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Kaiser Lane, Volume One: The Gathering Storm.

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The North Sea was burning.

 

The beautiful ocean, once clear and blue and calm, had become a sea of death and destruction. A storm of fire and metal raged without ceasing, the thunder of hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of guns sounding out over and over and over again in terrible rhythm, keeping the beat of the orchestra of battle. It was the soundtrack to an image of hell: As the setting sun painted the sky above in vivid reds, oranges and yellows, the waters below became a twisted and horrible mirror, covered with fiery wreckage and ruin; shattered rigging and broken hulls were strewn from horizon to horizon, chocking black fingers of smoke reaching skywards from the innumerable fires that burned across the whole sea.

 

If warfare was an art, then this was among its most dreadful masterpieces. Certainly, it had been composed by the greatest crafters in the trade, by those for whom war was their very purpose of existence. Blessed (or perhaps cursed) by the powers of the Wisdom Cubes embedded within them, imbuing them with the powers of the mightiest warships in the world, more than 250 shipgirls of Royal Navy and Ironblood had met in battle this day. They ranged from small and stealthy submarines to titanic Super-Dreadnoughts, built to be the ultimate weapons, trained and prepared for this moment from the very instant of their creation.

 

Few exemplified this more than the Royal Navy’s Knight-Commander, Warspite. If one had had to craft a perfect warrior of the high seas, to build a perfect living weapon, the end result would have been something very much like her: Unbreakably disciplined, incomparably strong, a prodigy of tactics and decisive and inspiring as a leader. Already she was a living legend for her feats at the Battle of Jutland, having briefly fought six of Ironblood’s strongest Dreadnoughts alone while afflicted a broken leg-and having admirably held her own in doing so.

 

Truly, Warspite was a master in the art of war. The rhythm of battle was ingrained in the Super Dreadnought’s very being, and her actions were nearly automatic, her movements guided far more by pure instinct than any conscious thought. Her Wisdom Cube hummed within her, its power flowing through Warspite’s body and rigging, the full might of a 32,000 ton, Queen Elizabeth-class battleship (including eight 15-inch guns, 24 Yarrow boilers producing 75,000 horsepower, and steel armor 13 inches thick) hers to wield.

 

And wield it she did. With a thunderous boom, yet another salvo sounded out from the guns mounted on Warspite’s rigging, the quartet of Mk 1 turrets no less effective in their Wisdom Cube-compressed form. Nearly eight tons of hardened metal and high explosives streaked across the darkening sky, guided by the range-finders and gun-directors integrated into the shipgirls’ mind. With a hellish shriek, the volley plunged into its target with deadly accuracy, the shells erupting into spectacular gouts of fire and smoke as they struck home. There were few things on the planet that could have withstood such a strike.

 

The shipgirls of Ironblood, unfortunately for Warspite, fell into the category of those ‘few things.’ In typical Capital Ship fashion, Warspite’s target, Bayern, didn’t seem all too fazed by about 16,000 pounds of high explosives going off in her face. With a furious roar, the Ironblood Super Dreadnought raised her own guns and returned the favor, Bayern’s eight rigging-mounted ‘Langer Max’ 15-inchers sending back an equally vicious salvo, aimed with the pinpoint accuracy that only a shipgirl could achieve. Without so much as thinking, Warspite raised her sword to guard, simultaneously twisting herself atop the water to brace against the inevitable impact.

 

Bayern’s shells dropped around Warspite like falling stars, eight resounding thunderclaps temporarily leaving the Royal Navy shipgirl deafened. She felt hellish flame burn against her skin, her hair and uniform being buffeted by the blast waves. Deep in her mind, Warspite sensed her Wisdom Cube briefly groaning in protest as it absorbed most of the energy from the salvo, shuddering as it soaked up forces that a normal human body couldn’t have possibly survived. Her rigging vibrated ominously as her Cube didn’t quite fully dispel the impact of Bayern’s attack, small hairline fractures manifesting themselves in the armored plates of the mechanical apparatus, clear signs of the beating that she had taken.

 

Much like Bayern, though, Warspite could hardly be bothered to let a few tons worth of HE shells being dropped practically on top of her head slow her down. Throbbing aches and stabbing pains were beginning to make themselves known throughout her body, but it didn’t take much for the Knight-Commander of the Royal Navy to ignore them, her natural discipline easily winning out against her body’s protests. Besides, she knew from experience that she could take it: she’d been pummeled far harder at Jutland than she had been so far today.

