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With an effort of will, Yoshika Miyafuji released her mental hold on her healing magic, letting the blue glow between her outstretched hands recede. As the ears and tail of her familiar withdrew, she wobbled on her stool, and probably would have fallen backward if Lynne Bishop hadn't been there to gather her up in an embrace from behind. With a sigh that mingled weariness and contentment, Yoshika relaxed into her lover's arms, letting her head fall back against Lynne's soft, comforting bosom, smiling up at her inverted face a little goofily.
"Thanks," she said, and then added with punch-drunk matter-of-factness, "You know, you're really pretty, even from this weird angle."
"Thank you," said Lynne dryly, her cheeks pinkening a little.
"Can you please try to focus for a moment longer, Miyafuji?" asked Perrine Clostermann, just a little sharply.
"Sorry, Perrine-chan," said Yoshika as she raised her head and gave it a little shake. "Long day." She pulled herself together and rose from the stool, steadying herself on the side of the sickbay bed she'd been sitting next to for the last three hours.
In that bed, the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's commander lay stretched out on her back, the clean white covers drawn up to her chest, with her arms at her sides atop them. Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke looked better than she had when they'd brought her in; she was no longer so pale and shocky-looking, and the small but bloody wound in her lower lip had gone. She was still unconscious, her closed eyes sunken in dark circles, but she no longer looked close to death.
That visual diagnosis was confirmed a moment later, as Yoshika said, "Brigadier Minna needs rest - a lot of it - but she should be all right. Physically, anyway."
"'Physically, anyway'?" Perrine asked, folding her arms. "That's not very reassuring."
Yoshika didn't rise to her prickly wingmate's implied challenge; she just shrugged tiredly, her eyes on the general's sleeping face. "I've fixed all the damage to her body, she's out of any medical danger, but I can't do anything about the energy she used up." Raising her gaze to the face of the person sitting at the opposite side of the bed, she added, "It's up to her now."
Mio Sakamoto nodded, her uncovered eye solemn as she met Yoshika's.
"Thank you," she said, her voice hushed.
Yoshika smiled, a little blurrily. "It's what I do," she replied; then she nearly swooned again, and Lynne came around the stool to shore her up once more.
"You'd better take her to bed," Mio told the Britannian witch with a fond little smile. "She's done all she can for now. I'll stay with Minna."
Lynne nodded. "Right." Glancing down at her wristwatch, which was pinned, nurse-fashion, upside down on the front of her medical smock, she added, "Christiane will be here at 0600. If you need us between now and then, call."
"I will. Thanks," Mio said.
After they had gone, she sat regarding Minna's face for several silent minutes; then, looking up as if in surprise, she turned and said, "Perrine, you can go to bed too, you know. You heard Miyafuji, she's out of danger now. I'm just staying because... I want to be here when she wakes up."
The blonde Gallian shook her head with a little smile. "I'll stay for now, if you don't mind."
"Course I don't mind," Mio said. Returning her contemplative gaze to the brigadier, she sat in silence for another minute or two. She blinked, startled, and looked up and back as Perrine's hand slid gently onto her shoulder.
"I've known for a long time that Brigadier Minna is a great person," said Perrine softly, almost as if speaking only to herself. "Until today, though, I don't think I quite understood how great. To run such a risk, make such a demand of herself, at her age..."
Mio nodded, then admitted in a similarly hushed tone, "I've been dreading this day for more than a year now. I knew it, or something like it, would happen, if she kept going out... but she wouldn't stop."
Perrine chuckled dryly, giving Mio's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Of whom does that remind one, hmm?"
"Heh, true," Mio conceded. "That's why I never asked her to. I couldn't bring myself to be that much of a hypocrite..."
She trailed off, her eye slipping shut, and slumped forward, resting her folded arms on the edge of Minna's bed and pillowing her head on them. Perrine remained where she was for a minute or two, regarding the scene with a hard-to-read expression; then she seemed to come to some internal decision. Bending down, she gathered up the sleeping Fusō witch in her arms, straightened with little apparent effort, and stretched her out in the empty space on the double bed next to Minna, then covered her with a spare blanket.
"Rest well... Mio," she murmured, then leaned down, gently kissed her sleeping superior's forehead, and slipped silently out of sickbay.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
His Imperial and Royal Majesty Friedrich IV, by the Favor of the Ancestors Emperor of Karlsland, King of Prussia, Margrave of Brandenburg and so on and so forth, was not having his favorite kind of day.
