden muttered to himself.

eHave some what, sir?f the barrier interested guard asked.

eThese,f Raiden passed the object to the soldier. eHave one, theyfre nice.f

eThanks but no thanks, sir. I donft like them.f He said after quickly inspecting the object and then offered it to the other soldier. The other soldier shook his head, so he passed it back to Raiden. eBy the way, sir, did you tell the Kiwis about what happens at night?f

Raiden froze. eOh crap,f he muttered.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the barrier, Vivio was getting rather curious. eHow do barriers work Mama?f she asked. eAnd how come this onefs so odd?f

Nanoha sat down in front of her daughter while Fate got comfortable on her sleeping bag. eAre you sure you want to know?f she asked her daughter. eItfs complicated,f she warned.

eI still wanna know...f Vivio said as she pouted.

eOkay, okay,f Nanoha conceded with a laugh. eBut before we go into barriers, do you know how the dimensions are composed?f

Vivio strained herself and moaned as she tried to remember her lessons at school. eTheyfre layers!f she cried excitedly when she found her answer.

eCorrect!f Nanoha reached for the files she brought with her from work and placed them in front of Vivio. eEvery sheet of paper in this stack is like a dimension. And when we create a barrier within a dimension...f Nanoha picked up a pen and drew a circle on the back of one of the sheets of papers and gave it a quick fill in. eWe create a bubble within that dimension.f

Vivio looked at the shaded circle with confusion. eWhat does the bubble do?f she asked.

eIt creates whatfs called the galternate reality phenomenonh,f Fate explained, ewhere it separates those within the barrier from those in the outside world, but allows the two places to exist at the same time.f

Vivio stared at Fate blankly.

eAh... sorry...f Fate said, looking very embarrassed. eIfll leave this to you, Nanoha.f

Vivio giggled as Nanoha finished drawing some more pictures. eWhat the bubble does,f Nanoha held up a sheet of paper with a quickly drawn silhouette of a shaded city, eis it makes a copy of the area within the barrier and separates it from everyone outside the barrier.f Nanoha then moved the paper aside, revealing another paper behind it, with a similar looking city but this time the sky was shaded.

eThis way, everyone inside the barrier can move freely, without interfering with everyone outside the barrier, and vice versa.f

Vivio lit up as she understood the lecture, but then quickly lost herself in thought again. eHow does the barrier know to copy the buildings though?f she asked. eDo the people inside the buildings get trapped too?f

Nanoha shook her head. eNo, because all things that sit still for a long time create whatfs called ga Dimensional Footprinth. Hmm... Do you remember when we moved houses we could still see where all our furniture sat in the old house, Vivio?f

The little girl nodded eagerly. eEven though we kept the house nice and clean, the carpet underneath the bed was somehow brighter!f

eItfs sort of like that. When a building has been sitting in a dimension for long enough, it starts to leave a mark on the dimension. So when we create a barrier, everything that has been sitting in a dimension for long enough will be copied into the barrier.f

Vivio lit up again. eSo whatfs so odd about this barrier?f she asked.

eWell... the barriers I was telling you about are like an alternate reality. You can cut down a tree within the barrier, but outside the barrier, that tree will still be standing,f Nanoha explained.

eWhat happens to that tree if you bring down the barrier?f

Nanoha smiled at her daughterfs thirst for knowledge. eThe dimension bends,f she told her. eWhen you dispel the barrier, everything that within the barrier is brought back to the real world. So if you started a fire within the barrier, when itfs dispelled, the fire will then start outside the barrier too. If a leaf falls from a tree, when the barrier is dispelled, the leaf will then fall in the real world. If a tree branch is snapped, itfll snap when the barrier is dispelled. But if something big happens, like if a building is destroyed, then wefre in trouble.

eBecause buildings leave such a large dimensional footprint, when theyfre destroyed within a barrier and the barrier is dispelled before the building is repaired, what do you think would happen?f

Vivio thought long and hard, but no answer came to her.

eThe footprint that the building left suddenly disappears, and the dimension twists as it fills in the gap. The building itself wouldnft just collapse, it will explode. And itfs possible that the disturbance in the dimension will damage the surrounding area too.

eThis barrier is odd, because we can see the impact people outside the barrier are having on the world, like the square patches in the grass and the footsteps.f

Vivio once again lost herself in thought. eDoes this mean that wefre not in a dimensional barrier, but some other barrier.f

eOh youfre such a cleaver little girl!f cried Nanoha as she lovingly squeezed her giggling daughter.

eSo what kind of barrier is it then?f Subaru asked as she lay back, staring at the patterns the rain was making on the canopy of the tent.

eWho knows...f Tiana replied, who had returned back to polishing Cross Mirage. eBut at least we know where they are.f She paused in thought. eWe might be able to even communicate with them...f she pondered out loud.

eReally?f Nanoha asked.

Fate nodded. eIf we can see where theyfre standing, they should be able to see where wefre standing as well.f

eYou sure?f

Tiana shrugged. eItfs only a theory, but therefs no harm in trying.f

eSo how can we communicate with them?f Subaru asked, sitting up.

eBy writing messages in the grass,f explained Fate. eIfm not sure how it would work on the other side of the barrier... but if we remove grass on our side of the barrier, it should be removed on the other side of the barrier too.f

eI suppose that would work... Itfs certainly worth a try,f Nanoha replied.

eSo when you wanna do it?f Subaru asked excitedly.

eIfll wait until the rain has stopped,f Tiana replied as she inspected Cross Mirage. She nodded with satisfaction before putting her device back in her pocket, just as she heard someone trotting through the rain.

eDetective Lanster!f a voice called. It sounded like Raiden.

eWhatfs this?f Subaru asked quietly as she and Tiana both stood up.

eI donft know...f Tiana zipped open her tent flap and looked outside. The rain had settled in now, and the ground was already littered with puddles. Standing in the middle of the row of tents was Raiden, wrapped in a military green poncho. The rain must have had a chill to it because you could clearly see his breath. Several other heads poked out of their tents as Raiden noticed Tiana.

eAh, there you are!f he said as he walked closer to her. eSome downpour aint it?f he said as he walked under the overhang in front of the tentfs flap.

eYes, whatfs the matter?f Tiana asked. By now, all of Subarufs squad had their heads outside their tents.

Raiden removed his hood and ruffled his hair before taking a large and over exaggerated breath. eHow you feel about ghosts?f he breathed out.

eSorry?f Tiana asked. eGhosts?f

eYeah, ghosts.f

eWhy do you ask?f

Raiden managed to make himself comfortable, or at least look comfortable, and he sighed. eHave you heard the rumours about his forest?f Tiana shook her head. eThis is Japanfs favourite place to commit suicide. Thanks to that, itfs supposedly haunted. Now Ifve yet to see any ghosts or phantoms, and certainly no demons, but the rumours of ghosts have scared most of our local volunteers away.f

Tiana looked Subaru. She looked back and gave an awkward look as she shrugged dismissively. eOkay... and?f

eWell...f Raiden looked like he was having trouble telling Tiana whatever it was he was trying to tell her. eThe truth is... it can get freaky at night around here.f He looked away uncomfortably. eThere are strange noises, strange lights. Sometimes a single tree will sway violently, those kinds of things.f

eSergeant!f a soldier who was barely visible through the rain called. eYour manfs here!f

eBe right there!f he yelled back and turned to Tiana again. eWell, I just wanted to warn you before the freak show started.f

eThanks, I suppose,f Tiana said. Raiden gave her a weary grin as he pulled the ponchofs wet hood back over his head.

eOh yes, I almost forgot,f Raiden dug into his pockets and pulled something out. eI found this in my pack, thought itfll remind you of home.f He passed the object Tiana. It was brown, furry and oval shaped, and was as large as an egg.

eWhat is it?f Subaru asked.

Tiana showed it to her with a shrug. eI donft know... what is it?f she asked Raiden.

