AN: Ghost of Los Angeles: Whew! Glad I pulled that off.
Someone64: Oh, I hope to reach that point as well.
Guest: A lot of houses are going to get blown up in this fic, don't worry.
Anyway... yeah, this one's late. It fought me every step of the way. I think I've got it right, though.
Nanoha passed through Zafira's phase barrier, between Vita and Shamal, and gasped in disgust. The Defense Program, half in the water, was even more hideous up close, a mish-mash of animal parts from octopoid tentacles to reptilian scales to parts from animals she couldn't even name. Ironically, the sheer amount of stuff onthe thing meant it wasn't that scary; there were only so many hideous spines and oozing pustules and mouths and eyes in the wrong places the mind could process before it started ignoring them. Instead, her attention was drawn to Zafira, who was flying rings around the tentacles it was trying to swat him with.
"Alright, ladies, here's the plan," Hayate announced. "We have a pretty simple objective: find the Defense Program's processing core, expose it, and destroy it. Shamal, go join Zafira and lock it in place. Nanoha, Signum, Vita, you and I are going to charge up the biggest spells we have. Once it's pinned, we blast it, and hopefully that'll expose the core."
Shamal nodded and flew off to join Zafira, while Vita scoffed.
"That's it?" she said. "Just blast it until it gives up?"
"I do not believe that this is an enemy that requires sophisticated tactics to beat," Signum stated, dry as the Sahara heat.
Looking at the Defense Program try to swat down Zafira – completely physical, no spells whatsoever – Nanoha couldn't help but agree. The big swings were so telegraphed even she could read the pattern well in advance. Abruptly, Zafira switched from lazy evasion to an attack. Glowing blue spikes rained down on the Defense Program, nailing it in place, while Shamal, just arriving, conjured up her glowing green ribbons and wrapped up the limbs. It was well and truly trussed up, and this with none of the trouble Nanoha had had fighting its human-sized from.
"Huh. You're right. Figured it'd be fighting smarter than this," Vita remarked.
"Reinforce and I ripped out all its spells when we kicked it out, so it's just a big, dumb target," Hayate remarked, a vicious grin on her face. She held her hand out. "Resound, horn of the end!"
A triangular spell array flared to life below Hayate, terminating in sub-circles at the corners and pointed down at the Defense Program. Flanking her, Signum and Vita brandished their weapons. Cartridges rammed home, in the base of the blade in Signum's case.
"Graf Eisen, Gigantform!"
Vita's hammer shifted shape, becoming flat-headed and octagonal and growing in size, bigger and bigger until it veritably dwarfed not only the small Vita, but also the rather tall Signum.
The swordswoman, meanwhile, pulled her sheath off her belt and slammed it into the hilt of the sword. The two merged and shifted to form a greatbow as tall as its wielder. An arrow materialized and was nocked, bursting into flame.
Nanoha didn't have anything so dramatic. She just charged up another Exelion Buster, ignoring the throbs of pain it sent through her body.
"Exelion Buster! Break Shoot!" she declared, firing the pink beam.
"Ragnarok! Break!" Hayate bellowed.
"Sturmfalken. Fly, falcon!"
Nanoha's beam was joined by three white beams crackling with black lightning from Hayate, and a bird made of fire wrapped around Signum's arrow. All three blasts descended onto the Defense Program, which bound as it was couldn't put up even a token defense, and all exploded at once, throwing up a massive cloud of steam.
Vita didn't wait for it to clear, bringing down her hammer onto the spot where the Defense Program had been with an earth-shaking smash. Only then did everyone pause to assess.
It was a pause Nanoha sorely needed. While everyone else still seemed to be fresh – Zafira and Shamal had returned to the group and were already casting precautionary barriers – Nanoha ached, ached both with some odd soreness and plain exhaustion. The fight with the Book, plus two energy-hog Exelion Busters, had drained her of mana. The Jewel Seed embedded in Raising Heart was, frankly, more of a boost on top of her magic than something that could take the burden off of her.