To the vast majority of his subjects, Kaiser Friedrich IV was an almost mythical figure. A young (barely 30 when he ascended the throne in 1933), dynamic, and (by the standards of his profession) progressive ruler, he had been well on his way to making his country a modern, forward-looking technological powerhouse by the time of the Neuroi invasion in 1939. What was more, even though the Neuroi had conquered the country itself, Friedrich had managed to preserve its national identity, its culture, its very soul as if through sheer force of personality, conceiving and overseeing the most ambitious mass evacuation the planet Earth had ever seen: Operation Bifröst, in which virtually the whole population of Karlsland had relocated to the far-flung colony of Neukarlsland, at the southern tip of the South Liberion continent.
As if that wasn't enough, he had never given up on reclaiming the Fatherland. From half a world away, he had marshaled his shattered country's forces, both military and technological, and thrown them behind the ongoing war in Europe. Even though Karlsland had fallen, it remained one of the key members of the Grand Alliance, its workshops and factories supplying the material needs not only of its own armed forces, but those of a number of the smaller Allies (such as Suomus), its uniformed personnel playing critical roles throughout the Allied Expeditionary Forces.
All of that meant that Friedrich, despite still being quite young for a head of state at 43, was a figure of veneration throughout his empire and held in wide respect outside it. Wherever he went, he could expect to be addressed deferentially, his decisions to be accepted, his commands to be obeyed.
Not tonight, though. Tonight, he stood in the dimly lit, deserted control tower of Château Saint-Ulrich and received a thorough and unrestricted bollocking from one of his subjects. As a monarch and a prideful Prussian officer, Friedrich would not have stood for such treatment from just anyone - in fact, he would have stood it from virtually no one but the person administering it. And tonight, even from Hannelore von Hammer, it rankled.
This was partly because he was so unaccustomed to receiving such treatment, but mostly because he knew full well that she was absolutely right. Lingering in the vicinity while the 501st Joint Fighter Wing battled a large-class Neuroi so that he could watch the show was both stupid and irresponsible, and it might well have cost the wing's commander - one of his own finest soldiers - her career; might even, as far as they knew at the moment, have cost Brigadier General Wilcke her life.
He absorbed it for as long as he could stand, then turned and said sharply, "Enough, Hannelore. You've made your point."
Von Hammer folded her arms and scowled at him. She looked exhausted, her eyes bloodshot and dark-ringed, but she held herself very upright and showed no sign of her weariness in her body language as she replied, "In that case, I trust you have some plan in mind to make amends for the damage you've caused with your reckless stupidity."
Friedrich scowled right back, the expression rendered quite dramatic by his enormous Prussian moustache. "My father would never have let anyone speak to him the way you speak to me," he said in a warning tone.
Hannelore snorted contemptuously. "Your father was an insecure milksop who could only bring himself to do violence to people who recognized that fact!" she spat.
Friedrich physically recoiled from that, his face purpling. "How dare you -" he began.
"Enough!" a third voice said sharply from the end of the room, and both the Kaiser and von Hammer turned to see Major Gertrud Barkhorn standing at the top of the spiral stairs leading down to the lower level of the tower, her face like a thundercloud.
"Listen to the two of you," Trude went on in a low, furious growl. "The Emperor of one of the greatest nations on Earth and his country's most famous soldier, bickering like children in a darkened room. Pathetic." Folding her arms, she went on, "I came to report that Dr. Miyafuji says General Wilcke is out of danger, but if you would prefer to go on shouting at each other, please feel free."
Friedrich and von Hammer both stared at her in disbelief for a few moments. The Kaiser had only met Barkhorn once, several years before, when he had awarded four of his country's top aces - her, Erica Hartmann, Waltrud Krupinski, and Johanna Wiesse - their Knight's Crosses of the Iron Cross for reaching a hundred Neuroi kills apiece. He knew well her reputation, however, as a disciplined, squared-away Karlslandic officer - a soldier's soldier.
For the likes of Gertrud Barkhorn to speak so harshly to him - in effect openly committing lèse majesté - had a different complexion than when Hannelore, who had known him so long and so well, did, and it utterly defused him. His flush fading, he gave her a very correct little Prussian bow and said,
"Well spoken, Major; thank you. We -" He stopped himself; this was not an occasion for the royal plural. "I am very relieved to hear your news."
"As am I," said von Hammer, inclining her head.
With that, Trude seemed to realize what she'd just done; her own face went red in almost exactly inverse proportion to the Kaiser's returning to normal. She started to stammer out an apology of some kind, belatedly horrified at her own conduct, but the Kaiser waved a dismissive hand.
"Forget it, Major. You're quite right. As a guest in your squadron's home and the source of most of your present worries, I should know better. Please forgive my boorish behavior." With a wry, self-deprecating smile, he added, "Now you know the secret of life first-hand: even a king is only flesh and blood."
