It happened again. Much as I didn't want it to, yet another long-ass delay happened. There were a couple of reasons for that, but the most important of all was the writer's block. Well, the one I feel most at liberty divulging.

In truth, I had been fussing with this plot idea. You might have noticed it earlier, the "Knight of the Martyred Lady." It wasn't particularly standing eye-catching and he was only dropped in one line the last chapter, but I was really about to go do some wild-ass stuff. Like other apostle-type stuff.

In the end, I couldn't make it work and it didn't fit the tone of the story. So I had to go back and erase every mention of him, what incredibly limited mentions there were. I guess that's the beauty of fanfic huh? You can always bail out of a sinking ship once you see the signs.

Either way writer's block overcome chapter released and things...more or less seem good? Lots of IRL stuff going on, but I think I got it under control. Anyways, enough talk. Let's get to it.


New Neighbors

"Men do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another. And if you came through this ordeal, you would age with dignity."

William Manchester, author and World War II Marine

1200 HOURS SPECIAL REGION TIME IMPERIAL CAPITAL CITY SADERA

"They what?!"

Molt's fury and the subsequent clanging of metal on stone echoed throughout the throne room. He had only just started to savor his wine when one of the Oprichnina scouts barged in unannounced. Though the scout's face was partly obscured by the wolf's head he wore, both royals could tell he wasn't too thrilled to bring them the bad news.

"You misread it idiot!" A nearby Zorzal got up from his seat and pointed at the half-crumpled parchment still in the scout's hand. "Give me that immediately!"

The scout hurried over and delivered the letter to his prince's outstretched hand before retreating to the relative safety of some nearby columns. The prince quickly brought the letter up, his eyes rapidly scanning each line for crucial intel. The further he read, the dourer his expression became, much to the gradually rising interest of a nearby warrior rabbit. Despite her still adjusting to the uncomfortable dress she was forced to wear, her slender grey ears perked up all the same. Something they hadn't done in a long time.

"This is madness, utter nonsense! How did they get to Italica so fast!?" The mad prince tore the letter into pieces. "They are strangers in our world! They have no maps, no familiarity with the lands beyond Alnus."

"Then Piña is...dead?" Molt mumbled to himself as he sank further into his throne.

"Who gives a damn about a concubine's daughter?!" Zorzal finished scattering the tattered pages. "And where is that fool Diabo?! Always scheming always hiding!-

"You will watch your mouth, boy." Molt spat back. "Concubine's daughter or not she is of royal blood and that means a slight has befallen our family!"

Molt began to nervously rub his temples. "Which means Italica is truly gone. Our supply lines, are...gone."

"The other kingdoms still swear fealty-"

"The other kingdoms are gone you fool. Leaderless, and weakened, they have fallen into petty squabbling amongst royals. You heard the senate."

Molt sunk deeper into his throne and began to mumble to himself. "We are cut off, surrounded…."

"I do not believe what I am hearing." Zorzal turned to glare at his father. "Don't you dare utter such defeatist drivel."

"Or what?" Molt didn't even bother to look at his enraged son. "You are going to show us all your tactics hmm?"

He pointed at the disgraced rabbit warrior. "Like how you destroyed her kingdom with petty tricks when victory was nowhere in sight?"

"A victory is a victory." Zorzal snarled. "This is not the first time the Empire has been on the back foot."

"So then I ask again, what do you plan to do?" Molt repeated his question. "Surely you have something planned?"

The creases that had appeared on Zorzal's forehead coupled with the nervous pacing and biting of his bottom lip told Molt all he needed to know.

"So nothing, at least, not yet." Molt sighed and snapped his fingers at two idling Praetorians. Upon hearing their king's beckoning both went ramrod straight.

"You two, alert the garrisons. I want a capitol-wide notice, no passage comes in or out of this city without official Empire business or otherwise."

Both nodded before running to carry out the orders they had been given. Molt then turned his attention to Zorzal.

"As for you my ambitious fool of a son. Continue gathering what forces you can and consolidate what remains. Are the Oprichnina still sweeping the city?"

