Chapter Sixteen: Day of Reckoning
by Casey Valhalla
"Command ship Delta reporting, commanding operative Nataku onboard. Squadron leaders please report, over."
/Operative Ruby reporting, gold squadron is holding for further orders, over./
/Operative Coyote reporting, blue squadron ready for action! Over./
/This is Operative Bombay, red squadron is in position. Ready and waiting, over./
/Operative Lapis, ready for duty. Green squadron champing at the bit, so to speak. Over./
"Operative Jade, do you copy?"
/Reporting a disturbance in communications over the moons, Delta. Relaying Jade, over./
"Roger that, Bombay. Come in, Jade!"
/…perative Jade repor…olding posi…second moon, I'm picking u…scrambler. Do you copy me, Nataku?/
"You're breaking up, Jade. Over."
/Don't worry about Jade, she'll fix it, over./
/Get off the comms Coyote, let the girl work. We have bogeys, Delta. Gold squadron out./
"Roger that, Ruby. Bombay, cover gold squad. And for the love of Kami, get rid of that plasma cannon while you're at it! Over."
/10-4, Delta, over and out./
/Feel the mighty wrath of Nataku, ISG scumbags! Uh, over./
"Curb your enthusiasm just a bit, Coyote, we have operatives on the surface. Lapis, secure the ISG command vessel. Coyote, your move. Take out some of those unmarked fighters. Over."
/Ah! Finally. Operative Jade reporting, how's the Delta setup, Nataku? Over./
"As well as can be expected, under the circumstances. What's your report? Over."
/Unmarked fighters over Dorobo. Just received visual confirmation that an ISG fighter was shot down. No sign of Wing or Nanashi./
"Attempt contact. That fighter may have been procured. Proceed as planned, Jade."
/Roger that, Nataku, over and out./
The silence on the balustrades was broken when the plasma cannon exploded. Shrapnel slammed harmlessly against the Talmac's shield, and not so harmlessly into the ranks of the ground troops. The reverberations shook the fortress to its foundations, leaving the assembled soldiers – along with one blond White Mage and a braided demon – on their knees, clutching at the casement. On the battlefield, a mushroom cloud of smoke and debris curled into the sky.
"What the FUCK?" Duo gaped at the scene in shock.
Quatre grabbed the Relic by the arm, shaking him enthusiastically. "Get your comm out! Your comm!"
Half-dazed, the Relic pulled the device out of his coat and flipped it open, tuning the frequency to the Resistance's secure channel. A tinny, female voice carried over the connection.
/…ome in, Operative Sandrock, your personal escort has arrived, over. Requesting orders, do you copy? Come in Operative Sandrock, this is Ruby, do you copy?…/
Duo spun to look out across the battlefield, into the sky over the Talmac. A new fleet was arriving, diving through the atmosphere to converge with the ISG ships. A fleet emblazoned in blood red, the emblem of a green snake writhing across the hulls of the fighters. "They – they're here!"
"THE RESISTANCE IS HERE!"
No one knew who took up the cry, but soon all the Manganacs were shouting at the sky. Quatre let out a defiant whoop, and Duo tackled him in an embrace that spun them both around in dizzying circles. They released each other, laughing uncontrollably, and jumped up and down on the balustrades, frantically waving both arms over their heads at the ships passing by.
On the casement, Yoko sat quietly amid the relieved chaos, licking her paws as though she knew everything would be fine all along.
The voice on the comm unit laughed lightly. /I have visuals, Delta. Sandrock, Shinigami, good to see you both, over./
Duo juggled the comm in his hands, too frenzied to keep it still. "I copy you, Ruby. Operative Shinigami reporting. What in the Seven Hells took you so fucking long?"
The voice chuckled. /Well, you know, we couldn't find a command ship we liked, with the right light speed capabilities and cloaking devices. Only the best is good enough for rescuing the new prime operative./
Quatre scratched the back of his head and coughed. "Actually, they're early."
Duo turned so fast his braid nearly whipped the blond across the face. The demon's eyes were wide, then narrowed dangerously. "What precisely," he asked in a low, sultry voice, "do you mean by that, Q?"
The Minister ducked his head and laughed nervously. "Um… this was my *other* backup plan?"
Duo raised one eyebrow suspiciously. "And you were going to tell me *when*?"
Quatre was saved from a response by the comm unit crackling wildly. /Roger that, Delta, securing a perimeter around the fortress. Sandrock, we'll be meeting you soon. Over./
"Thanks, Ruby," the blond replied, snatching the comm away from Duo.
The demon glowered, but he was grinning. "You know, sometimes," he intoned, tossing an arm around Quatre's shoulders, "I find myself extraordinarily glad that you're on *my* side."
