Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam.

First of all, many apologies for the long hiatus - more on that at the end. Second, I hope you enjoy the new chapter... considering I made people wait six months I hope its worth the wait. Finally, huge shout-out to LW for beta reading for me - thank you for your patience and encouragement!


Gundam Gemini

Episode Seventeen

The Scarlet Admirer

Part C

.

The first thing that struck Reizo was how peaceful Dragnel was.

There were no air strikes trying to bomb the city to oblivion. No LIRA patrols to constantly hide from. No bloodied or desecrated corpses filling the streets. Instead, the sky was a picturesque blue, the bustling streets were decorated for the holidays, and the air was free from the stench of death and decay. As Reizo watched the well-dressed Luxite civilians go about their business without fear of conflict or violence, he was almost reminded of Takamahara and the innocence it had possessed before the war. If he and his men so wished, they could probably live out their lives here amongst the enemy in peace and the Luxites would never know.

But the scorched ruins of his home planet were burned into his memory and he recalled his vendetta with a scowl of pure hatred. For their fallen comrades, for their slain families and for their stolen homeland, the Dawn Blades would mete out justice without mercy. The peace Reizo saw outside his tinted window disgusted him and he tore his gaze away in favour of staring at the sheathed katana on his lap.

Today, Lux would finally pay for their crimes with blood and terror.

"General, our men are in position."

Reizo nodded and focused his one eye on the three other men in the shadows who awaited his command. Finding no hesitation in their hardened gazes, the older man began to speak.

"Soldiers of Takamahara, after two years of preparations the time has finally come to fulfil our oaths of vengeance. By this day's end, the empire will feel the fury of our people and Dragnel will flow with Luxite blood. Moreover, our righteous actions will inflict upon our enemies a wound that will never heal – a wound that will fester and sow fear into the hearts and minds of Luxites for generations to come." Reizo tempered his passionate speech with a calm tone but the all-consuming rage in his face could not be repressed any longer and he whipped his followers into a fervour with his next words. "Like the legendary samurai of our motherland, do not fear death, Dawn Blades. For in death lies glory, victory… and eternity. For a new dawn! Takamahara banzai!"

"Takamahara banzai!"

On the streets of Dragnel, a blue van with tinted windows opened its doors and four workmen in grey overalls stepped out. With a relaxed manner they put on their caps and casually unloaded boxes from the van onto a trolley which they began wheeling through the crowded streets. As was the way of Lux, no one batted an eyelid at what appeared to be the menial, lower class workforce of the empire who might as well be invisible – a misconception the Dawn Blades used to their advantage.

They would not arouse suspicion until it was too late.

With brazen audacity, the four arrived at their destination, the Venus Mall, in plain view of hundreds of shoppers. Once inside the tower, they were predictably confronted by security guards on the ground floor who eyed the obviously foreign quartet with suspicion.

"Another delivery? I don't remember any being scheduled for today," an overweight guard challenged them while he greedily slurped his coffee.

"It's for you," said Reizo, cool as a cucumber.

"For me?" The guard blinked curiously, never once imagining he could come to harm as the workmen reached into their boxes and pulled out shiny black objects. By the time he realised what was happening, he was already staring down the cold barrels of four semi-automatic machine guns.

The guard dropped his coffee and reached for his pistol but it was already too late. Before the mug could even hit the ground and smash into a multitude of steaming ceramic pieces, the mall erupted with gunfire and the guard was filled with hot lead. He stumbled backwards, his stomach peppered with bleeding holes, before falling into the centrepiece fountain with a giant splash and tainting the water red.

Ear-splitting screams followed and the Venus Mall was transformed into a house of horrors as thousands fled for their lives. It would have been so easy to have massacred the scared and defenceless Luxites as they scrambled for the exits but the Dawn Blades resisted the temptation. With chilling discipline, they eliminated all threats to their mission first... starting with the remaining security guards in front of them.

The Dawn Blades fired with short bursts of their machine guns and the two guards fell where they stood to lie in pools of their own blood. Having heard the commotion, a fourth guard appeared on the floor above and unloaded his pistol at the terrorists only to discover he was seriously outgunned. Another barrage of bullets followed and he clutched his bloody chest as he fell over the railing to join his departed colleague in the fountain below with another loud splash. More security guards met the same fate as they rushed to reach the ground floor, similarly gunned down on the elevators and stairwells as dozens of armed terrorists with black sword tattoos revealed themselves from within the throng of fleeing civilians.

For one long minute, shrill gunfire continued to rattle off inside the Venus Mall, echoing up and down the open-air tower along with deafening screams. Finally, silence reigned and, as the Dawn Blades began to report in on the radio, Reizo nodded with satisfaction.

"Block the exits," he commanded, speaking into his own handheld radio. "And start taking hostages."

As the Dawn Blades began to herd the cowed shoppers who had failed to escape to pre-planned positions all around the mall, Reizo was left momentarily alone. Seemingly distracted with admiring the carnage his men had wrought, he suddenly turned on his heels and drew the katana hidden in his sports bag. With a blinding flash of steel, he sliced through the throat of the guard sneaking up on him from behind. The stunned Luxite dropped the pistol he had been aiming and clutched at his torn throat, gurgling blood before dying on his knees.

Wiping the blade clean with his sleeve, Reizo sheathed his katana and removed his cap, revealing unkempt, greying black hair and a weathered emotionless face worn from years of battle. A long vertical scar peeked out from under the black eyepatch covering his right eye which only made his remaining good one seem even more hawk-like in its intensity.

Gazing coldly down at the dead guard, Reizo grunted and tossed his cap into the pool of blood coagulating on the floor. He was rusty. In his younger days, he would have taken the guard's head clean off.

"General." A few of the Dawn Blades approached Reizo and reported in. "The hostages are in position and their phones have been confiscated. We've also secured the mall's control room and blocked all the exits. The tower is now ours, sir."

"And not a moment too soon; the Dragnel police are already outside and look ready to storm the building," another reported to the sound of sirens. "There is also a heavy media presence and a crowd of onlookers have gathered."

"Just as we planned," Reizo nodded with approval while his men grinned. "Ready the Hienas. Let fire and fury rain down upon our enemies…"

.


.

Alistair Wallace thought he had left the dangers of active service far behind him when he had joined the Imperial Guard. Sure, Princess Claudia was a handful and being her highness' head of security had its headaches but it was a peaceful position. There weren't meant to be flying bullets or hostage situations – not in Dragnel.

Evidently, the terrorists had never got the memo.

The moment Alistair heard the familiar sounds of machine gun fire coming from the next tower, instinct took over and he instantly went into soldier mode. He got a hold of his phone and contacted every imperial guard he had in the field, trying to confirm the princess' safety. He was still on the line when the Venus Hotel was evacuated, the big man cramming inside the lift with the maids and barking at his contacts as it went down. But when he finally got outside the hotel, the colonel suddenly went silent and the phone fell by his side.

The whole street was swarming with people trying to get as far away as possible from the Venus Mall. They were even leaving their cars behind which had been stuck in traffic and the train of abandoned vehicles were impeding the arrival of the first responders. Screams and sirens filled the chaotic air, but it was the expressions of the fleeing civilians as they ran past him that shocked Alistair most of all.

Fear. Pure, naked fear was etched on every last wide-eyed face. Alistair knew that look; he'd seen it on the battlefield he thought he'd left behind. Whatever they had witnessed, they would never be the same again. No, Dragnel itself would never be the same again.

Terror had come to Lux.

The faint voice of someone calling his name shook Alistair out of his stupor and he lifted the phone back up to his ear with a grunt.

"Yeah, I'm still here… Report!"

Along with the civilians, Alistair and the maids were pushed back to a hastily prepared perimeter at the end of the street. It was enforced by police officers who were as panicked as the crowd they were trying to calm. Some survivors were walking about still covered in blood which may or may not be their own and the maids did what they could to assist the vastly outnumbered medics. Others were crying out for missing family members and a few even tried to breach the perimeter to go back into the mall before they were stopped by the police.

Alistair wandered to the rear of the crowd, trying to escape the deafening noise as he talked to his contacts on the phone. When he finally found some space, he turned around and used his great height to see what was unfolding back down the street. SWAT team vehicles were already moving in, ploughing through the abandoned cars to reach the Venus Mall and neutralise the terrorists.

As the colonel watched, however, his face went deathly pale. Whatever his subordinate was telling him, it was not good news. Far from it.

"…She's where?!" he yelled into the phone and whipped his head around to stare slackjawed at the Venus Mall.

Just then, Alistair's shock and fury was interrupted by more screams. Following the startled gazes and pointed hands of the crowd, he looked up to find giant figures too large to be human on the roof of the Venus Mall tower. Unlike the confused civilians, however, he knew exactly what they were.

They were mobile suits.

"Hienas?!" he shouted, recognising the barebones model favoured in the Outer Rim before catching a glimpse of the mobile suit-sized RPGs in their manipulators. "Get down!"

Alistair screamed and dived for cover, pulling who he could with him. There was a flash of light at the top of the tower and one of the SWAT cars exploded instantaneously in a ball of fire. Several more explosions followed in quick succession, the shockwaves bowling the shrieking crowd over soon after. As the earth convulsed with every strike, the nearby buildings shook and superheated air blasted throughout the city. His ears still ringing, Alistair waited for the wind to die down before struggling to his feet and bracing himself for the sight that awaited him.

The Dragnel street, once vibrant and filled with people, had been transformed into a devastated warzone. Smouldering car husks surrounded the Venus Mall and smoking craters were all that remained of the SWAT teams which had been burnt to cinders. Broken glass littered the ground and whole buildings had been stripped bare, the explosions having shattered every window in a one-kilometre radius. Dust and fumes clogged the air and the scents triggered old, unwanted memories in Alistair of harrowing scenes from the Outer Rim Conflicts. All that was missing were the bodies.

As people around Alistair began to pick themselves up, clutching their heads and groaning, the giant screen mounted on the Venus Mall began to flicker with power. Although partially cracked, it was still complete enough to offer the detailed picture of a scarred man with an eyepatch. The moment Alistair laid eyes on the projected face, he reeled back in disbelief.

"It can't be…!" he growled. The man was older now but there was no mistaking the infamous terrorist who had murdered thousands – the terrorist who was supposed to be dead. "Devil Reizo…!"

Nearby, a news cameraman shakily pointed his video camera at the giant screen and, with all of Lux watching, Reizo began to speak.

"Attention, citizens of Lux. Today, your corrupt empire will finally either atone for its crimes… or pay for its hubris with your lives," Reizo declared in a deathly tone as his voice resonated all over the city with the help of the mall's outdoor speakers. "All that we, the Dawn Blades, seek is justice for our home planet of Takamahara – the peaceful world you Luxites unlawfully and brutally annexed, subjugated, plundered and enslaved. We demand the immediate withdrawal of all LIRA forces from the planet, the release of all political prisoners and the complete reversal of the 277AC Annexation of Takamahara, thereby returning the planet into the hands of the Takamaharan people to determine their own destiny. Know that our demands are non-negotiable and if they are not met, there will be consequences…"

The screen cut to presumably live footage of scenes inside the Venus Mall and random hostages were shown one by one. They were huddled on the floor in various locations, fear etched on the terrified faces of adults and children alike while armed men stood over them. The gruesome corpses of dead guards and a bloody fountain were also shown off as if to illustrate the futility of resistance. It was enough to fill Alistair with hot-blooded rage.

