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Five men are crouched deep in the forest night, a good nine-hundred feet from a vampire's mansion, checking over the weapons and equipment that are the only things that give them even a remote chance of success in their fight against the supernatural.
Considering I'm the stupid bastard who's leading them, however, I suppose I should try to be more optimistic.
The barest hint of the full moon's light filters through the thick canopy of the treetops, casting a bluish-grey glow over the plants and the grass. The air is quiet: no birds, no insects, not so much as a cricket chirping, only the sounds of plastic and metal clattering against each other as we make sure we're all ready for the mission. It's an eerie thing, all right, being in a silent forest, especially if logically speaking you know there has to be something else out there in the distance. I'd normally brush it off, but normally I'm not about to reenact classical Bram Stoker, albeit more with bullets and grenades than a crucifix and a stake. I also normally wouldn't be in a Japanese fairyland to shoot the one and only Remilia Scarlet, but the pay is good and merc work is hard to come by 'Outside' nowadays.
Heh. Never thought I'd be complaining about peace on Earth.
I check my assault rifle over one more time to focus myself before my mind wanders on another tangent: silencer screwed tight, magazine full, round chambered. Everything looks in order. I switch my attentions over to my pistol, pulling it out of my hip holster and finding it to be the rifle's miniature twin in terms of status. Holstered opposite the pistol is my grapnel gun, excellent for scaling walls and other obstacles in a hurry, and I quickdraw and holster it several times to make sure it comes out smoothly.
The thought of Lady Scarlet tearing my head off with her bare hands spurs me to draw my shock-baton from its sheath peeking over my back, and a simple flick of my wrist extends it from its half-foot compact form to a mighty three-foot steel bludgeon. A push of the switch at the pommel sends electricity sparking up the entire rod, and I give it a few experimental swings. Anyone coming into contact with this will have a really bad day, but considering we're up against a vampire, melee is an oh-shit-dumbass-what-are-you-doing last resort against the lady herself. On that cheerful thought, I disengage the prod, push it back into its compact form, and sheathe it.
Next on my equipment check is my belt-pack, filled with plenty of disposable double-cuff restraints and masking tape, an optiwand for peeking around corners and beneath doors, and a lockpick for sneaky entrances.
Finally, I make sure my flashbang grenades and spare magazines are affixed securely to my vest, and that they come out easily. It wouldn't do to fumble around trying to reload when someone's trying to take my head off, which is nigh-guaranteed to happen if, or more likely when, we blow our cover.
Going over all of this frankly amazes me that I'm able to carry everything without it being horribly awkward. Satisfied everything checks out, I rise, leaving the men to keep inspecting their own gear; more than fine by me, considering I stand to be horribly bludgeoned if they missed a vital piece of equipment.
"What've you got for us, Sigma?" I say, my voice muted to outside ears by my helmet, transmitted through a communications network to my squad and all support elements. The mute can be toggled with a simple tap on my earpiece; it's easier to plan a breach without worrying about any tangoes inside hearing you, after all.
"Mansion outer grounds are clear of hostiles, save the gatekeeper at the entrance," Sigma replies, the man himself set up in one of the taller trees near the mansion and peering down at the world through a rifle scope. "She's scanning for intruders, but your route doesn't cross her field of view. Want me to take her out anyway?"
"Negative, Sigma, maintain cover. Over."
I turn to face the squad. We're all identically armored head to toe in the finest suits we could afford, a quintet of faceless goons in grey helmets and matching armor thick enough to stop standard rifle munitions and protect against both lacerations and blunt-force trauma. We've also got shock-absorbers built-in to protect against long drops; you never know when some slavering monstrosity might carry you into the sky and decide to see how much you'd splatter once you hit the ground.
The only way I can tell the difference between my men at a glance are by the white callsign initials on their shoulderpads: B, G, D, and E, for Bravo, Gamma, Delta, and Echo, respectively. I personally have claim to Alpha; the acronym BADGE was both unintentional and inaccurate, considering A should come first due to me being the lead, but general consensus among the squad was that having our company's other fireteams call us 'Badge Squad' was pretty good compared to 'Abdeg Squad,' not to mention much less embarrassing.
"We set to move, boss?" Bravo asks, a slight Texan drawl coloring his voice. "I'm ready whenever you are."