Every so often, Heero found himself wishing that he had at least a half-hearted belief in some form of god. Particularly at times when he was falling headlong out of the sky at speeds approaching two hundred miles per hour in a tiny metal spacecraft.
Times like now.
~ I should have stayed on the ground with Trowa,~ he berated himself. ~Then Tzumara could be in this mess instead of me.~
/Main thrusters not responding. Switching to backup./ Chea's voice was calm over the link, still carrying that trace of amusement that Heero couldn't understand. They were seconds away from being smashed to bits and incinerated in the ensuing explosion. How was that funny?
/Losing backup power./
The assassin cursed in a hiss and slammed his fist against the console in front of him. ~Kami~ he thought, chuckling a little, ~it couldn't hurt to try. Get me out of this, I'm begging you. Just long enough to make sure Duo's okay, and to tell him I'm sorry.~
/I'm out of options, Wing. Pray to someone, why don't you?/
~I just did,~ Heero thought, sarcastically.
Two metallic thumps rang against the hull of the fighter. Chea's voice piped up over the intercom with an intelligent /Huh?/ The assassin scanned the area he could see from the gun turret, his brow furrowed in confusion.
"What the hell was that?"
/Tow cables?/ Chea pondered, his voice suddenly low. /Oh shit, hang on Wing, we're about to—/
His words were cut off as the ship abruptly jerked out of its dive. Heero was thrown back in his chair, cursing when his elbow was jarred against the seat's armrest. "What the fuck is going on?"
Chea laughed over the intercom, a relieved, strangled sound. /I think we're being rescued. Grab on to something, this landing won't be smooth./
Heero curled his arms around the armrests and hung on for dear life. Through the slanted view of the gun turret, he could make out the ground rushing towards them at a more sedate pace, and the vague outline of another fighter, a much larger model, some way ahead of them. He thought he saw a pair of cables linking their ship to that one, but then they landed.
The ‘landing,' if it could be called that, was a series of bounces, each one smaller than the first, leveling off into a slide across the hard-packed brown earth of the moon's surface. The process left the assassin's muscles aching from strain, and his head pounding from being slammed into the back of his chair. He assessed the damages idly, and wondered how much more he would have sustained had he not been strapped into the gunner's seat. Being thrown around in that small of a space would have been decidedly less fun.
Not that it was any fun at all to begin with.
Apparently, Chea disagreed. The last of his war-whoops was just dying over the comm when the ship came to a shuddering halt.
"Before you ask," Heero commented dryly, "no, we can NOT do that again."
The pilot giggled quietly, but before he could provide an equally cynical response, a crackle of disturbance sounded over the link. /Hey, get down here. The ship's pilot is trying to contact us./
"On my way." The assassin unbuckled himself from the seat and stood slowly, wincing as his muscles twitched painfully. He was soaked with sweat, both from the battle and the brush with death. Grunting at his sorry state, he stripped off the upper half of his flight suit and tied the arms around his waist. The black undershirt clung to his skin, but it was already drying quickly in the cool air inside the ship. He pushed his goggles up over his forehead to hold his damp bangs out of his eyes, and knelt to open the hatch in the floor.
~Shit~ he thought, swinging down to the ladder with another wince. ~Now I owe a favor to a god. That can't be good.~
When he climbed down to the main portion of the ship, Chea was already out of his seat and leaning over the console, fiddling with the frequency dials and peering dazedly out the viewscreen at the fighter several yards in front of them, resting quietly on the ground. It was unmarked as well, but a different model from what the demon army was using. Heero squinted at it, then realized why he'd had such a hard time seeing the ship earlier. It had a cloaking device, still partially enabled, and even as he watched the outline of the ship blurred and refocused.
Chea found the right channel and stepped back, waiting. After a second a warm, female voice echoed over the radio.
/Enemy vessel, identify yourself. You have been detained. Over./
Heero scowled and looked at the cadet, who shrugged. The assassin bent over the console and flipped on the microphone. "Roger that, anonymous. Who is your enemy? Over."
There was a brief pause before the voice replied. /Megalomaniacal governments and uppity armies of demons, it appears./
Chea burst out laughing. Heero smirked lightly and pressed the toggle to respond again. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is Operative Wing. Please identify. Over."
The reply was immediate. /Operative Jade reporting. Having a rough time, are you, Wing?/
"I—" Heero began, but stopped when the hatch of the other ship swung open. He darted a look at Chea, and both of them hurried to the exit.
Due to the structural damage the fighter sustained during the landing, the hatch took some persuasion to open, but after a few well-placed kicks and a final simultaneous shove the cadet and the assassin stumbled out into the glaring sunlight. Heero blinked a few times, letting his eyes adjust, and turned to follow Chea's gaze in the direction of the fighter that had rescued them. A girl was walking towards them.