 

Without missing a beat, Warspite lobbed more shells of her own at the Ironblood battle line, a slight smile of satisfaction coming to her face as Bayern was surrounded by the waterspouts of her latest volley. Her grin quickly faded into a frustrated grimmace as it became apparent that this salvo had been just as ineffective as her previous ones, the opposing shipgirl emerging from the smoke and fire soaked from head to toe in seawater but otherwise no worse for wear. A moment later Warspite found herself bracketed by Bayern’s reply, being bathed once more in the hellfire of high explosives.

 

So it had gone for several hours. If Jutland had somehow failed to answer the question of a Dreadnought shipgirl’s toughness, then any remaining doubts had by now been long dispelled. It took more than a few hundred tons of worth of shells to take down a Capital Ship. Over the course of the battle, the two Battle Lines had exchanged innumerable salvos with each other, each one more than capable of ripping a lesser vessel into scrap metal, but the Dreadnoughts and Super Dreadnoughts of both fleets fought on just as strong as before. Destroyers and torpedo boats lay wrecked by the dozen, the only evidence of their existence the shattered remains of their riggings and a few oil trails; a score’s worth of cruisers had joined them in the cold, dark depths, blasted into burning debris; the Dreadnoughts had barely slowed down. The mutual slaughter continued.

 

Undoubtedly, those that had first unlocked the mysteries of the Wisdom Cubes could never have conceived that those that they built to save the world would so soon be fighting each other.

Who could have dreamed, when near every nation on earth had stood together against the Sirens, that the guns of their saviors would soon be turned against those that had so recently stood beside them? Who could have imagined, in the darkest days of the Siren Wars, when the whole of the world had seemed to be on the brink of destruction, that little more than a decade after humanity reclaimed the major waterways of the world they would fall back into their old ways? Who could have foreseen that the apparent victory of Azur Lane against the Sirens would only sow the seeds of further suffering, as old rivalries and feuds were reignited by arguments over the division of the spoils?

 

Perhaps it was inevitable. With their common enemy seemingly gone, what was there to hold the alliance together? Human nature, after all, is unchanging, tainted by greed, pride and anger, and so soon does it forget the costs of such sins. Drunken on their victory, the great powers looked to forge this new, post-Siren world in their own images, all seeking to rise from the ashes of the Siren Wars as the shapers and masters of the new order.

 

Was it any surprise, really, that Ironblood, heirs to the legacies of Prussia and the German Empire both, would begin to see itself as the rightful masters of Europe? That, having withstood what could only be described as the wrath of the gods, they would believe themselves to be chosen by destiny to remake Europa and the world in their image? That they, who had emerged stronger than ever from the hell of the Siren Wars, would challenge the weakened old order, eager to assert themselves on the world stage?

 

Was it any surprise, really, that the Royal Navy, Iris State and Northern Parliament, inheritors of the British, French and Russian Empires, eager to reestablish their mauled domains, would see this as a rising threat, especially once Ironblood began encroaching on the Low Countries and the Balkans? The French had already lost one war to the Germans; the British had striven for centuries to make sure that no one power (excepting themselves) ever became a hegemon on the continent; the Russians wished to maintain their position as guardian of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europa. The Siren Wars had changed none of that; if anything, they had only enflamed the fires of patriotism across the world, igniting a new wave of national pride in every country that had survived the Siren’s onslaught. As Ironblood’s influence continued to expand, as they continued to test the limits of their neighbor’s patience, conflict only became ever more inevitable.

 

When the final schism came, it was to the surprise of no one. Azur Lane, the military organization, survived; Azur Lane, the dream of a united world, died an ignominious death, killed not on the battlefield but by a few pen strokes in high office. Ironblood was cast out for its perceived crimes. Other withdrawals soon followed: Eagle Union, alone on its own continent thousands of miles away from where the storm clouds of war were gathering, refused to embroil itself in a distant and foreign war. They turned inwards into isolation, eager to rebuild their own lands and confident in their own strength. The Sakura Empire, away on the far side of the planet, followed suit, far more concerned with building their own new order in East Asia than in any European feud. Azur Lane, rather than the united defenders of all mankind, was left as just one more military alliance like any other in history, with no ideals further than realpolitik and force of arms.

 

The cost of this division? Uncountable millions of dead in the mud of Flanders, the steppes of Russia, the sands of Arabia and the rocky mountains of the Alps. Four years of hell had ripped Europa (so recently rebuilt in the wake of the Siren Wars) asunder. Mechanized, unfeeling slaughter reigned supreme across the continent, the ‘Great’ War bogging down into a horrific battle of attrition. Whole nations started to break under the strain: Northern Parliament collapsed, its Revolution rapidly warping into a brutal civil war; the faith of Iris Orthodoxy became more shaken with each passing day, whispers of mutiny and rebellion growing louder and louder with each failed offensive; Ironblood starved, the Royal Navy blockade slowly turning food shortages into outright famine.

