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Perrine Clostermann paused outside the wing operations office, her hand not quite touching the knob, and contemplated her immediate future with dread.
Not that she hadn't been looking forward to getting back home. The trip to Neukarlsland had been for a good cause, and she was both pleased and proud to have taken part, but the whole time she and the rest of the Operation Hammer detachment were away, she'd been restless to get back. At the same time, though, as the unintentionally extended mission went on, and especially as the slow days at sea passed, the thought of the absolute heap of backed-up paperwork that surely awaited on her desk gave her deep misgivings about the whole affair.
The afternoon before, when their little convoy of commandeered Reichsmarine trucks had arrived at the castle, she'd been too busy supervising the unloading of all the new supplies and equipment they'd unexpectedly brought back from Brandenburg to concern herself with it. At least, that was the excuse she'd used. By the time everything was squared away in the hangar, it was time for dinner, and the extended operations team debriefing (read: regaling those who had remained behind with tales of their adventures) had lasted well into the evening, so there'd been no time for her to confront the inevitable anyway.
Now, though, she could delay no longer. It was time for the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's executive officer to get back to work.
Sighing deeply, Perrine opened the door, stepped inside, and saw... nothing. Well, nothing apart from the usual things—rug, desk, chair, all the standard office paraphernalia. Her desk blotter, which she'd been picturing buried under mounds of papers needing her urgent attention, was empty, and the in-tray in the corner of the desk contained only a neat stack of documents, perhaps an inch high.
Turning, she leaned partway back out into the corridor and called, "Amélie?"
Amélie Planchard emerged from the comms room, the morning's telexes from SHAEF in hand. "Oui, ma Commandante?"
"Where's all the paperwork?"
The younger witch tilted her head inquisitively. "What paperwork, ma'am?"
"The paperwork that should be on my desk!" Perrine said, gesturing irritably at its absence.
Amélie slipped past her into the doorway and looked. "It's there," she said, indicating the in-tray.
Perrine scowled, fists on hips. "I've been gone for more than two weeks. One shudders to think how much squadron business has built up in that time. So where is everything else?"
"What do you suppose I've been doing all this time?" asked Amélie, sounding faintly offended.
Perrine blinked, looked at the empty desk again, then back at Amélie. After a moment's consideration, she composed herself and bowed.
"It appears I owe you an apology, Adjutant-Chef Planchard," she said formally. "Thank you for looking after the wing's needs so comprehensively in my absence."
The orange-haired witch blushed darker than her hair, unable to maintain her equanimity in the face of such direct praise. "O-oh," she stammered. "It was r-really nothing. I just did what I could to h-help out."
Perrine seated herself at her desk, took the documents from her in-tray, and riffled through them. The usual Monday-morning stuff, nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly no aggrieved notes from Le Tubé wondering why things from the previous weeks had never turned up.
Looking up from the papers, she saw Amélie hesitating in the office doorway and smiled. "Fantastic. I should keep you."
Blushing again, Amélie replied almost inaudibly, "You have only to ask, ma Commandante."
The two witches regarded each other for a few silent seconds, a slow blush working its way up Perrine's face as well as suspicions of the last few seconds' subtext belatedly penetrated her brain.
"Ah—" she said, and then was saved by the sound of approaching propellers.
Shaking herself out of her trance, Amélie went to the open window, picked up the binoculars from the shelf next to it, and trained them on the distance beyond. "Two inbound," she reported. "A Striker and a... seaplane? I don't recognize the type, but it has Fusō markings."
"Ah, those must be the last of our prodigals," said Perrine, rising with a smile. "Let's go and greet them." Then, pausing in the doorway, she looked back and added seriously, "We'll continue the other matter later, all right?"
Amélie looked surprised, a touch of her blush returning, then nodded vigorously. "Oui, ma Commandante!"
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2022 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
By the time the two Gallians reached the hangar, a small crowd had formed, as most of the 501st's witches who weren't out on patrol or asleep turned out to welcome the returning personnel home.
Gryphon was standing on the wing of the Zuiun, having evidently just emerged from the front cockpit, while the witches and a few members of the ground crew gathered around to greet him, take the two heavy-looking bags he pulled out of the observer's seat, and, once he'd climbed the rest of the way down, help push the seaplane into its parking space. Shizuka Hattori hovered nearby, waiting for a path to open up so she could enter the hangar and dock her Striker Unit.
"Hey, kiddo, look at you, willya?" said Shirley Yeager, noting Shizuka's white officer's jacket.
"Lieutenant Hattori, well well!" Erica Hartmann agreed, grinning. "Somebody must have put in a word for you after Freiburg, huh? Well, congratulations! You earned it."
"Thanks," said Shizuka, smiling a little awkwardly.
"Is that one of the new Navy Strikers?" Shirley went on. "Mio got one in the shipment of stuff we brought back from Neukarlsland, but I haven't had a chance to check it out yet. It sounded pretty sweet when she took it out on patrol, though."
Shizuka nodded. "It is," she said. "I checked out on it while we were in Britannia, and Admiral Sugita assigned this one to me after the, uh... incident on Friday." She smiled a little ruefully. "Right before he kicked us out of Folkestone."
