Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Had anyone happened to be abroad in the village of Walbourg on that perfectly clear summer night, they might have heard the drone of propellers, the unfamiliar whistle of jet engines, perhaps even a near-subliminal hum few civilians had any frame of reference for recognizing. If, upon hearing, they had looked up, they might just have made out seven black shapes speeding eastwards, completely dark but for the tiny colored pinpoints of formation lamps and the faint glow of engines and radar antennae.
As they approached the Rhine, the radar-equipped Night Witch at the left flank of the group touched her earpiece and signaled the rest,
"Force Ombra, this is Umcolcus. I read no contacts ahead; you're clear to proceed. Enemy airspace penetration in 30 seconds. This is as far as I go. Good night and good luck. Out."
At the head of the formation, Shirley Yeager turned her head and nodded to her countrywoman before radioing back, "Roger that, Umcolcus, thanks for the escort. We'll see you on the other side."
Offering the force a salute as she did, Eleanor Hutchins drew up into a hover, going no closer to the river, and watched as the rest carried on out of her assigned sector.
Turning to look at the person flying on her right wing, Shirley went on, "It's your show from here, Countess. Force Ombra, assume entry formation and commence radio silence. Out."
Countess Remilia Scarlet nodded and put on a little more speed, easing into the lead, while the rest of the group rearranged itself into a tighter Victor formation around her. The one exception, Heidemarie Schnaufer, pulled up into a steep, full-throttle climb to a high-cover position, 15,000 feet above the rest.
Seconds later, they crossed the river and entered the danger zone. The contrast, even after the sparsely lighted Gallian countryside, was stark. There were relatively few lights in rural Alsace, perhaps, but there were absolutely none on the Karlsland side. No fields, no roads, no scattered farmsteads. With the three-day-old sliver of moon having set just before they launched, only the faint starlight illuminated the brooding Black Forest as it rose from the Rhine's east bank and stretched off to the horizon, mountainous, ominous, completely devoid of human life.
As she and her comrades hurtled into the dark, Francesca Lucchini marveled at what she was feeling. She had little experience of night flying, but she was having no trouble at all keeping formation. The view from inside the 501st Joint Fighter Wing's Neuroi member was clear as day, and her field of vision was as unhindered as if she'd been bareheaded.
Turning her head slightly, she could clearly see Shirley, ahead of her to the right, her face set in an unusually grim expression. Shirley wasn't used to night flying either, and Lucchini assumed it was taking all of her concentration to maintain station, aided only by the glow of the red chemlight Countess Scarlet wore on her left forearm. A similar light, this one green, on her right similarly guided Yoshika Miyafuji, whom Lucchini knew had a little more night experience, since she occasionally went out with Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak on the Night Witch's patrols.
Over on the far side of the formation, Gryphon wasn't having any trouble either. He was wearing that bulky night-vision headgear he'd scrounged up somewhere, which Lucchini had heard was normally used by Orussian tank witches. Though the night was pitch-dark and he was a good thirty feet away, Lucchini could see him clearly.
As she focused on each of her wingmates, Lucchini also saw glowing text, floating as if in midair, which spooled out from some invisible source whenever she focused on any particular one of them. She couldn't read it—the symbols were unlike any alphabet she'd ever seen—but she assumed it was some kind of identifying information.
Is this what it's like to be a Neuroi? she wondered. Is this how they all see us?
She wished she could ask Neuroi-chan, to find out more about how her strangest, most unexpected comrade experienced the world. She couldn't, of course; no one could communicate with Neuroi-chan except Yoshika, in a limited way, and—by an odd coincidence—the crown princess of Karlsland, who was not available to translate just at the moment.
So instead, she said quietly, "Neuroi-chan... I'm not sure if you can understand me, but if you can... thank you. Thinking about it, this is the second time you've let someone do this to help me. The first time, you helped Yoshika save my life, and now this. I don't know why. Maybe I never will. But... I wanted to tell you I appreciate it more than I can say."
There was no reply, not that she'd really been expecting one; but a moment later, she felt a faint wave of... something. A wordless, maybe even conceptless sensation, as impossible to put into words as her gratitude, and yet somehow instantly understandable.
Smiling within her "helmet", Lucchini adjusted her spot in formation slightly and kept her eyes fixed on the black horizon. They were getting into the mountains now, and it was going to take some fancy flying to stay at treetop level and minimize their chances of being spotted by the Neuroi as they plunged deep into the Schwarzwald.
Wait for me, Ombra, she thought. I'm on my way.
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
Colonel Heinrikke Knoke of the 511th Joint Fighter Wing rose from her desk to receive her unexpected visitor, returning the visitor's courtesy salute with the cool, Prussian cordiality for which she was known before gesturing her to a chair.
"Take a seat, Colonel Sakamoto," she said, and then, in a less formal and more human sort of way, she inquired, "What brings you north on such a fine afternoon?"
Rather than sit down, Mio Sakamoto nodded toward the conference table at the other end of Knoke's large office and replied,
"It'll be easier to show you what I have to show you over there, if you don't mind."
Knoke arched one blonde eyebrow and smiled slightly, intrigued. "As you like," she said, and the two witches went to the table. There, Mio unrolled and spread out the large document she carried, which turned out to be a map.
"We have an operation planned for this evening," Mio said. Quickly, with no wasted words, she outlined Lucchini's situation and what had to be done to remedy it, then drew a line on the map with her fingertip.
"As you see, the straight-line distance from Saint-Ulrich to the Hexeberg is about 70 miles, most of them over Karlsland. That's a long way to go over enemy territory—especially on the way back, if they attract any unwanted attention while the're there." Then, pointing, she went on, "But from here, not only is it a shorter flight overall, the AO is only 30 miles from the Rhine." She looked up and met her colleague's eye. "Tactically, it makes a lot more sense to stage through Lichtenberg than to go straight there and back from home."