"As you can see, this tower and its occupants are now under the control of the Dawn Blades. For every hour our demands are not met, we will execute a hostage and broadcast their death live," Reizo announced without so much as batting his one good eye while his audience gasped with horror. "Do not attempt to rescue them. As we have so clearly and grievously demonstrated, such futile attempts by either the DPD or LIRA will only result in further loss of life. Furthermore, high-grade explosives have been placed in strategic locations within the tower – its foundations included – and we will not hesitate to detonate them should you fail to heed our warnings. I repeat, do not attempt to rescue the hostages. We are prepared to die for our noble cause and make this place our graves. You may think us monsters but it was the atrocities of your empire that created us and now, as you Luxites like to say, 'your chickens have come home to roost'. You have our demands. If you care about your people, I suggest you comply with them. Remember… the clock is ticking."

The giant screen switched off and the terrorist leader disappeared from view, leaving Luxites everywhere to either panic, seethe or pray in his villainous wake.

But not Alistair 'Breaker' Wallace.

While the crowd resumed its rowdy behaviour, shouting insults and pleas at the terrorists inside the Venus Mall while journalists continued with their live reports, Alistair pushed a path through the masses and grabbed one of the Dragnel police officers by the collar.

"Get me the chief of police! Now!" he roared, sending spittle flying.

"Who the hell are you?!" the officer shouted back, shoving the burly man off of him.

"Colonel Alistair Wallace, Imperial Guard!" Alistair identified himself, flashing his ID at the flummoxed officer. "I have crucial information on the terrorists – information your boss is going to want to hear unless you want us all swimming in deep, deep shit! Now, get on your radio and call it in!"

Faced with the persuasive rhetoric of Breaker Wallace, the officer suddenly changed his tune and began speaking into his shoulder mic in hushed whispers. Meanwhile, Alistair took up his phone again and barked a series of orders to his men before dialling his superior officer. When the news finally went up the chain of command, he had no doubt that the ruined street would be swarming with LIRA units and they would need to coordinate with the DPD to get through what was turning out to be one of Lux's greatest crises. His only consolation was that if Devil Reizo had not mentioned Princess Claudia in his address, the terrorist either didn't know she was in the building or the princess had evaded capture – for now at least.

"I'm counting on you, Vega…" Alistair whispered just as military helicopters began to fly overhead.

.


.

The moment the camera switched off, Reizo boldly strode up to one of the mall's windows to gauge the empire's reaction outside. The foolhardy act left him open to snipers but the Takamaharan was confident the empire would not dare to try anything rash after hearing the Dawn Blade's threats. Sure enough, the DPD kept their distance and the ruined street far below had become a no-man's land. Just as Takamahara's cities had been transformed into warzones, Lux would finally get a taste of their own medicine.

Reizo nodded with approval. Slowly but surely, their long-held fantasies of revenge were coming to fruition. All that was needed now was the final piece…

"General…" One of Reizo's men pulled his attention away from the window with a hesitant look.

"Has our special guest been secured?" Reizo asked only for his subordinate to shake his head.

"No, General… We found our men knocked out in the women's restroom on the ninth floor," he reported. "The princess and her bodyguards were nowhere to be found."

Reizo's one eye narrowed at the news but otherwise he appeared perfectly calm.

"They couldn't have gone far. We have this entire tower locked down," he reasoned before issuing his orders with a sweep of his hand. "Form a search party and comb every inch of this mall. The princess' capture is our trump card and vital to our cause; she must be in our custody before the next broadcast."

"Yes, General!"

The terrorist saluted his leader before scurrying off with several other members of the Dawn Blades. Once they were out of sight, Reizo slowly exhaled and gripped the railing overlooking the mall's open-air interior. The princess was out there somewhere; he could feel it.

It would be a shame if, after all their preparations and sacrifices, the Dawn Blades were unable to acquire their prime insurance and bargaining chip. Not only that, the news of Lux's Imperial Princess falling into the hands of terrorists would have been a victory in itself and demoralised the entire empire. But no matter. As Reizo had learned after three decades of insurgency, one had to be flexible on the battlefield.

"Nothing can stop the new dawn… Nothing."

.


.

The store was a mess but it appeared perfectly empty. Its salespeople and customers had left in a rush during the attack but judging by the bats, balls and rackets strewn everywhere it sold high grade sports equipment. Nevertheless, the Dawn Blades searched the deserted retailer noisily, tossing boxes and checking its storeroom with guns drawn. When they found no one, they cursed and left to search the next shop.

The automated doors opened and closed, signalling their departure, and the sports store returned to stillness. However, only moments later, a small section of the ceiling was dislodged and a square hole appeared.

Vega jumped out first, her silver hair trailing behind her as she landed silently like a cat. Once on the ground, she held out her arms and, with some encouragement, caught Claudia's redheaded form as the girl dropped from the ceiling cavity with a tiny squeal. Setting the blushing princess down on her feet, Vega offered up her arms again for the next jumper and Charlotte all but leapt into her embrace in a flurry of blonde locks. Chuckling as she put the overjoyed cub down, Vega readied her arms again only for a hand in the ceiling to wave her away. Ursula, rebuffing the enticing offer of a Scarlet Wolf princess-carry, chose to keep her dignity by jumping and landing on her own.

The four then hid behind the counter, crouching as they watched out for terrorist patrols and discussed their situation.

"Vega, I think it's about time you explain what's going on," Claudia demanded, clutching her Haro close to keep herself calm. The robotic pet had disguised itself as another toy ball on the floor to fool the terrorists and could only flap its ears meekly after the princess had muted its voice. "Who or what are these… Dawn Blades?"

"The Dawn Blades were a terrorist organisation from the Outer Rim. The tattoo you saw of a black sword against a black sun was their symbol," Vega began to calmly explain as she adjusted her mask, having at some point put her sunglasses away. "Their goal was to liberate their home world of Takamahara from Lux rule after the empire had colonised the planet during the Outer Rim Conflicts. To achieve this, they employed all manner of violent and indiscriminate tactics as you would expect of terrorists – bombings, kidnappings, guerrilla warfare – and the insurgency lasted almost three decades. It was only three years ago that the Dawn Blades were finally defeated – vanquished when LIRA stamped out their last remaining terrorist cells and strongholds in Operation Twilight."

"The Space Wolves participated in the operation – our last before our deployment in the Outer Rim finished," Ursula took over and explained while keeping her pistol at the ready with both hands. "That should have been the end of it. I mean, the operation was supposed to have been a success…"

"Evidently not… It looks like more than a few of them got away," Claudia pointed out the painfully obvious. "And they're on Lux."

"They must have been smuggled in while posing as cheap migrant labour out of Takamahara…" Vega theorised while cupping her chin in her hand. "Still, this amount of organisation and planning must have taken the Dawn Blades years… especially since we killed their leader in Operation Twilight."

"You mean this guy?" Charlotte, who had been fiddling with her phone the entire time, showed them a video of a scarred man with an eyepatch. "His demands are playing all over the news."

"Reizo Bushida…!" Ursula exclaimed, recognising the man instantly. "So he survived…"

"General Reizo Bushida… Otherwise known as 'Devil Reizo'," Vega mused with something akin to fascination as she gave a background on the infamous terrorist for Claudia's and Charlotte's benefit. "He was a former Takamaharan general during the war before he founded the Dawn Blades and is the sole reason the insurgency lasted as long as it did. Before Operation Twilight, LIRA had been trying to kill him for years only for the devil to slip through their fingers every time. Even our dear friend Colonel Wallace tried and failed."

"His death was meant to have been confirmed three years ago but I suppose he must have faked it… and he's been alive all this time," Ursula added with a hint of foreboding.

"Indeed," Vega nodded in agreement. "Three years is more than enough time to plot your revenge – the ultimate last hurrah."

"If you mean this is some kind of farewell party for the terrorists, they certainly brought the goods," Charlotte interjected again and switched her phone to footage of the ruined street outside the Venus Mall before the video zoomed in on the robotic figures atop the tower. "You were right, Lady Vega. Those explosions we heard were caused by mobile suits."

"Hienas!" Vega identified the mobile suits with almost childlike excitement. "They're similar to Raijuu in function but like all Outer Rim mobile suits they're noteworthy for having evolved wholly independently of the Lemurian Argos. You could say the Hiena comes from a completely different family than our Wargs and even Rem's Garms. They're also easily disassembled and reassembled too which could explain how they were successfully smuggled into Dragnel. I wonder if they had intended to kidnap the princess from the penthouse using them…"

While Vega went on about a mobile suit that wasn't the Fenrir for once, Claudia checked inside her Haro for her phone. When she did, she was alarmed to discover a whole slew of unread messages and missed calls.

"Colonel Wallace…" she mouthed before biting her lip.

"You better call him," Vega suggested, watching as the princess hesitated with a wince before biting the bullet and dialling the colonel back. "And for that matter, I need to make my own phone call."

While Claudia quietly informed Wallace of their safety, Vega took out her own phone and engaged the speed dial. It only rang once before someone picked up and a familiar if anxious voice received the noblewoman.

"Major! Where are you?!" Luke skipped the pleasantries and sounded uncharacteristically panicked. "I've been trying to reach you nonstop for the last half hour! Have you seen the news? There's a hostage situation going on at the Venus–"

"–Mall. I know," Vega promptly finished for the pilot and smirked as she followed up with a not so innocent question. "Guess where I am now?"

"What?" Luke scoffed, believing for a moment that Vega was playing games before he went quiet and the answer dawned on him. "…Oh god."

After spending the next few minutes explaining their perilous situation, during which the phones were put on speaker and laid side by side on the carpet so Colonel Wallace could join the conversation, there was a pause as Luke drew a long and exhausted breath.

"…Let me get this straight: You're hiding out in the Venus Mall from the Dawn Blades and everyone is with you? Including the princess? Are you kidding me?" They heard a faint groan as if Luke had turned away from the receiver. "…And even the shrimp is there?"

"Hey!" Charlotte snapped. "Don't call me a shrimp!"

"Whatever you say, squirt…" Luke brushed her off with a sigh before he seemed to finally accept the situation. "So? What now?"

"We'd like to get the hell out of here now, that's what," Ursula stated the obvious. "But the Dawn Blades are patrolling the mall looking for us. We need more information. Colonel?"

"LIRA and the DPD are working on that very problem as we speak, Captain, but we don't have a lot to share yet," Wallace informed them in his usual gravelly tone. "We're taking witness statements and studying all the footage we have, including Devil Reizo's broadcast, but we still don't know the Dawn Blade's exact numbers, how many hostages they have or where they're holding them. The only thing we know for sure is that the terrorists have the tower locked down tighter than a duck's ass. Oh… pardon me, Princess."

"It's fine, Colonel. In fact, under the current circumstances, I find your colourful language soothing…" Claudia assured him with a giggle although it sounded slightly forced.

"What about Reizo's claim that explosives have been set up inside the mall? Is there any truth to that?" Vega asked.