"I'm guessing there's a story there," said Erica.
"OK, so, I have to know," Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak was saying to Gryphon, a few yards away, at the same time. Indicating the small, neatly-dressed blonde figure perched on one of his A2 jacket's epaulets, she asked, "What's with the doll?"
"This isn't a doll, she's a friend!" said Gryphon, grinning. "Well, I guess technically she's a doll and a friend. But anyway. Eila, meet Shanghai!"
"Shanghaiii!" the doll declared in a high, piping voice, offering the Suomi witch a tiny salute.
"... Uh... hi?" Eila replied, returning it hesitantly.
"She's a magical construct," Gryphon explained to Eila's look of continued bemusement. "You'll meet the witch who made her in a while, they had some business to attend to in Juvincourt first. In the meantime, Shanghai came with me to scout ahead."
"OK, first the bear girl, then the vampire, now this," said Eila. "Sure!" She shook her head with a wry smile. "Man, this war has gotten weird since you showed up."
"I dispute your imputation of a causal link," Gryphon said, then added with a wry grin, "Besides, you ain't seen nothin' yet."
"Oh? I'm not even sure I want to know. Anyway, welcome back. You haven't missed much, it's been pretty quiet." Blinking in belated dismay, she looked around for some wood to touch, but there was none within range, so she knocked on her head instead. "I hope I didn't just jinx us."
Gryphon chuckled. "You, of all people," he said, leaving the rest of the remark unspoken as he picked up the bags and carried them into FUEL STORAGE. "Good morning, Captain Hartmann."
"Good morning, Captain Hutchins," Ursula replied, smiling.
"Eila tells me not much has been going on while I was out," he said, hoisting one of the bags onto his workbench and unfastening it to reveal the He 162.
"Nothing in particular, operationally," Ursula confirmed. "I'm surprised you're back so soon. It seemed like your project still had quite some way to go."
"It does, but Admiral Sugita's superiors decided that they'd rather it went the rest of that way without me." Gryphon settled the jetpack on its stand and fastened the safety strap, then opened up the side panels. "Which, well, if that's the way they want to play it. I'll just have to support Nishimura as much as I can on the sly."
"Hmph. Typical," said Ursula, folding her arms.
Gryphon grunted a wordless agreement, bending to peer into the open panels at the jetpack's inner workings with a loupe. "Hmm... everything looks good in here," he said after a minute or so, straightening. "As expected, I've only put a few hours on it since I swapped in the number-two turbine after Freiburg. Still, I guess after lunch I'll get started overhauling number one." He picked up his other, smaller bag, shouldering it, and went on, "For now, I might as well head up to Ops and sign in, then put my stuff away."
Ursula went with him as he went upstairs to the operations room, where he moved his token on the status board from AWAY to ON STATION and learned from Amélie that there were no messages for him. Then, on the way down the hall to the living quarters, he asked,
"How's your colleague from Brandenburg settling in?"
"I haven't seen much of him since we got in," Ursula admitted. "I do hope he and Group Captain Whittle are getting on all right."
By an odd coincidence, the very next people Gryphon and Ursula saw were none other than Group Captain Frances Whittle and her Karlslandic opposite number, Professor Hans von Ohain. They were in the dining room, standing together by one side of the long table, on which a jumble of engineering drawing lay unrolled or partly so, held down with a scattering of heavy-bottomed whiskey tumblers from the nearby liquor cabinet.
"... and no sooner was I on my feet," the Britannian engineer was saying as Gryphon and Ursula came within earshot, "gathering up my 'chute, than there stood Flight Leftenant Raeburn, red-faced and screaming at me, 'Whittle, why don't you just take all my bloody aircraft, make a heap of them in the middle of the aerodrome, and set fire to them?! It's quicker!'"
Von Ohain roared with laughter, banging a hand on the table, at Whittle's arm-waving impression of her furious superior officer.
"Oh, she was cross," Whittle went on. Folding her arms with a sad shake of the head, she added thoughtfully, "We never really got on after that..."
"I can't imagine why not," von Ohain remarked, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.
"Anyway," said Whittle offhandedly, "that's how I got sacked from the stunt squad. In retrospect, I'm lucky they didn't throw me clean out of the RAF. I'm sure anyone who pranged as many kites nowadays as I did back in the '30s would be shown the door forthwith." She sighed wistfully. "It was a simpler time."
In the corridor, Ursula and Gryphon glanced at each other, shrugged, and continued on their way.
"I guess I needn't have worried," Ursula remarked.
"I guess not," Gryphon agreed.
When he reached his bedroom, Gryphon was pleased to see that the window, which was broken shortly before his departure for Britannia, had been repaired in his absence. In fact, whoever had done the work had done better than simply repairing it; they'd rebuilt the damaged wall section not with replacements for the original set of windows, but with a Gallian door opening onto a small balcony, carefully blended into the castle's original brickwork.
"Nice," he said, tossing his duffel bag onto his (also newly replaced) bed.
"It was Sgt. Katajainen's idea," Ursula told him. "She felt so bad about causing the damage in the first place that she was determined to leave you better off than you were before the... incident."