Reassured, Trude returned the smile (a little hesitantly) and bowed in return. She seemed to be searching for something else to say, so Hannelore did her the favor of supplying a prompt:
"Did Dr. Miyafuji say when Minna is likely to regain consciousness?"
Trude didn't tell her that, when she'd seen her in the residence wing corridor just now, Yoshika had said very little. The news she had just relayed had technically come from Lynette Bishop, who had been the only one of the two still awake enough to say anything germane to the issue. (Yoshika's only intelligible remark had pertained only to the softness and warmth of her current situation.) Instead, she said that the medical staff didn't really know, but didn't expect any change in her condition for at least 12 hours - possibly as many as 36.
"And we won't know the extent of the magical damage until then, presumably?" von Hammer asked.
"Correct," Trude confirmed, nodding. "Yoshika doesn't think she'll have lost her powers entirely, but at her age..." She trailed off, shrugging. If anyone knew the uncertainty that stalked witches over the age of 20, it would be Hannelore von Hammer, who had somehow defied the "witch's fate" of progressive powerlessness for an all-but-unprecedented two and a half decades at this point.
"Well, we must have hope," said Friedrich pragmatically. "Thank you again, Major, for the information..." That wry smile flashed on again. "... and your wisdom." Another little bow. "Good night."
Trude recognized a royal dismissal when she received it, even under these very peculiar circumstances. Saluting, she said, "Good night, Your Majesty, Rittmeister von Hammer," about-faced, and went down the stairs.
The Kaiser and von Hammer stood looking at the empty landing for a moment, then turned to each other.
"Fritzchen -" said von Hammer.
"Hannelore -" said the Kaiser, and then he went on, "I'm sorry. You're quite right; I'm an ass."
"Maybe," von Hammer allowed, looking contrite. "But I needn't have put it so harshly."
"I'm not so sure. You know it often takes a hammer to get anything into my thick skull," said Friedrich wryly. "At any rate, you're certainly right about one thing. I must find some way to make amends for the harm I've caused here." Starting for the stairs himself, he switched back into his "official" persona, saying more briskly, "Postpone the rest of the tour and the meetings in Paris. We shall remain here until General Wilcke awakens."
"As you wish, Your Majesty," said Hannelore, her own professional veneer slipping back into place.
After sleeping for most of the flight back to the château and taking a long, luxurious shower upon his return, Gryphon was feeling refreshed enough that he decided not to crash right away, though the hour was late. Running into Lynne and Yoshika in the hallway on his way back from said shower, and learning from them (or, well, from Lynne, anyway) that Minna was out of danger had lifted his spirits considerably as well.
He was standing in front of the mostly-empty bookcase he'd scrounged up, thinking that he was going to have to figure out some way of securing a supply of the local currency soon, when there was a soft knock at his door. Turning toward it, he said, "Come in."
Perrine entered, closing the door quietly behind her. She was dressed for retiring, an elegant Fusō-style yukata belted on over her nightdress like a dressing gown, and had a deeply pensive sort of look on her face. Without comment, Gryphon slid the book he'd been about to take down back into its place on the shelf and turned fully to face her.
"Evening, Perrine," he said, then went on with a wry little smile, "Helluva day, huh? Oh 'ello," he added, mildly surprised, as without a word she crossed the room and hugged him. Puzzled, he returned the embrace. His puzzlement only deepened a few moments later, as he realized that she was - in a very quiet, understated, aristocratic sort of way - crying.
"What's wrong?" he asked, and thereby were the floodgates opened.
In retrospect, Gryphon realized in moments that he should have known perfectly well what was wrong. Fatigue and his long absence had dulled his instincts a bit, or he would have realized immediately that Perrine was suffering from the death of a dream. For as long as he had known her, she had not-so-secretly carried a torch for Mio Sakamoto. Over the years, the character of her attachment had changed, ripening from hero-worshipping infatuation to a more mature and considered affection, but it had never diminished - quite the opposite, since as its holder grew and changed it became more real.
What it wasn't, unfortunately, was requited; though Mio was clearly fond of her Gallian colleague, considering her both a valued comrade and a true and treasured friend, that was as far as it went. Perrine had (she explained fitfully over the course of the next hour or so) long since made her peace with that, or so she'd believed. She could, after all, never in good conscience consider Commander Minna a rival, and it had been evident for the better part of a year that there was something there, just waiting for its proprietors to get around to acknowledging it.
But since they hadn't, well, Perrine had - consciously or not - never quite been required to close that mental door all the way; and now, having witnessed Mio's reaction to Minna's injury and its aftermath, she had suddenly and painfully discovered that she hadn't, and it was letting in a draft.