 

Such despair breeds desperation. In Ironblood, desperation manifested into aggression. Throughout the early years of the war, the Ironblood Navy, the glorious Hochseeflotte, had adopted a defensive posture, the Admiralty unwilling to risk their girls (the products of more than two decades of blood, sweat and tears, the very prides of the nation) in open battle against a numerically far superior force. U-Boats and other light forces had done the brunt of the fighting in those days, waging a naval guerilla campaign and weakening their foe through indirect combat, with a good measure of success.

 

But it was by now clear that such measures were not enough. Not by raiding alone could the Royal Navy be defeated. With the nation at the breaking point, there was no other option: No more could the Hochseeflotte afford to safely sit in the protected waters of the Jade Estuary, waiting for the Army (by now stretched to its absolute limit, despite its victories) to complete its conquests. It would have to seek battle. And not just any battle either: This was not to be a glorified raid like Dogger Bank, or a massive but ultimately indecisive clash like Jutland. There could be no more doubts: the time for a final, climatic clash for dominance of the seas had come.

For Ironblood to be victorious, nay, for it to survive, the power of the Royal Navy had to be broken. The blockade was tightening around the Kaiser’s Empire like a noose, steadily strangling its exhausted people to death: the previous year’s “Turnip Winter” had killed thousands through malnutrition and illness, the citizenry desperately resorting to eating animal feed to survive. Unrest spread through the country like a virus, hunger ever more threatening to break the nation’s will. The Ironblood fleet had to have victory: the nation could not survive a defeat. This was to be the final settling of accounts between Royal Navy and Ironblood, the fate of both their empires at stake. This was to be the battle to decide the war, one way or another.

 

The challenge would be monumental. By raw numbers, the Hochseeflotte would be at a massive disadvantage, the balance of power laying firmly in the enemy’s favor, especially in terms of Capital Ships: The Royal Navy fielded more Dreadnoughts, and especially more Super Dreadnoughts (the four Bayern-class Ironblood shipgirls worthy of the title vastly outmatched by Royal Navy’s ten in the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge-classes). Even factoring in Ironblood’s Battlecruisers (not advisable, as the Royal Navy fielded twice as many ships of that type as the Hochseeflotte), the Capital Ship advantage lay in Her Majesty’s favor by a ratio of roughly 3:2, if not more.

 

All other factors being neutral, the outcome of such a battle wouldn’t have ever been in doubt: Royal Navy, superior in both numbers and firepower, would have simply hammered away at their foes until they either fled or were destroyed. And so it fell to the Flagship of Ironblood, the Dreadnought Friedrich der Grosse, to make sure that all other factor’s weren’t neutral, to do everything in her power to increase her comrade’s, her family’s, chances of victory.

 

It is said that necessity and desperation yield invention and brilliance. Such was the case here: Friedrich composed a beautiful symphony of destruction, using every trick available to her, from decrypting Royal Navy communication to laying multiple ambushes using nearly every U-Boat available to carrying out airborne reconnaissance by Zeppelin and seaplanes. Now, if she could conduct her orchestra of death with the same skill with which she had written it, then perhaps (just perhaps) victory would be within her reach.

 

So far, she has been successful.

 

A low growl escaped from Warspite’s lips as her Wisdom again hummed in protest, angrily vibrating as it first absorbed and then safely released most of the energy from Bayern’s latest attack. A quick check with said Cube told her that she’d only taken yet more superficial damage, but that wasn’t the cause of her concern and frustration. The battle had been raging for hours: by now, Royal Navy should have gained the upper hand.

 

Instead, the two sides had been locked in a stalemate, both fleets deadlocked in a life-and-death, kill-or-be-killed struggle at roughly equal strength. That by itself was cause for alarm: even assuming that Ironblood’s warrior were an even match in terms of skill, Royal Navy still should have held an advantage, reflecting their numerical superiority. That they were facing their adversaries at rough parity of strength showed that something, or several somethings, had already gone wrong.

 

That was the source of Warspite’s worries: Ironblood had been playing all of its cards right so far. The Royal Navy had been on the backfoot from the moment that the battle had started, its advantages in strength and numbers slowly being whittled down by a mix of ingenious tricks and bad luck. U-Boats had been harassing them almost from the moment that they had left harbor; bad weather was wreaking havoc with their gunnery; the entirety of the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons, meant to be the eyes of the fleet, had dropped out of contact hours ago, leaving the main body of the fleet effectively blind to the enemy’s position and strength until battle had already been joined. Their foes were fighting dirty: Every asymmetric tactic that Ironblood had access to, they were using.

