Our forces meet in one brilliant clash, my boys and I stampeding through the footsloggers without slowing, their bodies slamming up against our shields and being thrown aside like children's toys. The ones who avoided being bowled over are no less fortunate, great sweeping blows from our clubs knocking them off their feet with every hit. The airborne let us barrel through the infantry before they swoop down on our flanks, bayonets thirsting for blood. They're lead by the officer, saber held high, either too cowardly or too smart to attack on foot.
"Halt!" I say, and we grind to a stop. "Shift one-eighty! Brace!" We turn in a half-circle to face the incoming fairies, gossamer wings beating hard as they come for us, but the swarm splits in two instead of dashing themselves to pieces against our shields. We swing at them as they flow past us, batting aside their stabs of opportunity and striking a handful of them from the sky, their senseless bodies carried past us to crash in twitching heaps.
But there's still dozens of them, and they're turning back on us with remarkable speed.
"Shift one-eighty!" I repeat, and we turn about once again.
One of them sticks Bravo in his shield-arm as he's turning, tearing through his armor like it wasn't even there, and he lowers the shield with a grunt of pain. The fairies, sensing weakness, shift their assault towards his position, and five bayonets are jammed into the man before we can cover for him, piercing his chestplate and carrying him to the ground from sheer kinetic force. The rest of the fae keep the pressure on, hovering just out of reach and darting in and out to stab at our heads, forcing us to hold formation or leave ourselves open.
"Get off me! Get the fuck off me!" Bravo screams, flailing his baton at the pile of fairies atop him. Delta twists his body while keeping his shield straight in line, the better to furiously strike at the fae on Bravo; I smash aside a bayonet headed for Delta's neck, then jab the fairy responsible in the throat before she can retreat, sending her choking to the ground as electricity surges through her. Echo and Gamma do a commendable job holding my right, knocking aside any attackers that threaten me or each other.
A solid chunk of the musketeers lock our fronts down with cautious, probing stabs, while the rest split off to flank us once again.
And then I spy the officer holding back, hiding behind her fellows.
"Break formation!" I say, launching myself forward with shield and baton held high, swinging as I go. Gamma and Echo follow my lead and lay into the fairies with gusto, the musketeers off-guard from our sudden attack, while Delta dislodges the last of the fairies atop Bravo's motionless form and then stands over him, shield held up.
The officer's eyes widen as I barrel towards her, swatting aside a pair of fairies as I go, but then she grins and flies down to meet me, drawing her sword back to strike. I swing as she does, and we lock baton with sword, glaring eye-to-eye at each other. The crackling of electrified metal smashing flesh, steel on steel, battle cries and moans of pain, all fill the air around us.
"I'm going to gut you!" she says, still wearing that same mad grin, even as she strains to overpower me. Electricity arcs from my weapon to hers with no appreciable effect, but it looks suitably dramatic.
Sadly, practicality outweighs drama; I drop my shield and sock her in the jaw.
Her eyes stretch wide in shock as she reels back, trying to put her sword between us, but the damage is done; I follow the punch up by swinging my baton down on her head, nailing her full on the skull and sending her to the floor in a heap.
Officer dealt with, I turn around to see Delta steadfastly holding his ground against three separate fairies darting around him, and the back-to-back Echo and Gamma swinging wildly at the remaining seven. The fairies attack with cautious, probing stabs, unwilling to chance further losses. They're so focused on guarding themselves against my men that they're not paying any attention to me, which is a mistake I'm about to correct.
Without my shield to limit me, I disengage my baton and sheathe it in favor of my rifle. Once I've reloaded, three short bursts deal with Delta's aggressors, and the rest swing about at the noise in time for me to hose them down with the rest of the magazine. All but one explode, the lone survivor cringing in the air and holding her musket before her as a shield, her eyes screwed tightly shut.
She made the error of freezing up within reach of the men, and Echo reminds her of that fact when he grabs her by the leg and throws her to the floor. She lands on her back, her gun flying from her grip, and curls up on herself, covering her head with her arms.
"You- you win! Don't hurt me!" she pleads, not daring to look at us. Echo drops his shield, the better to lurk over her with baton held ready.
