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Game Theory (Nanoha fanfic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Aleph, Oct 22, 2011.

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  1. Aleph

    Aleph Solidarity

    *giggle*
    *delighted applause*
    Well reasoned! A generally rational chain of logic! Inventive, interesting and a valid source of plot points!

    And also hilariously wrong, of course. But I won't hold that against you. :D
     
    Winged One likes this.
  2. DB_Explorer

    DB_Explorer An advocate of faithful contracts.

    well 1) I watch a lot of stargate

    and 2) It's for an idea I had where TSAB ends up having to deal with earth governments (namely the JSDF and US DoD) because of an attack on Earth by some terrorist group wanting Al Hazard tech hidden in Japanese Kofun. Someone points out to the TSAB that this is "non-administrated world #97" so either work with us (the locals) or bugger off.

    Its an excuse to have Spec-ops fight Dark Magical girls and to give Nanoha at one point a US carrier battle group for back up. :p

    3) I watch a lot of Stargate

    4) I seem to make my characters work for good endings but I don't go to any extremes. They have ups and downs and have to think but its no greek odyssey. I also like to make the endings HAPPY with (most) of my characters alive. and

    5) It's based off the data I have at hand... which may or (more likely) may not match with your ideas. Which are based off your plot needs.

    6) I watch a lot of stargate.
     
  3. Angelform

    Angelform Celestia’s messenger

    A worth update.

    Good to see things from Yuno’s POV. Poor kid knows exactly how bad Nanoha is screwing herself over.

    So when faced with an elegant and complex defensive technique... blast it with Massive Power!
    Guess the mentality isn’t so unusual in mages.

    Linith is amusing. If a little out of place being the familiar of an Ice Queen.

    Hayate’s only male knight chose to spend his free time as a large dog-wolf-thing rather than a buff human for a reason you know. She is not all that discriminating in her tastes.
     
  4. Filraen

    Filraen Bastion of the Fourth Wall

    Now I expect from Yuuno to evaluate telling Shiro about Nanoha if not outright telling him.

    You let me wanting Precia to succeed, just to know what will she do with Fate after Alicia recovers or dies.
     
  5. LordsFire

    LordsFire Tel'dai Knight Errant

    I just read through this all for the first time.

    You write very, very well. Good characters, good flow of story, good plot, no outstanding weaknesses come to mind, it's all around just very good.

    I'll be tracking it.
     
  6. EarthScorpion

    EarthScorpion Fell on His Sword

    It's Linith. She's always nice and soft and huggable, no matter where you go in the multiverse. Precia probably made her like that, so she could do the things that Precia couldn't.
     
  7. Jonen C

    Jonen C F.M.D.G.

    My mind is in the gutter, for my interpretation of this goes to very, very wrong places.

    (At least it would be fairly easy to enforce the "don't talk shop in bed" rule when you have a catgirl familiar.)

    (The Doctor is a very lucky guy.)

    (I mean, damn, talk about your Leather and Lace.)
     
  8. Aleph

    Aleph Solidarity

    I apologise for being so late with this one! Though I'm still just barely inside the "one chapter a month" schedule I've set myself, if you count the extra time I gained from posting the last two with time to spare. And... hey, this way, it's a New Year's present!

    To 2012!

    Game Theory

    Chapter Three

    Arisa was annoyed.

    In and of itself, this was not particularly unusual. The young Bannings heir was a temperamental person, and her passions ran naturally hot. Nor was the subject of her ire one that would have garnered any surprise - Nanoha Takamachi had a long history of rousing her blonde friend’s temper for one reason or another, often entirely inadvertently.

    This case was, however, a particularly notable example of its type. Green eyes narrowed as they focused on their target, sitting one row in front and a little off to the left. Despite the fact that the lesson was maths - in theory her favourite subject - Nanoha was clearly distracted, staring off out of the window with an atypical expression of uncertainty. Chewing on her bottom lip absently, she gazed forward blankly, worry and confusion warring across her face.

    Arisa gritted her teeth, suppressing a growl of anger. For weeks now, Nanoha had been distracted, preoccupied. Ever since she’d been landed in hospital, it had been raised to higher levels than ever. She would zone out frequently, barely participate in conversations and sit staring off into space whenever she had a free moment.

    It was infuriating. And the worst of it was that she was clearly up to something, and yet she wouldn’t explain! Didn’t she know that her friends wanted to help her? Wasn’t she the one who’d taught them that sharing your problems made them easier to cope with, even if your friends couldn’t help directly?

    With clenched fists and gritted teeth, Arisa scowled at her friend as the lesson dragged on. That Nanoha was apparently too out of it even to notice only spurred her annoyance even higher. She watched, ignoring the teacher, as the confusion and uncertainty writ large on the young brunette’s face shifted back and forth, an internal debate raging behind the unfocused blue eyes. Slowly, her expression began to settle, her confidence began to grow. Arisa could actually see it happening; follow the slow settling on a decision. From long experience, she knew that once Nanoha decided on a course of action, she would move the heavens and earth to accomplish it, and waited in tense anticipation for the culmination of the decision silently being reached on the other side of the classroom.

    Expression firming, hands fisting, Nanoha seemed to come to a decision. Blue eyes blazed with determination as she gave a firm, affirmative nod, and Arisa watched as...

    ... as...

    ... as her eyes glazed over slightly, and she settled back in her seat again, the mask of indecision having merely been swapped for one of preoccupation - or possibly intense concentration. Whatever she was thinking or daydreaming about though, it didn’t seem to be leading to any actual action on the decision she’d just reached. The anticlimax was like a slap in the face, and the last shreds of Arisa's patience vanished.

    Barely registering the end of the lesson as the teacher left the room, she stood in a rush, chair clattering backwards, stormed across the room and slammed her hands down on Nanoha’s desk.

    “Damn it, Nanoha!” she yelled, and heads turned all across the room at the sudden explosion. The girl herself jerked back violently, snapped out of her daze by the volume and violence she was addressed with. Either not noticing or not caring about the stares she was drawing, Arisa continued heatedly. “What is with you? You’re off in a daze all the time, you’re barely paying attention in class... what is going on?!”

    Nanoha stared at her blankly, blinking in shock, before a light flush of guilt and embarrassment formed. “Uh... sorry, Arisa-chan. I guess I was just drifting-”

    Arisa didn’t want to hear it. Growling audibly, she turned her back on the weak excuses and stormed out, expression furious. Dimly, she noticed Suzuka trying to placate her from the back of the room, but she was far too annoyed to stay put. Her feet led her on a random path through the halls, past students just beginning to file out of their classrooms for lunch, until she found a relatively quiet stairwell. Gripping the handrail as hard as she could, staring out over the school grounds, she clenched her teeth and tried to rein in her temper.

    Absorbed in her thoughts, she wasn’t sure how long it was before a small noise from the stairs behind her drew her attention. Sullenly, already knowing who it was, she considered ignoring Suzuka for a moment before relenting. The purple-haired girl hadn’t done anything wrong, after all. Letting out a sigh, she turned.

    ... well. Suzuka wasn’t a surprise. The fact that she’d somehow convinced Nanoha to come after her was. Even more surprising, Nanoha didn’t seem angry or upset about Arisa’s eruption - which, now that she thought about it, had been a little over the top. If anything, she looked... contrite.

    Maybe she was going to explain?

    “Um... Arisa-chan?”

    “What?” she said, huffily. Okay, so maybe she was still a little frustrated. She was allowed to be!

    “I... um... I’m sorry that I’ve been off lately, I really am! Things have just been...” Nanoha trailed off uncertainly, face growing pensive. Before Arisa’s annoyance could reignite, Suzuka stepped in.

    “Nanoha-chan,” she said, laying a gentle hand on the brunette’s shoulder. “How long have we been friends?”

    “Uh... ages. Since we were little, and...” a wistful smile crossed Nanoha’s face as she remembered the events that had brought them together.

    “And we’ve had problems in that time, right? Like when we were seven and the puppy got run over?” Nanoha nodded solemnly, remembering the tears that had accompanied the event. Arisa had taken a liking to the little creature, which had sadly been a little too inquisitive for its own good.

    Eyes narrowing, Suzuka moved in for the kill. “And when one of us had problems, they shared them, right? And that made it easier to cope. We could help each other, when we shared what was wrong.”

    Nanoha froze, realisation dawning for her in much the same way as it did for a dinosaur realising that the bright light on the western horizon was not the sun. Despite herself, Arisa almost applauded.

    “Suzuka-chan... um...” Biting her lip, Nanoha fidgeted uncomfortably, looking rather like she would rather be anywhere else. “I really want to tell you, but I-”

    “Then do, Nanoha-chan! Please! We want to help you! And... and we can’t help you if we don’t know what’s going on. We just want to make you feel better. You’ve been so... so miserable, lately.” Suzuka turned imploring eyes on her friend, pleading with her. “Nanoha-chan... I promise, we’ll both do whatever we can to help you. Even if there’s nothing we can do, we can still help by sharing your problems! And... and I don’t want to see you looking lost and troubled, Nanoha. Neither of us do.”

    “I’m not-”

    “It’s written all over your face,” Arisa interrupted, cutting off Nanoha’s abortive attempts at a denial. “And yet you won’t tell us a thing, no matter how often we ask.” She looked up, eyes blazing. “Can’t you see you’re hurting us, too? You’re lying to us when you say that, and we’re worried about you, and-” she stopped abruptly, looking down and letting her hair fall over her face, hiding her expression. Something inside Nanoha twisted painfully at the sight.

    “Nanoha-chan... I know that everyone has secrets even from their best friends, but... please. Are you sure this has to be one of them?” Suzuka’s tone was still gentle, her expression compassionate. Nanoha struggled inwardly for several tense seconds, before her legs abruptly folded, dropping her into a sitting position on the stairs with a light thump.

    “O-okay,” she whispered. “I’ll... I...” Her mouth opened and closed a few times, unable to decide on how to start. Her friends waited - one patiently, one in tense anticipation.

    “Um... okay.” Nanoha nodded, seeming surer of herself, “It started with-”

    She stopped abruptly, jerking ever so slightly, and cocking her head to one side - an unconscious movement, as her eyes glazed over. Arisa forced down the instant urge to yell at her for zoning out again, just as she was about to explain things, and looked closer. It almost looked like the girl was listening to something very faint, something that only she could hear. Arisa watched, suspicious, as emotions played across Nanoha’s face again. Another inner struggle was taking place, it seemed - another decision. Except...

    ... except she had already decided to tell them. Arisa knew her friend. If Nanoha had decided something, she wouldn’t just change her mind on a whim. She wouldn’t turn back on that. And yet...

    “... with... I...” Nanoha raised distressed eyes to her friends. “... I’m sorry, Arisa-chan, Suzuka-chan. I’m really, really sorry. But... I just can’t.” She looked miserable. But despite that, she’d made her mind up. Something, somehow, had changed her decision at the last second.

    Well then. That was that, it seemed.

    “Uh... Arisa?”

    The blonde was looking down, face hidden by her hair. As Suzuka looked closer, she could see that her fists were clenched tightly in her lap, and she was actually physically shaking. Before she could reach out in concern, Arisa spoke, her voice low, tight and full of barely restrained fury.

    “So what you’re saying,” she ground out through gritted teeth, “is that you still won’t say. We’re worried about you, we want to help, we’re your friends,” this last word she almost spat, “ But that’s still not enough, and you’re just going to keep trying to handle whatever it is by yourself, and deny anything is happening.” By the end of the terse summary, Arisa’s voice hadn’t risen much, but the hurt, insulted tone was clear, still undercut by raw fury. Eyes wide, almost fearfully, Nanoha nodded, and Arisa seemed to notice the response despite having not turned her head.

    Abruptly, she turned back to the rail - a violent, sudden movement that sent her hair flying back over her shoulder. Taking two rapid steps forward, limbs stiff with anger and slight frame trembling with fury, she spoke again, grimly staring out of the window - not quite shouting, but nowhere near her previous quiet tone, obviously starting to lose the struggle to keep calm.

    “If you’re just going to lie to your friends to keep them out of your business, then fine, Nanoha. If you want to keep insisting nothing is wrong while you sneak out at night and come back limping and covered in bruises, that’s just fine. But don’t mock us by pretending nothing’s wrong. We’re worried about you, and we want to help, and all you do in return is feed us this line of...” She whirled back around, eyes alight and furious, almost yelling now, as angry as Suzuka had ever seen her. Something seemed to keep her from finishing, though, her rant cut off like a knife and she seemed to shrink slightly as she gathered herself, taking several deep, calming breaths.

