The year is After Nuclear 605, a time of peace for the Earth sphere. Six hundred years ago contact with the Earth was lost. Alone in the beauty and danger of space, the last survivors of humanity took their first steps in sudden independence.

For years before, the Earth and colonies co-existed, branching out with their blooming population into the vast potential of space. Construction of large cylindrical colonies from resource satellites pulled in from the asteroid belt saw a new golden age for humanity. Within a century, dozens of colonies welcomed millions into space. In time, it would become home to billions.

However, independence could not break the long history of war and violence that follow humanity in every endeavor. It was not long before colonies found their own identities. Strong beliefs grew and the right expand became the familiar cries of those spurred to fight.

War was inevitable.

Known as the Warring States Period, rapid militarization and technological advancements made war frightening and deadly within space. And out of the new war came the appearance of the Second Skin mobile humanoid weapon. Originally built for space construction, the Second Skin quickly became synonymous as a weapon of war thanks to the development by the Jade Corporation. Four major corporations vie for superiority, but Jade remains at the top.

While many wished to fight, there equally remained those trying for peace and stability. The Colonial Council was born out of the wish for unity and cooperation between all colonies in the dangers of space. Seating representatives from all colonies, the Council quickly grew, but lost its power in the myriad of voices trying to become heard.

To save the colonies from their potential self destruction future, a leader rose up. Bringing allies together, the formation of the Earth Colonial Federation was born and the start of their war of conquest against The Alliance. A harsh war enveloped the entire Earth Sphere. In the end, the Federation was victorious and finally united all of the Earth Sphere under their banner.

The Earth Colonial Federation had saved the colonies.

Episode 14 – Clashing Potential

Electricity nearly traveled through the air. A heavy clash of metal sparked vibrations echoing through the island. Six tons of metal collided against the wall of an equal force. Small pulses of wind erupted from the clash. Not so impressive as to be felt through the island, but the sounds made it clear. Heavy and course, the aggressive groans of metal scrapping gave a different tune than they had before.

Each strike had a certain tune to it. Carefully listening to each Schir could follow their progress. She did not have such a skill to know immediately good from bad. That was not her talent. However, watching and listening to them each day in their training, she picked it up. She knew when they failed and committed it to memory. Watching battles from outside rather than inside the cockpit gave her a new perspective that grew in value to her.

Never did she imagine that such a skill would be useful or even possible. But day in and out of the same thing made it easier to understand. It would be something that she knew that she could make use of in the future. Training new recruits might not be a bad path after their mission concluded. Though with the Earth under ECF control along with the Earth Sphere, the need for a standing military would diminish. Not that they would not always have to think about possible internal threats.

Yet she got ahead of herself in any sort of plans for the future. The immediate focus for her was on the battles that came up. A loss with the Devils almost felt expected given the conditions of the battle, but it could not continue. If they were to make their conquest of Earth complete the Devils needed to be destroyed.

An alert came through her comm. headset, a simple mobile device clipped to her ear. The tiny holo-projection extended out casting a point of light on her eye. Her right eye's sight filled with a semi-transparent screen acting like a monitor for her. It was a video message from the Dauntless, not a live message.

Ensign Yhern appeared in the message with a visible sign of stress. "Ensign Mille, the Devil Hunters have new orders. An unknown new ship has launched from the enemy Capital. Return to ship immediately to prepare to sortie for battle." The video ended immediately with Schir checking the time stamp on the message.

"Only a minute ago. Battle likely has already broken out." She jumped down from her high ground she used to observe and opened a line with her team. "Training is over for the day! The Devils have returned!"

"Damn! Figures they would attack while we're away."

"What's the status of the fleet, Ensign?" Kara asked.

"I haven't received another message, but they aren't so fragile as to be shot down before we return." Schir grabbed a hold of the pilot handle activating the switch to pull herself back up to the cockpit. Landing in the seat, she immediately hit the switch for the communication window, while her Bishamon powered up. "Dauntless, this is Ensign Schir Mille. I've received your message, the Devil Hunters are returning. What is the status?"

Her eyes darted around getting the position of the team as they formed up around her. They had a good response time and an eager look. A fire lit within them that was missing before. The battle would not be the same as before.

"Ensign Mille, this is the Dauntless. Confirmation of your return received. Battle hasn't broken out yet, but the Devils have been confirmed to be launched. They'll be in range within a minute."

'Which means they'll be in range of the fleet in thirty seconds…' The power plant reached full military power signaling her on screen. Schir flipped the thrusters on sharply leaping into the air setting the pace for the team. She wished that the Earth did not have such gravity. They could fly back to the Dauntless straight without a detour, but the Bishamon had no designs for flight. It could manage limited flight with its thrust, but nothing like the Peng.

She opened a line back to her team as they followed back to the transports. "The Devils have been confirmed. Recharge your Skins on the flight back! We sortie immediately upon arriving at the combat zone."

"Yes, sir!"

Shizuka landed on the snow covered ground having to take a moment to feel out the balance. Her controls felt a little off because of the Vanadis pack, something that Natalie reminded her about. She knew it would be different, yet reality still was something else. The Freya's balancers kept things mostly in check, but she had reduced their auto-correction after the last battle getting a better feeling from the machine. A bit of regret lingered in the back of her mind for that decision, but she corrected it quickly.

Once properly in control, Shizuka fully unlocked the pack's power. Thrusters ignited giving the Freya a hovering boost streaking across the frozen wastes closing the distance to the rest of the team. The Od above started to show clearly on the monitor as she flanked the slower Njord and Skadi.

"Damn Su! The Freya's like a completely different machine!" Ed comment with a bit of a hint of jealousy and envy with the Vanadis enhanced Freya threatening his Od's speed superiority.

Ansgar monitored the Freya from his seat with some relief coming finally. 'When I heard that they wanted test a completely new system on the Freya in battle I nearly wanted to punch those engineers. How reckless can they be wanting to do in when we don't even know what flaws or risks it could present in battle?' It sounded like a terrible plan, one that he did not understand how they approved. A hint of desperation seemed to be in the plan.