She had a lithe, willowy figure, and hair the color of wheat that fell to her shoulders in waves, held back by a woven red and black headband. Thick navy blue denim pants covered her legs, disappearing into the lacings of knee-high black boots. She wore a light, blood-red duster over a black shirt of smooth, slinky material, the sleeves ending just past her elbows. A thin collar of silver circled her neck, three sharp silver claws curving out of it to rest their tips against her pale skin, spaced evenly across the front. Her almond-shaped eyes were a cool sky blue, and glowed faintly in the sunlight.
She stopped two yards away from the assassin and the gawking cadet, assessing each carefully. A lightly amused smirk twitched at her smooth, pink lips, enhancing the finely curved features of her face. "Wing." She nodded at Heero, speaking in the same warm tones she had used over the intercom. She glanced over at Chea and raised one eyebrow. "Unidentified tiger cub. Nice to meet you." She smiled brilliantly, but it was a dangerous gesture, an expression Heero had only seen on one other face.
"I'm Operative Jade, if you haven't guessed," the girl quipped, nodding a bow. "But my name is Naki."
Heero reached over and surreptitiously pushed Chea's chin up, closing the cadet's mouth. He turned back to the girl with a conspiratorial look. "My name is Heero Y—"
"I know who you are," Naki interrupted. "You're the Eldest's controller. He's safe, by the way. Gold squadron just touched down on the surface."
"Y – you're a *Relic*?" Chea squeaked.
"This is ISG Cadet Daxiel Chea," the assassin offered. "He doesn't follow complex conversations very well."
Naki's smile vanished, and her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, brightening to a sharp flicker. "That so?"
The cadet's voice hissed in Heero's ear. "Did you *have* to tell her that?"
Heero smirked. "He's essentially harmless."
Chea grumbled something under his breath.
"Where's Nanashi?" the Relic asked suddenly.
Heero turned to the west, and cursed. The unmarked fighters were still circling over the villa, and a few clouds of black smoke were curling into the sky. He nodded in that direction. "He's there."
Naki snatched a handgun out of a thigh holster, checked the magazine, and slid it home with a sharp click. "Let's go."
Operations on the Azurmala hadn't been going well for several hours.
The soldiers in the corridors took no notice of Mishide as he passed; they scampered in every direction, calling out questions and orders to each other as they passed. The main communications network was breaking down. The ship's cloaking devices were non-functional, as was the hyperspace drive. Several of the main thrusters were malfunctioning, causing the entire structure to shift and balk without warning, which infrequently littered the halls with piles of toppled soldiers and crew members.
As a result, the Relic hugged the walls as he proceeded through the ship, but he didn't bother dodging through the shadows. No one stopped him, and no one questioned him. As busy as Runair was on the bridge, with the sudden appearance of the Resistance fleet, no one would be looking for him.
So he went to the only place he could.
The holding cell security guard gave Mishide a quizzical look as he stepped up to the gate. "Wha'cha want, kid?"
The Relic shrunk back just a bit. "May I speak with Dorothy, please?"
The guard stared at him for a moment, face blank. "What's your restriction?"
The demon sighed. "Thirteen, as always. Can I go in now?"
"Don't see why not, I guess," the guard shrugged, and unlocked the door. "Knock when you're done. She's in the third cell on the left."
He froze in place for a moment as the door shut behind him with a metallic clang, then quietly approached Dorothy's cell. Behind the thick bars, the young woman was lying on her back on a cot, staring at the ceiling with one arm thrown over her head. Her voice was tired. "Hey, kiddo."
Mishide didn't respond, but slid down to the floor, sitting sideways against the bars, hugging his knees to his chest. He leaned his head against the grate, feeling the chill of iron under his cheek. "Your friends are here."
"I suspected as much."
A long stretch of silence followed. The demon's thoughts swirled chaotically in his head, and he absently tapped his fingers against the bar he was leaning on. They picked up a rhythm, a monotone representation of a melody with a haunting, pulsating beat.
Dum, dum da dum, dum da dum, dum dum dum da dum da dum…
He didn't realize he had started to hum the tune to himself until Dorothy spoke up. "What song is that?"
Mishide paused and looked up at her, blinking. "The Lullaby." She gave him a questioning look, and the demon shifted uncomfortably before he spoke. "Do you know the story?"
Dorothy smiled a little. "Tell me."
"The gods fought when the universe was created, and Azrael was cast into the shadows. Lugh felt sorry for him and created the Seven Hells, where the god of nightmares could keep his children and live among them. That's why the other gods don't like Lugh so much. Did you know that?" Mishide smiled softly.