Feeling Hayate and Signum's eyes on her, Nanoha tried to wave off her exhaustion. "I'm fine, I can-"
"Nanoha, no, you're exhausted," Hayate interrupted. "Stay back and we'll-"
The steam finished clearing, revealing the Defense Program once again in all its grotesquery. Entirely new grotesquery, mind; it had grown a spiny shell to go with the tentacles, which covered up all the eyes and mouths. The spines could be fired from a distance, as it demonstrated by firing a spread of at them. Despite being the approximate size of a telephone pole, they simply bounced off the barriers Shamal and Zafira had set up.
Though from the grimaces on their faces, that wasn't something they would be able to keep up for very long.
"Oh, come on!" Hayate snapped, waving her staff in indignation.
"Um, I might be able to get one more Exelion Buster off?" Nanoha offered.
"Don't bother in your condition," Vita bluntly replied. "Besides, we just hit it with our strongest spells, and no core. Signum and I only have so many cartridges, we can't just keep spamming attacks and hope that does the trick."
More spines came screaming in; the mages elected to dodge that particular salvo.
"Shamal, perhaps you could teleport the Defense Program to a location where it can no longer do any harm?" Signum wondered. "On a trajectory towards this planet's sun, for instance."
Shamal hummed in thought. "I think I could. But you'll need to pin it again."
"Then that's what we'll do," Hayate decided. She turned to Nanoha, concern written all over her features. "Nanoha-"
And was met with stubborn defiance. "Restrict Lock is a collection spell like Starlight Breaker. I can cast it."
Sighing, Hayate nodded in acquiescence. Then blinked. And abruptly paled to bone-white.
A millisecond later, everyone else felt what she felt: a nail in the brains, a jagged scream in their ears. The Wolkenritter immediately grasped what was going on. And nobody needed to be told what the source was.
"It's creating a space-time distortion! If you think of space-time as an ocean, this would be a storm!" Shamal explained to Hayate and Nanoha.
"That's how the Book destroys planets!" Hayate added. Everyone winced as, with a pulse like a heartbeat, the distortion grew. "Except how? That was one of the spells I removed when Reinforce and I ripped the Defense Program out!"
This time, it was Nanoha who paled in realization. "The Jewel Seed!" she cried out. "The Jewel Seed we used to fill the Book! The Book closed right on it, and it must have absorbed the whole thing!"
Silence met this declaration. Then…
"Nanoha…" Hayate said very slowly and evenly. "What do Jewel Seeds do besides act as magical batteries?"
"The S-Seeds respond to wishes, desires," Nanoha answered, her eyes locked onto the Defense Program. "And the Defense Program wishes to destroy…"
Silence, once again. Nanoha was deaf to whatever conversation was going on around her. She just stared at the Defense Program, felt the growing distortion in her magical senses, and knew one thing for certain:
'This is my fault.'
She jerked, turning around. "Eh?"
"Nanoha, I need five Jewel Seeds," Hayate all but ordered.
"What?!" Nanoha yelped. "We have a Jewel Seed causing this problem, and you want more?!"
"I don't have time to explain the theory, just do it!"
The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then Nanoha sighed and unsealed five Jewel Seeds and passed them over.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Hayate," she said.
"Yeah, me too," the other mage muttered. "Alright, Nanoha, get a sealing spell ready. Everyone else, take a Jewel Seed. Land in a pentagram formation start wishing really, really hard to contain the distortion."
That got her incredulous looks from all her knights, but they still took the Jewel Seeds and flew off. Hayate did not: Nanoha was still there, and very pointedly not preparing a sealing spell. In fact, she looked like she was two seconds away from bursting into tears.
"Hayate, i-if you do this…" she said, voice trembling. "I- for s-something like this, I can't f-finesse the spell. You're all g-going to be s-sealed, too."
"Yeah…" Hayate sighed. "I had a feeling that would be the case."
Tears began to flow from Nanoha's scrunched-up eyes. "I just met you! And now you're going to be gone, and it's all my fault, and it's not fair! Hayate, I'm so, so sorry, I-!"