"The bomb squad is verifying it but this is Devil Reizo we're talking about – I have no doubt in hell the threat is real and the whole building will go down in flames if we don't give in to their demands," growled Wallace, speaking from bitter experience. "That's one of the major problems for SWAT and Spec Ops; they don't know what other tricks they'll encounter if they go in. Then there's those damned Hienas on the roof. Unless we can find a way around them, any rescue effort will need to neutralise those old buckets first in a coordinated assault without alerting the Dawn Blades. We've still coming up with a plan at the command centre but a Warg team from Dragnel Air Base should arrive soon."

"That's us. The Space Wolves just got the order and we're preparing to deploy," Luke informed them with something of a reluctant tone. "Of course, without the major or the captain here, guess who's leading the squadron?"

"God help us…" Ursula whispered. "We're trapped here with bloodthirsty terrorists and our survival may depend on the laziest pilot in LIRA…"

"Hey, it's not like I want to be in charge, okay?!" Luke retorted, sounding genuinely hurt. "Really, Pavel should be third-in-command but the promotions board is biased against commoners. Oh, Pavel says hi, squirt."

"Don't call me squirt!" Charlotte shot back and momentarily looked up from her phone which she had been fiddling with nonstop.

"Don't doubt yourself so much, Luke. Just listen to Pavel and I'm sure you'll do fine," Vega assured the nobleman with a smile. "Now, this is important… Luke, has the R&D Division returned the Fenrir to the hanger yet?"

"Yes, this morning… Why?"

"I want you to equip it with the prototype equipment Nova Industries sent me and bring it with you to the city."

"Oh no, Major–"

"Oh no, Vega!" Wallace somehow managed to cut Ursula off despite being a disembodied voice in the room. "You might be used to getting away with your antics under Sparrhorn but I'm in charge here and this time you're going to tell me what harebrained scheme you've cooked up before you even lift a finger!"

"Have a little faith, Colonel…. When have I ever led you wrong?" Vega cajoled her old squadron leader with a grin. "In fact, my 'harebrained scheme' just might help us with our information troubles. Charlotte?"

"Yes, Lady Vega!" Charlotte happily answered and produced her phone with a self-important smirk. "As Lady Vega asked, I've hacked into the mall's security system and gotten a direct feed into its camera network – right under the Dawn Blade's noses!"

"Incredible!" Claudia marvelled at the technopath and scooted over so she could see the live security camera footage.

"It was mere child's play," Charlotte boasted to the princess and puffed out her chest.

"But you ARE a child…" pointed out Luke.

"Shut up, Valorie!"

"I'm not seeing any hostages… or Dawn Blades for that matter," said Ursula, squinting at Charlotte's phone as it cycled through a series of camera feeds. "And some of these cameras appear to have been disabled."

"No doubt a precaution taken by the Dawn Blades. They don't want our technopaths hacking into the mall's security system and seeing what they're up to as Lieutenant Jaeger has done," Wallace explained. "After thirty years of insurgency, they've become quite adept at dealing with technopaths."

"The Outer Rim has no technopaths after all," Luke added. "It's one of the reasons they lost the war… and they haven't forgotten it."

"They had the courtesy of leaving up all the cameras watching the exits at least," Vega pointed out, resting her chin on her fingers as a plan formed in her mind. "Charlotte, how long would it take for you to substitute some of these live feeds for a loop?"

"A loop? This isn't like in the movies, Lady Vega," a sceptical Charlotte surprisingly rebuffed her idol with a raised eyebrow. "I'd need something better than my phone to start with… plus hardware to make the recording… and depending on what kind of cameras a fancy mall like this uses, I might need to reroute some cables directly…"

"If it's hardware you need, don't forget you have the entire mall at your disposal," Vega reminded her before leaning forward with a husky tone. "And I'm sure it's nothing my precious protégé couldn't handle."

"Yes, Lady Vega!" Charlotte cried happily and her cynical manner changed completely as she tapped away at her phone again. "Instead of inserting a loop, we could try freezing the footage and hope the Dawn Blades won't notice. The cameras are only showing a bunch of empty hallways right now and it's a lot simpler."

"Excellent. If we can trick the Dawn Blades even momentarily, we should be able to slip past them and escape into the safety of the Venus Hotel next door using the nearest skybridge," Vega nodded with approval as she brought up a schematic of the mall on her own phone. "Once we get the princess out, the rescue team and bomb squad can then go in undetected."

"Wait. Why can't they just enter the moment we freeze the security cameras?" Claudia asked, confusion spreading across her noble features. "Surely that's more efficient for the rescue effort; besides, I can't just leave the hostages behind while I save myself."

The others fell strangely silent and Claudia got the distinct feeling she would not like the answer to her question.

"Princess Claudia… Getting Your Highness out first was always the plan," Wallace solemnly informed his charge and the others watched as the princess quickly masked her shock before vehemently disagreeing.

"That's unconscionable… Are you saying I'm more important than the other hostages?" she whispered angrily while clenching her fists.

"That's exactly it," Vega told Claudia bluntly before gently touching the royal on the shoulder in an effort to convince her. "We can't let the imperial princess fall into the hands of the Dawn Blades. It would be another form of victory for them."

"But… the hostages…"

"Don't worry. I never said we'd be leaving them behind," Vega reassured Claudia with a confident curve of her red lips and picked up the princess' scarlet Haro from the floor before handing it to her. "You said you programmed this Haro yourself. Can you reprogram it to be remote controlled by phone?"

"Yes… Yes, I can," Claudia whispered, nodding with increasing determination as she began to understand Vega's plan. "Leave it to me, Vega. I'll prove to you my technopathic powers are not just for show."

"I look forward to it," Vega nodded back and returned her attention to the others to formally announce her plans. "While we wait for the Space Wolves, we'll use the princess' Haro to scout out the mall and locate the hostages as well as the Dawn Blades. Once that information has been transmitted to the colonel, we shall enact what I would like to call Operation Red Herring…"

As the Scarlet Wolf finally explained her harebrained scheme in detail, the eyes of her listeners grew as wide as saucers and their mouths fell open. Ursula shook her head repeatedly with every word and they heard Luke drop his phone with a clatter midway. When Vega finally finished, grinning with satisfaction as she surveyed the amusing reactions around her, approval came from a surprising source.

"Vega… that was one of the most harebrained, half-witted and screwball plans I've ever heard…" Wallace voiced his extreme disapproval before sighing like his next words would take a gargantuan effort to articulate. "…And it just might work. Gods… I can't believe I said that…"

"I'm so pleased you approve, Colonel!" Vega chuckled, which only led the man to groan over the phone like he was in excruciating pain. "Luke, I'm entrusting the Fenrir to you; make sure it gets here exactly as I specified."

"Roger, Major," Luke replied. "Although it sounds like I have the easy bit, really…"

"Major, you mentioned the need for a distraction during… during Operation Red Herring," said Ursula, repeating the name with obvious discomfort. "What exactly did you have in mind?"

"Oh, just you wait, my dear Ursula…" Vega crooned as she looked up from behind the counter. "I have the most perfect distraction in mind…"

The eyes of the noblewoman's mask gazed mysteriously at the wig salon opposite them before they settled on the unwitting blonde next to her.

"…What? What is it?" Charlotte asked, feeling Vega's roguish stare as the cub blinked her red eyes with building trepidation. "W-Why are you looking at me like that, Lady Vega?"

.


.

Infiltrating and capturing the Venus Mall had been a strategic triumph for the Dawn Blades for several reasons. The building was an excellent source of hostages as well as supplies, and easily fortified against a siege. It was also right next door to the Venus Hotel where they knew the princess was staying in her secure penthouse, thereby allowing for a swift abduction using their Hienas across the way. While their original abduction plan had failed, it had only been due to the fact that she was already inside the mall – a most fortuitous coincidence.

Or so they had thought.

As the terrorists were discovering in their hunt for the princess, occupying the mall had also come with some vexing drawbacks. First and foremost, the tower was an immense labyrinth with innumerable hiding spots and the search party had little option but to check the stores one at a time for their quarry. It was akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack and their arduous task was only made more difficult by their lack of manpower as most of their comrades were either guarding the hostages or on alert for a LIRA raid. Their decision to disable all the security cameras except for those watching the entrances – a countermeasure against the empire's technopaths – had also come back to bite them as they now had no way to keep an eye on so many areas.

Now, an hour into the search, the Dawn Blades had turned up nothing and were almost resigned to continuing the hunt long into the night.

But a report from the most unexpected of places changed everything.

"General, this is Hiena-One… I think we found the princess."

Puzzled, Reizo cocked his one eye and reached for his radio.

"Report, Hiena-One. What do you see?"

"A girl matching the princess' description hiding behind the rooftop air conditioning units and solar panels," the pilot of Hiena-One replied as he monitored the intruder on his screen. "She just burst out onto the roof a few moments ago and hid when she saw our Hienas. She doesn't appear to realise we've noticed her already."

"Are you sure it's the princess?" Reizo pressed from the other side of the comm.

"Red hair, red eyes… A bit on the small side but it must be her," the pilot confirmed. "What should we do?"

"Detain her but don't hurt her – we need her alive," Reizo ordered. "I'll inform the search party; let them apprehend the princess once they arrive. And remember: Do not leave your Hienas under any circumstances. Snipers from the DPD or LIRA might be watching."

"Roger that. Detaining the princess!"

With a push of his controls, the pilot put the Hiena into gear and the orange mobile suit began to stomp towards the trembling princess.

.


.

The things I do for Lady Vega...

It wasn't a thought that often crossed Charlotte's mind – the young prodigy would walk through fire for the Scarlet Wolf if it meant headpats at the end – but even she was having second thoughts about Operation Red Herring.

The plan had started well enough. Using her phone to control the Haro remotely, Charlotte had scouted the mall for the locations of the hostages and terrorists, counting and marking their positions down on an electronic map as she went. It had been a long and laborious task, not to mention nail-biting – Charlotte had had to stop and pretend to be an innocuous toy ball more than once when the Haro had crossed paths with a suspicious terrorist – but Lady Vega had entrusted her with it and even promised a tantalising reward.

So once the information had been recorded and sent to Colonel Wallace to pass on to the SWAT and Spec Ops teams, the exhausted blonde had been expecting headpats – bountiful headpats and cuddles. Claudia had received some just for reprogramming her Haro but since Charlotte had done the lion's share of the work, rolling the Haro around and dodging terrorists, surely her reward would be far more substantial.

However, what she got instead upon reporting her success to Vega was a red wig and a smile full of mischief.

"I can't believe she talked me into doing this…" Charlotte whispered from her hiding place behind a large industrial air conditioner, grimacing as she grasped a handful of the false red locks on her head. The metal cabinet shook like a giant was walking past and she peeked over the top using her phone's camera only to discover one of the Hienas striding towards her.

Just as Vega had predicted. Thanks to the wig and her red eyes, the Dawn Blades believed Charlotte was the princess and were rushing to capture her – not that it made the blonde happy. Being mistaken for that uppity blueblood was bad enough; being the designated distraction made it even worse.

"Cinderella, this is Goldilocks," Charlotte whispered into her phone. "The porridge is hot. I repeat, the porridge is hot!"

"Copy that, Char… Goldilocks," Ursula replied before sighing. "…Why do we have to use these stupid codenames again?"

"Because Lady Vega said so!" Charlotte admonished the captain like she was insulting holy scriptures. "Now are you ready or not?"

"Ready when you are. Let's hope this works."