The last battle proved that they could hold back the enemy. It was still a trying and tense battle, but if they could keep it up then maybe the enemy would see their conquest would be impossible. Ansgar felt it was too soon to be acting desperate.

But so far at least, the Freya held up to the new trials. 'The Vanadis pack is startling. The specs of the Freya are so different from before in the base version. It's able to keep pace with the Od now.' Being able to see what Shizuka could do with the Freya from the last battle and the new boost with the pack gave Ansgar more confidence in their coming battle with the ECF fleet. 'They're now a pair that can work well together, before they seemed completely mismatched as ARMs, like the engineers had something different in mind than how they created the Njord and Skadi.' However, even with the Vanadis pack they were hardly complimentary machines for battle. The Freya had a versatility none of the other AESIR could compare to almost like it was meant to work with all of the AESIR rather than a single one. Ansgar could not claim to understand the design intent behind the AESIR in general, at least until their invaders presented themselves. They made a lot more sense from that context. But there were still a lot of mysteries and confusing decisions about the machines that he hoped to find the answers to in time.

He had no time to speculate about the purpose of the Freya with the battle in front of them. They were almost in the range for the Skadi's Heavy Charged Partial Cannon. The battle would begin and the enemy machines flood out from carriers of the blockade. According the reports he saw, the Federation got frequent troop re-enforcements from space bolstering their numbers making their work previously feel almost worthless. The resources that their enemy had to throw at such an invasion presented a staggering picture for Ansgar.

The reality of their coming battle weighed on him, but the enemy was not going to allow him such luxuries in war. He had to focus. "Listen up everyone," Ansgar commanded as he opened a line to the other AESIR. "The Skadi will make the opening shot. In the hole that's created it'll be up to Ed and Shizuka to punch through and strike at the heart of the enemy. The goal of this mission is to break the blockade!"

"That's right, we'll show those bastards they can't invade our home!" Ed received the targeting calculations from the Skadi so that he could see the path she would be cutting for them. "Su, I've got tha air yur got my back on tha ground?"

"I'll keep them off you."

The computer quickly began registering the enemy ARMs that were sent to sortie. They were hardly the numbers from the opening invasion, but they still had more an a hundred machines that mixed the ground and air types. What made the battle different this time was that they were actually going up against their warships, facing a new fire power.

Edgar tapped on the keys flipping through the magnification and angles to see the scope of the enemy's approach. He ran through it again searching around to be sure the computer did not miss anything. "I ain't seein' those new machines tha' we fought."

"We already knew from intelligence that they were in a different part of fleet. They probably are on stand by."

"Sure, Ansgar, but they're tha only thin' that they 'ave that can hope to challenge us, I dunt think they would be holdin' back on their deployment."

"Which will mean we'll likely see them soon. If they show up it'll stall our push, we need to break through before those enemy ARMs show up."

"Maximum range reached," Air reported.

"Commander, we're detecting a new high energy source from nowhere!"

Effuna leaned forward seeing the monitor from the radar station displaying the new readings. It made her pause for a moment as it seemed to be from literally nothing. "Fools, it's the Black Devil! Use visual scanning to detect it! Radar won't find it!"

"Y-yes, Commander!" Renthold Towning scrambled to use the ships cameras to locate the enemy Skin. He tried to figure out a firing solution from the position of the machine, but it was too late. "It's firing!" Within moments, the computers had all of the information to calculate a path of the beam. But there was not enough for those in the path. "Commander, the Unicorn and Sheldon are—" He could not even finish his sentence before a series of small explosions followed by three massive ones lit up their viewports and monitors.

The Commander tightened up her hands into fists and pounded them against the arm rests of her chair. She knew such a day would come once they started their war with the Earth. Like Schir, she did not harbor delusions about fighting the Devils. Their loses would be extensive and catastrophic if they did not change their tactics. 'What's worse is that even from our position, an emergency launch would have still meant five minutes before they could enter into combat range. There was nothing we could do to save them…but still…' Effuna hated how powerless she felt in this situation. Nothing could deflect a beam of that power, they could only prevent it from firing.

"Commander, Command is ordering all nearby ships to move to Point CX4 through CR9."

'The enemy's trying to punch a hole in the blockade. How many lives will we lose trying to hold the line?' Dark thoughts haunted her mind as even the last year of the War of Unification did not feel this deadly. Her pride in her reputation from the War taunted her. It would be meaningless in this sort of battle. "Helm, move us to CR9 at the rear."

"Yes, sir!"

"Battlestations, change to Combat Level 1!" Suddenly red lights flipped on through the bridge of the Dauntless and carried through the ship as crews stopped everything that they were doing and jumped to action. Combat Level 1, the highest state for combat readiness, meant all weapons were made free and the ship was either already engaged in combat are would be entered the combat space. With the training and experience of the Dauntless' crew they could have it fully ready for battle in only twenty seconds. But speed would not be what would save them in the battle they entered.

They needed luck.

"Ensign Mille, the Devils have entered combat with the blockade fleet!"

"Understood, transports are almost fully loaded. We're six minutes out." Schir's hands gripped the control sticks of her Skin hard turning her knuckles white. In such a battle against the Devils, six minutes was an eternity. They would completely dominate the battle without the Hunters. 'Hold out Dauntless until we return…'

"Whoo boy," Ed whistled seeing the destructive path that the Skadi carved for them. He might have seen it in action before, but this put the full power of her weapon on display. Three ships downed along with nearly two squads of ARMs. They could not compare for a single shot. But it was the opening move still, he could still make up for it.

Ed hit the thrusters on the Od while still in flight mode soaring through the hole. The Skadi's shot cleared out a lot of the flight types, but below the ground models remained. 'Be safe Su. Ya gotta new equipment and a swarm of enemies.' The Od's speed kept it ahead of the beams targeted on it by the enemy ARMs.