 

“Torpedoes!”

 

Case in point. That cry, courtesy of her old classmate Barham, shook the Queen’s Right Hand out of her thoughts. A quick look for herself confirmed Barham’s warning: a volley of tin fish were indeed streaking towards the Royal Battle Line, invisible until it was almost too late. Not a moment too soon, Warspite heeled hard to port, intent on present the smallest possible target profiles and using the wash from her propellers to throw the underwater attack off course. Behind her, most of the Royal Knights were forced to perform the same evasive maneuver, the Royal Navy’s powerful formation forced to break apart yet again.

 

With their targets temporarily scattering and unable to bring a large portion of their firepower to bear, the Ironblood Capital Ships wasted no time in joining in the assault: a thunderous cacophony of booms sounded out from their Battle Line as they tried to press their brief advantage. With sounds like railway cars being thrown across the sky, dozens of shells arced across the heavens and into the Royal Navy girls, vast plumes of fire and seawater sprouting into existence wherever they landed.

 

Warspite felt her Wisdom Cube creaking yet again as it prevented her from being burned to ash or shredded by shrapnel. More cracks appeared in her rigging, more aches shot through her body. With another growl of frustration and pain, the Knight-Commander fired back as well as she could. Caught in the middle of evading the torpedo attack, though, Warspite wasn’t able to give a full or accurate return volley, the half-salvo she fired falling far wide of her intended target.

 

“All ships, back into formation, now! Reform the Battle Line!”

 

Her orders given, Warspite turned back toward starboard, again trying to bring all her guns to bear. She had yet to do so for more than a few minutes at a time, the repeated Ironblood torpedo attacks by both submarines and small ships forcing the Royal Navy Capital Ships into evasive maneuvers again and again and again. Scores of destroyers and U-Boats had paid the price for their bravery with their lives, but they prevented the Royal Battle Line from exploiting their big-gun advantages and succeeded in giving their own Dreadnoughts and Super Dreadnoughts desperately needed breathing room. It had been annoying: now it was getting dangerous.

 

Cursing under her breath, the Knight Commander spared a quick glance back at the rest of the Royal Knights. They looked to a girl as bad as Warspite herself felt, being beaten, bruised and bloody. All of her classmates, her fellow veterans of Jutland, had added to their scar collections today: Barham’s left eye was a bloody mess, and she was leaning heavily on the shaft of her warhammer; Valiant’s right arm was dangling uselessly besides her, a massive piece of shrapnel buried in her shoulder; Malaya’s rigging was smoking dangerously, much of her uniform in flames. Further back in the Battle Line, the five Revenge-class Sisters didn’t look much better; nor did the Iron Dukes, the Orions or indeed any of the remaining Royal Navy shipgirls, the hours of battle having taken a brutal toll on their bodies.

 

To the Royal Navy’s credit, the Ironblood girls didn’t look all that much better. The two fleets darkly mirrored each other, every wound inflicted matched by a wound sustained. The gathering darkness cast their injuries into an all the more terrible light, lit as they were by only by the small fires dotting their riggings, their expressions of grim determination and glares of anger and frustration shrouded in dancing shadows. The setting sun painted everything in burning oranges and yellows, reinforcing the imagery of hell.

 

The setting sun…

 

“The sun’s going down…”

 

“Your Majesty?”

 

The statement had come from Warspite’s liege, The Queen of the Royal Navy herself, Her Majesty the Battleship Queen Elizabeth. Warspite’s oldest, closest friend bore fewer scars than her classmates, having missed Jutland undergoing routine maintenance, and had spent today making up for lost time: eager for the glory of sinking a Flagship, the shipgirls of Ironblood had not hesitated to focus their fire on the Queen. Their efforts were so far in vain, but certainly not for lack of trying: it had not taken long for Her Majesty to become as bloodied and battered as her Knights, for her dress to become partially burned away, her rigging to be cracked in several places, her crown to be knocked askew atop the birds’ nest that her usually well-fashioned hair had been blasted into.

 

Despite that, her head was still held high, her posture impeccable as always. Elizabeth’s usual short-tempered and haughty persona had melted away the moment that the first cannon had been fired: gone was the childish girl that would throw temper tantrums over a tea party, being replaced by the experienced and accomplished veteran of the Dardanelles. She seemed to almost ooze an aura of leadership at times like these, inspiring her subordinates towards victory, encouraging them to shoot sharper and stand taller.

