AN: Guest: Well, Uminari's fine...

Ghost of Los Angeles: Aww, thank you! Seriously, thank you for the compliments.

For an actual AN, yes, I'm aware that I'm probably horribly mangling a certain sequence of events here. Lyrical Nanoha fans will see what I mean. As I said a while back, it's been a hot minute when I watched A's. So... sorry for mangling it?

Signum lunged forward to try and get to Hayate, but her momentum was arrested by Zafira grabbing her from behind – quickly joined by glowing green binds from Shamal when that only slowed her down. Nanoha ignored that struggle in favor of switching Raising Heart to her Shooting Mode. She aimed the twin prongs at the front of the Device down at Uminari.

"Divine Buster Extension," she whispered, careful to not actually gather any power. The scope that appeared on the shaft of her Device was what she wanted.

Peering down it, Nanoha found a house in smoldering ruin, and floating above it an indistinct figure in mostly dark purple with a smattering of silver for (probably) hair. A figure that abruptly vanished in a flash of light.

"Master, incoming teleportation!" Raising Heart warned.

Too late. With a flash, the much more distinct figure appeared in the center of the ragged half-circle formed by Vita, Nanoha, and Shamal in a line with Signum and Zafira on point. The young mage took her in: silver hair. Black, ragged wings. Dark purple dress with gold trim. Way too many belts wrapping around the legs. And a bland, stoic expression with eyes not looking at anything.

Behind and to her right, Zafira growled at the figure, "Who are you?" at the same time Vita and Signum, brandishing their weapons, all but shrieked, "What did you do to Hayate?!"

"I am the Will of the Book of Darkness," the figure intoned. Robotic. Lifeless. "Hayate is safe. Locked within the Book where nothing can ever harm her." Her eyes scanned over the Wolkenritter. "Guardian Knights of the Book of Darkness, your services are no longer required."

Howling with rage, Vita and Signum rushed the Will, weapons raised. Zafira and Shamal summoned magic circles, spells imminent. Nanoha brought Raising Heart up, power gathering to fire off the Divine Buster Extension she'd half-prepared.

The Will was faster than all of them. The Book appeared in her hands, opened to a page, and manifested dark tendrils that reached out, grabbing the Wolkenritter. Before they could react, the tendrils retracted, sucking them in.

"Divine Buster Extension!" Nanoha cried out. "Shoot!"

The beam shot out – and splashed harmlessly against a dome barrier cast so fast that Nanoha didn't even see the change. Though the Extension was weaker than a normal Divine Buster, it should have still done something. Yet the young mage felt no fear. Just anger, hot and bitter on her tongue.

"Why?!" she demanded of the Will. "Why did you do that? There was no reason! They were happy! Safe!"

"Incorrect. Mistress will be safe only once all threats have been eliminated."

"Threats?!" Flailing, Nanoha pointed at herself. "I'm her friend! And-And Earth isn't even magical! I might be the only mage on the planet!"

"Irrelevant. Mistress must survive."

"And how is she going to live?!"

Silence fell, broken by Nanoha panting. But only briefly.

"This conversation is pointless," the Will declared, closing her eyes. "Bring forth spears and infuse them with blood. Drill through, Bloody Dagger."

Flier Fin active, Nanoha rocketed into the sky as a ring of daggers sailed underneath her. Already, she had a plan. If Divine Buster would just be caught on another barrier…

Banking around another spread of daggers, Nanoha fired off a spread of Divine Shooter bullets, followed shortly by a Restrict Lock. By now the Will had floated up into the air herself, and while the bullets impacted another barrier, the rings of the binding spell clamped down on the Will around all but the arm she'd used to cast the barrier.

"Flash Impact."

It was that same arm that caught Raising Heart by the shaft. But it seemed the Will hadn't gotten any information from absorbing Vita.

"Detonation."

Otherwise she might've reacted before getting engulfed in a pink explosion.

Nanoha took the opportunity to get some distance, aiming Raising Heart. "Divine… Buster!" she cried out. Hopefully the Flash Impact blast had stunned the Will long enough to sneak the beam through.

Alas, it was not to be. Her Divine Buster once again was met with a barrier. And right before her eyes, the Will intoned "Bind Break" and the rings around her limbs shattered.