"Yes, every inch of this city and beyond." Zorzal answered confidently. "So far all is well."

"Good." Molt relaxed slightly. He had heard rumors of soldiers wearing horned helmets appearing out of thin air and whisking people away in the middle of the night. Surely it was utter nonsense, but it wasn't a chance he was willing to take.

The enemy had already felled the great Flame Dragon and there were rumors that Rory Mercury and some of Rondel's best mages accompanied them. Nothing could be taken for granted.

"Now we must bide our time and regain our strength. We still have the home advantage. None have ever penetrated our great city." Molt's brow furrowed. "From this world or beyond."

"I will see to preparations then and see about finding Diabo." Zorzal gestured for his slave to follow and made his way to the large wooden doors leading out of the throne room.

"Very well." Molt signaled for a nearby servant to bring him another goblet of wine. "Oh and Zorzal."

"Yes?" The prince stopped just short of the door.

"Do be careful."

Hearing this, Zorzal couldn't help but smirk. "Heh, you worry about me? I assure you I will not fall as my foolish sister did."

"No, I worry about the throne and my legacy." Molt waved at his son to leave as a servant quickly brought him his wine. "Now go."

Now thoroughly agitated, Zorzal took his leave without another word leaving his father to contemplate the war in nervous silence.


FORESTS OF ITALICA

Far away from the chaos and near a road at the edge of the forests, saner-minded soldiers surrounded a maroon-colored tent as they continued to dutifully man their posts. Under the wise guidance of their injured leader, they had long broken off from the rest of the remnant armies. Throughout the night, they had heard the distant sounds of war, those of a desperate battle that couldn't be won.

"All of them?"

"Yes my lord, they all perished."

"So we are all that's left then." Inside the dimly lit tent, King Duran sighed and shifted slightly in his cot. Near his bedside nervous soldiers and what few Elbean Knights remained sat around makeshift tables and benches as they tried to digest the dire news.

Duran rubbed his wrinkled temple in frustration. "Fools, all of them fools. They should never have attacked Italica."

"We must travel back to Elbe my king, there is nothing for us here anymore." A footsoldier nearest to Duran implored.

"But how? Our enemy controls the skies, the roads, and now Italica!" One of the knights folded his arms. "It is a miracle we haven't been found yet."

"The gods have favored us since Alnus. Even in dire times, luck has stayed by our side-"

Another knight scoffed from behind an armored visor. "Favored?! There is nothing favorable about hiding like rats!"

"Enough." Duran raised his remaining bandaged-covered hand. "Pointless yammering will get us nowhere."

"My lord I would follow you to the depths of hell and back, but the situation is dire. What few remain loyal to you, as elite as we are, cannot best this enemy."

"This is true, yes." Duran shook his head. "Perhaps it is time for us to consider our last option then."

"That being?"

"Surrender." Duran answered flatly.

The men gasped unable to comprehend the madness they were hearing.

"But my lord-"

"What other options are there? Ride to Elbe on what few remaining horses we have? Return to Sadera?" Duran inquired. "We are far away from home and the Empire has abandoned us. We can only hope our new enemy is merciful."

"This is not the Lion of Elbe I pledged my life to serve. Defeat has addled your mind."

"No it has opened my eyes, put aside your foolish notion of glory for one minute!"

Suddenly, another one of Duran's men barged in from outside. A young soldier, barely into his adult years with absolute dread on his face. This lack of decorum would have mandated swift punishment if it had been any other time, but something was wrong. The soldier was panicked, his words only coming out in short spurts as he tried to compose himself.

"Easy lad, what is it?" Duran gestured for his knights to stand down as he tried to take stock of what was happening. "What news do you bring?"

"R-road, I-"

"Out with it boy, is it the enemy? Reinforcements, what?!"

"Roser Order Knight reinforcements!"

As swords were quickly unsheathed Durain raised an eyebrow. "How many?"

"A troop easily and they're led by Bozes Co Palesti!"

That was when shocked silence filled the tent's interior, each of the knights looking at their now contemplating leader in anticipation of some order.

Duran sighed. "It would seem 'justice' has found us." The warrior king slowly sat upright and pointed at his broken armor still neatly sorted on an armor rack nearby. "I will talk to them."