 

The Queen was not one to lead from the rear. Elizabeth had not hesitated to lend her own formidable skills and strength to the battle: she stood second in the Battle Line, and would have stood first if not for Warspite’s insistence otherwise. Her gun barrels were as hot and worn as any of her classmates, and her keen tactical mind had proven a match for Friedrich der Grosse’s, effectively countering every attack, feint and maneuver that the Ironblood flagship had so far threw at her, preserving the stalemate where a lesser commander would have seen the tide of battle turn against them.

 

Her Majesty had now decided to voice her some of worries to her most trusted aide. Taking only a moment to hurl another volley of her own at the Ironblood formation, Elizabeth turned towards Warspite, a pensive look on her face.

 

“We’re running out of daylight, Warspite. At most we have another half-hour before dark, and I’m unsure whether or not we should risk a night battle. You have more field experience: I’d love your perspective on the matter.”

 

Warspite’s response was rudely preempted by yet another salvo from Bayern, more plumes of cold seawater washing over her. After sending the Ironblood Dreadnought an eight-gun reminder to remember her manners, the Knight-Commander was able to give her reply.

 

“It would certainly be risky, your Majesty. We’d be exposing ourselves to torpedoes, chancing friendly fire…Fighting in the dark is a lottery, one where a much more can go wrong than right.”

 

The pair were again interrupted, this time by Bayern’s little (but no less powerful) sister Baden, who chose that particular moment to try and drop a volley of shells on top of Her Majesty’s head. Warspite tensed for a moment as the Queen briefly disappeared from sight, but her fears were unfounded: a moment later, Elizabeth politely told Baden to butt out of the conversation, courtesy of a few tons of High Explosives, and continued to speak to her Right Hand as if nothing had happened.

 

“And Ironblood is better prepared for a night battle, are they not? They’d have that in their favor as well.”

 

“Aye, your Majesty. We only really started considering how to engage in nighttime combat in the last few years, after Jutland; they’ve been training for it since the war started. They’ve prepared themselves for such a possibility far more completely than we have, as much as it pains me to admit it.”

 

Elizabeth hummed at that, stroking her chin in contemplation and mulling over the possibilities. At the same time, an unpleasant feeling rose up in Warspite’s gut. It was a feeling of…incompleteness. Of disappointment. Logically, the Knight-Commander knew that it was in the Royal Navy’s best interests to break contact: a chaotic night battle, with all its elements of chance, would far favor the weaker Ironblood fleet. To undertake such an action would be to potentially play straight into the enemy’s hands, to court utter disaster. Better and wiser to take caution and preserve their strength for when conditions were more favorable. That would be the reasonable reading of the situation. The prudent one.

 

But that wasn’t a plan that Warspite’s Warrior Spirit could agree with. To let the enemy slip out of their grasp when they had them outnumbered and almost overwhelmingly outgunned…it reeked of failure. Of defeat, if not of cowardice. A stalemate, between two such unevenly matched forces, would be a disaster in terms of morale for the Royal Navy, supposedly the absolutely invincible masters of the seas. The idea that the Ironblood could match them in a more-or-less fair fight would badly erode the fleet’s confidence in itself, and could easily be painted by their enemies as a victory for themselves.

 

Such had been what had happened after Jutland: in tactical terms, the battle had been a completely indecisive stalemate, and in fact could easily be counted as a strategic victory for the Royal Navy (owing to their superior size and shipbuilding facilities). It had not seemed that way. Ironblood had reached their home waters first, and by the time that the Royal Fleet had steamed back into port the Hochseeflotte had spent already spent nearly two days declaring to anyone that would listen that they had wiped out the legacy of Trafalgar. The newspapers from the continent had displayed headlines using words like Triumph, Annihilation and Extinction, with the Kaiser himself declaring that “The British fleet was beaten!” And once the idea that the Royal Navy had failed in battlehad taken root in the public consciousness, the idea was a hard one to dislodge.

 

The Dreadnought Iron Duke, then Flagship of the Royal Navy, had been taken to task by the admiralty, the press and the public for the perceived failure to overpower and destroy an (on paper) vastly inferior enemy: the criticism had become so bad that the Admiralty had been shortly afterwards forced to ‘promote’ her to a desk job in London, the duty of Flagship falling to Queen Elizabeth. Further odium had been directed at the rest of the Royal Navy: arriving into Rosyth and Scapa Flow the day after the battle, the shipgirls had been greeted by hissing and jeers from the civilian dock workers, who were convinced that the fleet had been soundly defeated.

