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Eila Juutilainen woke to find herself alone. This surprised her, mainly because she hadn't expected to get any sleep in the first place, but also because Sanya had left while she was about it.
She lay there for a while in hopes of drifting off again, but ultimately decided it was no good. Now that she'd had some sleep, she simply wasn't tired enough to ignore the distant thunder of battle from outside. Was it louder now than it had been when she turned in? She couldn't tell. She thought it might be.
Besides, now that she was awake, she needed to pee.
Pushing off the covers, she sat up and looked around the 586th Air Regiment's barracks. The world outside the windows was still in full darkness, the only illumination coming from the glow of the fires burning on the other side of the city. Eila's dark-adjusted eyes could barely make out the shapes of the other beds, their occupants still and breathing quietly—either asleep, or just faking it for form's sake.
Eila quietly slipped her feet into the felt boots she'd been given when she first arrived, then got up and made her way out of the room, bound for the latrine at the end of the hall. Once in the corridor, however, she was surprised to see a splash of light from one of the doorways farther down, and to hear the quiet sound of music filtering into the hallway. She went and accomplished her more urgent mission first, then went down the hall to investigate rather than return to bed.
The door with the light showing from it led to the mess. When Eila arrived, she found Sanya Litvyak and Hibiki Verniskaya there, sitting at the table with the portable gramophone that was the base's only recreational equipment and a bottle of vodka set up between them. At her arrival, they both looked up; Sanya smiled slightly, while Hibiki produced a third glass from somewhere and set it down at the place next to Sanya.
"Good morning, Praporshchik Juutilainen," said the white-haired navy witch in a low voice as she poured the new arrival a helping of vodka. "Join us."
Eila sat down, but didn't pick up the glass. "What time is it?" she wondered.
Sanya glanced at the luminous dial of her wristwatch and said, "Five-thirty."
"Aleksandra Vladimirovna and I were just discussing how we might get you out of here," said Hibiki.
"... Sorry?" asked Eila.
"Petrograd is falling," Sanya told her, speaking so quietly Eila had to concentrate to understand her. "If you stay with us any longer, you may never get out."
"Captain Bjelik thinks the northern corridor is still closed by air," Hibiki said, "but with the Neuroi concentrated in the southeast, you might make it to the Suomi border—if you're fast enough, and with the two of us to cover you. Of course, we can't go all the way with you, that would be desertion. But I think we can get you out before the noose finishes closing, then come back here and..." She paused, slugging back some vodka. "... Do what we can."
"What would happen to you?" Eila wanted to know.
"We'll probably be discplined," Hibiki replied with a shrug, "but what does it matter?" Seeing Eila's incredulous look, she took another drink, then said matter-of-factly, "It's worth trying. There's no more than a 60 to 70 percent chance we will all be killed."
"I..." Eila trailed off, uncertain what to say. She looked down for a moment at the glass in front of her, then impulsively picked it up and drank its contents in one gulp. She'd never had hard liquor before in her life, and this was a particularly harsh example to start with—it tasted like it had been distilled from some sort of industrial cleaner—but she swallowed it without coughing or wincing, with no outward sign of distress other than a slight narrowing of one eye and a minor leftward head-tilt.
"No," she said. "Even if I thought you could get away with it, I wouldn't ask you to do that for me... and I'm not leaving, anyway."
"Eila," said Sanya, her voice even smaller.
Eila turned to her, seeing the look of shock on her face, and took her hand, marveling inward at how tiny it was, but how strong as it returned her grip. This time there was no dissenting inner monologue, no voice in her head demanding to know what the hell she was doing. There was only a calm, crystalline clarity, brought into even sharper focus by the ice-cold alcohol fizzing across her nerves for the very first time.
"We'll face this together," she said, "all of us."
Hibiki considered the tableau before her for a long moment; then, with a very small smile, she raised her glass and paid the 586th's Suomi visitor the highest compliment in her arsenal:
"True words, Comrade."