One of the other knights brought a hand to his breastplate in exclamation. "My king you cannot, they'll never listen to us-"

"She damn well better listen to me!" Duran snapped back. "Now fetch me my armor and sword."

XXXXXX

With great effort and assistance lent by his subordinates holding him up, Duran limped out of the tent and into the warm summer day. In front of him, and flanked on all sides by what remained of his soldiers, several Rose Order Knights sat mounted atop their steeds with weapons drawn.

Leading them from the front, a young female knight looked down upon Duran with no small amount of disdain. Bozes Co Palesti, Princess Piña's second in command.

"King Duran, The Lion of Elbe."

"Bozes, you are far from home." Duran gestured for his men to let go of him choosing instead to support his weight via a makeshift wooden crutch. "What brings you to these parts?"

"I would ask you the same." With the grace of a noblewoman, Bozes quickly dismounted her horse so that she could stand eye to eye with the wounded king. "The lands beyond the capitol are lawless, raiders run rampant wearing the colors of the vassal nations attacking all who get in their way."

The knight's hand hovered over the hilt of her sword as she focused her gaze. "Now I find you and your men near Italica. The very same Italica that has smoke rising from it."

"Your allies have gone rogue. It is true, yes." Duran shook his head. "After the Empire abandoned us to our fate in Alnus-"

"We did no such thing-"

"Do not interrupt me, girl!" Duran spat back. "Always jumping to conclusions, never letting others finish! Gray trained you better than that!"

Duran's sudden change in pitch and demeanor caught Bozes off guard and the knight could only stand there dumbfounded as he continued.

"Or did you not find it odd no further troop deployments occurred shortly after the gate opened?"

Bozes's hand slowly moved away from her sword. "You should be lucky I have known you long enough to listen to what you have to say. Anyone else would have struck you down for saying such things."

"They could try." Duran gave a tired smirk. "As I have said, the armies that deployed to Alnus did indeed go rogue. Anger clouded their judgment and Italica was their last chance to seek out some meager sense of warped justice for the betrayal that happened at Alnus."

Realizing what was going on Bozes signaled to the other knights to lower their weapons.

"Now do you understand? Most of my men and I never agreed with their actions, but we were too few to stop them. Once we knew the enemy from beyond the gate had reached Italica before us, well." Duran sighed. "The rest of those fools got themselves killed."

"So then that means Italica is in control of the enemy!?" Bozes's eyes widened as dread and realization overtook her. "Piña is there!"

"Yes, but-"

"We have no time to lose then!" Bozes quickly remounted her horse and pulled the reigns steering her steed towards the direction of Italica. "Knights of the Rose Order, onward!"

"Wait damn it!"

Before Duran could get another word in Bozes and her knights departed just as quickly as they had arrived, the hooves of their steeds kicking up a small cloud of dirt behind them.

"That stupid girl is going to get herself killed." Duran groaned and leaned against his crutch. "Get the horses prepared, it is time to set our last plan into motion."


CAMP ALNUS CP

"Media coming through? Great, this is the first time I'm hearing of it."

"I just got off the phone with the Defense Minister a few minutes ago." Hazama took a seat in front of Kain's desk with folded arms. His worn-out-tired expression was not giving Kain any confidence. "The government-the people, think the JSDF is breaking the rules here and conducting aggressive operations on our own. They want to know what's been going on."

"Shit." Kain sighed and paused from the mountains of paperwork on his desk. "Did he say when?"

"In the coming weeks. Hell there's good word a diet summons might take place too, it's all up in the air."

"Christ, Washington was supposed to handle this. I would've thought the upper echelons had the pull to prevent this sort of thing."

Hazama shrugged. "Well, I guess not. Either way, expect a lot more suits and cameras to come through in the coming."

Kane sighed. "Just what we needed."

"Even with your country's position in the UN, it wasn't like we could keep the world out of here forever. Things are beginning to shift dramatically outside."

"I'm aware. China making moves in the South China Sea. Russia's aggressive posturing against its neighbors." Kane rubbed his brow. "Yes, our little field trip has a lot of opportunists making their moves."