Nanoha was already on the move, prepared for another spread of daggers. She did not expect chains to shoot out from the Will and attempt to wrap around her. Nanoha shot up- and the chains clamped shut over her ankle.

"Oh no!" she yelped, trying desperately to remember Raising Heart's months-old lessons on breaking binding spells. Too late. Dread pooled in her stomach, magical energy assaulted her senses, and she looked up to find the Will's arm raised, a swirling orb of darkness gathered over her palm.

"Diabolic Emission."

"Wide Area Protection."

Nanoha managed to get her shield up in time to catch the spell on it.

It only helped a little.

~o~

Awareness returned to Hayate Yagami. Not fast, not slow. As if waking up after sleeping in a bit. She sat up, rubbing her eyes.

And froze as the memories of the last few minutes crashed down on her. Her knights. Their mission. The Book, and all it did when filled. Oh, and she was stuck in a featureless black void with no apparent way out and her legs still not working, so that was a problem, too.

Wherever she was, the only spot of color was a person. A woman with long silver hear wearing a black minidress and a long stocking on her right leg. At Hayate's stirring, the person turned around to face her, an expression equal parts sad and resigned written on her face.

"Go back to sleep, Master," the figure said in a kind but sad voice. "Escape this tragedy."

"W-What's going on?" Hayate asked instead. "What tragic reality? Who are you?"

"I am the Will of the Book of Darkness. The Master Program, the guiding intelligence." A sigh. "Or I was, once. Careless mages tampered with my programming, and now the Book's Defense Program is in control. It seeks nought but the destruction of anything that might be a threat. Down to the very planet – and its own Mistress."

Hayate gasped. "That's… That's awful! And you've-"

"I've watched," the Will stated, voice hitching. "Over and over again, unable to do anything no matter how much I wished to. I gave no thought to my Masters, for they deserved their fates, but so many innocent people…"

The Will angrily swiped away tears. "So please, Master: go back to sleep. Dream happy. Escape, for a little longer, the cruel fate of this world."

For a moment, silence reigned. And for a moment, it looked like Hayate might agree.

"No."

The Will blinked, clearly taken aback. "I beg your pardon?"

"No," Hayate repeated. Slowly, she gathered her feet under her. "I know what you want me to do. Maybe I would be happy. But it wouldn't be real."

"Master, the Defense Program cannot be stopped. I have tried, many times," the Will retorted. "There is nothing anyone can do. Please, go back to sleep!"

"And I said no!" Hayate fired back. And at those words, she stood. "You said you cared nothing for the previous Masters, but you brought me here. You want me to be safe. I'm different from everyone who came before, aren't I? How many others would you have willingly worked with?"She took a hesitant step towards the stunned, frozen Will. Then another. And another. "I am the Mistress of the Book of Darkness. The Book must do what I say!"

One last step put her in front of the Will. And she smiled.

"Though I'd really prefer working together to kick out that stupid Defense Program. What do you say?"

Sniffing, the Will wiped her eyes again and nodded. She held out her hands palms up in clear invitation. And Hayate, smiling, took them.

Information flowed through her. The Book, its spells, how it operated… the memories of her knights… and when Hayate stepped back, it was with far more assurance. Her clothes had transformed into a black and gold minidress under a long white jacket, a floppy white hat sprawled on her head. Three sets of black wings sprouted from her back, and an ornate golden staff rested in her right hand.

"Alright, Reinforce, let's do this!" Hayate declared.

"R-Reinforce? Do you mean me?" the Will stammered.

"Yup! 'The Will of the Book of Darkness' is way too much of a mouthful, and also pretty bland. And since you reinforce me with the Unison…"

A pause. Then…

"I like it. Thank you, Hayate."

Hayate beamed a second longer, then turned serious.

"Alright, first we need to take back my body," she declared. Reaching out with her magic and her will, she grasped the cursed programming the Book had inserted and metaphorically yanked. The Defense Program's control receded, but not entirely. Only enough to freeze her body in place.

"I believe a heavy magical shock to the Defense Program will allow us to regain full control," Reinforce remarked.

Hayate, who had just been looking through her own eyes again, gulped audibly. "Think that'll do it?"

Puzzled, Reinforce also looked. And had to suppress several Belkan swear words.

"Hayate, just so you know, that is going to hurt."