He gave her a long stupefied look. eYou serious?f he eventually asked.

eUm... yes?f

Raidenfs look changed to a very judgemental look. eItfs a kiwi fruit. You peel the skin off and eat the insides... itfs rather good.f He watched them as they inspected the fruit carefully. eWell, Ifve got work to do. Ifll see you guys when this rain stops.f

Subaru and Tiana watched the man disappear into the rain before closing the tent flap and returning to sit on their sleeping bags again. Tiana passed the kiwi fruit to Subaru, who began scratching at the skin in a clumsy attempt to peel it.

eSay, Tia...f Subaru asked quietly. eDid we just screw up?f

Tiana reflected on the situation as she took her turn at gazing at the patterns the rain made on the tentfs canopy. ePossibly...f she answered.

 

 

Raiden hung his poncho outside his tent and left his shoes outside before he made his way through the flap.

eWelcome back sir,f the guard who was still sitting on his helmet said. eHowfs this for a coincidence? HQ sent us another Kiwi.f

Raiden glanced up. In front of his desk stood a large and muscular man with very dark brown skin, standing in a rigid salute and fiercely gazing ahead at nothing. He didnft even blink as Raiden ignored him and sat behind his seat.

eAt ease Private,f Raiden said eventually. The man pivoted about on a foot to face his superior and stood, once again, rigidly with his hands behind his back and feet shoulders width apart. He still refused to look at Raiden, who was giving him a questioning glare.

eI said, gAt easeh,f Raiden repeated. He got a response this time. The private relaxed, his shoulders dropped and he looked at his sergeant with a confused and slightly embarrassed expression. A clipboard was dropped in front of him.

eWrite your name on that please,f Raiden instructed. After a moment, the clipboard was returned. eSo, John,f Raiden said after read what was written, eyoufre from New Zealand, are you?f

eYes Sir,f he replied. It was a peculiar accent. It sounded as if his tongue was trying to slide down the back of his throat as he spoke.

eAnd how long has it been since you moved to Japan?f

eFour years, Sir.f

eWhy?f

The Private stiffened a bit. eIsnft that a bit private, sir?f he asked.

Raiden frowned. eI suppose it is, forget I asked.f

eI was told you needed a translator, Sir.f

eYes, I do,f Raiden passed the passports he collected to the Private. eTell me their names, John, and I want to know if their passports are legitimate.f

John went through the passports, naming each one as he displayed the photograph to Raiden. eThey all seem legitimate to me, Sir. If you want to make sure, youfll have to send them off for examination.f

Raiden leant back and tapped his desk. eNo, I canft do that, not without their permission. I donft want to chase them off either, we still need them here...f

eIs there anything else I can do for you Sir?f

eYes. Stay with us, we need every man we can get. Are you good at hiking?f

eI believe I am, Sir.f

eGood. Corporal, find Private John a tent to bunk in.f

The soldier sitting on his helmet stood up. eSure thing, Sir,f he said as he held the tent flap open for the Private.

eOh before you go,f Raiden called as he reached into his bag and pulled out another kiwi fruit. eI found this before, and thought it might remind you of home.f He passed it to the Private.

John looked at it and laughed briefly. eFunny, Sir. Really funny.f

Raiden, however, frowned again. eTell me, John, is it possible for someone from New Zealand to not know about the kiwi fruit?f he asked.

John looked confused. eI thought everyone knew about the kiwi fruit, Sir.f

eYes, so did I...f Raiden muttered to himself. eThank you Private, youfre dismissed.f

As the Private left the tent with the helmet sitting Corporal, Raiden decided to look through the passports once more.

 

 

A few hours later, as the rain was still driving down and most people within the campsite had drifted off to sleep, even though it was still just a few hours past noon, Fate crept out of her tent, carefully making sure not to wake Nanoha or Vivio.

The campsite was one giant puddle now. If the rain kept up, some tents would need barriers erected to save them from flooding. That was something shefd worry about later, though. For now, she had other things to do.

She levitated off the ground, and held a traditional round shield above her head as a makeshift umbrella. Then, she casually floated out into the open. While the round shield protected her from most of the rain, her legs had almost no protection from the icy drops that fell from the sky. She tightened her mantle and moved on.

Eventually, shortly after she left the ring of tents, she found what she was after. There was a small patch of grass that was on a slight hill, and had yet to succumb to the downpour. Fate landed herself on the patch with ease and summoned forth Bardiche to his harken form.

She thrust the hilt of Bardiche into the ground, and the moist soil easily gave way, allowing the device to easily sink in several inches. Fate smiled to herself.

eIfll give you a good clean after this,f she whispered, but no one could possibly hear her over the rain anyway.

As the rain started to pick up again, Fate began dragging her device through the soft, muddy dirt.

 

 

The rain had eased off several times during the day, enough to allow those who were worried about the rising puddles to erect some form of crude yet efficient barrier before they were forced to seek shelter from another downpour. By the time the rain actually came to a stop and people could venture outside without the fear of being caught in the rain, the sun had started its retreat over the western horizon.

For the search party however, it meant they couldnft do anything during their first day as there wasnft enough light to keep searching.

eNot that it matters,f Tiana told Lindy over a visual communications feed. eIfve found them.f

Lindy straightened up and looked honestly surprised. eYou have? Why didnft you contact me earlier then?f

eBecause we canft get to them, Mafam.f Tiana didnft wait for the Admiral to ask for more details, eTheyfre trapped within a barrier of some sorts within the campsite. Itfs... an unusual barrier, Mafam. We can see where their cars are, where their tents are set up and where theyfre standing all from the grass theyfre standing on, but we canft see them.f

Lindy frowned. eThat doesnft make sense,f she said.

eNo, it doesnft, but I think wefve found the source of your scientistfs abnormal magic readings.

Lindy frowned a bit more and looked to the side as Tiana could hear what sounded like a brief scuffle.

eI have the right to know!f a faint yet maddened voice cried. eYou canft keep this information from me!f

The scuffle noise eventually faded away and Lindy relaxed.

eTrouble, Mafam?f Tiana asked.

eNothing new. Ifll have to remind a few guests just whofs house theyfre staying at though.f Lindy straightened herself again and cleared her throat. eI want photos of this grass youfre telling me about. Also, if youfre absolutely certain that theyfre still there and trapped behind a barrier of some sort, you are to change your objective to finding whatfs making the barrier.f

eYes Mafam.f

eIf whatfs making the barrier is some sort of device, try to disable it without damaging it. If you canft do that, you have permission to destroy the object. Though I doubt it, but if a person is creating the barrier, follow the usual procedure. Thatfs all for now.f Lindy began to stand up.

eOh, just one thing Admiral Lindy...f

Lindy paused then sat back down again. eYes, Tiana?f

eUm... whatfs a kiwi fruit?f Tiana asked nervously.

eKiwi fruit? Why do you want to know about kiwi... Oh dear...f

 

 

On the other side of the barrier, the campers were trying their hardest to try and set up an area which they could eat their dinner from, which was a difficult task because the entire campsite was under an inch or two of water. The lack of tools to remove the water was an annoyance (they only had a broom and shovel from the flatbed truck to work with), but the most annoying aspect of the clean up was the fact that most of the younger children found the new water land to be a new source of entertainment. The Matsuda children were doing whatever they could to enjoy the moment, but it resulted in getting themselves incredibly dirty, as well as everything else around them.

But just about everyone else found the minor flood to be a hindrance. Particularly Vivio, Alicia and Mai, who were still children but were mature enough to know better than the other kinds. Though, still kids at heart, they held a stronger view against the water, and they all wished it would just go away.

 

 

Tiana stepped out of her tent and into the brilliant golden orange sunlight of a spectacular sunset, and more annoyingly, the slush of the flooded and muddy ground. Subaru, Blue and Vixen had already left to help the other soldiers prepare some food for dinner, the rest of the crew were probably burning time in their tents.

With a sigh, Tiana glanced at the primitive video recorder in her hand. Lindy had told her to use it if she needed to take any footage for evidence, but using the machine was... well, annoying. She had noticed it before when she was on assignment with Section 6, but Midchildan technology far surpassed the technology of Earth.

A movement from down the row of tents brought Tianafs attention back to the situation at hand. Boomer had poked his head out of his tent, and was looking at the muddy water anxiously. He looked up to Tiana when he noticed her.

eIfm going to see if I can use this thing...f she paused as she showed the camera to him, and then paused again awkwardly as his anti-social gaze froze the atmosphere.

eEr...f she forced herself to say, eDo you want to come with me?f

Boomer solemnly shook his head then retreated back into his tent. What an odd guy, Tiana thought as she trudged through the sludge-like ground towards the tapped off area that was the other campsite.

