November 7th, 0730 hours - Casablanca
"Bon matin, mon ami. I have something for you, as always," Jean Bart told the seagull. She knew it was him from the distinct black markings on his beak. The bird took her offered gift of a few crumbs of bread before letting out a cry and lifting off to join his fellows, a group of gulls that called the shores of Casablanca and Fedala home. The former Knight Captain of the Iris Templars had come to know them all during her protracted stay at Casablanca, waiting for repairs and orders she wasn't sure would ever come. In addition to the birds she did have one other fond companion with her in Morocco, though mornings were not her strong suit.
"Every morning it's the same with you, Malin," she grumbled affectionately, untying her sash and using it to zip from her deck down to the docks below on one of the mooring lines keeping her hull in place. Before long she was aboard the destroyer Le Malin, nodding to the Vichya soldiers garrisoned aboard as she headed for the kansen's quarters. The Templars tended to pilot their hulls alone, but a handful were known to take crews aboard at times, and neither of them had seen a problem with sharing space given the state of the war. "Get up, Malin. We're practicing blade and barriers today."
The silver haired beauty groaned under her light covers, rubbing sleep from her eyes as Jean Bart made an unholy racket with the flat of her cutlass against the doorframe. "But Jean… "
"No buts, the war could come for us again at any moment. You have an hour for breakfast before I come back and drag you into the water myself," the battleship declared. She made the same threat every morning, but rarely had to follow through with it. Le Malin was a sleepyhead, but reliable.
With her role as alarm clock fulfilled, Jean Bart headed back above deck and hopped into the sea. For a while she treaded water or swam about, struggling with intent against the pull of her waterlogged clothing before activating part of her rigging and skipping along the surface as quickly as she could. Every day she missed sparring with Algerie, the mouthwatering scents of Dunkerque's galley, and the bright faces of the young knights and squires who she'd taken charge of in the wake of the Orthodoxy's surrender to the Ironblood. She could not bring herself to blame God, but acknowledged that her circumstances were the greatest challenge she'd ever faced, one that couldn't be dealt with at the edge of a blade. Her knight's tabard and regalia remained in a chest aboard her ship, swapped out in favor of a more climate-appropriate privateer's outfit. She hated to look at the bold red cross on navy blue fabric while stuck in port.
"Hmm, that was rather quick," Jean Bart noted, seeing that Malin was already awake and skating towards her, sea spray kicked up behind her graceful, lithe body as she danced over the waves. The battleship cocked a brow at Malin's worried face. "What is it, little rabbit?"
"Algiers and Oran are under attack! The soldiers said so!"
"What soldiers, how would they know?!" Jean Bart demanded, returning her cutlass to her belt as she and her companion shot back towards the shore.
"A courier just arrived by transport," the destroyer explained to the best of her ability. Unlike all the prior days they'd sheltered at Casablanca, things were suddenly happening rather quickly. "He says the Desert Fox is coming for us!"
Jean's heart thrummed violently. "Take me to them at once!"
November 7th, 2100 hours - Bridge of Le Malin
"But I can't leave you, Jean! There's an enemy fleet coming and-"
"Malin, listen to me," Jean Bart whispered, the two of them standing alone in the darkness of the destroyer's bridge. All Vichya military personnel had been kicked off that afternoon in the chaos following the arrival of refugees and retreating soldiers from the eastern coastal cities. To top it all off, a splinter faction of officers had jumped the gun and attempted a coup that very morning, thinking Rommel's attack had instead been part of the impending Allied invasion of Africa, and a sign to move up the timetable. With traitors and loyalists alike fighting and killing throughout the afternoon, her hull had become a refuge for rank and file soldiers and wounded, and herself something of an acting commander of the Casablanca garrison. "We have no direct line to Toulon, and if the Ironblood have broken the treaty then our sisters are going to be their priority target. You are far faster than I am and you have a hope of evading enemy air and submarine patrols. You steam as fast as you can to Toulon. You do not look back. You do not stop. You rendezvous with Algerie and Dunkerque, and you all get the hell out of the death trap that is the Mediterranean. I will… meet up with you if I survive the invasion."
