Chapter One – Hero of another Story - Beginnings

[January 2nd, 2021]

He stood with his back to a wall that only reached up to his hips. There was nowhere left to run; he was already on the highest floor.

The mad magus almost lazily walked towards him, knowing as well as he did that was no escape route here.

Even with the heavy rainfall he could make out, just barely, the sound of fierce battle below him and far offshore. The Siren he'd seen earlier was fighting against one – or more than one – of the ship girls who had been deployed to the area. Another was on the ground a good distance away, in the process of incapacitating a dozen armed guards. It wasn't exactly going to be difficult for her, despite the men being armed enough to pass as a SWAT team, but neither party was going to make it up here in time.

He was alone with the magus and they both knew it.

"It really amuses me how some people seem to lose the ability to make rational decisions when frightened enough," the magus said, smiling. "They do stupid things like climbing to the top of a lighthouse in a desperate attempt to run. You voluntarily ran headfirst into a dead end while leaving no significant barricades or obstacles behind!" the magus laughed.

He smiled nervously, "Well, what can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Whatever the case, you still just ran to your death! Well, I did order everyone at the docks be killed so I can't blame you for wanting to live a few more seconds. Still, those seconds are up, boy."

"Okay, first, I'm twenty-four, not a boy," he said. "Second, just shut up and take your best shot."

The magus shrugged, pointing the head of a large staff at him. The top-most gem began to glow with densely packed power.

"Now that I think about it, you're not quite like him," the magus said. "You're both cowards, but he was a lot smarter."

"And how do you know I'm not still planning something?"

The magus narrowed his eyes. The staff-head glowed brighter.

A dense purple laser blasted out.

*~Several hours ago~*

An alarm rang. It continued to ring for several seconds. Eventually, the blanket on the bed shifted. A hand clumsily reached for the ringing smartphone. After a few misses, it landed and the owner of the hand tapped the alarm off without looking at the screen thanks to experience. The person lay unmoving in that position for several seconds before yawning and slowly getting up.

He stared at the phone screen for a second. "Man, that was intense drinking last night," he grumbled, rubbing his forehead. "Right, bathroom, bathroom…" he muttered, heading to the small adjoined bathroom of his room.

As he splashed his face with tap water, he glanced at his reflection. He seemed to be unable to grow any facial hair, so his face was smooth. Not that he minded; he was never fond of the concept anyway. His black hair had grown long enough to hide his blue eyes from some angles; he'd gotten lazy, he absently mused, fingering a sloppily-cut strand. Even after all these years he still had issues with letting other people hold sharp objects so close to him, so he preferred to cut it himself.

It took several minutes before he was ready. He decided to grab a bite somewhere before leaving for work. Getting dressed didn't take long; he only had the few sets.

Picking up his phone and pocketing it, he left his room. He didn't bother locking the door. It wasn't like he was leaving behind anything he'd miss.

*~B~*

"You're late!"

"Gimme a break, boss, I still have a hangover…"

The 'boss' was a big burly tanned man. His gruff face was covered in barely-cared-for facial hair, which was black in contrast to the mop of white hair on his head. Yet despite his intimidating appearance, the man was carefree and friendly with just about anyone.

The boss was a good man. He liked having him as a boss.

"Fah! What are you, a lightweight?" the boss scoffed.

No because Drake made sure I could hold my drink, underage be damned. "For your information, you guys made me drink an entire bottle's worth on my own. Also, that's not how it works."

"Whatever. Look sharp, lad! We got work to do!"

"Don't we always…" he muttered.

Apparently he hadn't said it that quietly as his boss chuckled. "For a newbie, you sure catch on quick! You'll go far yet, lad!"

"Yeah, yeah. So what do you need?"

"There's a container in warehouse 2 full of crates. I need you to check them and then help load them onto the company truck."

"What are they supposed to be?" he asked, already walking away.

"Says here it's furniture," the boss called back.

"Who the hell is shipping furniture from overseas…" he muttered.

The shipyard where he had found some menial work after Christmas last year wasn't too big. It was a little out of the way of most common sea routes. The dock wasn't large enough for the bigger ships, only having space for smaller cargo ships.

Most of the yard was an open lot, which had become a maze of cargo containers convoluted enough for someone to get lost in. Despite how it looked, the boss assured him he could keep track of what was where. The newbie could too, but compared to regular humans he was basically cheating.

At one corner of the dock was a large, long-armed crane, used to move containers between places in the yard or parked ships. At the opposite end was a tall lighthouse. The top floor, which housed the light itself, had recently had the glass around it broken, so just for today, it was open to the air.

By the lighthouse were several buildings, most of them just the one story. Three large buildings stood out in the midst – those were the three spacious warehouses. Each had a number painted on a wall – 01 to 03 – otherwise they were all identical.

As he walked, someone he didn't recognize came up to him. It was a tall Caucasian, with short-cut reddening brown hair. The name tag on his shirt said Robert Marcus. He looked to be about thirty years old.

"Yo," the newcomer greeted. "You're Tanaka, the new guy?"

It took him a moment to remember that that was the name he was going by. "That's me. Nice to meet you, uh, Mr. Marcus?"

"Eh, just call me Bob," the man shrugged. "Gotta say, you're fluent and have no accent at all. I haven't met anyone like that from the Sakura Empire. Or, whatever it's called nowadays."

"You'd be surprised. Also, no, they never stopped calling it Japan. Sakura Empire is just what they call their ship girl division. This place is still the US, not the Eagle Union."

Bob scoffed. "Some Empire, with just a few dozen citizens."

"Sardegna has even less. Why haven't I met you yet by the way?" Tanaka asked.

"Sick leave. So what's the boss got you doing?"

"Checking and moving crates. You know, grunt work."

"Well, he told me to help out so let's get going."

Tanaka shrugged. "Sure."

They walked together, lightly chatting as Bob asked some questions about Japan. Tanaka hadn't been back in years and he warned Bob that his knowledge was a bit outdated. At one point Bob glanced at the sky and frowned.

"What?" Tanaka asked.

"Gonna rain tonight. Lotsa rain."

"You can tell? How?" Tanaka asked, surprised. "The weather's been all over the place since those aliens showed up three years ago."

"Experience. Should just become a weather forecaster, it'd sure as hell pay better than this."

"Huh." He didn't really have anything to say to that. He took Bob at his word. He'd certainly heard much stranger things, not even counting those one and a half years.

"Alright, let's get this over with," Bob said, walking ahead as the warehouses came into view behind all the metal containers. "Warehouse 2, right?"

Tanaka replied in the affirmative and followed.

They both walked in, still lightly chatting. The open container on a trailer by the wall was immediately visible. As were the crates inside.

Bob checked his clipboard. "S'posedly, they're just wooden chairs. Well, let's give 'em a look, see if there's anything outta place. Truck's right there, too," he added, pointing out a truck with the logo of some company or other on it.

"Check if there's any more, I'll look at this lot," said Tanaka.

"Got it. Have fun."

"I wish," Tanaka retorted, walking up to the crates. Once he was sure Bob was a safe distance away, he muttered the words he'd learnt long ago and looked at the nearest box.

After a second or two of concentration, a stream of 'feelings' came to him.

"With all due respect, Master … you're terrible at this. I highly doubt you will ever improve at this beyond your current level."

Technically, they weren't wrong. He hadn't gotten any better at it, but the activation time had shortened from the half minute it had been at the start to around two seconds now.

The goal of the variant of Structural Analysis he'd tried to learn was to see through solid objects and at least make out the outlines of whatever he couldn't see. What he instead achieved was something quite a bit different.

When Tanaka looked at objects, he couldn't make out the shapes within, but he did receive 'feelings' based on their material composition. His brain interpreted those 'feelings' as colors in his vision, and he'd learned to recognize what the different colors meant.

A vast range of browns assaulted his vision. Wood was headache-inducing sometimes – even the simplest chunk consisted of a few dozen shades. Specks of gray danced among the whirlpool of brown, indicating small quantities of metal – probably the nails and stuff holding the pieces together.

Tanaka shut it off and quickly looked away before the headache could escalate from 'vaguely noticeable' to 'vividly annoying'. As he did, his eyes fell on a container in the corner.

It was a 4x4x10 meter sea green metal box that had arrived three days ago. According to the boss, orders were to leave it untouched until the owners arrived.

Tanaka had gotten curious and taken a look when no one was around. It was a good thing too; him falling to his knees with his hands held tightly about his scrunched up eyes would have raised questions. It was a good thing he managed to restrain himself from screaming too.

One look at the crate had nearly blinded him, and left him with a painful headache that only gradually receded over the course of the day. Whatever was in that container, was incredibly powerful. He'd only made that mistake once before, several years ago. In his defense, that was the last thing he expected to find in a random shipyard.

He'd asked around as to who had delivered it. Strangely, no one seemed to know. Even more strangely, while the records showed it was legitimate cargo, they couldn't find any information on a sender.

Tanaka wondered what it was. Black market magi business? A new weapon to use against the Sirens? He entertained the thought that it was one of those elusive Wisdom Cubes – with the power he was 'seeing', it would certainly make sense – but he dismissed it as being too ridiculous. No one in their right minds would be transporting something so valuable in this way.

He thought about having a peek tonight. Something so powerful sitting unidentified in public didn't sit right with him. Bob had said there would be heavy rain tonight. Perhaps that would be his chance to have a look with no one the wiser.

But those were thoughts for later. For now, menial labor awaited.

*~Night time~*

"When you said 'heavy rain', I didn't expect it to be this heavy," the boss muttered, staring out the window.