On the ground, part of the advance team, Shizuka continued to give the Vanadis pack tests, not quite ready to put it through its paces. She already managed to adapt to the necessary changes in weight distribution and balance equations with the pack, but the speed and response were different. The Freya blasted through the open ranks of machines with three dropping with her introduction.

"The Ghost!"

"I-It took down three Jiaos in an instant?!"

The Freya spun around in an elegant dance flashing polished blades as two more dropped before leaping out. It flowed with a measured grace, a little stiff, but simple. Before the enemy could even react it had left to the next target. Unlike the guerrilla style combat of the previous battle, it dove in aggressively carving up the front line of the enemy.

Ansgar watched from the rear with the Skadi. They remained outside of the effective range of the enemy's fleet, but it would not remain that way for long. But with the calm before the storm, he could see his teammates fighting. 'It's crazy knowing that they were both completely novices as pilots only few months ago. Ed makes sense, he's been flying ships for years, but Shizuka has never even been near anything but a civilian transport. Despite that, she's even more skilled than Ed. How is this possible? Who is this girl?' He only had the battle report to read before he saw her in the team simulations he arranged. It amazed him the skill she showed and watching her now lighting up the battlefield with pink explosions from each destroyed ARM only added to her shocking talent.

In the air, the Od broke through the shattered defensive line of Pengs meant to hold him off. Accuracy and speed failed them in reaching their target. Targeting the nearest ship with his forward mounted beam rifles, he hit the open bays attempting to scramble more machines for defense. Non-critical explosions popped off shaking the ship in his fly by.

Ed quickly transformed the Od out of flight mode feeling the Gs slam him in the chair even with the dampers in effect. A moment of stable accuracy, he targeted what looked to be the bridge as well as the engines. His second gone, he transformed back and flew deeper into the line seeing a sea of beams flying around his monitor. "Tha' woke 'em up!" he remarked, feeling the intensity of the battle increasing now.

Another massive flash poured over the screens of the Dauntless as the shockwave from the explosion made the plating groan. Alerts rang out as the automated computer reported the destruction. Commander Effuna pressed her hands deeper into the padding of her chairs arm rests. Having survived the War, she hoped never to see another one like it in her life time. The Devils completely destroyed any sort of tactics or strategy they built up from their experience. It almost made more sense to throw it all out and make a completely new playbook for dealing with them. 'I feel like I'm looking back into history, before regulations were put in place for space combat. A savage and dark period, now reborn once more…calling this place Hell seems fitting now that I see them.'

Unable to wax long about history and her place in everything, Effuna focused on most important matter. Their rear position in the fleet meant that combat would not reach them, but they had a duty to fulfill still. "Ensign Towning, what's the status of the Devils and their ship?"

"Sir, their ship currently is staying outside of weapon's range of our ships. The Black Devil and Blue Devil are keeping any of our Skins from reaching it. It's likely only a carrier lacking in combat strength of its own."

"Don't make assumptions like that, Ensign! Right now their Devils are more than enough firepower for them. That ship remains a threat for as long as it remains in the sky."

"Y-yes, sir!"

"What about the other Devils?"

"The Green Devil is currently hitting the blockade fleet directly."

'Damn, the War killed too many. The inexperienced have no Ship to Skin combat…' Modern warfare with Second Skins changed the way battles played out in space. Between war regulations and the maneuverability, it became impractical for ships to enter combat. It was a foregone conclusion that if the lines of defense maintained by Skins collapsed that nothing would protect the fleet itself. Battles usually ended before it came to that to protect the cost of the ships and lives. Technology had not kept up in ship construction and weapons development in the same way that it did for Skins. Wide gaps created a highly focused battle field on Skin superiority.

The reliance on such tactics revealed their value against such machines as the Devils. Effuna already saw the fate that would befall the blockade fleet. The missing Devil Hunter squad made it even more apparent. She knew that they would make it in time, but the cost would be high. But even they were too far away from the battle to do anything of use.

"But Commander, I'm getting strange reports from front line ships about the Ghost."

Snapped out of her thoughts, she focused back on the main monitor that the Ensign displayed the new data. However, she had not thorough analyzed the data of the any of the machines like Schir or her other crew had. Nothing about what she saw seemed off. "What am I looking at?"

"Performance and shape analyze of the Ghost." The computer had a rough model created of the Ghost that it compared with the one in the database. "Analysis from the front has determined that the Ghost has new equipment for this battle."

Now that she looked at it closer, she noticed the larger back and panels or fins attached to it now. She had a gut feeling it looked a little strange, but she was not sure. Given that it had new equipment added she figured that it would be slower now unless it came with new armaments to offset it or other functions. It would not add equipment with only negatives. "What's the performance from this new equipment?"

"The speed of the Ghost has increased by nearly forty percent compare to previous combat data we've gathered."

"What?!" she exclaimed, vocalizing what the rest of the bridge crew felt. They only made murmurs and whispers remaining out of the conversation. "Damn those Devils and HOPE." Her fist pounded against the arm rest. The Hunters struggled and died in their first battle and now they launched training themselves for an enemy that continues to grow beyond them. "Have you sent the data to the Hunters?"

"Yes, sir! Everything is being directly fed to Ensign Mille's Bishamon."

"Good, keep in touch with the rest of the fleet as we continue our approach to the line." The Dauntless still had yet to reach the combat space, even with the fleet they were assigned to the rear position. As a Toras Heavy Carrier, they had no defense relying on the escort fleet if their squadrons of Skins failed. Though the Dauntless history during the war did not always have it following those tactics.

Effuna tapped her fingers on the personal terminal seeing the Hunters flight path back to the combat space. 'Still four minutes out… We knew the risk. They could have targeted any part blockade, we're fortunate they were this close to us.' The Ghost concerned her though with it already being a deadly machine without the enhancement. Whoever piloted it had to be a true monster.

An awkward landing, the Freya crunched ice beneath its feet gripping tightly as it changed course. Dashed through the swarm of machines, the blades flashed through quickly dropping arms to the ground or entire torsos.