"For my sake, you better hope it works… Don't think I've forgotten your sad performance at the arcade earlier!"

"Hey, like I said – I'm more at home in a cockpit," Ursula retorted pridefully. "Just make sure you get that Haro to stick."

Charlotte was in the process of opening her mouth to fire back a sarcastic comment about where Ursula could stick it when a rumble almost knocked the girl off her feet. She looked up and found the Hiena was almost on top of her, searching with its lone, beady yellow eye. Checking the clip of her pistol one last time, Charlotte tucked the stolen weapon behind her before taking a deep breath and dashing out into the open with gritted teeth.

From the Haro's recon, they knew the Dawn Blades had smuggled four Hienas onto the tower roof; three stood on guard overlooking the streets below while one remained on standby, and it was the latter which had moved to apprehend Charlotte. With the mall's massive glass skylight in the middle of the roof, there wasn't much room to manoeuvre for the mobile suit but neither were there many places for the princess to hide. As such, the pilot was understandably flummoxed when he saw the redhead suddenly dash out from cover and run straight towards his Hiena.

When the Hiena spotted Charlotte, it stopped as if in surprise and bent over, bringing its arms together in an attempt to catch her. The girl easily zigzagged past the manipulators, cutting a tiny, nimble figure as she ran between its legs. As Charlotte passed underneath the Hiena's blind spot, she pulled out the princess' Haro and stuck it to the mobile suit's leg before continuing through and diving for cover.

"Cinderella, the porridge is cold! I repeat, the porridge is–" Charlotte's breathless cries into her phone were cut short when she saw the Hiena headed her way again and the fake princess scrambled to change locations. "Ursula, hurry up!"

"Keep your breeches on, Goldilocks…" Ursula nonchalantly replied. The brunette was crouched under a desk in a store crammed full of computers with a makeshift desktop in front of her as she tapped furiously away at a keyboard. "I'm going as fast as I can…"

Under Ursula's technopathic control, the scarlet Haro rolled up the Hiena's leg using its newly installed electromagnets and parked itself in the middle of the mobile suit's back with a chirp. Safely anchored, it unfurled tentacle-like feelers from inside its ears which began connecting with the Hiena's exposed wiring. Hiena mobile suits might be easily assembled and reliable but their weakness to technopathic hacking was well known to Ursula. Soon, the numerous monitors in front of her were lit up and displaying information from the Hiena's sensors, right down to video of a short redhead being chased across the roof in real time.

"I'm in. The porridge is just right," she reported, switching from the keyboard to a controller.

"Great! Now do something about this Hiena!" Charlotte demanded, shouting into her phone while almost out of breath after running her giant pursuer in circles.

"Not yet. Follow the plan," Ursula reminded her. "Lead the Hiena towards the skylight and I'll handle the rest."

"You'd better!"

Observing her monitor, Ursula watched as Charlotte's redheaded figure acted on her instructions and led the Hiena closer to the all-encompassing skylight. The girl ran along the edge and as expected the pilot increased his speed, sending the Hiena racing to catch up with the runaway princess. Ursula narrowed her gaze and readied the controller in her hands. She needed to time this just right. When she was sure the pilot was too occupied by the ongoing chase, the brunette crossed her joysticks and watched as her screen fell straight towards the ground – right into the skylight.

There was a sharp yelp and Ursula realised she could hear the terrified pilot on her headphones. The Hiena's manipulators were thrown forward in a futile attempt to stop its fall but they merely punched through the skylight on contact with a horrendous crash. The entire frame shattered and glass was sent hurtling down the inside of the tower like shimmering hail. The Hiena almost went with it, hanging over the edge by its torso as its pilot stared down a ten-storey drop on the monitor. Hearing panic in his deep breaths, Ursula waited patiently for the pilot to push the mobile suit back from the brink and collapse in his seat before cutting off control.

"What happened? You alright?" one of the pilot's team members asked over the comm and Ursula listened in.

"I don't know… The damn thing just collapsed on me!" the pilot replied as he tried to push on his controls to no avail. "It's not responding anymore either… I almost took an express flight to the ground!"

"Figures. That's what we get for piloting these DIY Hienas without test runs," his comrade rationalised with a dismissive curse and Ursula nodded in agreement. "I'll report to the general why the skylight just caved in. Meanwhile, you just sit tight and let the search party capture the princess."

"Roger that. I'll try and get this piece of junk working in the meantime…"

Hearing their plan go off without a hitch so far, Ursula smiled and reached for her microphone.

"Snow White, this is Cinderella. The chair is broken. I repeat, the chair is broken…"

.


.

"Snow White, this is Cinderella. The chair is broken. I repeat, the chair is broken..."

"Snow White here. Good work, Cinderella," Vega whispered into her phone while crouched behind a lush screen of indoor bushes with Claudia. The floor was littered with shards of shattered glass and a sliver of orange sky could be seen through the broken skylight at the top of the tower. "And Goldilocks? How does she fare?"

"She's complaining about how you owe her headpats…"

"I take it she's well then," Vega chuckled while keeping one eye on her surroundings. "Tell her to be patient; she can only have her spoils upon Operation Red Herring's success."

"Spoils or spoiling?" Ursula probed with a hint of annoyance in her voice.

"Oh, of course I haven't forgotten you, my dear Ursula," Vega grinned, correctly identifying the issue. "Would headpats satisfy you? Or a bed that is too soft? Or perhaps… true love's kiss?"

The sounds of Ursula spluttering like a fish out of water caused Vega's lips to curve even wider, only for her smile to disappear when she heard the crackle of glass being crushed underfoot. Ducking down, she peeked through the bushes with Claudia and spied an armed group of Dawn Blades running up the escalators towards the roof. With the patrols searching for them occupied by the supposed discovery of the princess, the upper floors of the Venus Mall were left unguarded... as was the skybridge leading to the Venus Hotel.

"The bears are on their way home, Cinderella," Vega whispered and the news broke Ursula out of her stupor. "I'll be taking Red Riding Hood to grandma's house now."

"Copy that. Activating the freeze – you have five minutes," Ursula responded before pausing. "Be careful, Major… You're unarmed."

"Not quite, Ursula…"

The two pistols they had acquired from the incapacitated Dawn Blades earlier were the only weapons they had, but Vega had given them to her subordinates for their protection while leaving herself unarmed. Ursula and Charlotte had fiercely objected, of course, and Vega, in her nonchalant manner, had sought to calm their worries by producing a long box she had found in the storeroom of the sports shop. The beautifully wrought and sharpened antique steel rapier inside – no doubt meant for a wealthy noble collector – did little to allay their fears to her surprise.

"It's not always the technical superiority of a weapon that makes it more powerful," she had said upon seeing the horror etched on their faces. "It's how you use it."

With her new rapier in hand, Vega slipped out from the screen of bushes with Claudia close behind and they made their bid for escape. Their destination was the skybridge just on the other side of the eighth floor where Colonel Wallace and the other imperial guardsmen were waiting to receive the princess so the rescue operation could begin. The pair kept low, avoiding the broken glass scattered on the floor along the way, but as they neared the bridge Vega suddenly stopped in her tracks with an outstretched arm.

Claudia looked over the ace's shoulder and froze when she saw someone step out of hiding near the skybridge. It was a lone Dawn Blade, thin of frame but exuding the overwhelming aura of a warrior of antiquity as he gripped the hilt of the Takamaharan sword which hung at his side. The one remaining eye he had stared at them with a dark yet calm intensity, sending shivers down Claudia's spine as she shrank behind Vega's back.

With just one glance, the princess knew this was Reizo Bushida, the leader of the Dawn Blades – a murderer who would kill without a second thought. He was all that stood between them and the skybridge to freedom.

"Vega Aurelia… The Scarlet Wolf," Reizo spoke first, his gravelly tone showing no emotion as he adjusted his black gloves. "To think we would net the empire's ace along with the princess... The gods must be smiling upon our cause."

"They certainly have a sense of humour, don't they? Devil Reizo," Vega coolly replied, showing no fear in the face of the man who had plagued LIRA for almost three decades.

"Devil Reizo…" the terrorist leader scoffed. "That is a name your LIRA propagandists gave me – a name that couldn't be further from the truth."

"And what is the truth?"

"I am but a simple soldier fighting a just war – a peacemaker righting the wrongs of the past. I… I am an avenger," Reizo declared.

"Really now? Sounds just like another fancy name for a terrorist to me," Vega bravely quipped, somehow smiling despite the dire situation. "Last I checked, the Outer Rim Conflicts ended years ago. You're a man behind the times, Reizo…"

Vega's bravado disguised her unease and her eyes swept side to side behind her mask, searching for an opening. Although Reizo appeared to have come alone, she couldn't dismiss the chance that there were more Dawn Blades in hiding, waiting for the pilot to let her guard down and capture the princess. But just as she was about to fire another verbal salvo to distract Reizo and buy more time, Claudia surprised the noblewoman by firing her own.

"Why are you doing this?! Is killing innocent people and taking hostages your twisted idea of justice?!" Overcoming her fear, Claudia ripped into Reizo with a mixture of anger and confusion as her hands squeezed into shaking fists. "You're no avenger; you're just a hateful monster intent on spreading suffering!"

"If I am a monster, it is only because Lux created me," Reizo calmly responded to the accusation with faint anger, his voice growing more heated as he spoke. "During the war, your empire targeted Takamahara's civilian centres, inflicting mass casualties and the loss of innocent life on a genocidal scale. Whole families – our families – were wiped out in the name of victory and your so-called justice. But when I fight with the same tactics, I am called a terrorist, a monster and a devil… Tell me princess, do you still think me a monster? Or am I merely the mirror casting back the Lux Empire's hideous reflection?"

For the briefest of moments, Reizo's emotionless façade cracked and he appeared overcome by an intense, uncharacteristic rage which frightened Claudia into silence. However, it passed as quickly as it had come and the Takamaharan tempered his fury using pure discipline before his face returned to its emotionless visage.

"…Enough. I don't expect a child to understand," he continued and returned his one-eyed gaze to Vega. "Hand over the princess quietly and no one will come to harm."

"And if I refuse?" Vega countered with a draw of her rapier which she pointed at Reizo.

Reizo's lips curled strangely in response and Claudia realised the cold-blooded killer was smiling.

"I was hoping you would say that…" he whispered dangerously and drew his katana in one long, ceremonious bow before taking a battle stance.

For a moment, the two combatants stood in absolute stillness, staring one another down while waiting for their opponent to make the first move. Claudia watched with bated breath, not daring to even blink as a deathly calm fell upon the deserted floor. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the ringing clash of steel and a startled gasp left the princess' lips.

Vega and Reizo had struck at one another at precisely the same time.

The juddering impact of their initial strikes quickly morphed into a flurry of attacks as the duellists went back and forth with ferocious intensity, engaging and disengaging their whistling blades in blindingly quick bouts. Rending the very air between them, every blow – every slash, thrust and cut – made Claudia wince, for each was meant to maim and ultimately kill. The princess had seen fencing competitions and exhibition matches before, but nothing could have prepared her for the raw sight of battle that day – a battle to the death.

A pupil of the best fencing masters the empire had to offer before she eventually surpassed them, Vega's natural talent for swordplay was on clear display as she dodged whirlwind katana strikes with nimble footwork, feline grace and a cocksure grin. Utilizing the rapier's long reach to her advantage, the heir to House Aurelia kept the Takamaharan at bay using lightning-fast thrusts and probed for weaknesses on his eyepatch side. But what she found was a solid and disciplined defence.