    “If you ever decide to actually be honest with us,” she resumed, not looking at Nanoha, who was looking at her in a mixture of fear, hurt and pleading, “then we’ll listen. But until then...” Finally, she met the girl’s eyes, and glared at her in hot, furious betrayal, her anger all the greater for how much she cared beneath it, “... until then, I don’t want to hear any more from you. Not after this.”

    Tears glimmering at the corners of her eyes - of anger, hurt or sadness, Suzuka couldn’t tell - the blonde whirled on a heel and stalked off. Casting a sorrowful, apologetic look at Nanoha, who was still sitting stunned, Suzuka hesitated for a moment before following her.

    Walking as fast as she could, trying as hard as she could to suppress the fuming, boiling cloud of anger and hurt inside her, Arisa let her legs carry her where they would, uncaring of where she ended up.

    She didn’t look back.

    ...​

    Head hung low, Nanoha trudged home, still smarting from Arisa’s vehemence. The girl’s words had hurt, but not as much as the pain and frustrated helplessness in her eyes as she shouted. Nanoha had experience with knowing something was wrong and being unable to help. It wasn’t a state she would wish on her worst enemy, let alone her best friend.

    The cold bit at her skin, errant breezes tugging her clothes this way and that as she walked. Strands of hair fell across her face as the wind snatched at them. The weather was cold, the sunny days coming to an end. Off to the east, the skies were darkening, a storm front moving in. Shivering, she sped up, hurrying back to the warmth and safety of her home and her family.

    Yuuno seemed to take in her mood with a glance as she walked in stiffly. He ducked his head, either in apology or sympathy.

    ‘They... didn’t take it well?’

    Nanoha glared. He took the hint and shut up. The aura in the room radiated out from the small figure as she flopped onto the bed, her body language depressive and melancholy. He shifted uncomfortably, unsure of what to do. His charge was angry and upset, and it was... sort of his fault.

    Not that he wouldn’t say the same thing again, if she asked him out of the blue like she had earlier. Telling her friends wasn’t a good idea; he believed that as a matter of certainty. But their reactions to it had apparently not been positive, and he had to admit, he could see why. And now Nanoha was lying on her bed, scowling at the ceiling and showing none of the cheerful enthusiasm she usually displayed.

    ‘Why can’t I tell them, anyway?’ Nanoha’s voice sounded petulant, and Yuuno was vividly reminded for a moment that this girl, who had fought monsters and risked her life in saving him, was only nine years old. Indeed, she had only found out about magic a month ago. He wasn’t much older, of course, but he had grown up accustomed to responsibility and independence. Nanoha was a stranger to all of this, shouldering a role that would have daunted adults three times her age.

    ‘You know why,’ he replied as gently as he could. ‘It’s-’

    ‘Too dangerous, I know, I know. You keep saying.’ She rolled over, huffing grumpily. “Stupid Arisa. Why can’t she just... urgh. I want to tell her, can’t she see that? I just...”

    Another pause. Yuuno tried to think of something to say to fill the silence, but nothing came to mind. The diatribe wasn’t really directed at him, anyway. This had been fermenting for a while, and if it didn’t come out now, it would later. He’d seen it happen in his cousins, occasionally, when they had a fight. Deciding to let her vent - or possibly declining to remind her of his presence and make himself a target - he curled up tighter on the desk and watched the sullen girl, waiting for her to finish.

    “... and the girl! Fate! All mysterious and... urgh. She said she was trying to get the Jewel Seeds for someone close to her, but not who or why! Is it too much to ask that everyone could just be open about things?!” Angrily, Nanoha rolled back, tossing a pillow across the room in a brief fit of frustration. From his position on the other side of the room, Yuuno felt a brief moment of relief that magic wasn't a reflex for her yet. Better a pillow than a training shot. Or an uncontrolled blasting spell.

    Nanoha’s tantrum seemed to be reaching its peak as she fumed. Abruptly, something seemed to tip internally, and her jaw set. “You know what?” she announced, “Fine!” She sat up, expression indignant. Where she had been morose as she came in, and sulky as she vented, she was now well into defiant, and verging on aggressive. Thumping the bed for emphasis, she nodded fiercely, her brief slump into depression replaced by incensed resolve. “If Arisa wants to have her tantrum, I’ll let her! She can be all stubborn, see if I care! And Suzuka can too! And when I can tell them, they’ll understand why I wasn’t able to right now!”

    Yuuno quietly wondered whether she was trying to convince him or herself with this, but held back from asking. This turn into determination seemed... positive. Mostly.

    “And if Fate won’t tell me what she’s doing, I’ll...” Nanoha faltered slightly as she remembered the outcome of the last two fights against the blonde, but rallied magnificently, “I’ll get stronger until I can beat her, and then I’ll make her tell me! And if the Jewel Seeds keep coming, I’ll stop them all myself if I have to! And if anything else happens, I’ll deal with that, too!”

    Suiting word to deed, she sprung up from her prone position and raced out the door, Yuuno left forgotten in her wake. Following, with a faint tinge of foreboding about what she might be intending, he nonetheless found himself left behind by her as she sped off downstairs.

    By the time he caught up to her, Nanoha had appropriated a broom from a cupboard and assumed a combative stance in the living room. Pausing at the doorway in mild confusion, the ferret watched in bemusement as she swiped at the air with it, nearly overbalancing once or twice as she swung with a little too much enthusiasm.

    ‘Um... Nanoha?’

    ‘Hush, this is part of my plan. Miyuki’s upstairs, so you need to go up and get her to come down here. Then I can pretend to want to learn staff fighting, and get her to teach me, so that I can use Raising Heart better!’

    Yuuno winced inwardly at the thought of Nanoha continuing to use the delicate Device as a melee weapon, but wearily accepted that he wasn’t likely to change Nanoha’s mind on the matter. And the girl had a point - greater combat skills would certainly increase her chances of survival in the fights against both Jewel Seeds and Fate Testarossa. He began to turn back upstairs, towards Miyuki’s room, just as the door behind Nanoha opened.

    The next few seconds happened very fast. Stepping backwards with a childish “hya!”, Nanoha drove her impromptu stick sideways, still trying to emulate the movements that Fate had made so crisply and easily during their last fight. The momentum spun her round like a top, twirling through a half-rotation with the stick trailing out wildly, before it came to an abrupt stop in a slender hand raised protectively in front of its owner’s face.

    With a slowly mounting sense of dread, Nanoha followed the hand up the arm attached to it, over a tensed shoulder and into a face. A familiar face. A familiar face that had one eyebrow raised, and which had just entered the room from entirely the wrong direction.

    “Uh... Nanoha?” asked Miyuki warily, not letting go of the broom handle poised inches away from her face. “Why are you... did mum ask you to clean the ceiling or something? Because I think you’re meant to use the dusters, and... wouldn’t it be better to get Dad or... well, anyone but the littlest one in the family to do it?” A smile crept onto her lips at Nanoha’s mortified expression as she gently teased the girl.

    Nanoha flushed bright red and stammered nervously, wide-eyed at how close the broom had been to Miyuki’s face when her hand had snapped up to catch it. “Um... I... ah... I...”

    “Breathe, little sister. I’m not mad, you didn’t connect. Though I would sort of like an explanation.”

    “Well... um...” Nanoha struggled to find an explanation for a moment, looking sheepishly up at her sister, before her brain kicked into gear once more and she proceeded with stage two of her original plan.

    “I’m doing staff fighting! Like you and papa and Kyouya! I want to learn, too!” She tugged on the broom, trying to get it back to demonstrate. Still caught in Miyuki’s iron grip, it moved perhaps a centimetre.

    “Really.” The older girl sounded dubious. “And why the sudden enthusiasm?”

    “Ummm...” Nanoha searched for an explanation that Miyuki would accept, scuffing her foot nervously on the floor. “I... uh... the new Ghibli movie?”

    Miyuki stared at her for a moment, and then let go of the broom. Tilting her head, she gave Nanoha a searching look that made her squirm, and seemed to have a short mental debate with herself. After a second or two of decision, though, her expression melted into a slightly amused smile, though the evaluating look remained.

    “Well, noble inspirations aside, I’m afraid you’re not quite living up to the movies,” she joked with a faint grin. “If you really want to learn, I suppose I can teach you, but... Nanoha, if you get bored of this in a week or so and decide to do something else, I will not be pleased. If you really want to learn, you’ll have to show me that you’re serious about it.”

    “I am! I’ll work really hard on it, I promise!” Nanoha seemed to blaze with determination, and Miyuki took a half step back, surprised by her emphasis. The appraisal intensified, and she nodded as if something had been confirmed.

    “Well... alright. In that case, go change into something more... wearable, and meet me out in the dojo. The first thing we need to work on is falls.” She eyed Nanoha’s hands where the clutched the broomstick, and closed her eyes in exasperation. “And the second thing will be your grip. Now go! Shoo! I can only give you a couple of hours today, so hurry up!”

    Nanoha stared at her sister for a moment, stunned at how... how easily she had agreed. She wasn’t sure Miyuki had fully believed her excuses, but if she hadn’t, she wasn’t questioning it. She was...

    The memory of Miyuki’s face as she woke up in hospital resurfaced. The worry, the anger, the concern. Examining her sister’s face, she caught a glimpse of that feeling still there. Mixed with a determination not to have to go through it again.

    Well. That explained... things.

    Impulsively, Nanoha threw herself at Miyuki, engulfing her in a brief, hard hug which was reciprocated in full measure. Her sister knew she wasn’t telling the whole truth, but... she was trusting her. Trusting that whatever she needed staff fighting skills for, it was for a good reason.

    “Thank you, Miyuki-neechan,” she mumbled, voice muffled by her sister’s torso, face pressed into her chest. After a final squeeze, she looked up with a bright smile, eyes a little teary. “I’ll go get ready now! I’ll meet you in the dojo!” Already going through her wardrobe in her head, she dashed off upstairs to change.

    Miyuki watched her go, eyes narrowed. Following her sister until the girl was out of sight, she hummed to herself quietly, lips pursing as she thought. Then she shrugged, pulling out a phone and heading off in the direction of the dojo.

    “Hey, Kaya? Sorry, I won’t be able to make it to study this afternoon. Something came up. No, don’t worry, nothing bad, it’s just...”

    Still watching from the doorway, Yuuno smiled. Nanoha was bearing a heavy burden, yes. But she was waking up to the fact that she had family willing to support her in it. That was good. Worries assuaged, he followed Nanoha upstairs with a lighter step than he’d been carrying in weeks.

    Perhaps things were starting to look up, after all.

    ...​

    As Nanoha was beginning to be introduced to the basics of stick fighting, another girl well acquainted with the practice was walking along a high street, heading back to her apartment with a fresh bag of food and a satchel of library books. She hummed a happy tune as she paced along the streets; by now familiar enough with the city to navigate back home unconsciously. Her thoughts drifted idly, content for the moment. As the high-rise glass and steel facade of her current residence rose above her, she came back from the pleasant fog of daydreams and mundane boredom into sharp focus.

    Nodding pleasantly to the porters in the lobby as she passed them on the way in, she took the elevator on up to her penthouse and toed the door open, burdened down with groceries and books as she was.

    “Fate-chan!” Arf greeted her, as enthusiastically as always. “Did you bring more ramen?” Her tail and ears twitched at the thought of the delectable Earth meal, and she hopped off the couch and approached her master, sniffing inquisitively.

    “No, just groceries.” Fate ignored her familiar’s whine of disappointment, dodging round her with a slight smirk and depositing the bags on the kitchen table. Checking to make sure that Arf hadn’t followed, she slid half a dozen packages of instant ramen out of the bags surreptitiously and hid them in the-

    “I knew it!”

    ... cupboard. Apparently, Arf’s sense of smell was as good as she so often claimed. An annoyed twitch ticking at her eye, Fate sighed in resignation. So much for surprising her friend. Puppy-like, Arf pranced in a circle, chasing her own tail and singing triumphantly. “Ramen ramen ramen, ramen ramen ramen, hope you got some spicy things, for the ramen ramen!”

    “Okay, yes,” admitted Fate, pushing Arf away and defending the treat from her grabs, “I have ramen. But you’re not to have any yet.” Arf immediately began to protest, but Fate waved her down. “No! You need some healthy food! This is a snack food and a reward; you’re not to have it now.”

    “Aww... but... but...” A sharp rap on the nose aborted her attempt to grab some of the packets and sent her whimpering back several steps, where she levelled a pleading look at Fate. “Fate-chan...” she protested, turning the full force of her puppy eyes on the girl. Fate stared back, entirely unaffected, and eventually Arf slumped, pouting.