Shizuka turned her gaze back to the rear of the full spherical monitor. 'I'm able to disarm them, but they're not retreating… They're determined to keep fighting…' In their previous battle, she sensed what seemed like fear from them. She knew that she could not actually feel such things through machines, but the way they reacted to her was different from now. They seemed resolved to fight no matter the cost. 'Are they going to make me kill more of them…'

Their battle continued pressing Shizuka to kill. Mental whispers in the back of her mind kept her focused from the weight of it. Each kill was a necessary one for everyone's safety.

New data from the battle came through to Schir's Bishamon. It displayed visuals of the battle with the Devils along with new computer analysis of the Devils. Her hands clinched the sticks tightly seeing the Ghost. 'It's even faster than before…based on the data it looks like it's focused on melee combat rather than ranged like last time… Damn things more flexible than it appears!' Just seeing the numbers made her body break out in a cold sweat.

Doubt began to dig cracks into her armor.

Opening the comm. with the rest of her Hunters, she focused herself to the task. "We're four minutes out with the Devils already engaging the fleet. Green Team will be protecting the fleet and grounding the Devil. Warrant Officer Greenpier make the call for splitting the team."

"Yes, sir!"

"Current scans show that Blue and Black are staying out the weapon range of the fleet and only protecting their carrier. Shenai and Umuin your teams get the honor of taking down their carrier with the two Devil."

"Eagerly, sir!"

"Yes, sir!"

"Ghost team, follow my lead. The Ghost has new equipment giving it greater mobility, if it comes to it I'll fight directly and you support the Jiao teams and keep the Ghost boxed in."

"Understood, sir!"

"You've all seen the Devils in action now. Your training and combat against the data has prepared you for this moment! It's time to show the world why we're called the Devil Hunters!" She got shouts and war cries from her men with their confidence built up. Doing such a thing came as a double edged sword, she knew. The Devils were nothing that they could beat with just a little training. Yet, she could tell from the silence that they had on the flight how tightly wound they were. Being scared and afraid would be even worse than overconfidence. But she did not train them to get cocky, that was something that she and the Devils beat out of them.

Schir flipped through the new combat data from the front analyzing it as a way to pass the time and keep her mind off dangerous things. Though viewing the data presented a different risk, it helped her. The more she stared at it the more it focused and honed her attention. She could feel the drive pushing back her own insecurities from seeing what the Ghost was doing. Thoughts of the Commander and the rest of them surfaced in her mind letting her see what was important.

Sweat beaded up lightly on Edgar's forehead only five minutes into the battle. His focus ignored anything that his body told him. The only thing that his sense could read were what the Od fed back to him through the monitor, the shaking and pops of blasts. It felt more like he flew in the sky rather than the machine he piloted. Each explosion almost felt like a gust that brushed aside his hair.

Even with the success that he had against the fleet and Su keeping them mostly off him, he could not break through their fleet lines yet. "Damn, it's absurd! I sort of understand it with their ARMs seeming endless, but their blockade ships too! I cut one down and there's two more to take it's place! How the hell many do they got left?!" Voicing his frustration broke his concentration that he took a direct hit from one of the enemy ARMs, though their output was too low to do more than send rattles through the machine.

Sharply refocused, the Od flipped around and grabbed the Peng out of the air with its bare hand and threw it down towards one of the partially disabled ships. The pilot screamed in surprise and pain from the sudden force before being silenced with a beam through the waist of the machine. Force of the beam pinned it to the ship's starboard weapon mounts. A moment later, the beam that drilled through the Peng, hit the energy resources of the ship detonating. The machine disappeared in the blast as the secondary explosions from the Peng helped to finish off the ship.

"Keep pushing, Ed! The enemy is on the brink of folding!" The Njord jumped into the air to take a beam aimed for the Vingolf. Light flashed and the beam scattered into arcs from the shield with it taking the hit harmlessly. Below, the Skadi took out two approaching machines holding back any advance the lead forces could make.

Ansgar landed the heavy Njord with a cracking of ice, but still held up. He kept up the transmissions from the Vingolf to read the battle situation. The initial attack that Air made with the Skadi opened up the line, but it closed up quickly. Ed and Shizuka were beyond their reach and firing into that with the Skadi would be too dangerous to consider. He believed in Ed to be able to do the job of breaking the blockade. 'Just make it before those new models show up or we're going to be pushed back into a stalemate again.'

The ECF had been using radar jamming requiring spotters and teams to be visually monitoring the fleet. However, they were on a continent constantly battered by the cold and wind. They were never able to get an exact match of the carrier holding the models, only a rough position. So they gambled on their attack point being far enough away from the new machines as well as close enough to their own target.

A mission with a short time frame started to run out.

The Ensign at the radar station of the Vingolf looked up from her intense staring to look back at the Captain. "It's difficult through all of the jamming, but the cameras are picking new arriving targets from outside of the combat space, sir!"

Captain Deon immediately pulled up what Ensign Marks started to report. The camera could hardly make it out through all of the wind and snow, the battle kicking it up even worse than an Antarctican windstorm. "What am I looking at Ensign?" Her eyes for this sort of work were far better than his, age notwithstanding. This was just what she was born to do.

The screen zoomed into a blurry out of focus image that could not be improved any further. It was nearly out of frame of the camera and hardly a few dots, but it could be something. "I can't get an accurate read on their silhouette at this distance, but there are four targets."

"Re-enforcements most likely, but the question is, are they carrying those new models from the reports."

"They're on the furthest edge of our detection range, I'll know more the closer they get."

"Alert the team immediately if they are the new models." George turned away from Ensign Marks and to the comms. station. "Ensign Castle, let the Ensign know."

"Yes, sir!"

"All Hunters, thirty seconds to emergency deployment! It's time to kill some Devils!"

"Heads up everyone! Vindolf has detected incoming ships! They're likely coming!"

"Damnit! I haven't brok'n through yet!"