Despite missing an eye, Reizo showed no signs of a blind spot and hardly flinched as he parried blow after blow. A devoted student of Takamaharan swordsmanship since he was a boy, Reizo had three decades of sword-fighting experience on Vega and demonstrated it by swatting her rapier aside with expert ease before counterattacking in swift, powerful swings. He might not be as agile as the Scarlet Wolf, but his defence was impenetrable and his offence supreme.

With every cut of the katana blowing a gust of wind into Vega's face, she could clearly tell the Devil of Takamahara had not missed a single day of training since faking his demise. Just one touch of the katana's edge dancing in front of her eyes and she would have been cleaved straight through. Satisfied he now had his opponent's measure, Reizo began to advance with small shuffles of his feet and slowly pushed Vega back towards the railing.

Retreating ahead of Vega, Claudia pressed herself against the barrier and found an eight-storey drop awaiting them over the edge. She also noticed a long, makeshift maintenance platform which hung in the middle of the chasm and stretched across to the other side like a very narrow bridge. Seeing it, the princess suddenly had an ominous feeling and her stomach churned.

"Over the railing, Princess!" Vega shouted, acknowledging Claudia's worst fears.

"W-What?! You can't be serious!" Claudia yelled back, her face growing ever paler as she looked between Vega and the dizzying drop below her.

"Quite serious! I'll be right behind you!" Vega assured her in between parrying Reizo's blade. "And don't look down!"

"Too late!"

With a deep breath and a grimace, Claudia gripped the steel railing and swung herself over to the other side. The maintenance platform was suspended from the ceiling with steel wires and appeared to have been used to decorate the mall for the winter season. It seemed stable enough but it took all the princess' courage to take that first step and walk across the bridge. Using the wires for support, she imagined it was a balance beam and shuffled across with her arms outstretched, ignoring the glass from the shattered skylight which crunched underneath her feet.

Meanwhile, the sound of clashing blades continued behind Claudia as Vega's back was driven right up to the steel railing. The noblewoman looked to be at the end of her rope but at the last second she backflipped over the barricade like an acrobat. Grabbing hold of the rail with her free hand in mid-air, she swung to the other side and steadied herself just in time to deflect another blow from Reizo's katana. Without even breaking eye contact with her opponent, Vega found her footing on the maintenance platform and fearlessly backpedalled over the bridge, leaving Reizo to stare angrily from behind the railing.

The leader of the Dawn Blades peered over the edge as he weighed whether or not to follow the Scarlet Wolf into madness. When he looked back up, he found Vega still in a battle stance, her rapier pointed loosely forward as she goaded him with a beckoning gesture of her free hand. His dark eyes narrowing, Reizo accepted the challenge and swung himself over the barricade to join her.

With nary a pause, the fighters continued their duel down the narrow bridge, moving over the dizzying three-hundred-foot drop in a straight line as their blades danced back and forth. Just one mistake would send them plummeting to their deaths but their focus remained unbroken, such was their intensity, and the constant clash of steel echoed throughout the mall. On the lower levels, rapt Dawn Blades poked their heads out to find their leader locked in mortal combat with a silver-haired woman in red and stared in awe.

"Don't think I've forgotten what you did on Takamahara, Scarlet Wolf… The souls of my dead men cry out for vengeance," Reizo whispered in between swings, his stony face slowly taking on a sadistic visage. "I will enjoy taking your head… and presenting it to the people of Lux!"

"You want my head?" Vega scoffed and redoubled her counterattack with a defiant chuckle. "Get in line!"

Further down from the duellists, Claudia finally reached the other side of the bridge and threw herself over the railing. Feeling solid ground beneath her feet again at long last, the wobbly princess collapsed to her knees and took several breaths before she looked back towards the bridge with deep concern. Vega and Reizo were still fighting, somehow managing a high-wire balancing act as their swords crossed and chimed in rhythm.

The bridge was too narrow for Reizo's traditional Takamaharan stance but he made do, advancing slowly while employing the overwhelming power of his two-handed sword grip. Vega looked more comfortable, standing sideways as she danced back and forth, boldly lunging forward with her rapier even as Reizo pushed her to the centre of the bridge. The two combatants also appeared to be exchanging words but Claudia was too far away to make anything out; all she could do was grip the railing tightly and watch while her heart pounded.

"I must say, Devil Reizo… you disappoint me," Vega remarked in between quick rapier strikes, her voice loud enough so only the two of them could hear. "Lux destroyed your home, enslaved your people and killed your family. You had years to plan your revenge – years for your hatred to fester and age like fine wine – but this… this is your final coup de grace? Terrorising random window shoppers and capturing a disposable VIP as a bargaining chip?"

"Two bargaining chips if you survive what I'm about to do to you," Reizo breathlessly corrected Vega as he cut his way forward.

"You must know the empire will never accede to your demands."

"Whether they do or not, I obliterate their aura of invincibility – their power – and inspire others to take up my cause long after I am gone," Reizo explained with relish as they precariously locked blades on the bridge, sneering as he brought his face close to Vega's. "It is painfully obvious you know nothing of revenge, Scarlet Wolf…"

"On the contrary… I know more than you think," Vega countered before her voice dropped to a low whisper and hissed. "Unlike you, I'm going to live long enough to see the empire burn with my own eyes."

The moment he heard Vega's confession, shock and confusion flashed across Reizo's face. He knew at once she had not said it in mere jest. On the contrary, the intense rage and loss warping her voice was all too familiar to the Devil of Takamahara. The Scarlet Wolf had been stating her deepest, darkest wish.

Behind that mask, Vega Aurelia was an avenger.

Finding her opponent momentarily distracted, Vega capitalised on the opening with a predacious grin. Utilising strength she had kept in reserve until the time was right, she surprised Reizo by batting his katana away with one strike before lunging for the Devil's heart. The sight of the elegant rapier's pointy end about to skewer right through him elicited a rare jolt of fear in Reizo and forced him into an unorthodox manoeuvre.

Using the momentum of his parried katana, the larger man spun on his heels and ducked. For a fraction of a second, Reizo felt a chill as the steel rapier passed over the back of his head before he completed his revolution and swung at Vega's feet. His katana should have severed the Scarlet Wolf's legs from underneath her or sent her plummeting over the bridge at the very least but the only thing Reizo's blade sliced was air.

Vega had jumped. And not just any jump at that.

To avoid the sweeping edge of his katana, she had leapt straight off the bridge and over the abyss. Reizo's dark eyes bulged at the sight of Vega as her long silver hair trailed behind her in mid-flight. For a moment, it appeared as if the Scarlet Wolf had made an uncharacteristic and dire error, ensuring the duel would come to a disappointing end. But what the Dawn Blade leader saw next had him questioning his own sanity.

Instead of falling to her death, Vega was floating in mid-air. 'No… Not floating,' a slack-jawed Reizo soon realised. It was if she was standing on an invisible platform upon which she nimbly spun around with her blade twirling to the ready.

By the time Reizo realised the duel was still ongoing, his fate was sealed. Caught off guard in a low crouch, he swung wildly above his head and managed to knock one fatal sword strike aside as he stood up. But Vega had the high ground and knew her prey was panicked. Reizo moved to parry her backswing only for it to be a feint and he suddenly felt an explosion of pain as cold steel pierced through his body.

It took a moment to register but when Reizo looked down he saw the guard of Vega's rapier sticking out of his chest like a bloodied rose. The sword was still bobbing up and down after Vega had let go as if to the rhythm of his beating heart, and the extra weight caused him to sway dangerously. Instinctively, Reizo grabbed the steel protrusion by the blade to dislodge it but to his frustration it would not budge. Instead, he felt his strength slowly begin to ebb away and dropped his katana which clattered off the bridge and down the tower before warm blood began to pool in his mouth.

As red liquid began to spill from his pale lips, the Devil of Takamahara finally realised his life was coming to an end. With his remaining strength he looked up to gawk at the masked visage of his killer – the last thing he would ever see. Smiling from her invisible platform, Vega paused to savour the moment of the kill – like a triumphant wolf after a successful hunt – before placing a scarlet boot on the pommel of the embedded rapier and ceremoniously kicking Reizo off the bridge.

Falling past each successive floor of the tower on his descent towards oblivion, Reizo felt a strange sense of freedom. It was as if all his burdens had been lifted; after years of fighting, hiding and killing, he could finally rest and join his family. He would not live to see the Dawn Blades' revenge on Lux fulfilled but he was confident others would see their cause through and the war against the empire would continue long after his death. And though Vega might have won the duel, Reizo was comforted by the knowledge her victory would be short-lived; with the mall still under the control of his men, there would be no escape for the Scarlet Wolf or the princess.

However, as his impaled body reached the bottom of the tower, Reizo noticed Vega had seemingly disappeared from the bridge. With death so close, his eyes seemed to be playing tricks on him because in her place was the silhouette of a Grim Reaper – a silhouette, Reizo noticed before his vision went dark, that curiously resembled that of a mobile suit.

.


.

Strapping herself into the humming cockpit of the Fenrir, Vega couldn't help but grin as she recalled the stupefied look on Reizo's face before he had met his maker. A quick glance at the main monitor showed the remaining Dawn Blades with much the same expression – complete and utter confusion as they searched for the silver-haired woman who had disappeared into thin air right after killing their leader.

They wouldn't find her – not while the Fenrir's new Camouflage Mode rendered it completely invisible. Like a ghost, the covert mobile suit had easily slipped past the Dawn Blade perimeter and descended into the tower through the hole Ursula had made in the glass roof just in time for Vega to use it as a stepping stone. It would have been a challenge for anyone else – fighting a highwire duel to the death while remotely piloting a mobile suit technopathically using only a mask – but as she settled into her seat, the Scarlet Wolf had hardly broken a sweat.

Noticing a baffled Claudia leaning over the railing and looking about for her with worry, Vega chuckled before immediately setting her hands upon her controls. It wouldn't do for her to keep the princess waiting and, with both Gravity and Camo Modes activated, the Fenrir only had so long before it would run out of power.

"Come in, Grandma," said Vega, speaking into the comm while in the midst of flipping switches. "This is Snow White. Over."

"Vega! Where the hell are you?! Where's the princess?! You were meant to be at the rendezvous ten minutes ago!" The voice of Colonel Wallace, sounding very much like when a vein in his forehead was about to burst, roared into Vega's ears.

"Princess Claudia is fine, Colonel," Vega calmly replied, smiling as she continued to adjust her instruments. "However, there's been a change of plans; we should strike now while the Dawn Blades are leaderless."

"Leaderless?" Wallace asked, confused. "What happened to Reizo?"

"Suffice to say, I convinced the Devil to take a one-way trip back to hell."

"Persuasive as always, Major." The voice of Luke joined them on the channel, bringing his sarcastic mirth to the conversation. "The Space Wolves – I mean, the Seven Dwarfs – are in position and awaiting orders… so let's get to the happily ever after already."

"As you can tell, Lieutenant Valorie has been thoroughly enjoying his new leadership responsibilities as acting squadron commander," a surprisingly wry Pavel cut in and informed Vega, causing Luke to audibly groan. "I'm pleased to hear you're still with us, Major. Are the others faring just as well?"