Knoke sized up the map and saw at once that Mio's assessment was correct. Lichtenberg, Ribeauvillé, and Calw, the towns nearest to the three key points of the mission, described a huge, nearly right-angle triangle nearly centered on the city of Strasbourg, and the leg between the latter two was the hypotenuse, by far the longest of the three. Moreover, the angles involved made the portion of that leg which lay over territory still occupied by the Neuroi nearly as long as the entire distance from the target to Lichtenberg.
"Of course," she said at once. "Château Lichtenberg is at your team's disposal, Colonel. Just tell me when to expect them and I'll have everything prepared."
"On their way out, they won't be stopping; they'll just run north to your marker light and turn east. It's coming back that might get hairy," said Mio. "The plan is to run for it if they're found by the Neuroi, not stand and fight, but we can't know whether the Neuroi will keep chasing them after they exit Karlsland. They might bring a party back with them."
"Well, if they do, we're prepared," Knoke replied, then added offhandedly, "We pride ourselves on our hospitality here."
"... And here we have the kitchen and pantry," Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak declared, bowing the new arrivals and hangers-on into the facility as she named it. "Usually this is Lynne and Yoshika's domain, although all of us take a turn now and then. Except Nipa. Nipa's not allowed in here," she added with a slightly dark little smile.
Remilia Scarlet stood in the middle of the large, well-appointed kitchen and had a look around, hands on hips. "Hm," she said. "Yes, I think we should be able to live with this, wouldn't you say, Sakuya?"
"Undoubtedly, m'lady," Sakuya Izayoi replied, nodding.
"I'm surprised you have to do your own cooking, though," Remilia went on, addressing Lynne Bishop, who stood by the prep station considering the options for the upcoming evening meal. "Being a military establishment, I assumed you would have a separate kitchen detail." With a slightly ironic grin, she added, "If I'm honest, I was looking forward to saving you all from them by offering Sakuya's services while we're here."
"Technically, we don't have to," said Yoshika Miyafuji, leaning out from the pantry doorway. "It's just how the wing has always done it." She smiled. "It's good for morale."
"They gave us a Liberion Army cook back in '43, when we were stationed in Britannia," Eila noted. "He lasted about a week before Yeager put the run to him. 'Look, buddy,'" she said in a passable imitation of the exaggeratedly chicken-fried drawl Shirley put on when she was most annoyed, "'if I wanted shit-on-a-shingle six times a gawdang week, I'd'a put on some pants an' joined the infantry. Now git. We'll take it from here.'"
Everyone laughed at that apart from Erica Hartmann, who was preoccupied. She was looking into one of the boxes stacked along the wall by the pantry door—the overflow of the new supplies that had come back with the Operation Hammer team from Neukarlsland, which was waiting out here for other things to be consumed so there'd be room in the pantry.
"Yoshika," she said suddenly, "was ist das?"
"Hm?" Yoshika came out from the pantry while the others gathered around to get a better look at what the Karlslander had taken from the box. It was a brown waxed-paper package about six inches square by an inch thick, stamped with Fusōnese military logistics markings most of the onlookers couldn't read.
"Oh, that's one of the new field rations from Fusō," Yoshika said. "The IFN quartermaster in Brandenburg sent a few cases of them along with the parts and supplies for the new Strikers we picked up while we were there."
Intrigued, Erica tore the packet open and fished out its contents. This took the form of a hard beige brick that looked, to her European sensibilities, like a compressed block of tangled-up spaghetti, along with a little foil packet stamped with some more Fusōnese characters and a number.
"Pasta?" Erica wondered, holding the block up and turning it over, then handing it to Trude Barkhorn, who stood next to her.
"More or less," Yoshika said. "It's instant ramen. The little packet with the ones in that box is chicken flavor."
Trude, looking intrigued, gestured for Erica to give her the packet. Having received it, she tore off a corner and sprinkled the yellow powder within on the brick, and then, while everyone else looked on blankly, took a bite out of it with a loud, rustling crunch.
Looking no more than slightly nonplussed, she chewed, chewed, and chewed some more, filling the kitchen with a slowly diminishing sound like a gravel crusher. At last she swallowed, then stood a moment regarding the rest of the block thoughtfully.
"Hmm," she said, then handed it back to Erica and said matter-of-factly to Yoshika, "It's not terrible, but it's hard to eat and much too noisy." Shaking her head regretfully, she went on, "I'm afraid your people will have to go back to the drawing board on this one."
In the bemused silence that followed, Erica slowly folded the torn wrapper back up around the rest of the noodle brick, then handed it to Yoshika and said,
"Excuse us for a second, bitte."
So saying, she turned, took Trude by the ear, and dragged her away into the corner of the room, whereupon she muttered something intently in a voice too low for the others to hear.
"Really?" Trude replied, sounding surprised.
"Yes, really!" Erica barked.
"Oh!" said Trude. Then, turning back to Yoshika, she said, "Ah, mein Fehler, never mind."
"... Right, moving on," said Eila. "Let's go up to the barracks wing and find you two a room."
She led the way not to the VOQ, where the wing's various "guest witches" were lodged along with Group Captain Whittle, Professor von Ohain, and General Hakurei's party, but—since the Countess and her maid were newly attached to the First Joint Special Air Fleet in their own right—the level above it, which was reserved for permanent members of the fleet's combat wing.
"This is our most private domain," Eila explained as they entered the hallway. "Nobody's allowed on this floor without an invitation—and I mean nobody," she added, remembering a time she'd denied entry to an officer who had outranked her by a full six grades.
She led the way down the corridor, noting who lived where, and presently they reached the still-vacant rooms at the far end of the hallway.
"When the Liberion Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt this place last year for use as a Joint Fighter Wing headquarters," she said, "they set the residence wing up with 14 rooms on each floor. The standard strength of a JFW is a dozen witches, so they figured they were allowing for a little overflow."
"They didn't realize a fair few of us would prefer to double up," added Sanya quietly, taking her hand (which raised a mild blush on the Suomi witch's face).
"As it turned out, that worked out pretty well for us, because it meant we had room to absorb a few extra personnel when SHAEF established the Air Fleet and added 404 Squadron to the base complement," said Mio Sakamoto.