"Pull back, Ed! You're going to be surrounded!"

"I already am! I can still complete tha mission!"

"I'll go to him, Ensign!"

Ansgar could not respond immediately with his thoughts sorting through options. Their mission remained the same of breaking the blockade. If the new machines appeared that became nearly impossible for them. But they did not have enough time. However, he saw that Shizuka already made the call herself.

He had lost control of the battle. "Get him out of there if it goes too dangerous!" Even though he gave that order to Shizuka and the apparent approval of her action, he doubted that she would follow his orders. 'The two are getting quite close. She'll stay at his side… I only hope she's able to convince him…' Ansgar's thoughts reminded him of the desperation that Edgar pushed himself to during the last battle before the invasion. He did not want another repeat of that.

The Freya leapt through the air with full thrust making the jump to the ships with ease. During the leap it sheathed the two swords and pulled out a larger weapon. It was wider than the other swords, but the same length and looked incomplete.

"Enemy Skin on the ship!" shouted the communication officer as their ship rocked and swayed under the unplanned weight of the Freya's arrival. Panic ran through the ship as it filled most of the ports.

"Focus on the ships!" Shizuka shouted to Ed through the comms. The weapon that she brandished suddenly extended growing to a length that matched the massive bastard that the Njord wielded. However, unlike the massive chunk of metal that was the Njord's Okolnir, the Freya sword was lighter and thinner. It could be wielded with more finesse, though still limited due to the size.

An anti-ship weapon built with a re-enforced edge and enhanced for greater cutting potential, it was the only weapon in the arsenal of the Vanadis Pack suited for taking down ships. Like with the rest of the equipment, it was a melee focused weapon with no energy as the whole system prioritized energy conservation for maneuverability and thrust.

The nearly sixteen meter long sword heaved through the air crushing as much as it did slice. Dragging the blade back up and cleaving through the upper command floors the ship began to buckle with the loss of control and dropping energy for lift. Coming from behind with another downed ship, the Od grabbed a hold of the Freya throwing it forward to the next target.

"They're making progress…" noted Ansgar with hesitant anticipation. He did not want to set himself up for the possibility yet. They were still not through the fleet, but carved deeper than Ed managed to get alone. The ECF seemed to be sacrificing everything to just keep them down. It was a messy and ugly strategy. He allowed himself to advance a little as a little hope slipped through.

"We're nearly there!" shouted Ed, "This last push an' Air can punch 'nother hole tah finish this mission!"

"Don't slow down," Shizuka ordered with laser focus on the objective, having ignored everything else.


The Freya landed on the last ship drawing the sword back for the final swing to open their path. Suddenly a proximity alarm went off only for it to be too late for her to react. With the shoulder of the Bishamon drawn forward, Schir hit the Freya at nearly full thrust. The collision sparked and broke off plating as the force applied to the Freya.

Flying backwards with alarms annoying blaring around her in the cockpit, the ground came up quickly. Slammed into the ice damage warnings flipped open about the integrity of the fins. Air cushions popped out to protect Shizuka as she was flung about still secure in her chair.

The Bishamon Custom landed on the ship after the collision with Schir staggering off balance and coughing. She winced through the pain of the Gs that she put herself through to achieve such speed and the collision. However, she looked about on the screen to see her team as they started to arrive seconds later.

"Damn that was insane, Ensign!" Veren exclaimed in their fly by with the rest of Black team towards the Devils.

Schir snapped the Bishamon back up refusing to allow it a moment of rest while the Ghost still remained alive. She checked on her team quickly. "Laanin and Erothi take the West, Ramisu and Tyiren in from the East. Keep the noose around the neck!"

"Yes, sir!"

Shizuka groaned having felt like she had been strapped at the waist to a rocket already in motion and snapped over while flown through the sky. Everything in her head felt dizzy from the impact, yet she still could move. "I'm alive…" she muttered with a bit of surprise, "Diagnostics, report."

System reports on the Freya status popped up on the front of the monitor listing out all of the irregularities. "Damage to Vanadis maneuvering fins minimal. Plating on F42 section of torso damaged requires replacement."

"All that and only that much damage…guess it felt worse than it actually was." Shizuka commanded the Freya back to its feet seeing the enemy warnings display on her monitor. A familiar looking machine flew at her. "It's you again…" She recognized the movements and intensity. The same machine she fought so hard to a draw against.

'The Commander and everyone will have their revenge today!' Schir used it as her own shot of morphine going into the battle against the Ghost. Firing from her twin beam rifle, she locked on to the Ghost an anticipated its movements. However, it still was not enough. The reaction time of the machine had increased thanks to the new equipment. Her onboard computer and experience did not compensate enough for the difference.

Making the attempt to correct her mistake did not give her the results that she wanted. The Ghost's pilot was improving greatly from their last fight. 'Bastard! Just when I think I'm catching up you run ahead of me! You're supposed to be a bunch of peace loving idiots that don't even know how to hold a weapon! I've been trained and honed myself for this! How can you still surpass me like this?!' Frustration at her elusive enemy forced her to close the distance.

She saw on the flanks her team forcing the Ghost into a tighter space now. It gave her a narrowed firing range. This change was something that the Ghost noticed quickly and started to fight that fencing. Her team would show what they had learned now that they pushed the Ghost into a corner.

In the skies, Ed lost his ground that Shizuka helped him gain. Losing sight of the Freya broke him out of his focused run on the ECF fleet. The machines stood between him at the ships with their weapons fire forcing him away. "Damnit, they're different today! I ain't gettin' through their screen!" He found himself taking some hits from their beam weapons grazing off his armor. It did nothing to prevent his ability to fly or transform, but reminded him of their increasing accuracy. Mere mechanical specs stopped being enough.