"Don't worry, Pavel; Cinderella has been keeping an eye on Goldilocks in your place," Vega assured him just as she input one final command into her keyboard. "Now, let's see if Nova Industry's new toy actually works…"

With the press of a button, eight mysterious objects separated from the back of the invisible Fenrir and flew off in different directions. Vega's monitor changed accordingly, showing eight different video feeds of the stealthy drones as they navigated the mall using the information Claudia's Haro had gathered from its scouting mission. As each terrorist and hostage came into view – including a small group who were taking the stairs up to the princess' position – Vega's eyes swept over the images and her lips curled with approval.

"Colonel, I have eyes on a dozen Dawn Blades and exactly ninety-seven hostages," she reported, sending the video feed through while making several final adjustments to a program onscreen.

"That matches our intelligence. Alright, I'm deploying both the rescue team and the bomb squad," Wallace replied, barking a few orders into the background before shouting back into his comm. "This better work, Vega!"

"When have I ever disappointed you, Colonel?" Vega smoothly quipped with a grin before cutting off Wallace's stream of expletives by switching channels. "Ursula, Operation Red Herring is about to enter its final phase. Are you ready?"

"Affirmative. Ready when you are, Major," Ursula responded from her hiding place. "And not a moment too soon; Charlotte's been giving the Dawn Blades the run-around but she's getting tired…"

"Well then, we'd best not waste any more time," said Vega, hitting her keyboard and watching with glee as her monitor lit up with multiple targeting reticules. "Valhalla System, activate!"

.


.

The Dawn Blades may have lost their leader but they felt safe in the knowledge they still held hostages – hostages that would soon include the Lux princess – in three different locations. Any rescue attempt by LIRA or the DPD could not possibly get to them and overcome their entrenched positions all at the same time, let alone enter the mall undetected. Furthermore, the moment they knew negotiations had fallen through they would detonate their explosives, taking down the tower and killing everyone inside in a final defiant spectacle.

Little did the terrorists know that, for them, it would all be over in a matter of seconds.

The first sign of their imminent demise was when the heads of half the Dawn Blades exploded without warning, spraying blood and brain matter across the walls like a gruesome recreation of splatter art. Their surviving comrades scrambled for cover, struggling to make sense of the situation over the panicked screams of their hostages. The multiple, deafening gunshots had sounded so close – as if from point-blank range – but the enemy was nowhere to be seen.

In contrast, the stark shock gripping the terrorists' faces were as clear as day on the Fenrir's monitor and Vega's lips curled into a predatory smile. Employing no small amount of skill, the technopath remotely operated all eight drones at once and effortlessly manoeuvred them into position for the finishing blow. The last thing the Dawn Blades saw was the black sheen of mounted turrets as the drones lost their camouflage and simultaneously blasted their surprised targets with pinpoint accuracy.

With all hostiles inside the mall neutralised, Vega leaned back in the Fenrir's cockpit and watched as the rescue teams rushed in to release the still-screaming but unharmed hostages in all three locations. Recalling the drones, Vega switched off Camouflage Mode and restored the Fenrir back to its polished red armour. Claudia, who was still watching for signs of life from above, sighed with relief when she saw the mobile suit.

Meanwhile, on the roof of the Venus Mall, the chase for the decoy princess was interrupted when multiple explosions suddenly engulfed the surroundings in a ring of fire. Timing their shots to the activation of the Fenrir's Valhalla System, Luke and the other Space Wolves had sniped three of the Hienas with judicious accuracy from their hiding spots, lodging giant shells into the offending orange mobile suits before they burst into flames. Given forewarning from Ursula, Charlotte had hit the ground just before the explosions, avoiding the worst of the scorching shrapnel and the blinding fireballs. The same could not be said for her pursuers, who were either knocked off their feet or left in a disorienting daze by the assault.

However, the surviving Dawn Blades would not be allowed to regain their faculties; they were coldly cut down from behind by the machine gun fire of their only remaining Hiena. Using the Haro-hacked mobile suit to mop up the terrorists as planned, Ursula went about her work calmly from behind her laptop, ignoring the screams of the powerless Dawn Blade still in the cockpit. It was only when the video-feed blacked out from a sudden explosion that Ursula frowned and redirected to another camera to discover one of the other Hienas was miraculously still functioning. It had lost one of its arms and its entire lower half thanks to a devastating sniper round but its pilot was still able to blast the seemingly traitorous Hiena straight through the cockpit. Taking a moment to regain control of her Hiena using her keyboard, Ursula surprised the enemy pilot by returning fire, resulting in another explosion before her video feed blacked out for good.

Peeking out from under her hands, a visibly distressed Charlotte shakily rose to her feet and surveyed the destruction on the roof. Charred Hiena parts were strewn everywhere together with the mangled bodies of the terrorists and the glass skylight in the middle had been completely shattered. The only thing still standing was the remains of the hacked Hiena which had a giant smoking hole through its cockpit. Admiring the petrified titan from underneath and thinking of how the tower must have lit up the evening sky like a blazing crown, Charlotte never noticed the figure creeping up on her.

Hearing a noise, Charlotte spun around and discovered a surviving Dawn Blade wobbling towards her with a submachine gun in hand. They were burnt, bleeding and obviously still suffering from the after-effects of a concussion but it was the glint in their eyes that gave Charlotte cause for alarm. She reached for her head and, finding only her blonde locks after the explosion had blown her red wig away, realised the jig was up.

She whipped a hand for the pistol hidden behind her waist but the Dawn Blade was faster, firing off a hail of bullets in her direction. Fortunately, his aim was poor and Charlotte managed to take cover behind the foot of the Hiena before it was shot up like a steel drum. From there, the blonde tried to blind fire at the terrorist only for another submachine gun burst to scare her back into cover. Finding herself outgunned, Charlotte's heart raced and she swore only for a familiar voice to come to her rescue.

"Haro! Haro!"

From the head of the blackened Hiena, Claudia's scarlet Haro took aim before leaping off and smashing straight into the skull of the bewildered Dawn Blade. He staggered back, clutching his face in agony, and Charlotte took the opportunity to unload half a clip into his chest. The terrorist went down and Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief before she glanced at the Haro which seemed to be bouncing a victory dance.

Suddenly, the door to the roof was kicked in and someone came out guns blazing. Charlotte pivoted around with her pistol trained on the intruder… only to discover it was Ursula, saving her from another surviving Dawn Blade. Demonstrating her skill as a markswoman, she sent two bullets through the would-be assassin's brain just before he would have shot Charlotte in the back. Realising how close to death she had just come, Charlotte took another long breath to gather herself before meeting up with the captain.

"Those bastards just wouldn't die…" she moaned contemptuously while trying to shake all the dust and soot out of her long hair. "And look at my hair! Stupid Luke… I can't see Lady Vega like this!"

"You're welcome…" Ursula stated dryly, and Charlotte realised Ursula must have seen the danger she was in through the Haro's camera and run all the way up to save her.

"Haro! Haro!" Even the red ball seemed to demand some appreciation.

"Yeah, yeah…" Charlotte whispered and her cheeks flushed. "T-Thanks… for saving me…"

Elated, Haro seemed to dance around Charlotte who unsuccessfully tried to kick the robot until they heard Ursula's phone ring.

"Report, Cinderella. Have your ugly step sisters been dealt with?" Vega asked straightaway in jest.

"The roof is clear, Major. All hostiles have been neutralised," Ursula replied seriously, refusing to play along with the ridiculous code names and phrases now that the operation was over. "I'm also happy to report Lieutenant Jaeger, the Princess' Haro and myself are all unharmed."

At this point, a jealous Charlotte was jumping up and down trying to listen in on the call so Ursula sighed and put it on speaker.

"Oh, Lady Vega, you won't believe the things I had to go through while we were separated!" Charlotte turned on her sweet, innocent voice and complained while Ursula rolled her eyes. "I was chased around by those Dawn Perverts, almost burnt to a crisp by Luke's poor shooting – probably on purpose! – and I was almost shot in the back because some terrorist didn't have the decency to die! Can we go home already?"

"Oh, Charlotte my dear… I wish we could but I'm afraid the danger has not passed just yet," Vega answered ominously. "I was just speaking to Colonel Wallace and the bomb squad; they've disarmed what explosives they could but suspect there are even more hidden in the tower than previously thought and are ordering an immediate evacuation. As such, I'm ordering Luke and Pavel to come pick you up from the roof so stay where you are."

"What about you, Major?!" Ursula asked just as two Wargs hovered overhead, forcing her to shout as the powerful downdrafts drowned out her voice and tousled her hair.

"I'll be right behind you…" Vega answered, adding, "…Right after I pick up our princess!"

Before Ursula could ask why the princess was even still in the building, the phone hung up. She exchanged a worried glance with Charlotte but the Wargs were already landing to extract them, so she picked up the Haro and ran towards the mobile suits.

As the pair were carried away within the careful grasp of the Wargs' manipulators, they were given a bird's eye view of the Venus Mall and its surroundings. Other than the destruction on the roof and the huge police presence below, the tower appeared completely untouched and normal. At first glance, one would never even imagine the carnage that had occurred inside.

That all changed, however, when explosions suddenly burst out from the sides of the tower, blowing out the windows as flames rippled up the building. In an instant, the tower was transformed into a volcano, spewing thick smoke and ash from the hole in its skylight as the earth trembled. Ursula, Charlotte and the other Space Wolves could only watch in horror while thinking of their leader and the princess who were still trapped inside.

.


.

It took a while for Reizo to realise he wasn't dead.

The fall should have killed him but by some miracle – some whim of the gods – he was still alive.

Barely.

Upon regaining consciousness, he found himself lying on his side in a pool of bloody water. Looking around with his one good eye, Reizo realised he had landed in the grand fountain on the bottom floor of the tower, joining the bloated bodies of the guards the Dawn Blades had killed earlier. Vega's rapier – the only thing keeping him from rolling forward and drowning – was still lodged in his chest which continued to bleed out and redden the waters.

Judging by the lack of response from his legs, he'd broken his spine and the arm underneath his side was a twisted mess. Unable to move, agonising pain wracked his entire body and Reizo knew, despite surviving the fall, he would die soon anyway. All he could do was look up through the tower and listen as the last of his men were killed.

But just when all seemed lost, a hazy silhouette in the sky appeared. On his fall down the tower, Reizo had believed it was the angel of death that had come for him… but it soon revealed itself to be the Fenrir, the dreaded mobile suit of the Scarlet Wolf. Witnessing the red machine of nightmares discard its cloak of invisibility, a crooked smile formed on the Takamaharan's lips. With the last of his strength, he reached into his front pocket and produced a detonator.

Vega may have beaten him using a clever trick, but Reizo still had a trick of his own – one which would close the curtain on both of their final acts.

"For… a new dawn…" Reizo whispered before pushing down on the device and dropping it.

The resulting explosions that followed rocked the building and its insides were transformed into a hellish inferno. Fire and smoke billowed towards the only opening in the broken skylight, blocking out the light and covering the mall in darkness. When the explosions reached the upper floors, whole chunks of the tower began to break off and plummet towards the earth.

As debris rained down around him, the last thing Devil Reizo saw was the Fenrir being swallowed up by the mushrooming smoke… before a jagged slab of cement blocked his view and crushed him to death.