She paused as she cleared away from her campsite, trying to figure out how to turn on the device she was given. It gave her a moment to truly appreciate the scenery though. While the forest did have a grim background, and it did feel a bit creepy, it was a lovely place. It was nice to be amongst a forest of real trees, not within a forest of buildings. The air was crisp and fresh, the smell of the forest was invigorating, and the gentle tide of the water was soothing as it lapped against her shins. And the sunset was truly amazing. The golden rays of light were penetrating through gaps in the clouds, and it was still raining in some parts. The forest was literally painted golden orange.

Wait, that didnft make sense... the tide of the water? If I remember correctly, there werenft any significant rivers nearby, and the ground here was more-or-less flat. So why is the water moving, yet alone moving in a tidal fashion?

Tiana glanced down to catch a tiny unformed wave break around her shins, and traced the wave back to... the other campsite.

Odd.

She checked her camera again, trying to figure out if it was working or not. The black thing she presumed was a screen was now showing what the camera was pointing at with a red circle in the top left hand corner, so she presumed it was, and carefully made her way towards the phantom campsite.

The disturbance at the campsite became more obvious as she crouched under the tape. In the middle, two small but invisible forces were trying to force the water out of the campsite. The tide parted around invisible poles, which she assumed were legs, and what the guessed were the tents. The water at the tents was noticeably shallower than the rest of the campsite. It was disturbing to watch, but it was also somewhat reassuring. It proved that there were other people here, just not within the same time-space... though she wasnft even sure if that was correct either.

eWell this is unusual,f someone casually said behind her. Tiana almost jumped as she spun around to see Raiden inspecting the area with his hands on his hips and a smoking cigarette in his mouth.

Tiana sighed with relief. eRaiden... Please donft sneak up on me like that...f

eMy bad,f Raiden stood within one of the phantom tents and dropped his cigarette. It hissed briefly as it hit the water. eShooting a home video?f He asked. eWefll have to see if itfs good enough for viewing before you take it home you know.f

eI figured as much, but who says Ifm making it for myself?f

Raiden gave her another one of those judgmental looks, and it was starting to get on Tianafs nerves. eI hope youfre making it for yourself,f he said, eor when Iwasaki finds out, the shitfs going to hit the fan.f He walked over to one of the areas the strange tide of water appeared to be parting around something and kicked the water. Tiana wasnft quite sure if she saw it correctly, but... did it shimmer when he did it?

eIs there anything I can help you with?f Tiana asked as she tried turn off the video camera, with little luck.

eNo, not really. I was just curious as to what you were doing, thatfs all.f He watched Tiana curiously as she fumbled with the camera. eNeed a hand?f he asked.

eNo... Ifll be right,f Tiana said as she gave up and left the device alone.

eYou know, Ifm kind of surprised that youfre not that good with electronics,f Raiden said.

eHow so?f

Raiden fetched another cigarette from his pocket and shrugged. eI just figured youfd be the type whofd be proficient at just about anything.f He cupped his nose as he lit the cigarette and then turned around. eWell Ifve had my fun here,f he said. eHow about you? Detective Lanster?f

Tiana however, wasnft listening. Something had caught her attention. It was that nagging feeling that she was forgetting something, as if whatever it was she was missing was sitting just on the edge of her sight and ducking out of sight if she tried to look at it straight on. Something was happening. Something was... changing.

eDetective Tiana Lanster?f Raiden called again, snagging Tianafs attention once more.

eHuh? Oh, no Ifm, ah... going to look around a bit more.f

Raiden scratched the back of his head. eSuit yourself,f he said as he turned around and then he paused. eOh yeah,f he swivelled back around, eI might as well hand these back to you.f He gradually produced the teamfs passports from one of his pockets.

Tiana, still distracted, accepted the passports and quickly pocketed them as she looked around. She couldnft see anything different. eDonft need them anymore?f Tiana asked as she strained her hearing.

eNo point. The only other thing I can do with them is send them off to be tested, but they look legit. I was tempted to though...f

Nothing sounded out of place either, but Tiana could feel Raidenfs gaze boring into her. Oh great, she thought, hefs fishing with me. Well, letfs see how good of an angler he is...

eAnd whyfs that?f Tiana asked as she casually sniffed the air.

eBecause I know youfre not from New Zealand.f

He fishes with grenades, Tiana thought with a sigh. eThatfs not a nice thing to say, Raiden,f she said indifferently and then briefly wondered if she should have been more surprised. She shrugged the thought away. eBut if you gknowh wefre not from New Zealand, then why havenft you arrested us yet, or ran off to Iwasaki?f

eBecause I donft like Iwasaki,f he said as he dabbed some of the building ash off the end of his cigarette. eAnd we need all the help we can get. Not to mention you seem to know a lot more about the situation than youfre letting on.f His gaze bore at Tiana again, but she paid it no mind. There was change... something was happening. She couldnft see, hear or smell it, but she could feel it happening. She could feel it happening in her feet.

Feet? She looked down. The murky brown flood water was lapping at her ankles... but not her legs. She was certain that before the water was at least shin high, but now... The water was rapidly... draining?

Odd. Perhaps therefs a sinkhole around here or something. In any case, Tiana had finished doing what she wanted. She straightened up and began to make her way towards her campsite.

But stopped just as she passed Raiden. He was still gazing at her, eagerly waiting for her reaction. And it was really starting to annoy her.

eWhat do you want me to say to that?f she asked as she spun around to face him. eHell, why do you want me to react to that? Youfre not going to run off to Iwasaki are you?f

eCuriosity,f he replied with a slight grin.

eWell your curiosity is starting to piss me off. Look, there are people missing out there, one of them is my partner and some are people I know, and Ifll be damned if I go home without them! Wefre both working for the same goal, so donft bring your local military bickering into the job!f

Raidenfs grin faded away. eWhat?f

eDonft think youfre the only observant one here, Raiden. Itfs obvious that you and Iwasaki have some history. By the way some of the other soldiers behave around you I get the feeling you once outranked him. What happened, did you get demoted?

Raiden raised a finger to her. eThatfs none of your business,f he warned before turning away and storming off.

Tiana watched him until he was far away enough before following him. And was glad she did. The extra time she spent talking and waiting for him to walk off had lowered the water level a bit more, and as she bent under the tape to leave the phantom camp site, she saw a message in a patch of grass that was starting to show through the murky flood waters. Gradually, Tiana smiled in joy and relief as she hurriedly made her way back to her tent.

 

 

 

Several hours later, sometime after the sun had set for the day and the men of first campsite were somewhat confused but never-the-less proud of their work of ridding the camp of the flood water (the ground was in fact, mysteriously void of any sort form of moisture), fires were constructed in both campsites, food was prepared and now, dinner was being had.

After some encouragement from her mother, who followed closely but did not interfere, Mai had decided that she was going to ask Nanoha for some education. It wasnft going smoothly though.

When she saw her approach, Vivio gave her curry to her mother, thanked her for the meal and fled to her tent. Nanoha and her company werenft as surprised as they should have been but it crushed Maifs heart. And Nanoha saw it.

She placed her dish to the side as well as her daughters, swept any food scraps off her lap and cleared her throat politely.

eHow can I help you, Mai?f she asked politely. Somehow, the little girl was suddenly struck with fear and she locked up.

eUm...f she quavered. eIfm sorry for what I did to Vivio, Mrs. Takamachi.f

eThank you. But you shouldnft be too hard on yourself about it, Mai. Itfs not entirely your fault. And Nanoha-san is fine.f She watched the little girl shrink more in despair and guilt. eBut you didnft come here just to apologise, did you?f

The girl looked up, surprised. eHow did you...? Can you...?

eNo, I canft read your mind. But I can read your face. So what is it that you need from me?f

The little girl looked back to her mother, who gave her a reassuring nod. eUm... Nanoha-san...f she said hesitantly and then took a deep breath. eCan you train me to use my ability?f she burst out.