Suddenly, Nanoha found herself wrapped up in a warm hug. "It's not your fault," Hayate said softly. "If it weren't for you, the Book would've just slowly drained me to death. This way, at least I can do something." She pulled back, looking her friend right in her eyes. "This isn't goodbye, Nanoha, not forever! You'll find a way to unseal us and deal with this thing, once and for all! I know it!"
Stunned, Nanoha could only watch as Hayate pulled back and clapped her on the shoulder. The distortion picked this time to pulse, and Hayate tilted her head as if to listen to something.
"We're out of time," Hayate said. She smiled at Nanoha. "Remember. Not goodbye forever, okay?"
Flying off, she floated down to the point of the pentagram formed with her Knights. As soon as she touched down on the water, the Jewel Seeds they all held glowed. Sniffing, Nanoha wiped her eyes and prepared her sealing spell.
And then, finally, the Book tore spacetime asunder.
The spell Hayate and the Wolkenritter cast an instant before that happened was not a spell in the conventional sense, as a Mid-Childan mage would have reckoned it. Reinforce, linking with the Armed Devices of the Wolkenritter, was at least able to provide some mathematical foundation, but ultimately, it was something of a throwback of the days before Devices standardized magic. It was will given the energy to act; a reproducible miracle, you could say. The Jewel Seeds reacted to this will, as was their function, conscious and unconscious. Any deviation in desire would have led to catastrophic contradiction in purpose.
The Book had designed the Knights to be unquestionably loyal to their Master. Even disobeying Hayate to collect the pages had been done with the intent of saving her life. Unity of purpose was not a problem they faced.
As for what the spell actually did, to grossly oversimplify the spell was akin to a dam holding back a reservoir, in this case the spacetime distortion. And like all dams, it had a 'spillway' to discharge any excess. Despite this relief valve the containment was a tremendous strain on the spell structure, strain that translated to the Linker Cores of the mages casting it as more mana flowed from the Jewel Seeds into the spell.
The Book had designed the Knights to be immensely sturdy physically and magically. They were not, in fact, technically alive. As living magical constructs it took a great deal of energy flow to damage their structure. And Hayate had absorbed the Book's core, and could channel as much mana as her Knights combined. It was a strain, but they could bear it.
For now. Given enough time, the strain would have overwhelmed them – and the spell as well. So, despite her tears flowing again, Nanoha fired her sealing spell, backed up by the power of another Jewel Seed, at the entire circle. The effort strained her, too; both her magic, drawing so much power, and her mind, sealing the Defense Program and it's Seed without sealing one of the containment Seeds. It did not help that the entire planet was shaking with what was happening to it.
Cracks developed in Raising Heart's frame. Nanoha's breath came in ragged gasps, pain wracking her body. But finally, the central Jewel Seed– and by extension, the Defense Program that had absorbed it – went quiescent. The sealing spell spread out to engulf Hayate and her Wolkenritter, and Nanoha, exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally, couldn't stop it.
And as the sealed Seeds and Defense Program sunk beneath the waves, as the phase barrier rolled back with no one to sustain it, Nanoha shakily turned around and flew home, wobbling drunkenly.
Of course, continuing the spillway metaphor for a moment, the excess distortion, for lack of a better term, had to go somewhere. This part required the most heavy lifting from the gathered devices; the mighty waves of space-time were directed outwards until they cleared most of the solar system (a few Kuiper objects were unfortunate casualties) and could be left to spread out in all directions.
The ultimate result for Dimensional Space was akin to a hurricane hitting, though thankfully a short-lived one.
The TSAB Navy's headquarters, a giant stone castle floating in Dimensional Space, was the first to be hit. Alarms had already started blaring the second the Defense Program started the distortion, giving the Navy time to send out a warning. But not, with all the scrambling about, time to do more than brace when the storm hit them.
Pretty much every sailor stationed there that day agreed on one thing: spin cycle sucks.
It took some time to take stock of the damage. Many ships lost, many installations damaged, the merchant ships plying dimensional space temporarily grounded for their own safety – and, of course, Unadministered World 97, the epicenter and believed lost. An investigation was launched, of course. The investigators even, despite a dire lack of clues, managed to track down the ultimate sources of the distortion. It came out that Admiral Gil Graham had been Hayate's benefactor, in hopes of catching the Book after it activated within her and sealing it for good. Believing that it was this that had destroyed UA 97, he confessed out of guilt and was quietly retired.