"Well whatever happens we'll handle it." Hazama gave a warm tired smile. "Anyways, I need to get back to my office. Lots of things to do, we did just capture a major trading hub after all. With the princess there no less."

"Yes, sir one step closer to ending this war."

"And it could not come sooner." Hazama got up from his chair and slid it back to its proper place. "Have a good afternoon Kane."

"You too sir."

With that Hazama took his leave and left a stressed-out Kane to continue his work.


OUTSKIRTS OF ITALICA

Finally free of the mages the tired crews of Here We Go Again and Belligerent Three once again found themselves going back to business as usual. Setting up a checkpoint on one of the roads while important delegations were conducted back at Italica. Fine by them, at least the platoon commander was gone. No doubt suffering a great deal more than they were.

Today's company consisted of a few grunts from some infantry unit and a few of Itami's subordinates keeping a close eye on the siren mage Itami had foolishly left behind in the back of the truck. So far it was playing nice, more terrified and glad to be alive than anything. Properly fed and given water, the creature had found it prudent to remain quiet.

Back in the armored confines of Here We Go Again, Kincaid and his crew settled back into what they did best. Try to make overwatch not so boring.

"So, what'd doc say?" Elton lit a slightly bent cigarette as he called down to his gunner. Like the rest of his crew, he had chosen to remove his comm helmet, no need to have it on when the engine wasn't running.

"Told me to let her know if I feel weird or anything." Kincaid took a break from looking through his sight and ran a bare hand through his damp-matted hair. It had been a week since he had last gotten a haircut and his hair was quickly regressing into an uncomfortable mess of curls.

"And do you feel weird or anything?"

"I feel tired more than anything else, got a light headache."

"Hydrate or die bitch." Elton chuckled as a water bottle dropped down from his hatch and bounced on the turret floor.

"Yeah, touched by a god? Tired? Drink water, fucking genius boss man." Kincaid snatched the bottle off the ground and gulped some of its contents down.

"This shit is fucking dumb man." Up top and next to Elton, Wilkes continued to fidget around with the safety for his 240. Occasionally he would bring up a pair of binoculars to look around. What little it mattered, the entire area short of the roads leading out of Italica was completely under coalition control now. "Yo did the fuckin' CO say anything about getting some rest before he ran off?" The loader grumbled as he lit a cigarette. "The hell are we still sitting out here for."

Elton rubbed his eyelids. "Jasp."

"Uh-huh?"

"Why are we still out here?"

Kincaid closed the manga he had just opened. "Important talks that could impact the course of the war are going on."

"And?"

"We have to watch the roads for them to happen." Kincaid finished quoting the CO and returned to his book. "End fucking quote."

"Exactly." Elton leaned back against his cupola and slowly looked at his loader. "Get that? Or do you need to hear it a third time?"

"Fuck off man."

As the squabble continued up top Kincaid paused from his book and glanced through his sights one more. Nothing, the same old empty dirt road leading to the forest beyond.

"Oh yeah and one more thing, can someone turn off this fucking boo-loving shit?"

"Fuck you this is me and my girl's song."

Satisfied all was clear Kincaid was just about to return to his book and join the banter until he saw something round the corner.

"Oh for fucks sake. Yo, we got company!" Kincaid quickly put his comm helmet and balaclava back on.

"C'mon man what now?!" Elton brought a pair of binoculars up and looked down the road. Sure enough, he could see the cavalry coming their way. Leading the troop was a young woman with blonde hair arranged into ringlets. Like the rest of the equally young troops she led, she too was garbed in ornate gold-trimmed silver armor.

"Fuckers on horseback, got em lased at three hundred meters and closing."

By now both the other Marines and Japanese nearby had seen the cavalry. They quickly took cover behind their vehicles with rifles raised as information was sent up the proper comms channels.

Elton reached back down into his turret and flipped channels before putting his comm helmet back on as well. "Three, Four. Hey, we got company."

"Yeah, I see em'." Parallel to Here We Go Again and on the other side of the road, Belligerent Three's gun started traversing onto the target its sister tank was aimed at.