 

Warspite’s resolve hardened at those memories. The Knight-Commander had no anger for those that she was tasked to protect: she was just as disappointed in herself as they were. As the people of the Isles expected better of them than stalemates, so too did the shipgirls of Royal Navy expect better of themselves. They weren’t supposed to run from a fight: they were supposed to make their enemies run. Warspite’s Wisdom Cube howled at her for battle, to defeat the foe before her and to settle the score of Jutland. This time, it insisted, the enemy could not be allowed to slip away in the night. The chance for a glorious victory sat before them, if only they could reach out and seize it. And now, in the gathering darkness of the Skagerrak, Warspite said as much to her liege.

 

“If I may speak freely, Your Majesty?”

 

“You may, old friend.”

 

“I believe that it would be an error to break contact, even once night falls. We still possess large advantages in both firepower and numbers, and given the number of torpedo attacks that we’ve faced I have to image that their submarines and attack boats are running low on ammunition. If we press on, I think that they’ll run out of tricks to throw at us.”

 

Her Majesty briefly paused before responding, weighing both her Right Hand’s thoughts and her own, as well as sending the Ironblood Battle Line more ‘polite reminders’ to stay out of a private conversation. After hurling another such reminder at Baden and Bayern, the Queen spoke.

 

“Are you confident in that assessment, Warspite?”

 

“Aye, Your Majesty, I am. We can’t let them slip away from us again. Morale is already low after Jutland: if they escape and tell the world that they’ve defeated us again, I’m not sure that it would recover. We are the superior fleet: we need to show that to them and to ourselves. If we do, I doubt that Ironblood be able to muster the will to challenge us again.”

 

A slight frown came across Elizabeth’s face. “Even so…we’d be playing to their strengths, not ours. You said it yourself, Warspite: they’re more prepared for a night battle than we are.”

 

The Knight-Commander grimly nodded. “True enough. But we’ve made strides since Jutland: we’re nowhere near as hopeless in the dark as we used to be. They’re still better at it, but I don’t believe that they’ll be better enough.”

 

Turning her gaze back towards their foes, Warspite’s cannons boomed again, another eight tons of high explosives spewing forth across the sky. “Your will is my command either way, Your Majesty. But I will say that this is our best chance to defeat Ironblood once and for all.”

 

Another long pause, punctuated by the omnipresent thunder of guns. Other sounds mingled with the constant booms: war cries; screams of rage, frustration and despair; the wails of the damaged and the sinking. The butcher’s bill had been high today indeed. How many girls had been sent into the icy depths? How many old friends and comrades would they never see again? If they broke contact, if they fled the field, how many sacrifices would they be rendering pointless?

 

Evidently, the Queen willed that none of her subjects who had fallen today would do so in vain. the Flagship of the Royal Navy turned to face her Right Hand, a confident smile on her face.

 

“Alright. I trust your judgement, my old friend. We’ll see this through to the end.” With a quick nod, Her Majesty turned to the rest of the Royal Knights, standing herself as tall as she could, petite chest jutting out proudly, and gave her orders:

 

“Warrior of the Royal Navy! Adjust headings three points to starboard! Fight for glory! Show these pretenders our might!”

 

The Queen commanded: the Knights obeyed. With a ragged battle cry, nearly a third of a million tons of steel, carrying 80 15-inch guns, changed course towards the enemy, ten Super Dreadnoughts acting almost as one. Before them sailed flotillas of destroyers and light cruisers, the Royal Navy’s screening forces mauled but still defiant and dangerous; behind them nearly two dozen other, older Dreadnoughts followed on, ready and willing to lend their own power to the struggle. More than a hundred Royal shipgirls charged as one into the gathering darkness, filled with courage, pride and anger, a blood red sun setting behind them…

 

And then Warspite felt pitch darkness fall all around her.

 

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t feel. She couldn’t breathe. The battle surrounding her vanished, replaced with a pure black nothingness that stretched infinitely in all directions, a void as cold and dark as the deepest, blackest depths of the ocean. It was constricting her, crushing her, drowning her, consuming her. Warspite’s Wisdom Cube was silent, her rigging was gone, her strength leaving her as she struggled pathetically against the endless oblivion. After a moment that lasted for an eternity, Warspite heard an all-to-familiar voice, screaming in a whisper:

 

“YOU WERE WRONG!”

 

Warspite tried to close her eyes, tried to avoid facing who she knew had made that accusation. She squirmed in the grasp of the shadows around her, fear flooding through her body like icewater filling her hull. Warspite tried to speak again, tried to form words out of the dread, guilt and panic overriding her mind, but before she could force her tongue to move she felt a sharp blow to her gut. Agonizing pain shot through her, and her eyes were forced open, and Warspite was made to face her greatest shame and failure.

 

YOU DID THIS TO ME!”

