Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Unlike Château Saint-Ulrich, the smaller castle on the next crag over hadn't been restored for use as an Allied military facility after the reclamation of Gallia. It still stood empty, a modestly majestic ruin, overlooking the larger castle and the village of Ribeauvillé in the valley below. Apart from some structural repairs to make it safe for occasional sightseers, nothing more had been done to it.
As the sun sank behind the hills to the west, a young woman in the uniform of the Suomus Air Force climbed the ladder to the top of the Girsberg's tower. Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak stood at the parapet, watching as the evening shadow swept down the valley and the village lights began to come on. Moments later, two figures rose from Saint-Ulrich and departed in opposite directions. Eila watched the northbound one until her formation lights and the drone of her props had been swallowed up by the gathering night.
Once Sanya was out of both sight and hearing, Eila remained at the parapet for a while, just looking off into the night and not thinking about anything in particular. Being completely at liberty, she supposed she could go down into town for the evening, or head back to Saint-Ulrich and hang with the others, or just go back to her quarters and read. For whatever reason, none of those options seemed really appealing at the moment, though; so she stayed at the top of the Girsberg tower, feeling odd and out-of-sorts.
She wasn't sure how long she'd been doing that—long enough that it had become fully dark—when she felt a stirring of probabilities and knew that she was about to have unexpected company, though she wasn't getting a feel for who it might be. Puzzled, she turned, just in time to see the hatch down into the tower open and the head and shoulders of another witch pop up.
"Hello!" said Witolda Urbanowicz cheerfully, wriggling her arms through the hatchway so she could brace herself on her elbows and start pulling herself the rest of the way through. "When you are making yourself inaccessible, Suomi, you are not fooling around."
"Well... that wasn't really the goal, as such, but..." said Eila, a bit hesitantly. She still wasn't sure quite what to make of the Polonian. Urbanowicz had evidently made some sort of peace with Sanya the other night, after weeks of giving her a mildly epic form of cold shoulder, but so far the Orussian hadn't seen fit to explain the details beyond what Eila already knew.
(This was mainly that it had involved a titanic quantity of strong drink and a lengthy argument about some details of the eighteenth-century war between their countries, about which the Suomi witch had no knowledge whatsoever.)
Shaking herself out of this mental sidetrack, Eila moved forward to help her colleague up onto the roof. She doubted Witolda had ever been up here before; certainly she hadn't figured out the knack of getting through that narrow hatch without falling back down the ladder.
"Phew!" said Witolda as Eila half-guided, half-pulled her out of the hatch and onto the roof. "Kiitos, towarzysz."
Eila looked down the hatch, saw nothing but the gloom of the tower room below, and turned back to Witolda. "Where's your buddy?" she asked.
"When I left, Wojtek is in common room with the doctor and Wolfgang, pretending he is sofa," Witolda replied cheerfully. "He is laziest bear in whole world, I would never be convincing him to climb up here."
"Ah," said Eila. Carefully, she shut the hatch again; when she straightened up, Witolda had gone to the parapet and climbed up to sit with her feet hanging down, observing the view.
Mildly confounded by this behavior, Eila took a similar position a short distance away, then said, "So... it sounds like you were looking for me?"
Witolda nodded, the bobbing of her black curls barely visible in the starlight. "Yes. I must finish business. I am make peace with Ola; should apologize to you as well." She turned her head to make eye contact with Eila and said, as seriously as the Suomi had ever heard her, "I am sorry for way I was treating her. Since I was little girl I am hating Orussia, and so Orussians. Is not easy thing, break habits all at once."
Eila was so surprised by this that she couldn't respond directly to it; instead, what came out of her mouth after a moment's startled silence was, "... 'Ola'?"
"Is name for girls called Aleksandra in Polonian language," Witolda explained. "Same like Sanya in Orussian."
Eila mulled that over, then asked, "How do you get 'Ola' out of 'Aleksandra'?"
Witolda shrugged. "It cannot be explain. Is like how you Suomi are thinking salt belongs in licorice," she added with an arch grin.
In spite of herself, Eila laughed. "It's not our fault no one else understands fine candies."
"Ha. I am suppose not," Witolda agreed.