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
After a largely silent breakfast, most of the 586th's witches gathered in the hangar—or rather in the alert shack in the hangar, since unlike the half-ruined ex-gymnasium, the alert shack at least had a stove—to wait. Even here, in this inside room, they could hear the crash and boom of battle. It was definitely louder than it had been last night, though no one could tell if that meant the fighting was getting closer, or simply more furious.
They didn't have long to wait. Within half an hour, the door swung open and the regiment's top two officers entered, their faces even grimmer than usual.
"It's time," said Colonel Yegorova simply.
"The enemy's final push is upon us," Captain Bjelik elaborated. "Gatchina is already overrun."
That sent a ripple of dismay through the room; to those who knew the geography of the area, it was confirmation that the battle had gotten closer—much closer—overnight.
"Come," Bjelik said, and she and the colonel left the room again. The other witches moved as one to follow them out.
Eila, at the back, hesitated for just a moment. Though she'd carried her Tarot cards throughout her time in Petrograd, she had never dared to consult them, so desperate was the situation; but now she found herself unable to resist. Quickly, almost furtively, while no one was looking, she pulled a card at random from the deck in her belt pouch and turned it over.
Wincing, Eila tucked it away and hurried from the alert shack. They're not meant to be taken literally, she reminded herself sternly.
By this time, Eila had geared up for action with these witches five times—twice for the sorties on the 21st, and three times more yesterday. This time, she saw as she approached her Striker, was different. On the other launches, the witches of the 586th took only what they thought they would absolutely need: personal weapons, ammunition, and basically nothing else.
This time, they were loading up like a supply run—spare weapons, ammo for guns they weren't even carrying, rations, bandages, and every other potentially useful item they still possessed and could find space for. Only Hibiki, who flew one of those strange Liberion Strikers that still had a backpack-mounted magic engine (a distinct oddity in the Miyafuji era), wasn't strapping on a pack loaded with supplies.
To Eila's eye, Reva Oktyabrskaya looked about as heavily armed as the battleship Gangut, from which she took her nickname: before taking up her Mosin-Nagant rifle and fixing its bayonet, she loaded and secured about her person no fewer than four Tokarev pistols and two Nagant revolvers, and carried as well an old Imperial Navy dress sabre, of a kind that wouldn't have seemed out of place in the age of fighting sail. Next to her, Hibiki prepared her twin Berezin UBS heavy machine guns, with her P-39's heavy engine pack on her back and her prized golden cookpot perched jauntily on her head like an improvised helmet.
On the other side, Yekaterina Zelenko was draping herself with ammunition belts for her own UBS as if she considered them some sort of supplemental body armor, and stuffing every available pocket with tinned rations and chocolate. Colonel Yegorova's Il-2 heavy Striker had heavy anti-armor grenades affixed like miniature bombs to the hardpoints on its stubby winglets; with her enormous ShVAK armor-piercing cannon in one hand, she hefted a metal rack containing a pair of 50-kilogram dead-drop bombs in the other, as if it were no heavier than a pair of milk bottles.
In the bay next to Eila's, Sanya, her tiny frame rendered bulky by an army greatcoat and scarf, was carrying no fewer than nine weapons—her PPSh submachine gun, another brace of Nagants, and six grenades of three different types—along with a belt of cartridges that looked like they were for Gangut's rifle. On her face was the most furious scowl of concentration Eila had ever seen on it.
The look didn't suit her, to the Suomi witch's eye, but Eila was too busy sorting through the gear available at her own station to dwell on it much. Her old Brewster B-239 Striker's Miyafuji engine was an early model, too underpowered to enable feats of strength like Hibiki's dual-wielding of heavy machine guns, but she took a PPSh as a backup to her Liberion .30-caliber machine gun—at worst, she could at least give the ammunition to Sanya if she needed it—as well as a Tokarev and a couple of the small Britannian grenades called Mills bombs.
She was securing all of that about her person when she saw Captain Bjelik conclude a conversation on the telephone by the alert shack door, hang the instrument up, and then turn and limp briskly toward the flightline. At first, Eila thought the squadron's operations officer was coming over to give Yegorova a last-minute update on the tactical situation.
