"I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place! But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God's grace." –from The Inferno

"History is the life of nations and humanity. To seize and put into words, to describe directly, the life of humanity or even of a single nation appears impossible." –from War and Peace

"War is all hell." –General William Sherman

Al Kristopher presents

A Mr. Toasty production

Written by one who will forever be unworthy of such excellent contributions

"Good morning, and thank you for joining me. I'm standing before one of the few remaining independent Gigantes manufacturing plants, where it has been confirmed that a new model of Gigantes is scheduled to roll off the assembly line within the hour. Channel Nine has been covering this event since its earliest inception, and now we're finally able to witness the fruits of such hard labor. Earlier in an interview with the plant commissioner, I was informed that this new model will bring faster results to battles and will greatly assist the peace process, and I quote: 'it will return order to civilization as we know it'. However, I was not able to get a counter-comment from the Imperial house or the so-called Blue Flower organization, which openly opposes the Mimirian Empire. Its leaders have been reluctant to be heard recently, perhaps in light of this newest development.

"Please excuse me; I have just received word that the Gigantes is going to be on public display within five minutes, so we will take you live to witness this remarkable event. Channel Nine was denied further coverage or interview rights due to the secrecy of this project, so what you are about to see will be the first of its kind. Local citizenry has largely one-sided views concerning this matter—most feel that if the war is to end, greater machines must be created to ensure a faster resolution—but I was able to gather differentiating opinions. Some people feel that more powerful machines only produce greater battles, while others do not see how peace can be resolved by fighting. One of my sources was quoted as saying, 'they should dismantle them all, those (expletive) Gigantes, then there would be no war at all'.

"We are now live in front of the unveiling of the new Gigantes. There is much anticipation in the air, even as I speak to you, and I apologize for any delay on my part should I feel the urge to observe this spectacle. The curtain's off! …An awed hush overcomes the crowd. …I can scarcely muster the courage to speak myself. Please excuse me; I apologize for the delay. …There is nothing that comes to mind that could help me describe what you see before you, except for one thought, quoted from Samuel Morse as he delivered the first telegraph:

"'What hath God wrought?'

"This is Madison McCullen, reporting live from Channel Nine."

WALPURGIS NIGHTS Act One: War on the Horizon

1: Constantinople

Sienna Alarys was seven minutes early for her meeting with the two inventors. Though these unscrupulous people continued to declare themselves neutral in the grand state of affairs, their allegiance could easily be swayed if one had enough money. The Empire had more than enough resources to purchase manufacturing rights for its legions of Gigantes; thus, though they claimed no favorites in everyday struggles, the people who designed, assembled, and sold these mechanical giants were nearly a part of the Imperial family. The transition just hadn't been…legitimized yet.

Sienna hardly ever visited this factory, though there was good reason behind it. Most of the workers were blue-collar laymen, the kind that never stood out their entire lives—they were like ants in the colony, and just as harmless. The woman that greeted Lady Alarys was a nice enough person, though a bit too passive for her own good. If nothing else, Avaline was trustworthy, and would do just about any job that Sienna could think of without so much as a whisper of protest. If only there were more people like her around…

No, what drove her away from this particular factory was its lazy, slovenly commissioner—well, maybe that was pushing it, but the description wasn't far off. She had no sense of duty at all, her section of the lab was a complete disaster, and she barely went through the trouble of dressing herself—plus, her attitude was so unbearable that she had been fired from every company she had worked for, and her employees always had to pick up the slack. Dr. Anima Devaraja's only saving grace was her astounding brilliance and her tenacious (some would say defiant) curiosity. Sienna would have to travel half the world over to find her equal, so convenience won over peace of mind.

"Good morning, Lady Alarys," said Avaline in greeting. She bowed and took Sienna's jacket quietly, then asked if she would like anything to refresh herself from the journey.

"I'm in no particular rush," Sienna murmured offhand, "but the sooner I get out of here, the better. Where's the unit I ordered?"

"Follow me, please." There would be no room for informalities, then: the Empire wanted this Gigantes as soon as possible…and so did Sienna. Avaline promptly directed the older woman right to the maintenance pit, where the aforementioned blue-collar ants were putting the finishing touches on the newest model. A single glance up was enough to satisfy Sienna, and she thanked Avaline and told her to fetch a bottle of water. No doubt her encounter with the lethargic supervisor would leave her parched.