(That was a slightly tortured metaphor, but Gryphon had to admire its evocativeness. Like all Gallians, he supposed, Perrine was a bit of a poet without being entirely aware of it.)
She wasn't looking for advice, she made that abundantly clear from the start. She required nothing from him but a sympathetic ear, and so that was all she received. He spoke virtually not at all for the full length of her - well, he supposed it was not a confession so much as a realization, a process thought through out loud, its conclusion reached as she was speaking it.
At length, having pursued the matter as far as it would run, Perrine talked herself out and drifted off to a restless sleep. With a sad little smile - been there, kiddo, it ain't a happy place - Gryphon gently removed her glasses, folded them up, and placed them on the bedside stand, then shut out all the lights but the little one on his desk, took down the book he'd been about to select when she arrived, and sat down to read.
The section of the Luftwaffe's biggest foreign base which was home to Jagdgeschwader 11 normally had no need for the section of its barracks that had been equipped as a brig. There was no such thing as a Neuroi POW, after all, and Colonel Antonina Hackl considered herself fortunate that the witches and support staff under her command were generally well-behaved.
Today, however, the largest holding cell was occupied to capacity, and JG 11's commander had a few questions for her "guests". Unlocking the heavy steel door, she stepped inside to face the four men who were confined there.
"Gentlemen. According to your files, you're supposedly attached to Gruppe V of KG 200 to work on 'special counter-Neuroi tactics'." Antonina gave a thin smile. "There are two things about that I'm very interested in. One, I was under the impression that KG 200 had only two Gruppen, and two, I'm at a loss to see how dressing up a radio-controlled airship as a Neuroi is supposed to constitute 'counter-Neuroi' tactics."
The aircraft's commander, a wiry, ginger-haired young man with the collar tabs of a captain, replied stiffly, "Our precise mission is classified above your level, Oberst Hackl, and I'm afraid you have no need-to-know. You'll learn nothing from us."
Hackl responded with a mockingly polite smile. "Oh really? I've learned quite a bit already from the aircraft you were kind enough to bring me..."
While Sanya and the rest of the 501st dealt with the pair of Neuroi (and the unexpected appearance of the so called Raketenkorps), Heidemarie Schnaufer had focused her magical senses on tracing the source of the Knickebein transmissions she'd detected just before everything had broken loose. Carefully climbing up through the Gallian skies, she adjusted her course to bring her towards the origin point of the transmissions at an oblique angle, so as to conceal her approach for as long as possible.
Steeling herself for whatever she might find, she passed through the thickening cloud deck at 15,000 feet. To her deepening confusion, what she found on the other side seemed to be an old Dornier Do 17 light bomber, unmistakable with its distinctive "glass pencil" fuselage. It bore the Karlsland Luftwaffe's insignia, as she might have expected, but was so out of place that it might as well have been painted bright pink.
Stranger yet, the nose of the aircraft, which should have been paneled in windows for the nose gunner/bombardier, was now a bulbous metal arrangement - and it was from that odd configuration that the transmissions she'd found were emanating.
Heidemarie had no idea what this was about, but something strange was indisputably going on, and she was going to find out what. As her magical antenna pulsed red around her head, she tuned herself into the "general" Luftwaffe frequency and began to transmit.
"Unidentified Do 17, you are in violation of restricted airspace," she said, her voice quiet but clear and carefully enunciated. "This area has been secured for the passage of a VIP transport. You will descend to 10,000 feet and cease your transmissions."
If an aircraft could have appeared surprised, the Dornier would have managed it. As the bomber entered a turn in an attempt to find who was contacting them, a young man's voice, sounding more than a little panicked, came back to her on the same frequency.
"This is A3-4303! We are attached to KG 200 for a special testing operation in this area. We have orders to remain on station here!"
Heidemarie's face fell into a scowl, and her normally soft voice gained a bit of steel. "A3-4303, I say again that you are in restricted airspace. You will descend and cease transmissions, or I will consider you a hostile craft and take appropriate action."
"You - you wouldn't dare!"
Rather than reply verbally, Heidemarie maneuvered so that she was in plain view of the rogue bomber's cockpit crew, then ostentatiously racked the priming handle of her MG 151/20 cannon. Leveling the weapon, she carefully fired a three-round burst across the Dornier's bow.
"You're crazy!!" the bomber's copilot - she could see him clearly - cried. "What are you doing?!"
Heidemarie's voice snapped like a whipcrack now, completely devoid of any of her normal diffidence, as she amplified the power of her antenna and sent her voice pounding through the bomber crew's headsets.