 

The shipgirl before her glared was a being from Warspite’s every nightmare. Their rigging was shattered, nearly all of it blasted into torn and twisted tendrils of warped wreckage, the metal plates that had once composed it ripped into ghastly pieces. What was left was rusted and falling apart, all ragged edges and broken shards, or was burning and melted, host to unextinguishable fires blazing forever in hellish oranges and reds.

 

Yet none of rigging’s damaged compared to what had become of the shipgirl who bore it. Warspite stared into the face of death itself: They were monstrous thing to behold, built of rotten, bloated flesh, once fair skin turned grey and green or black by decay or by fire. Exposed bones ripped through the tattered remains of skin and clothing, and large chunks of her were outright gone, torn away by battle damage or scavengers of the deep.

 

Worst of all was their face. The jaw hung by a few threads of shredded skin and rotting muscle, exposing broken, sharpened teeth and a blackened, burned tongue. The top right quarter of the skull was shattered, exposing the festering remains of the brain within. One eye was gone entirely, leaving only a bloodied socket. The other gazed back at Warspite with furious, burning hatred, the sclera having turned red with blood, black veins crisscrossing the once-blue orb.

 

And yet Warspite still recognized the shipgirl before her; she knew that this was her oldest, closest friend, the one who had trusted her above all others.

 

THIS WAS ALL YOUR FAULT!”

 

Warspite tried to speak, to scream, to apologize, to beg for mercy, but no words would escape her mouth. She was choking, suffocating, the darkness all around her squeezing in from every side. She was being dragged down, down, down, further and further and further into the abyss, and there was nothing she could do, no way that she could fight, it was getting colder and colder and colder and darker and darker and darker and something was besides her, something in the depths, and it reached out for her, took hold of her and then-

 

And then Warspite woke up.

 

More specifically, she woke up screaming. The former Knight-Commander of the Royal Navy thrashed in all directions, lashing out blindly at anything within reach, her mind still within her nightmare. There was someone standing over her, reaching out to calm her, trying to call out to her, but for a long moment Warspite was unable to hear them. Her tongue was finally loosened, and out from her mouth flowed a torrent of blubbering apologies and pleas for mercy.

 

“-ajesty! Wake up!”

 

“No! NO! NO NO NO NO NO! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I-“

 

“-ur Majesty! Calm yourself, please!”

 

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! I’m s-“

 

“YOUR MAJESTY!”

 

Finally, Warspite’s mind caught up to what her senses were telling her, reality managing to reassert itself over her night terrors. The Fast Battleship blinked several times, dispelling the last vestiges of the nightmare, her vision clearing and coming into focus. She was in her bedchambers, the reddish light of a clear morning streaming in through the windows. The figures standing before her, rather than the demonic shipgirl of her dream, were instead a pair of well-figured light cruisers wearing the kit of the Royal Knights: Dido and Sirius, Warspite’s personal bodyguards.

 

The sisters were on edge, both of their swords drawn and their riggings deployed. Most likely (given Warspite’s screaming), the pair had charged into the room expecting to find their charge in the midst of being assassinated. Dido stood by Warspite’s bedside, an expression of clear worry across her face, while her more stoic younger sister checked the room for assailants, guns swiveling in all directions, blade held at the ready.

 

With a deep sigh, Warspite clasped her face in her hands and fell back into her bed, groaning, a muffled sound of disappointment leaking from her mouth. For a few minutes, she simply lay back on her covers, breathing as deeply and evenly as she could, trying (and somewhat managing) to force herself to calm down. A feeling of shame welled up in Warspite’s gut: She was supposed to be better than this. It wasn’t proper for someone of her standing to scream themselves awake, haunted by memories nearing two decades old. She was supposed to set an example for her subjects, not be reduced to a shivering wreck by her nightmares like a newly-commissioned destroyer.

 

“Your Majesty?”

 

With a final deep breath, Warspite forced herself to sit back upright, rubbing the final traces of sleep from her eyes. In answer to Dido’s inquiry, the Fast Battleship turned to her retainer, fixing the elder Knight with what she hoped was a look of reassurance and calm.

 

“I’m alright. It was just a nightmare.”

 

“Are yo-“

 

“I’m fine, Dido. There’s nothing to worry about.”

 

The Light Cruiser didn’t seem satisfied with that, the look of concern still written across her features, but after a moment Dido decided against questioning her liege’s statement. With that, the two Knights stood down, their riggings dissolving into clouds of blueish-white cubes before vanishing entirely, the sisters sheathing their blades in the same moment. Warspite glanced at her bedside clock: 0730 hours, give or take a few minutes. She’d slept in.