"Remilia," he says dispassionately. "Where?"
The girl lowers her arms just long enough to see him looming above, and immediately hides her face again. "Library! She said she's getting Patchouli!"
He nods. "Directions?"
"You'll have to go through the foyer and head straight down the main hall!" she says, rushing over her words in panic. "Just keep going until you see the big library signs! You can't miss them!"
"Appreciated." Echo brings his baton up for a blow, but I hold my hand out to stop him.
My eyes linger over Bravo's body for a moment, Delta attending to him, and I scowl as I nudge the girl with my boot. "Get out of here."
She peeks out at me from between her fingers, and what I said clicks after a few moments of shocked silence. "Oh, thank you, thank you thank you thank-"
I aim at her. "Don't try my patience."
She doesn't waste any more time babbling as she scrambles to her feet and runs away, so panic-stricken she apparently forgot how to fly. We watch her go, and Echo glances towards me. "Why?"
"Our cover's blown anyway," I say. "I don't think she'll make a difference."
Bravo groans. "Aaaagh, Christ, this hurts."
"Still with us, Bravo?" I ask, my expression somber as I make my way over. There's no blood, unlike what I'd expect from someone with that many holes in him.
Delta looks up from his spot kneeling next to the man. "Doesn't look good, sir. His suit protected him from the worst of it, but he's not going anywhere fast."
" Bravo says, content to merely lie there.
"We can't bring you with us," I say. "You'd just be a liability."
A deep, rough chuckle leaves him. "Guess I'm sitting the rest of this out, huh? Give 'em hell for me, boss."
"Ever and always, Bravo," I say. "Delta, set him up over there; he's not useless yet."
Delta nods, then drags the crippled man to the wall. Once that's done, he goes the extra yard by reloading Bravo's rifle for him and setting it in his waiting grip.
"Knock 'em dead," he says by way of encouragement, clapping Bravo on the arm. He then falls back in with the rest of the men.
"I'll report if anyone comes through here," Bravo says, cradling his gun to his chest. "Maybe you guys can pick me up on the way out, huh?"
I nod. "We'll do what we can." I turn to the squad, all going over their weapons. "How's everyone holding up?" I ask, ignoring the sting of the bullets that hit as best I can, not in the least looking forward to the bruises that I'll have tomorrow.
Echo pats his chest, where five small holes can be seen in his armor. "Ow."
"We're good, boss," Gamma says. "But let's not
let them hit us like that again, please?"
"Agreed," I say. "All right, we've likely got the whole mansion mobilizing after this mess, but our mission is still the same. We bug out the moment we bag the target and not a second before, understood?"
The nods from my men are all I need to know they mean business.
We make our way to the mansion's foyer without incident, having evidently eliminated the entirety of Remilia's upper guards, and find ourselves on a balcony overlooking the room below, two flanking staircases curling downward to the floor below. The foyer is a nexus for at least ten separate hallways that we can see from up here, with no doubt more below. Dozens of lamps burn merrily, not a trace of shadow to be found on the crimson walls and black-white checkered tiles.
I half-expected there to be a solid guard presence waiting for us, but it seems Remilia decided to go straight for the library instead of wasting time rousing the fodder. We book it downstairs and, following the fairy's intel, take the hall directly opposite the main doors. Our steps echo across the tiles as we hustle towards the library. We don't find any trouble along the way, fortunately, but we do
soon find signs directing us towards our destination, guiding us through the twisty halls.
We eventually stop in front of a pair of oaken doors towering overhead. One is wide open, a suspiciously Remilia-sized dent in the center. I'm the first through, and Delta shoves the door back into place as the rest of us survey the area.
The library is - well, massive is both accurate and vastly understating the sheer size of this place. The ceiling is at least a mile up, and for good reason; the bookshelves are all giants, the tallest of them brushing the roof of this place, the shortest a 'mere' hundred feet or so, all of them bearing books upon books upon books as far as we can see. Sandwiched between the shelves are claustrophobic aisles scarcely wide enough to fit all four of us abreast. The whole room is lit by countless lanterns set in the walls and on the bookcases.