Nanoha was taken aback. She looked at the little girl, slightly surprised, then to her mother, then Fate. Fate looked slightly surprised herself, and shrugged.

Can you do that? She asked

I donft think so...

eYou canft?f Mai asked. The girl looked like her heart was being crushed for a second time.

eNo, thatfs not what I meant! I meant Ifm not sure if I can teach you how to control your ability. However, before  we can do anything, first you need to know how to control magic.f

eIs that easy?f

eWell... it was easy for me... But some people have difficulty with it.f She smiled at Mai. eAnd who knows... Maybe if you learn to control magic properly, you might just learn how to control your ability yourself.f

Mai brightened up. eReally!? Thank you so much Nanoha-san!f she cried.

eYoufre welcome,f Nanoha replied with a giggle. eWefll start our lessons tomorrow morning, so you best have your dinner and get plenty of sleep tonight. Tomorrowfs going to be a big day.f

eOkay sensei!f Mai cried as she excitedly turned back to her mother.

eOh, and Tama,f Nanoha added, eCould I have a word with you please?f

eSure,f Tama let her daughter run back to finish her meal before approaching Nanoha. eIs something wrong?f she asked.

eNo, not really. However Ifm doubtful that Ifd be able to teach Mai how to control her ability.f

eBut youfre a teacher arenft you? You teach magic.f

eIfm not a magic teacher, Ifm a combat instructor. I teach soldiers how to use magic in combat.f

eAerial combat to be specific,f said Fate before she spooned some more rice into her mouth.

eSo... you canft help Mai?f Tama looked to the pair pleadingly.

eUnfortunately, I probably canft. But I can teach her to use magic properly,f Said Nanoha.

eWe all can,f said Hayate.

eBut... what if she still doesnft learn to control her ability through her control of magic? What then?f

The three mages looked to each other.

eThen I suppose itfs out of our hands,f Nanoha replied.

Tama slumped. eYoufre kidding! Therefs nothing we can do to help her?f

eNothing we can do that is. Right?f Hayate looked to Fate who nodded in reply.

eThatfs right, we canft do anything... But therefll be people at Midchilda who can help her.f

eMidchilda?f Tama straightened up again and looked at them oddly. eYou mean... on another planet?f

eYep,f Nanoha said before having another spoonful of curry.

eDonft worry, itfs just like going to another country,f Hayate giggled as she read Tamafs expression. eOf course, if you donft feel like going to another planet Ifm sure Headquarters would suffice. There should be some people there who could help.f

eWait, are you guys telling me wefll have to move to another planet?f Tama cried. The three mages looked at her oddly this time.

eNo, we werenft suggesting that...f Fate said.

eBut now that you mention it, that does sound like a good idea,f Nanoha added.

eYoufre right. If Mai wanted she could transfer into Senkt Hilde too,f said Hayate. She read Tamafs face again. eItfs a school. Teaches magic and the other basics. Very prestigious.f

eWait, hold on a second! I canft afford to move to another house, yet alone another planet! What about my job? And what am I supposed to tell my family?f Tama cried.

eWell, we werenft saying that you had to move,f Nanoha explained. eBut it would probably be best for Mai. If youfre worried about a job and accommodation, then Ifm sure we can help you out there.f There were nods of agreements from Hayate and Fate. eAnyway, just think about it for now. Wefre not going to force you into anything.f

 

 

Later that night, after most the campers on both sides of the barrier had called it a day, the Cravens had launched another desperate attack slightly earlier than they did the nights before. Inside the barrier, Precia watched on with slight interest in the finesse that Nanoha and Fate displayed in their fighting, while Alicia watched on in frightened awe.

On the other side of the barrier, Tiana, Subaru and her team watched on with confused interest. They couldnft see the fight actually happen, but they could see itfs affect on the world. Trees swayed and bent unnaturally, the earth shook, and there were the noises. Hollow echoes of cut off cries and howls, and every now and then, an unnatural light would wisp through the trees before fading out.

Most of the soldiers watched in fear, or hid in their tents. The local folk tales were spooking them more than the actual events were. But from within the shadow of one of the tents, Raiden remained composed. He found the squadfs reaction more interesting. They werenft witnessing the events, they were analysing it. Every now and then, some of them would turn to talk to each other, but theyfd just look at the person opposite, then look back to the paranormal event.

He didnft take his eyes off the squad when he heard someone approach him from behind.

eWell, well... this is a surprise,f the approacher whispered. eYoufre actually doing as I told you to, Raiden.f Raiden heard the person crouch down beside him.

eYoufre not a complete fool Iwasaki,f Raiden said in a normal voice as he pulled another cigarette from his pocket. eThe decision to watch over them wasnft a bad one.f

eWhat do you mean by that? You mean theyfre spies!?f Iwasaki stood up to take action, but was pulled back down by Raiden, who still hadnft turned to face his superior.

eI meant theyfre not who they say they are.f

eWhatfs the difference?f

eThey donft give a ratfs ass about us, our military or the geographical features here, Iwasaki. Theyfre only interested in finding those campers. Thatfs the difference.f He paused in thought. eWell, thatfs what I can make out anyway.f

eThen we should make them tell us who they really are, eh? What are you doing man?f Iwasaki asked as he watched Raiden cup his nose to light his cigarette.

eThey already know Ifm here. Probably know youfre here too.f He shook the match out and threw it into the darkness.

eHow? I only knew you were here because one of the men told. I almost walked into you!f

Raiden nodded to the squad. eSee the tall red-head they call Vixen, the one next to the blue-head with the foxtail hair? She must have spotted me. Since she looked in my direction, everyone else has, one by one over a short period of time. And that big guy has turned to his side, so he can keep an eye on us and... Whateverfs happening over there. They stopped talking too. I swear, that girl stares into shadows.f

eWell, there are plenty of them. Theyfre not going to be a threat to the operation are they?f

Raiden finally turned to look at the greying man with a smirk on his face. eActually I think theyfre going to aide it. That orange head with the twin-tails, she knows more than she lets on. In fact, I think she already knows where our target is.f

eThen why hasnft she told us!?f

eBecause she probably doesnft know how to get to them.f

eHow can she know where they are and yet not know how to get to them man!f

Raiden sucked in a lung full of smoke as he shifted his weight uncomfortably. eIfve got a theory, but youfre not going to like it Iwasaki.f

eOut with it, man,f he rumbled. eThatfs an order!f

Raiden sighed. eThis whole thing thatfs happening, doesnft it strike you as odd?f

eOf course it does!f

eHow would you describe it?f

eWell... paranormal I guess. Youfre meant to be telling me your theory, not asking questions!f

eThatfs just it though, Iwasaki! This entire incident is something paranormal. And those guys,f he pointed to Tiana and her company, edeal with this stuff. They know whatfs going on. And theyfre professional too.

eAnd Tiana, thatfs the twin-tail one, she knows that our target is right there.f He pointed to the sealed off campsite. eBut of course, shefs not there. Thatfs why she hasnft said anything, because she first needs to know how to get there.f

Iwasaki gave him an overly long look. eYoufre mad, Raiden.f

eTold you that you wouldnft like it.f

eJust as long as we find the Generalfs granddaughter,f Iwasaki grumble as he stood up. eYou for one canft afford to disappoint him again.f

 

 

Several minutes after it started, the paranormal event came to an end and the rest of the search and rescuers returned to their tents. It was then that Tiana decided to send a reply to the message she saw in the ground.

With her optic hide cast, she walked back to the sealed off campsite, and just outside the tape barrier, did what she wanted to do.

It only took one shot from Cross Mirage. She controlled the ball of energy through the grass, just enough to eat into the soil a tiny bit. After she finished, she launched the ball of energy into the sky to discharge, and unknowingly spooked one of the night guards who mistook it for a will-o-wisp.

 

 

At around the same time, Fate was sitting on the stump that Mai often sat on, watching the shadows in the forest. There wasnft much else to look at. Thick clouds had blocked out the moon light once again, and the only light source was coming from the now smouldering campfire.