Eila nodded. "And it means we've still got space up here for the two of you, and the rest of your party whenever they turn up. There's just... one downside."
So saying, she turned and opened the door to room 7 East, swinging it open to reveal that the room, although structurally complete, was dusty, disordered, and unfurnished save for a scattering of boxes and barrels that looked like the builders simply hadn't thought of anywhere else to put them.
"Across the hall's the same way," Eila admitted ruefully. "We've just never had any reason to open them up before."
"We have spare furniture and whatnot in storage, it'll just need to be brought up here," Shirley noted. "After we clear all'a this junk out, of course."
"I've worked with worse," said Sakuya with a little smile, drawing chuckles from both Remilia and Gryphon—both of whom had worked with her to clean and equip a bedroom in a much more advanced state of decay than this one back home.
Remilia nodded. "This should do nicely," she said. "Please get started on it after dinner, if you don't mind, Sakuya."
"Of course, m'lady."
"I can give you a hand," Shirley offered, but Mio shook her head.
"No, you need to rest up for tonight's mission," she said. "Trude, you and Erica see to it, will you? You know where the things are."
Trude nodded. "Will do, Colonel."
"Sure, won't be a problem," agreed Erica.
With that settled, the group started back for the living area to get started on dinner. As they passed 5 East, Remilia took a closer look at the door.
"Ah, I see you've taken my advice and maintained tradition," said Remilia, pausing to examine the appointment sheet affixed to said door.
It was a fresh one, just put up that morning for the new week, and most of the slots were still empty—apart from the one for the upcoming evening, which bore a barely legible scrawl that, since it appeared to start with L and end with i, she assumed said "Lucchini". As she perused it, Remilia was aware that some of the witches at the back of the group were glancing nervously at each other. Evidently Hartmann hadn't told them about the conversation they'd had when Remilia had first visited the castle, and now they were waiting for her to figure out what she was looking at and react.
After standing there for a moment feigning thought, she took up the pencil hanging on a string next to the sheet and wrote her name in the blank for Tuesday. Then, pretending she'd just noticed the witches' eyes on her, she turned and regarded them with an affectedly puzzled look.
"What?" she said. "Were you expecting me to tear it down? I'm not a savage."
That done, she paused for a moment in thought, then turned and offered the pencil to Sakuya. "Wednesday is open," she remarked helpfully.
Sakuya blinked, her cheeks going pink, and said nothing for just long enough that Marisa Kirisame chimed in from the back,
"Me 'n Reimu'll take that action if you don't wanna."
That broke the moment with a collective laugh, whereupon Sakuya took the pencil and, with great dignity, inscribed her name for Wednesday, remarking with a slight smile,
"When in Rome..."
The squad designated for the evening's special operation hit the sack right after dinner, the better to grab a few hours of sleep before H-hour. At 2315 hours, roused by wingmates, they gathered in the hangar to gear up. Fifteen minutes later, they were just about ready to go.
Apart from the two Night Witches who were already out on patrol, the whole wing was there to see them off, despite the lateness of the hour. Working with quiet concentration, the three witches who would be using Strikers readied them for action, while Gryphon fetched his jetpack and night-vision headset from FUEL STORAGE. A short way off, out of the way of the mechanical preparations, Mio quietly held a final conference with Remilia while Minna and Sakuya looked on.
"Remember what I said before," Mio told the vampire. "If you get bounced by Neuroi, by all means defend yourselves, but don't let them draw you into a prolonged engagement."
Remilia drew on a pair of snug black leather gloves, remarking as she did so, "I assure you, ma Colonelle, my engagements with the Neuroi are never prolonged." Then, seeing that the Fusōnese witch wasn't going to be put off with witticisms, she looked her in the eye and said, "I understand that you have no real reason to trust in my strength or my competence. You've had no opportunity to assess either. But I promise you, I am taking this very seriously. Benjamin and I will do everything in our power to see that your people come away from this expedition safely. You have my word."
Mio gazed silently back at the vampire for a moment, then nodded.
"Fair enough," she said. Then, turning to look out at the sky through the open hangar doors, she remarked, "Not much moon tonight, and it's just about to set anyway. It's going to be tough for the others to keep station on you in a sky that dark. Striker Units have formation lights." She half-smiled. "Vampires, not so much."
Gryphon stepped up beside Remilia, geared up and with Wolfgang's flight gear draped over one arm. "I thought of that," he said, holding up a couple of objects.
Minna looked quizzically at the items—a pair of short tubes of some transparent material, evidently containing some sort of liquid within—then realized what they were and smiled. "Good thinking," she said.
"Thanks," said Gryphon. "Originally, I came up with this application for myself, but I haven't needed to sortie at night since I thought of it."
Taking one end of one of the tubes in each hand, he bent it smartly. It didn't break, but something inside it gave way with a muffled crack, and to Remilia's mild surprise, the tube started to glow with a subdued red light, which grew brighter as he shook it.
"Here," he said, handing it to her, and she saw that it was attached to a short length of canvas-web strap with a D-buckle at one end. "Strap it to your left arm, halfway to your elbow." As she did so, he cracked the second tube, which glowed green. "This one goes on the right. Now the rest of us will be able to tell which side of you we're on."
"Aha, that's clever," said Remilia, securing the green one.
"I have my moments," Gryphon replied mildly as he activated and affixed a second pair to himself.
"Well, that's one problem solved," Mio said. Then, after a glance at her watch, she went on, "All right. It's time."
Remilia returned her nod, then turned and started for the rest of the group, who had formed up out on the apron to await the final go signal.
"Look after things here whilst I'm away, will you, Sakuya?" she said, her tone not quite so light as her words.
"Rely upon it, m'lady," Sakuya replied. "I regret I can't come with you."
"Well, perhaps later we should see whether you can get one of these remarkable contraptions to work," said Remilia with an arch little smile.
"Perhaps not, m'lady," Sakuya replied imperturbably, and then, in a quieter and more personal voice, "Be careful."