"You will descend and set course for Juvincourt immediately, or my next burst goes through your cockpit."
For a long second, the two held in an aerial standoff, but just before her finger tightened on the trigger, the Do 17 ceased transmitting guidance signals and began to turn towards the southeast.
"Thank you," said Heidemarie with icy formality. "Remain on course and do not change speed or altitude once you reach angels 10; I will escort you to Juvincourt. Any deviation would be... ill-considered."
"Thanks to the diligence of our technicians," Hackl said to the captured bomber's crew, "we know that A3-4303 was equipped with two sets of modified, short-range guidance transmitters operating on the old Knickebein principle. One of them was obviously guiding the false Neuroi that appeared to be menacing the Kaiser's personal transport. But what, exactly, was the second for?"
The aircraft's commander stood with his arms crossed, his face closing into a silent, stony mask. Behind him, none of his crew dared to speak.
Antonina shrugged. "Well. I'm fairly sure we know - the circumstantial evidence is quite convincing. Still, an explicit confession would look better in my report."
"We are soldiers of the Reich, just as you are, Colonel," the aircraft commander replied. "We will not reveal classified information to any person not authorized to receive it."
"Mm, of course," said Hackl as though reminded. "You said earlier that your mission was classified 'above my level', yes? Let's start there, then. On whose level is it classified? To what higher authority do you report?" The affected sweetness in JG 11's commander's face and voice disappeared as, leaning forward to glower into the man's face, she added, "Keep in mind that, under that authority, you caused a Neuroi attack on your monarch."
The man broke a sweat at that, but she had to give him credit - he didn't flinch, look away, or say a word. She supposed that meant he was more afraid of whomever issued his orders than of the wrath of the Kaiser himself. That was, in itself, an interesting and potentially useful piece of information.
"Hm. Well, fine," she said after giving him a few moments to speak. "I can see I'll get nowhere with you." Turning away, she went to the door and opened it - but not to leave; instead, she stood aside to allow another person to enter. This was a second witch, silver-haired but younger than Hackl, wearing the all-black uniform of a Luftwaffe Nachthexe: distinctive red-trimmed tunic, leather gloves, and thigh-high stockings under shiny cavalry boots. The overhead lights glinted from her spectacles, momentarily obscuring her scarlet eyes.
"Let me introduce you gentlemen to the witch who captured you," said Hackl, adding ironically. "You might not have recognized her in daylight. This is Major Heidemarie W. Schnaufer of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing. It was her CO your idiotic scheme nearly killed today... so if it wasn't in fact your idiotic scheme, I'd say you have a vested interest in making sure she knows whose it was."
And with that, and not a word to Heidemarie herself, JG 11's commander left the room, closing and audibly locking the door behind her.
For several seconds, the crew of A3-4303 and the silver-haired Night Witch stood regarding each other in expressionless silence.
"Wait," said the Do 17's copilot. "Schnaufer? The Phantom of St. Trond?"
"The Vampire!" gasped the radio operator, shrinking back slightly.
"Don't be an idiot, Achterberg," the commander snapped. "There's no such thing as vampires."
For just an instant, the four men could have sworn they saw Heidemarie Schnaufer smile, ever so slightly... and then the lights went suddenly out, eliciting a sharp cry of dismay from the already-panicky radioman.
For several seconds, the only sound in the room was the men's fearful breathing, and there was nothing to be seen at all... until the bomber's crew realized that they could still see the Phantom's eyes, glowing an eerie crimson.
"How certain are you of that?" Heidemarie asked softly.
Gryphon stood at the window, looking out upon the moonlit hills of Alsace, when a pair of arms suddenly encircled him from behind and a chin rested on his shoulder. Though he had heard nothing of their owner's approach - which was odd - he didn't start or react defensively. His zanshin hadn't warned him of anything, and it seemed unlikely that anyone in a position to elude it deliberately would have chosen that as an opening move, so he'd already concluded that whoever it was had legitimate business doing it.
He was, however, not expecting the voice that spoke quietly in his ear a moment later:
"I gotta admit, this is not what I picked in the Where's Gryph pool."
Gryphon turned, the arms loosening just enough to give him the leeway to do it, and his surprised blue eyes met a large and mischievously twinkling pair that looked black in the dim moonlight, but which, he knew, were really a deep blood red. The reason he hadn't heard her coming was plain to see as well: her cowboy-booted feet weren't touching the floor.
"Marcy?" he said, his voice low.
"Guilty," Marceline Abadeer replied, giving him a fangy grin.
"How did you find me?"
Marceline gave him a c'mon-yo eyeroll and raised a hand. "Dude. Demon princess here."