A noise from behind her caught her attention and she spun around.

eAlicia?f she said as she saw her younger self flinch. eWhat are you doing out here?f

eI couldnft sleep. Um...f she nervously hesitated. eIs it okay if I sit with you?f

eSure, I donft mind.f

Alicia carefully sat down next to Fate and the two shared a nervous silence. They both found it to be odd, sitting next to someone who, in Aliciafs case, was an older version of herself, and in Fatefs case, someone you once was. Neither knew what to talk about. Both were too nervous to think clearly.

But eventually, Alicia found a topic. eYou were amazing. In the fight that is.f

eThank you,f Fate replied.

They sat in nervous silence again. Fate wondered why she was having so much trouble talking to herself now, when she was perfectly capable of doing so a few days ago. Well, then again, Alicia wasnft exactly herself. She just looked exactly like she did when she was fifteen.

eDo you fight often?f Alicia asked.

eI suppose I do. It depends on the mission.f

More silence.

eWhatfs it like?f said Alicia. eBeing in a fight. Is it scary?f

For some reason, Fate found the question to be somewhat amusing. At least it was proof that they really were two different people. Fate herself would never have asked such a question. How was it like, maybe that, but never what is it like.

eItfs always scary,f she told her. eBut you get used to it. You learn to push the fear aside and move on.f Itfs either that or drop dead.

eWhat about your first fight?

Fatefs first fight... That was against Nanoha, fifteen years ago. eI suppose I was lucky in my first fight,f Fate said, smiling in reminiscence. My opponent had almost no training, where as I was strictly trained.

eBut she got stronger and stronger every time we crossed each other. I only beat her the first time. Every other time ended in a draw. But she eventually beat me...f Fate faded off, smiling as she remembered the past events.

eWhat happened then?f Alicia asked, leaning closer. eDid you get her back?f

Fate laughed. eNo, we became friends.f

eHuh? Friends? But you were fighting each other, right?f

eWell, to be honest, I wanted to get to know her as well. But I was doing it for moth—For Precia.f Fatefs smile faded. eBut then she threw me away...f

eIfm sorry...f Alicia muttered as she looked away in misplaced guilt.

eNo, donft be, itfs not your fault!f Fate said in a panic as she saw her younger self crawl into herself. eBesides... I suppose thatfs when I really started to live my life. After the trail, I started going to school with Nanoha, and then we both enlisted in the Administration Bureau. We were busy, but I felt like I was achieving something for a change.f

eNanoha? That white lady was your first enemy?f Alicia asked in astonishment.

eThatfs right.f

eI really canft see that... you two get along so well!f

eItfs been fifteen years since that fight. Wefve been best friends since.f

The conversation rolled on. Alicia asked about Midchilda, Earth, what life was like on both planets, and about being an Enforcer, and eventually, Fate showed her the many photographs that she had stored within Bardiche of the many children that she constantly visited.

The rain returned, but that didnft stop them. Fate used her round shield as yet another make-shift umbrella that sheltered them both. Thankfully, this time it wasnft a repeat of the downpour that flooded the campsite.

However, something else returned. An unusual movement in the distant shadows and the sound of something falling through the trees caught Fatefs attention. She stopped mid-sentence and watched the shadows, waiting for them to shift.

eFate?f Alicia asked as she worriedly watched Fate put a finger on her lips. She listened. The clouds were too thick and no light was coming through. The rain had suffocated the smouldering firewood and all that was left was hazy steam. The only light was coming from her round shield, which only gave a haunting glow.

Her ears burned as she focused on the surrounding noises. Crickets chirped louder, the rain drummed on the canvas tents harder, some of the snores from the campers became roars, leaves rustled endlessly.

And the mice squeaked that high-pitched squeak that made her eardrums tingle.

The shadows shifted.

eTwice in one night? Thatfs unusual...f she muttered to herself as she stood up and pointed Bardiche towards the ring of tents. eBardiche!f she cried.

Yes Sir. Defencer Plus, Wide Area.

A shimmering yellow dome expanded from centre of the camp until Fate and Alicia were only just inside it. There was a treacherous screech from the woods and then the Craven burst through the tree line, straight for the dome.

There was a cry from Alicia as she almost backed off the tree trunk, but Fate caught her in time. The young girl looked at the older one.

eShouldnft you wake the others?f She asked in fright.

Fatefs eyes quickly scanned the area. By now, all the Craven were either pounding on the barrier or circling it. There werenft many this time. About fifteen, Fate guessed. And the thick clouds were still raining too.

She gave Alicia a smile. eTheyfll wake up after this. Stay here, Ifll be back soon.f And with that, she leapt into the air and through out of the protection of her barrier.

Two of the nearest Cravens gave chase, but were quickly felled by a few strokes from Bardichefs harken blade. She came to a halt fifty meters above the campsite and quickly re-assessed the situation. Her barrier wasnft as strong as Hayatefs and she could see that it was weakening. Another one of the Cravens had decided to go after her, but it wouldnft make it in time.

She charged Bardiche with four cartridges, and felt the surge of magic run through her arm. She formed a magic circle at her feet, and it burnt brightly in the air. A few more Cravenfs took notice.

Too late, she thought. The clouds swirled and the rain grew more persistent. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand. Static jumped across the metal on her barrier jacket. She kneaded the magic into the spell she was after...

Then brought Bardiche down heavily onto the centre of the magic circle and roared: eThunder Fall!f

Everything fell silent for a fraction of a moment as the atmosphere tensed so greatly it was almost suffocating. Then tens and dozens of lightning bolts exploded from the clouds, scorching through the air. Trees exploded on touch and the air sizzled and cracked. The lightning hit and arced across the barrier, strengthening it instead of weakening it.

In a few seconds, the spell came to an end. The only thing that remained of the Cravens was a lot of small, blue wisps of evaporating mist. The lightning either passed through them like a steel spike, or made them explode.

Either way, they werenft around anymore.

She dispelled the barrier as she descended, just as some of the campers looked out of their tents to see if anything was happening, only to be disappointed as they headed back to bed.

She gently landed next to the tree trunk and saw Alicia looking at her in awe.

eThat was amazing, Onee-san!f she cried.

Fate blinked. eOnee-san?f she asked.

The awkward silence returned as both girls looked at each other in confusion.

eWell...f Alicia began. eI know everyone says I was born before you were... But youfre older than I am. I mean, you look older than I do at least... And I think youfre a good person, and thought it would be nice if you were my sister, and... Can I call you Onee-san?f She gave Fate a pleading look.

And it was all that Fatefs heart needed. A weight she was unaware of lifted off her shoulders, and relief flowed through her body. She knew she was worried that Alicia wouldnft see her as her sister, just like in her dreams. But now, although slightly different, Fate was living that dream.

She smiled warmly to Alicia as she sat back down on the tree trunk and patted the space beside her. eSure, you can call me Onee-san, Alicia. We are biologically sisters, after all.f

Overjoyed, Alicia leapt to the log to sit next to her sister and she snuggled up to her as they took shelter from the rain once more underneath Fatefs round shield. Neither of them was aware that Precia was watching from the tents, scowling in discontent.

 

 

After breakfast the next morning, Maifs first lesson in magic began as Fate and Hayate began their daily schedule of patrolling and surveying the area within the barrier. The rest of the campers went about their daily trapped-in-a-barrier life while keeping a constant eye on Precia.

On the other side of the barrier, as Subaru and her team prepared for their first day of searching, they noticed there was a bit more buzz in the air than usual.

eHey, buddy,f Jazz called to one of the idle soldiers. eSeems livelier than usual today. Whatfs happening?f

eThe jurnofs have been given permission to start filming today. Donft forget to smile, yeah? Your Ma might just be watching!f

That means you have to behave now, Corporal, Subaru warned him.

Meanwhile, Raiden and his New Zealand colleague were standing near the taped off campsite, looking at the ground with, once again, great interest.

eWhat can you make of that? Raiden asked John as he pointed to the writing in the ground that Fate and Tiana had written the night before.

eLookfs English, Sir.f

eI meant, can you read it?f

eIfll give it a try...f He paused as he quickly ran over what looked like the first set of writing. eEr... that one over there says, gWe have your tent, FTH.h The other one over there says. gTY, Here W/ Star 3 + team, Sitrep, TL.h At least I think thatfs what it says, could be different.f

eFTH and TL, huh?f Raiden took a small note pad from his pocket and flicked through it. He shook his head. eAnd I thought Tiana was smarter than that. But whofs TY?f

eI think itfs an abbreviation for gthank you,h Sir.f

eCheh...f Said someone else.