"I'm always careful," Remilia replied. Then, raising her voice as she neared the group, she said, "Well then, ladies and gentlemen. Shall we?" Gesturing to the star-splashed sky and the last sliver of the setting moon, she added with a grin, "It's a fine night for flying."
"Wait one," Gryphon said as he finished securing Wolfgang's flight pack to Shirley's back. Without being asked, Ursula Hartmann double-checked his work, then nodded and stepped back while he snugged the Lenshound's flying helmet and positioned his goggles. "OK. Good to go, hey, hound dog?"
Shirley grinned, settling her own eyewear. "I bet this is the first time a beagle and a rabbit have ever worked together."
At the edge of the group, Lucchini glanced at Yoshika, who gave her an encouraging nod, then turned faintly nervous eyes to Neuroi-chan and said, "Ready?"
The Neuroi defector nodded, offering her hand. The Romagnan hesitated for just the barest instant, then steeled herself and took it.
With a faint mechanical rustling sound, as of a stream of ball bearings rolling from a bucket, the witch-type Neuroi's body seemed almost to dissolve, shifting into an amorphous, near-liquid collection of tiny hexagonal plates that flowed up Lucchini's arm and around her body, rearranging themselves as they did so back into Neuroi-chan's usual shape (now facing the other way). The last of the Romagnan witch to disappear was her head, enclosed within the Neuroi's as if in a helmet.
"Oh wow," said Lucchini, her voice rendered slightly metallic as whatever was in the Neuroi amplified it.
"Follow Countess Scarlet and keep your formation tight," said Mio by way of final briefing as she and the rest of the onlookers got clear of the launch area. "Once you're across the Rhine, maintain radio silence except in emergencies. Remember, you're not looking for trouble. Get in, cover Lucchini while she does what she has to do, and get out. Countess, anything to add?"
"Only this," said Remilia, all trace of her usual playfulness absent. "Once we cross the river, keep your wits about you at all times—especially when we're on the ground. Neuroi or no Neuroi, the Schwarzwald is never a place to be entered lightly. Stay alert and follow my lead, and I will bring you through." She looked from one squad member to the next, her faintly glowing eyes intent. "That's all."
Mio nodded. "Good," she said, and then went on in her quarterdeck bark, "Special Force Ombra: Launch!"
Speeding along at treetop height, it took Force Ombra only about ten minutes after crossing the Rhine to reach the vicinity of Hexeberg Castle. Remilia led them straight there, varying her course only to dodge around the higher hills, maintaining a pace that matched the cruising speed of the fastest production Striker Units despite the fact that she was flying under her own power.
They swept over the dark and silent ruins of the village of Neubulach, then up the rising ground to the east. A thin ribbon of bare ground shone faintly in the starlight, the only sign besides a slight thinning of the tall evergreen trees that there was, or had once been, a trail down there, leading up the small mountain's western face.
At the top, visible only as a negative void against the starry black sky, a shape that was too regular, too obviously artificial, to be a simple crag loomed up out of a clearing at the mountain's peak. Still maintaining comm silence, Remilia gestured, the lights on her arms swinging downward, and the formation followed her in as she swooped down.
High above, Heidemarie entered a covering orbit, her radar tuned to its highest sensitivity. If anything hostile moved within a radius of 30 kilometers, she was confident she would sense it.
At this altitude, on a night this clear, she could clearly see the Stuttgart Hive off to the east. The ruins of the city itself were hidden by the folds of the ground and the trees, but the Hive itself stood proud of the surrounding terrain like the Liberion skyscrapers she'd seen photographs of in magazines. Made of the same black crystal-like material as the Neuroi themselves, it gleamed in the starlight, a sinister, featureless spire, irregularly hexagonal in cross-section, tapering to a point Heidemarie estimated must be at least 500 meters above the ground.
Occasionally, a flicker of crimson light passed fitfully over its surface, but the Nachthexe's radar detected no activity when it did so. It seemed that whatever was happening, it wasn't the spire scanning its surroundings for potential intruders. It was just standing there, apparently dormant apart from those irregular pulses of energy.
Heidemarie kept an eye on it, all the same. Her comrades were entering the most vulnerable phase of the operation. They'd be on the ground, the Striker-equipped members of the party dismounted. If they were noticed and an attack came, they'd have to be covered long enough for Shirley and Yoshika to re-equip and take off, which they would probably need the others' help to do. If that happened, Heidemarie and her cannon would be their only defense for those few critical minutes.
With that thought always in mind, she circled, every nerve alert.
The rest of Force Ombra alighted in an open area a dozen yards or so from the forbidding black silhouette of the Hexeberg. The silence that descended as Shirley and Yoshika shut down their Strikers, and Gryphon his jetpack, was almost as startling as a loud noise would've been. For a moment, they all stood and listened warily. The only sound any of them heard was the whispering of the evening wind in the trees.
"Right," said Remilia softly. She and Gryphon unfastened their field-expedient formation lights and put them away in inside pockets. "We seem to be alone... for the moment. Let's do what we came to do."
"Roger that," Shirley murmured. With Gryphon's help, she climbed out of her Striker and leaned its halves against a nearby tree.
The two of them then did the same for Yoshika, after which Gryphon set about freeing Wolfgang from his flight harness. At the same time, Neuroi-chan did another reconfiguration trick, its details impossible to see in the dark, that left her hovering behind a disoriented, slightly unsteady Lucchini.
"Are you OK, Lucchini-chan?" asked Yoshika, steadying her.
"Yeah," Lucchini replied, blinking, as she made sure of her footing. "Just... wow." She turned and regarded the Neuroi, who was only visible by the faint blue-green glow of her "ears" and the red tips of her winglets. "Thanks."
Neuroi-chan made no sound, but the glowing ears moved slightly as she inclined her head graciously.
"OK, so... how are we going to do this?" Shirley wondered.
"Leave that to the expert," Gryphon replied. Still hunkered down in front of Wolfgang, he took the dog's flying helmet off and stuffed it inside his jacket, then placed his hands on either side of the Lenshound's face and gave him a gentle scruffle. "What do you say, hound dog? You ready?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied, shaking his head to readjust his ears.