"Hm. Well, I'll have to thank her for it when I see her. I do like a balcony. And it'll be convenient," he added with a grin as he opened the bag and started unpacking.
"Hm? Ah, of course," said Ursula, taking his meaning. "For the next time your vampire lady friend visits."
"Something like that," said Gryphon, his smile becoming slightly cryptic, and though she arched an eyebrow at him, he would not be drawn.
Late morning, and Gryphon was back in FUEL STORAGE, overhauling the He 162's number-one turbine, as he'd been planning to do since the very long and taxing sortie over Freiburg. Over in the corner, Wolfgang was curled up in a nest of blankets on top of a crate, dozing contentedly while Shanghai, evidently fascinated, brushed him.
Gryphon hadn't seen everybody yet—a few of the witches were still out on morning patrol, and he hadn't come across all of those who were off-duty, but he was already starting to feel himself fitting back into the fabric of life in the castle. As he worked, he reflected that, for all his supposed adaptability, he really was a creature of habit. Wherever he went, however his circumstances changed, his life always seemed to find a rhythm. What he was good at wasn't so much taking changes as they came as finding, and if necessary switching between, those rhythms, as for instance when he went from life at Saint-Ulrich to the very different pattern of things at Scarlet Devil Mansion.
Truth be told, he'd lately come to feel rather guilty about the double life he'd been leading these last few months. Not that he had anything to reproach himself for as far as the content of either life went—neither his work with the witches of Saint-Ulrich nor his unexpected discovery of a home and family chez Scarlet had anything sordid about it—but it had occurred to him eventually that, thanks to the parallel timelining involved, he was getting a lot more rest than any of his comrades at the castle could ever have hoped for. Apart from the occasional one- or two-day pass for R&R in Paris or London, they'd been front and center on the battle line in the northeast since the Neuroi's Ardennes offensive, and that was more than a year ago now.
Gryphon had briefly entertained the notion of suggesting to Remilia that they offer the witches the use of the mansion and its time pocket as a sort of rest home, rotating through in small groups for a month at a time. After some consideration, though, he'd discarded the idea as impractical. It wouldn't have been fair to confine such a service solely to the 501st, and beyond that, the scale of the endeavor would rapidly become unmanageable. Besides, he was probably running enough temporal risks as it was.
None of which helped assuage his guilt about all that parallel downtime, but so far he hadn't thought of an alternative—short of ceasing to loop, only seeing Remilia on one night a month, and having to be sure to leave before sunrise, a solution up with which he was fairly sure she would not put. His only reasonable hope of normalizing the situation, as far as he could see, would be to find a way to resync the house. He'd still be spending less time at home, but things would be a lot less... weird.
After mulling the matter over for a while, he at last concluded that it was a complication for another day. Right now, he had pleasant, meditative work to do, and shortly, the prospect of the first proper lunchtime gathering with the wing in a while. He was looking forward to catching up with everyone, finding out what they'd been up to while he was away, and learning more details about how the mission to Neukarlsland had gone.
The day was sunny and warm, and both the hangar doors and that of FUEL STORAGE were open, as they usually were in such weather, to let in the fresh air and sunshine. Presently, Gryphon heard the sound of an approaching aircraft. Glancing up from his work, he smiled, thinking he knew who it would be, but as the sound drew nearer, the smile faded. Upon closer hearing, the inbound aircraft wasn't the C.445 transport that Reimu and her party had borrowed from the Gallian Air Force for the general's stay in Europe. Whatever was coming in was single-engined, and from the sound of it, powered by a big radial—which probably meant it was Liberion.
He went to the doorway, his curiosity piqued, and a few moments saw that his surmise was correct. The aircraft that had just landed and was now taxiing up to the apron outside the hangar doors was an AT-6 Texan trainer sporting the insignia of the Liberion Eighth Army Air Force. Although the AT-6, being a trainer, was a two-seater, it had only one person aboard, who opened the canopy and climbed out as the 501st's ground crewmen automatically chocked the Texan's wheels and set about tying it down.
Standing on the wing, the pilot took off his flying helmet and gloves and dropped them into the cockpit, then turned around, and Gryphon was mildly startled to recognize him.
He considered ducking back into FUEL STORAGE and closing the door, but immediately rejected the idea as both cowardly and ridiculous. Now that he'd done overt (if classified) work for the IFN, he knew his name was making the rounds at fairly high levels of the Allied Forces. The time for trying to conceal his involvement in the war was over now. Instead, he folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, awaiting whatever was going to happen next.
What happened next was that Major General Curtis E. LeMay of the Liberion Eighth Army Air Force climbed down from his AT-6's wing and crossed the hangar, sparing only a passing look for the man standing in the doorway of FUEL STORAGE. If LeMay recognized him, he gave no sign; just glanced at him, without slackening his pace, and then went through the door leading to the First Joint Special Air Fleet's operations offices.
Gryphon stood looking thoughtfully at the door the general had gone through for a moment, then shrugged and went back to work.
"General LeMay is here to see you."
Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke gave her telephone a puzzled glance, then replied, "And he bothered to present himself to my chief of staff first?"
«I know, I wouldn't have expected it either,» Hannelore von Hammer replied in Karlslandic, and then, in English, "He's just arrived back in Gallia and wishes to speak with you urgently."
"Well, if he's being that polite about it, by all means, send him in," said Minna, and a moment later, LeMay entered her office.
Every other time Minna had ever seen Curtis LeMay in person, he'd been annoyed about something, blustering, posturing, throwing his weight around. Even at Paris-Orly, when he had shown her and a few of her officers the XB-36 prototype, he'd been aggressive about it, as if he felt he had to prove that he was the one in charge of the situation.
Minna didn't know him well, but she'd formed the suspicion that he was a fundamentally insecure person, possibly uncomfortable with the rapidity of his rise through the Liberion AAF's ranks in wartime, and with the fact that as a male aviation officer, he wasn't making the direct contribution to the war against the Neuroi that he would presumably be making in a more conventional conflict. This manifested itself as an exaggeratedly bellicose attitude, toward his allies as much as the enemy.
She wasn't entirely unsympathetic to this feeling, and she had to admit that he handled it better than the likes of Wilhelm Reichenberg—she had never known LeMay to deny the essential nature of witches to this war, for instance—but that didn't mean she had to like the man.
Today, though, he was carrying himself differently. They were of equivalent rank, he a Liberion major general, she a Generalleutnant of the Karlsland Luftwaffe. Under the ordinary rules of military courtesy, since LeMay had held that rank longer than Minna, she should have saluted him first. Under the complicated multinational structure of the Grand Alliance, though, officers couldn't be expected to know their relative seniority as a matter of course; so Allied etiquette stipulated that, when an officer visited the headquarters of a peer from another nation's service, the visitor should be the one to offer the first salute, regardless.
LeMay had never done so on any of his previous visits to the castle, but he did now, and quite respectably too. Minna returned it with Karlslandic precision, then invited him to take a seat and returned to her own.
"What brings you to Château Saint-Ulrich today, General LeMay?" she inquired, although she was reasonably sure she knew. A moment later, she had her confirmation, as LeMay replied,
"You're a busy woman, General Wilcke, so I'll cut straight to the chase. I know it was your people who hijacked the XB-36, and I know why they did it. If you're curious, I'll admit I didn't get a word out of Blazkowicz or Ridley about it, nor either Sgt. Smith. But Lt. Hembery was very interested in not suddenly becoming Private Hembery, and he told me the whole thing."
Minna said nothing, only raising an eyebrow, as if to ask silently, What, then, do you intend to do about it?
LeMay seemed to be expecting that reaction, and, oddly, to find it slightly pleasing. He even smiled a little as he sat back, making himself more comfortable in the chair, and went on,
"I'm also aware that most of them are out of reach of any repercussions. I obviously can't touch von Hammer, or von Preußen, or whatever she's going to call herself now that she's married to the Kaiser. Or Hartmann or Schnaufer, for that matter—I'm sure Fritz would have their backs too. The Emperor of Fusō will do likewise for Miyafuji and the Romagnan, Lucchini, who he seems to have taken a liking to for some reason. De Gaulle would go ballistic at the mere suggestion of a Liberion general trying to discipline Clostermann. And of course I can't prove that you and Sakamoto set the whole thing up, though I know you did."
LeMay got out a cigar, a reflexive action, but seeing Minna's sharp glance in its direction, he put it away again. Without it, he seemed slightly at a loss for what to do with his hands, but settled for giving her a two-fingered point as if he were still holding it as he continued,
"The only one of them I could possibly bring up on charges would be Yeager, and singling her out would seem petty. So I guess they're going to get away with it. Anyway, it was a decent long-range test flight, and the bomber is back in Cowtown for overhaul, just a little ahead of schedule. All in all, no great harm done."
Before Minna could reply, LeMay leaned forward, elbows on knees, and looked her straight in the eye. "Except for one thing. This is a war, and you and your women are critical strategic assets. I understand that. In fact, not to blow my own horn, but I think you'll find that I understand it better than more than a few of my colleagues at Eighth AF, or SHAEF, or even back at the Heptagon. I've learned from my prior experiences with the 501st that you witches operate best when you're given latitude to do things your own way. But that doesn't mean that you can just do whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want to!"
Warming to his topic now, he rose, pacing the rug in front of her desk, and continued, "Your officers' little stunt completely derailed a carefully planned flight testing program for an aircraft that could prove to be of great value not just to the war effort, but to you, directly. Now the next phase of testing will either have to be carried out in Texas, or the aircraft will have to be brought back to Gallia, at great expense, and with even more disruption to the timetable than we're already faced with. There might well come a time, not too long from now, when your girls could really use an assist from the Peacemaker, and it won't be ready. That's on your witches, and since you're their CO, that means it's on you. I came here today to make sure you understand that."