They sat for a while, watching the night sky in a silence that was more companionable than Eila would ever have expected. Then, as a shooting star arced across the field of stars, Witolda suddenly said,
"May I ask you personal question, Suomi girl?"
Eila gave her a sidelong glance. "I... guess so?"
"Ola... she is love you very much," said Witolda. "I am sure you are knowing this already."
Eila felt a flaming blush on her cheeks and smiled a little goofily, thankful that the enfolding night would conceal most of both. "I was pretty sure," she allowed.
"Oh, she is," Witolda assured. "Trust me."
After searching for a response to that for a few seconds, Eila gave up and instead prompted warily, "So... what was the question?"
"Well... I suppose I am wonder why," said Witolda. "Or rather how. Suomus, Orussia... not friendliest countries in world either." Holding up her hands, first one, then the other, she went on, "Suomi witch, Orussian witch..." She brought her hands together, enfolding one in the other. "How does this happen?"
Eila was silent for a while; long enough that Witolda said, "If you are not wanting to tell me, is fine. I am just being curious," but Eila shook her head.
"No, it's all right," she said, surprising herself slightly as she said it. "I'm just... thinking of where to start. Or, no... of how to start. Because there's no question as to where." She turned, climbing down from the parapet so she could sit down on the roof and fully face the other witch. As Witolda got down into a matching position a few feet away, Eila met her eyes across the dim space between them and went on,
"'Where' was Petrograd."
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
holiday special mini-series:
The Fall of Petrograd
© 2017 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magic might protect a witch from the effects of altitude, cold, and weather, but that didn't mean that flying in a snowstorm was terribly fun.
Warrant Officer Eila Ilmatar Juutilainen, Suomus Air Force 24th Unit, had been sent on what should have been a fairly ordinary courier run from Immola to Helsinki. She was on her way back to base after a break to rest and 'refuel' on some bread and sausages when a sudden snow squall blew into the gulf. Visibility dropped almost instantly as the freezing clouds and swirling snow surrounded her, and it wasn't long before she found herself unable to confirm if she was still on course.
Her only option was to simply put her head down and lean hard on the props of her Brewster B-239 Striker, trying to push her way through until she could clear the weather and get sight of land once again.
When she finally broke through the clouds, two things were immediately clear:
1) She was quite far off course, if the witches she saw sporting the red Orussian star were any indication.
2) A Neuroi flotilla was bearing down on them, and the outnumbered Orussians would need all the help they could get.
Eila hesitated. Orussians; what did they matter to her? She had her bearings now. The Neuroi hadn't seen her. She could turn north, firewall her throttles, and maybe make it home before the storm caught up with her again. Let the Orussians fend for themselves.
But she remembered Marshal Mannerheim's address, broadcast by radio to the nation when the Neuroi came. "The Winter War is over; the Second Neuroi War is upon us. We must do more than forgive our neighbors—we must embrace them. Only by uniting humanity can we hope to preserve humanity."
Embrace them? Not bloody likely. But her duty was clear.
Gritting her teeth, she readied her weapon and prepared to attack.
As she approached the Orussian formation, Eila saw that they hadn't seen the Neuroi squadron coming, and a moment later she realized why: they were on a ground attack run. Below, appearing intermittently as the wind shifted and the driving snow parted in sheets, Eila could see Orussian tanks and infantry engaged with those spider-shaped Neuroi ground units. These witches were evidently their air support, and they were so focused on their task that they hadn't realized the Neuroi had air support too.
It occurred to Eila that she wouldn't be able to communicate with them at all. She spoke some Orussian—it was hard to grow up in the Karelian borderlands and not pick up at least a conversational facility with the language—but she didn't know their radio frequencies and wasn't sure her old Lorenz headset could pick them up if she did.
Oh, well. She'd just have to trust that even Orussians would be able to tell the difference between a blue-and-white-clad Suomi air witch and a black-and-red Neuroi attack unit. As the aerial Neuroi pounced on the Orussian formation, Eila throttled up, rolled over, and dove in turn on them. She got the first attack run for free, the Neuroi having evidently been just as fixated on their targets as the Orussians were on theirs; but once both formations had scattered into the typical confusion of an aerial melee, she was just as much a target as all the others.
