LAST EDITED ON Dec-16-19 AT 02:31 PM (EST)
Wednesday, September 12, 2390
Regnbågsfjärd (Rainbow Bay)
Standing on the tilted bridge of his ship, watching the men and women of his crew struggle to douse the fire blazing abaft the for'ard elevator, Admiral Takeo Kaizuka of the 10th Einherjar Navy Group had no doubt of one thing: This was no place for an aircraft carrier.
Carriers were meant to operate well away from the enemy surface force, projecting power with their air wings—the way the battleships that had ruled the naval battlefield before them did with their over-the-horizon guns, only even more so. And yet here he and Zuikaku were, surrounded by enemy vessels. The entire 10th and most of the 12th Einherjar were here, bottled up in the bay outside Asgard Harbor, slugging it out in a Jutland-style fleet engagement with the black and twisted vessels of Niflheim and Svartalfheim. This was not as it should be. By all rational standards of sea battle, if a carrier ever sighted an enemy ship, something had gone terribly wrong.
But then, this was the Ragnarök—the final battle between the gods and their foes that, if lost, would ring down the curtain on all of time and existence. There was nothing rational about that.
Bracing himself against Zuikaku's list to port, Kaizuka wondered if he and his beloved carrier were bound for the bottom again, this time in the icy waters of Rainbow Bay, from which there was no return. If they were, he decided, he could live (as it were) with that. At least this time, unlike at Cape Engaño, they'd been able to do their job; they'd had an air wing to deploy, and deploy it to good effect they had, even in this horrendous weather. Zuikaku's aircraft were even now savagely punishing the enemy's left flank, taking advantage of the dark elves' laughably poor grasp of airpower to tear their screen of destroyers and light cruisers to bits, laying them open to the full firepower of Cunningham's 15th Group's battleships.
Besides, there was still hope. The enemy ships had left off shooting at Zuikaku, possibly because they assumed the fire and flooding their guns had already caused were beyond controlling, more probably because Cunningham's group was giving them plenty else to worry about. And it looked to Kaizuka's practiced eye as if the damage control parties were getting a handle on that fire. If they could get it out, and the counterflooding he'd ordered could get the ship back onto something like an even keel, then they might yet start recovering aircraft, rearming them, and getting them back out there to do the enemy that much more harm.
A flicker of movement off to starboard caught Kaizuka's eye, drawing him out of his reverie. He turned, instinctively raising his binoculars, but he didn't need them. The black bulk of a svartelven heavy raider, like some nightmare vision of a Viking longship crossed with a pre-dreadnought battleship, loomed up out of the sleet and smoke, almost close enought to spit at. For a moment, Kaizuka thought the bastards meant to ram, but then the enemy vessel sheered off to a parallel course, and he saw through the haze that her crew had manned the rail.
Cursing, the admiral grabbed the microphone for the ship's Tannoy and barked, "Boarders! Boarders! Stand by to repel!" An instant later, the svartelven raider crashed alongside, the grapples flew, and the dark elves and assorted netherspawn began flooding aboard.
By the time Kaizuka reached the base of the island and emerged onto the flight deck, the mêlée raged from one end of the ship to the other. Parties of sailors had rallied everywhere, striving to keep the boarders away from their shipmates who were still engaged in fighting the fires, while others grimly defended hatches and companionways, battling to keep the enemy from getting below decks. Kaizuka, sword in one hand and pistol in the other, took charge of one of these parties, personally leading the defense of the island and the vital spaces within.
This, too, was not as it should be; by all rational standards of sea battle, if a flag officer ever found himself in hand-to-hand combat with enemy sailors, something had gone terribly wrong.
But, well, Ragnarök.
How long it went on, Kaizuka could never have said; only that there came a point, some eternal instant later, when all went quiet on Zuikaku's deck again. Propped against the wall next to the island entrance, Kaizuka could still hear the distant sounds of the greater battle, raging on somewhere out there in the fog and sleet; but here aboard his vessel there were only the moans and cries of the wounded.