"... Point," Gryphon conceded, nodding. "OK, replacement question: What the heck are you doing here?"
The Vampire Queen gave a nonchalant shrug. "Came to see if you were OK," she said. "But," and here she glanced at his bed, where Perrine had worked her way into a more settled sleep over the last hour or so, and then turned back to him with some salacious eyebrow action, "it looks like you've got everything under control here."
"Don't be tacky," Gryphon chided her. "She's a friend in a difficult place. This hasn't been a good day for us here."
Marceline's nod in reply was serious, the mild, knowing smirk erased at once by the tone in his voice. "Sorry," she said. "Anyway, the important thing is, you're OK. What's more, it seems like you wanna be here, so it's all cool." She kissed him on the cheek, then let him go, adding, "Guess I'll head on back."
"Wait," said Gryphon, putting a hand on her arm. "When did you leave from? I can't go back to before you left now."
"Relax, it's only Tuesday," she replied with another grin. "Only the IA team even knows you're gone. So you just kick back here as long as you like, man. We've got everything handled back at the farm." Punching him playfully on the shoulder, she added, "You shoulda thought of the time traveling vacation idea ages ago!"
Gryphon shook his head. "Logistics get too convoluted too quickly."
"Well, yeah, there's that," Marceline conceded. "Anyway, I better get back and let the others know to stand down from DEFCON 2. Korra was afraid you'd wandered into some place called the Forgetful Valley. Have I mentioned that she's a little weird?"
"You may have," Gryphon replied dryly, then became more sincere. "Thanks for checking up. Probably best if you don't mention exactly where I am unless it's an emergency. We don't want to risk trampling this timeline any more than we have to."
"Roger that," she said with a sarcastic little salute. Then, an oh-I-know look on her face, she said, "Hang on a sec, though," and, turning, crouched down as if rummaging in a bag that wasn't there.
A moment later, she straightened up, turned back to face him, and offered him a joyously wagging bundle of brown and white fur.
"It's dangerous to go alone," Marceline told him matter-of-factly. "Take this."
Gryphon eyed her dubiously, then smiled and accepted Wolfgang, Beagle of the Lens. "Thanks," he said dryly.
"Not a problem," she replied, giving him (and thus the dog) another hug. "I might swing back by later, if I can do it without screwing the timetable." With a metaphorical look around at the castle and a cheery wink, she added, "This seems like a pretty happening place," and then, like a shadow sliding across a darkened floor, she was gone.
"Well, welcome to 1946," said Gryphon to the Lenshound.
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied quietly, still wagging.
"Shall we to bed?" Gryphon inquired rhetorically, placing the beagle on the floor. "Be nice, now, and don't give Perrine the feet. You haven't even been properly introduced."
Major General Wilhelm von Reichenberg sat at his desk, glowering at... well, at the world, more or less, but particularly at the file folder that lay open on the blotter. Inside it, a neatly typed requisition form with all the appropriate signatures informed him that all of the equipment, documentation, and development personnel associated with Projekt Salamander had, as of the previous day, been transferred to a different command.
This was news to von Reichenberg, particularly since Projekt Salamander was supposed to be under his personal direction, and one of the signatures on the transfer form was his very own. It looked authentic, too; if it was a forgery, it was the best he thought he had ever seen.
"What the devil is this?" he demanded of the man standing opposite his desk. "Not only do those cursèd witches come here and steal my prototype, they have the audacity - the barefaced cheek! - to send me a memo from myself claiming it was all legitimate?!" He slammed a hand down on the form. "404th Test Squadron. I've never even heard of such a unit."
"General, with all due respect, we have bigger problems than the theft of a technological dead end," said the other - a younger man, blond, rugged and scarfaced, dressed in the uniform of a captain of paratroopers. "Operation Grass-Snake was not just a failure but a fiasco. Kammerer and his crew were captured; it's only a matter of time before the witches put the picture together. We need to fall back and regroup."
"Bah," von Reichenberg spat. "I've put too much work into this facility to abandon it now. Besides, Kammerer and his men will die before they betray me."
"How certain are you of that?" asked a quiet but intent voice from the doorway. The general bolted up from his desk and his subordinate whirled to face the door - to see a handful of Karlsland's most famous witches entering the office. In their lead was Hannelore von Hammer, looking as utterly unamused as she had on that famous Die Luftwaffe cover of years before, and after her...
"Otto Skorzeny," said Trude Barkhorn, her voice dripping disgust. "I might have known you'd be mixed up in this business. It's too unsavory not to have you involved in it, although I have to say, trying to fool people into thinking you can fly a rocket pack is a new low even for you."