Only a few months out of flight training, Eila was not a terribly experienced witch. This, she realized very soon after joining the battle, was the biggest fight she had yet been a part of. There were only a handful of other witches in the air, but the weight of Neuroi forces arrayed against them was far greater in proportion than she had ever seen before: There were at least a dozen big enough to have cores, and probably half again as many drones. This, plus the ground battle happening at the same time, meant that the skies became a very hectic place very fast, and Eila—concentrating hard on keeping herself alive and damaging the enemy, in that order—had little time or mental bandwidth to spare on noticing details not directly relevant to those two goals.
Presently she pulled out of a victorious duel with one of the minor drones to find herself swooping low over the Orussian ground force's flank, where a couple of their smaller tanks were up against one of the spidery land Neuroi. At this close range, Eila felt a flash of unease at the sight of the Orussian tanks; it wasn't that long ago that she had fully expected her first sight of such things to come as they attacked her hometown.
Now the Neuroi took priority, however, and though not equipped for ground attack, she strafed it as best she could before pulling up and turning back to find a new target in the air. Behind and slightly above her, she saw one of the Orussian witches—a blonde in a sheepskin jacket, flying a brown-painted heavy Striker—rolling in on that same ground target in a shallow dive to the left. In her right hand, she held a long-barreled autocannon; tucked under her left arm was a bulky object Eila did not immediately recognize...
... until, her cannon burst having completed the job Eila's bullets began of breaking open the land Neuroi's carapace, the blonde Orussian completed her roll and dropped the object from under her arm. As it plummeted neatly into the breach in the Neuroi's armor, Eila had just enough time to register its teardrop shape, its stubby fins, and realize that it was an aerial bomb, of the kind that would normally be slung under a conventional aircraft's wing.
Then the bomb exploded, fracturing the Neuroi's core, and as it dissolved into crystal flakes that vanished into the blowing snow, Eila's turn took her back into the aerial scrum, and she saw no more of the blonde who had dropped it.
The next few minutes were a blur of frantic, violent self-preservation, with time to spare for only the merest flashes. Eila hadn't been sure, when the fight began, exactly how many Orussians there were. They didn't seem to be very uniformly equipped, though, which helped distinguish them as she caught glimpses of them in the swirl of combat. There seemed to be only three of them: the blonde with the autocannon; one with long grey hair and a long white coat, who fought with an old-fashioned rifle and (to Eila's distinct surprise) fixed bayonet; and a younger one whose hair was fully and properly white, wearing what looked like a navy peajacket and carrying a heavy Berezin machine gun in each hand.
Darting through the middle of the fray, Eila wrecked another of the Neuroi drones with a couple of tight bursts, then pulled a hard turn to avoid one of the bigger ones' line of fire. She was starting to feel just the slightest bit concerned about her ammunition supply. She'd never run out of ammo yet, in training or in combat, but then she'd never had quite so much to shoot at before. She'd know a second or two in advance, thanks to the particular fine-tuning of her magical gift, but a second or two's worth wasn't a lot of bullets the way the Browning was chewing through them.
As she had the thought, she spotted a fourth witch she hadn't spotted before: a tiny figure in black, grey-haired like the one with the long coat, with one of those Orussian submachine guns that looked like copies of the KP/-31 in her right hand. She was blazing away at one of the big Neuroi, and doing an impressive amount of damage considering how small her gun was, when Eila's magic twinged and she realized that the little Orussian was about to run out of sky.
Without comms or any time to do it more elegantly, Eila put her shoulder down and rammed the smaller witch, forcing her bodily out of her flight path. Startled, the girl turned, nearly losing her grip on her weapon, and for an instant her green eyes met Eila's violet ones, an indignant question forming behind them.
An instant later, before she had a chance to ask it, she had her answer. It took the form of a beam of scarlet energy carving through the space immediately behind the Suomi stranger—right where she herself had just been.
Eila didn't even notice the Neuroi plasma beam as it passed within a few inches of her back; she was too stunned by the close-up sight of the witch she had just rescued.
Ilmatar! she thought. She's just a child!
If the Suomi sky goddess had answered her namesake's invocation, She might have pointed out that Eila was still essentially a child herself, still a couple of months short of her thirteenth birthday. Still, the grey-haired little Orussian looked even younger—barely old enough to be flying solo, let alone fighting—and Eila was so shocked by the girl's youth and the surprising color of her eyes that she momentarily forgot where she was or why.