"Figured…"

~o~

Nanoha tumbled, uncontrolled, out of the sky. Smoke trailed off of her from the burned rents in her dress, and one of her pigtails had come undone, her auburn hair trailing loosely in the wind.

Gasping, Nanoha let out several hacking coughs and righted herself, taking stock of her injuries. She could feel livid burns on her face and under the rests in her dress, and her whole body ached as bad as the morning after her fight with Vita. None of it was debilitating, though, and she could still fight.

A good thing, too. She looked up, and hastily threw herself to the side as a shard of what looked like pure darkness the size of an especially large tree shot past her before hitting the ground with an almighty crunching sound. Nanoha initiated a series of random maneuvers, which let her evade more of those Bloody Daggers, and as she did she glanced down at the earlier spell's impact point.

There was a rent in the earth big enough to swallow up a building. And not a small one.

"Meep."

No, Nanoha could and would fight. The question was how, if she wanted to actually win. Her opponent was not fast or tricky; she stood in place and had only cast five spells. But those spells were very powerful and cast very fast, and nothing she'd thrown at the Will had done any apparent damage.

Another spread of daggers flew toward her, and as she evaded Nanoha began charging up a Starlight Breaker. It was the only spell of hers she hadn't tried, and more importantly her strongest. That the air was saturated in mana from the Diabolic Emission was icing on the cake. Chains lashed out again, but now the young mage was expecting them, and she shot up and out of the way – and right into the path of a dragon! A sinuous, red, and very large dragon whose open maw was about two seconds away from biting down on her.

Nanoha hastily rolled to the left, firing off her "Starlight Breaker!" at the thing. The beam engulfed its head and disintegrated it, and it vanished into particles of magic.

Panting, Nanoha was given no time to recover. More of the daggers screamed in. The young mage grit her teeth, even as she took off into another set of random evasive maneuvers. She needed more power. And a moment unmolested, but mostly more power. Vita had had those magical bullets – cartridges, that's what they were called – and oh what she wouldn't give for Raising Heart to have such a system. The only thing Nanoha could come up with instead was a good deal crazier.

"Raising Heart, unseal Jewel Seed, Serial XVI," she ordered, still flying evasive. She winced as one dagger grazed her back, though thankfully it didn't cut through the inner layer of her dress.

"Affirmative."

The Seed came out of Raising Heart's head, and Nanoha reached out and grabbed it. Immediately, it responded to her desires, glowing with activated power. A lot of power, all of it flowing out in the usual uncontrolled manner of the Jewel Seeds. It took everything Nanoha had to contain it, something not helped by the sizzling sound and burning feeling in her hand. Howling, she slammed it against the haft of Raising Heart, where it settled into the metal and calmed down.

"Jewel Seed fusion complete. New designation: Raising Heart Exelion." A pause. "Master, are you alright?"

"Hurts…" Nanoha whimpered. Her hand quivered in pain, a Jewel Seed-shaped burn seared into her palm. She tried to grasp Raising Heart, but with a gasp she pulled her hand away. It hurt too much.

A glove shimmered to life over her hand, black with blue lines tracing the finger bones. Gingerly, Nanoha tested her grip. It stung, but the worst of the pain was gone.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Nanoha looked around for further attacks. Nothing.

"What's she doing?" she wondered. Brow furrowed, she glanced up to where the Will had last been.

And where she currently was, frozen with one arm outstretched and a rictus of concentration on her face.

"Huh." Nanoha grinned. "Alright, let's go! Raising Heart, Exelion Mode!"

"Affirmative."

Raising Heart's head changed again, wrapping around to a triangular spearhead with the shrunken control gem in the center at the end of the shaft. A thin blade of energy stretched out along the centerline, and flaring out from the base of the spearhead were what looked like vents.

"Charge!" Nanoha ordered. At the command, pink wings sprouted both from the vents at the base and two new ones along the sides of the sprearhead. All four flared with magic, and Nanoha rocketed toward the Will faster than she'd ever gone.

Despite the fact that the Will couldn't move, evidently she could still cast. A shimmering barrier sprang up between them, absorbing the tip of the spear and stopping it with barely an inch penetration.

Nanoha's smile didn't shift a millimeter.

"Exelion Buster! Break Shoot!"