The young woman humored him and shook her head. "Go on. I like your stories."
The demon rested his cheek against the bar again, running his fingertips up and down along the surface. "Anyway, Kami got angry, which is a pretty dangerous thing. She challenged Azrael to a final duel. They were always rivals you know. Supposedly they were lovers before the universe began, depending on which sect you ask." He giggled, an uncharacteristically light-hearted sound. "The stakes were high. If Kami lost, she would let Azrael free. If he lost, the Seven Hells would be sealed from the rest of the universe."
"And Kami won, didn't she?" Dorothy asked, her voice low and comforting.
"She used Holy power," Mishide muttered. "He couldn't withstand it. His body shattered, and the pieces of it were scattered across the universe. His soul was sealed in the Seventh Hell." He chuckled ominously. "The seals on the first six hells didn't work so well, though, and some demons still slip through from time to time. Lesser demons. But the seal on the Seventh Hell was strong, almost impenetrable. Almost." A dark smile spread across his face, and Dorothy shuddered. "The Magus Centraeli collected the pieces of Azrael, and used them to form the Seventh Hell's demons. The Relics."
Dorothy stared at the ceiling in silence for a few moments. "You believe all this?"
Mishide shrugged. "What else am I supposed to believe?" He looked over at her and caught her gaze, his eyes glowing bright in the dim light of the cell block. "When a Relic dies, we sing the Lullaby. Azrael's song calls their spirits to the Paths of the Dead, which leads to the Seventh Hell where we began, where we can rest. When only one of us remains, that one will be the resurrection of Azrael. Then the universe ends."
"You are a strange boy, Mishide," the young woman said, smiling.
He broke his stare and hugged his knees closer, training his eyes on the floor. "I wish I could get you out of here, Doro."
Dorothy let out a long breath and crossed her arms behind her head, closing her eyes against the grayness of her cell. "Ditto."
For the first time in six days, the iron gates of the Talmac creaked open. A dozen Manganacs convened in the gatehouse, half of whom were involved in hauling the gates open. The other half stood in strict formation, with Rashid in front.
In the widening gap a small assembly of pilots stood on the sand, a mixed group of men and women, all under the age of thirty. Dressed in a hodgepodge of flight suits, no two exactly alike, and carrying an assortment of lowered weapons ranging from daggers to machine guns, they made the very picture of a rapidly thrown-together army.
An extremely dangerous, armed-to-the-teeth, thrown-together army.
At the head of the assembly stood a young woman in a khaki suit, a semi-automatic rifle slung at her hip. Her posture was easy but alert, the tight flight suit defining her muscles, indicating years of military training. She had a friendly face, and wore a smug expression as she stepped forward to lead her squadron into the limestone fortress. Her hair was dark blonde, the shade of honey, hanging in a pair of twisted plaits on either side of her face. Rashid bowed to her politely.
"Operative Ruby, I presume? Master Quatre is expecting you." The Manganac offered a hand, and she shook it warmly, smiling.
"Please, call me Sally. It's good to find this place intact."
Rashid sighed heavily. "You're telling me. What can we do for you, Mistress Sally?"
The woman shook her head and held up a hand. "Just Sally, please. And for starters, you can allow my squadron to relieve your men. Then I would like to meet with Sandrock, if that's not a problem."
The dark man chuckled, and she shot him a questioning look, which he waved away. "We'll see about it."
Sally was still perplexed while Rashid turned to bellow to his soldiers. "At ease, gentlemen! You are all on leave from your posts for the next ten hours. That's an order!"
She smiled at the cheers that rose from the Manganacs, and turned to her own troops. "Gold squadron!"
The pilots snapped to attention with a chorus of "Sir!"
"Take over guard. Operative Rock, you lead until my return."
The young man saluted, grinning, and the assembly broke up to cover the gatehouse. Rashid motioned Sally to follow him up the steps.
"This is appreciated more than you know, Mis—Sally," he corrected himself. "We've been fighting non-stop for almost six days straight."
She nodded, her plaits bobbing with her head. "I'm just glad we arrived in time. Now, what was it you found so amusing, a moment ago?"
Rashid laughed and stopped at the top of the stairs, pointing. "That's what."
A few yards along the balustrades, two forms were huddled against the casement. Sally recognized the blond by description as Sandrock, Quatre Winner, and the other was an operative she had met only once, and never forgot: Duo Maxwell. They were curled up together under a long black trenchcoat, fast asleep, a small red cat snoozing among the folds of fabric.
"Don't wake them," Sally whispered to the tall man. "They'll be needed soon enough."