The admiral dragged himself upright, teeth gritted against the pain in his shoulder, and stood with feet braced wide apart to counter the unsteadiness of his legs. Before him, the flight deck was strewn with the dead and the dying. There must have been hundreds of them, and it gave Kaizuka a certain dark satisfaction to note that far more were svartelves and their netherspawn minions than Einheri sailors. His sailors had acquitted themselves well; but the enemy had been so much more numerous that the ending, he admitted to himself, was never truly in doubt.
Now he was down to around two dozen effectives, all driven into a tight little knot before the island hatchway, while a regrouped enemy force of perhaps three times that number approached from astern. Leading them was a tall, scar-faced svartelf in the elaborate but oddly haphazard uniform of a raider captain; the sword she carried was as red with Einheri blood as Kaizuka's was black with netherspawn ichor.
Kaizuka leaned toward his flag captain, who was by some minor miracle one of the few wholly unwounded members of Zuikaku's crew remaining, and murmured, "Tanaka. We'll try to buy you some time. When I give the word, get down to Number 1 magazine and... well. You know."
Tanaka's eyes were red with fatigue and wide with fear, but she gave no sign that either would stop her as she nodded, her jaw set. "Aye aye, Admiral."
The raider captain and her force halted a dozen yards or so from the hatchway. Regarding the tattered band of Einherjar with a disdainful eye, the captain demanded,
"Who commands here? Show yourself."
After a last moment's eye contact with Tanaka, the admiral pushed himself away from the wall and limped forward a few paces. "I am Kaizuka," he said. "Zuikaku is my flagship."
The svartelven raider smirked. "No longer," she said. "This is finished." She raised her sword to regard its bloodied edge insolently, then looked over it at Kaizuka and said, "Submit, and I will make your end swift."
Kaizuka drew breath to reply, but before his mouth could shape a word, he heard a strange sound, a combination of a creak, a twang, and a high-pitched whistle. An instant later the svartelven captain jerked, her sneer changing to a look of infinite surprise...
... and she toppled backward and lay still, the white-fletched shaft of an arrow jutting up from her left eye.
As one, the raider's crew and Zuikaku's survivors all turned, too startled by this sudden development to do anything but look for its source.
They found it up ahead of the island, standing in the center of the flight deck for'ard, amid the sprawled bodies of the relatively few boarders who had made it that far in the initial assault. She was a tall, slim woman, evidently human, dressed in burned and ragged clothing that looked like it had once been a red and white kyūdō uniform, with a black-trimmed silver surcoat—a jinbaori, like the samurai of old wore atop their armor—over it.
Having gotten their attention, she walked calmly, almost casually aft, holding her seven-foot yumi loosely in her left hand. She had long, disorderly hair of an unusual grey-green color, held back out of her eyes with a white hachimaki knotted behind her head, but otherwise left to its own devices. Her large and angry eyes, Kaizuka noticed as she passed by him, were exactly the same color as her hair.
Despite her scorched and battered condition, the mystery woman's carriage gave no sign that she might be injured. As she stopped before the raider captain's body, she even smiled, although it was not a particularly nice smile, and remarked in a coldly sardonic voice to the corpse,
"You never studied."
The sound of her voice seemed to snap the remaining svartelves and netherspawn out of their stunned reverie. Hissing, the nearest netherspawn lunged at her, followed almost instantly by the rest of its comrades en masse. The mysterious green-haired woman had, Kaizuka saw, only one arrow left in her quiver, and she had not even a fraction of the time she would need to prepare and fire it, besides.
That didn't seem to bother her. She plainly had no intention of keeping the engagement at range anyway. Instead, she drew the arrow from her quiver and held it backward in her right hand, gripping it just behind its broadhead hunting point, and with her bow as an improvised staff in the other hand, she met the enemy's charge head-on.
For a few seconds, Takeo Kaizuka could only stand there and watch, slack-jawed. In his long career as a living sailor, and his far longer one as one of the Einherjar, he thought he had witnessed combat on pretty much all levels and under all conditions; but never anything like this. Against these intruders, here on the slanting flight deck of a crippled aircraft carrier, this unknown woman fought like no one he had ever seen before. Evading or deflecting the enemy's attempted strikes, sweeping their feet from under them or crushing their skulls or throats with her bow, whirling through their guards to pierce and slash them with the head of her last arrow, she seemed not so much a person as an avenging spirit: immune to fatigue, indifferent to pain, and utterly without mercy.