    “Meanie.”

    Fate let the barb pass, packing the rest of the groceries away, and pulled out the first book in the pile. While she had done her best to accommodate Linith’s insistence that she take some time to spend on her own pursuits, she wasn’t quite capable of wasting time on something totally irrelevant to her mission. So she had compromised, and bought a few history books. They probably wouldn’t be that useful, but knowing about the history of the region she was working in couldn’t hurt, and might yield a few valuable insights.

    Flipping the book open to the first page, it was, of course, gibberish. Sighing, she called Bardiche up to hover over the page, and after a few seconds of scanning and translation, a more readable pane of light appeared above it, filled with glowing Midchildan text.

    Settling back in the chair, curling up and letting the soft cushions engulf her slight form, Fate began to read.

    She was halfway through the fourth chapter and fast becoming engrossed when Arf sidled into the kitchen in human form. Given the way she was staying close to the floor, crawling along in what she probably considered to be a stealthy, surreptitious manner and quietly humming her ramen song to herself, Fate was able to make a rough guess at what she was there for. Sighing, and tearing herself from the detailed account of the early Kamakura period, she glared at the hopeful familiar.

    “Arf!” she snapped out, causing the girl in question to jump with a squeak of surprise. Fate stared for a second, honestly nonplussed. Had... had she actually thought Fate couldn’t see her? While humming? Despite her best efforts, the blonde’s lips twitched upwards in the beginnings of a smile.

    “Arf,” she repeated, “no ramen. Stop trying to sneak over and steal it.”

    “Awww... but...”

    “Do you want me to throw it all away?”

    Arf’s eyes went wide and fearful for a moment, and she almost seemed to teleport away from the cupboard containing her precious ramen supplies. Fate endured her plaintive stare for another minute or so before impatiently beckoning her over. Recognising her intent, Arf shifted into her wolf form and padded over, curling up on the couch and releasing a low, happy growl as Fate’s hand came down to stroke her absentmindedly.

    “Arf?” she murmured after a moment, “If it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could make me some tea?” The orange-red wolf lingered for a moment, growling sulkily at being forced to move from her comfortable spot just as she had got settled, but eventually slipped off onto the floor and padded through into the kitchen. A few moments of clanking and pouring later, Arf came back out in human form, holding a teacup and saucer and looking uncharacteristically worried.

    Carefully setting the drink down on a side table, she curled up again next to Fate on the couch again and staring off into the distance, lost in thought. After a few minutes of peaceful silence, broken only by the quiet rasp of Fate turning the pages, she spoke tentatively, idly winding a loop of hair around one of her fingers.

    “Um... Fate-chan?”

    “Mmm?” Fate’s eyes didn’t leave her book, though she turned her head slightly to show that she was listening.

    “What... what will we do if the TSAB show up, Fate-chan? Only... there’s already that Nanoha girl. And the ferret with her, and...” Arf was speeding up as she got into full flow, hands beginning to tremble a little and eyes widening. Apparently, she’d been thinking about this for a while, and was rightfully scared of the possibility.

    “Arf, calm down,” Fate cut her familiar off before she could work herself into a rant. Attention now fully on the other girl, she absently flicked her book closed before settling back and pursing her lips in thought.

    “... you’ve been thinking about this.”

    Arf nodded frankly. “Since the Jewel Seed in the river. Maybe even a little before. Fate-chan, if the TSAB turn up, we’re... I mean, I’m good, and you’re amazing, but the TSAB are just...”

    Fate nodded, biting her lip and considering. Arf wasn’t the only one to have had a few moments of gut-wrenching dread about exactly that occurrence. The TSAB were a frightening enemy, and everything she’d learned about them in the past three years drove that point home with chilling finality. If it came down to a direct confrontation between her and the Bureau, she would lose. Perhaps not to the first team sent after her. She might even survive or escape the second. But it was a near certainty that once the specialists of the Bureau started to move in, her chances of completing her mission dwindled to zero. And that would mean that she would have failed Mother, and... and Alicia would never get better.

    Still. Her mother had been over this with her, describing the TSAB’s strengths and weaknesses, outlining their plan for avoiding the self-appointed police force. Patting her book absently, Fate gathered her thoughts and started.

    “The first thing you should remember is that the TSAB aren’t very old - only about seventy years have passed since they were set up. And Dimensional Space is big. Very big. The main factor providing for our safety is the sheer size of the Dimensional Sea,” she said, her voice unconsciously shifting as she recited what her mother had told her, “and the fact that the TSAB are still seriously lacking on manpower.” She tilted her head, dredging up the figures from her memory. “This is Unadministered World #97... I think the nearest Administered World is three dimensions away by the shortest route possible - Unadministered Worlds 89, 96 and 93 are between us and there. That would be... Pihroea, I think it’s called. A Type 4 world, but not as nice as Mid, and mostly a wildlife preserve.” She smirked slightly at this, brushing a lock of hair out of her face and behind an ear as she continued, “Which is, Mother says, a nice way of saying ‘it has a small military garrison to protect a backwater colony which no-one cares about’. And that’s the nearest TSAB presence to us.”

    She smiled at Arf. “So, to start with, as long as we keep our heads down and don’t do anything too flashy, the TSAB will never think to look for us here. They don’t even know we exist, and the chances of them ‘just happening’ to look in on this planet with sensors good enough to detect us as so long as to be almost impossible.” Considering for a moment, she absently stroked Arf’s hair as she thought, brushing away the curl made by the orange-haired girl’s fiddling. “And... I can’t think of many things that could bring them here from that far away. I mean, Na... Takamachi-san and I have had full-scale magical battles, and that isn’t detectable from much beyond orbit, even at the levels we fight at. Anything they could pick up from their standard patrol routes would have to be enormous, and I doubt we’ll be seeing anything like that.”

    “Okay...” said Arf, mollified somewhat. The tension wasn’t entirely gone, though, and while she had stopped shaking under Fate’s petting, her voice still held a tinge of worry. “So they’re really, really unlikely to find us by chance, then. But what if they do, somehow?”

    Considering this, the blonde girl picked up her tea and sipped at it, savouring the taste and giving herself some time to think.

    “That... would cause problems, yes,” she acceded with a careful nod. “But the TSAB is still spread thin. They really don’t have enough people to manage all the territory they administer, Mother says. So the chances of them sending in their top troops immediately are very low. We’d more likely be seeing one or two relatively experienced mages - A rank, probably - and a backup squad of C or D-rankers.” She smirked again, raising an eyebrow at Arf. “I think we can probably handle an opponent like that with ease. It’ll take them at least a week or so to bring in their powerful soldiers - maybe more, if something else requires their attention elsewhere in Dimensional Space - so we’d have to get as many Jewel Seeds in that time as possible and step up our timetable.”

    She sighed, leaning back into the soft cushions, tilting her head back until she could see the sky through the vast window behind her. Burgundy eyes fluttered closed, and a sudden increase in the amount of heat being thrown off next to her marked Arf’s shift into her wolf form, fears apparently put to rest. The soft fur snuggled closer to her, and she brought a hand up to caress Arf’s muzzle and tickle under her chin. “That would be really troublesome though,” she mumbled sleepily. “Best would be to collect all the Jewel Seeds fast and efficiently, then get back to the Garden without anyone knowing we were ever here.

    A rumbling growl was her only response - one that would have been a purr, if Arf could make such a noise - and a comfortable silence reigned in the luxurious apartment as the sun dipped towards the horizon and evening began to set in. The rays of light through the window travelled slowly up the wall, illuminating the family picture - Linith hugging Arf and Fate together with a smile, Precia standing slightly back and to one side with a pleasantly neutral expression - that hung in pride of place above the mantelpiece.

    ‘Fate-chan... ?’ Arf mumbled telepathically, and repeated herself slightly louder when the drowsy query drew no response from the blonde, whose breathing had evened out. She looked to be in a light doze, and Arf didn’t like to wake her, but one point still nagged at her. ‘Fate-chan, what about...’

    Whatever she was about to ask was cut off, however, by the shrill tones of the phone demanding attention on the other side of the room. Groaning, and blinking sleep from her eyes, Fate pushed the heavy weight of Arf off her lap, which the wolf had gradually moved to cover during their shared nap, and stumbled over to the sleek black handset. Plucking it out of its charger, she fumbled and nearly dropped it before recovering it before it hit the floor and answering.

    “Hello?” A pause. “Yes, this is her. Um... yes, I did.” She tilted her head slightly, wandering back over to the window and ignoring Arf trying to eavesdrop on the other half of the conversation. “You have?” she exclaimed, surprised, “That’s wonderful, what- yes, yes, that would be fabulous. Thank you.” She held the phone between her ear and shoulder as she jotted something down on a notepad, smiling. “Yes, I’ll be there as soon as possible. Thank you very much for your help.” Hanging up, she hurried over to the door, Arf trailing behind her in human form.

    “Fate-chan? Who was that?” she asked, bemused by the girl’s sudden activity. Excited red eyes fell on her with a grin.

    “That was the private eye we asked to investigate Takamachi-san’s background,” explained Fate, pulling her coat on. “He says he has his results ready for us to look over.” She paused. “So that means you’re going to have to make myself look like you could be my mother again,” she added, staring meaningfully towards the bedroom where the clothes were kept.

    ...​

    Reclining in the throne-like chair, Precia rested her chin on a thin hand and listened, eyes slightly narrowed. The vast, shadowy chamber she sat in was silent, save for the sound of the blonde girl speaking on the other side of the glowing panel hanging in the air. Linith stood at her side, quietly attentive and offering a cheerful smile as she gave Fate her full attention. She had been worried that the trip away from the Garden of Time would have been difficult for the girl, but she seemed to be positively blossoming in the new situation.

    ... and actually, she looked rather more animated than usual, talking about the young native mage she had been competing with. Linith’s smile grew slightly, taking on a slight overtone of personal amusement, and she filed that observation away for later consideration. Fate could use a friend her own age besides Arf, and from the looks of things, she seemed to have taken a liking to the determined little brunette despite their rivalry.

    But such things could wait. Diverting her thoughts from potential burgeoning friendships, she returned her attention to Fate.

    “... he also found her school records, so I had a look through them,” she was saying. “She’s intelligent, and seems to be driven to exceed. She’s excellent at mathematics in particular, easily the best in her year.” She shuffled through a few of the papers she had spread out before her on the office desk, selecting one and skimming over it. “Her brother and sister don’t have similar grades... maybe it comes from her mother’s side of the family.”

    Precia nodded, lips pursing. “That would explain why she’s taken so naturally to magic,” she mused thoughtfully. “And her magic?”

    “AA-rank at least, I would say,” Fate replied seriously. “She’s not as strong as I am, but a fair amount of that is simple lack of skill. If given proper teaching - and believe me, she’s been learning as fast as she can - she could be really good.”

    “Interesting,” Precia stated, clinically. “If that is true, she could soon represent a powerful agent on the board.” She frowned. “It’s... strange. The planet is largely devoid of magic, and yet this girl would be impressive even by the standards of Midchilda. It’s nothing like the normal magical distribution you would expect to find.”

    Picking up another sheet of paper, this one lined with pictures, Fate cleared her throat and began to read from it. “Regarding her family... her father is Shiro Takamachi. Apparently, he used to be a bodyguard of some sort, and retired upon being ‘injured in the line of duty’ - no details of circumstance. He spent a long time in hospital though, so the injuries must have been severe. He now runs a bakery with his wife, Momoko. Her brother Kyouya-san is a half-brother from Shiro-san’s first marriage, and Miyuki-san, the sister, is actually her cousin on the paternal side, adopted.” She looked up. “That’s not all, though. Mother, I’ve been observing them practice - all but Nanoha-san and Momoko-san are active sword-users who practice daily in their dojo. They’re using magic.”

    Precia’s eyes widened at this, and Linith let out a slight gasp. “You’re sure?” the older woman pressed. “Certain?”

    Fate nodded solemnly, her expression serious. Inside, she was glowing at the focused attention her mother was paying her, happy that she was being useful. “It’s crude, not like any of the formal styles for using mass-based weapons for magic in the books. And not very powerful - barely E-rank, and they’re not using any actual spells. More... enhancement. Making themselves faster, stronger. I think they might be slightly altering the trajectories of any projectiles or strikes aimed at them, too. Like a very, very crude Barrier Jacket. But it’s definitely there. I’m not sure they’re even consciously aware they’re doing it. The son and daughter certainly aren’t.”