A ball of energy bloomed on the spear tip, shrank, and then fired as a ravening beam of energy that caught the Will full-on. Then it exploded.

Panting, Nanoha floated back, warily eyeing the smoke cloud left behind. Her left leg spasmed, right around the knee joint. But that was ignored when the young mage heard a dainty cough inside the smoke. She didn't dare believe, though, until the smoke cleared enough to show Hayate's silhouette. And it was Hayate's.

"Hayate!" Nanoha cried, flying into the brown-haired girl in a tackle-hug that almost knocked her out of the air. "You're alright!"

"It was a little hairy there for a bit," Hayate admitted, before wincing as the ongoing hug pressed against something tender. "Jeez, Nanoha, you hit like a truck."

Nanoha didn't reply in words. She just hugged harder. This lasted for another minute or two before she pulled away.

"What did you do, exactly?" she asked.

"Well, I got in touch with the Book's Master Program, and it turns out she isn't any more on board with the whole 'destroying the planet' thing as either of us. Now we're friends and she helped me kick out all the bad programming that was causing all this," Hayate explained, before indicating her staff. "Nanoha, meet Reinforce. Well, technically, she's unisoned with me, so we're the same person, but the staff is easier to talk to."

Nanoha turned to the staff and bowed politely. "Nice to meet you, Reinforce."

"A-Ah, likewise," Reinforce stammered through the staff. It was surprisingly cute.

Sadly, the moment was broken by a deep-throated, distant roar. Both girls turned seaward, where a hideous mismatch of animal parts could be seen rising above the water.

"What is that?!" Nanoha yelped.

"That's the bad programming I kicked out. It's the Book's defense program," Hayate answered. "It's the real enemy here. But to beat something like that, we'll need help."

Hayate closed her eyes, and glowed with magic. To Nanoha's astonishment all four Wolkenritter shimmered back to life – and immediately fell to their knees.

"Master- Hayate," Signum bit out. "We have disobeyed your orders, worked behind your back in secret, and in doing so, we have become the cause of this situation. We await whatever punishment you deem fit."

Silence, stretching on, and on-

"Oh, stand up, you silly geese," Hayate said, smiling. "You're all forgiven. You were just trying to save me the only way you knew how. I can't punish you for that. Especially when we've got a runaway Defense Program to tackle. Just don't make a habit of it, okay?"

The Defense Program roared again, drawing the Wolkenritter's attention to that hideous monstrosity.

"Heheheh…"

All eyes snapped to Vita, right as she threw her head back and laughed.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

It was a deep laugh, right from the belly, but it wasn't one of mirth. It was one of relief.

"Finally!" she declared, hefting her hammer with an ear-to-ear grin on her face. "No more sticky moral questions! No more guilt! Just a big monster to smash!"

"I find myself in agreement," Signum decided, drawing her sword with a smile on her face. "A simple problem to be solved with force is quite welcome."

"Okay, you battle maniacs, don't go charging in yet," Hayate cut in, deadpan. "Zafira, go put up a phase barrier before someone calls the JSDF. Shamal, Nanoha's injuries."

"Injuries?!" Shamal exclaimed in great offense as Zafira took off. Nanoha instinctively cringed back as the blonde stalked up to her.

"I-I'm fine!" she tried.

"Nanoha."

Nanoha turned to Vita, who wore the most uncharacteristically serious expression she'd ever seen on the diminutive hammer-wielder.

"Don't argue with the medic, okay?"

Nodding, Nanoha didn't protest as Shamal ran a glowing spell – probably a diagnostic spell – up and down her body. Aside from a sharp tsk when it passed over her right hand, Shamal said nothing until she was finished.

"Alright, let me fix up your hand," she declared, bringing another glowing spell over the burned limb. "I'd love to fix up the rest, but worst-case you'll only be sore and stinging for a few days. This fight takes priority."

Nanoha nodded. The pain steadily receded from her hand, and when Zafira reported back that the barrier was up the pain was gone entirely. Her hand was still a livid red when she took the glove off, though, and it itched horribly.

"That's normal," Shamal said when that was pointed out to her, after they all took flight. "Just treat it like a sunburn!"

That brief bit of levity did not change the fact that it was a grim group that slipped through Zafira's phase barrier to confront the Defense Program.