"This shouldn't be physically possible," Delta says, staring upward in dismay. "It literally should not work."
"This is awesome,
" Gamma says, sounding like a giddy schoolboy.
"No time to sightsee," I say reluctantly. "Everyone, ready grapnels. We're going for high ground."
It's a simple matter for us to zip atop the smallest of the nearby shelves, which is still a hundred feet of wood. I had hoped we could get some sense of direction in this place, but our vantage point only serves to accentuate how tiny we are, bringing previously-hidden bookcases into view that stretch on as far as we can see.
"Keep your eyes on," I whisper, the utter quiet in this place almost demanding silence on my part as we advance in step, straining to hear any contacts before they come out to kill us. I drum my fingers across my rifle's barrel as we move, glancing around apprehensively, but we reach the limits of this bookcase without incident, the structure hardly fifty feet long. Standing on the edge allows us to look down on the world below, and we find absolutely nothing.
It's only when a book snaps shuts above and behind us that we know anything's wrong.
"At least you lot have the decency to keep quiet in the library," speaks a woman, her tone soft and clipped, and we whirl around on the source.
The first impression we get is just so much purple. Purple hair trailing down to her hips, purple eyes staring at us half-lidded, purple pajamas with white stripes, even fuzzy purple slippers. The witch floats a short distance ahead and above us, holding a sizable book closed in one hand, her sleepy eyes without a singular trace of any emotion.
"...She's a living grape," Gamma says, full of tact as usual. He taps his earpiece, allowing himself to be heard. "You are literally a grape, lady."
The corners of her mouth twitch down. "The only reason your heads aren't on fire right now is because I wish to talk. Do not make me regret it."
I disengage my own mute. "Then I take it you have terms for us, Miss... Patchouli, was it?"
"Correct on both counts." She looks at each of us in turn. "I can understand the rationale behind attacking at night, but that doesn't mean it's not damned annoying when I'm woken up to deal with it. So I'm giving you a choice: get out before I make you get out."
We glance at each other.
We turn on her as one, spraying her down with gunfire. Twisting sigils flash into existence ahead of her, our rounds ricocheting off with no appreciable effect, and only after we've expended our magazines do we stop. The sigils fade, and once they are gone Patchouli sighs heavily.
She shakes her head, still expressionless. "I did, of course, raise a shield before talking to you. I am not a moron." She turns her attention away from us in favor of cracking her book open and flipping through the pages. "As you have rejected my offer, I am afraid I must now kill you all."
Delta's the first of us to finish reloading, but his burst of fire merely brings Patchouli's shield back online. She holds the book outstretched, and it floats out of her grip to spin in front of her. Fire crackles into life around it without doing any harm to the book itself, and Patchouli doesn't stare at us so much as through
us, her lips twisting around silent incantations.
"Break, break!" I say, and we all take off in different directions: Delta leaps over the ledge, Gamma one-hands his rifle so he can ready his grapnel, and Echo falls in with me as I sprint back down the shelf.
Delta's scream is carried over my comms, and I risk a look over my shoulder in time to see him carried up into the air by Remilia; son of a bitch, she must have been waiting for Patchouli to make her move.
"She's got me!" Delta transmits in a panic, kicking uselessly as the two rocket toward the ceiling.
"I'll go for him! You two deal with the grape!" Gamma says, his grapnel speedily carrying him from shelf to shelf as he chases them.
This is when a great stream of fire erupts from Patchouli's book, which limits my options to run or die. The flames crash down behind us as we sprint, before coiling up and arcing and twisting through the air as they give chase. I snap-fire back at the witch as I run, more as an attempt to discourage her than anything, my rounds sparking off her shield and doing precious little else.
"Flank?" Echo suggests.
"Copy," I reply, slinging my rifle away in favor of the grapnel. "I'll go high."
Echo jumps off this shelf to a lower one, while I quickfire up at a shelf to my left as I run, the structure at least a dozen stories higher than my current one. It takes a few seconds for the hook to land, but once it does I'm jerked back and up through the air, the fire snapping at my legs. Patchouli climbs after me, evidently unwilling to give up the high ground.