Skorzeny's scowl did nothing to improve his appearance. "I have nothing to say to you, witch," he said, and then drew his sidearm. Before he could aim it, Trude released her magic and slapped the Walther from his hand so hard she broke three of his fingers.
Yelling in pain and rage, Skorzeny reached for the dress dagger on the other side of his gunbelt, but the furious witch seized him by the front of his jump smock, turned him around, and flung him against the concrete wall, wrenching his uninjured hand up behind his back as she did so.
"That's fine," she snarled into his ear. "I don't remember asking you anything. I'm not interested in anything a deserter like you has to say."
"Deserter, what are you talking about?" Skorzeny demanded, struggling ineffectually to free himself.
"If you had any integrity, you'd still be wearing the uniform of Ostmark, not Karlsland," said Trude, forcing his arm a little higher.
"Ostmark is dead!" the commando insisted through gritted teeth.
"Only because your kind let it die," Trude spat, then turned and propelled him into the arms of the Feldgendarmerie who had accompanied them. "Get him out of my sight," she told them, and they did as they were told with all due dispatch.
"Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hans-August Freiherr von Reichenberg," said von Hammer, and then, in an icy parody of aristocratic good manners, she went on, "May I introduce my colleagues from the 501st Joint Fighter Wing: Major Gertrud Barkhorn, Major Heidemarie W. Schnaufer, Captain Erica Hartmann." Folding her arms, von Hammer fixed him with a furious stare and went on, "I regret that Brigadier General Wilcke was unable to join us - though you may be pleased to learn that she is expected to survive the injuries she suffered saving the Kaiser from the consequences of your idiotic play-acting yesterday."
Reichenberg drew himself up to his full height - at over six feet tall, he towered over her - and said, "Mind your tongue, woman. You're speaking to a general officer."
Von Hammer's face flickered for just an instant into a cold, ironic smile, which was more frightening than her angry face.
"No," she said, rounding his desk, "I'm not," and before he could speak, she reached out and tore first one, then the other of the rank tabs from the collar of his uniform tunic; then the gold braid from his shoulders; then the Iron Cross First Class from the left breast pocket (taking most of the pocket flap with it). In a final flourish, as he stood there staring at her in blank disbelief, she closed her fist around the blue cross of the Pour le Mérite at his throat, twining its black-and-silver ribbon in her fingers, and then tore it clean off his neck.
"Augh!" Reichenberg cried, recoiling in pain.
"You don't deserve this," von Hammer told him flatly, holding up the medal (undamaged but for its snapped ribbon). Then, tucking it away in one of the pockets of her archaic Luftstreitkräfte tunic, she continued, "It will be given to someone who does."
"You madwoman, you could have broken my neck!" Reichenberg cried, rubbing at the friction burn the ribbon had left on his nape as it parted.
"Consider it practice for the hangman's noose," von Hammer said. "I'm arresting you for abusing your authority, misdirecting the resources of the Luftwaffe in wartime to unapproved and unworkable projects, subverting the chain of command, and plotting and attempting the assassination of His Royal and Imperial Majesty, Kaiser Friedrich IV of Karlsland." Turning away before he could protest further, the senior witch jerked her head toward him in a sign to the military police and said to their commanding sergeant, "Take him away."
As Minna slowly returned to conciousness, her senses began reporting back in to give her a piecemeal explanation of where she was:
Before her mind had really processed that, her fingers began to stroke the short, dense hair that she found beneath her hand. For a moment, she wondered if it might be Lucchini, but the texture was wrong...
With a soft sound of confusion, Minna opened her eyes, not quite feeling up to sitting up yet. All things considered, she was fairly sore and still very tired; but that was far better than she expected, given the last thing she could clearly remember was the sound of her shield giving way against the Neuroi's plasma beam.
The room was dark, but her eyes adjusted enough to make out the shape of a beagle's head just poking out of the covers, his big, dark eyes looking up to her with surprising concern.
"Hello," Minna whispered softly. "Who might you be?"
The beagle's answering wurf wasn't terribly clear on that point, but it apparently did get someone else's attention; a bar of light from the hallway cut across the room as the door opened partway.
Christiane Barkhorn poked her head through the gap, took a look at the doubly-occupied bed, and smiled. "Ah!" She ducked back into the corridor, and Minna could hear her calling in something like a stage-whisper, "Mr. Gryphon! In here!"
A few moments later, both the younger Barkhorn and Gryphon had come to her bedside, the latter wearing a look of fond bemusement. "Well, I guess you two have met, now," he observed.
Minna smiled back. "Yes, but I wouldn't say we've been properly introduced."