    “Hmm.” It was a cool, deliberate sound. “Interesting.” Precia drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair, frowning slightly in thought. A raised hand forestalled Fate from continuing as she considered the information she had.

    “... it’s possible her father could be ex-TSAB,” she said slowly. “Unlikely, but possible. Hmm. Keep it in mind, certainly, just in case. As to the girl... well, it seems that we’ve found out why your comment had such an effect on her. How old was she when her father was injured?”

    Papers shuffled. Red eyes skimmed over lines of text. “Uh... it looks like she was four.”

    The smirk was cold and triumphant, and Precia nodded, before frowning and raising a hand to her mouth to mask a serious of violent, shuddering coughs. Linith immediately moved round to support her, one hand going to her chest with a soft glow and the other wiping red flecks away from her mouth. As the fit passed, she waved Linith off and looked back up, composure regained as effortlessly as if it had never been lost. “A serious injury to a loved one at such a young age...” she continued, stifling another cough, “it would be surprising had it not left marks. This is good. Well done, Fate. What else?”

    Fate scuffed a foot along the floor in agitation. Her mother looked... thin. Too pale. The coughing fits were getting more frequent, too. Her upset showed as she examined the older woman, noting the bags under her eyes and the laboured breathing - harder than it had been a month ago? It was hard to tell for sure, but she thought it might be.

    An impatient cough brought her back to reality with a gasp, and she hurriedly rewound the conversation in her head to recall Precia’s last inquiry. “Ah... she seems compassionate, and has made multiple attempts to reach out to me, which is promising. At least two close friends - Arf met them in the hot springs resort up in the mountains. They seem close - the blonde in particular is... ah... protective of her. I imagine they’re concerned about her, as I rather doubt she’s explained where her injuries are coming from.” Linith raised a mildly admonishing eyebrow at this, and Fate blushed. “Uh... that is... um. Yes. Well. Anyway, uh... the ferret, yes. It’s definitely magical, and seems to at least be aligned with the TSAB. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that it is advising her not to tell anyone about her magical activities. That would be in line with what you said about Unadministered Worlds. So the first step is to neutralise the ferret and get her away from it.”

    Precia rewarded her with a thin smile and an assenting nod. “Good. Yes, that is certainly a tactic worth exploring. Besides that... hmm. Capitalise on her father’s injury, tell her that by stopping you, she endangers your sister’s life. If the opportunity arises, and the ferret is nowhere nearby... have Arf distract it, if necessary... ask her to help you save Alicia. If she is as kind-hearted as you claim, it will at the very least discourage her from her attempts to interfere.”

    “I understand, mother.”

    “Good.” Precia leaned forward, eyes intent, and almost succeeded in hiding a faint wince as the motion jarred an existing ache in the wrong way. “With that concluded, how goes the search for the Jewel Seeds?”

    Smiling proudly, and trying to put the brief flash of pain in her mother’s eyes out of her mind, Fate motioned to Bardiche. The yellow gem pulsed once, and a faint aura of gold light surrounded it. Buoyed up on the gentle radiance, half a dozen blue gems floated through the air, circling slowly above the Device in a hypnotic orbit. The blonde girl looked up hopefully, eager for praise, hoping to put Precia in a better mood. “I’ve managed to track down and recover three more Jewel Seeds since the last time we spoke,” she said, “bringing me to a total of six. I suspect several are in the ocean, but I intend to put off retrieving those until I have collected all of the ones on land, as they are likely to be much more difficult to get at.”

    A skilled observer might have caught the faintly annoyed narrowing of Precia’s eyes. But only a very skilled one would have been able to read it in the brief instant it was on display before she displaced it with a pleasant, congratulatory smile. Fate, preoccupied, inexperienced and looking for something else, missed it entirely.

    “Six Jewel Seeds? I am pleased, Fate, well done indeed. You are a good girl, working so hard for your dear sister.” She leaned back as the girl beamed at her and studied her face - so like Alicia’s, and yet...

    She sighed sadly, projecting an air of faint disappointment and grief. “But... Fate-chan. Six Jewel Seeds alone will not be nearly enough. Could... could I ask you to try that little bit harder, to find more? Alicia needs you, Fate-chan. Thirteen Jewel Seeds at the very least will be necessary to cast the spell. You are doing well so far, but I have no doubt you could be doing better still.” A smile flickered across her lips as she watched the girl pale slightly and bite her lip, a guilty look in her widening eyes. Putting on a reassuring tone, she leaned forwards to deliver the coup de grace.

    “I trust you, Fate-chan. You will not fail me.”

    Granting the girl one last smile, she flicked the connection closed. In the apartment on Earth, Fate sat very, very still for several minutes, Arf watching in concern. The familiar was about to ask her what was wrong when, the girl stood up mechanically and moved, slowly and stiffly, through to the main room.

    Arf followed her just in time to see the history book hit the wall, closely followed by the empty teacup. A cushion followed them, hurled with an angry scream as Arf rushed over to grab the girl in a hug that was both restraint and comfort, staring wide-eyed at the faint trace of tears glittering in her master’s eyes.

    “Fate-chan! Fate-chan, what’s wrong? Fate-chan?”

    Trembling, Fate fought against the hug for a few seconds before subsiding and weakly reaching her arms around Arf’s neck to return. After a few more moments, the trembling slowed and stopped, and Fate muttered into Arf’s shoulder.

    “S’okay. I... I’ve calmed down now. You can let go.”

    Tentatively, ready to grab her again if she resumed throwing things, Arf released her from the embrace and stepped back a little, eyeing her with concern. Fate‘s breathing was a little ragged, and her palms were white from where she had been clenching her fists too tightly, with a row of curved impressions where her fingernails had dug into her skin. Other than that, however, she seemed... not fine, but at least back in control. She looked at the far wall with a hint of shame and quietly walked over, gathering up the book and the shards of china in silence. Arf watched quietly as the broken teacup was disposed of neatly in the bin, and the book was exiled to a shelf in one of the rooms they rarely used.

    “So,” she ventured. “Um... what... was that?”

    A hint of anger flashed across Fate’s face, quickly suppressed. Arf almost flinched, but the anger seemed more focused inwards than out. The impression was borne out when Fate spoke, her voice quiet but intense.

    “I... mother has trusted me with this. And... and I’ve been taking naps and reading history books and d-drinking tea,” she closed her eyes and took a calm, centring breath before continuing, in a much leveller tone of voice, “when I should have been looking for the Jewel Seeds. Mother is right, I haven’t been trying hard enough. And that’s... selfish, and wrong, because it’s Alicia’s life.”

    She squeezed Bardiche, wordlessly triggering her transformation, and started her way up to the roof.

    “Come along, Arf. We need to patrol.”

    ...​

    Sunset, and a slight nip hung in the air as night set in, the heavy blanket of cloud that had moved in during the afternoon reflecting the city lights down from the sky. Safe from the cold in her orange sweater, Nanoha padded quietly along the streets, favouring her left leg slightly. Whatever might be said about her sister’s skill in comparison to her father and brother, it was impossible to deny that the older girl was good. Nanoha’s fingers were still aching slightly from one or two sharp raps obtained when Miyuki was correcting her grip. She could feel the difference though; it was far more secure holding a staff like this than how she had been doing it. She’d been able to block strikes from Miyuki that were, as far as she could tell, even stronger than the ones Fate had been dishing out, and yet the white oak jo staff barely jarred her hands at all!

    She smiled happily, pausing at a corner and concentrating. Her senses spread out, searching for any hint of a Jewel Seed activation - it would be much easier if she could sense them before they were active, but Yuuno had explained that she wasn’t skilled enough to do that yet. Finding nothing, as she had every time so far that night, she opened her eyes again and continued on her patrol, heading off down the well-lit street with a bounce to her step. There were still people up and about at this time of the evening, and she was forced to weave carefully through one or two crowds as they were hustled out of shops that were closing.

    A flashing neon billboard caught her attention, and she regretfully took in the time flashing in one of the lower corners. It was... late. Not badly so, but she’d been out longer than she’d thought. Mama and papa would start to get worried if she stayed out much longer.

    “Ahh...” she observed, “it’s getting late. I... should probably get back home.” She threw a guilty look at Yuuno, perched on her shoulder and looking around with interest and focused attention. At her words, he turned to look at her, shifting slightly to keep his balance on the precarious perch. A slight smile fluttered onto Nanoha’s mouth as he did so - it never ceased to impress her, how effortlessly he kept his balance on her even while she was running. It didn’t even seem to be something he thought about, just a natural sense of graceful equilibrium.

    ‘That’s okay,’ he replied, eyes crinkling in a smile. It was impressive how expressive the face of a ferret could be - though that might just be Yuuno, as he was the first ferret Nanoha had met. ‘You go home and get something to eat. I’ll keep looking out here and call you if I find anything.’

    ‘You’re sure it’s not too much trouble? She didn’t want to look like she was slacking off or making excuses. Though... she was getting a little hungry, come to think of it. As if on cue, her stomach rumbled quietly, and Yuuno chuckled.

    ‘Yes, I’m sure. Go on now, go have dinner. Save some for me.’

    She beamed. Yuuno was a great friend. ’I will!’, she promised, and held still as he flowed off her shoulder and down her arm, hopping the short distance from her hand to the ground with a faint squeak.

    “Okay then, see you at home!” she chirped happily with a parting wave, surreptitiously checking to make sure that nobody was nearby to see her waving at a ferret -and more importantly, see the ferret waving back. As Yuuno turned and scampered off, his lithe tan form quickly disappearing amidst the feet of the thinning crowds, Nanoha turned back towards the rising moon, plotting a course that would take her past the bakery en route home. As she jogged along the pavement and bounced impatiently at the crossings, she turned her thoughts to the blonde girl they’d lingered on with relative frequency in recent weeks.

    She was better now. The staff alone... Miyuki hadn’t taught her much in the one session so far, mostly just corrected her stance and taught her how to fall, as well as going over a few of the most basic blocks and strikes. But that alone, she estimated, would give her vastly improved chances against the other girl. And hopefully mean that she would be slammed into the ground again. Oh no, she wasn’t letting that happen a third time. In fact, Nanoha had a little surprise planned for Fate if she tried to hook her like that in their next fight.

    Turning at a major junction, she carried on through a group of what looked like older students hitting the bars early and smiled wistfully as she realised her friends must be finishing their extracurricular lessons around now. One hand moved towards her pocket before stilling. Given Arisa’s explosion at her and Suzuka’s disappointed agreement with the fiery blonde, there would likely be no messages waiting on her phone. Nor would she be getting visits or phone calls over the weekend. With a sad sigh, she continued on her way, but the bounce and spring was gone from her step and her shoulders slumped a little.

    She was perhaps a quarter of the way home, and three or four minutes past parting ways with Yuuno, when it happened. A sudden, explosive wave of power blasted outwards from nearby, a little further towards the city centre, a pulsing, boiling outburst of magic with no form or structure, saturating the surroundings. She recognised it, even as the shock of it made her cry out and stumble, barely catching herself on a lamppost as she fell towards the ground. It was the familiar, the wolf-woman who had accompanied Fate at the springs. But that wasn’t what sent a chill down Nanoha’s spine and drew the colour from her cheeks.

    The thing that scared her was the answering spike of power, faint at first but rapidly building. It must have been right at the edge of the initial burst’s range - a miscalculation, perhaps, in its location. Had it been much further away, it might not have awoken at all. But such speculations were left abandoned for another day as Nanoha’s head turned fearfully towards the downtown area.

    Another Jewel Seed had awoken. And not only did it feel more powerful than those that had come before, it was also further away. Much further. A Barrier wouldn’t reach it if she cast one here. Even if she knew how to cast one. Whatever it was doing, it was doing it around people.

    ‘Yuuno!’ she shouted frantically, already scanning around for a side-alley to transform in. ‘Can you put up a Barrier?’

    His voice when he replied was as frantic and frightened as hers. ‘No, I’m too far! I’m not fast enough on my own, you need to come and get me! Quick, Nanoha! A Jewel Seed of such power could wreck untold devastation if we don’t get it under a Barrier!’

    Twin tails of hair flicked wildly as Nanoha frantically scanned for a safe place to change. Another pulse from... was that a pillar of light she could see between the high-rise buildings? She moved back, craning to get a better look. It was! Secrecy be damned, she had to get there and stop the damage as fast as possible.

    “Raising Heart! Please!” she called, desperately, and the cool, calm voice of the gem responded reassuringly as it blazed with pink light and enveloped her, running along her arms and encircling her torso as her Barrier Jacket dissolved into existence.

    [Alright, my master. Set Up, Ready.]