"You know it," I reply. "Everyone else set?"
"Copy," Echo says quietly, finishing his weapons check and standing to face me.
"Ready and willing, sir," says Delta, standing at attention.
Gamma twirls his pistol around several times, then shoves it into its holster. "Always ready, boss."
"TOC," I say, directing my next words at our Tactical Operations Center radioman. "This is entry team. We are beginning the operation."
"Roger that, Alpha," is the man's reply. "We're getting paid big for this one, but don't let that rattle you. Play it by the numbers and you'll be in and out in no time."
"Copy, TOC, we've got this. Over."
I disengage communications, order the squad to follow me, and begin our slow, circuitous advance through the forest, our planned route keeping us under tree-cover until the last stretch before we hit the mansion's side wall, well out of sight of any hostiles. Even this far from the mansion, caution is paramount; wild fae attacking us because we stomped around like morons wouldn't be a threat, but the noise from putting them down could jeopardize any chance of a silent breach, even with silenced weaponry.
"Take cover," I whisper. The train of men behind me spread out as one, hiding behind the towering trees at the edge of the forest. Ahead, the grassy plain between us and the Scarlet Devil Mansion stretches out a rough hundred feet. The mansion looms over the sizable red brick wall encircling the place, the building itself jutting up far enough to block a fifth of the horizon from here. Towers stand proud amid sloped rooftops, flanking the massive clock tower rising from the center of the mansion. In this light, the bright crimson coating of the mansion is dulled to a rusty shadow of itself.
"Ostentatious as shit, isn't it?" Gamma says.
"No one asked your opinion," I say, scanning the area. No hostiles present themselves. "But yes, you're absolutely right. Let's move in quick."
I break from cover, the men trailing me step for step as I sprint towards the walls. My heart pounds against my ribcage as I keep running, rifle held close to my chest. Any second, someone might fly up from inside the mansion grounds, or look out a window, or spot us from atop a tower - and if I bog myself down worrying about it, I might not react in time if someone does appear.
Keep your head on, Alpha.
Fifty feet to the walls and closing.
The five of us come to a halt in the shadow of the mansion's outer wall. The brickwork goes up exactly thirty feet, according to a previous survey. It shouldn't take more than a few moments to scale, but better to make sure we won't be interrupted first. "Sigma, any contacts near our position?"
"Negative, Alpha, you are clear to ascend, over."
Good so far. I sling my rifle over my shoulder in favor of my grapnel gun, take aim at the top of the wall, fire, and wait as the hook soars, glinting steel flying up and up and up, until it lands near the top the wall and latches on firmly. I'm jerked off the ground as it begins rapidly hauling me up, the whirring of cable on cable the only noise around as I ascend, and I hit the top in mere seconds. I grab hold of the ledge before holstering my grapnel, then climb onto the flat-topped wall.
There's a stony side path circling around the mansion, flanked on both ends by healthy grass, flower beds, and the occasional bush. Unfortunately, there are also a quartet of fae boozing about below, having evidently decided to sneak an early drink before the workday. They keep passing a bottle between them, and they're taking their time draining it. Fragments of conversation drift up, but nothing legible.
If you tried a year ago to tell me about magic fairies and monsters, I'd have punched you in the jaw and laughed at you, and now I'm lurking above four of the damn things. The times, they are a-changing.
"What's the hold up?" Gamma asks, his voice buzzing in my ear.
"Four contacts blocking my drop," I reply, considering my options. "They're not looking up. I don't think they heard me." If they keep their eyes low, we might be able to simply grapnel onto the mansion roof proper, or they could look up while we're moving and blow our cover to hell. Waiting for them to leave could also work, but that might expose us to other guards passing by. I frown as I think over my last option, but I only waste a moment in hesitation. "Squad, ascend. We'll take them in close-quarters."
Moments later, four more grapnels clinch into the brickwork, two on either side of me, and the men swiftly arrive. They climb atop the wall proper, stowing their grapnels and readying their rifles.
"This could go bad," Bravo says, mildly apprehensive. "Sure we shouldn't just shoot 'em?"
I shake my head. "Only fire if one tries to break for it. Prepare to drop on my mark."
I disengage my helmet's mute.
"Three," I whisper. "Two. One. Mark."