Malin was silenced as Jean hugged her briefly before holding her at arm's length, hands on her shoulders. "I must. If God wills it, I will see you again. Now go. That's a direct order from your Knight Captain! The Templar will not surrender again."
"As you command. For the Templar," Malin replied in a shaky voice. Jean Bart smiled and nodded to her. Even when the Orthodoxy crumbled around them, the true templar, the Black Templar, had refused to flee. Surrender had been a bitter pill to swallow, but the rallying cry held true all the same.
"For the Templar, and the Lord," she agreed, turning away to hide her own emotions. "I need to go now, rally the defenses. We are beset by the Ironblood on land and the Royals at sea, and we have nowhere to run. Just remember, Malin. Faith is stronger than any armor, and so long as we stand, the Orthodoxy will never truly die."
"I will hold you in my heart then. Goodbye, Jean," Malin sighed sadly, bidding one of her closest mentors what she prayed would not be a final farewell. As she steamed out of the harbor under cover of darkness, she voiced her worries to the empty bridge around her. "Even if we all escape Toulon, without you there will be no Templar."
November 8th, Early Morning - Algiers
"I'm beginning to wish we'd stayed with the Knight Commander. This is too easy," Queen Elizabeth groused, watching from her bridge as Royal and Union ground troops captured the port infrastructure of the city of Algiers, landing directly on the docks and fanning out to secure important buildings and intersections. Major General Ryder of the Union, having surveyed the landing zones in the wee hours of the morning, had ordered the daring maneuver as expected resistance failed to materialize. They'd even gotten in touch with Jewish resistance fighters who had capitalized on the confusion of the prior days to secure the governor's house, radio station, and other key locations in the city proper.
"And that, my Lady, is what worries me," Belfast cut in, surveying the desert shoreline with a sour look on her face. "The artillery batteries were already destroyed and Ark Royal confirmed there is enemy armor in the area but…"
"Whatever Scharnhorst and Gniesenau are planning, a stout defense of Algiers wasn't in the cards. Those are just scouts," the carrier agreed. "I worry for the other task forces. Why would they attack the Vichya forces here only to leave the city open for us?"
"They want us to land," Warspite concluded shortly before picking up her radio. "Rear Admiral Burrough, we are leaving. Something is amiss. If we push ourselves we can make it to Oran before sundown. We would advise you all to remain on high alert. The enemy must know we are here."
"Much as I hate to lose such a competent force, I cannot argue with your assessment," the Royal officer replied sternly after a moment of silence. "We will do everything we can to fortify the city and dockyards and await news from the Central Task Force. Godspeed."
"And to you, Rear Admiral," Elizabeth replied formally. "For King, Country, and the glory of the Royal Navy! All kansen, rally to Warspite. We sail for Oran!"
November 8th, 16:00 hours - Coastal Waters East of Oran
"Belfast, anything yet?" Elizabeth asked tensely. The waiting had proven too much for the Royal battleship, forcing her from her bridge and onto deck, as though being at the prow of her ship might hasten news from the Central Task Force.
"My Lady, the answer is the same as the last seven times you asked," the cruiser replied tersely, feeling her maid uniform beginning to chafe in the salty air. Instead of hails of cannonfire and the thrum of battle, the first day of Operation Torch had only brought silence and painful waiting for Thorson's Royal task force. Ark Royal interrupted the two of them, voice grim and subdued.
"The air group I sent inland just encountered heavy AA fire from Ironblood positions and was shot down near the airfields those Union paratroopers were supposed to secure. Warspite, we should make for Gibraltar at once. The landings failed," the carrier advised cynically. Sir Raleigh chirped mournfully on the small battleship's shoulder.