 

Shaking her head, the Fast Battleship swung her legs over the side of her bed, briefly stretching her shoulders and sides before forcing herself to her feet. Time, past time, to start the day: there was a High Council debriefing scheduled for 0930 hours, and Warspite didn’t feel like having to rush through her breakfast. First thing’s first: getting clothes on. It wouldn’t do for her to be going about in her nightdress.

 

Warspite usually went through her morning ritual by herself, despite her rank, but today she let her retainers do most of the work in making her presentable. As Dido and Sirius went through the process of dressing her in her uniform, styling her hair into its signature pair of dog-ear-like tufts and applying a thin layer of makeup, Warspite found her mind wandering back to her dream. It had been months since she had had one like it; she had dared to think that maybe she was finally moving past her greatest mistake. Evidently not.

 

The Disaster of the Skagerrak. Her nightmares always took her back to it. Always. The dark shadow it cast over the former Knight-Commander was inescapable and all consuming. Those nights that she screamed herself awake, mercifully few in number nowadays, were the nights that she found herself back in those accursed waters, forced to again bear witness to her greatest failure. They shook her, always. Warspite never found her dreams haunted by the specters of her other battles and defeats, the horror of Jutland and disgrace of the Exile never managing to plague her slumber. But Skagerrak…

 

The fear of death and the shame of defeat did not have such solid holds on her: Warspite had come close, damn close, to sinking at Jutland, but the idea of her own death hardly scared her anymore; the blame for the Exile (a shame that cast nearly as long a shadow over the Royal Navy as Skagerrak did) could be laid at the feet of Repulse and the other mutineers, who had turned crisis into catastrophe despite Warspite’s best efforts. Neither event had ever caused her to wake up in a cold sweat.

 

No, it was not fear or shame that plagued Warspite so. It was guilt. Jutland was a source of mortal terror; the exile, it could be argued, wasn’t her fault, at least not in full. But there was no one else to blame for the Disaster of the Skagerrak. Her judgement had been trusted, and disaster had followed. Her pride, her wrath, her arrogance…they were the causes of the Royal Navy’s worst defeat. She had wanted the glory of a crushing victory. She had wanted another Trafalgar.

 

She had gotten one, but not for Royal Navy.

 

With a sigh, the Fast Battleship shook her head, trying to dispel such thoughts from her mind. She couldn’t lose herself in her self-pity: she had duties to perform, burdens to bear. Warspite closed her eyes and took a deep breath in, centering herself, then a deep breath out, releasing what tension she could, trying to banish her dark thoughts. It didn’t work perfectly, of course: the doubts that had been plaguing her for the last two decades nipped at the back of her mind, ready to surge forwards at the slightest provocation. But Warspite had long ago learned to keep such things caged away. She had had to.

 

When Warspite opened her eyes, Dido and Sirius were putting the finishing touches on her appearance, straightening various odds and ends of her uniform and brushing the last stray strands of her hair into place. Only her badges of office were left: a moment later, Warspite felt the familiar weight of her sword upon her back, a slight pinching sensation as the scabbard’s strap was tightened across her chest. And now…

 

The two light cruisers knelt before their liege, presenting to her a pair of regally decorated artifacts: Dido a crown, and Sirius a scepter. Warspite took another deep, calming breath, fighting down the memories that threatened to well up within her at the sight of them, of tea parties, late nights studying together, of training and temper tantrums and celebrations of promotions and decorations. And of course, of disaster. When Warspite opened her eyes, for the briefest of moments she saw a different face reflected back at her in the side of the crown, a face from far happier days. A moment later it disappeared, replaced by that of a worn-out old soldier: wrinkled, scarred skin, frayed hair and haunted eyes.

 

Slowly, reluctantly, Warspite bowed her head and allowed the senior of her retainers to place the crown upon her brow. It was a replica, of course, as was the scepter: the originals had been lost at the Disaster of the Skagerrak. Both of them had been made to Warspite’s specifications, not to her predecessors’. Despite that, even after all these years, the crown didn’t feel right for her to wear: its weight was still alien, still wrong, as if she were a child playing dress-up in her parent’s clothes. The scepter was similar, its shaft not quite fitting in Warspite’s hand, like she was holding on to it for someone else.

 

God, how she wished that that were true.

 

Get a grip, Warspite the Grand Old Lady mentally scolded herself. You need to be stronger than this. There are too many people relying on you for you to be this weak. With that, the Fast Battleship tried to harden her resolve, tried to place a stony mask of confidence over her face. Nodding for her retainers to follow, the Queen of the Royal Navy in Exile stepped out from her chambers, forcing herself to try and leave her old demons behind.

 

And to get ready to face new ones.