Minna hesitated. What could she say to that? In the end, she had to admit that he was right. She had authorized the irregular usage—why mince words, the outright theft—of an experimental aircraft that didn't belong to any unit remotely associated with her chain of command, an offense uncomfortably similar to, but in some ways worse than, one for which she had personally chewed out LeMay not that long ago. Laid bare like that, the facts clearly showed her hypocrisy. For most of her career, she'd fought against the idea that there was one law for men in uniform and another for witches, only to turn around and conduct herself in exactly the same way.
Finally, she said with a sigh, "Of course you're correct, General. It was precipitate and highly irregular. I can only say in my defense that we were under extreme time pressure, and at the time, there seemed to be no better option."
"I'm not asking for your defense," said LeMay, more gruffly than he really intended to. "I'm just trying to get everything on the table. You could have told me what was going on. Explained the situation, made me aware of the timetable. But you didn't. You went behind my back. I'd say I'd like to know why, but I'm pretty sure I already do."
"I..." Minna began, but trailed off. Was she really about to tell a fellow general officer, baldly, to his face, that she hadn't trusted him to understand the urgency of the matter?
She didn't have to; he did it for her. Returning to his seat, he leaned forward again and said, "Look, I know what they think of me on the line. I've heard all the nicknames they think I don't know they call me. Curt the Butcher. All-the-Way LeMay. Old Iron Ass. You assumed that if you called me up and told me von Hammer and Lucchini both needed to get to Brandenburg RFN and the XB-36 was their ticket, I'd have told you to pound sand."
Minna considered a number of replies to that remark, but the one that came out of her mouth was, "Wouldn't you?"
"Depends on how you did it," LeMay replied frankly. "If you had phrased it as a demand, then yeah, I probably would have. But if you had asked me, as one Allied officer to another, to work with you and make it happen?" Suddenly looking very weary, he got up again, pulling a hand down his face with a tired sigh. "I guess we'll never know. Anyway, the testing program we had lined up for later this month is off. The prototype will be stateside for at least another four weeks. We don't know yet whether we'll bring it back over for witch testing, or do it at Convair. I'll let you know what Hap decides. That's all."
Straightening, he offered the first salute again. Minna rose to her feet and returned it. LeMay held his eyes on hers for a long moment, then lowered his hand smartly to his side, about-faced, and left the office.
Minna sat down, her face falling into a deep frown as she considered what had just passed between them. Then, sighing, she got a sheet of letterhead out of her desk, uncapped her inkwell, dipped her quill, and began to write.
Gryphon was still at work in FUEL STORAGE, with Shanghai now hovering nearby and passing him tools, when he heard the scrape of shoes on the floor. Looking up, he saw LeMay standing in the doorway, looking at him with a hard-to-read expression.
"So you're the rocket man," said the general at length, his tone almost conversational. "Von Katädien. And that must be your rocket—although from the looks of it, I'd guess it's really a jet."
Gryphon smiled slightly. "That's right," he said.
"You don't sound like a Kra—a Karlslander."
"I'm not. I'm from Dawnland, more or less. It's a long story. My name's Benjamin Hutchins—the witches call me Gryphon. This is Shanghai," he went on, indicating his helper, "and Wolfgang," nodding to the hound (who was sitting up in his blanket nest and eyeing the general suspiciously).
LeMay nodded, first to the doll, then to the dog, without a trace of irony or even evident bemusement. "Hello." Then, turning his attention back to Gryphon, he looked more closely at him and said, "You look familiar. Have we met before?"
"Sort of," Gryphon replied. "On one of your previous visits, I was sweeping up out in the hangar and you yelled at me to get out of your way."
LeMay gave him a puzzled look, then uttered a tired laugh. "It figures. I was here looking for unauthorized personnel, and when I looked right at one, I didn't spot him." He shrugged. "Suppose it doesn't matter now. I hear you're doing good work."
"I do what I can," Gryphon replied.
LeMay's only response to that was an ambivalent grunt. He looked around the workshop for a few moments, as if at a loss, then said, "Well, it's none of my business. I'd better get back to Colleville before they send somebody to get their Texan back." He glanced around FUEL STORAGE again, then said with faint irony, "Carry on," turned, and headed off toward his parked AT-6.
"That was... odd," Gryphon remarked to Shanghai, who shrugged.
The next general to arrive was expected, unlike LeMay, and the full complement of the First Joint Special Air Fleet (less the witches who were out on standard patrol) mustered on the apron as her transport arrived.
Reimu Hakurei was slightly bemused to find them all waiting for her as she stepped down from the aircraft, and slightly more to hear the anthem of the Imperial Fusōnese Army playing somewhere in the background. This was partly because there were no IFA witches in the European theater, so she wouldn't have expected a band in Gallia to know the tune, and partly because there was no band in evidence anyway. It wasn't until she spotted the gramophone, sitting on a work table near the hangar doors, that she realized what was going on.
Neighborly of them to make the effort, she thought, suppressing a little smile. That can't have been an easy recording to find around here.
Three of the witches at the front of the formation broke away and came out to greet her. "General Hakurei," said the redheaded Karlslander in the lead, saluting briskly. "Major General Minna-Dietlinde Wilcke, First JSAF. May I introduce my chief of staff, Rittmeister Hannelore von Hammer, and the commanding officer of the 501st Joint Fighter Wing, Colonel Mio Sakamoto. Welcome to Château Saint-Ulrich."