Gryphon chuckled. "Brigadier Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke, meet Wolfgang Amadeus Beagle, Hound of the Lens." Moving a chair over to her bedside, he scruffled the dog's head briefly before looking back to her. "How're you feeling? Can we get you anything?"
"Tired," Minna answered honestly, "but I think I'll be all right with a little more rest."
Chris nodded. "Dr. Miyafuji left a note that you should rest and get plenty of fluids when you're ready for them. Could I bring you some water?" She double-checked the chart hanging at the foot of the patient's bed. "Or soup? You're cleared for soup. I think we still have some miso paste, so that would only take a few minutes."
"Some of both would be lovely, thank you."
"OK," said Chris cheerfully. "I'll get your water and then go whip up some soup for you."
Pre-dawn light had begun to creep around the edges of the heavy curtains, and as she sipped her water and waited for the soup, Minna found it easier to make out the rest of the room. To her relief - she had no idea how the rest of the battle with the Neuroi had gone - most of the other beds were empty, but she gave a soft sound of surprise when she recognized Mio sleeping in the one next door.
"She's OK," Gryphon explained quietly, and then went on with a slightly indulgent smile, "She just refuses to leave. Fusō witches, you know," he added, making a little twirling gesture next to his head.
"Oh..." Minna blushed, smiling a little despite herself.
A while later, after breakfast, Gryphon was up on the roof of the control tower, greeting the full arrival of morning with a spot of training.
He'd been at it for about ten minutes, working in silence but for the slap of his bare feet on the slate of the roof and the whisper of his wooden blade cleaving the air, when he turned through a circular counter and saw that Mio had joined him, matching his movements with a bokutō of her own. Without missing a step, he kept right on going, finishing the exercise. She finished it right along with him, after which they adjourned to the parapet, where Mio had left a Thermos jug and a couple of mugs before joining him in practice.
"That's a nice bokutō," Mio remarked, leaning hers next to it. "Too light-colored to be Fusō-issue. Where'd you get it?"
"I made it," Gryphon replied.
"What from?" she wondered, pouring them each a mug of Lynne Bishop's rather excellent tea.
"Piece of one of the crates Ursula's stuff was packed in."
"Ah." They clinked their mugs together and took their first sips, gazing off toward the misty hills of the Schwarzwald.
"Did you see Minna?" Gryphon asked.
"Mm," Mio replied, nodding. "For a few minutes. And Wolfgang! Where'd he come from?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Gryphon deadpanned.
"The Queen of the Vampires - who, by the way, has elected herself my personal love slave, albeit for values of that office that don't seem to include being an actual love slave, annoyingly - dropped him by last night because, and I quote, it's dangerous to go alone," he replied in exactly the same matter-of-fact tone.
"... Right, moving on," said Mio. "She went back to sleep fairly soon after I woke up."
"Well, that's to be expected," Gryphon mused. "Still, she's on the mend. Before you woke up she put away about a quart of soup," he added with a smile. "Won't take her long to get her strength back at that rate."
"Yeah," Mio agreed, a little absently. She drank some more of her tea, then sat looking off into the distance for a while before saying abruptly, "I'm afraid."
Gryphon glanced at her - that was not a sentiment she commonly expressed, even on the rare occasions when she felt it - but said only, "Oh ah?"
"Minna has... well, enemies is probably too strong a word... adversaries in Allied Command," Mio explained. "I'm afraid of what this might have cost her... and how they might use it against her."
"Ah," Gryphon said, nodding. "Well... we'll have to be on our guard. Nobody's going to be able to do anything right away, not while she's under Yoshika's care. After that..." He shrugged. "We'll play it by ear. Besides, we don't know the extent of the damage yet. My grandfather used to say, 'Don't borrow trouble.'" He reflected for a moment, then added with a chuckle, "And so does Eleanor, most likely."
Mio laughed in spite of everything, then drank the last of her tea and put the mug aside. "I can't help it, though. It's in my nature. Minna... she doesn't live for battle like I do, but she loves this outfit, and it's her homeland we're fighting for now. If she has to leave the day-to-day to me, we both could live with that, easily - but if they were to force her out of the war somehow, sideline her altogether when we're on the doorstep of Karlsland itself..." She shook her head, visible eye downcast. "It'd break her heart."
Gryphon silently transferred his mug of tea to his left hand so he could take hers with his right; she looked down at it for a moment, then raised her face and looked him in the eye to add,
"And I think that would break mine."
Gryphon nodded, squeezing her hand gently.
"Well," he said, "then we'll just have to find a way to keep it from happening."
Mio smiled, leaning against his shoulder, and nothing more was said for a while.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2015