    The staff landed in her hands as it always had, and after an experimental twirl, she set her hands in the new grip as she had been taught. Holding it properly, it felt a lot more secure, and she felt a rush of confidence as she took to the sky. The stares from below were ignored as she focused on Yuuno’s location and pushed herself as fast as she felt safe going towards him. She could deal with the aftermath of being seen later, speed was of the essence here. She didn’t know how much time she had before the Jewel Seed did serious damage, but long experience listening to her parents discussing the logistics of operating a small business and the fragments of combat strategy she had heard her father teaching both told her that it was best to assume the worst case scenario.

    In this case, the worst case scenario was that the Jewel Seed had already done an enormous amount of damage, and would continue to do more with every second she delayed. Which was why, as she moved through the air fast enough that the streets below were a blur, weaving around tall buildings and other obstacles with the minimum deflection necessary to avoid them, she called ahead.

    ‘Yuuno! Get up on top of something high! I’ll pick you up without stopping!’

    She barely had time to process his affirmative before she was almost on top of him, eyes instantly drawn to the tan shape balanced on top of a lamppost. She dipped down below the roofs, bringing a rush of air in her wake that howled as it was drawn down between the buildings, scattering the detritus that littered them and almost bowling many of the pedestrians over as she passed overhead. She slowed fractionally as she passed the lamppost, and the tiny form leapt as she came near it, arm outstretched toward it. A corona of green magic surrounded Yuuno as he jumped, and she plucked him from the air, veering up again at speed sufficient to be little more than a white blur as the ferret clung on grimly to her shoulder, claws digging into her Barrier Jacket to maintain their grip.

    Turning at the zenith of her climb to face the Jewel Seed, she deflected the first blow by a mixture of pure reflex and sheer luck. It came from nowhere, a savage golden blade crackling down towards her face that she was barely able to turn aside with her staff, dropping several feet as she processed what had just happened. Fate’s eyes were like steel as she came back for another strike, and rather than block her, Nanoha turned and fled towards the Jewel Seed, a pink-wreathed comet hurtling through the evening sky.

    A high pitched whistle in the air and Yuuno’s mental shout gave her ample warning this time, as a trio of shots arced after her, splashing off the shield Yuuno raised. Frowning, she pulled upwards again in a loop, releasing a barrage of her own to slow the other girl down. If she wanted a fight that badly...

    ... except apparently she didn’t. Barely spending the magic to shield herself, the blonde girl was already moving at a ridiculously high speed, shooting away from them in the direction of the Jewel Seed. Left behind, her familiar turned her attention to Nanoha, orange chains whipping out to bind and slow her. A few dozen seconds of frantic dodging left Nanoha higher than she had been, backed by the moon, but every time she turned her back on the wolf, half a dozen shots flew at her or another glowing chain whipped out to snare her.

    ‘Nanoha! You go on ahead, I’ll keep her from following!’ Yuuno tensed on her shoulder and leapt into the air in front of her, a circle forming to support him. Her stomach fluttered uncomfortably.

    ‘What about the Barrier?’

    ‘The other girl will probably put one up! Anyway, the important thing is getting there and sealing the Jewel Seed before it can do any more damage! Go now, I’ll stop her from holding you back!’

    There was no time to argue or debate the point. Turning on a heel, Nanoha pushed herself faster than she’d ever moved before; streaking across the sky with such speed that her vision narrowed into a tunnel in front of her and the ground below became nothing more than a blur. The yellow dot ahead of her... expanded. Slightly. She wasn’t catching up, but she wasn’t falling behind, either.

    At least until the other mage noticed her pursuit and turned, doubling back to charge at her in a blazing aura of gold. From below, it looked like two comets leaving streaked trails as they soared towards one another on a collision course, lit by the moon and stars, and the reflected glow from the city beneath. Nanoha caught a split-second view of Fate’s face, lips tense and eyes hard, before the shock of the collisions sent them both hurtling back. Rather than back off and recover, she pushed herself forwards again, arcing back towards the Jewel Seed and curving in towards Fate. Another bone-jarring, cataclysmic crash of Device on Device, and Nanoha thanked every star in the heavens for her sister’s merciless correction of her grip and stance - it was the only thing allowing her to keep hold of Raising Heart as the two trails of light spiralled around one another, dipping towards each other and clashing repeatedly as they shot towards the pillar of light in the downtown city, sparks flying out from every explosive impact to fall like luminescent rain towards the awed and terrified citizens below.

    ...​

    The doctor smiled reassuringly at the young brunette, looking over the clipboard at the end of her bed. The illness was still progressing, but slower than it had been, and the risk of organ failure had dropped back to highly unlikely levels for now. Cheerfully advising her to take it easy and get plenty of rest, he left the room and headed along the ward to check in on the next patient on his list, a young leukaemia patient. He remembered her from previous visits, pink hair cropped short for the treatment until only stubble remained. She was miserable under the diet regime, too, and he considered ways to cheer her up as he strolled along the-

    “Dr Mato!” A hand on his shoulder turned him, and he raised an eyebrow at one of the porters, who looked a little out of breath. “Sorry Doctor, uh... you said you wanted to be told immediately when the test results from the blood analysis arrived. They’re on your desk, sir.”

    “The blood- ah, yes! Thank you very much.” He smiled at the young woman, who blushed slightly at the attention she was getting. Tall, young and with an open, friendly face under the crown of spiky black hair, the doctor was something of a heartthrob amongst the hospital staff. Sadly, he was also an oblivious one, as proven when he completely failed to notice her reaction and instead turned to look back along the corridor.

    “Hmm... as long as I make it quick, I should be able to skim over the results before I’m due to look in on Miss Yoshida,” he mused. “Alright then. Thank you again for informing me. I’ll be downstairs in my office for the next few minutes if anyone needs me, alright?”

    Stepping out of the lift on the ground floor, he whistled idly and frowned, trying to recall where he’d heard the tune. It sounded like... J-pop? Or maybe one of those new American bands? Repeating the whistled strains that he could recall, he concentrated on them, trying to force the memory up and bring the title to mind. Something about... fate? Fate bringing anguish, maybe. Lost in thought, he almost missed the strange glow coming from the bare, concrete flight of stairs leading downward on one side of the corridor.

    Almost. But not quite. Curiously, thoughts of songs and blood analysis forgotten, he approached the strange blue light coming from... those steps led down to the morgue, unless he missed his guess. It wasn’t the normal lighting down there - that was white, and nowhere near powerful enough to filter all the way up the steps.

    What was going on down there?

    His curiosity was on the point of overriding his caution when the matter was decided by a roar from below and a wash of light so intense that it left him blinking sunspots from his eyes. That settled it, whatever was happening down there was clearly not natural. Throwing caution to the winds, Mato rushed down the steps and flung open the door to the morgue. Cold air rushed out, ruffling his hair and sending goosebumps over his skin as he stared.

    There was a body on the slab. An autopsy, no doubt, which looked like it had still been in progress when... whatever it was, had happened. The doctors who had been conducting it lay limply on the floor, thrown across the room and into the bare concrete wall and the row of body storage lockers by the same wave of force that had apparently sent everything within ten yards of the autopsy table flying.

    Except... it wasn’t the body that they had been flung from, he was willing to bet. It was the gemstone, hovering above it, blazing with a purple-blue radiance and sending a pillar of light too bright to look at directly straight up into the ceiling. As he watched, wide-eyed, it slowly lowered itself into the still-open body cavity of the corpse, where the light dimmed somewhat, though the pulsing pillar of light remained.

    Mato gulped. This... this was freaky. Freaky, and strange, and wrong. He started violently as purple-blue arcs of static crackled out from the central body, crawling over the walls, the floor, the lockers -one of them even brushed across his arm, eliciting little more than a mild tingling. Biting his lip and hoping that the effect was just some harmless ionised light trails or... or something, he hurried over to his colleagues. The older man first, the senior surgeon who would have been performing the autopsy. The man’s wrinkled, balding head lay motionless against the floor, but his hands were slowly scraping at the floor, trying to get purchase so that he could get up again. That was a good sign, if he still had manual dexterity and was acting purposefully; he wasn’t in such bad shape that Mato needed to be worried. Yet.

    Kneeling at the man’s side, he touched his shoulder and gently took his arm, bracing himself to lift him to his feet. A rasping wheeze left the other doctor’s mouth as his hands scrabbled at Mato’s arm, clinging to the sleeve. Frowning, he carefully rolled him over - was his airway blocked? Was he worse off that the first impression had suggested him to be?

    The body turned at his guidance, slumping round onto its back, and Mato went very, very pale. The movement lifted the elderly man’s neck, which it became clear was bent at an impossible angle, far beyond what was natural. Looking closer, the young doctor could see several of the broken bones misaligned beneath the skin - a compound break, death should have been instantaneous. As if that wasn’t enough, the front of the man’s skull was slightly caved in from the force of the impact against the unforgiving concrete wall - he should be dead, every ounce of knowledge Mato possessed told him the man was dead. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t felt a pulse, either.

    And yet... he was still moving.

    Blank, rheumy eyes blazing with the same light as the hovering gemstone stared up at Mato as another laboured wheeze was forced out of protesting lungs, blue-violet radiance spilling from the corpse’s mouth as it opened. The hands continued to scrabble at his arm - not seeking aid, they were gripping, holding him in place! With a yell, he swung his free fist into the corpse’s face, putting all the strength he had behind the blow.

    It barely reacted. The head lolled back, yes, with the sickening sound of broken bone grinding on bone, but its grip on his other arm only tightened. Hearing a shuffling sound from behind him, he wrenched at the adamant grip to no avail - the corpse was somehow far, far stronger than any living human should be, let alone a dead one. The wizened fingers tightened further, like steel clamps enclosing his forearm in a vice-like grip, and began to pull back with unnatural strength.

    The door of the morgue was thick, and designed to swing shut on its own if left open. No sound from within escaped it to filter up to the corridor above.

    ...​

    Duck.

    Fate slid under a horizontal slash from Nanoha’s staff and silently cursed the name of whoever had taught the girl how to hold it properly. Her speed and responses had jumped sharply now that she knew how to use the damn thing in combat, and Fate had a nasty feeling that she was looking to repeat the smack to the face she’d given her last time they fought. As Nanoha peeled away, accelerating straight upwards to avoid a counterattack, Fate found cause to curse again, more colourfully this time. Half a dozen pink spheres were almost on top of her - the brunette must have cast them before attacking and set them to follow her in, shielded from sight by her own body.

    As close as they were, there was no time to bring her guard back into position or cast a shield. With a grunt of effort, Fate threw herself back and to the side, accepting two hits to avoid the rest. The blows felt like hammers on her right arm and hip, drawing a wince and a grimace from her as she ground her teeth to keep from crying out. Kicking off from her place hovering in the sky, she followed the pink trail, arcing round a building and coming into line of sight of the point of origin of the pillar of blue-violet light that marked the Jewel Seed’s presence. Her breath caught in her throat, as it had in that of the white-clad mage hanging in the air close by.

    The building below was unmistakeably a hospital.

    A choked sound from Nanoha snapped her out of the horrified moment as the girl dived towards the building. Fate barely even thought, snapping out a couple of Photon Lancer shots reflexively as her opponent opened her back to her. There was no thought behind it, only pure reflexive reaction to an opening. Yet, even had she had the time to think, she would likely have done the same. Nanoha... she was strange, that was true. A rival for the Jewel Seeds, and she’d hit Fate in the face with her shooting Device, which the blonde still felt a certain amount of (in her opinion) justified hostility over. But she was also kind, and had tried to be understanding, and had tried reached out to a stranger who had done nothing but attack her. And while she was improving rapidly, her skill still left something to be desired.

    Not, in short, the kind of person Fate wanted near the hospital below. The force of the Jewel Seed within was chilling in its intensity, and it was still building, still getting stronger.

    A pink shield absorbed her shots as Nanoha landed on the hospital roof, a bright white figure against the grey concrete, and she started to run towards one of the access doors. Fate swooped down after her, hesitating momentarily as she realised there was still no Barrier up. Did she have time to cast one?

    The end of Nanoha’s hair tails flicked out of sight, the rusted metal door creaking closed behind her, and Fate hissed in frustration as she set off after her in pursuit. She couldn’t allow Nanoha to get to the Jewel Seed first, and casting a Barrier wasn’t something she had much experience with - barely any, in fact, it was Arf’s area of expertise, not hers. In the time it would take her to force the spell through, Nanoha could get halfway to the Seed, and with a lead like that the risk of losing it to her altogether was too high.

    The door slammed back open with a yank, and the rooftop was left empty once more as the rivals descended into chaos.