Both John and Raiden looked around, but couldnft see Tiana hidden within her optic hide.

eWhat makes you think itfs the Detective, Sir?f John asked.

eShe signed off with her initials. Look, TL, Tiana Lanster. And our missing friend, er... how do you say this name?f Raiden showed John his notepad.

eFate Testarossa Harlaown, Sir. Sounds Italian. Ah, FTH, I see now.f

ePerhaps my crazy idea wasnft so crazy after all...f Raiden said to himself. He watched as two pairs of footprints approached the writings on the ground. After a little while, something incredible happened.

A small strip of grass and dirt shimmered away. The strip began to curve and weave through the grass as it created another message.

eLook at that, Sir!f John gasped as he noticed the message being written into the ground.

eRead it out,f Raiden ordered him.

eEr... Everyone is safe, trying to find a way out. Strange... Barrier? Warps space? Food and water in ample supply. Found... Precia Testarossa and Alicia Testarossa... both in custody. Attacked by... Cravens at night. A lot of unexplained things happening, but itfs under control. Good to know therefs people we can trust out there... Whatfs your status? Star One.f

eWow, thatfs amazing, Nanoha-san!f cried Mai on the other side of the barrier. Nanoha smiled back.

eThatfs my most simple spell. And with practice, youfll be able to do that too.f

Tiana kept an eye on the footsteps. It looked like Nanoha was standing next to a child, Vivio perhaps. Their footsteps looked slightly restless, but when all you can see are prints in the ground, itfs hard to actually know what theyfre doing.

She could wait for Raiden and his friend to go, but Raiden looks like he wants to sit around here for quite some time.

To hell with it! She cried within her thoughts and drew out Cross Mirage. There was a click, a fizz, and by the time Raiden and John had both turned around to look at the noise the shimmer of Tianafs image had already faded back into the optic hide. All that remained was an orange ball of light.

eWell Ifll be damned...f Raiden said under his breath as he gazed at the ball with amazement. John took a few steps back.

Might as well make a show of it, Tiana thought as she danced the ball through the air. She made it circle the two men a few times before she made the ball dig into the ground, making a circle around Nanoha and Maifs feet.

eNanoha-san, look at that!f Mai cried in excitement as the grass around her feet shimmered away.

eIt must be Tiana,f Nanoha said.

eTiana? Whofs Tiana.f

eA friend on the other side of the barrier.f

Tiana noticed the footsteps stopped moving. She should have caught their attention now. She chose a spot just ahead of the feet and began writing.

eLarge military presence on this side. Not many civilians apart from the media,f John read out.

eToo many soldiers. Two are reading this at the moment. Stars 3 and team are searching for possible devices or lost articles that may be creating the barrier. Stars 4,f Nanoha read out.

Raiden looked to John. eI wonder if it can see us,f he said.

Tiana shot the ball towards Raidenfs head, stopping just centre meters from his face, making him flinch back. She then bobbed it up and down.

What are you doing, Tia? Subaru asked. She was watching from an opening in the tents, her squad behind her, and she had an un-amused look on her face.

Subaru! Call out to the idiot and act surprised!

Subaru looked to the rest of her squad. You heard her, she told them.

They all suddenly screamed out with over-exaggerated looks of Horror, amazement and amusement. To Tianafs surprise, even Boomer joined in.

eRaiden what the hell is that thing!f Vixen cried out.

As Raiden and John looked over to them Tiana sent the ball plummeting into the ground. There was a moan of disappointment from Subarufs squad. Tiana then concentrated on her next trick.

Raiden briefly looked around for the glowing orange ball before he gave up and turned his attention back to buissness. eAre you guys starting your search run?f he called out to Subaru.

eSure are,f Subaru replied.

eYoshikawa!f Raiden bellowed. It wasnft long before a soldier stumbled out of the array of tents.

eYou called, Sarge?f the soldier asked.

eYoshikawa, take that lot there and comb...f Raiden flicked though his notepad again, esector fourteen. Wherefs Tiana?f

eShefll be with us soon,f Subaru said.

eIfm already here.f The squad turned around to see Tiana ducking underneath a tent tether as she regrouped with them. eYou need something from me Raiden?f she asked.

eNo, just wondering where you were. Best of luck,f he said with a nod before turning back to the writing in the ground.

I must say boss, that is impressive, Church commented as they set off with Yoshikawa in the lead. Tiana however, was still over watching Raiden.

Itfs just an illusion. Itfll follow and mimic you, but let me know if someone tries to talk to it. I canft hear or see what it should.

Tia, youfre not pushing yourself too far are you? Subaru asked. How long can you hold an illusion like that for?

Donft worry about me, Ifve been doing stuff like this for years now. Oh, and Vixen?

Yes?

Donft touch it. You might dispel it.

 

 

eWhy so sulky?f Nanoha said as she placed her arms around her daughter who was picking at her food.

eIfm not sulking,f Vivio pouted.

eYoufll have to do better than that to trick me,f Nanoha said as she poked her daughterfs cheeks. The little girl moaned in complaint. eYou donft like me teaching Mai how to use magic?f Nanoha asked.

Vivio didnft respond.

eShefs doing this for you, you know. Mai doesnft want to hurt you again.f

eI know,f Vivio said stubbornly.

eThen why are you so upset about it?f

eIfm not upset about it.f

eThen what are you upset about?f

Vivio hesitated. eI donft know how to apologise,f she said. eI over-reacted yesterday... I know that she canft control her power, but... I was scared...f

Nanoha held her closer. eSilly girl, youfre worrying too much about it,f she said softly. eAll you have to do is say gIfm sorry,h and Mai will forgive you. I can guarantee it.f

eReally?f

eOf course! Why else would she be trying to control her ability so hard? If you think about it, itfs Mai who wants your forgiveness.f

Vivio thought on her motherfs words for a moment. eYoufre right, Mama. Ifll apologise to Mai before I go to bed!f she said with determination.

eThatfs a good girl,f Nanoha said as she kissed Vivio on the cheek. eEat up, wefve got a big day ahead of us,f Nanoha added before she left to join her friends to have her own lunch.

 

 

Precia was watching carefully as Nanoha joined with her friends. There was nothing of any interest happening around the white clad mage as she sat with Fate and some others, but she was strongly drawn to the group. She wasnft sure why, but she looked on anyways.

One of them mentioned something about a past event, making the rest of the group laugh.

That was it!

That smile... that laughter...

Thatfs Alicia!

Then who was sitting beside her? Precia glanced over to the girl sitting next to her.

Alicia was contently making her way through her lunch. There was no brilliant smile. She didnft radiate. She was an Alicia, but not her Alicia.

Just another failure.

Perhaps the doll wasnft so imperfect after all...

 

 

Later on that day, as the sun started to set again, Tiana retreated to her tent as someone outside of the mission was trying to send a communiqué to her. Thankfully no one was around her when the screen popped besides her, informing her of the incoming call, but it irritated her none the less.

She zipped closed both the fly screen flap and the door flap of the tentfs entrance, a sign for Subaru that she was practicing magic and wasnft to enter if anyone else was around, and dropped onto her sleeping bag in frustration

Normally, while on missions all forms of communication has to be diverted through the mission commander. Fate however, had set up a line where in emergencies, so that any member of their office could contact each other. The line had saved several lives as someone within the office would stumble across information and changed a situation where a fellow Enforcer was walking into a potential death trap.

But the call had bewildered Tiana. She couldnft see how anything life threatening would come about in this mission, and being Tiana, she thought it was going to waste her time and got irritated about it. The line wasnft meant to be abused anyhow.

She accepted the call and an image of Shario appeared in front of her.

eThisfll want to be good Shari,f Tiana grumbled.

eIfm sorry, did I call at a bad time?f Shario asked, looking slightly stupefied as she adjusted her glasses.

eYou know therefs no magic on this planet. If someone saw your communiqué, all hell would have broken loose.f Tiana waited for Shario to respond.