"OK." Rising, Gryphon dusted the knees of his pants, then led the way over to Lucchini. "Get the scent, buddy." Stepping closer, Wolfgang sniffed thoughtfully at the Romagnan.
"How is this supposed to work?" she wondered, adding wryly, "He doesn't need to find me, I'm right here."
A moment later, she was surprised to see the round gem affixed to Wolfgang's collar, which she had always taken for a decoration, glow with a shifting, opalescent light, and even more surprised to feel her own attenuated magic flicker in response. It wasn't a strong enough reaction to make her familiar's features manifest, but for just a second, she felt an echo of Ombra's presence, so evocative and so unconsciously missed that it brought tears to her eyes.
With a soft grunt that sounded like satisfaction, Wolfgang turned away from her, lowered his nose to the ground, and snuffled experimentally. He cast about for a few moments, circling, reversing course, then making a slightly larger circle the opposite way. After three circuits, he paused, raising his head, and peered into the darkness with another of the muted huffs that stood in for barks at times when he deemed full cry inappropriate.
"Got her?" Gryphon asked, his low voice charged with excitement.
"Hrf," said Wolfgang.
"Find her, boy," Gryphon encouraged. "Take us to her."
Wolfgang hesitated for a moment longer, tilting his head thoughtfully. Then, with a sudden burst of energy, he set off, head down, tail up.
At first the trace took him up the trail toward the ruins of Hexeberg, but they were still a few yards short of the crumbling gateway in the outer wall when the Lenshound suddenly swerved to the left and unhesitatingly led the way off the trail into the woods. Glancing at each other in mild surprise, the rest of the team followed.
The night was even darker among the trees, and the undergrowth had grown up over the years since humans had last tended the forest, but Wolfgang had no time to wait for laggardly humans. Dodging around rocks, jumping over roots and fallen logs, he plunged ahead as fast as he could. Remilia and Neuroi-chan, who could both fly over the obstacles, were spared the difficulty of navigating in the tangled, pitch-black woods, and had no trouble seeing him, but the humans had to scramble to keep up, those without night-vision gear just able to keep the white flag of the beagle's tail tip in sight.
They had gone perhaps two hundred yards, which felt like two or three miles given the difficulty of the terrain, when they realized he had stopped, and so had Remilia and Neuroi-chan behind him.
A few yards ahead of the silently hovering vampire and Neuroi, Wolfgang stood perfectly still, his head raised, gazing into the dark woods beyond. For a few seconds after they caught up, Gryphon, Shirley, and Yoshika couldn't understand why he had stopped. Only gradually did they realize that he wasn't alone. He was surrounded by an array of black shapes that had apparently emerged from between the trees around him. Even with their eyes now well-adapted to the dark, the humans could barely make them out: strange, angular, vaguely lupine creatures, but larger than any wolf would be—nearly the size of a crouching man. In total silence, they slowly closed in on the Lenshound, looking as though they might attack at any moment.
"Teufelhunde," Remilia whispered. She tensed, preparing to intervene, but felt Gryphon's hand on her arm. Blinking, she looked at him, and was surprised to see that he was smiling very slightly.
Wolfgang watched the sinister creatures close in with no evident dismay. He stood as if considering the situation for a few moments, then turned his attention to the largest of them, which was approaching him almost head-on. Though it had no obvious eyes, the onlookers all had the impression that the hound was making some equivalent of eye contact with it. A moment later, his lip drew back from one canine tooth, which glinted faintly in what starlight filtered through the forest canopy above.
The shadow creatures hesitated, some of them moving their heads as if looking to the biggest one for guidance. In response, the Lenshound uttered an almost inaudible growl, accompanied by another faint pulse of light from his Lens. Though obviously wordless, to anyone seeing the Lenslight, the sound seemed to say, You'll back on out of this if you know what's good for you.
To the astonishment of most of the onlookers, the creatures did just that. First the alpha, then the rest drew back with their heads lowered in submission, then turned and slunk away into the night, visibly cowed.
Remilia, who had watched the whole episode unfold with a look of growing incredulity, turned her shocked eyes to Gryphon.
"Easily dominated by one whose will is stronger," he murmured, grinning.
She stared at him for another long moment, then stifled a giggle, the spell broken. They didn't have much more time to consider the matter, anyway. Without the shadow wolves to block his path, Wolfgang had set off again, snuffling furiously as if annoyed at the lost time, and they all had to scramble after him.
"What were those things?" Lucchini wondered quietly as she struggled to keep up.
"Teufelhunde," Remilia repeated. "The devil dogs of the Schwarzwald. Spectral wolves, cousins to the Welsh gwyllgi and the Black Beast of the English moors." With respect clearly audible in her hushed voice, she added, "Rare indeed is the mortal creature who survives their attentions—let alone proves himself their master."
Seeing that Lucchini was having a harder and harder time making her way, Shirley suddenly ducked and picked her up in a piggyback. "C'mere. Sorry about that, I should've thought of this sooner. No sense making you plow through this mess without magic."
"Thanks," Lucchini panted.
Wolfgang led them another hundred yards, then stopped once more. This time, when the rest of the team caught up to him, they saw that he was standing at the base of a hill near the mouth of a cave, its outline barely visible.
"What've you got, Wolfgang?" Gryphon asked, kneeling by the hound. "Is this it? Is she in there?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang confirmed.
Gryphon ruffled the hound's head and slipped him a treat from his jacket pocket. "Good job, buddy."
"It makes sense," Yoshika mused, almost as if speaking to herself. "Dr. Adelsberger said she would look for somewhere to hide. This place must have seened like a natural choice for a den."
Lucchini climbed down from Shirley's back and stood looking into the cave mouth, her face unreadable in the gloom.
"Do you want us to come in with you?" Shirley asked, but the Romagnan shook her head.
"No. I have to do this alone. Besides... if Ombra's in there, there won't be anything with her that would hurt me."