"Troop sized, easily-hey, doesn't that armor seem familiar?"

"I don't fucking know, why would it matter?"

"Because those are the Princess's troops. That's the same goddamn kit she had on."

"Oh that's cute you fucking remembered, nobody clued me in." Elton brought his .50 onto the mass of horseback soldiers. As he did this the familiar hiss of the NBC* system kicked on. "Okay well, I got fucking coax indexed, so unless you have some sort of welcome matt to roll out."

"Yeah yeah, wait one!"

"Eyo! This is 2 Actual, the hell's going on?"

"Contacts north of our pos, we got it handled."

"Aight, keep me posted."

Hearing all the commotion up top Benitez grunted as woke up from his nap. "Ey, what the fuck's going on?"

"Bad guys dumbass." Elton responded as he chamber-checked his shotgun. Benitez squinted through his mud and dust-stained periscopes. "Oh."

Back on his tank Hicks dropped down into the turret and switched channels on his radio. "One Actual, Three. Be advised I have eyes on cavalry due north of our position."

No response, by now the cavalry reduced their speed to a trot as they saw the strange assortment of soldiers and their vehicles. They looked more confused than angry and more than a few gave nervous glances at the giant claw marks on Here We Go Again. They chattered amongst themselves and a few braver ones nervously drew swords as they consulted their equally confused leader.

"One actual, Three. Come in."

Still no response. Outside of the tank one of the Marines, some lieutenant with a german name none of the tankers could pronounce, slowly walked forward with a megaphone in hand. The officer smacked the back of it a few times to ensure it worked before bringing it up to his mouth.

"This place, under the control of the Coalition! Advance slowly with weapons down!"

The troop's leader, seemingly unphased by the fact the soldiers could speak her language, pointed at the officer whilst retaining positive control of her reigns. "I am Bozes Co Palesti, Rose Order Knights. This land is not yours! Belongs to the Empire!"

The lieutenant stood there for a few moments, no doubt weighing his options as to what would be the most diplomatic thing to say. In the end, he responded the only way a Marine could.

"Not anymore!"

That had been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back as no sooner as this was said, all of the knights started unsheathing weapons. The troop leader pointed her sword directly at the lieutenant. "If you will not move, then we will move you!"

"Nice going jackass." Hicks mumbled before going back to comms. "One Actual, Three. The situation is beginning to escalate."

Still no response. Hicks got off comms and traversed his .50 onto the leader of the troop. "Where the fuck is he?!"

Next to Hicks, his loader nervously unlatched his 240 and brought it into his shoulder. "Hey, these guys can't be serious right? They're not going to charge us are they?"

"Fuck if I know Bowski, just get ready." Hicks responded through gritted teeth.


ITALICA, CLAN FORMAL ESTATE

Aldritch shifted uncomfortably as he watched the delegations continue between the Formal Clan and coalition officials. Officials of course being CIA and Japanese intelligence agents that had made deals long ago.

Peace talks weren't Aldricth's thing, he was a tanker, not a politician. His place was with his men at the checkpoints outside the town. Unfortunately, the chain of command thought differently. They believed his presence would score over major brownie points with the Formal Clan. He was the leader of the "Steel Equites" after all. At least he wasn't alone, Itami had been dragged along too. He stood at Aldritch's side and near the back of the room, silently mulling over the details of the delegations.

"Yes, as I have said before, this town is undermanned and incapable of defending itself in its current state." Count Formal sighed. "We are thankful to have your troops here and I will honor the terms of our prior agreement. Our fealty to the United States shall remain ironclad."

Next to Aldritch a solemn-looking Itami silently shook his head upon hearing those words.

Meanwhile, one of the officials, an agent Joyce, clapped his hands. "So it is settled then. We shall establish a permanent presence here and use Italica as a staging ground to continue our campaign. You have made a wise decision count."

On a throne next to her father's, Myui shifted uncomfortably. "And, we will be safe from future attacks? Such a thing we're doing, the Empire will not forgive us."

"Italica will receive just as much if not more protection than Alnus." The agent reassured the nervous countess. "We're already in the process of fortifying the defenses."