.


.

When Vega heard the explosions, she felt herself overcome by a terrible premonition and her mind was suddenly thrust into the distant past.

It had been so long ago, yet she still remembered it like it was yesterday. The heat of the flames against her face, the smell of death blowing in the wind, and the roar of the inferno as it burned everything to ash. Like it did then, the memories tore her heart apart, leaving a wound that would never heal – a constant reminder of the unspeakable loss she had suffered that day.

Vega had sworn such a tragedy would never be repeated – not if she could help it.

Meanwhile, Claudia found herself trapped against the railing on the upper floors, struggling to breathe as smoke from the fire below amassed above her. Without warning, another explosion ripped through the stores behind her, destroying the floor underneath her feet and sending her plummeting towards the earth. Claudia closed her eyes in mid-scream, fully expecting herself to become a human pancake.

Suddenly everything stopped. Claudia's red eyes blinked open and the astonished royal found herself gently wedged between the Fenrir's manipulators after Vega had caught her. With the princess now in safe hands, Vega punched her throttle and the red mobile suit shot up towards the crumbling skylight, dodging random bits of debris as they fell through the smoke.

But to their rear more explosions and flames mustered, forming into a giant rolling fireball. Vega focused and the Fenrir's thrusters gathered speed, rocketing them straight out of the tower just in the nick of time. The fireball chased after them, discharging from the tower like a volcano eruption and turning night to day. While the flames eventually dissipated, the red streak that was the Fenrir kept going and only stopped to hover when it reached the peak of the city's dome.

Claudia, who had been shielding her face with her arms the entire time, finally brought them down and was awed by the majestic scene which greeted her wide eyes. From her starry perspective high above, Dragnel looked like a miniature city with microscopic toy figures and vehicles rushing about. In the middle of it all, the Venus Mall burned brightly like a tiny ferocious candle as it lit up the entire capital before little red fire engines squirted long jets of water at it.

With her long red hair fluttering in the wind, Claudia was so transfixed by the sight she never noticed when the Fenrir began to descend towards the ground. By the time the mobile suit landed on the roof of a nearby building, the fire was almost under control and the only source of light was the setting sun. Set gently to the ground by the Fenrir's manipulators, Claudia hopped off and eagerly spun around to greet her saviour.

When the cockpit hatch opened, Vega stepped out like the heroic figure she was and struck a gallant pose. The spectacle of the Scarlet Wolf exiting her iconic mobile suit caused an excited Claudia to audibly gasp and, when her idol smiled at her, begin hyperventilating. While the princess ogled, Vega turned her attention up to the charred remains of Venus Mall which only had a few fires left within the broken windows of the now blackened tower. All seemed well… until a suspicious twinkle at the top floor caught the ace pilot's eye.

"Get down!" Vega shouted, immediately diving into the princess and pushing her over.

An instant later, they heard the chilling crack of a supersonic boom rupture the very air around them. Claudia's expression went from flummoxed to terrified in mid-fall, her eyes widening to the size of saucers as time slowed to a snail's pace. She swore she saw something pass through where her head had only just been a split-second ago, creating a whooshing vortex in Vega's silver hair before smashing into the concrete with a bang. When Claudia finally hit the ground, she was horrified to discover the fragmented remains of a high calibre bullet.

A few seconds afterwards, she heard the distinctive thump of a high-powered rifle firing – delayed by the speed of sound, unlike the bullet – and she swung her head over to the top of the scorched tower. The wounded Dawn Blade sniper, who had miraculously survived the explosions and flames, cursed before retraining the scope of his rifle onto the petrified face of the princess. But before he could pull the trigger, the face of a black mobile suit blocked his view and the terrorist knew he had breathed his last. Luke's Warg unleashed a hail of bullets from his machine gun, blowing the sniper's nest to smithereens and taking the pulverised remains of the last terrorist with it.

Seeing a small puff of smoke waft from the building, Vega breathed a sigh of relief and looked back down to check on the princess.

"…Are you hurt, Claudia?" she asked, only to find the girl gawking at her with spellbound ruby eyes.

The stranger before Claudia called her name but she was too mesmerised by the face staring at her to answer. It was a sight far more beautiful than she could have imagined, exuding both strength and femininity like the perfectly sculpted features of a war goddess. But the eyes – the eyes were like none Claudia had ever seen and she marvelled at how they sparkled in the fading light of the sunset.

Lost in that otherworldly gaze, the princess finally noticed the stranger's almost fearful look of concern. At first Claudia found it odd – odd that the owner of that familiar voice would ever show fear – but the thought was soon forgotten when she began to feel the underpinnings of guilt. She had seen something forbidden – a secret she had never been meant to witness even in her wildest dreams – and yet, to her shame… she could not avert her eyes.

Spying something in Claudia's red gaze, the woman blinked and slowly reached for her face. Finding bare, naked skin underneath the delicate touch of her fingers, a sheepish smile formed on her rosy lips. As potent as ever, Claudia blushed under its glow and finally averted her eyes towards the white mask lying a few feet away. Deducing it had fallen off when she had forcefully pushed the princess to the ground, the woman casually picked it back up and chuckled softly – as if she were mourning the loss of some of her mystique.

After an awkward moment where they simply stared at one another, the stranger removed herself from atop Claudia and stood up before offering the princess a hand. The speechless redhead eventually took it and was pulled to her feet but her eyes continued to be glued to the face of her saviour lest the image disappear like a mirage. The wind was picking up behind them now, whipping up their hair like a pair of silver and red flags as two familiar Wargs hovered overhead.

Before the mobile suits landed, with her silver hair dancing in the wind, the woman looked directly at Claudia and put a slender finger to her curved lips.

This will be our secret.

Like a fan receiving a treasured gift from their favourite idol, a blushing Claudia was only too thrilled to answer the promise with a nod. This would be their secret – a bond only the two of them would share.

Seeing that her secret would be kept safe, the woman closed her eyes and pressed the white mask against her face just as the Wargs landed behind her. When Ursula and Charlotte leapt off the Wargs' hands and came running towards them, jostling one another as they did, Vega Aurelia was already there beside Claudia like she had never left. It was as if there had never been a stranger at all.

"Major! Princess Claudia! Are you alright?!"

"Lady Vega! Oh, I thought something terrible had happened to you!"

The pair milled around their leader like anxious puppies, completely oblivious to the events that had preceded their arrival. Vega, her nonchalant self as always, merely smiled and cheered her subordinates with a confident pose.

"We're both perfectly fine as you can see. Completely unscathed," she boasted with both hands on her hips before her lips frowned. "Regretfully, I cannot say the same for my poor Fenrir. He'd only just returned from maintenance but the explosion has already left his new paint job horribly singed…"

"Forget the paint job! You almost had your head blown off!" Ursula reminded Vega with an angry jab of her finger towards the smouldering tower before an exasperated sigh escaped her lips. "I can't believe one of the terrorists survived… Did we miss them? If anything had happened to you or the princess…"

"Don't blame yourself, Ursula. We all acted knowing the dangers could be unpredictable. If anything, you should be commended for your flawless part in the operation," Vega reassured her right-hand woman and grabbed her shoulders with a squeeze. "…Which reminds me; I do believe I promised the most soothing of rewards for our long-suffering Goldilocks…"

Charlotte gasped with delight and closed her eyes, purring like a cat as soon as she felt the warm caress of Vega's hand on her head. The blond almost melted under the Scarlet Wolf's electrifying touch but still managed to open one conceited eyelid to gauge Claudia's reaction. Surely the princess would be so green with envy she would already be biting her handkerchief to bits… but Charlotte was chagrined to discover the redhead wasn't even paying attention.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked, eyeing the royal suspiciously. "Don't tell me… Something happened while you were alone with Lady Vega, didn't it?!"

Stunned by Charlotte's finely-tuned Vega-sensor, Claudia visibly flinched at the accusation but when she opened her mouth to retort nothing came out. It had been true after all.

"I'm right, aren't I?!"

"Stop it, Charlotte! The princess is obviously still in shock," snapped Ursula, coming to Claudia's defence and elbowing the smaller girl in the ribs. A thankful Claudia used the moment to compose herself only to notice Vega stifling a chuckle and the princess swore that the woman was winking at her from behind that mask.

"I-I'm fine now… thank you. I was just in awe of everything that's happened today… and grateful. Nothing more," Claudia forcefully explained while giving Vega a pointed stare. "But enough about me; what about the hostages? Did they evacuate in time?"

"All the hostages are safe and accounted for, Your Highness," a familiar voice reported and they turned to see Luke joining them with Pavel close behind. "They're a bit shaken, of course, but it's nothing a few bandages and therapy sessions can't help. Meanwhile, the tower is showing no signs of life, so I guess that's the last we'll be seeing of the Dawn Blades. All in all, a job well done, eh?"

Ursula glared at Luke for his nonchalance in front of the princess but not even that could wipe the relaxed grin from his insolent face.

"Oh, that is a relief to hear…" Claudia put her hands on her chest and exhaled before her curiosity turned to the newcomers. "But that voice… you must be Lieutenant Valorie? And this must be Lieutenant Ivanov."

The two men nodded and something red jumped out of Pavel's giant palm.

"Haro! Haro!"

"Mr Haro!" Claudia exclaimed and smiled as the red ball hopped into her embrace. "Were you getting acquainted with the lieutenant?"

"Pavel gets along well with small animals…" Luke quipped, eyeing a certain blonde as he did.

"I saw that, Valorie!" cried Charlotte and she swiftly proceeded to kick Luke in the shins. "Do you know I almost died back there because of your sloppy shooting?! It's 'one shot, one kill' – not 'one shot oh shit!'"

"That wasn't me, that was Pavel!" Luke hastily explained in between wincing. "Something about not wanting to hit you…"

Hearing that, Charlotte narrowed her red eyes towards her next target… but not before turning back and giving Luke another good kick. As he was hopping on the spot in pain, Luke heard a familiar chuckle and looked up to see Vega.

"Congratulations on leading the Space Wolves on a successful operation, Lieutenant Valorie. Or will that soon be Captain Valorie?" she grinned, not that Luke saw the humour in it.

"No, thanks… Being squadron leader for a day was more than enough," he shook his head, recoiling at the very thought. "So if you're thinking of putting in a good word for me to the promotions board, keep it to yourself, Major."

"For once, we are in agreement," Ursula concurred, and she joined them in watching Pavel absorb Charlotte's weak punches like a bear ignoring a mouse while a panicked Claudia tried to stop her.

"Oh, I almost forgot, Major. With all the commotion today, I haven't had the chance to tell you but we've received our new orders…" Luke informed them and his face became strangely serious. "The Blue Crow and its Relic Hunters are to be deployed… to Lemuria."

The sudden news shocked everyone into a contemplative silence and even Charlotte was stopped from using Pavel as a punching bag in mid-swing.

Lemuria, the source of the long conflict between Lux and Rem. It was the next most logical destination for the Relic Hunters after they had exhausted their Star Map with their expedition to the Zodiac Union. It was also increasingly where the fiercest fighting was and with every day that passed the war appeared to be returning to the hereditary battlefield where it all began. The promise of glory and relics was inviting to the Space Wolves… but it was the prospect of encountering their old foes – the White Hellhound and its allies – that truly wet their lips.