Remilia took the red chemlight from her pocket and handed it to Lucchini. "Take this," she said.
It's dangerous to go alone, Gryphon sternly required himself not to say out loud.
"Thanks," Lucchini mumbled. She paused a moment longer, then said softly, "If I don't come back... tell Mama I did my best."
Without another word, she entered the cave, disappearing into the blackness within.
The rest of the team stood looking at each other for a few moments, at a loss. Then, by unspeaking consensus, they turned to face outward from the cave and settled into a watchful silence.
Lucchini walked slowly, carefully into the cave, holding the Countess's chemlight ahead of her like a torch. It was pitch-black in here, even darker than the night outside. The chemlight's glow was pretty feeble, but it was just enough to help her find her way without tripping over a stone or falling into a pit.
She had gone about twenty meters when she felt it. Ombra's presence, weak and indistinct—the same hazy presence she'd tasted briefly when Wolfgang had done whatever he'd done to pick up her familiar's ætheric "scent" from her. It grew as she delved deeper into the cave—not stronger, but clearer, like the shape of a familiar object resolving out of a fog.
Barely daring to breathe, she turned a corner, and there she was. An inky black shape, almost formless in the dim glow of the formation light, Ombra lay curled up against a small boulder that projected partway into the cave from one wall, as if using it as a sort of rampart. At Lucchini's approach, the phantom panther raised her head, sniffing. A pair of luminous eyes suddenly opened, glinting orange with the reflection of Lucchini's red lamp, and fixed themselves upon her.
At first, Lucchini had the horrible impression that Ombra didn't recognize her. The panther drew herself up and back, trying to assume a defensive stance, but her movements were stiff and hesitant. Though the cause was invisible in the red-tinted gloom, Ombra was in obvious pain.
Lucchini fell to her knees and reached carefully out, murmuring, "It's OK, Ombra. It's me."
Ombra squinted at her, uncertainty and fear in her bearing, and uttered a soft sound that was halfway between a growl and a whimper.
"It's me," Lucchini repeated, crawling slowly nearer. "It's Francesca. I'm here. You're safe now."
Heidemarie had been orbiting for perhaps ten minutes when she noticed it.
At first she wasn't sure she really had. Circling up here in a state of constant vigilance, she couldn't be completely certain whether what she thought she'd seen was real or a product of that sustained tension. Pausing, she hovered facing east, looked deliberately away from the spire of the Stuttgart Hive for five seconds, then looked back.
No. It wasn't her imagination. The Hive's activity level had increased. Where before the visible pulses of energy had been coming at irregular intervals of around 10 seconds, they were coming faster now—fast enough that by the time one such pulse reached the top, the next had already started at the bottom.
That was worrying, because she didn't know what it signified. Her radar was still clear; there was no sign in the æther that she, or the team on the ground, had been found, or even were being sought. So what did that mean? Was it just a normal cycle of... whatever was happening inside the Hive? There was so much they didn't know about these constructs, Heidemarie had no way of knowing.
Slightly unnerved, she resumed her orbit, wishing she had some way to make contact with the ground team without violating the mission rules. As it stood, she had no way of knowing how they were getting on, or how much longer they might be at it. She just had to wait, and circle, and hope.
Moving carefully, Lucchini gradually worked her way closer to her injured familiar. Ombra still didn't know who she was—she appeared completely disoriented—but her suspicion seemed to be abating as Lucchini repeated reassurances in a low, gentle voice and kept her movements slow and small.
"There you go," the Romagnan said softly, easing herself a little nearer. She could almost reach out and touch her familiar now, but she didn't; instead, she stopped her hand a few inches short of Ombra's head, palm upturned. "See? It's me. I won't hurt you."
Ombra eyed her warily, then leaned her head forward and gave Lucchini's hand a hesitant sniff. The panther's brow furrowed as the well-known scent penetrated the haze of pain and confusion that had lain like a blanket over her consciousness all this while. She looked up, her cloudy eyes at least partially clearing, and then hesitantly put out her raspy tongue and licked Lucchini's fingers.
Ombra's shadowy outline blurred further as tears filled Lucchini's eyes. She let them flow, tentatively raising her hand to place it on Ombra's velvety black head. Like her tongue, it felt solid, real, as if she were touching a normal animal rather than a spirit avatar. The dense fur crinkled between her fingers, not unlike Wolfgang's when she petted him.
Searching her memory, Lucchini called up the Latin words Dr. Adelsberger had taught her and murmured them softly, almost reverently. «What was lost is found. What was broken is renewed. Favored spirit, there is none but thee for me. Let us be one and go forth to smite the enemies of Man.»
Ombra blinked, the last of the confusion clearing from her face, and Lucchini's eyes flew wide with astonishment.
«Aye. Let it be so.»
The cave filled with light.
Sakuya finished making the bed and stood back, hands on hips, to consider the fruits of her labors. Room 7 East, two doors down from Gryphon's room, was now neat and tidy, all of the junk that had been left in it by the castle's rebuilders taken down to a storage room in the basement and replaced with a full suite of standard-issue furniture: desk, chair, bookcase, wardrobe, double bed. It was all a lot more basic than anything to be found in Scarlet Devil Mansion, and the bed was considerably smaller than Remilia would be used to, but the furniture was all of decent quality and should serve perfectly well for their purposes.
She decided to leave the finishing touches on 7 West until the morrow. That room, like this one, had been cleaned and equipped before the witches had all turned in for the night, but the furniture hadn't been arranged or the bed assembled. There seemed no need to prioritize that task, since Flandre and Meiling wouldn't come in from their walkabout for at least another week, perhaps longer. Until then, she and Remilia could just as well share a single room... particularly as they wouldn't always both be sleeping in it.
Sakuya went to the window and looked out into the night. It was too dark to see the Rhine from here right now, let alone the Schwarzwald beyond it, but she found it somehow comforting to be looking in the direction that the team had gone while she awaited their return. She had no intention of going to bed until the mistress and the Chief were back from their mission.