"And our people? The damage we sustained?"

"Only the best our medical personnel and engineers can provide." The agent glanced at one of his aids clutching a few burlap sacks. "We are also ready with a large sum of dragon scales should the need for further funding be required."

"And from despair, hope and prosperity emerge." Count Formal rose from his throne. "Which leaves one last issue."

He pointed at Piña and raised an eyebrow. "Where does this leave you, princess? You who is standing here now surrounded by enemies?"

"Now count, it does not have to be that way." Joyce cautiously raised his hands. "She did fight alongside us."

"An alliance of convenience at best." The princess answered bereft of emotion. "The countess is right, my father-the Empire won't forgive this."

"So then what will you do?" The Count inquired. "If your father finds out you fought alongside your enemy."

"That is not something that has slipped my mind. We are not exactly in the most favorable of circumstances either." Piña responded flatly. "I…don't know what do, to be honest."

"Then join us, help put an end to this war. Clan Formal secured its survival, you can too." Formal beckoned.

"You make it sound so easy."

"Because it is easy! Look around you, your highness!" Rory Mercury interrupted. Up to this point, the apostle had been relatively well behaved, only voicing her input when it was requested. She picked up her weapon and hefted it onto her shoulder before walking out into the middle of the throne room.

"Your allies have left you and your once loyal subjects have welcomed their new rulers with open arms!"

The apostle chuckled. "It does not take an apostle or a truth sayer to see the outcome of this war. The question that remains is this…." She pointed at Piña. "How much longer does the Empire drag this on? How many more embarrassing defeats must you fools sustain before you finally accept what was obvious from the very beginning?"

"Indeed." Next to Rory Cato tapped his staff on the marble floor. "Your highness be reasonable. The only logical course of action is to end the suffering of the people as quickly as you can. Why not seek a swift end to this?"

"You ask me such questions as if I have any say in the war effort." Piña responded defiantly.

"You have a great deal more say than you realize and you have already taken the first steps." Formal reminded her. "There are those opposed to the war. Prisoners of war, I have talked to them back beyond the gate."

"You have been beyond the gate?" Piña's eyes and those of many others widened at this news.

"Yes, and I have seen and experienced things you would not believe." The count raised his arms for all to see. "It is a vast and marvelous world and we would be fools to not seize the opportunity that awaits us."

"If you are not convinced you could always see for yourself." Joyce added. "See why cooperation with us is in your best benefit."

Piña silently weighed her options for a few moments and glanced back at Gray, hoping for some sort of wisdom or sagely advice. The old knight could only shake his head. He was just as lost as she was.

"These last few days have taken a great toll on my mind. I need time to rest and reflect on things."

"Then perhaps it is time to open the cellars and make merry, there is still time for festivities."

Joyce raised a hand and pressed to an earpiece in his right ear. He furrowed his brow for a few moments as he digested the information that was bombarding him.

Then his eyes went wide. "There's a situation at the northern road."

"Northern road?" Aldritch felt for the radio clipped to the front of his vest and felt a pit form in his stomach. He had turned it off before entering the throne room. "Shit shit shit!"

As Aldritch fumbled with the device, the two massive wooden doors leading to the throne room were thrown open revealing two frantic-looking demi-human maids.

"Count Formal, Rose Order Knights have been spotted at the northern road! They're about to clash with our allies!"

"Rose Order Knights." Piña gasped before running out of the room. "Bozes, that idiot is going to ruin everything! Knights with me!"

As Piña and her knights left Aldritch brought his radio up and started transmitting back to the tanks. "Three this is One, do not engage I repeat do not engage!"

Thus a fatal incident was about to occur there.


Also, It's come to my attention that many of my readers want the old draft back up. I'd have to dig it back up and while I ultimately don't like it, I did kinda feel pretty bad depriving those of you who liked it.

I'll get to finding it and trying to rerelease it.


ACRONYMS/TERMS USED:

NBC-Nuclear Biological Chemical. Context of that scene, we turn the NBC system to fire coax. Helps dump out the potentially toxic fumes.