"To be honest, I didn't either," shrugged Bob.

All the employees of the yard were currently within their personal cafeteria, sitting at various tables and chatting, as they had nothing better to do. There was no urgent work, so everyone chose to sit inside and wait out the storm.

It was quite the storm. Rain fell in thick curtains. Thunder boomed every few seconds. Lightning brightened the windows occasionally. No one wanted to brave such terrible weather.

Well, almost no one. Bob looked around the packed cafeteria. "Boss, you see Tanaka anywhere?" he asked after a second.

Boss looked around. "Guess he's stuck somewhere else. No way he's out there in that," he shrugged.

*~B~*

Tanaka was, indeed, out there in that.

As he shrugged a cloak into better position, he walked towards where the warehouse. Between the rain and mist, the vision was horrendous.

The 'cloak' was a large, rectangular black cloth with gilded lines. It was unremarkable at first glance, but then again, most of his possessions were.

It had two distinct, special properties. One of which was that it protected its wearer from wind and water. So even in this storm, he wasn't getting wet.

It was a farewell gift from a friend, like almost all his possessions were.

"It is time for us to go, Lord Magus. We do not belong in this time. However, I, to my utmost shame, would not feel comfortable leaving you empty handed. And thus, for you, Lord Magus, I have this."

It was perfect for travelling through a storm like this.

Upon catching sight of the warehouse, he quickened his pace. The various buildings were clumped together, true, but it was still a minute's walk from the cafeteria to the second warehouse.

Getting a bit closer, he noticed an oddity and stopped in his tracks.

The doors were open. The doors should not be open.

There certainly shouldn't be what seemed to be armed guards standing sentry by them. Guards armed to the teeth, with black goggles and masks hiding any identifiable features. Kevlar vests protected their torsos, and they wore heavy black boots.

Something was up, and there was no way it was a coincidence: it definitely had something to do with the mystery container. Was it some secret military or black market shipment after all?

Tanaka changed gears and went around the building. There was a tiny crack in one of the side walls. It was hard to notice from inside, but just large enough to peer through.

The guards didn't notice him, thanks to the other special characteristic of the cloak: it granted the wearer low ranked Presence Concealment. It wasn't quite invisibility, but a perception filter of sorts that affected ordinary humans the most.

His suspicions rising, he reached the crack on the side of the building. He looked through and spotted several things.

First, there were several SUVs parked inside.

Second, and most important, that suspicious container had been opened, and its cargo had been hauled out.

In shape, it seemed to be an ordinary black speedboat, but inside it, where there was normally space for passengers to sit, something shone red. Whatever it was, it had been kept wrapped, judging by the long pieces of cloth that had been tossed to the side. Torpedoes were attached to either side, and there was a machine gun on a stand near the back.

A dark skinned man with long blond hair tied in a side-plait walked towards the boat. He stuck his hand into the shining redness, and pulled out a piece, inspecting it.

It was a small red crystal that glowed lightly. "Hm. Acceptable," he mused, stowing it back.

He snapped his fingers and one guard came up, holding a briefcase. Approaching the blond man, he lifted it and opened it.

Tanaka fought down a gasp. There were two objects inside of similar dimensions. He'd never personally seen them but it wasn't hard to recognize the cubic objects.

Wisdom Cubes. But these weren't blue. One looked much like the pictures he'd seen, but purple-pink. The other looked as though it was made of colorless glass, with a tiny white spark in the middle.

Another armed guard went up to the speedboat from the other side. He too carried a suitcase that he opened, taking something out and placing it within the boat. Since this one had his back to Tanaka, he didn't see exactly what it was.

The blond man took both Wisdom Cubes. He pocketed one and placed the glassy one in the boat. Finishing that, he took a few steps back.

It was then that Tanaka noticed that some sort of circle had been drawn on the ground where the speedboat lay. Since he couldn't see much of the circle, he couldn't tell for sure what it was for.

"Step back. You don't want to be caught in it," the blond warned.

"We gonna see a light show, sir?" one guard eagerly asked.

The man chuckled. "Yes, and it will be quite loud too. That there's a tremendous storm to mask it is a stroke of luck."

He gave the guards a few seconds to move out of the way, and then cleared his throat, pointing an open palmed arm at the boat.

"Let silver and steel be the foundation…"

Tanaka started. A Summoning chant?!

Changes were immediately apparent. The transparent Cube began to pulse, the spark inside growing until it was a bright light that fully suffused the Cube.

As the now-identified magus continued to chant, lines of white light began to spread from the Cube onto the boat. They elongated and split, crisscrossing over the boat until it had been divided into dozens, maybe hundreds of sections.

Strong gusts of wind originated from nowhere, circling the now glowing boat, made visible by the dust they were picking up from the ground. The red glow of the large mass of crystals intensified, then lightened in color, before transmuting into a white energy that flowed into the Cube like water, and the Cube glowed even brighter.

" – come forth from the ring of restraint, keeper of the balance!"

And quite suddenly, the entire contraption exploded into a blinding, roaring geyser of light.

The magus took an involuntary step back, shielding his eyes with a raised arm. Tanaka edged away from the crack squinting.

From within the geyser, he could see the silhouette of the speedboat breaking apart into fragments. Those fragments then began to reassemble into a shape that was humanoid, but also not.

When the light died down and he could clearly see again, Tanaka's eyes widened.

The figure standing in the circle looked to be a pale human girl of short stature. Her hair was wild and white, reaching her shoulders, and her eyes an eerie lifeless yellow. She was attractive, fairly, but gave off the feeling of a mechanical doll.

A black 'rigging' had formed around her. Twin torpedo launchers made up the ends at either side of her and the machine gun jutted over her right shoulder.

Her clothes consisted of a sleeveless, backless green vest and darker green shorts. In either hand was a spear, one longer and blood red, the other short and yellow.

"Commencing preliminary self-diagnostics," the girl announced in a robotic voice. "No irregularities detected."

The magus stared for a second and then began to laugh. Harder and harder with every passing second. "HAHAHAHA! Success! Great success! I, Atrum Galliasta, have successfully created the first Siren Demi-Servant in existence! Splendid!"

Siren, Tanaka realized. That's a Siren!

The girl eyed the laughing magus. "Individual identified as command unit. Greetings, Master," she said.

Atrum grinned. "Perfect," he said, savoring the word. "The materials used were less fresh than I'd have liked, but I cannot argue with the success. I've now proven that it's possible. Hmm. You," he directed at the Siren. "You are to be called Lancer."

"Acknowledged," she replied. "Designation 'Lancer', accepted. Your orders, Master?"

"For the time being, you will be my bodyguard. If anything or anyone attempts to attack me, you are to eliminate them. This order stands regardless of your other tasks."

"Command acknowledged," Lancer replied, and then walked towards Atrum.

One of the guards let out an appreciative whistle. "Damn," he said. "I'd like to give her a taste of my torpedo, if you know what I mean."

"Speak not such crass talk within earshot," Atrum reprimanded. "I have a job for the rest of you."

"Oh! This is the fun part, innit?" one guard said enthusiastically.

"I suppose. You know what do?" Atrum asked.

"Kill 'em and then stick 'em with this," the guard replied, patting a bunch of pen-shaped objects on his belt.

"Good. Half of you, get going. I don't want anyone alive in this yard besides us. Oh, and our insider."

"Roger that!"

Half the guards left the warehouse, all sounding upbeat, a stark contrast to the genocide they were planning.

Tanaka was frozen in position. Everything was happening too fast. Should he stay and face the magus? No, as long as that Siren was there, there was nothing he could do. But then shouldn't he do something about the mooks? No, even with all his tricks there was nothing he could do! This was far too big for him to solve alone. He always had help before! He could never do anything alone! Not even Mashu was –

His moment of indecision cost him. Lancer stared sharply at his position. "Observation: there is a spectator," she announced.

That shocked Tanaka into moving. Shit, shit, shit! He ran for his life, stowing away the cloak since it made him slower.

"Oh? I didn't sense any – wait, there they are. Curious. Fetch him."

BOOM!

It was over in an instant.

The warehouse wall exploded as Lancer crashed through it. Tanaka froze. He knew without looking back that she had spotted him. And with her speed – that of a Siren and apparently a Demi-Servant to boot – running any further was absolutely pointless.

Another moment passed and Lancer had grabbed the back of his shirt. Without care, she quickly dragged him back through the debris, painfully jolting everything, and deposited him on the ground before Atrum like a garbage bag. "Target acquired," she reported.

Tanaka heard the cocking of several large guns. In the distance, beyond the heavy rain, he also heard bullets being fired and screams of several men. He knew most of the men dying over there, he was painfully aware of that fact.

Logically, he knew there was nothing he could have done. He knew it was going to happen and he was powerless to do anything about it. But the failure to protect them still weighed heavily on him.

Still, he couldn't forget to protect himself as well. He did his best to look frightened, hoping he was convincing enough.

"Interesting," the blond magus mused, staring him down as he was held kneeling in place.. "You are … Gudao Tanaka?" he said, glancing at the name tag on Gudao's uniform. "The name doesn't ring a bell. That aside, how did you escape my notice? No, don't bother telling me. You. Search him," he ordered one of his goons.

Rough hands callously patted him down, the man behind them uncaringly using force to do so. They quickly found the one object on his person – his phone. Atrum stared at it. "I don't see anything mystical or special about it. It's just a phone."

"These models are usually slimmer," one of the goons said. "I could be wrong, but that's how it looks to me."