Evidently the green-eyed Orussian did not; rather than speak any of the questions she must still have had, she slung her submachine gun, used her right hand to push Eila gently but firmly out of her way, and flung what looked like a Karlsländer potato-masher grenade past the Suomi's head with her left. As the grenade on its long stick tumbled past her ear, Eila could hear the fuse within it hissing. The sound broke her reverie; she spun on her props to watch the grenade whirl end-over-end through the air, toward the Neuroi the grey-haired girl had been shooting at when Eila arrived.
It was the most perfect throw Eila thought she had ever seen. Just as the jagged hole in the Neuroi's crystal armor closed itself, the grenade arrived, tumbling through so that the crystal sealed around it with a few inches of the stick still protruding—and the warhead on the inside. A moment later, it exploded, and the Neuroi disintegrated in a pulse of red light.
Eila turned back to the Orussian, speechless. They had only a moment to regard each other, both of them evidently unable to think of anything to say, before the chaos closed around them again and forced them to keep moving. They never exchanged a word—after that instant's respite, never had the opportunity to do so; but by some silent, possibly unconscious consensus, they stuck more or less together for most of the rest of the fight.
The next thing Eila was consciously aware of was the abrupt realization that the sky was empty. The last of the Neuroi drones fell to pieces before what had to be close to the last of her bullets, and a sudden silence descended, but for the howl of the wind and the strangely distant drone of her own propellers. Turning, she did a quick circular scan, as she'd been trained, but saw no threats. The enemy were gone, destroyed or withdrawn, she couldn't say for certain about all of them. Looking down, she could see nothing of the ground, or of the battle that had been raging there; the tide of combat had left her too high up, or too far away, or both.
The only thing in sight that wasn't the terrible weather was the little group of Orussian witches, who were regrouping a quarter-mile or so away. As Eila watched, the blonde with the heavy Striker looked up from marshaling the others, noticed her, and then raised a hand in an exaggerated overhead gesture. It wasn't quite the same as the emergency radio-out wingleader signals Eila had been trained to read from her own superiors, but it was close enough that its intent was unmistakable: Follow me.
Eila hesitated. Now that the crisis was over, and honor had been satisfied, her first impulse was to break off and make for home. She wasn't sure exactly where she was, but if she could drop low enough to break out of these clouds again, she was reasonably sure she could pick up the coastline, orient herself, and at least hit Suomus, if not her exact home base...
... But the weather was socking in again, worse than it had been when she initially got lost, and she realized as she considered it that she was tapped out. The battle just completed had been the longest and hardest of her young life to date. Her ammunition was all but exhausted and so was her endurance; as she hovered, considering, her Striker's port engine missed and backfired, coughing a cloud of black smoke from its exhaust stacks. Even if the weather were clear and she knew exactly where she was, she wouldn't make it home in this condition. This was no time to go blundering around in a storm.
With a weary sigh, she slung the Browning on her back and plodded after the withdrawing witches.
The Orussian witches led her to a snowy field that resembled an airbase even less than the improvised facilities back in Suomus, wedged in between the shells of buildings on the outskirts of the biggest and most ruined city she had ever seen.
Eila knew Petrograd had been under siege since the Neuroi arrived in the region, months before, and she had heard it had been rocked, even before that, by the civil war that had toppled Czar Nicholas II's crazed widow and installed her eldest daughter on the imperial throne. Still, she wasn't prepared for just how ravaged it was. From her vantage point in the gathering twilight, she couldn't see a single building that looked wholly intact, and many, like the burned-out husks to either side of their destination, were completely destroyed. It seemed unimaginable that people could still live in a place like this, but the thin columns of smoke still rising from chimneys and the lights still burning in some of the windows gave silent evidence that some still did.
Taxiing in, Eila found herself being waved inside a ramshackle hangar at one end of the field by a figure so heavily muffled in greatcoat and ushanka that she could tell nothing more about it. As she entered the building, she realized it wasn't really a hangar at all; to judge by the vestigial markings on what had been a hardwood floor, it had once been a gymnasium. Within, another, similarly bundled-up person gestured her to one of several unoccupied Striker stages in the row of them that stood along one wall. Gratefully, she backed her Brewster into position, locked it in place, and shut it down.