Although Reimu knew perfectly well who Minna was, and had met both Sakamoto and von Hammer already, she gave no sign of it as she returned the salute and replied crisply,
"Thank you, General. It's a pleasure to be here." She took an object from under her arm and offered it to Minna, adding, "With the compliments of His Majesty the Emperor."
Minna took the item and, unfurling it, found it to be an elaborately calligraphed and sealed scroll—more a diplomatic than a military document, to her European eye, and entirely incomprehensible, since she couldn't read a word of Fusōnese. That didn't seem to faze her. Making a mental note to ask Mio to translate it later, she rolled it back up and tucked it under her own arm with a gracious nod.
"Let me introduce my companions," said Reimu, adding with a gesture to the blue-and-white blonde to her left, "Squadron Leader Alice Murgatroyd, RAF..."
"Retired," Alice put in with a slight smile, and then, as she offered a curtsey, "How do you do." With a nod to the red-frocked doll hovering near her shoulder, she added, "This is Hōrai, and..." As if on cue, the doll's blue-clad match flew over from Gryphon's side to a cheerful aerial reunion with her counterpart. "... you've already met Shanghai."
"And my particular friend Marisa Kirisame," Reimu went on, perfectly deadpan: "Witch without portfolio."
The black-clad young woman with the yellow cat and the traditional witch's hat grinned. "They won't let me put 'General Hakurei's camp follower' on my business cards," she said with a wink.
Minna didn't bat an eye, offering the château's welcome to the two blondes as well, then took them around and introduced them to the witches under her command.
"Your timing is excellent, General," von Hammer observed after Minna dismissed the gathering and everyone started heading back into the castle. "You're just in time to join us for lunch."
"That's something of a specialty of Marisa's," remarked Alice dryly.
Marisa shrugged. "What can I say? It's a natural talent."
After the midday meal, a convivial affair during which everyone caught up on what everyone else had been up to since the last time the wing was all together, Amélie showed Reimu and her companions to the Visiting Officers' Quarters, one floor down from the witches' own residence floor in the castle's barracks wing.
"We have an unusual number of guests just at present, since several witches came to supplement the 501st while Rittmeister von Hammer's party was in Neukarlsland, and they haven't all returned to their home stations yet," she explained as she led them down the hall to the rooms at the end. "Fortunately, when the castle was refurbished to host air operations, the Liberion Army Corps of Engineers fitted out more bedrooms than a fighter wing really needs under typical circumstances."
"Do you get many 'typical circumstances' around here?" Marisa wondered with a mischievous smile.
"Not as such," Amélie admitted. "But then, the 501st has always been an exceptional outfit, even among the Joint Fighter Wings."
Alice chuckled. "Chief Planchard, I've a feeling you haven't seen anything yet..."
By midafternoon, Francesca Lucchini was starting to feel just the slightest bit frustrated. Well, not frustrated, exactly. Impatient. She hadn't felt that way during the enforced wait for the Prinzessin Eugenie to make her way back to Europe. That was something that couldn't be helped. Since they'd returned to Saint-Ulrich, though, she'd been on pins and needles, waiting for the right moment, and so far it just... hadn't come. First Gryphon and Shizuka were still in Britannia. Then there was the hubbub when they came back. Then the general from Fusō and her friends had turned up, and making them welcome had taken over lunchtime. Now everyone was busy with their afternoon routines, and Lucchini resigned herself to wait until dinner.
She prowled the hangar restlessly, uncharacteristically unsure what to do with herself. Ordinarily she'd have just gone to sleep until supper call sounded. There was any number of places right here in the hangar where she could've done that. Up in the rafters. On top of the ammunition locker. Ursula's car, Gryphon's car, the Blitz (back or cab). On the crates in FUEL STORAGE. Under normal circumstances, she'd have taken her favorite blanket and crashed in any one of those spots to wait.
Today, she found her usual knack for falling asleep had deserted her as surely as her magic. She wandered from nap spot to nap spot, but none appealed. Finally she drifted into FUEL STORAGE. Ursula was at her desk in the corner, head down in a sheaf of blueprints, while Gryphon stood at his workbench, surveying an assortment of tools. As she stepped closer to investigate, he noticed her approaching and smiled.
"Here comes trouble," he said. "I hear you had quite an adventure in Brandenburg."
Lucchini went a bit red. "Has everyone heard about that?" she wondered.
"Seems likely," Gryphon confirmed.
The Romagnan sighed, then blatantly changed the subject. "What are you doing?"
"Well, I thought I might alphabetize my wrenches," said Gryphon, "but they all start with W, so that didn't take very long. How are you feeling? You look a lot better than the last time I saw you."
"I'm fine," Lucchini told him, then qualified the remark, "Physically, anyway. Have you talked to Yoshika since you got back?"
He shook his head. "No, but Ursula gave me the short version when we crossed paths in Le Havre. "
"Then you know what I have to do."
"Only the general outline."