"Leander, Belfast, Vampire, Javelin, I need your eyes and ears peeled like never before. Ark, arm your planes for anti-submarine warfare and restrict your patrols to the ocean between here and Oran. We will not report back to Knight Commander Thorson empty handed. We are duty bound to at least deliver actionable intelligence instead of assumptions. Understood?"
On her flight deck, Ark Royal hung her head as she summoned a squadron of Fairey scouts. Only one of her 'other lives' had lasted long enough to see the invasion of Oran end in failure. "I did not mean to imply we should run with our tail between our legs, only that we may be steaming into a sprung trap."
"You're both right," Elizabeth cut in with an air of finality, rotating her main batteries as nerves caused her hands to shake. "We are sailing into the unknown, but we also need to do so. If it is as bad as your initial reports suggest, Ark, we will leave posthaste."
"Fair and reasonable, my Lady," Belfast complimented the battleship as she took point. "It's been a long while since I crossed blades with those two…"
November 8th, 1800 hours - Just Offshore of Oran
"Lord have mercy," Belfast whispered as the Royal task force watched the smoke and fires billowing from the shoreline. They had seen and smelled the aftermath long before getting a visual on the landing zones themselves. "They butchered them."
"Yes," Warspite replied shortly, throat tightening with rage and sorrow. The shallow waters and sandbars of Oran's coastline were littered with burning and bombed out landing craft, and only time and tides had restored the ocean to its steely gray hue, washing away the blood of thousands of Union soldiers. In addition to conventional weaponry, blast marks and scarring on hulls that remained above water indicated the presence of Siren constructs during the battle.
"W-what shall we do?" Vampire asked timidly, picking up worrying sounds on sonar. "We can't afford to stay here!"
"They executed this perfectly," Ark Royal spat, having recalled most of her scouting parties due to the waning light as well as a desire to not alert land-based forces to their approach. She'd not seen hide nor hair of the Ugly Sisters all day, but their handiwork was evident. "Instead of attacking the nearest landing force to Tunis, which was heavily defended, they struck from land and sea at the middle force. I have every faith in Knight Commander Thorson and the rest of the Union to carry the day in the west, but even if Casablanca surrenders today…"
"There's no telling how long it might take to smash Rommel's Panzer Korps and rendezvous with all those men we just saw safely onto shore at Algiers," Elizabeth finished before aiming a swift kick at the nearest metal pole she could find. "Damn them to hell!"
"Language, my Lady, but I agree wholly," Belfast advised her before addressing Warspite. "Knight Commander Warspite, what do you believe he would have us do in this situation?"
Warspite closed her eyes briefly and rested a hand on the pommel of her sword as it hung on her hip, letting Sir Raleigh occupy the palm of the other as she searched the manjuu's beady black eyes for the right course of action. He didn't have anything to add, but his presence was comforting. She turned to a map of North Africa hanging on the wall of her bridge, tracing lines with her finger in the dim light. "Andrew Thorson would want us to come home safe and sound… but the Knight Commander I know would also do everything within his power to carry the day. I think the Ugly Sisters expect us to retreat, want us to retreat. Instead of splitting their forces, they hit one of our three landing parties with overwhelming fire. They will do the same in Algiers next, leaving Major General Patton with half a continent to cross before being able to threaten them in Tunis. That is assuming he is a match for Rommel. He very well may be, but the Ironblood have been fighting here far longer than the Union."
"So our goal is clear then," Belfast concluded. It was not a question.
"I'm scared. There are only six of us," Leander admitted quietly. Elizabeth smiled with grim determination.
"I know, Leander. I know. You young ships… well, now you have an idea of what Gallipoli was like. We may be the only ones capable of preventing another massacre like this in Algiers. I think it's what Lady Hood would do."
"I can't believe this. Commodore Troubridge-"
"Is dead or captured," Ark Royal finished Javelin's despairing thought. "Along with many, many other brave men. Warspite, what are your orders? We're being stalked, there's no doubt."