    ...​

    Chikaze Yoshida was scared. It was something of a change of pace from the past few weeks, in which she had mostly been feeling ill, sick, weak and tired, sometimes all at the same time. But as changes went, this was not a particularly good one.

    The light had been the first sign. She couldn’t see the source, but the hospital grounds outside her second floor window were awash with a blue-violet glow that looked like nothing she’d ever seen before. The closest analogy she could make was, perhaps, the sudden bursts of illumination from fireworks going off, but this was a steady brightness, not fading or dimming.

    That wasn’t so bad on its own. But then the screaming had started, from the floors below. And stopped occasionally, and then restarted again, sometimes louder. Chikaze shifted uncomfortably in her bed. She was meant to be seeing Dr Mato, who was nice and friendly and looked a bit like her uncle. But he hadn’t shown up on time, and now there were crashes and screams coming from downstairs, and she didn’t know what was going on.

    Setting her jaw, the eight-year old levered herself out of bed and leaned on the infusion stand that stood beside the headboard, pausing as a rippling wave of nausea bubbled up her throat. Holding very still, she closed her eyes and took deep breaths, knowing from long experience that this particular side effect of the chemotherapy was not one she could just ignore. After a few moments of strained breathing and shivering, the nausea and light-headedness subsided slightly, leaving her with a sudden urge to cry. It wasn’t fair that she felt so horrible. Why couldn’t her body just be better without all the feeling-horrible-ness? Why did-

    Sighing heavily, and cutting those thoughts off as unproductive, she tested her balance carefully before hobbling towards the door, pulling the stand along with her and wincing as spikes of pain shot up her legs with each step. The cramps were another side-effect, made worse by her lack of activity sitting in bed all day. Before she’d been diagnosed, she’d been active, but the past few months had been spent getting progressively more and more out of shape, unable to exercise. Her constitution was too frail, the doctors told her. She couldn’t take it.

    It sucked. And she couldn’t even show how much it sucked, because that would make Mummy and Daddy worried. More worried. They were already upset whenever they visited her, and while they tried to hide it, they didn’t do so very well.

    The corridor was noisy and bustling, not with the businesslike sense of purpose she was used to, but rather with a kind of contained panic, the effect of everyone being scared and nobody knowing exactly what they were scared of.

    It wasn’t long before they found out. The door to the stairwell burst open, banging loudly on the wall and rebounding back in again. It stopped short against the female figure that now stood in the doorway, with pale skin and the occasional crackle of blue-violet static - the same colour as the all-pervading radiance outside - that skittered over her body in jagged, zigzagging arcs from point to point. This was clearly evident, because the only thing she wore was the remnants of a body bag draped over it, holes torn in it for her face and limbs. A trickle of blood ran down her right leg past the tag around her ankle, most likely from wounds hidden by the body bag. She was a tall blonde woman, brown eyes dulled and hair falling in limp curls around her shoulders, and she let out a rattling gargle that held everyone’s horrified attention as an alien light - the strange, blue-violet light that was becoming familiar - shone, far brighter than the illumination outside or the static crawling over her, from her mouth, her eyes and from the thin red line across her throat.

    “Th- that’s- i-it’s-” stuttered one of the porters in horror, and all hell broke loose as people turned and fled, screaming in terror. Chikaze huddled against the wall and clung tightly to it as they stampeded, ears ringing at the din. She got buffeted once or twice by passing bodies, crying out herself as her ribs protested at the treatment and agony lanced through her chest. Her infusion stand was yanked away hard by a collision, and she screamed as the needles were jerked out in a single, sharp movement. It took almost a minute for the corridor to clear, screams and crashes fading away into the distance and the relative safety of the upper floors.

    Another of the creepy death-rattles made her shrink into the slight alcove she had found in the wall, scared for her life, but the high-pitched, terrified whimpers that accompanied it drew her immediate attention. Spinning round, she noted with a little confusion that the... the thing hadn’t made a single move to go after the fleeing people, instead apparently choosing to attack the door and walls, beating pale hands into them and, scarily, fracturing both the plaster and the concrete behind it. The whimpering, though...

    A wheelchair lay overturned on the floor, its wheels spinning uselessly as the brown-haired girl it had housed tried desperately to pull herself away from the monster. Its attention seemed to have been caught by her struggles, though, and it was already turning, the rattling sound of air being forced out of its lungs accompanying the unnerving glow from within. Chikaze stared at the helpless girl, who looked back with petrified, pleading eyes. And though she was frightened, she still found enough courage to act.

    “H-hey!” she shouted at the walking corpse, stumbling over to the other side, away from the wheelchair-girl. “Hey, over h-here! Look at me! Look at me, here!” It hurt, it hurt desperately, shouting and moving like this, and she could feel the strength already fleeing her limbs, the gnawing, biting fatigue setting in even from so little activity as this.

    The thing didn’t turn. Didn’t even seem to notice her, its entire focus on the prone girl, who was sobbing with fear, tears trickling down her cheeks as she scrabbled at the floor to gain purchase, trying to pull herself away. The air around the monster began to shine, the terrible light within leaking out into the space around it, and it slowly started to move, in a hungry, predatory way, towards its prey. The world seemed to slow for Chikaze as she took in the situation and a solution presented itself. Nausea bubbled up again at the thought, but she gulped air and held her breath and screwed her eyes shut to ignore it and force it down again.

    Then, unsteadily, shaking like a leaf, the pink-haired girl gathered every ounce of energy she had and charged. She let out a wild scream as she ran, pushing herself through the pain in her legs and the terrible, yawning emptiness inside that sucked down her energy in a seemingly endless torrent. She wasn’t big, and she wasn’t heavy, so she had to be fast. Fast like she used to be, fast like before the treatments, fast like when she was on the school track team and won races and never felt sick.

    For the briefest of moments, it felt like she had that speed and effortless, boundless energy again.

    Then she crashed into the thing from its blind side - not that it had been paying any attention to her anyway - and rebounded from the bigger, heavier body, cracking her head on the linoleum floor as she fell and bouncing slightly as her limp, exhausted body hit the floor, totally spent. But the damage had been done. She hadn’t been moving very fast, and she didn’t weight much, but she had hit the walking cadaver when it was unbalanced, and that made all the difference. Without even the instinct to throw its arms back to catch itself, it toppled over and crashed down the flight of stairs it had just ascended, toppling another that was following it up. A sharp, echoing crunch filtered up the staircase as its skull met the bottom of the stairwell, and it lay still.

    She lay there, panting, until the repressed nausea surged back up and she had to turn her head and vomit, coughs wracking her slight frame. A touch on her shoulder drew her attention as she hacked out the last of it, and she turned to see the wheelchair girl, brown hair cut short and blue eyes filled with a mixture of fervent gratitude and worried concern.

    “Are you okay?” she whispered, and Chikaze realised she must have dragged herself across the floor to check on her. Nodding through the choking coughs, she waved the girl back towards her wheelchair and cleared her throat. “C’mon,” she croaked, “we need to... need to get out of here.” And indeed, she could already hear shuffling sounds from further down the stairs. More of the things were coming, no doubt, and neither girl was in any fit shape to evade them. Still, they could try. And would. Painfully, jaw set grimly, she crawled over to the nearest wall and began the painstaking, arduous task of pulling herself to her feet, only to find that her knees and ribs were simply refusing to cooperate. Face pale and fearful, she turned to the wheelchair girl, who returned the expression as she realised what it meant. They were stuck.

    “I...” she laboured to say, fatigue dragging at even her words now, “you need... to...”

    Whatever she was trying to say was lost, though, as part of the ceiling four or five metres down the corridor caved in, and a white-clad figure fell through and slammed into the floor with a resounding thud that rattled pictures all the way down the hall. Chikaze wasn’t entirely sure, but she thought she heard something splinter under it. Seemingly unharmed by the fall, it rolled out of the way just in time to avoid a second figure, this one black-clad and yellow-haired, come down on it with some sort of... glowing scythe? Was she hallucinating?

    She remembered the eldritch glow from within the corpse-thing and decided that no, she probably wasn’t. She tried to shout at the two blurry shapes, which seemed to be fighting, but only produced a quiet rasp. The girl beside her wasn’t so limited, and her yell cut through the clash of battle like a knife.

    “Hey! You two! Help me! Something’s wrong with her!”

    Both figures froze, and turned. Nanoha paled as she saw the two girls, one lying awkwardly on the floor, the other almost bald, with only a fine pink stubble covering her head, propped up against the wall with her eyes half closed. The tone of her skin and her laboured breathing did not look good, and Nanoha traded a mortified glance with Fate.

    “We didn’t put a Barrier up,” she whispered in horror. The other girl was standing very, very still, eyes riveted to the pink-haired girl. At Nanoha’s words, she jumped slightly, though she still looked... queasy? Guilty? She couldn’t tell in the brief moment it lasted before being displaced by a mask of purpose. The shuffling from the stairwell grew louder and the brown-haired girl let out a moan of fear.

    “They’re coming back...”

    “Alright,” the blonde girl declared, abruptly all purpose. “I’ll see what’s coming and hold them off. You get that one back into her wheelchair, and then cast a Physical Heal on the other. And contact your familiar, tell him to stop fighting, get here as fast as possible and cast a Barrier the moment he gets close enough. I’ll tell Arf the same thing.”

    “I... I’ve never cast anything like that before...”

    Fate shot her a flat look, already moving a little way down the corridor and bringing Bardiche round. “Would you like to swap jobs, then?” she asked, with a raised eyebrow. Nanoha flushed a little as the icy comment found its mark - Fate was giving her the easier job, by most measures - and hurried over to the girls. Helping the shaking brunette back in her wheelchair, she bit her lip, ignored the girl’s confused, questioning gaze and knelt beside the other, younger one, who was propped up against the wall.

    “Raising Heart,” she whispered, “please. I can’t do this on my own; you’re going to have to do most of it for me. Sorry.” The sound of magic shots came from the stairwell, but she ignored it, focusing on the girl.

    [Alright, my master,] the gem in her staff’s head replied reassuringly, pulsing with a soft pink light. [Physical Heal.]

    Light bloomed. Not dark and twisted, this was a soft radiance the colour of cherry blossoms, which soothed and calmed and healed. Chikaze’s eyelids fluttered as she seemed to get a second wind, a gentle warmth spreading within her to exorcise the fatigue and nausea, still her trembling muscles and even out her laboured breathing. The world sharpened again, and she blinked up in confusion at the relieved smile of the girl kneeling beside her, white-clad and holding a staff with a great round ruby in its head over her chest, from which the light emanated.

    “Oh, thank goodness,” the girl whispered happily, blinking back... were those tears? She certainly seemed genuinely ecstatic that she was awake, that much was for sure. “Are you feeling alright?”

    Chikaze thought about it, mildly surprised at what she found. She could still feel the slight hint of nausea coiled around her stomach, and her arms and legs still felt weak and a little bit prone to trembling. But nothing like it had been, and the pain and exhaustion were almost completely gone. It was as if she’d just woken up after a long and refreshing night of sleep, something that itself had been worryingly rare of late. With a tentative smile up at the girl, she nodded.

    “Yes, much,” she replied, “... uh... thank you.” The girl’s smile only grew wider, and she glanced over to her... friend? Enemy? The other girl, who was in the middle of beating back another dead body with the same glowing scythe she had been using when they came through the ceiling.

    The white-clad girl stared at the mobile corpse in surprise and horror for a moment as the scythe-girl wrenched it off its feet and kicked it back down the stairs, but then seemed to regain herself. “Get somewhere safe and wait there,” she commanded, speaking both to Chikaze and the wheelchair girl. “We’ll try to... to get rid of the ones we pass, but a few of them might get past us.” She seemed to consider something and then, with an honest and slightly embarrassed tone, continued, “... and also we might do a little bit of damage to the building, though we’ll try really hard not to. It... just sort of happens.” She got up, hurrying over towards her scythe-wielding companion with her staff in a more combative position, and set a barrage of pink shots loose on another of the things. She threw them one last smile and a wave over her shoulder as the pair descended, and then she was gone, with only the hole in the ceiling and the debris to show that either of them had ever been there.