The colossus in question was by far one of the most inventive yet. Not only was it going to be unnaturally quick, but it could fight well in long and short-range combat, and it had enough support systems to make Sienna shiver with delight: two missile racks, decoy launchers, smoke launchers, electronic countermeasures, even a hidden backup pistol. The Gigantes was painted in very dark, subdued colors, making it perfect for a night raid; just being in its presence made Sienna feel proud beyond expression. Even so, Dr. Devaraja could still deflate her mood with her presence, yawning and mumbling most irresponsibly.

"Seems you found it," she drawled, sucking heavily on a pencil. "Everything's just as you asked for, and then some." Sienna snorted in disgust.

"I should hope so, considering the payment you're getting. Well, what are you waiting for, you sloth? Open it up so I can give it a test run. I'm not taking this suit a single step out until I know how it operates."

"Sure, whatever," Anima gestured numbly. "Be my guest. I don't suppose you'd be interested in an owner's manual?"

"Don't insult me," Alarys snapped as she slipped into the cockpit. Piloting unfamiliar Gigantes came easy for her—after all, it ran in her blood. Lord Alarys, her esteemed father, could master any mobile suit in a matter of hours, so why shouldn't she be able to meet—or exceed—his records? Unfortunately, this new model seemed a bit capricious, and would not start up no matter what she tried. A few choice words tumbled out of her mouth, most of them aimed squarely at the designer.

"Having trouble?" came Anima's voice over the radio. "Have you tried turning the key in the ignition yet?"

"Be quiet, you filthy creature! I can't concentrate with your inane babbling!" She pushed every button, wriggled every lever, and pressed down on all the pedals, but so far the suit remained as petrified as ever. Sienna tried not to lose her temper, but it wasn't just her pride on the line: the Empire had commissioned the construction of this suit, and if she, a master pilot, couldn't even get it to move

"Try the green button on your left," Anima deadpanned.

"Stop mocking me! Tell me how this abomination works now, or I'll smash your throat with my heel!"

"Settle down. I can't speak with rude people."

Oh, so is that the game we're playing? Fine. I can grovel if I have to.

"Please, Dr. Devaraja," Sienna growled, gnashing her teeth together, "I need you to instruct me how to properly activate this Gigantes."

"Sorry, no can do," she yawned in reply. "I just designed old blackie here. I wouldn't even be able to show you how to pilot a regular suit."

"Now you really are mocking me," she sighed. Sienna decided her fury was better served outside the cockpit, so she escaped and climbed back down to the surface, where Avaline and Anima awaited her. She looked to the meek young lady first, for Avaline was trustworthy and obedient, and quite sharp in spite of her silence. She just shook her head, though, her eyes apologetic. Sienna did not get the same look from Anima.

"It's a darn shame such a skilled pilot like you can't even get blackie to take a single step," said she, scratching her neck drearily. "I dunno what the deal is with that. I know I didn't ask for that to be—"

"Listen, you miserable dog!" Sienna grabbed Anima by the collar of her uniform and dragged her so close, she could see her own reflection in the doctor's eyes. "I am not in the mood to withstand your incompetence. Since it seems I'm letting my temper get the better of me, I'll retire for the day and come back first thing tomorrow morning. Pray that this Gigantes works by then, and pray I find it in my heart to forgive this. If I suffer for this delay, I'll make sure you feel the brunt of my pain. Avaline," she said in a much calmer voice, "farewell for now. It is always a great pleasure to see you. My offer still stands, you know."

"Yes," she whispered. "Forgive me, Lady Alarys, but I must refuse once more. I personally do not feel worthy of such a high honor. Perhaps once I have been Dr. Devaraja's apprentice for a few more years, I will work directly for the Imperial house."

"You needn't be so modest," Sienna replied. "A genius such as yours is put to waste in here—no offense to the regular workers about. Remember, Anima: tomorrow morning, bright and early!" She abandoned the factory with that final warning, and Anima saluted her mockingly.

"There goes a magnificent human being," she remarked with gay sarcasm. She then turned to her creation, the "broken" Gigantes, and cackled with glee. "There's no way I'm letting you fall into the wrong hands, my friend. Only one person may pilot you, my magnificent sword in the stone."

Sienna ney Alarys of Mimir, 29 years old. Favorite food: sweets

Nina Beaufort was a little nervous as she stood before the leaders and major members of Blue Flower. In spite of her passion and charisma, it was always difficult waiting for a verdict, especially one from an organization she desperately wanted to join. She knew—she insisted her leadership qualities would be useful to Blue Flower, but such arrogance always came at a price. Luckily, the people interviewing her didn't mind a bit of pride, just as long as it was used properly.

"Your résumé is superlative," said the woman to her left. "I'm instinctively driven towards fondness when I gaze at it, and at you. This personal clairvoyance of mine expresses full confidence in you, and t'would be pitiful for us to decline such an offer." Nina looked puzzled, so the man to her right simplified it.