Lucchini sat down on the crates next to Wolfgang and sighed. The hound, sensing her discontent, moved over and put his head in her lap, and it was while absently rubbing his ears that she went on,
"That's not much less than I know. I mean, Dr. Adelsberger told me what to do once I've found Ombra, but..." She shrugged. "The more I think about it, the less likely it seems that I'll be able to do that." She raised her eyes to his and added glumly, "I know where to start, but... that's about all."
"The answer to that might be closer than you think," said Gryphon with a little smile.
Lucchini tilted her head quizzically, and it struck him suddenly how much older she looked with her hair down. When she'd left for Neukarlsland, even battered and tired, she'd still looked young for her age, as ever. Now, though she hadn't changed physically, she carried herself with something like the maturity an observer might expect from someone with so long a record of front-line service.
As it had Shirley Yeager before him, the thought made Gryphon feel a little sad, but privately proud at the same time. Like he'd felt when he realized that Kaitlyn, his eldest daughter, wasn't his little girl any more, but a card-carrying galactic badass in her own right. It had the same sense of something pleasant ending before he really felt ready for it to be over, but being replaced by something with the potential to be even better.
He didn't say any of that out loud, of course. Under the circumstances, it would probably have come across as patronizing. Whatever he might have said instead was prevented by the Tannoy, which crackled to life and declared in the voice of Amélie Planchard,
"Attention, please. All flight personnel, report to the briefing room. Flight personnel to the briefing room. That is all."
Gryphon glanced up at the loudspeaker and smiled. "Right on time. C'mon, let's go."
Lucchini wasn't entirely sure she constituted "flight personnel" right now, but out of a combination of habit and curiosity, she followed him to the little theater that served the 501st as a briefing room anyway. By the time they arrived, most of the witches were already there. Several of those gathered were puzzled to see that the apparent briefing officer, standing at the lectern next to the wall where the operations map was usually hung behind its curtain, was Yoshika Miyafuji instead of one of the command officers, all of whom were sitting in the front row.
Seeing Gryphon and Lucchini enter, Yoshika beckoned for the latter to join her up front while the former took a seat, then faced the assembled witches and began to speak.
"You all know about the problem, so I won't waste any time recapping it," the doctor said, her face unusually serious. "While we were in Brandenburg, I consulted with one of my colleagues at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Magical Medicine, Dr. Lucie Adelsberger. She confirmed what we already knew: Lucchini-chan lost contact with her familiar, Ombra, when she was shot down over Freiburg." She paused for a moment to let a murmur of consternation run around the room, then went on,
"Dr. Adelsberger also confirmed that Ombra is alive, and taught Lucchini-chan what she has to do in order to re-bond with her. But first," she said, holding up a hand to forestall any expressions of relief that might be coming, "there's another problem we have to solve. I'll let Lucchini-chan tell you that part herself."
Lucchini faced her colleagues, feeling slightly intimidated. She'd never taken center stage at a briefing before; never had the slightest interest in command or intelligence work, the two main reasons any witch would ever find herself here.
She pushed the feeling down with a fierce effort of will. These were her friends, her dearest comrades, not some pack of strangers—well, except for the three curious visitors sitting all the way up at the back, but the situation was such that she paid them little mind. This wasn't a game. This was her future. Ombra's future.
"Dr. Adelsberger told me Ombra was hurt when our link was broken, just like I was," she said. "She didn't know what to do, so she ran away and hid. Because she's hiding, I can't summon her from the æther the way I did the first time. I have to go and find her. In person."
"Do you know where she is?" asked Shizuka.
"Not exactly," Lucchini admitted. "But I know where to start looking."
At that cue, Yoshika went and drew the curtain from in front of the briefing map, and the assembled witches made a collective sound of surprise and dismay. The map pinned to the board showed western Karlsland, to the north and east of the recently liberated city of Freiburg im Breisgau—territory still under the control of the Neuroi. Near the lefthand edge ran the river Rhine, which marked the Gallia-Karlsland border in this region. Far to the right, marked by a large red X, was Stuttgart, former capital of the Karlslandic Kingdom of Württemberg.
In between, the map was dominated by a large swathe of dark green, marked only with a scattering of dots representing abandoned villages. Even before the Neuroi came, this was an area of myth and legend, one of the last primeval forests of Europe, where human settlements were far between and folk still told stories of strange and unknowable things in the woods.
"Der Schwarzwald," murmured Gertrud Barkhorn.
"It would have to be, wouldn't it?" Erica Hartmann asked no one in particular, unconsciously taking Trude's hand.
Lucchini went and stood before the map, comparing it mentally to the more ornate version Dr. Adelsberger had shown her in an old volume of magical lore. After a few moments' consideration, she'd found enough landmarks to get her bearings, then pointed to a spot.
"Here," she said. Turning back to face her comrades, she went on, "The doctor told me there's a ruined castle on a mountain here. Supposedly a powerful coven of witches lived there a long time ago."
"I know it," said Heidemarie Schnaufer suddenly. "Schloss Hexeberg. It's not far from where I grew up, in Calw on the river Nagold."
"Dr. Adelsberger said she was sure Ombra would be somewhere near there," said Lucchini. "Something to do with how long witches lived there in the old days. I didn't really understand most of it," she admitted, shrugging. "Only that she said Ombra would be drawn to the place. That she'd feel safe there."