"Lemuria…" Vega whispered, looking up towards the stars as if she could see the yellow planet. "So… the time has finally come."

"How long before we depart?" Ursula asked, preparing herself mentally for the cheerless task that was informing her family.

"Three days... well, less than three now," Luke answered, rolling his eyes up to the night sky with a sigh. "As usual, the top brass really knows how to give advance notice… My little sister Eliza is going to have a fit once I tell her."

"Tell me about it…"

"You're… You're all going away already?" Claudia tentatively asked although she already knew the answer. When no one answered, the princess squeezed the Haro in her arms closer and bit her lip in defiance. "B-But you can't go yet! We only just met and… Yes, the award ceremony! You can't go until we hold a grand ceremony at the castle to honour you all for what you've done today! So… you can't go…"

The redhead closed her eyes and everyone could see she was on the verge of tears. She may be a princess but it was clear she was also a girl who yearned for simple friendships unburdened by her royal rank. It was a situation none of them could leave as is, and Claudia opened her eyes to find someone gently dabbing at her tears with their sleeve.

"I promise you this is not goodbye," said Vega, staring deep into Claudia's red eyes as she spoke. "We will return to you… and when we do, we will have all the time in the world."

Claudia blinked and found herself calming down just from the sound of Vega's soothing voice. Looking around, she found the others watching on with smiles – except for Charlotte who had to be physically held back from breaking them up by Pavel – and she suddenly realised how childish she had been. Clearing her throat, the princess took a moment to compose herself before looking up at Vega with clear-eyed conviction.

"I will hold you to that promise… Vega."

The Scarlet Wolf smiled and the two shared a tender moment until they heard a slight groan.

"Ugh, that's right… I can see them rushing out a ceremony before we leave…" said Luke, envisioning all the attention with pale distaste. "You'll probably enjoy it though, Major. How many medals will this make?"

"I've lost count," Vega chuckled before a brilliant idea crossed her mind and she frowned. "Blast, what am I doing?! We must hold a celebration immediately!"

"A celebration?" Ursula warily cocked an eyebrow.

"My dear Ursula, do you not see? The success of Operation Red Herring and our impending departure demands a send-off celebration!" Vega declared, already drunk on the prospect. "We don't have much time but fortunately the night is still young! Luke, contact the other Space Wolves and all the Blue Crow's available crew! Tonight, we hold a farewell party for the ages – at the Red Lady!"

"Yes, Ma'am!" Luke saluted instantly and was already at work on his phone going through his entire contact list.

"The Red Lady? That's one of the meccas of the Scarlet Wolf Tour Guide!" Claudia exclaimed, intrigued. "I've always wondered what it is but I've never been allowed to so much as set foot on the same street…"

"Well, wonder no longer, Your Highness," Vega grinned as she guided Claudia towards the Fenrir with an encompassing arm. "You're invited."

Ursula sighed but knew there was no changing Vega's mind when she got like this. After a short argument where Charlotte tried to squeeze inside the Fenrir's already cramped cockpit with Vega and Claudia, they were about to take off when they heard a familiar voice on the comm.

"Vega?! Are you there, Vega?! Stay where you are! I repeat, stay where you are with the princess!" Colonel Wallace sounded out-of-breath as he barked into his phone and there was a loud cacophony as if he was pushing through a crowd of people. "God damn it, what the hell is the press already doing here?! Out of the way, you vultures!"

"Trouble, Colonel?"

"Vega! The fact that the princess was one of the hostages was leaked and now the outside of the building is swarming with reporters!" Wallace, who was in the midst of physically clearing a path, angrily shouted until a thought dawned on him and he paused. "…You wouldn't happen to know anything about this, would you?!"

"Oh, Colonel Wallace… Of course not!" Vega mischievously denied the accusation and Claudia, who sat across her lap in the cockpit, stifled a giggle. "But if what you say is true, the security of this location has been compromised. Fortunately, we Space Wolves are already in the process of transporting the princess to a more… welcoming environment."

"What?! Where?!"

"Vega has promised to take me dancing, Colonel!" Claudia declared into the comm, playing along with callous regard for her minder's blood pressure. "She will be showing me places and experiences no proper young lady should know!"

"V-Vega! I haven't approved this yet, Your Highness!"

"I thought you'd be pleased to hear it, Colonel… You always taught me to take the initiative."

"You lying She-Wolf, I taught you to take less initiative!"

"Oh dear, it seems you're breaking up, Colonel… Don't worry, I'll have Princess Claudia back at Dragnel Castle before the sun rises."

"VEGAAAAAAA!"

Hearing the deafening roar of engines above, a maddened Wallace looked up just in time to see the Fenrir take off and the blinding flash of a hundred cameras pointed to the air followed. As the agile machine cut a red streak into the evening sky, all the colonel could do was inaudibly swear and shake his fist before watching it disappear into the distance.

.


.

Of the many private estates within the edges of Dragnel's dome, the most prestigious and opulent belonged to House Ambion. Besides its sweeping woodlands, scenic gardens, artificial ponds and many spare villas, its crowning glory was the ancestral home of the Ambions, Ambion Manor. Painted a blinding white and overlaid with gold tiles, the manor's garish aesthetics perfectly matched the arrogant nature of its occupants – one of whom could be seen staring out the window of a study.

"I imagine you've already heard the news." With his hands behind his back, a man addressed an unseen figure in the window's reflection and spoke with a chilling voice. "Do you know anything about this?"

Turning around, the man was revealed to have combed-back blond hair, a giant chin and a prominent brow seemingly wrinkled by repeated fits of rage. If not for the pencil moustache, he would have been easily mistaken for a perfect if older copy of Narick Ambion wearing an impeccable white suit. But, unlike the blundering young scion, there was clearly a shrewd mind behind his searing blue eyes. Picking up a newspaper from his desk, he brandished the frontpage headline to his guest complete with a picture of a red mobile suit soaring through the air.

Scarlet Wolf to the Rescue! Saves Princess, Frees Hostages and Resolves Terrorist Crisis at Venus Mall! Award Ceremony to Follow!

"My division is making inquiries as we speak," the man in the shadows answered as he leaned back in his seat in the corner of the room and puffed on a cigar. "But at the moment we only know as much as the public does, Lord Ambion."

"It's too much of a coincidence!" yelled Lord Ambion, scowling as he slammed the newspaper back down on the table. "You're telling me that spawn of Aurelia just happened to be at the right place at the right time?! Putting down a terrorist attack and saving the princess?! Not even God himself could have designed such a perfectly staged publicity stunt!"

"I highly doubt it was staged, My Lord; it would not be worth the risk to Major Aurelia's reputation if anyone were to ever find out," the other man mused while Lord Ambion paced back and forth. "But I do find it curious that the terrorists knew where Princess Claudia was at all. The fact they were so well prepared and armed raises many questions…"

The guest paused ponderously only to discover the duke wasn't listening at all.

"Gods, I don't think I can stand going to another award ceremony for an Aurelia!" Lord Ambion snarled, looking like he could pull out his hair at any moment. "I can already see the smug looks on the faces of that intolerable woman and her father! Intolerable!"

Believing it best to stay silent, the other man simply puffed on his cigar, observing the duke until there was a knock at the door.

"Enter!"

At Lord Ambion's permission, the door opened and a familiar blond pilot entered the study.

"Y-You summoned me, Father…?" Narick stood nervously to attention and asked. Usually when he was called it was so he could incur the older Ambion's wrath.

"Narick, say hello to our guest," Lord Ambion snapped, barely giving his son a glance. "I presume even you have heard the name of Alexander Maddon."

"General Maddon…?" Realising they were not alone, Narick finally saw the man sitting in the corner and instantly snapped into a salute. "G-General! M-My apologies, I… I didn't see you there…"

"At ease, Major," Maddon ordered, calmly putting out his cigar in a nearby ashtray before rising to his feet. "I am but a guest in your home after all."

At first glance, the short, middle-aged man who stepped out of the shadows hardly appeared impressive or intimidating. Overweight with a round physique, the taut black officer's uniform he wore looked almost comical on him and his pig-like face was equally round. With beady eyes, large nostrils and a greasy black comb-over, most would dismiss the man as an object of ridicule.

But the pale Narick knew better. Underneath that non-existent hairline was one of the most devious minds in all of LIRA – Alexander Maddon, the powerful head of the feared Intelligence Division who knew every secret in the empire. He had infamously risen to the coveted position by all manner of underhanded trickery and was known for his naked ambition. He was also rumoured to have a terrible temper and was incredibly vindictive when it came to perceived wrongs against him – something Narick fearfully kept in mind as the general approached him.

"Lord Ambion and I have been speaking and I understand you have yet to be given an assignment," said Maddon, observing the pilot closely with his dark beady eyes.

"C-Correct… sir!" Narick stammered and sweat began to form on his brow.

"Well, Major, as of now you've been assigned to the Intelligence Division." Narick's jaw dropped and Maddon paused to let the revelation sink in. "We're always in need of test pilots and you… fit the bill. Furthermore, you're one of the few who have encountered the Gundam and survived to tell the tale. I believe your knowledge and experience of this enemy will be… invaluable to the division."

Maddon appeared to snicker, evidence that the younger Ambion's new assignment was merely a favour in exchange for House Ambion's backing. But Narick did not care; he was now a member of the Intelligence Division. The elite of the elite. A prized position that commanded respect… and fear. Not even that overachiever Vega had attained such an honour.

"Narick, you will make yourself indispensable to the general. Do you understand?" Lord Ambion finally favoured his flesh and blood with his harsh blue gaze, all but demanding perfection as he spoke. "Do not dishonour the name of House Ambion. Remember… I have high expectations for you."

"Yes, Father!" Narick robotically replied, his terror all but forgotten, and he saluted again to their guest. "Thank you for the opportunity, General Maddon. It will be a privilege to serve by your side!"

"Yes… likewise," said Maddon, hardly sparing a glance for his new recruit as he made his way for the door only to suddenly stop in his tracks. "Oh, I must warn you however… This assignment concerns a mission of the utmost importance and secrecy. In fact, I will be personally directing the operation myself to ensure it does not fail."

"A secret mission, General?" Narick asked, smelling glory.

Maddon answered with an unnerving smile before leaving.

"From the Emperor himself..."

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END OF EPISODE SEVENTEEN


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Finally, after exactly six months, Episode 17C is done. I'm very happy with how this chapter turned out - it was basically Die Hard (or Die Hard with a Vega-ness, as my beta put it). We got a samurai Hans Gruber, more Wallace losing his shit, a classic sword-fight duel, new toys for Fenrir, and more Vega being awesome. There were also some key moments where I pulled back the curtain (mask?) a little on the Scarlet Wolf's secrets but as always the full reveal will have to wait until another time...

Again, I'm so pleased I finally finished this whole arc and got in everything I wanted since I envisioned it years ago. As you may have guessed, it's been a difficult year for me thus far, with both life and health getting in the way. Not only that, I had terrible writer's block (despite loving this chapter!) and I am still trying get a good writing routine back (getting there!).

As always, if you've made it this far thank you for reading and please leave a review! Work on the next episode is already starting and I pray this one won't take as long (I'm confident it won't!). We will come back at Episode 20, where Laura and co will finally make their return, and I shall leave you with the title: Ghosts of Lemuria.