The horizon full of burning wrecks and sinking hulls stoked the battleship's fears but also steeled her resolve. "We will spend exactly one hour searching for survivors, in formation, then we head back to Algiers. Rear Admiral Burrough and Major General Ryder need to know what they're up against, and that the kansen of the Royal Navy stand with them. Knight Commander Thorson trusted us with this mission, to sortie independently of the main fleet. We will trust him in return. We will wait for him in Algiers, and we will sink the entirety of the Ironblood and Sardegnian Mediterranean fleets if necessary while we do. We will not allow the Ugly Sisters the luxury of a one front ground war. We will not retreat!"
"Well said, sister," Elizabeth proclaimed as she set throttle to full and headed towards the shoreline. "Let's sweep for mines and get in there. If they fire on us I'll send them to hell."
"Well, so long as we're sending a message to the enemy," Ark Royal murmured to herself, readying as many P-40s as her cubes would allow at once, along with a contingent of Fairey's just in case the wolfpack that had shadowed them from Algiers decided to do more than watch. The sea was turning black but there was no shortage of light on shore both from fires and the city of Oran. It was a safe assumption that no Vichya or friendly forces would remain ashore. "I'll cover you girls. My shades won't shut up and I'm tired of their despondent thoughts."
"Thy visage must be as the avengers of the olden tales," Vampire flourished as she turned into a bat and flew off into the night, nigh undetectable. Memories of a certain, dead sailor flitted behind her eyes as she held back tears. "If even one life is salvaged from the uncaring deep today, it shall be worth our efforts."
Flanked by two battleships, Javelin felt comfortable enough to activate a search light as Belfast swept for mines ahead of them. Her thoughts turned to Ayanami, Laffey, and Z23. "I just pray the others had more success than we did today."
November 8th, 0530 Hours - Coastal Waters off Port Lyautey
"I don't mind admitting that this isn't how I customarily spend my time before major fleet actions," Rear Admiral Hewitt said to Soryuu and Hiryuu as the three of them shared tea aboard the man's flagship. All around the ship, troops and armor from the Eagle Union were being loaded onto transports bound for the distant shoreline. The day had dawned with inclement weather, low visibility and choppy surf making for complicated landing conditions.
"We appreciate the invitation nevertheless, and hope you will consider our words," Soryuu replied softly, taking a sip of matcha. She still had plenty in storage, and it warmed the bones as she anticipated the battle ahead. Hewitt shook his head and spoke politely.
"I know how it sounds, but we've been working diplomatic channels for months. The Iris Orthodoxy and the Eagle Union have been bound together since our own revolution. There's still a chance that when they see our uniforms they surrender with minimal bloodshed. A first strike by us eliminates that option."
"I'm sure that's really comforting to the boys in the first wave," Hiryuu pointed out, though her tone was not judgmental. "Sis, like it or not these Westerners have their own history and ways of doing things. Imagine if we got tangled up with the Dragon Empry during an invasion against the Parliament. I think things might get a bit thorny, you know?"
"Every so often you surprise me, Hiryuu," Soryuu said with the barest hint of a smile, refusing to add '-chan' to her younger sister's name in the presence of a foreign officer. She addressed Hewitt again. "In that case we should return to our ships, Rear Admiral. We will continue to run defensive air patrols until the Dominion forces open fire on the landing craft, which they will. Yukikaze, Shigure, and Yuudachi are also at your disposal, though you should be aware that they can be… unpredictable."
The Union Admiral nodded once. "I don't mind telling you that I'm much more grateful for the air support than a handful of destroyers. We were only able to spare a single carrier from our side, as you saw. Are you familiar with Union radio protocols?"
"We are," Soryuu confirmed as she and Hiryuu stood. "May the gods be with us this day."
Hewitt turned his attention to a chart of the shoreline around Port Lyautey as the two Sakura kansen excused themselves, making their way from his quarters back to the deck of the ship. Union sailors spared them more than a few passing glances, but they had no trouble. "You'd think they'd never seen a kansen before," Soryuu grumbled. Hiryuu had a wide smile on her face as they emerged topside to the sound of engines and a flight of Zeros overhead.