As one, my squad and I hop off the wall, hurtling towards the earth before we can come to regret this course of action. Our landings send up small clouds of grass and dirt, the impact painfully vibrating up my legs, and the fairies have all of a second to be startled before they have five rifles trained on them.
"Don't make a sound," I say, my sights dead-center on the closest girl's forehead. "Put your hands up and get down."
The four girls stare up at us in a mixture of awe and horror, one of them looking absolutely ridiculous with the bottle clenched firmly between their teeth. The lot of them hardly look over twelve, and for just a second, I grimace at what we're doing.
"D-don't shoot," says the one staring down my rifle, her voice very quiet and her eyes very wide. She slowly spreads her hands, palms facing out, and gets on her knees. "Please don't shoot."
The rest follow her lead save the one with the booze, who gives her drink a mournful look and gently sets it aside before following my demand. "I was just about to finish it, y'jerk."
"Restrain and silence them," I order, and after a moment add, "but do it gently. We don't need them raising a fuss." The squad cautiously moves in to cuff them hand and foot. Our new hostages don't struggle while they're being tied up, cowed by our entrance, but they do wince and mutter complaints about the tight restraints before tape is liberally applied to hush them. I point out a nearby bush large enough to hide them from passing inspections, and the squad hauls them up without any trouble.
"Man, this would look all kinds of unfortunate if someone saw us right now," Gamma says, effortlessly carrying one of the girls over his shoulder.
Once our hostages are hidden, set on their backs so they can't simply crawl away, the group forms back up on me. I glance down each path, half-expecting someone else to come down and spot us. Once I'm satisfied we're clear, I re-engage my helmet's mute. "Everyone, ready grapnels. We're taking the high road."
While traveling on sharply-slanted shingles is precarious, we make good time. The five of us move at a steady jog, hopping between dips in the rooftops and grappling up to higher ground whenever the chance presents itself. Once we scale a tower and come to rest on its open top, I order the squad to halt and scan for hostiles.
From this vantage point, we've got a good view of the whole surrounding area. To our left is the main gate of the mansion, the front path leading to the mansion's doors surrounded by an array of flowers that would be breathtaking by day; right now, the garden's veritable rainbow of colors are muted, but no less pleasant to look at. If it weren't for our job here, I'd love to take a tour of the place.
Far off to our right, more slanting rooftops accentuate the clock-tower that overshadows us by at least another fifty feet, its spiked top impaling the sky, gigantic hands moving with quiet, ponderous purpose.
Straight ahead is a balcony playing host to a patio with a table and several chairs around it. Behind them, a pair of glass doors stretching up ten feet high and wide apiece lead inside. According to previous observations before this op, that should be our target's bedroom.
The most peculiar thing about all of this is how there are absolutely no night watchmen - a mansion this size, with its reported levels of manpower, should at least have a token guard presence against intruders. It's likely just sloppy work, but better to seek confirmation before we continue. "TOC, entry team here. We're not seeing any hostiles. Something might be wrong. Should we continue?"
There's a brief pause before the reply comes. "Affirmative, entry team, but be careful."
"You heard 'em, boys," I say. "We're moving on the target."
We advance across the rooftops with utmost care, and several minutes pass before we're on the balcony. Once we arrive, I move towards the doors. Peering through the glass reveals no one present, so I pull out the optiwand and snake it underneath the doors; the wand's monitor reveals no contacts. I try the door, but the knob proves uncooperative.
"Delta, Echo, cover this door," I order, swapping the optiwand for my lockpick. "Do not enter until I give the order. Bravo, Gamma, you're with me. We're doing this quietly."
My men take position as I work on the lock, and after about ten, twelve seconds, it clicks open. I stow my tools, ready my rifle, and gently pull the door open. Nothing immediately moves to tear my face off, so I cautiously step inside, Bravo and Gamma quietly following me.
The bedroom, from what I can see in the moonlight, is quite large. A four-poster bed, curtains drawn, dominates the far end of the room, well-placed to be safe from the light spilling through the windows. My boots sink into the soft, dense carpet as I press further inside, looking about for any sign of ambush. The walls and ceiling are a matching shade of plaster white, and there's plenty of dressers about alongside precisely one nightstand set next to the bed, all of them decorated with doilies and other flowery little things.