As I zip upwards, all I can do is watch as Remilia pulls a one-eighty turn in the air, flailing Delta about like a toy as the two of them turn upside down, and pitches him towards the floor. He hurtles downward at a meteoric rate, until Gamma disengages his hook and dives off his current shelf, intercepting Delta's tumbling fall. He grabs the man by the arm before they plummet out of sight.
Patchouli reminds me of the issue at hand when she gestures at the place my hook is attached, and the wood shifts and crackles around it, dislodging the claw and allowing gravity to try and murder me. The hook quickly retracts into my grapnel launcher, but before I can fire again, I pass Patchouli by. She extends a hand, and my fall is violently terminated by a wall of invisible force, the air itself holding me in place. I try to shoot at her, but another gesture from her pins my arms to my sides, and I can't so much as lift them an inch away from me.
"Rule one of fighting a magician: never engage them on their own ground," she lectures, flipping through her book once again; the flames below us extinguish themselves of their own accord. With her eyes off me, my bindings slacken slightly. "So," she continues, "what should I do? Water would dispose of you without much fuss, but you might have an air-supply in that armor. Maybe... does metal sound good?" She looks back up at me, and my arms are once again pinned. "I think it would suit you."
"What've you got in mind?" I grind out, waiting for her to return her attentions to the book so I can try for a flashbang.
"Oh, nothing spectacular. I'd simply crush you with a rock." Her eyes wander over my suit. "Although it might take me a few tries before you're well and truly squashed, I suppose."
Behind her, Echo climbs atop the bookcase in silence. He holds a finger in front of his mouth, then unslings his rifle and takes aim.
"I'd rather you didn't," I say, grateful my face can't be seen. "And wouldn't a rock be made out of earth, not metal? I think you're mixing your elements up."
"You've obviously never seen me work my magic," Patchouli says. "Allow me to demonst-"
Echo chooses now to open fire, but Patchouli's shield flashes to life behind her, deflecting his rounds. She half turns to face him, lazily extending a hand palm-out, and once again, for just a moment, my invisible bonds slacken. She mutters something inaudible, and a lance of white-hot flame flies from her hand, catching Echo full in the chest and carrying him off his feet; he flies through the air and tumbles over the ledge, falling out of sight.
But he bought me enough time.
Patchouli turns back to me.
I jerk the pin out of the flashbang.
It detonates. Patchouli reels back with a cry, book falling from her hand as she clutches at her face. Her concentration disrupted, the spell holding me in place dies, leaving me to fall. A quick, hastily-aimed shot from my grapnel latches onto the bookshelf slightly above her, harshly arresting my drop before reeling me up. Patchouli's doubled over on herself, eyes screwed tightly shut and clutching at her ears, and is as helpless a target as any I've ever seen. When I reach the hook, I grab onto the shelf, brace my legs against it, and holster the grapnel.
And then I use the wood as a launching point to leap at the witch, my arms held wide.
Her shield flares to life, but where bullets failed, I succeed in smashing through it, the sigils shattering to pieces against me. I catch Patchouli about the shoulders, pulling her close to my chest, and we spin through the air on our course to a rough landing. We crash onto the bookcase where she revealed herself, my body taking the majority of the impact. I roll her off me, draw and activate my baton, and slap her with it before she can recover; electricity arcs through the woman, rooting her in place, locking her eyes open in shock. I give her a moment for the electricity to die down before I handcuff her.
"Witch is pacified," I say wearily, standing up. "Echo, you still with us?"
I grimace. "Gamma, Delta? Report."
My comms are silent for only seconds before Gamma's voice crackles through them. "Hey, boss. We're doing good over here. I think we shook the vamp."
"We should regroup, sir," Delta says. "Come find us, and we can- Contact!" The comms erupt in gunfire for a brief, terrible second, and then there's a pair of thumps.
Everything falls silent.
"Team! Report!" I say, already knowing the answer I'll get. The silence stretches on and on, and I growl in frustration. "TOC, I think I'm the last man standing. Continuing with the mission.