"Hmm…" Atrum continued to think, turning the phone over and over in his hands. He pressed the home button, stared for a second, then shrugged. "You seem like a smart person. What do you think about joining us?"

Gudao spoke a carefully measured second later. "Wh-What do you mean?"

"Oh so you can talk. As for what I mean, well it's quite simple really. You're either with us or against us and if you're against us we'll dispose of you."

"Wh-Who's we?" Gudao asked.

"We," Atrum began slowly, "are the Real Heroes. Unlike the rest of the world, we believe the Sirens are right. Well, most of us do. I'm a magus. For me, it's simply a mutually beneficial working relationship."

"Is-Is that why you have that Siren?"

"In a sense. If you want to know more, you can go ahead and join us. Or die, whichever suits you better."

"I–"

"Master," Lancer interrupted. "Enemy unit is feigning fear. This unit can detect that individual Gudao's heartbeat is stable.'

"Is that so." Atrum's demeanor changed. "What are you then? An undercover agent? An Azur Lane operative?"

Gudao stayed quiet.

"Oh, whatever. Kill–"

Intervention arrived.

Lancer suddenly moved to right behind Atrum, spinning the red spear in her right hand like helicopter blades.

Not a moment later, a storm of bullets blasted them from the open doors.

Lancer's move defended Atrum, but the others weren't as lucky. Shouts filled the warehouse as the guards fled from the widespread barrage. Gudao himself was safer than most, being right behind Atrum. The powerful bullets easily ripped holes in the walls or containers it hit.

"Tch. Guess we were noticed," Atrum said. He dropped Gudao's phone and took out the purple-pink Cube and squeezed it. It contracted and glowed, then emitted a wave of purple light that travelled over Atrum's body, forming a hooded purple cloak. It looked familiar but Gudao couldn't place why –

The Cube morphed into a long staff and Gudao realized. Medea's staff!

No sooner that he'd realized that Atrum raised it. Its head crackled with power and he slammed it down, end striking the ground hard.

A tremendous bolt of pink lightning burst from the head. It blasted out the open doors, flash-boiling the heavy rain, and struck outside with a large boom. The warehouse shook. Dust fell from the ceiling.

"Lancer," he ordered. "Dispose of my enemies."

"Acknowledged." In a burst of speed, Lancer vanished from view.

The rain of bullets stopped. "Right," Atrum said, turning around. "Where were we?"

He was speaking to no one. Gudao had vanished. The phone he had dropped was also nowhere to be seen.

Atrum sighed. "Incompetent morons–"

He stopped.

The guards had all been disabled by shots to the legs. Bullets had lodged themselves in the backs of their knees. But there weren't as many. Some had disappeared too.

But that made no sense. The attack had come from the other direction. So where…?

That boy. Gudao. It had to be. Lancer had said so, hadn't she? He was calm. Wily. A manipulative bastard. Just like Jas–

What? Who did he just think of? The boy's name was Gudao, not –

*~B~*

Three guards had run in pursuit of Gudao. They had chased him all the way to the maze of cargo containers.

"Split up," one said. "You're armed. He's not. Take care of him fast and get back to the boss."

They duly did so. Each entered the maze through a different passage.

One walked on, scanning intently, sweeping the area in front of him with the aim of his gun. His goggles had various filters and enhancers in it. Without it, he may have been blind in this downpour. With how alert he was, there was no way he'd be surprised –

Some sort of wire wrapped around his neck as he passed a gap in the containers. He reflexively squeezed the trigger, but before he could react further, electricity passed through his. He shouted in pain as he was painfully shocked, bullets spraying out of his gun in a wide arc, peppering dozens of holes in the nearby containers.

He quickly lost consciousness. His attacker disposed of the wire and moved on.

"Hey, did you hear that?!" someone shouted.

"Find that brat!"

The second grunt moved toward the noise. Even with their specialized goggles, it wasn't easy to see in this weather.

He reached the location and caught sight of his downed comrade. He made to shout a warning, but it was too late.

Something grabbed him by the back of vest and flung him at the nearest container. He slammed into it, disoriented, and taking advantage of that exact moment, he was grappled from behind.

The last thing his right eye saw was a hand glowing with bright blue sci-fi looking lines. Then a thumb jabbed him, breaking through the lens. He felt a searing pain in his eye before blacking out.

His attacker dropped the limp body, took a step back and paused at the sound of a gun cocking. "Found you, you son of a bitch!" the third man snarled at Gudao. "So you've got some hocus pocus shit too, huh? Well it ain't gonna save you this time! Eat lead!"

BANG!

The mook suddenly crumpled to a side, his gun firing wildly. He fell down on his back. As he struggled to get back up, a foot slammed into his face hard enough to break his goggles. He stopped moving. Gudao looked up.

It was a young woman with pale blond hair tied in a bun of braids at the back of her head. Her hair concealed one eye from view and the other golden eye scrutinized him impassively.

She wore what looked like a black-and-white Victorian dress. A black longcoat was draped over her shoulders. Knee length brown boots covered her legs. Her knees and a significant portion of her thighs were bare. There was an empty gun holster on her left hip. Below it, strapped to her left thigh and somewhat concealed was a sheathed dagger.

The woman stared at him quietly for several seconds. Gudao belatedly realized his right thumb was soaked in blood and wiped it off on his trousers.

"Who are you?" the woman finally asked.

"No one important. Who are you?" Gudao returned.

"You cannot expect me to answer if you don't answer yourself," the woman replied flatly.

"My name's right here and I'm pretty sure you've already seen it," Gudao said, tapping his name tag.

"That does not tell me who you are."

"Like I said, no one important."

The woman remained quiet for a few more seconds. "An unimportant person," she said slowly, "would not be able to take down three armed men on their own."

"Two," he reminded her. "You took out the last guy – thanks – but we don't have time to chat. More are probably coming."

"I took care of them," she said simply. "They won't be walking anywhere for a while."

Gudao paused. "… Did you kill them?" he asked eventually.

The woman's expression didn't change. It never seemed to change; it was vaguely disconcerting.

"No," she answered. "Killing these humans is not necessary."

Comprehension dawned. "You're a ship girl," Gudao realized.

The woman paused; this merely looked as though she had gone silent again. "Why did I mention that…?" she muttered. She looked back at Gudao with a sharp glare. "Do you possess powers of persuasion as well?"

"No?" Gudao answered, confused. "What makes you think that?"

"I did not miss you using some form of magecraft."

Gudao relaxed. "Oh, so you know. Good. And no, I can't do anything like that. Anyway, listen."

The woman quietly listened.

"That Siren is a Demi-Servant merged with the Irish Lancer Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. The red spear can go through most magic like it's not there and the yellow one can inflict wounds that never heal." Gudao paused for a breath. "I'm not sure if she can use them like that, but it won't hurt to know."

The woman's expression did not change.

"The magus, Atrum Galliasta, used some sort of Wisdom Cube to gain the powers of Medea of Colchis. He has access to really powerful Single-Action spells, can probably fly, has a bizarrely shaped dagger that can sever contracts and I'm not sure what else, she always seemed like she could do anything," Gudao explained quickly.

The woman continued to stare him. Gudao felt like he was being inspected under a microscope.

"Sheffield," she said suddenly.

"What?"

"My name," Sheffield explained shortly, then put a hand to her ear. "Prinz, Ayanami, can you hear me?"

*~B~*

Prinz Eugen was not having a great night.

She had her routine all figured out. It consisted of drinking at the bar and teasing Hipper. Possibly both simultaneously.

Normally she would have enjoyed the chance to fight and kill a Siren – not just one of their machines, but an actual Siren! – but quite frankly, the weather where she had been deployed to was just atrocious. Not even she could enjoy fighting in such horrible conditions.

She nevertheless agreed to go to this warehouse in this shipyard somewhere in the States – she couldn't be bothered to remember where. Sheffield had instructed her to open fire as soon as the warehouse was in sight. Ayanami incapacitated the guards outside – they never even saw her coming. They were hilariously unprepared to deal with ship girls.

Prinz had just prepared herself for a quick and easy job she'd forget about once she went back and downed a bottle or two when an enormous pink lightning bolt crashed down on her location. She managed to raise her shield in time and managed to avoid electrocution.

So they were dealing with magic. That was annoying.

The pedants at the base kept correcting her and saying it was magecraft, not magic. It all boiled down to the same Abracadabra shit, didn't it? What's the difference?

Then the strange Siren dual wielding spears attacked. Ayanami intercepted her, and of the two she was the one with the sword, so Prinz was stuck providing fire support.

And that wasn't even the end of it. No, the Siren she'd been deployed against was utterly boring! Some of the elite mooks she had seen and killed before had more personality and they didn't usually talk.

Fighting this melee focused Siren with a very simplistic rigging was like fighting a mechanical doll. Destroying mass-produced Siren tech was more interesting than this girl.

Eugen would grudgingly admit that this Siren was lethally efficient. Her skill with the spears was no joke. And maybe, just maybe, she was faster than Eugen.

It wasn't quite doing anything to improve her soured mood though.

[Prinz, Ayanami, can you hear me?]

"Ja, loud and clear," Eugen responded.

[Hai,] was Ayanami's short response.

[I have information,] Sheffield got right to the point. [The Siren's yellow spear may or may not cause lasting damage if it inflicts a wound. Prinz, the red one may or may not break through your shield like nothing.]

"Oh, wonderful," Eugen grumbled. "Perfectly not unclear."

[Prinz,] a fourth voice reprimanded.