If I were shown this place out of context, I'd say it was a spoiled rich girl's room. Granted, that's exactly what is is, but the 'vampire' modifier makes everything a little more intimidating.
"Aren't vampires supposed to sleep in coffins?" Bravo asks. "This is a betrayal of all the vampire literature I've ever read."
"If I had a bed like that, I'd want to sleep in it too," Gamma says.
"Cut the chatter and cover me," I say. "I'm checking it."
I advance, slipping my finger past my rifle's trigger guard, sucking my lips in from apprehension. If our target's awake and merely waiting for her chance to gut me, I don't think I'll get more than a round off, if that.
When I'm close enough, I reach for the curtain, but hesitate. Sucking in a breath to steady myself, I cautiously pull the covering aside, and freeze.
The bed is empty, and the blanket is slipping off at the corner.
"Eyes up!" I order, all of us shifting our aim towards the ceiling to see - nothing?
"No contacts," Bravo says. "Room clear?"
"Looks like," Gamma concurs. He sighs and lowers his gun. "Christ, boss, I thought we were gonna be in some real shit there."
The tension flows out of me as I ease my knuckle-popping grip on my weapon, and I take another look around the room. "TOC, entry team here. We're inside the target's room, but there's no sign of her. We might be dealing with a possible roamer. Continuing s-"
The bedroom door opens.
"Contact!" Bravo says, the first man to whirl on the doorway and bring his gun up. The rest of us follow him perhaps a fraction of a second slower, and we train our weapons on a willowy silver-haired maid.
"Eh?" She stares blankly at us, bearing a silver tray carrying a pair of filled teacups.
"Sakuya, now!" shouts a young voice from behind me. I spin around in time to see a blur fly from atop the bed's roof and crash down on Gamma. He's floored with a shout, and struggles uselessly against the slender figure pinning him down. Bravo's focus is disrupted for just a moment by the commotion, a distraction the maid takes advantage of to vanish from her position and reappear in front of him, knife held at his throat, tray held effortlessly in her off hand. I was already sighting in on Gamma's attacker when it happened, and I dare not jerk my weapon away now; the girl on Gamma's chest looks up, narrow red eyes glaring at me through messy blueish hair.
"Well, sir, I'm afraid you've caught me at an awkward time," Remilia Scarlet says, one of her slender arms wrapped around Gamma's neck in a headlock, the other gripping the hand still closed around his rifle's grip. The vampire is maybe half his size, clad in nothing more than a nightgown, and yet shows no sign of actual effort in keeping Gamma down. Her pair of leathery wings twitch every few seconds. "Now, I can either snap your man's neck right now, or we can have a nice, civilized talk about what you're doing in here. What'll it be?"
"I recommend talking," Sakuya says. She presses her knife closer to Bravo's throat. "As for you, would you mind dropping that weapon? I'd hate to have to stain the carpet."
Bravo obliges, his gun falling to the floor as he raises his hands.
"Talking's good!" Gamma says eagerly, having apparently forgotten his mute was still engaged.
"Delta, Echo," I say, not daring to even twitch. "Prep a bang. Breach on my mark. Sigma, you're to eliminate the gatekeeper when Delta and Echo move in." I slowly reach up and tap my earpiece, disengaging the mute. "So, Miss Scarlet, Miss Sakuya, I'd appreciate it if you could let them go, but I'm fairly certain that's not in your plan."
"And what's yours, hm?" Remilia retorts levelly, keeping her gaze on me. "When a cadre of heavily armed men break into one's room waving rifles about, a woman might think them intent on doing her harm."
"Your grasp of the obvious astounds and amazes, Miss Scarlet," I say. "Let him go or I will open fire."
"And if you do that, this one dies," Sakuya says, pressing her knife just barely closer to Bravo's neck, her expression infuriatingly composed. "Drop your weapon. You can explain yourself properly then."
"Oh, I like the sound of that idea, Sakuya," Remilia says. She wrenches back on Gamma's neck, and he make an outraged choking noise. "I really don't feel like murdering anyone just yet, but I don't need all of you alive, either. Please drop the weapon, or I will thin the crowd."
"I suppose you don't like your gatekeeper with her head attached, then," I say.
The way their expressions stiffen gladdens my heart.