"We've lost our advantage," Ansgar remarked seeing the Freya and Od pushed away from the fleet. The Od crashed into the ground split up from the Freya. 'They've clearly worked on their teamwork and strategy from the last battle. There's more unity in their attacks and they're able to work together to make up for the performance differences…'

Ahead of him, the rest of the enemy special teams came after Air and himself. He knew just from the others what he would be facing soon. 'They're going to try to split of us up. We've held them off last time, but I don't know about today. I need to stick with Air so that we can combine our attacks to deal with them. It's going to be the only way to keep them off balance.'

"Air, smoke screen, then formation delta-four."

"Yes, sir." The Skadi released a large amount of charged energy hitting the ground ahead of them. The blast and direction of the current wind blew the particles of ice and snow towards the Bishamon. Immediately after the blast, the Skadi slid back behind the Njord as the enemy charged through expecting to find both.

The Njord leaned forward effortlessly swinging the massive Okolnir through the air. While it did not cleave in two any of the machines, he did catch them off guard and clipped limbs. Those with faster reactions managed to get out without more than sparks from scraping metal, but two lost parts of their arms and took a heavy cut into the armor of the chest.

He managed to get first blood as it were in their fight, but it was only starting.

Shizuka quickly honed in her attention to each of the machines that surrounded her and the many weaker ones beyond. Their strategy was apparent, considering that it was the same thing that they used on her last time. So she already found a rhythm to it.

After the most recent attempts to hit her, she sheathed the anti-ship sword away and pulled out the two ARMs swords. With the extra thrust, she spun around quickly dodging the next round and parried the nearby Bishamon rifle directing it into the ground. Concentrated energy blasted through the ice coughing up steam.

In the next motion, the right hand sword sliced up through the rifle and continued through an arc to block the next machines attack. Leaping over top of the two machines, she shoved them forward and with a spin sliced directly through their thrusters and backs. Electrical sparks leaped from the exposed circuits and wiring with micro explosions from the thrusters damage.

The Freya charged through towards the row of enemy Jiaos cutting down several to slow and hesitate their advance. With the AESIR machines held up by the Bishamon, the enemy sought to go after the Vingolf directly with the escort pinned.

Schir pulled the Bishamon Custom hard around correcting for the sudden change of the Ghost. She had a little trouble tracking it with her eye as it darted around so much. 'Damn it's like the thing is moving through things the way it flows. This isn't natural, no machine can move like this…yet it is…' Cursing through her teeth at the contradictions, she could only give chase to stop the slaughter.

"Laanin and Erothi, status!" she shouted not even bothering with the computer's head up display of her team. Her eyes could only see the ghost as she firing to lead it away from the Jiaos and back to her team.

Static broke through Laanin comm. interrupting her voice, "…down…still functional…"

"I can still move, but my rifle's useless and my thrust is down forty percent."

"Very well, Erothi take Laanin's rifle and provide support to the Jiaos to keep Ghost of them. Laanin switch to your shield and defend. Tyiren fill in on their spot." Still prioritizing the team's safety, Schir pushed the machine harder to close the gap to the Ghost.

The Bishamon Custom clashed with the Freya with a katana drawn from it sheath at its side. Green energy flashed and rained down in scattered streams at the clash of swords. Pushing back against the Freya, power suddenly started to drop forcing the Bishamon back. At its side, energy coated thinly along the blade of the katana enhancing its cutting potential.

Schir flipped away warnings it gave to her about the left arm, the one lost during the last encounter with the Ghost. A part of her remembered that Mullia warned her about the replacement arm. It did not have the same over spec performance of the original. He could only give her a spare arm they salvaged from the wrecks after the battle. 'I'm going to have focus on the right arm for most of the strength…'

In the next clash, the Freya deflected the energy katana away minimizing the direct damage. Their dance intensified with the pilots focus drowning out everything. None of the screams or shouts from Schir's team made it through to her. Ed disappeared from Shizuka eyes only filled with the enemy before her.

Minute after minute passed with unbroken concentration in their fighting. Sparks and chunks of metal debris flew off. Even with the spare parts the Bishamon managed to keep up with the Freya not breaking pace with it. Jumping and flying about the arctic they never gave up the chase. Each unnatural movement by the Freya was met with flashes of less mechanic counters from the Bishamon. Their fight looked less like machines fighting and more like two living giants clad in armor.

The two machines came to a stop suddenly. Signs of the fight appearing on their armor in melted plating, cleaved metal and scorch marks. Both remained functional, but one was running out of time quickly.

Schir charged forward ignoring all of the warnings screaming at her in the cockpit. She knew their exchanged had an effect on the weapons. Despite the better machine, the swords were not holding up well against her energy based one. It progressively worn it down allowing her to finally cleave through the blade hurling the cut hunk of metal off into the ice. Continuing the swing through, she aimed for the chest of the Ghost, but turned in the last moment letting one of the fins take the damage instead. Following through, the blunted sword stabbed through the malfunctioning left arm pinning it to the ice.

Staring up at the gleaming metal of the Ghost's sword, Schir grit her teeth at the disappointing turn. Before another second passed, her fingers quickly raced off the control panel and purged the pinned arm. Explosive bolts released it quickly and pulled the Bishamon free before the sword could hit. She threw the Bishamon forward kneeing the Ghost in the torso with more warnings added on top.

Then the screen went dark. Emergency lighting flickered on struggling from the extensive struggle she put it under to keep pace with the Ghost. "What the hell is going on?!"

Through the back up supply communications remained open. "Ensign, can you hear me, Ensign Mille? Ghost Leader?"

It was Kara, through the comms. Schir now recognized her voice noticing it had been going for a while. "I'm here Laanin. I'm just out of power," she remarked figuring out now that she lost her focus. With that realization, she slammed her hand against the panel cursing herself under her breath. "What's the team status?"

"We're keeping the Ghost off you, but the situation's bad. We're all short of reserves. Veren already was forced to order a retreat."

"Damn…" Schir put together the pieces that Kara handed her to see the battle beyond her coffin. "At least we stopped them."

"Sir, we didn't…"

"Warrant Officer Laanin, direct energy line now!" Outside of her sight, the Bishamon moved roughly throwing her around in her restraints. But in a moment, the back up had enough to allow the monitors to boot back up with the OS. Quickly foregoing the system checks, she forced a quick boot getting the cameras working.