"Right, right. Don't block the red one and don't get hit. Simple enough. But why are you here too, Grey Ghost?" she asked the fourth voice. "Isn't that a bit much?"

[I was in the area, and you know I can't just look the other way. That aside, Sheffield, where did you get this information? Is it reliable?]

Sheffield didn't respond for a second. During that second, Ayanami and the Siren exchanged several blows. Ayanami jumped back and Eugen took the chance to unload another volley at their opponent, which the Siren narrowly dodged.

[It appears so,] Sheffield finally said. Eugen narrowed her eyes. Why did she avoid the first question? For the moment, she let it slide.

"It would make sense," Prinz mused, dodging out of the way of return fire. "This thing isn't using its rigging nearly enough. It's favoring the spears too much."

As if she had just tempted fate, the Siren launched both torpedoes, carefully aimed at both the ship girls. Ayanami countered with her own as she leapt back further to avoid the blast, and Eugen threw up her shield.

The explosion was far larger than a torpedo's blast had any right to be. Eugen gritted her teeth as she skidded back on the water's surface.

That grimace turned into a grin. This might be more fun than she thought.

[Incoming air strike,] the fourth voice warned. [Get clear.]

Eugen heard the sound of plane engines.

A glance up at the sky showed a fleet of three planes approaching. No fool she, Eugen wisely got clear as they began their bombing run.

The explosions lit up the sea and were likely visible from far off. They blasted away the rain and caused large waves to emanate on the water's surface. Prinz simply chose to hover a couple of feet above the water surface.

A quick glance at Ayanami revealed that the agile destroyer was managing quite well. She was capable of taking on fights well above her weight class; she would be fine.

Eugen shifted her gaze to far at sea. An ordinary human would probably not spot it through the heavy rain, but there was a lone human shape, standing on the water in the distance.

Eugen returned her gaze to her opponent. Once the explosions cleared, the Siren was visible. She was charred in several places and her clothes were quite torn but –

Eugen's eyes widened. Before her eyes, the torn clothes began to mend themselves. In a matter of seconds, they were brand new again. "That's not fair," she complained.

"Ammunition depleted," the Siren said monotonously. "Recalculating tactics. Decision: melee focus."

Saying so, it dashed at Eugen with surprising speed, the red spear's point blurring towards her.

Eugen's left rigging opened its jaws and snapped shut on it. Undeterred, the Siren swept the yellow spear forward. The other jaw of her rigging locked around it as well.

There was a short struggle. The Siren was strong – Eugen would have been surprised if it wasn't – and what it did next surprised her. The Siren levered herself higher into the air and then let go of both spears, which promptly dematerialized. The Siren raised its arms, the spears once again materializing in her grip and stabbed them down like one would drive poles into the ground.

Eugen launched torpedoes at point blank range and let the shockwaves buffet her away. It caused her damage as well, but that was unavoidable.

[Eugen, disengage,] Grey Ghost said over their communicator.

"Trying," she retorted. The Siren ignored the damage the blast did to it and rapidly approached again.

Eugen fired another volley to keep her away. The Siren spun the yellow spear to block the attack and then raised the red one to parry Ayanami's surprise attack.

[I'm sending the second wave,] Grey Ghost warned. [Ayanami, fall back.]

[Hai,] was Ayanami's short response again. She imitated Eugen and launched torpedoes at point blank range, before retreating. Her torpedo firepower was significantly higher so the tactic caused quite a bit of damage to herself.

Bomber planes arrived again for another air strike. Eugen saw the machine gun on the Siren's right shoulder aim at the planes. She heard it click, empty. She saw the Siren raise the red spear before the bombs fell and the explosions obscured it from view.

*~B~*

All things considered, it was becoming a strange mission.

When the Siren signal was detected, an alert went out to the ships in the area. Sheffield was one of the two that was closest, so they headed out immediately. Prinz Eugen and Ayanami were sent from the base and they met up en route.

A plan was decided: Sheffield would disable the humans while the other three would engage the Siren. Of course, Sheffield knew better than to expect any plans to survive first contact with the enemy. Things were never so simple.

They arrived to see one of the warehouses with a hole in the side. Sheffield dematerialized her rigging and sneaked around to the hole. She was good enough at stealth that most humans would never see her coming, and even beings like Sirens would have to concentrate. She moved carefully, her footsteps light enough to not make audible sound. She kept a careful pace, skulking around containers to further back, estimating the field of vision of everyone present and making sure she stayed out of sight.

Fortunately, they were all looking at one singular thing so it wasn't too hard to get into position and fix a silencer to her gun barrel. Ready, she took a further look at the scene, soaking in the details.

She saw a blond man, several armed guards and a Siren standing around a captured yard worker. Why they hadn't killed him yet, she didn't know.

Sheffield quietly gave Prinz the order to fire and immediately bullets rained into the warehouse. The Siren moved to defend the magus and the other guards scattered.

The man retaliated by enshrouding himself in a purple cloak from an unusual Wisdom Cube, and then turning the Cube into a staff, from which he fired a massive lightning bolt.

So they were dealing with a magus. That would complicate things.

And yet that wasn't the most curious thing. The most curious thing was the sole survivor.

Sheffield clearly saw how the moment the magus counterattacked the black haired man had picked something up and run for it with unusual speed for a human. Three of the guards noticed him flee and followed, but their shouts of warning as they left went unheard in the din.

Sheffield herself used the din to shoot every remaining guard, accurately hitting them in the backs of the knee. Her bullets were filled with a potent tranquilizer – a unique make courtesy of Akashi – and the shot men went down instantly. She attempted to shoot the three that were leaving but missed.

She should have ignored them and just shot the magus, but she was unsure whether the bullets would affect him what with the potent magecraft he was displaying. She ran out of time as the thunder ended and she faced a dilemma.

Should she confront the magus and the Siren? No, he'd sent the Siren away to fight their assailants, so it would be just him. It would be the logical thing to do.

But if she ignored the possible killing of a bystander when she could still save them, the fact would get out. Ship girls were created to protect humanity; she couldn't just ignore that duty. Her Majesty would be displeased.

Having made her decision, Sheffield dashed off in pursuit before the magus noticed. The entire incident took place in a matter of seconds.

Upon returning to the heavy rain outside, Sheffield spent half a second considering where to go. If the man really was as calm as the Siren had said, then he must have known where the best way to go was. Deciding on her destination, Sheffield headed for the yard.

The maze wasn't easy to navigate since Sheffield wanted to stay hidden and retain her element of surprise. She walked slowly, alert, until she heard gunshots.

"Hey, did you hear that?!" she heard someone shout. Sheffield made her way towards the source of the sound.

What she expected to see was a dead worker, or signs of a struggle at the best.

She certainly did not expect to find the worker with a downed guard at his feet, and another pointing his large gun at the man.

"There you are, you son of a bitch," she heard the man with his back to her say. She tuned out whatever else he was saying, aimed at his right leg and fired.

The man flinched as he fell to his side, his gun firing wildly. Sheffield broke his goggles with a stomp as he passed out from the tranquilizer. Finally, she looked at the mystery man.

He had Asian features and slightly long black hair. The rain had matted it to his head, making it more apparent it was long enough to cover his blue eyes. He wore an unassuming uniform with the name tag 'Gudao Tanaka'.

Sheffield's eyes fell on his right thumb. Her eyes widened imperceptibly in surprise. Active magic circuits were just now dimming to nothing on his hand and his right thumb was caked in blood.

Clearly, he was no ordinary person. An undercover magus? Did such a thing even exist?

Sheffield stared at the man some more, trying to gauge what she could. He was breathing hard, but not too hard, and was staring right back, waiting for her to speak.

Finally she asked, "Who are you?"

"No one important. Who are you?" he shot back.

Recollecting what she had seen mere moments ago, Sheffield decided to test a theory.

"You cannot expect me to answer if you don't answer yourself," she said in Japanese.

"My name's right here and I'm pretty sure you've already seen it," he replied, also in fluent Japanese.

Trying Chinese this time, she said, "That does not tell me who you are."

"Like I said, no one important," he repeated, in Chinese as well.

Sheffield paused. Fluency in three languages wasn't uncommon, but he looked as though he hadn't realized they were shifting languages. Perhaps…

"An ordinary person," she began slowly, speaking Latin, "would not be able to take down three armed men on their own."

"Two," he corrected, and it took effort not to give anything away when he did so in the exact same language. "You took out the last guy – thanks – but we don't have time to chat. More are probably coming."

… This was unusual. English, Japanese and even Chinese she could accept, but Latin as well? Translation magecraft, perhaps? They weren't exactly uncommon.

"I took care of them," Sheffield answered, reverting to English. "They won't be walking anywhere for a while."

"… Did you kill them?" he asked.

Sheffield replied and only a moment later realized something was wrong.

She'd just given herself away to a stranger by accident. That never happened.

So she believed she was fully in the right for accusing Gudao Tanaka of having mental manipulation skills.

Gudao waved off her concerns and moved on to give her valuable information. Once again, Sheffield was surprised and not just a little alarmed at how she trusted a stranger at his word. There was something about him…

Sheffield carefully scanned Gudao's expression for any signs that he was not being truthful. She found none. He also sounded like he knew exactly what he was talking about.

How exactly did he meet a legendary witch from so many centuries ago? Sheffield knew about Servants, but she also knew about most grail wars and the man in front of her wasn't at all familiar.

The logical conclusion was that he was here under an alias. Could she trust him? And more importantly, should she trust him?