"Which... is... kind of ironic, given how close to the Stuttgart Hive it is," said Eila, a little ruefully.
"I don't care if it's in the Stuttgart Hive," Lucchini declared. "I have to go there."
"How are you going to get there, though?" wondered Erica. "I mean, that's gotta be more than 100 kilometers from here."
"Most of it on wrong side of Rhine," Witolda Urbanowicz added.
"There's no place around there to land a conventional aircraft, even if one could get that close to Stuttgart undetected," Trude mused.
"My bike could get the two of us there in less than an hour, if I can figure out a way to get it across the river," said Shirley.
"The two of you alone, on the ground, and only one able to use a proper weapon?" Minna shook her head. "Too dangerous. Far too dangerous."
"She's right," Mio agreed. "If the Neuroi caught you, you wouldn't last five minutes on the ground."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence in my SERE skills," said Shirley dryly.
"I'll walk if I have to," Lucchini said flatly, then added with just a hint of her familiar temper flickering in her eyes, "Try and stop me."
"OK, OK, let's all calm down," said Wilma Bishop soothingly. "Nobody's saying you can't go. We're just trying to come up with a way you can do it that stands a chance of working."
"Whatever we do, it will need to involve a small squad," said Lynne. "You mustn't go alone, but if we invade the Schwarzwald in force, the Neuroi will surely notice and counterattack."
Perrine nodded her agreement. "We could end up fighting another Freiburg, and our strategic position won't allow for that at present."
"Perhaps a night operation would be best," an unexpected voice declared from the side of the room, and everyone turned to see the diminutive form of Gryphon's vampire lady standing foursquare in the doorway, dressed in an unfamiliar uniform of black and red, one hand outflung in a dramatic gesture.
"Are you volunteering?" asked Mio with an arched eyebrow.
Countess Remilia Scarlet nodded. "Of course. I know the Schwarzwald well—as a girl, I ranged its length and breadth at my father's side, battling the terrors of an elder, wilder world. Should any Neuroi presume to impede Tenente Lucchini's expedition, I shall gladly teach it the same lesson a number of its fellows learned during the Occupation:" She closed her outstretched hand into a fist, her wings rising and teeth glinting in a slightly cruel grin, and concluded, "One does not cross Haut-Colmar's queen of the night."
The room was silent for a moment, everyone gazing in mild astonishment at the vampire; then, her grin changing from cruel to cheeky, she caught Gryphon's eye and asked,
He nodded with slightly affected gravity. "Proper scary! Full marks."
"I've still got it," Remilia said with a self-satisfied brush of her jacket lapel. Then, becoming serious again, she turned to Minna and Mio and said, "Forgive me for doing this part out of order, General, Colonel, but I simply couldn't resist the opportunity to make such an entrance." As Sakuya, similarly uniformed, stepped up behind and slightly to the right of her, she went on, "May I present my maid, Miss Sakuya Izayoi. She and I have volunteered our services to the Gallian Air Force for the war effort, and War Minister Coste-Floret referred us to you. If you've any use for a couple of scruffy Alsatian irregulars in your organization..." (and here she gave the two officers a courtly bow,) "... we are at your service."
Minna and Mio looked at each other for a moment, bemusement on one face, a hint of a wry grin on the other; then Minna smiled slightly and said, "I think we can find some use for you. Welcome to the First Joint Special Air Fleet, Countess, Miss Izayoi. We can work out your precise assignments later," she went on, adding dryly, "As you've noticed, we're in the midst of planning an operation just at the moment."
"I see where your idea is going," Mio said. "We can send a small, fast infiltration force in low with you as night-fighter escort."
Remilia nodded. "My thoughts precisely."
"I like it. I'll want one of our Night Witches flying high cover, though, just in case."
"I'll go," said Heidemarie quickly, before Sanya or Wittgenstein could speak up. "I know the area best."
"Good. That's settled. And as for who makes up the infiltration force..." Mio considered for a moment, then nodded to herself and said decisively, "Gryph. Shirley. Miyafuji. With the current equipment, you're our three fastest fliers, and speed will be of the essence. You'll need to get Lucchini in there, stand watch while she does what she needs to do, and get out again in the shortest time possible— and if the Neuroi spot you, you run for it. Under no circumstances let them encircle you or draw you into a fight. Perrine's right—we can't afford another Freiburg right now."
Shirley nodded. "Roger that," she said. "Only... how are we going to get Lucchini over there? A hundred-klick piggyback with no magic of her own to shield her would be no joke..."
"Gryph can rig up something with Ivan," Lucchini began, then trailed off as she, and everyone else in the room, noticed that one of the spectators in the second row had silently raised a hand.
The Romagnan witch blinked uncomprehendingly at Neuroi-chan for a moment, then remembered what she'd been told about how Yoshika got her back to the castle from Freiburg, and how Hannelore had managed to beat them all to Brandenburg in time to intercept the Kaiser's wedding.
"... Oh wow," she said, her eyes going wide.
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
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
created by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2022