"I think it's more like they haven't seen a woman in a while!" the younger of the sisters suggested as they took to the seas and headed back to their hulls, getting in touch with the 'dork squad' as they did so. "Alright pups and kitty, here's the deal, no fighting unless the Vichya forces start it, ok?"
"What?!" Shigure barked in reply, the three of them currently holding position behind the carriers, screening them from the potential of U-boat attacks from the rear.
"No complaints," Soryuu ordered before the other two could chip in. "We are here to support the Union landings, not to do our own thing. Shikikan Thorson trusted all of us to represent the Sakura Empire today. Have patience, you three. There will be plenty of fighting before the day is done."
"Mmm, alright. I don't want Penny-san to be mad at me," Yuudachi reasoned as the small Sakura contingent regrouped and waited for the action to begin in earnest. Soryuu's words proved prophetic as the first wave of Union troops approached the shoreline. The ground forces quickly came under artillery and sniper fire once ashore, and the rough weather prevented them from establishing a proper beachhead. Hiryuu's fighters made short work of Vichya air patrols, but the low clouds made it difficult for Soryuu's bombers to provide effective ground support. Rear Admiral Hewitt got in contact shortly before 0730 hours.
"Soryuu? This is Hewitt. The second wave of landing craft is being held back until we can locate the intended beachhead," he reported, frustration evident in his voice as the Union escort ships launched blind bombardments of the shoreline. "I need two things from you and your forces. I know visibility is shit but any aerial intel you can get us on enemy positions or the intended LZ would be damn appreciated right now. There's also the river mouth, you can just barely make it out from our position. We've got a Vichya defector on board here who reports that enemy artillery batteries are positioned along the river. They also believe the river is deep enough for destroyers to traverse."
"Say no more, Rear Admiral. We'll handle it. Please ensure your forces continue to screen for enemy submarines," Soryuu responded before addressing her own forces. "The time has come, everyone. Hiryuu, you and I will locate a better landing zone for the second wave and provide as much close fire support as we can to the first wave."
"Damn that stings!" Hiryuu grunted over the radio as she suffered fire from land-based AA batteries. "What I wouldn't give for a higher ceiling right now."
"Conserve your strength. Our primary objective right now is recon, and we only need a handful of planes for that. The Vichya air patrols are dealing with the same conditions we are and they have three landing zones to defend. You three, I have a special mission for you!"
Tails and ears alike perked up as the Sakura destroyers listened intently. Though Soryuu was not normally known for embellishment, the seasoned carrier also knew the importance of properly motivating those under her command. She'd barely gotten the words out before the three destroyers took off at full speed for the shoreline and the river delta.
"You got it, Soryuu-san! We're going to blow up everything we can get our claws on. Wan~!" Yuudachi barked happily, leading the charge.
"They will never know what hit them, nanoda! The Vichya will know the name Yukikaze of Kure this day!" exclaimed the feline destroyer among them. Soryuu clicked her tongue as one of her bombers was brought down before it could assault the Vichya trenches.
"You will do no such thing! There are civilians in the city as well as Union troops ashore. You will locate and destroy the Vichya artillery batteries and then you will report back to us. Is that clear?" she demanded sternly.
"I'll keep these two in line," Shigure insisted happily as they approached the shore and formed a single file line to head inland. Though they were torpedo specialists, they still brought their guns to bear, throwing a handful of 12.7cm shells inland.
"Why do I somehow doubt that," Soryuu wondered just to herself and her sister as they refocused on their own problems.
"Have a bit of faith, nee-san. They survived the Pacific after all. This is a piece of mochi in comparison!" Hiryuu stated, closing her eyes as she nimbly guided her fighters through evasive maneuvers while scanning the beaches below. "Oh, that looks like a decent spot! Not too rocky either."