Deciding that it wouldn't hurt to at least relay the info he gave her, she contacted her allies. She'd only meant to tell Prinz Eugen and Ayanami since they were the ones directly fighting the Siren but they all heard.

[That aside, Sheffield, where did you get this information? Is it reliable?]

Sheffield paused once again to look at Tanaka Gudao one last time. And finally, she saw it.

Ah, there it is.

His eyes seemed empty and dull before. Covered as they were by his wet bangs, it was hard to tell there was something else, but this time, she saw it.

What she'd initially thought were the cold eyes of a magus were actually eyes that spoke of immense experience. Gudao Tanaka, whoever he was, had been through a lot. Sheffield had seen eyes like that before: on battlefield veterans. Specifically, veterans who, although deeply affected by long periods of warfare, had not grown jaded to what had driven them to the battlefield in the first place. Veterans who retained a reasonable amount of optimism, despite all they had been through.

She'd question why he looked like that later. For now, Sheffield decided to trust him at his word.

"It appears so," she finally said.

Sheffield didn't quite hear what Eugen said in response.

Her sharp senses blared a warning and she rushed at Gudao, knocking him to the ground.

A moment later, very large icicles – large, sharp icicles – pierced through a container to her left, passed through where Gudao had been standing and dug through one on the right.

"Tch. Seducing women to protect you again? That's just like you."

Sheffield stood up, eyes trained on the man who'd seemed to just float to the area, strange butterfly-patterned cloak spread out behind him.

She wasted no time and activated her rigging, firing her anti-air guns at the man. He was a magus borrowing a Servant's power; she would be surprised if he didn't survive this.

She had no idea just how unprepared she was. The magus seemed to just disappear and reappear right next to her. Sheffield prided herself on reacting fast, but she wasn't fast enough for this.

There was an odd misshapen blade in his right hand. The shape was hugely impractical. But he'd pulled it from nowhere so that must mean –

"RULE BREAKER!"

At the same time, Sheffield's guns swiveled and fired.

The result was a loud explosive noise, masking the sound of something else. Both the magus and the ship girl flew to either side and slammed through containers.

There was a second of silence and then the magus chuckled. It grew into loud cackles. "Did you really think someone as important as I wouldn't have countermeasures to deal with one of you weapons? I am a magus, one of the best. Of course I would have devised myself some way of surviving your guns. Admittedly, I may not have survived if I wasn't like this," he mused, standing up and inspecting himself. "Being a Servant is quite something. It does sting, though. That's annoying."

Undeterred, Sheffield stood to face him again. She had seemingly dematerialized her rigging in the crash, so she summoned it again.

… And nothing happened.

What?

She couldn't feel the connection to her ship. It was always there, from the moment she had been created, yet now, she could not.

The magus grinned. It didn't look quite sane. "So that's what Rule Breaker does to your kind. I'd wondered."

To her credit, Sheffield didn't waste long being shocked. After only a moment she made to fire her pistol.

The magus was faster. He slammed the butt of the staff on the ground again and a bolt of lightning blazed through the air and slammed into her pistol.

Sheffield quickly let go of the overheated weapon. It made a bizarre dulled thunk when it hit the ground, red-hot and deformed. "Ow," she muttered.

"None of that. Just stay there, I'll deal with you soon enough," the magus said, turning as Gudao got to his feet. "Finally. We meet again at last."

Gudao blinked. "… I've never met you in my life," he said.

For a moment, the magus looked confused. Eventually he shrugged. "Perhaps. Maybe you remind me of one of the starving kids. Feisty little brats, for how skin-and-bones they were."

Gudao went still. His demeanor changed to something Sheffield couldn't easily place. "… What? What starving kids? What did you do?" he asked harshly.

"Hmph. It's so like you to have the strangest sympathies. I needed fuel, of course, and what better fuel than human souls? I had to settle for some homeless children since those were the kind no one would miss. Tch. And I had to use so many of them. So inefficient."

Gudao seemed to be utterly lost for words.

"Seriously. One thousand just to power one measly low level Siren? Heh," the magus scoffed. "Highly inefficient. Truly the work of a third-rate–"

He stopped, frowning. "What? No. No, that's wrong. I'm not – I–"

Sheffield saw her chance and she took it without hesitation.

The very moment the magus was distracted, Sheffield leapt to her feet and charged him, drawing her dagger in one fluid motion.

Once again, she had unfortunately underestimated the versatility of the magus. Mere feet from him, a circle lit up on the ground below her and then there was a violent boom.

Some sort of mine spell exploded just underneath her. Pain shot through her entire body. Somehow, she hadn't gotten blown away, but the blast had stunned her, slowing her down.

A leg rose and slammed into her. This knocked her away. Hard. Sheffield hit the ground a good distance away, passing by Gudao and ending up behind him. Sheffield stumbled to her feet, wincing silently.

"Sneaky," the magus said. "You're a good fit for him. But did you really not think I would be prepared? I, a magus from the Age of Gods?"

"When you see it, fell the lighthouse," Gudao muttered just low enough that Sheffield could hear and immediately continued loudly, "No you're not. The Age of Gods is long over, and you're just a thing with no dignity. You're nothing like the Medea I know."

"And what would you know, you womanizing traitor?"

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing important. Just one thing: I'm going to make you pay."

And with that that cheesy boast … he tackled the magus.

The blond man sighed dramatically and easily sidestepped, holding out a foot to trip him. Gudao, however, was better than that. He did a small jump over the outstretched leg and instead of turning around, the moment he landed, he picked up speed and ran away.

The magus frowned. "As always, you're a cunning little weasel. Always trying to run."

Sheffield heard several clicking noises behind her. "Boss?" a voice said. "We can–"

"No," the magus interrupted. "That one is mine. You deal with that," he said, waving dismissively at Sheffield. "Do what you want, I care not."

The magus's cloak spread and his feet left the ground. "I can still see him," he said to himself. "Hmm. Was he always such a fast runner?"

He hovered off into the distance. Sheffield turned to whoever was behind her.

Apparently, while she had disabled most of the men in the warehouse, that was only half. There was a whole dozen other that she'd somehow missed. Ten were on the ground in a 5-3-2 formation, and two were standing on top of the containers at either side. All had guns trained on her.

That was a very embarrassing miscalculation. Sheffield had half a mind to punish herself like how Sirius was wont to do when she went back.

That's right: when. One Servant-empowered magus was troublesome. But a dozen armed men? While she was quite badly injured from a point blank explosion? Easy.

"'Do what you want', he says," one of them muttered. "Uh, hey, boss? Could we keep this one alive for a bit? I'd like to see what it's like."

Vaguely, Sheffield registered that her clothes were torn, and the long coat had been dropped at the side where the magus's initial attack had sent her crashing to.

"Son," another – the leader, judging by what the first had said – slowly replied, as if speaking to a child, "it will break your dick."

Mentally, Sheffield agreed: she undoubtedly would.

"Not if y'all hold her at gunpoint."

That wouldn't stop me.

"You really wanna beat your meat to a hunk of metal while the rest of us watch?" the leader asked bluntly.

"… Yeah, fair enough. Alright, let's see how much punishment it can take!"

All twelve guns fired.

Sheffield moved.

She jumped to her right with superhuman speed the moment they fired and they missed.

She landed with her feet on the side of the container to her right and ran along it. Simultaneously, she threw her dagger at a vanguard. It flew accurately, digging into his right leg and the man cried out in pain, stumbling down.

Sheffield ran until she was between the middle row and the rear guard and then kicked off.

Somersaulting horizontally, she kicked one of the middle row hard enough that he was sent flying forward, knocking over another vanguard. Sheffield twisted, slamming her heel into the head of the one in the middle. He crashed into a fifth. Two of the vanguard and the entire middle row were down.

Sheffield jumped again the moment her feet touched the ground, leaping at the container on the opposite side, dodging fire from the two above. She immediately kicked off the side she landed on, arms stretched above her head.

Reaching the sixth man, she grabbed him, levering herself around him and hammered her left shin into the neck of a seventh. A moment later, her right shin slammed into the other side of his neck. Now using the seventh as a lever, she spun, tossing the sixth at an eighth. Once she was on the ground again, the seventh's limp body spun like an errant leaf behind her.

Eight down, four to go.

Assuming a runner's crouch for the half second after she landed, Sheffield dashed at one of the two rearguards. She slammed her right knee into his groin. Hard.

As he went flying back several feet, Sheffield allowed herself a momentary vindictive thought: see? I did break your dick.

Spinning on her left foot, she slammed her right heel into the other rear guard. Grabbing his gun and that of the one who was sent flying – it had fallen out of his grip – Sheffield first ran a short distance to avoid more bullets from the two above. She made sure to trample over the faces of those who were still moving, took half a second to aim once she stopped and fired both guns.

The two above stumbled off their perches as their legs gave out, shot, and hit the ground headfirst.

Sheffield spent a second to take a slow breath, and methodically checked whether the men were still alive. Not that she cared; they were enemies after all, but HQ would want them alive for interrogation.

That done, she looked around, spotted the tall lighthouse and squinted. Gudao – that bizarre man who seemed to radiate trustworthiness – had said 'when you see it', but what was she looking for?

Against all better judgment, Sheffield brought a hand to her ear, keeping an eye on the lighthouse.

*~B~*

Enterprise took a slow breath.

From where she stood out at sea, she had quite a good vantage point. The roiling waves were a bit much even for most ship girls but it was just an inconvenience to her. She had very good vision too. So, in spite of the terrible conditions, she could see well enough.