Shario blinked as she waited for Tiana to get to the point.

eSo?f Tiana growled as her frustration mounted to greater heights. eWhy are you calling me while Ifm in a covert operation?f

eWell,f Shario began, eremember that librarian that was giving Nanoha such a bad time?f

eShario, did you call just to gossip!?f Tiana yelled.

eHold on, let me finish. This is important. Anyways, I thought something was odd about that librarian called Caprice.f

eAnd?f Tiana asked impatiently.

eI found nothing.f

eYou found nothing...?f

eNothing. No criminal records, no bank records, no education records, nothing. Not even a residential address. Isnft that odd for a librarian?f

eWait, if she has no residential records, how come no onefs acted on it? And howfd she get her job if shefs got no back ground?f

eThatfs the other interesting point! Her resume made her out to be a genius with various degrees at multiple institutions and various previous jobs.f

eAll of them are fake?f Tiana asked.

eNot all of them. Her earliest listed institute of education is a Belkan Orphanage. When I contacted the Orphanage, they said that they have no record of a Caprice Berchest, thatfs her gfull nameh by the way. But they did have records for a Caprice Commodore. I told them that she may have changed her name and that I wanted to see the Commodorefs information, but I was told that the documents were sealed.f

eBy who?f

Caprice grinned. eThe Saint Church.f

eThe Church? Can they do that?f

eIfm not sure. Ifm looking up on that at the moment. But it gets more interesting! A day after I called up that orphanage, Caprice dramatically fled from the Library during a busy part of the day. An hour later and the area is filled with armed Church Knights.f

eHow did the Bureau take that?f

eNot well. There was a standoff for several hours before the Church decided to withdraw noticeably without whatever it was they wanted.f

eAnd what about Caprice?f

eMissing.f

Tiana took some time to think about it. It was too much of a coincidence. Caprice escaping an area thatfs just about to swarm with Church Knights a day after she was enquired about. But is any of it connected to her attitude towards Nanoha?

eHave you asked any of the other Librarians about Caprice yet?f Tiana asked.

eNo, not yet,f Shario said. eWefve just cleaned up after the Church Knights.f

eGet interviews if you can. I want to know Capricefs attitude in the work place, particularly about Nanoha. Also, try to get as much information as to why the Church was there.f

eOh, donft worry about that. The Commanderfs got everyone else on that job.f

There was a patting against the tent flap before it zipped open and Subaru snuck in.

eOh, Shari!f Subaru called as she zipped the flaps behind her. eWhatfs happening?f she asked.

Shario chucked and adjusted her glasses again. eHave I got a story for you, Subaru!f

 

 

The campfire in the secluded camp was slowly dying. Its ambers crackled softly as their golden red glow slowly faded, before a metal shaft was rammed in and stirred briefly. The effect it had was short. The ambers quickly died back down again, and Hayate grumbled in annoyance as she brushed the ash off the end of her Schwertkreuz.

She sat back into her camper chair again and gazed into the night sky again. The night shifts were taking their toll, but at least Hayate knew that it wouldnft be long until her shift was over. After all, the eastern sky was lighting. At least it wasnft raining like the other nights.

But to Hayatefs surprise, her shift ended a lot sooner than she thought it would, as Nanoha and Fate appeared from their tent.

eHuh? Whatfs up you two?f she asked.

There was a long yawn from Nanoha as she half staggered towards Hayate. eCanft sleep,f she moaned.

eHavenft they come out tonight?f Fate asked as she stifled back a yawn of her own.

eNo Cravens tonight,f Hayate replied as she poked the fire with Schwertkreuz again, giving it an unpleased glare when it, once again, had no effect. eDo you think theyfve finally got the point and given up on hunting us?f

Her friends dropped into the camper chairs on either side of her.

eHerefs hoping...f Fate muttered. She then frowned at Hayate as she watched her brush even more ash off her staff. eHayate what are you doing? You should take more care of your device!f

eWhat are you talking about? Schwertkreuz isnft intelligent like Bardiche or Raging Heart, itfs just a tool.f

eHefs still your partner! Even if he canft talk you should still respect him!f

eOh okay, okay... Have it your way...f Hayate grumbled as she dispelled her staff back into its necklace form and replaced it around her neck. She was too tired to argue, and she figured that Fate was too tired to ignore it.

eI canft believe you did that... Itfs like using your best friend to poke a fire!f Fate continued, muttering to herself. Eventually they fell into silence, listening to the insects of the night sing their songs, awaiting the rising sun.

eDid Vivio make her apology?f Hayate asked eventually. eI was asleep at the time.f

eNo, she didnft,f Nanoha answered with an ironic smile. eNerves got the better of her in the end. She ended up crying to sleep in frustration.f

Somehow Hayate found that amusing and chuckled. She made herself comfortable in her chair; now that her friends were here, she could relax and enjoy the peace and silence of the early dawn. She closed her eyes, let fatigue take hold of her body, and hung her head as she drifted off to sleep.

Then she forced her eyes open again.

She saw Nanoha and Fate straighten up in their chairs. Theyfd noticed too.

eThe insects...f Fate said softly, eWhat happened to the insects?f

Their song was gone. The night was, literally, silent.

The three mages rose to their feet and scanned the tree lines, their eyes quickly adjusting to the dim light reflected from the moon. Their ears reddened as they strained to hear everything possible. Their own breaths. The movements of the sleeping campers. The occasional snore. A shuffle of leaves.

They spun to look at the source of the noise. The trees were still. No strange figures hung against the star filled sky.

Then there was a soft, quiet, but ear bubbling squeak from outside the camp.

eHayate!f Nanoha yelled.

Hayate forced her Schwertkreuz back to its form again and raised it high as a Belkan pentagram shone brilliantly underneath her. eEngelkafig!f she cried, then the campsite was encased in a glimmering yet dull yellow, green and red dome.

Nanoha and Fate leapt into the air, coming to a hovering halt just above the safety of Hayatefs barrier. The pair scanned the surroundings, back to back, and weapons ready.

eWhere are they?f Nanoha asked.

eI donft know...f replied Fate. The clear night sky clearly lit the campsite. Anything within the clearing was perfectly visible, and their eyes had adjusted to the remaining dim. The forest however, was another situation. The light from the moon had cast thick and impenetrable shadows. Anything in the trees was out of sight.

eWhatfs wrong?f Hayate called, taking note of the lack of action.

eWe canft see anything! The forestfs too dark!f Nanoha called.

eThe moon light is too bright!f Fate added.

They scanned the surroundings more as their ears continued to bubble from the silent calls of the hidden Cravens.

eWait a minute...f Nanoha said aloud. eThe shadows... theyfre too thi—e before Nanoha could finish what she was saying, something shot out from the darkness, hitting her in the face.

eNanoha!f Fate screamed as she watched her fall from the sky. Before she could rush to her aid, she felt something else approaching her from behind. She spun around, swinging her Harken blade to whatever was approaching her, cleanly slicing another shot in two.

The forest shadows bulged and swayed. So thatfs what Nanoha noticed, Fate thought, the shadows were too thick to be shadows! Damn them! There was an ear piercing screech of a battle cry as the Cravens charged towards an enraged Fate.

 

 

Hayate looked up just in time to see Nanoha fall back into the barrier. Fear shot through her as her body moved on its own accord.

eFeather Fall!f she cried. A soft white nimbus encased her fallen friend as she thrashed about, scratching her face. Her fall slowed to a feather drift and she gently landed on the ground. But she still thrashed about, desperately clawing at her face, and it looked like she was trying to scream.

Hayate raced towards her. eNanoha! Nanoha whatfs wrong?f She came to a sliding stop on her knees beside her friend. She was clawing at some sort of white mesh-like substance that covered her entire face. It was sticky, slightly gooey and reminded Hayate of... eSpider webs?f she asked herself as she too began clawing at it.

The web was stubborn, and Hayate was having a difficult time getting even a single layer off, but Nanohafs thrashing wasnft helping. eNanoha, stay still!f she cried desperately. She knew Nanoha couldnft breathe. She needed to get the web off as soon as possible.

 

 

Above the campsite, Fate had already cut through two of the attacking Cravens, sending their evaporating bodies flailing down onto the barrier bellow. She slashed crazily at the third, hacking off two of its tendrils before it was sliced in two.