"It's farther away from the port itself, but I agree it's our best option," Soryuu agreed, radioing Hewitt with the coordinates before replying to her sister's evaluation of the dynamic trio. "You forget they survived because they defected early on to the enemy."
"Turned out to be the right call, didn't it?" Hiryuu pointed out as she pulled her aircraft back from the shoreline. With the second wave of landing forces finally getting underway after significant delay, she decided to spare a moment to screen the ocean for enemy ships. Her words left Soryuu pondering the whims of fate and the gods quietly.
"Hmm, I suppose you're right."
"Haha take that, and that, and that!" Yuudachi exclaimed as she and her friends rounded a bend in the river and came upon a fortified artillery position. It wasn't difficult to spot, given that the soldiers manning it were pumping as many rounds down range as they could in an effort to blunt the Union landings.
"Bet you didn't expect the Sakura to make an appearance today!" Shigure joined in as the artillery crews suddenly had to contend with three warships slinging shells at them. While the dork trio couldn't hold a candle to Union destroyers like Downes or Laffey in terms of gunnery efficiency, their low profiles and the element of surprise ensured that they were able to make short work of the installation.
"Oh, is that it? They're running already? I-I mean of course they are! Fear the wrath of Yukikaze the Great, nanoda! So uh… should we go back?" she wondered, scanning the banks of the river for more targets. "Wow, it's different here."
"Yeah, I've never been to Africa before," Shigure agreed, feeling wanderlust tugging her onward. "You know, there could be more artillery deeper inland, right?"
"Yeah, Shigure-chan's right! Let's keep going!" Yuudachi insisted, setting her engines to full and carrying on. The others had no reason not to follow along, not with so many new sights to take in. There was sand, rock, strange vegetation, and buildings the likes of which they'd never seen before. "Soon all of Africa will quake with fear!"
"Respectfully, Rear Admiral, the runways are intact and you didn't lose a single tank or soldier taking them. Surely the Union is capable of building a new fuel depot?" Soryuu spoke to Admiral Hewitt in the early afternoon. As though reflecting the state of the invasion itself, the clouds had begun to part above them and the sun glinted off the waters of the Atlantic. Union troops and armor were landing safely on the beaches, and the Vichya garrison had surrendered the port infrastructure after a short exchange of fire with Union troops.
The final objective of the northern prong of the Western Task Force, the airfields further inland, had also fallen to the invading forces. While the Vichya forces had been on alert for enemy ships sailing up river, they had not been expecting the kansen of those ships to ditch their hulls, pocket their cubes, and infiltrate the facility on foot. The ammo caches had been detonated first, drawing attention away from the fuel tanks which had easily fallen to a barrage from the destroyers' rigging. Their sabotage complete, Yukikaze, Yuudachi, and Shigure had retreated over a nearby hill, using a pair of binoculars they'd swiped from a Royal sailor during their journey to Africa to dial in a small but effective barrage of the rest of the facility. It wasn't exactly an artillery strike, but their rigging was strong enough to shatter windows, blow holes in ceilings, and generally render the other, less essential buildings on the airfield inoperable. Satisfied, the three of them returned to sea the way they'd come, simply skating down-river instead of presenting their hulls as targets to any remaining enemies. By the time they returned to Soryuu and re-incorporated their hulls, famished but successful, the operation was all but over.
"I suppose I shouldn't be one to look a gift horse in the mouth," Admiral Hewitt concluded as he reviewed reports from the ground troops about the state of the airfield. "We'll be able to land Ranger's P-40's and get them in the air for our push eastward. That's enough for me, and hopefully enough for the Major General as well. Thank you for your assistance, all of you. I can't say I ever expected to fight side by side with the Sakura Navy, but you saved a lot of boys' lives today. We won't forget that."
"Hehehe, praise us more, nanoda!"
"S-sorry, Soryuu-san! You're welcome, Union Admiral-san! We hope you are satisfied with your new airfield!"