She could make out the skirmish nearer to the coast, and in the distance, even make out much of the dockyard.

She took a second to focus and then aimed her bow again.

[Enterprise, come in,] Sheffield's voice sounded suddenly from her earpiece.

"Enterprise here, what is it?" she replied.

[I need you to do as I say. Ready the strongest shot you are capable of, and aim it at the base of the lighthouse. Of the four of us, you're the one strong enough to topple it.]

Enterprise frowned. "The lighthouse?" she repeated, staring at the structure. "Why?"

[It's a nice plan and all, Sheffy, but how exactly is that going to help us kill this Siren?] Eugen asked.

[It's not,] Sheffield answered, surprising Enterprise. [This is to help defeat the magus that brought it here.]

[… Sheffield,] Eugen began. Enterprise could hear the frown. [Is this your plan or your mystery informant's?]

As carefree as Prinz Eugen seemed most of the time, she was incredibly sharp too. Enterprise herself hadn't thought to ask, but Prinz had a point: who was it and why was Sheffield putting her faith in them?

[… It is as you say. I'll explain when we have time to. For now, just know that I have adequate reason to trust him,] Sheffield said.

[Wow, who is this? An old flame?] Prinz asked.

… This was why most never realized how sharp Prinz actually was. She made it sound like she never took anything seriously.

[No,] Sheffield answered shortly. [Enterprise, prime your shot. Prinz and Ayanami, make sure the Siren can't break off to assist the magus.]

[So just do what we were doing anyway, ja?] Prinz replied sarcastically. [Fine by me. The sooner this is over with, the sooner I can get back. And I'd just opened that 70 year old wine, too,] she grumbled. [I hope Laffey hasn't gotten her hands on it.]

[Don't worry,] Ayanami reassured. [It's not Laffey's type of drink.]

[And how would you know that? You never saw the bottle.]

[No, but I know Laffey, yes.]

Enterprise stopped listening, deciding that there was nothing else important coming. She looked at the lighthouse in the distance and took a deep breath.

The carrier adjusted her grip on her large bow, aiming it at the bottom of the lighthouse. She placed three fingers on the bowstring, closed her eyes and concentrated.

"Those Wisdom Cubes that power you? They're like huge batteries. They've got a capacity that very few of you have so far learned to fully use. Actually, I don't think any of you have fully learnt except maybe Mikasa but that's beside the point. The point is, you girls are capable of a lot more bang for your buck. You just have to figure out how."

Enterprise hadn't quite figured it out, but she was closer than most.

She concentrated, searching deep within herself. She visualized a full fuel tank, and tried to open a faucet.

She felt more than saw her right hand take on a light golden glow. Sparks flew between the fingertips. As she continued to concentrate the glow began to intensify. She felt the 'weight' of the energy in her hand and slowly drew the bowstring back.

Like a steady stream, yellow light flowed out of her withdrawing hand. It seemed to just stop at a point a little beyond the bow itself. The light intensified and solidified, forming a long cylindrical shape.

Errant sparks and smoke-like streamers of energy emanated from the tip of the now-recognizable arrowhead shape. Instead of the usual spade-like shape of an arrowhead, this arrow got thicker halfway up its length, and then tapered off near the end, reminiscent of a torpedo.

Enterprise made the final adjustments to the aim, taking the storm winds and heavy rain into account. "I'm ready," she said. Sheffield didn't say anything but Enterprise was sure she heard it.

Enterprise waited.

*~B~*

Atrum Galliasta saw Gudao run through a door.

It took a moment to recognize what door it was, but when he did, he started laughing madly.

The foolish boy had run directly into the lighthouse. A total dead end. Perhaps he wasn't Jason after all.

Maybe he was attempting to hide somewhere inside. Should he just destroy the entire thing? No, he couldn't just let Jason die like that. He had to do the deed personally.

Fly to the top and work his way down? No, there would be a chance, however small, of Jason noticing his approach and trying to escape.

The best choice would be to follow him from behind, cutting off his escape routes.

Atrum waltzed into the doorway. He glanced at the staircase inside. There was an elevator, but the model looked ancient. That, and it was still there on the ground.

Approaching the staircase the magus heard commotion from above. Something that sounded like running steps and also small crashes of objects being left behind to impede him. Atrum laughed at the absurdity. Such paltry things would never stop a Servant!

He decided to cut the knot and sent streamers of fire and lightning up the stairs. They flew at high speed, exploding against whatever objects were in the way.

It certainly wouldn't kill Jason. But they would certainly maim him, leave him incapable of running. Atrum didn't bother physically walking up the stairs and instead hovered up, crossing entire flights in seconds. He reached the top at a leisurely pace.

The boy saw him enter, and backed up towards the wall, squinting through the powerful beam from the lighthouse bulb.

Curious. He expected to find him earlier, not at the top. And despite his earlier attack, the boy was unharmed.

Well, that was only to be expected. Jason was wily, after all.

But wait. Why did Jason's nametag say he was Gudao?

Who was Jason anyway?

No matter. All he needed to know was that this boy in front of him needed to die at his hands.

"End of the line, boy," Atrum taunted. "There's nowhere to run."

The boy didn't respond, continuing to back up, arms behind his back. Was he concealing something? A crowbar, perhaps? As if that would help! Atrum was amused by the mere thought.

"It really amuses me how some people seem to lose the ability to make rational decisions when frightened enough," Atrum began, smiling. "They do stupid things like climbing to the top of a lighthouse in a desperate attempt to run. You voluntarily ran headfirst into a dead end while leaving no significant barricades or obstacles behind!" the magus laughed.

The boy smiled, looking quite nervous. "Well, what can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Whatever the case, you still just ran to your death! Well, I did order everyone at the docks be killed so I can't blame you for wanting to live a few more seconds. Still, those seconds are up, boy."

"Okay, first, I'm twenty-four, not a boy," the boy said. "Second, just shut up and take your best shot."

The magus shrugged, pointing the head of his large staff at him. The top-most gem began to glow with densely packed power.

"Now that I think about it, you're not quite like him," Atrum mused, unsure who exactly he was talking about. "You're both cowards, but he was a lot smarter."

"And how do you know I'm not still planning something?"

The magus narrowed his eyes, but dismissed the bravado. Whatever he had with him would not be effective on a Servant. Still, he'd wasted enough time, he decided. The staff-head glowed brighter.

A dense purple laser blasted out.

Which was somehow reflected at the light bulb, which promptly exploded.

Reflexively, Atrum held up an arm. He saw the object Gudao was holding.

A mirror? Where did he –

The moment he saw it, his mind crashed.

Atrum Galliasta's mental state was, in short, unhealthy. The prospect of using a Wisdom Cube to channel Servant abilities was brilliant in concept. All of the power and none of the troublesome personality attached.

The issue was, it was a very untested process. And Atrum was confident. If anything went wrong, a brilliant magus like himself would be able to work around it.

Atrum had no idea what he was getting himself into.

The Servant whose power he wanted to use was Medea, the Witch of Betrayal. From the moment he activated the Cube and began using its powers, Medea's thoughts and feelings – her negative thoughts and feelings – were invading and eroding his mind.

It was, simply put, driving him mad. And anyone who personally knew Medea of Colchis would be able to tell what was happening to the magus, whose mind was rapidly morphing into something else.

Gudao qualified.

When the mirror Gudao was holding had reflected Atrum's attack it had also shown Atrum something else. Something that pushed his already strained mind to the limit and broke it.

For a moment, in the chaos caused by the reflected attack, Gudao showed Atrum himself. Specifically, his own blonde hair.

But Atrum, as broken as he was, did not associate it with himself.

Instead, he recognized it as that hair.

His hair.

Atrum saw the image of a man he had never met in his life. He felt a deep-seated hatred he had never felt before. Logically, he knew those weren't his memories, but his fractured mind was no longer working on logic.

The simple reflection of a simple image superimposed itself onto the sudden tunnel vision he was experiencing. He didn't see double: he saw two separate things and his crazed mind put them together as one.

Standing before him was no longer Gudao Tanaka, someone reminiscent of a man he should not know.

It was the man himself.

"JAAAASOOOOOOOON!"

So enraged was he, that he initially did not notice Jason jumping out the open window.

No. He could not let that happen. He absolutely could not let that happen. He would not be robbed of a chance to brutally murder him by a mere fall.

Atrum spread his cloak and jumped right after him.

*~B~*

Enterprise stared in shock.

She had been able to make out – just – an altercation at the top of the lighthouse.

Something then happened which blew up the light itself.

And then the black-haired person jumped out of the tower.

Enterprise stared as he fell. There was something just below him. Something golden –

[Now!] Sheffield barked.

Startled out of her shock, Enterprise reflexively released the bowstring.

The arrow flew with the speed of a cruise missile. It struck true at the base mere seconds later.

There was a large explosion. Chunks of concrete flew everywhere. The lighthouse now had a large hole as if a majority of its base had been scooped out.

Gravity took over and the sheer weight of the building caused it to slowly topple.

*~B~*

"YOU'RE NOT GETTING AWAY, JASON!"

The magus flew out from the top and, veering sharply, zoomed down towards the falling Jason.

Too late. It was too late for him to notice what was wrong.

Jason had his right arm pointed in his direction, index finger and thumb outstretched. At the tip of his index finger, a ball of red-black energy swirled, growing stronger and stronger.

A magus?! Jason wasn't – wait who's –

"Gandr."

The bullet of energy shot out and splashed against the rapidly approaching Atrum. Caught entirely off guard, it was a shot impossible to miss.