"Selena just means she has a good feeling about you. You're in, Miss Beaufort!"

"Oh, great!" she gushed, clapping her hands together. "But why didn't you just say so in the first place?"

"My language frustrates those I deliver it to," sighed the woman. "Tis' a method seldom used, so I may sympathize with your muddled nature. I am most contrite."

"Huh?"

"She's sorry, but it's in her nature," pointed the man. He stuck his hand out and kissed Nina's quivering knuckles. "I am Azure, one of the leaders of Blue Flower. This elegant lady is Selena Wells." Nina gasped in surprise: she knew that name!

"I thought I recognized you! The Wells family is part of the elite. I can't believe someone as wealthy and influential as you has joined Blue Flower! Why would you…" Selena shook her head dismissively, and smiled sadly.

"The tale is long, intricate, and complicated, and we have no time to hear its entirety. Sir Azure, permit me to escort this upstanding woman into our inner chambers, where she may be oriented in our facilities." He gave her a "go ahead" gesture, and wished Nina good luck as they parted—not because he doubted her skills as a pilot and leader, but because Selena was so bloody hard to understand.

She certainly was striking, though, and radiated with the sophistication of nobility. She was also gracious, polite, and cheerful, and very sharp-minded. She and Nina grew to like each other very quickly, although at times it was difficult interpreting her flowery speeches. "This grand hall houses our famished guests," she'd point to the cafeteria, or "Here is where the filth of worldly travel may be washed away," as they passed the showers, or "And this chamber, a modest living space, shall be your area of private confinement, nocturnal respite, and daily meditation"; in other words, Nina's bedroom.

The ladylike Selena hardly seemed the type to mingle with rogues, ruffians, and rebels, and while Nina kept pestering her about her history, Selena repeatedly declined comment, saying only that she would explain it another time. The tour was interrupted for a moment when a girl Selena's age popped out of the clinic, demanding assistance with a voice loud enough to wake the dead. Rude as she was, Lady Wells took no offense and even seemed glad to help. She invited her new friend, but Nina wasn't so certain.

"You must not repudiate these good opportunities," Wells chided her. "Since I was going to lead you into our hospital anyway, it's only proper you accompany me. Miss Yuuki, the woman you just saw, is quite a devoted person, and a friend I cherish immensely. Do say hello to her!"

Unfortunately, Selena's upbringing made her almost too polite for her own good. Aoi Yuuki was hardly the type to be cherished, or loved, or even endured. She was Selena's perfect opposite and made no attempts to mask her stormy personality. One would think she almost ran the clinic with her loud voice, her wild gestures, and her brutal impatience. Nina actually shrank back in her presence, and wondered how someone like Selena could bear to be around her.

"Don't stand there gawking!" Yuuki roared. "Either give me a hand or get out of the way! Selena, the people on this chart need their bandages changed, and these are scheduled for baths. Where's the painkillers I asked for? Hey, you! Is it too much to ask for sterile equipment? What are you doing? I gave you your options, so pick one!" Nina slipped out of the clinic, knowing she'd just be in the way.

She tried finding her own way around the Blue Flower's headquarters, but without a guide, she was lost. Gradually, though, she began recognizing places and remembering paths, so by the time she found her room (by accident), she was so tired that a nap seemed in order. Her peaceful rest barely seemed to last a minute before she felt Selena waking her up. She looked tired from her service in the clinic, but was still able to smile and speak cordially.

"My desire was not for you to separate from me, but since this is still your initiation, I suppose I have been most disrespectful. Your weariness is apparent even now, but I must beg forgiveness: we are about to launch a campaign against a nearby Gigantes factory, and we require a person of your talents."

"A campaign?" Nina groaned. She was still groggy from her nap, and didn't think she'd be lucid enough to fight. "You mean an attack?"

"That is a fraction of the strategy, yes. We will also appropriate as many mobile suits as we are able before the factory is obliterated."

"And you want me to come with you now?"

"Indeed," Selena whispered. She had a loving grace in her violet eyes, a sparkle of sorrow for dragging her new friend into a fight so suddenly—but there was also determination to accomplish this task, this necessary step towards freedom. Nina was overcome by this love and roused herself from sleep.

"I suppose I didn't sign on to be a wallflower, then. Where are your mobile suits?"