The Jewel Seeds, meanwhile, were tracked to a ship that had been travelling from an archaeological dig and ambushed as it passed UA 97 – ambushed by notorious criminal Precia Testarossa. The woman, dying and insane, had nonetheless not gone down quietly, and her cloned daughter Fate Testarossa slipped the net in the chaos.
The air was filled with acrid smoke, and Chrono's flight was erratic with how often the Garden of Time some part of itself off. Something had changed in the last couple of minutes, making their job easier in some ways - the robots were a great deal more predictable now, and last he saw him Grangeitz had been smashing them apart in quantity - and in others a lot harder. Case in point, the chunk of masonry the Enforcer had to hastily forward-roll under. But he was close to the control center of the Garden. Close to ending this whole thing once and for all.
Well, assuming he could last long enough against Precia Testarossa. Grangeitz wouldn't take long to clear out the robots and follow him, but Testarossa was an SS-rank mage for a reason.
Chrono put that morbid thought of his mind as he banked tightly and blasted open the door to the Garden's control center. "Precia Testarossa, you're under ar-"
Precia Testarossa lay in a heap in the center of the command center, blood oozing out from under her. At her side, her daughter, the clone, Fate Testarossa, was desperately shaking her, sobbing.
"Mama… Mama, don't go… please… I'll be good, Mama… don't go…"
In that moment, Chrono Harlaown didn't see a criminal. He just saw a sad, scared little girl who had just lost the only family she'd ever known. He lowered his Device, and stepped forward. Again. Closer. Testarossa looked up, eyes red and wild.
"Surrender," he said. "This- it's bad, but you're young. If you turn yourself in-"
Electricity slammed into him, carrying Chrono off his feet and into a twitching heap. 'I didn't even see her cast…' he mentally groaned.
"If it weren't for you-!" he could hear Testarossa shouting. "None of this would have happened! I'll hate you forever!" And then, in a whisper he almost missed over the crumbling citadel, "Almost as much as I hate myself…"
Feeling his muscles again, Chrono hauled himself to his feet - right as Testarossa's canine familiar burst in and wrapped him up in a Chain Bind. "Dammit!"
"Fate, we need to go!" the familiar declared.
"We bring Mama, too," Testarossa replied, her voice like iron.
There was a brief pause, before the familiar said, "Yeah, sure."
Growling, Chrono redoubled his efforts to shatter the bind. Of course, he wasn't anywhere close to finished when a teleportation circle flared and whisked Testarossa, her familiar, and her mother's corpse to Sankt Kaiser knew where.
Quint Nakajima burst into the room bare seconds later, right as Chrono finished unravelling the bind. "What happened?" she asked.
"Precia Testarossa is dead," Chrono said bluntly. "Her daughter escaped with her familiar, though."
"Tch," Quint bit out. "Damn. That could be a problem later."
And despite the fact that Fate Testarossa was now one her own with no resources besides her own skills, Chrono had a gut feeling that that would be true.
With both Lost Logia presumed destroyed, at least for now in the case of the Book, and the culprits seemingly taken care of, the TSAB closed the book on the case, mourned for a short while, and filed a note in the bureaucracy to send a survey ship to check UA 97's grave in ten years or so. Then, it moved on, to other disasters that they could actually do something about.
Like Fate Testarossa, who proved Chrono's gut feeling right by bedeviling the TSAB for a decade. Frankly, it was hard to tell who High Command feared more these days, Testarossa or Scaglietti.
When Nanoha had flown off to meet the Wolkenritter, she had of course told her family. Not everything – she quite rightly assumed sharing her overall plan would've led to strenuous objections – but enough. She'd also assured them she'd be back home in time for dinner. When she wasn't, and strange flashes of light bloomed over the mountains surrounding the city, they became worried. Worry that intensified with the brief glimpse of the strange monster offshore.