I ready my grapnel and sight in on the tallest bookcase around as a vantage point, and a pull of the trigger sets me skyward, leaving the electrified witch behind.
There's nothing to occupy me but a thick, dull dread in the pit of my stomach as I kneel on the edge of this bookcase and scan the library for any signs of my target. From here, the ground floor is a labyrinth of bookcases that I'm amazed anyone could possibly navigate successfully, all twisty passages and cramped corridors sandwiched between the monstrous load-bearing titans that occupy this place.
I shut my eyes and listen; straining my ears for a trace of Remilia; she may be able to stay out of sight, but those wings still have to beat through air.
There's a rush of air behind me,
and I'm already hurling myself aside just in time for the tip of a blood-red spear to pass me by. I land in a roll, coming to rest on one knee and bringing my rifle up as I face my attacker. Remilia, standing on the opposite edge of the shelf a few mere strides away, retracts her weapon, gripping the ten-foot impaler in both hands.
She smiles. "Excellent reflexes."
I sight in on her forehead and pop off a quick burst; Remilia flits aside in a blur of motion, my rounds passing through thin air. She comes to a stop mid-air, her wings beating steadily as she looks down on me. "That's incredibly rude, I'll have you-"
I fire again, and again, and again, but she just keeps dodging
, not even trying to attack. She stops once my gun clicks empty, yet makes no move as I reload.
"Can we have a talk or not?" Remilia asks, arching a brow.
I fling a flashbang at the vampire, and she neatly slices it in half with her spear. I come up short at that, struck silent by the sheer bullshit
of that maneuver.
Remilia clucks in disapproval, shaking her head. "All right, I'm quite tired of letting you have all the fun here."
And just like that, she's on me, spear thrusting at my heart. I twist aside, leaving it to scrape my chest, only for her to pull back and stab again at my head. A duck on my part keeps my head on my shoulders, but she just keeps stabbing at me. A pattern emerges, every one of her attacks coming in just slow enough I can evade it, although it takes my every effort to do so.
"Don't toy with me!" I say, unclipping another flashbang; the moment I do, her spear darts in and impales it, retracting just as swiftly without even touching my hand.
"No cheating, sir!" she chides, flicking the ruined grenade off her weapon.
Oh, hell, she really is just playing with me.
I sling my rifle over my shoulder and draw my baton, knowing full well just how suicidal this is, and launch myself at her. She brings her spear's haft up to block my first overhead strike, but I pull back and swing again and again and again. My blows come down on Remilia every second, sparks flying off her spear with every attack she blocks.
The entire time, she's smiling.
And then, after ten straight seconds of this, after she blocks yet another of my attacks, she dispels the spear while I'm hauling back for one last strike. I bring the baton down on her head, and she claps it between her hands.
Electricity surges through her whole body, but she merely grits her teeth and wrenches the baton from my grip, pulling me stumbling along. She flings the weapon aside, over the shelf, and lays into my jaw with an uppercut; my world explodes in pain as I fly upwards, flipping end over end.
On one of my revolutions, I catch sight of Remilia resummoning her spear.
It catches me full in the gut, piercing through
me with a meaty squelch, leaving me stuck on the pole like a hog to roast and sliding down fast from sheer momentum.
It- Oh, God, it hurts.
"Valorous, certainly!" Remilia says, her words coming in dull and muffled to my ears. "Skilled, perhaps less so."
She slams the butt of the spear into the shelf, embedding it upright in the wood. My descent slows with every second, until I'm merely sliding down by inches, yet no matter how I grasp at the pole and try to hold myself up, I keep slipping. Every breath I take feels like trying to suck in air through a crumpled straw, my stomach burning up like her spear was coated in white phosphorous.
And yet, despite all this, one thought rises above the rest.
I still have my pistol.
But I can't reach for it with her watching.
It hurts to whisper, but I manage to choke out, "Re- Remilia."
She blinks in surprise, her eyes flicking up to my own for a crucial second. Now.
I quickdraw on her and pull the trigger as many times as I can, plinks sounding off as rounds smash into her head and body and wings. She jerks back with every bullet, her expression locked in shocked surprise, and a vengeful, vindictive glee surges through me as I riddle her with bullets.