"That's right," I continue, keeping my tone free of any emotion. "If either of my men die, my sniper ensures you'll be attending a closed-casket funeral."
Remilia's expression grows thoughtful. "Well, it seems we're at quite the impasse. None of us can make a move without losing someone."
My lips curl up. "Mark."
I'm perfectly placed to see the flashbang sail through the balcony doorway and detonate with a bright, blinding flash and ear-bleeding bang.
Thank God my helmet's flash-resistant.
Remilia yelps, pushing off Gamma to take airborne, clutching at her pointed ears as she goes. Gamma rolls onto his back, drawing his pistol free, while Bravo smashes the knife out of a stunned Sakuya's grip, already drawing his pistol with his off-hand. The maid was insulated from the worst of the grenade's visual effects due to Bravo being between her and it, and she pulls another vanishing trick just as Bravo brings his gun up, her tray clattering to the floor.
Delta and Echo storm into the room at the same moment a crack of a high-caliber rifle resounds in my earpiece. "Target down," Sigma reports tonelessly.
"Drop her!" I snap, sighting in on Remilia.
Before I can shoot the disoriented vampire, Sakuya reappears to my right, another of her blades slicing the air on a killing course toward my neck. I jerk aside even as I spin towards her, the steely knife scraping the edge of my helmet and leaving one hell of a scratch.
The quiet plinking of silenced pistols and the typewriter chatter of silenced rifles fill the air, all my men unloading rounds enough rounds at Remilia to handily ventilate her had she mot been bouncing around the room like a heroin-injected pinball. I'm too busy backpedaling from Sakuya's bladework, swift as lightning and twice as deadly, to help them; it's all I can do to avoid getting seriously lacerated.
As another strike nearly cuts through my armor, I sling my rifle over my shoulder and draw my baton. She keeps the pressure up, not allowing me to flick my weapon out to its full length, and as such I'm forced to stay in knife-fighting range, quick footwork and a quicker arm the only things standing between me and enough holes to make Swiss cheese envious.
My backpedaling ends up working in her favor when I bump up against a dresser, throwing me off-balance for a critical moment, and Sakuya takes full advantage of the opening to lunge at my gut. I catch her blow at the wrist with my empty hand and swing my baton at her face; she ducks with inches to spare between her and a concussion, and a flick of her left hand sends a knife flying from up her sleeve and into her waiting grip. Thus armed, she stabs at my leg, and I'm forced to release her as I hurl myself aside barely in time to avoid a crippling blow, stumbling over myself as I try to steady my footing.
Seeing me off-balance once again, she wastes no time in coming for me.
Fortunately, I bought myself just enough.
I flick the baton to its full length, electricity sparking across the metal, and hold it ahead of me in a defensive position, causing Sakuya to come up short so she doesn't zap herself. With this scant moment of peace, I fall back on my CQC training: left foot back, right foot forward, left hand held loose to intercept any strikes that get past the baton in my right. Her eyes dart between her knives and my club, and we share a moment of uneasy silence.
I shrug. "Mine's bigger."
Her reply comes in the form of a spinning whirlwind assault, steel flashing in the moonlight, and it's all I can do to keep deflecting the rapid-fire strikes from those deadly blades. Sparks shower over us both with every blow, yet, even with my reach advantage, she weaves between my attacks and slices at my armguards, her blades shearing armor off like it was made of paper-mâché.
I'm saved when Bravo comes in like a man on fire and body-checks Sakuya hard enough to knock her spinning. I swing, but she rights herself just in time to flip her knives into reverse grips and bring one up to block my strike, our weapons locking together as I press down on her. Bravo draws his baton and comes to my aid, jabbing the sparking club at Sakuya; a well-timed parry with her other blade knocks his attack aside, but he's smart enough to maintain his distance and await another chance.
While all this is happening, I spot Remilia fleeing the room out of the corner of my eye, flying deeper into the mansion. Gamma chases after her, while the rest of the men turn on our ongoing brawl; they don't have a shot with us like this, and maneuver to correct that.
Sakuya glances aside at the changing tactical situation, then focuses her full attention on me. "I'm afraid this is goodbye for now, sirs."
She breaks contact with me and kicks off the ground into a backflip, flicks of her wrists sending her blades flying at us; Bravo swats aside a knife meant for his head, and I sidestep the one aimed at me, the blade nicking my helmet as it flies past.