Just as the monitors captured new images of the outside, a fading beam of energy from the Black Devil disappeared. Explosions rocked the skies and the last of the fleet's blockade collapsed with their Skins unable to halt the advance. Even the Ghost lost interest in her, providing support to the carrier in their break.

Schir grabbed the stick and opened a line to all of the Hunters. "To anyone with energy still left in the tank, shoot that ship down!"

"We can't, sir," repeated Kara, "You didn't see the reports, but there's no one left that can fight. The Devils won…"

Defeat churned her stomach with a sickening taste that she remembered. Schir watched helpless as the Devils left the combat space uncontested. They went out of their reach. "Damnit you bastards!"

Standing atop the Vindolf on the aft, Shizuka watched as the ECF fleet started to shrink and they left behind the frozen continent. Ansgar confirmed the stand down order and recall of the AESIR. She mindlessly accepted the order with her eyes fixed to the horizon of the battle she just left.

With little effort, the Freya entered into the hanger of the Vingolf last as the other machines already lined up against the interior with work crews rushing to start maintenance and repairs. "Shizuka, do you read me?" She suddenly snapped out of her trance and blinked not completely aware of where she was. It took her a moment for everything to process and catch up to her.

She hit the comm. line noting that Natalie wanted a response out of her. "Yes, I read you. Everything is fine." The Freya walked over to its position on the line letting the restraining arms stretch out to lock it into place.

"No its not fine, Shizuka! You weren't responding to any of my calls. Your sync rate increased during the fight setting a new personal record."

"I see. I didn't hear you. I was just focused on surviving." Parts of the clashing of their swords echoed in her mind with things still filling in the smaller holes in her blanks spots. "I was fighting to live."

Natalie hesitated on an immediate response detecting her defensive answer and a sign to back off. "Yes, I understand. I'm only concerned about your health after such a fight."

"I feel fine." The Freya locked into place with the work crews taking over now that she started the power down sequence. She unlocked the belt around her shoulders and waist. Once the system confirmed the release of the belt, the primary lock that fixed her entire flight suit into the chair released her. The locking bolts aligned in the extruded pack on her back disappeared leaving the appearance of only being environmental functions.

Shizuka stood up from the cockpit and removed the helmet noticing how soaked in sweat it was, not realizing the physical exertion the fight put her through. She wiped away what hung on her face.

"…Shizuka…" whispered a strange voice to her.

She turned back towards the cockpit trying to figure it out only to hear Natalie behind her through the hatchet as it cracked open. "Shizuka!" Natalie leapt into the cockpit immediately once there was enough room and furiously started checking everything about her, despite lacking a medical degree that would actually make the examine mean anything.

The worry on the woman's face told her enough. While she would have preferred to be curt with her, she could not turn down her concern, the genuine fear she had that something was wrong. Once she managed to ease her personal fears, she stood up remembering that Shizuka was not actually her daughter. "Yes, you seem fine."

"I'm feeling a little tired from the fight. Are there any post-battle tests you need?"

"No, we're just going to get started with the Freya. Get some rest and something to eat."

Nodding to Natalie, she moved out to the lift that carried Natalie up. Her head felt dizzy suddenly grabbing the bars of the lift for support. Down the ground, she took a moment to gather herself before stepping down. She still managed to hold her consciousness, so she counted herself fortunate.

After finishing in the mess hall, Ed stepped out into the hall. Ansgar walked out just behind him and went on, they exchange a nod together while parting. He looked around the hallway to see if there was anyone coming. "Even Air had somefin to-ah eat. Where is she?"

His search fortunately was made easier by them being on the Vingulf. It did not take hours like it could have on the base to find Shizuka. In fact, it was the second place he checked, having noted that the particular hallway he found Shizuka in had a good view looking ahead.

He walked up and leaned against the railing as she stared out the window. The view had nothing but clouds and the ocean, for now at least. More importantly, it lacked any ECF presence. Silence remained between them, though he could tell that she knew that he was there. Starting the conversation first did not seem right to Ed.

About ten minutes later, Shizuka finally spoke to him, but kept her eyes out the window. "Come to bring me food?"

"Ya missed yer dinner."

"What you serving?"

He dug his hands into his pockets looking around for his offerings. "A protein bar tha' tastes like ass, crackers an' cheese tha' are jess shit on ass an' a black or brown bar they pass fer desert tha' prolly actually is shit. Which was now in my pockets, so that's disgusting."

"So you shit your pants."

"I was tryin' tah be clever an' only imply it, thanks fer killin' tha'."

Shizuka took the protein bar from his hands without looking and started fiddling with the wrapper. A heavy sigh came out of her mouth. "That is what we're good at…"

"Su?" He reached over his hand to hers on the bar, but stopped before contact. "Yer not…this is war…"

"I know…" Her head rested against the window letting the cold glass chill her temperature, even a little. "I know…but there's something wrong with me."

"Wrong? Yer doin' better than e'eryone else out there! Yer showin' up those two tha' are our seniors." In fact, it bothered him a little seeing how Shizuka was out on the battlefield. He saw her resolve talking to her. Once everything happened, she committed herself to the defense of the city and the people. Ed understood that, but that did not equal what he saw out in the AESIR.

"That's just it, I shouldn't be! I shouldn't even be here, able to do these things. It doesn't make any sense at all! And worse, I think it's taking over…"

Edgar stopped his polite kindness with Shizuka and grabbed her shoulder so that she could look at him. He did not want her just staring to the empty void of the Earth for her answer. "I'm right here, Su. I thought in sum way we sorta agreed tah share in our pain."

She looked at him for the first time since he joined her. The concern painted over his face was already long in his voice. Shizuka already knew that. "I was fine for the most part…at first. But when that machine shows up they make me lose myself. I don't think about anything or the consequences only fighting."