On average, Gandr was a weak curse. It would barely affect someone with the powers of a Servant.

His Gandr, trained and enhanced by Medea herself, was significantly more effective.

It would paralyze anything and anyone for a few seconds, so long as they didn't have high Magic Resistance or moderate divinity, or the obvious exceptions of targets astronomically farabove Gudao in terms of power.

Using the power of a witch with divine blood he may be, none of the above applied to Atrum. He was just a mere human.

Atrum's limbs locked up. His muscles froze. He was rendered completely incapable of moving. Even his internal circulation of magical energy was disrupted. For a few seconds, he was totally helpless.

Those few seconds were enough.

A good distance below Gudao, a powerful bolt struck the lighthouse. The shockwave of the explosion buffeted at him, as he heard the slow rumbling of the building beginning to fall.

With his outstretched right hand, he grabbed onto Atrum's collar as the magus's momentum carried him closer. He pulled him to the left, twisting himself to hammer his feet onto the magus.

Reinforced legs slammed Atrum to the side of the falling building. With all the strength Gudao could muster, he pushed, pressing Atrum a few inches into the wall, then kicked off. Gudao sailed through the air in a large arc, reaching the water just where it was deep enough that the fall wouldn't kill him. He splashed down and strained himself to keep moving, swimming out of range of the falling building.

The lighthouse fell on its side. The upper chunk of it broke off when it hit the edge of the concrete ground and fell into the water with a large splash.

Tanking warship guns somehow was something. Being crushed between a falling building and solid ground was something else, especially when incapable of Reinforcement.

Atrum Galliasta was incapable of even screaming.

The rumbling crash of the building died down. Dust hadn't gone up from the collision, weighed down as it was by the heavy rain.

Gudao coughed, staring at the large wreck. "This is why you should have stuck to range," he muttered. "Idiot."

His left hand still had a death grip on his phone. The fingers of his right were unnaturally bent, however. Even with the best Reinforcement he was capable of, he counted himself lucky that he got away alive.

As the adrenaline wore off, he felt the throbbing pain from his right hand. And inside his chest. Gudao winced. "I think I broke a lot of ribs, too…"

*~B~*

Prinz Eugen wasn't sure exactly what had happened. But if her assumptions were correct, she was seriously impressed.

For a second, she just stared at the wreck that was formerly a lighthouse. Then she remembered her fight and returned her attention to the strange Siren.

Curiously, the Siren was also not attacking, choosing to stare at the wreck as well.

"Termination of local command unit confirmed," it finally said without inflection. "Commencing retreat."

Saying so, it just … sank. Like it suddenly stopped being able to stand on the water and just fell through.

"What–" Eugen began, rushing forward, and then she noticed the two objects that hadn't fallen through.

She raised her shield just in time to protect herself from the explosion of the torpedoes. They canceled out her forward momentum. When Eugen could see again, there was no trace of the Siren.

"Are you kidding me? That's so anticlimactic," she sighed. "We should have brought a sub…"

She inspected herself one last time: she was distinctly the worse for the wear, with several bruises and cuts – from the red spear. She managed to avoid the yellow one after Sheffield's warning. The Siren had kept trying to shake off Ayanami to go after Prinz, which was why Prinz was worse off between the two.

Prinz sighed again and looked out to near the wreck. Ayanami had already gone to help the mystery man out of the water and back to land. She looked at them as Ayanami carefully held the black haired man as she skimmed across the waves.

Despite her dissatisfaction with the battle, Prinz Eugen felt a smirk play on her lips.

"I like this one."

*~B~*

An hour, the storm had thankfully passed.

Police sirens blared as more and more cars entered the scene. Many were already parked inside.

Sheffield leaned against a container for support and watched as policemen cuffed the unconscious armed men and towed them into vans. Ambulances placed bandages over some of their faces, those who had had their noses broken by Sheffield.

Sheffield's gaze rested over a red haired man for a second. Apparently they had an insider in the yard, who had helped hide their cargo here while away due to 'sick leave'. She glanced at his nametag for a moment – Robert something – then promptly forgot about him.

Enterprise was explaining the incident to a local police chief. With them was a man dressed like an Azur Lane official. The police chief was holding one of the small objects found on the mooks' persons: a sort of syringe with a large, thick needle, connected to a small glass cylinder filled with a scant amount of crystalline red dust.

No one was sure what to make of it, but it probably had something to do with the strangely shriveled up corpses of the rest of the yard workers. They looked shrunken, as if everything but their skin and bones had been sucked out. It was either some foul magecraft or Siren technology - and if it was the former it would be excused as the latter.

Out on the water, Ayanami was diligently helping to remove debris. They had caused a lot of property damage this time. That was going to be a hassle to explain, especially since they did so at the behest of a third party.

Speaking of whom, Gudao Tanaka had somehow disappeared. Prinz had too, saying she was going to find 'that fascinating man'. Sheffield could tell where he was as well, but the police who'd searched that area said they found nothing unusual. Curious.

Her communicator beeped. [Sheffield, come in. How did it go?]

"We defeated the magus and his platoon, but the Siren got away," she explained shortly.

She heard the click of a tongue on the other end. [… Well, that's good enough. Any complications?]

"… Not anymore." The moment the magus had died, Sheffield could feel the connection with her ship restored, like nothing had happened.

There was something else, however…

"Not anymore," Sheffield repeated. "But…"

[A 'but' from you means a lot. What is it?]

"… What can you find on an individual named Gudao Tanaka?"

*~B~*

Said individual sighed, leaning back against the container.

He'd found a secluded spot in the maze of containers and sat down against one. Gudao was sure that the police would search here – in fact, they already did – but nobody noticed him thanks to the cloak.

He would have left already, but he had to sit and wait for his wounds to heal. Recuperating took a while, even with a little boost.

Gudao heard approaching footsteps and he glanced up. "Ah, there you are," a female voice said.

A young woman with long ash-grey hair was walking right at him. Since she could see him despite the cloak, it was an easy guess that she was one of the ship girls.

Her hairstyle looked familiar. It's a bit like Ishtar's, Gudao mused. Judging by her uniform she was from the Ironbloods.

One of her bangs was red and looked sharp. Her red eyes looked a little like what he saw in himself when he looked in the mirror. Her uniform – if it could be called one – was mostly dark grey with red sleeves and open on the sides of her chest. He'd seen stranger fashion so he paid it no mind.

The woman sauntered up to him. "So," she began, a slight German accent on her words, "you're Sheffy's mystery man."

Gudao made a show of looking at himself curiously. "Last I checked, I wasn't very mysterious," he said.

"The cloak you're wearing right now says otherwise, Herr Tanaka. Or do you prefer Gudao?"

"Either's fine," he replied. "Can I help you with something, miss…?"

"Hmm? Oh just call me Jenny or something."

It was obviously a fake name. 'Jenny' was most likely poking fun at the fact that Gudao himself was using an alias and since he wasn't divulging his name, she wasn't either.

"Sure. So, what can I help you with, Miss Jenny?" Gudao repeated.

"Well," she said, sitting down opposite him, "I wanted to know who exactly was crazy enough to think of dropping a building on someone."

"Nobody," he replied automatically.

'Jenny' rolled her eyes. "Sure thing, Ulysses."

"Ulysses's whole thing was outsmarting whoever he came across," he pointed out. "And that's kind of what I did. The guy was way too strong for me to fight directly so I tricked him."

The woman scoffed. "It only worked because it was such a crazy idea."

"Exactly," he agreed. "And besides, falling from heights has always worked out for me," he added in a mutter.

The woman stared at him incredulously. "What are you, an ex-diver?" she demanded.

"No."

"Well, whatever. I have to ask, though, what if it didn't work? I got the gist of it from Sheffy, and sounds like this Atrum guy was an idiot," she said bluntly.

"Not an … okay, he was, but he also crazy," Gudao said, but didn't further elaborate.

"How did you know how to play him when you had allegedly never met him before? Was this because of that Servant thingy he did to himself? Are you some sort of mind-reading magician?"

"Magus," he corrected.

"Not you too," 'Jenny' grumbled. "What's the difference?"

"And no, I can't read minds. I just … figured out his deal and worked around it."

"How?" she asked.

"I'm going to refuse to answer that, sorry."

The woman hummed non-committedly. "Did you know the Siren was going to run away when the other guy died?"

"No, actually. I figured you girls would take care of it. I was just thinking about taking Atrum out," Gudao answered honestly.

"That's a lot of trust to put in people you've never met before."

He shrugged. "It's what you're good at."

"Being 'good at it' didn't stop the Siren from running away. Seriously, what a let-down…" she trailed off. A second later, she looked directly at him. "Speaking of trust, how did you get Sheffield to instantly trust you?"

The playful tone she'd had until now all but vanished. She was completely serious now. "What did you do, hypnotize her?"

'If you did…' was unsaid but the threat was clear.

"I wouldn't even if I knew how," Gudao answered, frowning. "And the trust went both ways. She could've just not listened to me. I didn't know for sure she would."

"… And you still pulled that stupid stunt?"

"It worked, didn't it?"

The woman's red eyes bored into him for a second, then shrugged. "I can't argue with the results," she commented.

Gudao shrugged too. "Maybe I just got lu–"

"No," the woman interrupted. "No, you did not just get lucky."

She said those last words coldly, almost disdainfully. The conversation died after that.