"Think again!" I say, unclipping a flashbang and hauling back with it. Sakuya lands in a crouch, brandishing a golden pocket-watch as she does so, and looks up just in time to see the grenade connect with her forehead, jerking her head back with a crack of metal on bone. She makes a wordless noise of pain and surprise before Bravo's on her in one long stride, baton pulled back over his shoulder.
"Fry!" he snarls, catching her full atop the head with a skull-cracking strike.
She topples, eyes and mouth locked wide open as she convulses on the floor, utterly incapacitated by the voltage anything running through her.
"You smell like bacon!" Bravo adds.
"Stop being so unprofessional and restrain her," I say. As Bravo sees to that, I turn on the rest of the team. "Report!"
Gamma looks towards us, profiled in the doorway, and smacks a fist into the door frame. "Target just went down the bend on the right, boss. She was shouting for reinforcements."
"TOC, entry team here," I say. "Target is aware of us and is fleeing further inside the premises. We have the go-ahead to give chase?"
"Copy, entry team. Proceed with the mission, over."
"Let's shut this down before she alerts the whole building," I say. "Everyone, get your kit together and stack up on the door. I want us moving in five seconds."
We all move into position, Gamma and Bravo last in line since they had to grab their rifles. I take and step through the door. The hallway stretches out both to my right and left, dimly lit by lanterns spaced at regular intervals along the walls. We're just about to give chase to Remilia when the pounding of innumerable feet becomes audible.
A dozen fae in sleepwear, carrying with both hands tower shields taller than they are, are the first to round the corner, flanked by a formation of musket-wielding fairies, fifty guns held in the hands of barefooted girls in hastily-donned greatcoats. The shield-bearers raise a great rallying cry upon spotting us, echoed by the musketeers, and charge while the gunners hold position.
I don't need to give the order to shoot, every rifle in my squad chattering death at the oncoming swarm. Our rounds spark and bounce off the shields, a few lucky rounds dropping a pair of the charging maniacs, but the fairies behind them aren't as fortunate, a solid dozen of their number exploding outright from our fire.
"Honor Guard!" their commanding officer shrilly bellows over the screams and gunfire, distinguished from the rest by a peaked cap. "Take aim!"
Half the musketeers kneel, the rest remaining upright, and they all bring their guns up. The remaining shield-bearers close together and drop to their knees, turtling beneath what protection their steel offers them.
"Fire!" yells the fairy officer.
A deafening series of reports sound off, a vast cloud of smoke rising up from their weapons, and a wave of musket balls slam into our formation; our armor protects us from the worst of it, but we're knocked reeling, and my visor cracks from one bullet smashing into the glass over my right eye.
"Affix bayonets!" is the brigade's next order, the group obscured by the musket smoke.
The shield-bearers rise up and charge once again, but we recover before they're on us. Our rifles click dry as we spray fire into the crowd, with limited success.
"Squad! CQC!" I order; no time to reload, and pistols won't be enough to deal with the shield-fae and musketeers both. We sling our rifles away and draw batons, flip them to their full length, set them to humming with electricity, and rush the enemy. The first wave meets us, but for all their gusto, they're exactly as strong as they look; a thousand combined pounds of angry men ram into their shieldwall, high voltages surging through their defenses with every strike from our batons.
"They'll remember us for this!" the musketeer officer screams. "Charge!"
We dispatch the rest of the shield-bearers in a handful of exhileratingly violent seconds, their bodies falling limp at our feet. Just as we wipe them out, the musketeers emerge from the smoke, around ten pounding across the space on foot, and at least two-dozen, maybe more, flying high, their formation spread out, and all of them screeching as they rush us.
My foot nudges a shield as I steady my footing for their attack, and an idea hits.
"Shieldwall!" I say, hauling one of the massive things up and gripping the straps tightly in my left hand, no time to buckle it on properly. The rest of the team follows my lead, the five of us forming a wall of steel, batons held high. I'm at the center of the formation, flanked on the left and right by Delta and Echo, who are respectively flanked by Bravo and Gamma.
They're almost on us by the time we finish preparing.
"Attack!" I order.
"Fuck 'em up!" Gamma adds, and the rest of us echo him with wordless cries as we charge