"Alright you three, you've earned your praise. Just let your actions speak for themselves. That's way cooler, you know?" Hiryuu advised them confidently, taking in the strange but not unpleasant scent of the ocean and the dry desert air as the two collided off Africa's coastline. Her brow furrowed as a Zero she'd sent southward made visual and radio contact with Thorson's main force. "Hey sis? I think we should get out of here."
"What do you mean, Hiryuu? Report," Soryuu requested, scanning the horizon but not seeing anything that looked like a threat either on land or out to sea.
"Well, it's hard to say for sure with all the shells flying, but it looks like they haven't been able to take the dockyards at Casablanca yet," Hiryuu concluded with a shrug, clearly unopposed to the idea of engaging in two invasions in one day. Soryuu could not help the surprise in her voice.
"How could that be possible? The Vichya only had one kansen stationed in Casablanca!"
Hiryuu drew one of her swords part way from its sheath, catching a glint of sunlight off the blade's surface before returning it to rest. "Yeah well, she must be one hell of a kansen."
November 8th, 0804 hours - Bridge of the Jean Bart, Casablanca Harbor
"Jean, the Sakura aircraft have broken through! Our fighters didn't stand a chance!"
"They're targeting the submarines! Amphitrite was just hit! She's burning at her mooring!"
"I can't raise the Fedala battery! Last message reported even more troop ships on approach!"
"Enemy capital ships on the horizon! They have at least five battleships! This is the end!"
It was those panicked words from a member of the Foreign Legion who had survived Oran that spurred Jean Bart to action as her AA guns came to life. "Then it is the end. All we can choose is whether or not we fight in a manner worthy of the Orthodoxy and God. I will not be long. Francois, I could use your help. My squire is hopefully past Gibraltar on her way to Toulon by now."
"As you command, Captain," the soldier responded. Like so many others, he'd found himself sheltered and called to service aboard the Jean Bart as the world seemed to fall apart around them. The Desert Fox, coups and counter coups, and now an invasion of Royal and Union troops. The Templar commander had welcomed all who swore an oath of loyalty to the Orthodoxy, but now even her walls were under siege. The young sergeant's mouth went dry as they arrived at the kansen's personal quarters, where she promptly threw off her jacket and shirt before opening a weathered, wooden chest that sat in the corner of the room.
"Pull your chin off the floor and help me with my armor, Francois," she ordered sternly, securing her chest with fabric wraps before pulling on a cloth tunic and pants.
"R-right away!" the man snapped to action, assisting Jean Bart with the straps of her sabatons and greaves. Next came a full suit of padding and chainmail, her gauntlets, and finally her tabard. The cloth was a dark blue, almost black in color, with a bold, red cross upon the chest. "This is not the symbol of the Dominion."
"No, Francois, it is not," Jean agreed, securing a longsword in its scabbard to her hip. It felt right, better than her cutlass, which sat atop her privateer's clothing in a pile in the corner. She did not think she'd ever need it again. "Before the Dominion and Iris Libre there was the Orthodoxy and the Templar. If I die today, if we die today… that is how we will be remembered, warriors of God."
The soldier didn't think he was doing a proper job of keeping the fear from his eyes at the steel in her words. From beneath the woman's cot she pulled a claymore and full helm, resting the former over a shoulder and the other in the crook of her arm. "God help us all," he whispered as she strode past him.
"God helps the worthy and faithful, Francois."
Chaos reigned in Casablanca. To the north and south, enemy troops and armor landed ashore and secured beachheads. Enemy aircraft decimated friendlies, and dropped bombs on the harbor. Warships and civilian vessels alike burned at their moorings. Artillery batteries fell silent under barrages from Union cruisers. A siege was all but assured, and to the small, Iris garrison aboard the Jean Bart, it seemed their number had finally come up. Enemy planes and warships stared them down, preparing to destroy the final obstacle preventing an orderly invasion of Africa by the Allies. That was when she emerged onto deck, a warrior out of time, sword and banner in hand. The Black Templar strode forward until she stood atop her sole operational gun mount, the four barrels pointed out to sea. Every soul seemed to cease motion and watch her pass as she effortlessly swatted a handful of overconfident bombers from Akagi out of the sky and into the harbor. When she spoke, all aboard could hear.