She remained aboard for a few moments after powering the Striker off, just gathering herself for the herculean task of climbing out of the thing. When at length she opened her eyes and looked up, she was surprised to find one of the Orussian witches standing in front of the stage, regarding her with a faint smile. It was the older of the two with grey hair, the one wearing the long white coat; this close, she looked to be a grown woman, eighteen or nineteen, with brown eyes so light they looked orange in the flickering light of the old-fashioned lamps and oil-drum fires that were all the hangar was lit with. She had a narrow horizontal scar under her left eye and a battered peaked officer's cap crammed down on her head, and in her left hand she had a pair of bulky felt boots.
"Here," she said, placing the boots on the top deck of Eila's Striker stage. "Valenki," she explained to Eila's quizzical look. "Not good for running in," she added with a wry little grin, "but at least they keep your toes from freezing and breaking off."
"Thanks," said Eila, who had not considered the problem of shoes until that moment. Steeling herself, she levered her aching body out of the Brewster, found her way into the boots, and then climbed down from the stage.
"Come," said the grey-haired witch. "I'll take you to the person in charge." Without waiting to see if Eila would follow, she headed off across the room, leading her bemused guest to an inside door.
The building on the far side of that door seemed weirdly familiar, but also out of place, to Eila as the white-coated witch led her down a wide hallway. Not until she glanced into the open door of one of the side rooms as they passed, and spotted a blackboard on one of the walls, did she realize it was a school. Or had been, anyway. Like the city outside, the building was largely a ruin. Its structure seemed basically intact, but paint peeled from crumbling plaster on the walls, the wooden floor was uneven and creaky, and none of the overhead light fixtures was working. Neither, Eila concluded as it belatedly occurred to her how cold she felt, was the heating.
The witch in the white coat conducted her into a large room at the end of the hall. From the shelves lining the walls and the large desk at one end, Eila supposed it had been the school's library once. Now the room had been converted into a makeshift barracks, the space once taken up by chairs and carrels now occupied by utilitarian metal bunks, the shelves holding not books but rather weapons and other bits of equipment. The only heat came from a small potbelly stove in the center, its tin-pipe chimney evidently installed through the ceiling with the aid of an axe.
The other witches from the afternoon's battle were here, as well as a few other women whose precise role Eila couldn't tell offhand. The ones who had been involved in the fight were putting away their equipment, moving as slowly and wearily as Eila herself felt, and the others were either talking with them in hushed tones or lying quietly on bunks. At this range, Eila could see that they all looked battered in one way or another, a few sporting bandages that seemed none too fresh.
The blonde witch who had dropped a bomb at the start of the battle was standing by the large desk, scrawling something on a clipboard with the stub of a pencil. Seeing the others approaching, she completed the note, shoved the clipboard aside, and turned to regard Eila with cool, almost expressionless grey eyes that seemed to look right through her. She seemed to be in her middle teens, a bit young for her evident position, but her eyes... her eyes were much older, and Eila had to make an effort not to quail before their scrutiny.
"This is what remains of 586th Air Regiment, Orussian Imperial Air Service," she said without preamble. "I am Yegorova. I am in command..."
She paused to take a cigarette from a pack in her shirt pocket, plug it into the corner of her mouth, and light it with a worn Britannian Ronson lighter.
"... As much as anyone is in command these days," Yegorova concluded with a fatalistic shrug.
Eila stared at her for a moment, too intimidated to speak. Then, pulling herself together, she saluted and said,
"Warrant Officer Eila Ilmatar Juutilainen, Suomus Air Force 24th Unit."
Yegorova took a long, hard drag on her cigarette, burning down nearly half of it, and held it for a long moment, gazing thoughtfully at Eila. Then, turning her head slightly so she wasn't blowing it directly into her unexpected guest's face, she exhaled a great cloud of smoke and said matter-of-factly,
"You are a long way from home, Suomi."
"I know," Eila replied, forcing herself not to blink or back away.
Yegorova considered that response for a moment, then shrugged. "Well..." she said, then finished the cigarette off in a second hard pull and flicked the butt carelessly into the corner before gesturing vaguely to the ruins around them.
"Welcome to the end of the world."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
holiday special mini-series
The Fall of Petrograd
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2017