    The girls stared at each other, trying to fit this latest impossibility into the insanity of the last few hours. Levering herself upright and leaning on the wheelchair for support, Chikaze mulled over things for a moment, staring at the empty stairwell. “... she’s right,” she decided after a moment, putting the issue to one side with the simple ease of a child accepting the impossible and bending with a faint wince to pick up her infusion stand from where it had fallen. She inserted the needle back into the thingie in her arm - cannula, the doctor had called it - with a pout. She hated needles. Sighing, she took hold of the stand and moved back over to the other girl. “We need to get back into a room and stay there. Maybe block the door with something, too.” She gestured down the corridor. “Mine’s just down there. Uh... I’m Chikaze, by the way.” She bit her lip uncertainly. Mummy and Daddy’s visits were nice, but it would be nicer to have someone she could talk to while they were away. “Um... do you want to be friends?”

    The glowing smile turned her way, she decided as she half pushed, half leant on the bars of the wheelchair, rolling it back towards her room, probably counted as a ‘yes’.

    ...​

    On the next floor down, a fragile peace was holding. The mutually agreed-on ceasefire declared for the sake of the girls had, surprisingly, not dissolved immediately. Awkwardness hung heavy in the air as they descended, knocking the corpses aside with carefully controlled shots, neither girl willing to be the one to initiate hostilities again.

    Of course, that wasn’t the only reason. The dead people attacking them were more than enough justification not to break their truce, even disregarding any other factors. There were more of them down here, all with the same pallid, clammy skin tone and body-bag coverings. The smouldering light within them that shone out of their wounds and in their eyes and mouths was beginning to disturb Nanoha, and she shivered as they cut, shot and blasted their way along the corridor, mechanically doing her part to keep them back.

    “What are they?” she muttered to herself as a trio of Divine Shooter shots knocked one down; not wearing a body bag, this one, it looked healthier, and was wearing clothes. Clothes, she realised, which had blood all down one side, likely from its missing arm. She shivered again, closing her eyes in grief. The things seemed to mostly just be wandering around and attacking the walls and furniture - and sometimes even each other - but if they were attacked, they were more than willing to divert that aggression towards the source of the attack.

    Fate swatted one into the wall with her scythe, which cratered nicely and sent a display case crashing down on the thing’s head. “Bodies from the morgue, I would guess,” she replied, “animated by the Jewel Seed. That’s where we’ll find it.” She skipped around a clumsy lunge from a burly, rasping man and nodded in thanks as Nanoha swept it off its feet with Raising Heart. “They’re... they’re not people,” she added, with more confidence than she felt. “The Jewel Seeds would have used anything nearby, like that one in the river which used the water.” A frown skittered across her face as she turned away - the other girl’s added proficiency with that damned staff was not going to help matters. The thing seemed to radiate malevolence - she could almost feel it looking at her, as if eager to smash her in the face again.

    ... she was probably imagining things on that score. Still, she was not looking forward to the inevitable resumption of hostilities. Scowling, she refocused her irritation on the animated marionettes, spotting the stairwell they were spilling out from, a little further down the corridor. Time for something a little more advanced that Photon Lancers.

    Falling back a little, she motioned for Nanoha to cover her. “I think they may be reacting to magic, as well as attacks,” she explained, “and this is going to put out a lot. So they may rush us.” Nanoha nodded grimly, fingers tightening around her staff, and set herself stubbornly between Fate and the advancing corpses. The blonde girl raised an eyebrow as she began to draw power for the spell, a golden Mid-style circle blazing to life at her feet. Granted, they were theoretically cooperating, at least for now, but... to turn her back on Fate and guard her without a moment’s hesitation? The girl was either incredibly trusting or profoundly naive. Or possibly both.

    “Bardiche,” murmured Fate quietly, and the idea of catching Nanoha in the attack hovered at the edge of her mind, tentatively. If she made it powerful enough, at this range, it would almost certainly take the girl out in one shot. And it would dispose of the rest of the marionettes on this level as well, so she’d be safe, and then Fate could get the Jewel Seed quickly and easily and get it back to Mother and everything would be fine, and...

    ... and she watched the girl, as the power around her climbed - slower than she could have drawn it up, preoccupied as she was. Brown hair tails bounced as she bashed a tall man in the face, sending him stumbling back into two others and clearing a space in front of her. The movement turned her enough for Fate to catch a glimpse of her face, determinedly set in a protective, stubborn frown. She had no doubt that, for all the insanity of it, Nanoha would hold the things off her until either they ran out or she collapsed. She made her decision.

    [Photon Barret,] announced the black scythe, and a storm of golden lightning roared out, arcing out along the walls and ceiling of the corridor in great jagged arcs. It shot off to the sides as it left the Device, leaving a void directly in front of it, curving around the guarding form of the white-clad mage and raining down on the marionettes that she held back. The blue-violet radiance surged around their bodies to no avail; the torrent of electric gold ripped through it and sent them spasming to the floor, where they lay still. The advancing wave ran down the entire length of the corridor, arcing from the surfaces to any marionette it passed, until it hit the end of the wall with a thunderous crash, blowing out the window and dispersing itself into a fading cascade of yellow motes drifting down towards the ground.

    “... wow,” said Nanoha, lowering her weapon. “That was... uh... impressive.” She turned, grinning at Fate with a sheepish, slightly embarrassed air. “You’re really good. And... I was sort of half thinking you might shoot me when I turned my back.” She raised a hand to the back of her neck and chuckled shamefacedly. “Silly of me, I guess. Sorry.”

    “... let’s just get this over with,” muttered Fate, a little guilty that she had even considered it. Moving warily into the stairwell, she noted that the ones in here seemed to have been caught by the periphery of the blast.

    “There will be more, on the ground floor,” she noted as they descended as quietly as possible. Pale but determined, Nanoha nodded, and she continued. “If you take up a guarding position again, I can destroy all of them the same way, and we can get onto the Jewel Seed itself.” Another nod, and they paused on the last landing, only one flight of stairs above the corridor. The shuffling and crashing as the marionettes laid waste to the scenery were clearly audible.

    “Okay then,” decided Nanoha, taking the lead. “On the count of three.” Her hand raised to signal the countdown, but she was cut off abruptly as a shiver passed through the hospital, a trembling pulse from some way away. Colours dimmed, and the light filtering in from above took on a dimmer, greyer tone. The girls traded a glance. Either Arf or Yuuno had just got close enough to raise a Barrier. It wouldn’t be long before the two arrived in person, and both of them knew that their cooperation likely wouldn’t last long after that.

    “... three,” decided Nanoha, and in unison, they charged. The first barrage of shots from both of them cleared the immediate corridor just outside the stairwell, and Nanoha moved into the gap, shooting and smacking with Raising Heart in what was, if not particularly high level staff fighting, then at least controlled and enthusiastic. Fate followed after her, circle already forming around her feet, power beginning to hum in Bardiche as she once again set the boundaries for the spell. They weren’t walking corpses, she told herself, they were just things, animated by the Jewel Seed, and that meant they were no scarier than any other Jewel Seed...

    ... given that she still had terrifying moments occasionally, when she realised that she had nearly blocked those exploding shards of ice, that wasn’t nearly as reassuring as it could have been. Okay, Fate thought, the light in front of her getting brighter, they were a Jewel Seed, and that’s how they were taking blasts that would have sent a man flying, but at least there were lots of them, so it was splitting its power, and so she and Nanoha could take them out much more easily... and maybe that meant that the Jewel Seed itself would be weaker!

    Then one of the corpses grabbed Nanoha’s wrists, and everything went wrong. Her hands immobilised, a yank pulled Nanoha away from Fate, and she screamed, closing her eyes. Fate dismissed the half-formed spell instantly and went to help, but the glowing marionettes crowded in around her hungrily, forcing her onto the defensive. Teeth gritted, lips pulling back in a snarl, she forced them off with a combination of rapid casting and pure ferocity, the glowing blade of the scythe almost leaving streaked trails in the air from the speed at which it hacked and slashed.

    A flash and a small explosion announced Nanoha’s return to the fray along with a cluster of pink shots picking off some of the crowd around Fate. She caught a glimpse of the other girl through the mob and her own blurring defence, carefully aiming her shots to pick off the corpses from behind, her sleeves reforming from motes of light. Had she just detonated part of her own Barrier Jacket to escape? The girl was insane!

    And that was when an enraged scream erupted from somewhere further down the corridor. Knocking back the last of her attackers, Fate looked for the source, and blinked as she found it to be Arf. Her familiar looked furious, angrier than she had ever seen her... and then Fate realised what the situation must have looked like. Her, fighting a group of walking dead, with Nanoha shooting at the group. Fate knew her wolf-like friend. The chances of her realising that Nanoha had been aiming for the corpses, not Fate herself, were... low. Still, she tried, if only to forestall the conflict until after the Jewel Seed was sealed and safe, no longer a threat.

    “Arf, it-”

    Too late. Orange magic flaring around her in a furious corona, Arf charged. Green light blossomed behind her as the ferret entered the fray, and a frantic glance from Nanoha somehow managed to convey shock, sadness, resignation and apology all in the same split second expression. ‘It was nice while it lasted,’ the look said. ‘I’m sorry it’s over.’

    Then Arf was almost on top of her, and she was fighting again, both of them were, splitting their attacks between the few remaining marionettes and one another. As the ferret caught up, his chains and binds drew Arf away, and it was just the two of them again, clashing with the same stubborn determination on both sides.

    “Give up,” Fate ground out, forcing the staff back as Nanoha held her blade off in a block. She had learned a few moves, it seemed, and got her basics firmed up, but she still didn’t know any advanced techniques for dealing with a more skilled opponent. And Fate still had an ace to play. “There’s a reason I need the Jewel Seeds,” she growled as Nanoha’s arms wobbled slightly, before the white-clad girl disengaged and backed away, a speeding green barrier forcing Fate to do the same as the ferret spared a moment from his conflict with Arf to help Nanoha out. Her familiar made him pay for the lapse in focus, concentrating her anger into a series of savage bites that forced him to dodge frantically and flee for his life.

    “If you’d tell me the reason,” shouted Nanoha back at her, readying another half-dozen shots, “then maybe we could resolve this without fighting! I can’t trust you if I don’t know what you’re planning with them!”

    The news would make her falter, that much Fate was sure of. And if she did it right, that lapse in concentration would give her a window to snap up a bind on the girl, and from there knock her out and get the Jewel Seed. Arf was safely occupying the annoying ferret, he wouldn’t be a problem. Then she could come back after the Jewel Seed was safely stored in Bardiche and talk things over with the girl like Mother had told her too, and convince her to help them. Everything would be just as planned.

    “It’s for-” she started, and a two-metre section of the wall beside them exploded. Ears ringing from the noise, eyes stinging from the dust and debris, they stared at the billowing cloud as a malevolent glow radiated out from it. As it cleared, it revealed the form of another marionette. But this was nothing like the ones they’d been cutting down in the rest of the building. The light formed a shroud around this one, a glowing aura that shifted and writhed. A long, y-shaped incision covered its bare chest, from which the light shone with a brightness too great to look directly upon. The sheet tangled around its legs and waist didn’t hinder its movement in the slightest - it floated about a foot above the ground, head lolling sideways, hanging limply as if held up by a hook in the centre of its chest.

    Or rather a Seed. For there, at the point where the Y-incision branched, rested the Lost Logia they had been looking for, humming with an eerie, rasping crackle. It seemed to be supporting the corpse, manipulating it inexpertly, crudely. But the eyes... though the head lolled sideways, unsupported, the eyes didn’t blaze with the unnatural light. They were focused, albeit confused, and filled with pain. The man was... no, alive was the wrong word. Aware, at least partially. In agony. Reanimated.

    “Huuuur...” rasped the man, and the Seed in his chest rasped as he did so, producing a horrible dual-toned resonance to the vocalisation. “Pleeee...”

    The Seed, however, had other ideas. It pulsed once, the probing wave of light washing over the stunned, horrified girls. For a moment, the body hovered higher, the arms coming out to point at them, and purple lightning crackled over the body in even greater amounts, filling the air with the stench of ozone.

    Then it turned, spinning in midair to face the far end of the corridor. Accelerating away from the girls, away from the fighting familiars, it pulled the animating magic from every corpse in the hospital, deep streaks of indigo rushing into it from all over the building, and fled.

    ...​

    It was still scary. If anything, it was even scarier now, back in her room with a chair wedged against the door and the muted sound of explosions coming from below, than it had been... was it only a few minutes ago that she had got up and gone out to see what was happening? It seemed longer. Hours ago, maybe. And the nausea was returning, now that the chemotherapy drugs from the stand were flowing back into her system, and the colours didn’t help. The blue-violet radiance outside had been muted, along with everything else, a few moments ago. Chikaze had watched through the window as a wall of monochrome colour and stillness had swept across the grounds, covering the hospital completely. As it did so, the distant sounds of the city had halted, leaving only the muffled cacophony from downstairs and her own breathing in an otherwise eerie silence.