"Currently we have a limited number," Selena answered; they walked through headquarters hastily, for the operation would commence soon. "A standard model shall suffice for you until one worthier of your abilities is found—hence the thievery. They are over here!" The Gigantes were not all stuffed in the same garage—if someone attacked Blue Flower, they would have multiple targets to choose from instead of one large storage area—but the one Selena led Nina to was the largest. She had never seen so many mobile suits arranged in one place, and was stricken with awe for awhile.

"You again?!" came a piercing voice from across the garage. Nina peered through the distance and felt her stomach grow cold. It was Aoi Yuuki, furious as ever. "Why are you always standing there staring like a fool?! If you're going to act like a stuffed fish mounted on the wall, then leave this place! As for you, Selena, you'd better not get in my way!"

"I would never imagine it, friend!" She smiled at Nina, very sweet and courteous, and led her to one of the standard suits. Because it was so run-of-the-mill, they were made in mass quantity and were considered by connoisseurs to be ugly, flimsy, dull cannon fodder—but at least they were easy to pilot and never stood out on the battlefield. Nina knew she was overqualified for the brown-tinted machine the moment she climbed in, and jealously stared at Selena's magnificent Gigantes as it emerged from the garage, like an iceberg floating downstream.

"Stay sharp, newbie," came Azure's voice. "The factory we're aiming for is small, out of the way, and guarded by a skeleton crew. It ain't much, but it's the perfect way to cut your teeth. You should have no problems."

"So what's my objective when we arrive?" she asked. Years of training had given Nina intimate knowledge of formations and tactics, and she was beginning to think like a soldier now.

"Yuuki and Wells will drive straight into the factory and take out the main force. I'm in charge of supervising the recovery of unmanned Gigantes. Beaufort, I want you to cover us with Maguire's squad. You'll be our shield against reinforcements."

"You get guard duty," Yuuki laughed cruelly. Nina just smiled nervously.

"For my first operation with Blue Flower, guard duty suits me perfectly."

"That's just what I wanted to hear," Azure answered proudly. "I'll be counting on you all, team. Let's move out!"

Selena Lucinda Wells of Blue Flower, age 19. Hobbies: reading and writing.

As brave as Blue Flower was, they had a tough time piercing the factory's defenses. It turned out that security was tighter than expected, and Nina found herself preoccupied with the garrison even as Aoi and Selena fought off the main force. Maguire was killed in the opening stages of the battle, and his death-rattle echoed with shame. In that moment of dark uncertainty, Nina quickly took over and demonstrated her true capabilities, and almost single-handedly drove back the remaining forces.

"My intuition was accurate!" Selena cried out. "Praise be for the hand that led you here, my friend! Ware' your back!" Nina wheeled around just in time to stab the suicidal Gigantes, and tossed it aside. She thanked her new friend and intercepted another rogue suit, spraying it with gunfire. Selena's Crissaegrim was just as graceful as its pilot, and carved apart the security forces with fluid accuracy. Aoi's Susano, on the other hand, was brutal and violent, a perfect fit for the pilot.

"Die, Imperial swine!" she screamed. "Die, die, die! Damn, but they're persistent!"

"Don't exceed your prerogative, Yuuki," Selena called out. "Remain calm and steady. This is just a prelude of our war!"

"Can't you talk normal for once? Damn, what's with this mobile suit?" Aoi was locked in lethal combat with another Gigantes, one of excellent skill and calculating concentration. She merely hacked away mindlessly, but the enemy suit moved rationally and decisively. Nina nearly felt happy that the aggressive woman was so frustrated, but forced herself to put these feelings behind her. Cruel or not, Aoi was her teammate now, and it was her obligation to help her. She charged in and tackled the enemy Gigantes, ignoring Yuuki's curses. In the heat of battle, Azure and his forces burst out of the factory, towing five Gigantes behind them.

"This is all we could find!" he shouted. "Wells, Yuuki, pull back! We got what we came for!"

"Wait! Aren't we going to blow the factory up?"

"Just do as you're told, Yuuki! Beaufort, can you cover me?"

"Roger!" She threw her only smoke bomb on the ground, blinding her worthy opponent as she made her escape. Yuuki ignored her foe as well, but not her bloodlust.

"I'm not through yet!" She charged straight for the factory at full speed, screaming wildly. Neither Azure nor Selena could stop her, and Nina was too busy keeping the remaining forces at bay. The thundering storm of Aoi's Susano came closer and closer—then abruptly crashed into something large and powerful: another Gigantes.

"Damn, reinforcements!" Azure yelled. "Get your butt outta there, Yuuki!"