The touch of Tanaka's hand on Kaizuka's shoulder roused him from his fugue; he looked to his right to see his flag captain watching the scene with an expression as rapt as his own must have been.
"Who is that woman, Admiral?" she murmured.
"I don't know," Kaizuka said—although in the instant he said it, he realized he did. In this time, in this place... who else could she be?
He didn't say so out loud, though. Tanaka would only think he'd gone insane.
Instead, raising his voice to reach the rest of his surviving crew, he asked rhetorically, "But we can't let her fight these bastards alone, can we?"
"No, sir!" the sailors cried, and with a roar of "Tennōheika banzai!" the admiral led an all-out charge in support of their mysterious savior.
Thursday, September 13
New Yokosuka Naval Base
New Yokosuka, Valhalla
An hour past dawn, Takeo Kaizuka sat in his office aboard Zuikaku, reviewing the butcher's bill. By the grace of Lady Freyja, it was surprisingly light given the terrible battle the ship had endured. Relatively few of the ship's 1,600-strong crew had been slain outright even in the brutal last push to rout the svartelven attackers, and any who still clung to life—however tenuously—when the sun rose were restored instantly to the full blush of health. Given the reorganization taking place across all levels of the afterlife, it was even likely that most, if not all, of those who had fallen would be making their way back from Hel fairly soon.
Hearing a knock at his office hatchway, the admiral put down the report and said, "Enter."
Captain Tanaka entered, saluted, and then presented with a file folder. "Preliminary report from Vestal, sir," she said.
"Ah, thank you, Captain," he said, opening the file. "Hmm. Fairly light damage, all things considered."
Tanaka nodded. "Captain Young particularly commended the efficiency of our firefighting teams—especially in light of the fact that they had to extinguish a fuel fire and fight boarders at the same time."
"Have the marines finished searching the ship?" Kaizuka asked.
"Yes, sir," Tanaka replied. "No sign of any intruders. It looks like we held them on the flight deck, as we thought." She paused, weighing her words, and then went on, "And no sign of our, eh... visitor either. She completely disappeared. Apart from that," she added, gesturing to an object lying on the admiral's desk, "it's as if she never existed at all."
The admiral made only a noncommittal noise. Putting down the report, he picked up the object she'd indicated and examined it for nothing like the first time, turning it over in his hands: an arrow, its broadhead point still tinged with dried blood and ichor, its green fletching marked with the red-sun roundel of the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service.
"The crew are saying she was one of the Valkyrie," Tanaka offered after a few moments' silence.
"Mm," said the admiral, still regarding the arrow.
The silence stretched a few moments longer, and then Tanaka suddenly blurted, "I don't think they're right, though. I think I know who she was."
Kaizuka looked up from the arrow, met his flag captain's eyes, and smiled.
"So do I, Mayumi."
There was another pause, this one less awkward, as both officers considered the arrow for a few more seconds.
"Do you suppose we'll ever see her again?" Tanaka wondered.
"Who knows?" Kaizuka replied. He placed the arrow on his desk and rose from his chair. "We survived the end of the universe. What is it the Americans say? It's a whole new ball game now. I wouldn't be surprised."
Then, briskly, he continued, "Now then. What say we muster the crew and square a few things away before we send them ashore? I daresay we won't be getting most of them back for a while once we turn them loose."
Tanaka chuckled, taking his point. The whole of the Golden City was going to be in party mode for days, and like many Einheri ships' crews, Zuikaku's company had missed the first night of it, what with the business of making repairs at sea, limping back to port, and accounting for the missing. Even if the rest of Valhalla were starting to wind down, New Yokosuka wasn't even going to fully hit its stride until at least midday.
"Aye aye, sir," she said, and preceded him through the hatch.
Just before leaving, Kaizuka paused, looking around at the compartment; then, with a smile, he gave the metal frame around the hatch an affectionate pat.
"Thank you, Zuikaku-chan," he murmured, and then followed the captain out.
"Lucky Crane" - a Twilight Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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