That had been over an hour ago. The waiting was agonizing. Only Shiro remained calm through long experience, though anyone that knew him could see the tension in his shoulders and his stiff posture at the kitchen table. Momoko had lasted about ten minutes before bustling into the kitchen to do some stress-baking. Kyouya had retrieved a sword and a whetstone and was busy sharpening the blade. And Miyuki was wearing a groove in the floor, with occasional aborted attempts to go for the door.
The doorbell rang. Miyuki scrambled for the front door, feet skidding on the polished wood below. She all but threw the door open, and found Nanoha standing forlornly on the step. Miyuki took in the dried tears running down her cheeks, her torn clothing and missing hair tie, that her body was swaying in exhaustion.
"Nanoha-" she breathed.
At her name, Nanoha half-rushed, half slumped into Miyuki's waist, sobbing openly. Carefully, Miyuki maneuvered her into the house, and to her family. They all spent the next ten minutes or so in a pile on one of the couches, simply soothing Nanoha as she cried. By the end, she'd simply passed out, the toll of the day catching up to her.
Momoko carried Nanoha back up to her bed, glancing at Shiro as she left. Something passed between them, and Shiro nodded, beckoning Kyouya and Miyuki towards.
"Alright, how are we handling this?" Kyouya asked immediately.
Shiro had to suppress a smile. "We call the school and get her some time off. We call her friends to let them know. And then we simply be there for her until she feels ready to open up about what happened." His eyes narrowed and fell on Miyuki. "That means don't bother her about what happened."
"Why are you singling me out?!" Miyuki protested.
"Because you're compulsively nosy," Kyouya retorted. "I still haven't forgotten that time you crashed my date with Shinobu last Valentine's."
"Ahem," Shiro interjected, prompting both siblings to freeze and clam up.
"Uh, okay, point taken," Miyuki replied, sheepish. "I can't promise I won't ask at some point, though."
A nod. "Just don't push it. Now, let's all go to bed ourselves. I know how stressful these sorts of waits can be."
Touching down on the muddy bottom of the ocean just offshore of Uminari, Chrono reached out, pressing his hand against the mighty crystal that was the seal against the Book. Through his hand, he pushed a little magic into the seal to see how it worked.
'Well,' he concluded once his magic returned. 'This would give every spellcrafter on Mid-Childa an aneurysm, but if it's held this long it'll hold long enough for us to figure out what to do with it.'
And wasn't that a headache and a half in the making. Chrono, when he'd asked Takamachi to show him the seal, had been all set to leave the seal in place. He had a personal history with the Book: in its last appearance, his father Clyde had been among the fatalities. He had as good a grievance against the book as anyone else in Dimensional Space. And despite being the one to arrest his mentor Gil Graham for sacrificing a life to seal the Book, at the time he'd been unable to say that he would've done anything different had he been in the old man's shoes.
And yet, when he saw the up-to-now unflappable Takamachi slump to the ground, tears in her eyes, that conviction evaporated. This was a woman who just wanted her friends back. Friends that, from her story, were no more responsible for the Book's atrocities than himself or Takamachi. Also, Chrono was also no longer that headstrong 15-year-old, so sure in his convictions and yet still with a fair bit of growing up to do. After that moment on the Garden of Time with a grief-stricken Fate Testarossa, he knew for certain that he could never sacrifice the young girl in the center of this spell. And Takamachi's pain was hauntingly familiar, in more ways than one.
Besides, the fight with the Defense Program she'd described? Nothing like that had ever happened in all the history they had on the Book. Maybe Takamachi and Yagami were actually onto something and had a method to destroy the Book for good. Sankt Kaiser knew how temporary a solution seals tended to be for Lost Logia like this. And so Chrono came to a decision.
"Takamachi," he said, getting a flinching jerk. "You didn't hear this from me, but many of the higher-ups in the TSAB will want to leave Hayate and the Book sealed. But. Make a formal request for assistance to unseal and destroy the Book, and I'll throw my support behind it." A smirk. "And the support of my many high-placed connections."
"Thank you, Captain Harlaown," Takamachi said, wiping her eyes. She stood, giving him a wan smile. "Do you need any more time here?"
"No, I think I know enough," Chrono decided. "Captain to bridge, bring us back up."