My pistol clicks dry after three sustained seconds of fire. Remilia, swaying drunkenly, looks me in the eye. She manages the barest trace of a smile before toppling onto her back. "Tie,"
My pistol slips from numb fingers, clattering against the wood.
This went about as well as could be expected, I suppose.
And then Remilia's laugh cracks through the air, bright and merry as she sits up grinning widely at me. "Oh, well done!
She claps her hands together, and the spear vanishes from existence, leaving me to drop to my hands and knees gasping for air. My stomach is sore, but that's otherwise the only effect of my skewering.
"All right," Remilia says, jumping to her feet. "I suppose this really is the end; you managed to score your hits upon me, as previously agreed." She offers a hand up, still smiling. Welts swell on her forehead, but she doesn't seem bothered. "That was quite the match, sir!"
I take her hand, and she jerks me to my feet as though I weren't twice her size. "Your money's good, we weren't going to half-ass it," I say, patting my stomach. "Thank God you people know how to set your weapons to stun."
"Magic!" she says, waggling her fingers theatrically. "Allowing me to live out my horrifically violent whims without actually murdering anyone! And you had those... what were they?"
I withdraw a pistol magazine and show her the top. "Rubber bullets. I didn't expect our rounds to outright kill your honor guard, however."
Remilia rolls her eyes. "Pshh, they're fairies, they die if you nudge them wrong."
"Whereas we die if we get stabbed or incinerated," I say, tucking the magazine back. "If we hadn't agreed on your... Spellcard
I nod. "Right. If it weren't for those, I'd have been seriously worried."
Her eyebrows disappear into messy hair. "Considering you'd all be dead men if we didn't, I'd say that's a good thing."
"You know it." I cough into my fist. "And, ah, sorry for electrocuting your maid and the witch. Please make sure they don't try to kill me later."
Remilia waves my concerns off. "Oh, they'll be fine. I thought that voltage was invigorating, personally!"
I hold up a hand to forestall further conversation. "Mind giving me a second? I want to check in on my team."
"Go ahead!" Remilia says, folding her hands behind her back.
"Team," I say, turning away, "we've officially got a tie. Get ready to move out." Four weary but distinct cheers rise up through my comms. Next up is Command. "TOC, entry team reporting. Our mission is officially complete."
"Copy, entry team. Return to base."
"Affirmative. Out." Something that had been niggling at me comes to mind, and I turn to Remilia again. "Out of curiosity, when we first met, what would have happened if you did snap Gamma's neck? Or if Bravo got his neck sliced open?"
She shrugs. "It would have been painful, but again, magic! Ultimately they'd have been fine."
"Ah." Another question occurs to me. "So, how long were you hiding on top of your bed waiting for us?"
The look she gives me is pure, honest smug. "I woke up when I heard that lock click open."
I whistle. "Impressive."
"I try." Just like that, her demeanor shifts from playful to serious, her lips pursing as she looks me over. "So, what are your official recommendations for my security forces?"
Right, time to be professional. I stand at attention. "I'll draft a full report for you once we're out, but until then, consider assigning night watchmen to the towers and hiring sturdier guards. If you're interested in contracting us for further work, we're always available for any security, consulting, training, or military needs you may have." I nod, my mental checklist crossed off. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go collect my squad, get my baton back,"-she has the courtesy to look sheepish-"and release the people we've restrained. After that, we'll be on our way."
She's quiet as I retrieve my gun, and speaks only once I've shoved my pistol into its holster. "Ah, Mister...?"
"Just Alpha is fine," I say, readying my grapnel.
Remilia nods, her expression pleasant. "Well, thank you for services rendered, Alpha." She honest to God giggles.
"It was very exciting, make no mistake."
"Any time, Miss Scarlet. If you ever want my boys in particular again, just ask for Badge Squad, and we'll be right over." I tap my grapnel against my helmet in salute. "And with that, I must go."
I hop back onto thin air, and the last I see of Remilia is her (very briefly) astonished face before I plummet.
It's the little things that make this job worthwhile.