"'cause ya need tah survive! Yer ain't achievin' yer goal if yer dead."

"But I can't even think about the people I killed!" She grabbed his wrist for something stable. The shaken had not stopped no matter what she grabbed. "I was able to do it because I was protecting the city. It hurt to do it, but I did it and I made that choice knowing what I was doing. But after the last battle… I wasn't aware of the lives I took. But now I remember and I feel it all now."

"It's ok, Su. Ya didn't have a choice, they woulda kill'd ya if ya didn't fight."

"I'm aware of that! I accepted that, but how can I manage it if I'm not making the choice?"

Edgar had not thought much about the lives he took in the battles. 'It's actually pretty easy. They're all in machines or ships. It almost doesn't feel like I'm killing, just destroying things. It makes it easier not to think about it. But Su's trying to take it head on…' Compared to her, he felt like he was running away from the problem. She tried to stare at the pile of corpses she created and accept that she did it for the right reason.

There were no words he could find for her.

"The HOPE carrier with the Devils have left the Antarctica Theatre," noted Rear Admiral Garouth Hostin commander of the theatre of war for the continent. A man of notable fame from the War of Unification with victories at Crux and Apus. His reputation for his iron wall against the enemy saw it shattered today thanks to the Devils.

Despite his confidence in his blockade and the results, Effuna found his composure surprisingly a little reassuring. It was not the reaction she expected considering what happened. "Yes, sir. If the Devil Hunters had remained on standby—"

"The same thing would have happened," he interrupted, "I know what you're doing, Commander. No need to fall on your sword today."

"Yes, Rear Admiral."

"I agree that you'll find my advisors are blaming you for the delayed arrival of the Hunters and likely the bureaucrats above will want to lay blame and tarnish names for saving face, but we all know the reality here. Right, Ensign?"

Schir looked up, invited to the emergency meeting the Rear Admiral himself called and requested her specifically. The fog had barely even lifted from her battle and listening to the four Hunters that died today against the Devils. He did not even give her time to process it, but she kept her composure as a soldier. "Yes, sir. One minute while a long time in a battle, would not have made a difference. They still beat us and would have broken through." There was no attempting calling this a draw, like they tried last time.

Defeat was all one could call it.

"That's how I see it. The superiority of these Devil Skins makes our standard tactics in war useless. I'm old, but I'm smart enough to know when things need to change. We're too used to space combat and it's going to take time before our soldiers are comfortable with ground combat."

Effuna kept being taken back by the Rear Admiral approach, but it made her glad he was her Commander and the one in charge of the theatre. "What do you suggest, sir?"

"First, we can't let the Devils have free run of the Earth just when we finally started to calm down the riots and hostilities. The Devils need to be dealt with, but most importantly, we can't allow them to reach the populace."

"What are your orders for us?" asked Effuna feeling the hint of a change in their mission.

"The Devil Hunters will be re-organized as an independent autonomous strike force. I hate losing soldiers, but the smaller size of the Hunters now works in our favor."

"Favor, sir?"

"It's like the Ensign has been trying to tell the rest of us. Numbers won't beat them, we need elites, ace pilots. As the Ensign herself has proven in her two battle with the Ghost, she's able to fight it on nearly even ground. That will be the goal now."

Hearing the Rear Admiral agreeing with her advice gave her reassurance for the future against the Devils. She feared that they would be sending her more men to die as fodder to the Devils. Those that remained alive needed to be sharpened. "Yes, sir!"

"To that end, we'll be assigning the Devil Hunters to the CSS Hunter. It wasn't ready for the operation, but the yards have finished it's construction and will be arriving shortly. Your battles thus far and the destruction the Devils have created has been a rallying point for many soldiers wanting to join you. Everyone on the Hunter is fully committed to ending the Devils."

"I understand!" It came as a bit of a shock for Schir. She did not expect a reassignment so soon to a new ship. There was talk in the hangers up at Command about there being a ship specifically being put together for the Hunters, but she found it too impossible to accept. They did not have the time to built a new ship just for them. "Who is the Commander of the Hunter?"

"Captain Yora Ferith, but you will not be reporting to her. As the Commander of the Hunters and independent team, you will report directly to Vice Admiral Edwarth. The Captain is to follow your orders as though they were the Vice Admiral's."


"Due to the suddenness of this, we can't give you an official promotion, but I hereby give you the field promotion to Lieutenant."

Effuna could not believe what she was hearing. "But Rear Admiral, if I may. Schir Mille is not even a year out of the Academy, this is unprecedented."

"So is the situation we currently face. Schir Mille is also the only pilot we have currently skilled enough to take on one of the Devils and has more experience than anyone in this meeting with the Earth. She's going to have to get used to the ugliness of human nature soon enough thanks to her talents. The decision's been made." Garouth looked directly at Schir. "The Hunter will be arriving in thirty minutes. Prepare your transfer immediately, the Devils aren't slowing down because they aren't being chased."

"Yes, sir! I'll inform my team immediately. But what of the city? We won't arrive in time."

"Command is sending in re-enforcements. The Devils will have a surprise waiting for them."

Ansgar stepped out on the bridge first with Ed and Shizuka behind him and Aerona taking up the rear. "What is it, Captain?"

George Deon motioned them forward to get at better look at the monitors as the officer enhanced the image best they could at the range. "We've arrived at Montagero, but it seems that they were expecting us." New images from across the city popped on with the main camera view. It showed several lines of ARMs in a defensive perimeter along with several ships. "They've got a new toy just for you it seems." He motioned to the officer to display with they put together so far.

"A new ARM?!" Ed yelled before the others, noticing the design. It looked nothing like the others they fought previously, while still being a humanoid machine.

"We don't know the strength of these new machines."

"And you want us to go out there without even getting rest?" Ansgar said starting to protest.

"I'm not happy about it either, Ensign. But we've got a mission to complete. Opening up a supply line back to the Capital is paramount, but more than anything we need any supplies to get back. If we don't the citizens are going to starve."

To be continued…