"Huh? What's this big thing doing in my way? You'd better move if you know what's good for you!" She reached up to push the enemy away, but the other mobile suit smashed its foot in Susano's abdomen, nearly crushing it with that single blow. Selena and her Crissaegrim rushed to save Yuuki without hesitation, but this new suit was stronger than it looked. It raised an electromagnetic field, throwing Crissaegrim off balance, then reached down and picked Susano up off the ground. Aoi managed to fire a few bursts at point-blank range, but the shield deflected them all. The enemy Gigantes then hurled her out of the way—just before a large number of reinforcements arrived.

"The skies of war have darkened, and fortune glares at us in hatred," Selena murmured.

"We're in pretty deep trouble, all right," Azure answered. "That's no ordinary unit! That's the Schwarz Strum!!" Nina froze in terror as she realized how drastically the odds had shifted. She had never expected to face anything like this on her first day. The Schwarz Strum was universally feared as one of the best units in all the Empire, and if they were here, then that enemy mobile suit that defeated Susano and Crissaegrim…

"Isana von Schwarzburg," Selena whispered, her voice brimming with fear and wonder. The mobile suit that Aoi had been fighting rose up shyly, its pilot burning with curiosity.

"Isana? What's she doing here?"

"Surrender the Gigantes you stole and your lives will be spared!" Isana proclaimed. "If you do not comply within fifteen seconds, my team will open fire."

"We're not surrendering anything, lady!" Aoi shouted. Her words were brave enough, but she could barely lift Susano up off the ground. Crissaegrim hobbled over and attempted to recover her, but Yuuki refused any assistance.

"Azure," Selena whispered, "perhaps we should comply. Presently we have no hope of victory. It is folly to gamble our lives against these odds, especially with such a small plunder." He certainly put that into consideration, for a lengthy space of silent time passed—nearly enough to try the enemy's patience.

"What is your answer?" Isana demanded, powering her field up again. Azure trembled in humiliation, but he didn't see any safe way out of this. Before he could accede to defeat, though, Nina quickly shot out and hurled all her missiles at the ground, distracting Isana and her brigade.

"Detonate three of the Gigantes and bring the other two with us! If we can't have them, the enemy shouldn't either! Move it!"

"R-roger!" The accompanying explosions were magnificent; they provided the perfect cover for Blue Flower to successfully retreat. As always, Aoi had a difference in opinion, but seeing as how she had to rely on Selena to bring her to safety, there wasn't much she could do.

When the smoke settled, Isana and her brigade were left to boil in their own frustrations. She calmed down quickly, and after assessing the situation, declared a fragile victory. The factory was still standing, and only eight Imperial suits were damaged or destroyed, including the three that Blue Flower had self-destructed. Not bad for a minor skirmish…

"Commander, do we give pursuit?"

"No," she murmured thoughtfully. "They only managed to take two. If we follow them, we'll only be walking right into their lair, and that would cost us too many lives. We'll let the rebels crawl back and savor their pitiful victory. I want fifteen of you to remain here and assist the wounded. The rest of you, return to base with me!"

"Wait, Isana!" The voice calling out to her made Isana pause. Nobody in her brigade ever addressed her so informally, so who was this pilot? She remembered this Gigantes going up against two strong rebels at once, and gave it a berth out of respect. As the pilot approached her and ejected from their cockpit, Isana recognized them, though it took the entire power of her memory.

"Kayley? Kayley Quinlan? Is it really you?"

Dr. Anima Devaraja of Neutrality, age 34. Religion: Hindu

"Good evening. I'm standing before a Mimirian manufacturing plant that survived a surprise attack by the organization called Blue Flower. Earlier today, a small number of Gigantes launched their assault, killing two Imperial officers and wounding three others, while losing three of their own in the process. In the heat of battle, they managed to steal five unmanned mobile suits, but were forced to detonate three of them in order to successfully escape. A small security force, led by officer Kayley Quinlan, was able to prevent any further damage, and with the arrival of the revered Schwarz Strum, Blue Flower was driven away.

"Earlier I was given an exclusive interview with officer Quinlan, who kept her cool as she successfully defended the factory. While she made no comments regarding her own performance, she praised the actions of her fellow comrades, saying, 'if it weren't for them, we would've lost today. We must also thank the Schwarz Strum for coming when they did.' I was unable to gather any remark concerning the actions of Blue Flower, but you can be sure the Empire's guard will be up from now on.

"Rumor has it that Lady von Schwarzburg and officer Quinlan were acquaintances in college, so one has to wonder what force they would create if they decided to pool their resources. A memorial service will be held tomorrow afternoon for those fallen in battle, and additional security forces will be stationed around every factory. For Channel Nine news, this is Madison McCullen, saying good night and good tomorrow."