She wondered why Remilia had suggested that she sign up to spend a night with the Chief. They had never discussed any details of the time she'd spent in his service, in a time which was part of her past and his future. Remilia knew, or had gathered, that Sakuya knew him well, and that she respected and was fond of him was obvious, but she had no reason to think they were that close, surely?
Of course they were, or had been in her past, but given that it was a past he knew nothing of, the gesture had still been more than a bit presumptuous.
Ah, well, she thought. Remilia will always be Remilia, after all.
Thinking of those days, Sakuya glanced at her Lens, and just for a moment she considered making contact with him and finding out how things were coming along. Only for a moment, though, and then she discarded the idea. It was possible she might distract him at an inopportune moment. She decided instead to stick with the standard operating procedure from the old days he hadn't lived yet, and wait for him to call if he had the need.
For that matter, she could easily have gotten the mission team into the AO and out again with The World, but she and Gryphon hadn't even needed to discuss that out loud to reject the idea. They were both well-trained in being discreet with future technology, like his quarian omni-tool or The World, in such situations. It wasn't a question of not trusting the witches of the 501st, but of not wanting to burden them with more secrets to keep from their own superiors and colleagues.
If a bona-fide life-or-death emergency developed and he called for her, that would be another matter. Under those circumstances, she would blow that cover in a heartbeat and deal with the consequences later. For now, though, best to keep the watch's more esoteric capabilities under wraps. Besides, she knew he and the mistress could take care of themselves, and the same must be true of their companions.
With a sigh, Sakuya left the room and went down the hall to Gryphon's. Though he wasn't there, his room was much less barren than this one, and the bookcase wasn't empty. Once there, she selected a book at random (it turned out to be Howard Carter's Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen), took off her shoes, and lay down on his bed to read.
This time, Heidemarie was in no doubt. There was nothing gradual about it now. The Stuttgart Hive abruptly lit up like a busy airport, with rapid pulses of scarlet light running from base to tip along all six corners. She had no way of knowing what, but the structure was unmistakably reacting to something.
Beams of light like the traces of red searchlights shone down from the upper levels, at first disappearing behind the hills that hid the base of the spire and the ruins of Stuttgart from sight. Presently they spread out, playing over the surrounding hills, their crimson pools racing across hills and valleys. For a moment, one of them squarely illuminated the ruins of the Hexeberg, casting long shadows over the adjoining ridge—but then moved on.
A moment later, her radar flickered and then strobed red. Contacts, three of them, just detected emerging from the Hive... and heading this way.
The flash of light from the mouth of the cave was the first indication the rest of the ground team had that anything had happened—that, and a ripple in the Force that only Gryphon was equipped to appreciate fully. Startled, they turned to look, but by the time they were facing the cave, the light had gone. For a few seconds, there was only silence and darkness.
Then a red glow appeared deep within the cave and moved toward them, gently bobbing. A few seconds later, Lucchini emerged into the night, still holding Remilia's red chemlight...
... and with a large black cat, all but invisible in the darkness but unmistakably there, padding at her side.
"Lucchini-chan!" Yoshika breathed, her eyes wide. "Is that...?"
The Romagnan looked puzzled, then smiled. "That's right. You've never seen her before. Everyone... this is Ombra."
Shirley scratched her head. "Why's she manifested like that?"
Lucchini shook her head. "I don't know. She was like this when I found her. I thought she would go back to spirit form when I did what Dr. Adelsberger told me to do in order to reconnect with her, but..." She shrugged. "Here she is."
"Hm. Well, worry about that later," said Remilia pragmatically. "For the moment, best we were gone from this place."
Before anyone could respond, they all heard a click in their earpieces, and then the voice of Heidemarie Schnaufer: "Force Ombra from Phantom, emergency! Something in your sector has attracted the Neuroi. You have three aerial search units inbound."
The members of the ground team glanced at each other in dismay, then turned as one and started heading back toward their landing zone.
"If they haven't detected you yet, they soon will," Heidemarie went on. "Is your business complete?"
"Phantom, this is Flash," Shirley replied, pausing to scramble over a log. "We're on our way, but we're about 200 yards of rough country from our Strikers. How far out are the Neuroi?"
"Not far enough," Heidemarie replied, her voice going steely. "I'll intercept and cover you. Phantom out."
"Shit," said Shirley. Somewhere up above, the faint drone of the Night Witch's props ramped up to combat power, and a few moments later came the staccato bark of her heavy autocannon as she attacked.
All thought of quiet or subtlety gone, the team crashed through the forest at panic speed. Shirley, Lucchini, and Yoshika deployed their magic, Neuroi-chan her weapons, and Remilia her sheer vampire strength to blast, smash through, or shove aside obstacles, clearing a path for Gryphon and the two animals.
"What are we going to do about Ombra?" Lucchini wondered as they went.
"I don't know!" Shirley replied. "We didn't have a plan for that!"
"Bit of an oversight, as it turns out," Gryphon noted dryly.
Remilia was about to suggest that he summon Sakuya, and they'd worry about the explanations later, when Yoshika made a snap decision and said,
"Take my Striker, Lucchini-chan! You'll have to do it like Witolda-san and Wojtek. I'll fly back with Neuroi-chan."
"Are you out of your mind?" Lucchini asked. "That thing's specially tuned for you, just like your Shinden was! I probably won't even be able to get it to start. Besides, I've never flown one of those gwaaaa things before!"
"You'll be fine!" Yoshika insisted. "The Karyū has a more advanced magic engine than the Shinden did. Besides," she added, sparing a moment to give her wingmate a wry grin, "are you saying there's something La Gattina Nera can't do?"
Even under the circumstances, Shirley had to laugh at that, and at the look of pugnacious determination that it brought to Lucchini's face.
"You'll see!" Lucchini said, as if Yoshika had been the one objecting and not herself.
They reached the clearing in front of the ruins at a run, panting, branch-whipped, and disheveled. The battle overhead was mostly hidden by the trees, but they could hear that it was still in full fury and see occasional flashes of fire.