"Soldiers of Iris, sons of God, hear me now!" she called to them. "Fate has brought us all here now, together, at the far edge of the Empire. The Lord has chosen us few to stand together, as one, in our nation's darkest hour. Our glorious Paris lies in Ironblood hands. The Desert Fox knocks at our door, and our ancient foe, Brittania, holds her sword to our throats. But we are soldiers of Iris! A legacy of warfare and conquest more than a millennia long goes with us to battle. Martel, Jeanne d'Arc, Charny, La Fayette, Bonaparte! They are looking down on us today at the edge of ruin. The Lord gives his toughest battles to his finest warriors, and this may be the last, greatest battle in the history of the Orthodoxy."
Jean paused for just a moment, reaching out to her cubes. They were ready, as was she, to give everything. "I am tired of running," she told those aboard her ship and herself. Across the water she could practically feel the guns of the enemy dialing her in. "Today I fight for Iris, I fight for the Templar, and if I go to God's side it will be because I gave everything in His name. Will you stand with me?"
All over the ship, from her bridge to her secondary batteries to her AA mounts, cheers and cries rang out as rifles were hoisted high. Those soldiers who carried melee weapons drew them from their sheaths and held them aloft so Jean could see them all. She smiled grimly, feeling a terrible excitement overtake her as the final battle drew close. Even if they sunk her hull, they would have to board her to finish the job. "Will you fight with me?"
"Oui! Vive l'Orthodoxie! A la guerre!" they sang out as across the ocean, aboard the Massachusetts, the first 16 inch shells ever fired by the Union Navy in the Atlantic were launched in their direction. Jean donned her helmet, dropped to one knee, and rested her forehead against the cross of her sword's handguard. Richelieu had always said that one did not need to explain to God what was required; one needed only to pray and the Lord would understand. Knowing that she very well could be the last of the Templar left alive, Jean Bart prayed.
"Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…" she whispered, able to sense the trajectory of the shells as they approached, hear the whistling of the damned and the pagans on the wind. "...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil."
"What in the name of God?" Andrew Thorson muttered under his breath. The man watched in disbelief as the smoke and fire from Massachusetts' volley slowly cleared with the wind, revealing a radiant barrier of golden light shining boldly in the harbor. Above the Jean Bart the stormy skies above Casablanca parted for a brief moment, a ray of sunlight shining upon the crippled ship as she stood defiantly against all odds, as though God himself had chosen a side. The Union sailor was sure that others in the fleet were feeling the same uncertainty that he was in that moment. To his side, South Dakota blinked once.
"You're sure, sister? Very well. I'll tell him."
"What's going on, Dakota?" Thorson demanded as the combined Union and Royal invasion of Casablanca hit its first true stumbling block.
"You remember Minneapolis' experience with that soft, Sakura maiden? Yamashiro, was it?"
"I do," the man confirmed as both of them stared grimly forward at what could be described as the will of God. It was not the time to tell South Dakota that she was also plenty soft in all the right places.
"My sister has had trouble dreams of late, dreams of a fated battle, a foe destined for her. She says Jean Bart is that foe."
Thorson could not help but wonder what such a battle might look like in that alternate world, that world where Yamashiro had been crewed by Sakura sailors, and destroyed by the Union late in the war. He was brought back to the present as he remembered his orders from General Patton. "She can have her battle, but make sure she knows defeat isn't an option."
South Dakota looked at him out of the corner of one eye, arms across her breasts as she trained her guns at one of the Vichya destroyers at dock and opened fire. He thought she seemed offended he'd even suggested it. "Against an enemy like that, the spirits demand nothing less."