    Still. It might be scary, but Mummy had said when she started the treatments that she had to be very brave, even when she was scared. And she’d already seen, out in the corridor, that when one person was scared, other people got scared as well. So for the sake of her new friend, Chikaze put on a brave face and smiled, and chatted about ordinary, everyday things, and tried not to let the other girl see how her hands were shaking slightly or how her breathing was a little faster and shallower than was normal.

    They had just got onto the subject of family, and Chikaze was describing how her mother fussed over her, when the diffuse light outside flared a deep indigo and abruptly shut off, shortly before an explosion rocked the hospital. Looking out of the window and craning her neck to see towards the source of the blast, Chikaze caught a glimpse of the cloud of dust and debris billowing out from a huge hole in the wall as a figure ran through it, heading away from the building at speed greater than any human could run at.

    ... no, wait. It wasn’t running. It was floating, a slack form hanging in the air as if supported by wires, moving along at a rate of knots. It was wreathed in a deep indigo glow that blurred and distorted its form, making it difficult to pick out details, but that didn’t stop the shining bullets that smashed into it from behind, sending violent ripples through the aura but failing to penetrate it. The girls from before, Chikaze deduced, just as they made an appearance, flitting out like glowing comets to pursue the thing and trading shots with one another as they did. They weren’t alone, either - there were animals with them, an orange wolf and something small and nimble which nonetheless shone green with power and sent chains and shields out to hook and snare the retreating monster.

    “Wh- what’s going on?” asked her friend, staring at the light display and the fast-moving figures. Chikaze had no answer for her, though. Mystified and scared, she shook her head and kept watching, hands clenching nervously at her sides.

    ...​

    Nanoha was getting frustrated. The Jewel Seed marionette was refusing to stay still - it was dodging most of her shots, heading for the edge of the Barrier, and the few that got through were deflected by the aura it had up around it. It was infuriating! And Fate wasn’t helping, throwing as many attacks at her as she did at the fleeing corpse. When she was actually fighting in concert with her familiar, rather than going one-on-one against Nanoha while Yuuno and Arf fought their own match elsewhere, she was a lot more formidable; the two together were a fighting force greater than the sum of their parts, and Nanoha was being made painfully aware of the lack of coordination and teamwork she and Yuuno suffered from.

    She ground her teeth, scowling. Fine then. There was another surprise she’d been saving for her next match with Fate. It was still mostly theoretical, but she figured it should work, as long as she got a few free moments to cast it.

    ‘Yuuno,’ she sent telepathically, ‘I need you to keep them off me for a minute or two. Please?’

    The tan ferret flew over to her, pausing over her shoulder. He was panting hard, getting tired from the number of barriers and binds he had been throwing, but his voice was steady as he replied. ‘I’ll do my best. Ignore anything I don’t warn you about and focus on whatever your plan is.’ He cut off abruptly as another barrage of yellow and orange shots slammed into a hastily erected barrier, and Nanoha breathed deeply, focusing on the light and warmth within.

    “Raising Heart? Shooting mode,” she commanded, and the Device obediently reformed into its spear-like configuration. This attack would take a large chunk of what she had left, but it wasn’t something that the fleeing Jewel Seed could dodge or absorb. A visor slid across her face as she aimed Raising Heart carefully, a ring of pink runic script appearing around it. Two smaller ones faded into being as it moved down the staff, forming a barrel pointed straight at the marionette’s back, and a window appeared in the visor, highlighting her target and prompting minor corrections to her aim.

    Fate’s eyes widened as the ball of pink energy grew at the tip of the Device. So did Yuuno’s, and Arf’s. That was... a lot of magic. An awful lot of magic. Was she really going to...

    “Raising Heart! Ready?” the girl called, and her Device pulsed affirmatively, speaking the name of the spell along with her and adding a mechanical undertone to her voice as she shouted it.

    “Divine! BUSTER!”

    To its credit, the Jewel Seed did its best to avoid the enormous beam of energy. However, facing an attack that was very nearly the width of the entire road, there simply wasn’t anywhere to dodge to. The wall of pink magic smashed into it with the force of a freight train and lifted it up, hurling it dozens of yards into a solid wall, which produced an interesting splintering sound and a small crater. The aura around the body ceased as it went limp, and the Jewel Seed detached, floating up and hanging in the air as the unnatural light radiating from it faded, replaced with a soft blue glow.

    [Jewel Seed XIV, Sealed,] announced Raising Heart, with what sounded like a faint air of satisfaction.

    “...” said Fate, staring. Beside her, Arf whined slightly in disbelief. That had been almost as powerful as her Thunder Smasher! And this girl had only been using magic for a month or so? How could she have learnt that kind of an attack so quickly? Not to mention gained the control and power needed to pull it off?

    “...” said Yuuno, blanching. He had thought Nanoha’s unusual skill was merely a product of Raising Heart’s advanced nature and the synergy it had with her natural skill set, but that... that was impossible. There was no way she should be capable of something like that so soon, it signified a rate of growth that was nothing short of unnatural!

    “... okay,” said Nanoha, oblivious to the shock she had caused with her new spell, “now it’s sealed.” She started towards it, Raising Heart held out to pull the Seed into storage within itself. Her movement snapped Fate out of the mildly horrified daze, and she threw herself towards the Seed as well, racing to get there before Nanoha did. She was faster, but Nanoha was closer, and the gap wasn’t small enough for her to make it up and overtake. They reached it at the same time, Devices smashing together over the soft glow of the gemstone, and all their remaining magic was thrown into the furious struggle to seize it, pouring power into the retrieval spells and pulling the Seed in two directions at once as the black axehead of Bardiche ground against Raising Heart’s golden ring.

    Torn between the two pulls, and with magic pouring into both attempts to claim it, the Jewel Seed shuddered as long-dormant programming was activated. Activated incompletely, crudely, by nothing more than a brutal wrestling match of magic to decide which Device claimed it, but activated nonetheless.

    The Jewel shone for a moment like the heart of the sun, filling the world with a blinding, searing radiance.

    And then it screamed.

    ...​
     
  9. DB_Explorer

    DB_Explorer An advocate of faithful contracts.

    first zombies now a jewel seed goes nuclear... and did Nanoha and Fate just save Hayate?
     
  10. Aleph

    Aleph Solidarity

    Hey now, the dimensional quake is canon, and happened in exactly the same way in canon!

    ... well, nearly. Sort of. Kind of. Ish.

    It didn't follow Nanoha blasting the Jewel Seed into a brick wall hard enough to crater, though, I'll admit.
     
  11. biigoh

    biigoh Fluffy Paws indeed

    Oh snap... it's on.
     
  12. Quincy

    Quincy Drinker of Tea

    This, cannot be good.
     
  13. green-link94

    green-link94 Infodumper

    This part C and D ranked mages is average only in the armed forces(those stationed on mid-childa) the navy should average around A.

    From the dvd booklets.
    魔導師ランク試験 – Mage Rank Examination
    As the judicial administrator in the inter-dimensional world, the Time Space Adminstration Bureau established the “Mage Rank Examinations” as a form of qualifications assessment for mages. Depending on the direction of magical training, the examination is classified into healing, development, scholarship, and other fields of study; the mage ranking for battle-related magic is split depending on the area where it is to be used, namely Ground or Air battle. These mage ranks do not simply measure magic power or the strength of combat abilities. Instead, they are proof of “the ability to accomplish the prescribed actions in a course of study.”
    Also, on average Armed Forces member are usually ranked D~C, while B rank is known to many Air/Ground mages to be an unpassable wall at first.
     
    Mook91 likes this.
  14. Aleph

    Aleph Solidarity

    Hmm. Yup. But as Fate says, they're currently in the backwaters of the backwaters, and the TSAB is spread very thin. So it's likely that anything sent to investigate this far out, on an Unadministered World, will be a below-average squad - scut work, effectively. And... hmm. I was under the impression that it was the Air Force snapping up all the A-rank mages, because you need to be A-rank to fly. That's why whatshisname, in StrikerS, was so pissed at them, because they were the ones stealing all the high-ranking mages from his Armed Forces.
     
  15. green-link94

    green-link94 Infodumper

  16. DB_Explorer

    DB_Explorer An advocate of faithful contracts.

    still doesn't make it any more pleasant or remove that it is occurring after a zombie attack.

    in short- its still not pleasant
     
  17. Nice to see this back :D

    And wow, zombies? That's new.
     
  18. Is Nanoha starting to forge a Kara Thrace style legend here?

    Talented beyond compare, daring beyond sanity, reckless beyond belief?
     
  19. Jonen C

    Jonen C F.M.D.G.

    Puts on party hat and dead face.

    Sings like Yukari-sensei.

    "HAPPY! HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY HAPPY NEW YEAR NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW NEW YEAR YEAR HAPPY!"

    ***

    That said... Hayate and friend early introduction to magic. And developing situation means I forecast a slightly elevated possibility of Burning Arisa. And Fate is beating herself up, doing Precias job for her (there are other kinds of child-abuse than the merely physical).

    And Zombies... Possibly a slight case of Missing Child Corpse.

    And, ladies and gentlemen: The starter gun has fired, the race is on and the clock is ticking.

    Can Miss Communication please report to the front desk, Miss Communication to the front desk, there is a group waiting for Miss Communication at the front desk.
     
  20. Aleph

    Aleph Solidarity

    I aim to please. :D And I always thought the canon Jewel Seeds were kind of wasted (except for GIGAKITTY, of course). Nanoha showed us that the Monsters of the Week could be a backdrop to the real meat of the plot, the character interaction, but then Madoka came along and showed us that the Monsters can still be legitimately, vividly scary. And Game Theory is very much a post-Madoka story, with the harsher rules and the scarier monsters and so on.

    ... in fairness, it's not like this wasn't already the case in canon.

    Bwaa ha ha haa. Yes, I'm rather proud of Precia's manipulation-fu. She's wonderful, in that she barely even does anything. Just plants the seed, and lets Fate beat herself up far worse than Precia ever could, and then throws her a bone and gives her another chance, so that the poor girl is all pathetically grateful and even more determined not to mess up again. It's like a work of art. A really creepy, utterly immoral, somewhat horrifying work of art.
     
    Winged One likes this.
  21. Jonen C

    Jonen C F.M.D.G.

    It makes me want to hug Fate and tell her it'll be fine, it's all going to work itself out in the end, she doesn't have to bear the weight of the whole world on her shoulders alone, she is a good girl, the best little sister or daughter or friend anybody could ask to have, a good, gentle, kind person and she has every right to take a moment for herself when she works as hard as she does and nobody can rightfully ask her to beat herself up about it...


    You Monster.
     
    Winged One likes this.
  22. notgreat

    notgreat kinda sorta ok-ish

    That was a great chapter. I love how you're making the Jewel seeds more important, and your combat writing is really good. Your new characterizations of Precia and Fate are also excellent, and very believable.

    The interactions between Nanoha and her friends seemed just a little off, but I can't quite figure out why. Sorry for not being able to be more specific :(.

    Also, the situation with Hayate (at least, I assume that's her) is very interesting. I look forward to more.
     
  23. NHO

    NHO Misplaced Mechmind Subscriber

    So, GIGATREE?
    And Gil's maneuver should be different. Because Hayate saw that both Nanoha and Fate will stop to help others.
    Wait, a chapter per month? 4+ years until end of StrikerS?
    ALEPH!!!
     
  24. Aleph

    Aleph Solidarity

    Hey, that's a maximum! I got the prologue and first chapter out in two weeks!
     
  25. EarthScorpion

    EarthScorpion Fell on His Sword

    Nanoha's problem... no, let me rephrase that. The problem Nanoha causes are at least partially caused, as mentioned last chapter, by her complete lack of cultural basis for magic, and possibly even the fact that Unadministered World 97 has its own highly active and idiosyncratic cultural industry which, despite the lack of magic among the populace, has its own, fictional depictions of that.

    To put things bluntly, Nanoha's impressions of magic are at least partially grounded in "what fictional magical girls do", except instead of the normal reference-spewing crap that many SB writers would produce, Aleph can actually write, so she isn't running around declaring that she's Sailor Moon. And, to back things up, Nanoha has the power to make things work, even if she shouldn't really be able to do so.

    Case in point, her invention of Localised Barrier Purge to make a claymore-like directional blast if someone gets too close to her. Most mages would tell you that you're nuts to set things up so you can detonate the barrier jacket over your limbs in case someone gets too close. But Nanoha has enough magic to replace her Barrier Jacket easily, so... why not do it, she reasons, if she gets a tactical advantage?
     
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