The next few minutes were spent in relative silence. Gudao noted that his injuries had stopped hurting. He could just leave soon and put all this behind him. He didn't want to get dragged into something huge, not again. An incident involving a Siren Demi-Servant was too much like the attention-grabbing first quest of RPGs to not lead to something a lot bigger.

'Jenny's communicator beeped. She put her hand to her ear. "Yeah, it's me. Everything went fine. Ish. I'll tell you after I've downed a bottle."

There was a pause and she smiled. Gudao noted it was quite different from the ones she'd shown him in their conversation: this one seemed sincere. He didn't voice it, of course. "Did I ever tell you you're the best?" she said.

Another pause and the smile turned into a sly smirk. "Get a new script, sister,' she said. "The stock tsundere lines are getting old."

The loud "HUH?!" in response was audible even to Gudao. Unconcerned, 'Jenny' sang "Bye~!" and hung up. "Sisters, huh?" she said out loud.

"Wouldn't know, I've never had younger siblings."

"Right. Younger."

Gudao was about to stand up when he heard more footsteps. He looked in that direction as 'Jenny' waved. "Oh, hey, Sheffy," she greeted. "We were just talking about how weird it was that you trusted him so easily."

The ship girl he'd met earlier stared at him impassively. Seriously, Nightingale emoted more than her, Gudao mused.

"You're right," Sheffield agreed. "It is strange. Who are you?" she asked directly.

Gudao raised an eyebrow. "I believe you already know my–"

"Gudao Tanaka did not exist a week ago," Sheffield interrupted. "And I highly doubt you are a week old homunculus. You are a veteran of some sort who has translation charms."

Gudao frowned. "How did you know I have translation charms?"

"I didn't. You just confirmed it."

Gudao winced silently. He'd fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book.

"I switched languages four times in our initial conversation," Sheffield continued. "You did not notice."

Gudao sighed. "Stupid adrenaline," he muttered.

"And I have not completely ruled out that you are capable of manipulative magecraft and are just hiding it."

"Not doing either," he replied, feeling a little irritated that he was being repeatedly suspected of such.

"Another thing occurs to me," Sheffield went on. "How did you know I was a ship girl?"

Gudao sighed again. "It was the way you said 'humans'," he explained frankly. "Like you weren't one yourself. And given that I'd just seen a couple of Wisdom Cubes…" He shrugged. "Lucky guess?"

He missed the Ironblood girl's light frown at 'lucky'.

"You do realize that you've only raised more questions about yourself," Sheffield said.

"Questions I can refuse to answer," Gudao replied, standing up.

Sheffield briskly walked closer and put a gun to his head. "No, you cannot. This is not a mystery we can leave unsolved. You are clearly withholding a lot of valuable information. If not us, you will answer to our superiors."

Gudao glanced back. "If you had a spare, why didn't you use it back then?"

"That handgun was my spare," Sheffield answered. "I borrowed this one from a policeman and I intend to give it back when we l–"

She broke off for a moment. Then she looked sharply, her visible eye narrowed. Her facial expression did not change, but it was clear she was angry. "This is exactly what I'm talking about," said Sheffield sharply. "Not once but twice have I told you more than I intended to. I will ask once more and then you will meet with our superiors: who are you?" The gun clicked to emphasize her question.

"Oh she mad," Gudao heard Jenny mutter.

Gudao himself wasn't very concerned. It was almost funny: guns were supposedly more dangerous, but after everything he had been through, melee weapons got a greater reaction out of him.

"You're not going to shoot," Gudao said flatly. "At least, not at me."

"How would you know?"

"Not because of some mind control like you're thinking. Seriously, stop that. I don't like being accused of that."

"She has a point," 'Jenny' piped up. "How do you know?"

"All of you came here to fight a Siren. You especially," he said, indicating Sheffield with a look, "went out of your way to save me, a bystander. At the risk of sounding cheesy, you're good people. So no, I don't believe you'll actually shoot me."

"… If that's what you think," 'Jenny' continued, "there should be no harm in at least telling us your real name, ja? Tell you what, you tell us yours, and I'll tell you mine."

"So you're not actually named Jenny?" Gudao remarked, as deadpan as he could manage. The Ironblood woman gave him an amused look. A few seconds later, Gudao sighed. "Fine, fair enough," he relented. I'm going to regret this, I know it. "My name's Ritsuka Fujimaru. Can I go now?"

Jenny glanced at Sheffield for confirmation that he wasn't lying. To her surprise, Sheffield's visible eye narrowed and she lowered her gun.

"… Admiral Hipper-class heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen," 'Jenny' finally said. "See you around sometime, Herr Fujimaru."

"I hope not," the black-haired man muttered, nodded and walked away.

Sheffield and Eugen watched him walk away for a while.

Once he was out of earshot, Prinz turned to the other ship girl. "Did you notice, despite the heavy rain and the insane dive, he wasn't wet at all?"

Sheffield nodded. "Alright, spill," Prinz said. "You clearly knew the name. Who is he?"

"I know very little and what I do know isn't really valid anymore with the Mage Association in ruins," Sheffield cautioned. "It does explain how he knew the Servant whose powers the magus used; apparently he's very compatible with Servants and that knowledge has to come from somewhere."

For a second Prinz stared. "You're doing it again, you know," she eventually said. "You're assuming I know what those terms mean without actually explaining anything."

Sheffield did not quite sigh. She did, however, sharply exhale. "Ironbloods," she muttered. "It matters not. The Directors will know better."

"It's quite impressive how you've said four or five sentences and yet completely failed to answer my question."

Sheffield gave Eugen a dry look. She returned it unflinchingly.

"Fine," Sheffield sighed. "Do you at least know what a Sealing Designation is?"

*~B~*

"Trust humans to muck up something so simple," Observver Alpha muttered, watching a recording of the event. "What part of retreat the moment Azur Lane arrives is so hard to get?"

She shrugged; a very human action, a habit she'd picked up over the years. "I suppose you can blame that Cube for quite literally driving him crazy."

She turned her attention to another screen, showing the Siren the human magus had named Lancer. "I wonder if I should help that lost child," she pondered, then dismissed the thought. "No, no need, she's found somewhere to go."

Observer Alpha sighed. "Not quite a failure I suppose…"

*~B~*

[Sorry, can you repeat that?]

Enterprise blinked. "Um, Sheffield told me to tell you that the name of the man who aided us was Ritsuka Fujimaru."

That was literally everything Sheffield had said. She'd claimed that she wasn't clear on the details herself, that there were others who could explain it better.

Enterprise would have just tried to explain what she did know anyway, but Sheffield wasn't one for vagueness. If she wasn't sure of something she just wouldn't say it.

She had said that 'the Directors would know' and sure enough, they did react.

Enterprise heard a mutter on the other side. [… So that's where he was. I didn't even think to look there…]

"… Ma'am?" Enterprise tried.

[Right, sorry. Okay. Enterprise, are you still on site?]

"I am."

[Good. I want you to stay there for now. If nothing else comes up, I want you to escort Fujimaru to HQ tomorrow morning.]

"Understood. But can I ask something?"

[Go ahead.]

"Who is this Fujimaru? Sheffield didn't explain why he was so important."

[Sorry, but I'd rather explain once I've met him again. All I'll say for now is that if we can secure his aid, it will be invaluable.]

"I can live with that," Enterprise decided.

[Are you sure?]

"Yes, ma'am."

[Look, I know I'm asking a lot –]

"It's fine, really," Enterprise assured her. "I can just take this chance to see my sisters tomorrow."

[Thanks, Enty. Stay safe out there!]

"I'll do my best."

[I'll sic Vestal on you otherwise~!]

Enterprise flinched as if whipped. "R-Roger that," she responded, a bit weakly, then cut the call.

Really, she could never get used to the inventor's rapid mood swings.

Right, now where was the nearest hotel…?

*~B~*

Leonardo da Vinci leaned back in her chair and sighed.

She was not cut out for even being a Vice-Director for so long. She'd be much happier tinkering in her workshop.

Maybe I can foist some of the paperwork on Fujimaru when he's back, she thought idly.

She couldn't afford to waste too much time, however. Sitting up again, she pressed a few buttons.

She had a call to Azur Lane High Command to make.

*~B~*

Disclaimer: I do not own Azur Lane or any Nasuverse property.

Further disclaimer: I haven't played Azur Lane. Yet.

This isn't because of not wanting to play. There isn't enough space on my tab. I literally can't right now. Even if I deleted FGO – which I am not willing to do ever – there wouldn't be enough space. I need to wait until I get a memory card around … some time this month.

So until then, my experience with Azur Lane comes from:

Slow Ahead, Queen's Orders, Comic Anthology

Half the anime and discussion threads for the rest

Wiki browsing

Months of reddit browsing.

So basically, not much. I'm very liable to make mistakes. I will gratefully accept corrections should they need to be made. Even if this one will delve more into the Nasuverse side of things.

Why did I write this then? Partly to put down a particularly persistent plot bunny, and partly to get back into writing.

To those who are familiar with my other massive fic that hasn't been updated for almost eight months: no I have not abandoned it. I won't say anymore here because it's not the place for it, but expect an update this week or next.

As for this fic: tentatively I have decided on a monthly schedule. So Ch2 sometime next month or, if lucky, by the end of this month. This chapter took me a bit over a week to write after all.

Anyways, that's that. Oh, and just for reference, the appearances for the ship girls used are:

Ayanami's retrofit

Sheffield's Cloak & Dagger skin

Enterprise and Prinz Eugen's base outfits.

Well, we're done for today. So,

Punitor567 out. El Psy Congroo.

Especially for crossovers, canon is just a guideline.