"Phantom, Flash, we're out of the woods—uh, literally, if not figuratively," Shirley called as Gryphon rigged up Wolfgang's flight pack on her back. "How you holdin' up?"
"I'm holding my own," Heidemarie replied, her voice sounding only slightly strained, then added, "But kindly make haste, if you please."
"Roger that, saddlin' up now. Flash out."
With the Lenshound secured, Gryphon knelt to hold up her Striker for her, while a short way away, Yoshika did the same for Lucchini.
"It's a lot more sensitive than you're used to, so maneuver gently," Yoshika advised. "All set?" Lucchini, balancing on the unfamiliar Striker's tail cones, nodded, and Yoshika straightened up. "All right. See if you can power up."
Lucchini closed her eyes, concentrating. She and Ombra both glowed faintly with the gleam of released magic...
... and first the Ki-201's Miyafuji engine, and then its twin turboætherjets, whined to life.
The Romagnan's eyes snapped open, shining with glee.
"Let's go, Ombra," she declared, and the panther sprang onto her back as though they did this kind of thing every day.
"Well, how about that," Shirley asked no one in particular.
Heidemarie terminated one of the Neuroi, rolled out of her attack dive, and started to set herself up for a run on the next when her radar pulsed a new alert.
"Flash, Phantom," she called. "More contacts emerging from the Hive. We definitely have their attention now."
"Roger, Phantom, taking off now. Gimme a vector, we'll back you—"
"Negative! You have your orders—withdraw at best speed. I'll be right behind you."
"... OK, wilco," Shirley replied, misgivings obvious in her voice. "Awright, gang, you heard the lady. Let's get gone."
With the motivation of Neuroi pursuit, Lucchini didn't take long to get her "air legs" back under her, even after weeks of inactivity and at the controls (as it were) of an unfamiliar Striker. Maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was the sheer strangeness of the situation, or some lingering aftershine of reconnecting with Ombra so dramatically, but she barely felt the increased power draw of the advanced jet Striker.
After a couple of initial bobbles that were more startling than genuinely dangerous, she quickly got the hang of it, and found the thing's sheer speed and smoothness astonishing. Any worries she might have had about slowing the group down dissipated rapidly. With this, she could even keep up with Shirley, who, despite having what was on paper the slowest aircraft in the bunch, was pushing it harder than any other witch could get away with pushing a piston-engined Striker.
Headlong, paying no attention to the niceties of formation and never taking the time to look back, they ran like hell for the Rhine—not due east, as instinct suggested, but a few points to the north, toward the point where the Rhine made its closest approach to Calw before meandering away to the south-southwest. At that point, the range to friendly territory was only 30 miles, a distance they could cover in mere minutes flat-out.
Almost before she knew it, Lucchini saw the river ahead, a faintly gleaming black line across a dull black landscape, with the few scattered lights of the sleeping Alsatian countryside beyond—and the faint glow of not one, but two Night Witch radars waiting for them just on the far side.
"Force Ombra, this is Rakas," came Sanya Juutilainen-Litvyak's soft voice in their ears. "Your pursuers are breaking off."
"Doesn't look like they want to try their luck with what might be waiting for them on this side," Eleanor confirmed, sounding just a little bit smug about it. "Welcome back. Everybody OK?"
"I think so," Shirley replied. "Wait one. Phantom, you with us?"
For a moment, there was no reply, and Shirley was just starting to think about declaring that she'd go back and look for Heidemarie when the Night Witch pulled into formation with her. She was mussed and tired-looking, and her Striker had taken a beating—Shirley saw with some dismay that its portside winglet was a stub, the formation light at its tip shot clean off—but intact.
"Present and accounted for," she said, close enough not to need the radio, with a faintly ironic smile.
Sakuya heard the door begin to open. By the time it finished, she was up and shod, her dress and hair unrumpled, the book back in its place on the shelf and the dent she'd left in the bed smoothed out. Her greeting, even hushed as it would have been, died on her lips as she saw that not everyone entering the room was awake. Remilia was, and so was Gryphon, but Lucchini, slumped limply on his back, certainly was not.
She stood aside and let him deposit his passenger on the bed before asking quietly, "I trust all went well?"
"Quite well," he replied, looking tired, but satisfied.
"A few complications," Remilia qualified, "as there always are, but it worked out in the end." She smiled and gave Wolfgang a pat as the beagle sprang up onto the foot of the bed and curled up.
Sakuya might have asked a follow-up, but before she had the chance, she noticed the other figure that had entered the room just behind her mistress: a black jaguar, her glossy coat almost invisible in the darkness of the room beyond the little pool of light cast by the bedside lamp, who now prowled up alongside and regarded her thoughtfully with the most beautiful green eyes.
"Oh my," she said softly. "Ombra, I presume?"
Gryphon nodded. "We're not sure why, but..." He shrugged. "These things happen."
"Well, we'll leave you to your well-earned rest, my love," said Remilia, pausing to give him a hug and kiss. "Sleep well."
"You too," he replied. "Love you. G'night, Sakuya."
"Good night, Chief," said Sakuya, and she and Remilia went quietly down the deserted, silent hall to their own room.
Heidemarie Schnaufer was waiting there for them, despite the fact that her room was near the other end of the hall.
"I shan't keep you long," she said, her voice so hushed as to be nearly inaudible, at least to Sakuya's human hearing. "I wanted to thank you for coming back to my aid, Countess. Under the circumstances, you shouldn't have, but I must acknowledge that if you hadn't... I fear I might not have been able to extricate myself."
Remilia smiled. "Not at all, Major Schnaufer. Didn't you know? We vampires are notoriously poor at following orders." She glanced around conspiratorially, although all three of them knew there was no one else around, then added, "We tend to be something of a law unto ourselves."
She and Heidemarie shared a quiet chuckle, and then they went their separate ways.
Back in his room, Gryphon considered the tableau of witch, panther, and beagle all quietly snoring for a few moments, then remarked with a wry smile to himself, "This never happened to the other fella," before switching off the light and finding what free space he could at the other edge of the bed.
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