Fate had lost herself to rage. Theyfd hurt Nanoha, right there, while she was standing beside her. They hurt her, hurt her! She wonft forgive them! A fourth Craven fell as Fate threw a Harken Sabre at it, the spinning disc slicing easily through the dragonfly like wings and discharged in an electrical explosion, taking out the fifth. Bardiche pumped through a cartridge, and the Harkenfs blade zapped back to life.

If Fate had been more rational in the fight, she probably would have noticed that the Cravens were organised this time. They didnft seem to be worried about dying either. And right now, two were coordinating a pincer attack.

Fate saw one of them coming, dodged its attack and clothes lined it with her blade, cutting its head clear off its body. The second threw a massive tendril into Fatefs back, throwing her into the forest where she flew into one of the tree trunks. As she recovered from the blow, something stuck her hand into the trunk.

eWeb?f she asked herself, but there was no time for any more inquiry. The Cravens were closing in fast and she couldnft pull herself free. Two clean strokes from Bardiche cut out the trunk of tree her hand was stuck to, leaving her to fight with a deadweight attached to her hand. The top part of the tree fell onto a craven that was sneaking up on her.

Fate paid it no mind as she charged for the Craven who hit her. It found out that a weighted hand isnft always a disadvantage in a battle as she brought it down, smashing the creatures head in. The next Craven managed to evade Fatefs attack as it set her up for another pincer attack, something else Fate should have noticed.

She did see the attack coming this time though, and chose to evade instead of attacking. But the lump of wood attached to her hand slowed her down, and one of the Cravens wrapped a tendril around it. Almost as if it were toying with her, it threw the slice of wood about.

Fate cried in pain as her arm was forced into positions it should never be in as she was jostled about. The web wasnft coming free.

She sent a surge of magic down through her trapped hand, allowing the magic to convert to her aligned element, electricity. She kept feeding magic into her hand until it discharged like a lightning strike. The web bubbled and melted, the slice of wood exploded in the Cravens tendril, tearing it apart. A chunk of wood caught Fatefs fore head, giving her a nasty gash, and several splinters impaled into her hand.

Both her and the injured Craven backed away from each other as they recomposed themselves, but Fate soon realised she was surrounded. She pulled the splinters out of her hand with her teeth, and wiped some of the blood that had trickled down from her gash out of her eye.

[Zanber Form] Bardiche announced as the weapon discharged another cartridge and realigned itself from a scythe to an oversized sword. Fate swung it over her shoulder and held it against her back. She then held an open palm out in front of her and said, ePlasma lancer.f A ball of electricity formed in her hand sizzled.

She grinned to herself, seeing red. Who would be the first to make a mistake?

 

 

Arisa was never really much of a morning person, so itfs understandable that she was rather annoyed when Suzuka shook her awake telling her that there was a commotion outside. Of course therefs a commotion outside! Therefs always a commotion outside! And itfs probably about bloody magic. Again.

To her surprise though, it wasnft the usual case of the other campers gawking at Fate, Nanoha or Hayate flying, which is usually the case even though theyfve seen it for days now. Some people will probably never come to accept magic as normal, though Arisa was surprised she does now.

Instead, everyone was grouped around something. She couldnft see what it was from where she was standing, but whatever it was it was making some muffled noises. She also noticed that one of those barrier things was covering the camp, and Fate was fighting those creatures above it. However, no one was interested in the fight above, but what was on the ground below. With Suzuka nervously following behind, Arisa went to investigate.

As she approached, she could see Tama and Liana on the other side of the circle. They looked shocked and stunned. Arisa looked up again to the fight above, and noticed that Fate was fighting alone. She didnft like this.

She peered over Keiichirofs shoulder.

Hayate was on her knees, tears of desperation streaming down her cheeks. Nanoha lay in front of her, a strange web wrapped around her face. Hayate was clawing at it, and her fingernails were peeling back, bleeding badly. Nanoha was... patting at the web limply, and her legs shifted with discomfort, and also very limply.

And everyone was just watching.

eWhat the hell are you guys doing just standing there!?f she cried as she pushed past Keiichiro. Everyone briefly gave her a distant look before returning their attention to Nanoha and Hayate. Arisa turned back to Suzuka, who now wore the same expression as everyone else.

eSuzuka, go and get Murano!f Arisa barked before she ran to help Hayate. She then paused and turned back around. Suzuka hadnft moved.

eSuzuka!f she yelled.

Suzuka snapped to attention and looked at Arisa with confusion.

eGet Murano, quickly!f

Shaken, Suzuka managed a nod before she ran off.

Arisa ran over to help Hayate. As she began to work at the stubborn webbing Hayate looked up to her helplessly. eIt wonft come off...f she whimpered.

eKeep trying!f Arisa snapped. The surrealism of the situation was getting on her nerves, rather than making her upset. Something like this shouldnft do Nanoha in. She was stronger than that. She was better than that.

But now Nanohafs wrists simply rocked gently on the ground. She wasnft going to make it at this rate.

eMama...?f

The voice was barely a whisper, but it sunk into Arisafs heart like a dagger. The emotions her anger had suppressed came rushing back now. One of her best friends was dying before her, therefs little she can do for her...

... And now her daughter has come to watch her as she slips away.

Arisa didnft look back, but franticly worked at the webbing instead as tears swelled in her eyes. She couldnft bear to see the girl now. She heard Hayate start to weep.

eMama? Mama get up!f Vivio cried as she ran forward. From the corner of her eye, Arisa saw the girl grab her motherfs shoulders and shake her gently.

Nanohafs arm slowly lifted off the ground, desperately fighting against gravityfs oppressive force. Vivio scooped the hand into her own and held it close to her.

eMama!f she called softly. The arm tensed, then went limp.

eMama?f There was no response. eMama! Mama donft leave me!f

The several layers of the web gave way. The rest Nanoha coughed out before she gasped for air. Vivio threw her arms around her and started to cry in her chest. Hayate and Arisa watched on in shocked relief, emotions flowing.

Murano broke through the crowd.

eWhat happened?f he demanded as he made his way to Nanoha, who was still trying to get her breath back. He peeled Vivio off her and sat her up straight and tried to remove the rest of the web that covered her eyes and parts of her nose with little luck.

eShe... she couldnft breath...f Hayate began. eShe was dying...f

Murano glanced at her, then her hands while he took Nanohafs pulse. eWhat happened to your hands?f he asked as Suzuka returned with a glass of water. Murano took it from her and slowly applied it to the web. The layers of webbing put up little fight when wet.

Hayate stared at her hands. Most of her nails were torn back and bleeding badly. eIt must have happened when I was trying to get the web off...f

There was a groan from Nanoha as she pushed Murano aside and tore the rest of the webbing off her face. Blood started to seep through the several areas where the web tore her skin away.

eWhat the hell are you thinking?f Murano growled as Nanoha got back to her feet. She glared up to the fight above and tightened her grip on Raging Heart.

eNo you donft!f Murano told her as he grabbed her arm. eYoufre in no condition to fight!f

Nanoha pushed him away again as her face twisted with anger. Before Arisa or Hayate realised what was happening, Nanoha took off to join the fight with Fate.

Hayate jumped to her feet as Murano began to yell at her, telling her to bring Nanoha back. The fight began to drift away from the camp, and then the Cravens began a full retreat.

Fate and Nanoha pursued them.

eNanoha, Fate! Come back immediately!f Hayate commanded. eThe enemy is fleeing! You donft need to pursue them!f There was no response. eNanoha! Fate! Return to base! Do you respond? Return immediately, we need you here!f

The ground began to rumble now, growing stronger by the second. Some of the campers fled for their tents, while others took for their cars or the middle of the campsite. An earthquake? Now?

No, thatfs too much of a coincidence, and itfs still getting stronger.

eMajor Takamachi Nanoha! Senior Enforcer Fate Testarossa Harlaown!f Hayate bellowed. eThis is a direct order from your superior officer Colonel Yagami Hayate, return at once! I repeat, return at once! Do you copy?f

Behind her, something broke through the earth with a terrible crash. She spun around to see an enormous meaty pillar fall down on her.

 

 

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Continue to Chapter 6