Instead, to her shock, she saw Bjelik go to the Striker stage next to Yegorova's and start unlacing her boots.
This startled Eila for two reasons. First, because she had assumed the Striker in that stage was a junker the beleaguered squadron had just never had the time or opportunity to get rid of. It was an ancient Polikarpov Po-2 biplane Striker, a pre-Miyafuji design from the 1920s. This one seemed to have been modified to use a Miyafuji engine at some point, as its original backpack engine module was nowhere in evidence, but still, such a thing was surely not suited to front-line combat in 1941. Eila had seen photos of Orussian agro-witches dusting crops with Po-2s before the war.
Second, and principally, Eila had assumed Bjelik was not a witch. She hadn't been flying with the regiment when the Suomi witch had first encountered them, nor launched on any occasion since. She also wore trousers, which, even in this climate, was unusual for a witch; the other Orussians, like Eila and the other Suomi she knew, wore heavy insulated tights. Moreover, she seemed to be in her mid-twenties, so even if she once had been a witch, according to everything Eila knew about magic, her career should have ended years ago.
But here she was, stepping out of her boots, then taking hold of the Striker dock's rails for balance as she took off her trousers—and with a shock, Eila saw why she wore them, and why she walked with a pronounced limp: the Orussian's right leg ended just below the knee. She'd left the prosthetic behind in her boot.
"You don't have to do this, Evgeniya Petrovna," Yegorova told her, sounding almost plaintive, as the operations officer bowed her head in concentration.
"Of course I do, Anna," Bjelik said, eyes still closed, and then murmured as if to herself, "Родина-мать зовёт."
A moment later, her body glowed with the release of magic, and a raven's wings, all but invisible against her dark hair, manifested on her head. Hopping forward, she dropped into the waiting Striker and powered it up, then started readying her own weapons (a light machine gun and a pocketful of grenades, not too unlike Eila's own loadout for this mission). The hangar filled with the sputter and then the roar of piston engines as, their preparations complete, the seven witches brought their Strikers to full power; and then they were away, roaring off into the milky light of an overcast dawn.
"Listen carefully, everyone," Yegorova said, her voice crackling in all the witches' headsets, as they formed up and flew east over the heart of the ruined city. "Every asset Orussia has left in the area has been deployed, so we will need to be certain of our comms. Our call sign for this operation is Blizzard. Numbers as usual. Juutilainen, you will be Blizzard 7."
"Roger," Eila replied, pleased with herself for keeping her voice so cool and even.
"Our task is to secure the western flank of the evacuation operation—the absolute line is the boundary of the rail marshaling yard. A train is leaving every five minutes. We must be certain it stays that way until everyone is away." Yegorova paused, then went on, "Her Imperial Majesty and her family are determined to be the last civilians out. Their train is scheduled to depart at eight o'clock this evening."
"Twelve hours," said Zelenko, her usually cheerful voice dipping nearly to despair. Then, in something more like her normal tone, she added, "I expect a dacha for this, Anna Alexandrovna. Make careful note of that."
"So noted," Yegorova replied, absolutely deadpan.
The day of December 24, 1941, was recorded in Eila Juutilainen's memory only as a barely liminal smear of moments, distinct in themselves but blurred to complete indecipherability at their edges. Later in her life, she could not even be certain what order they happened in, or that all of the things she remembered really had happened at all.
They weren't in the air the whole day, of course. That would have been impossible, even with the Miyafuji engine, even with so much on the line. Twelve solid hours of uninterrupted aerial fighting was beyond the physical and metaphysical capabilities of even the most talented and determined witch. They were technically in combat for the entire day, though, never leaving the operational area nor returning to base. On occasion, when there was a lull in their sector or another of the capital's hard-pressed wings could momentarily relieve them, they landed to cool their equipment, perform makeshift repairs, redistribute supplies, and "refuel" by wolfing down some of the rations Zelenko was carrying; but they never powered down their magic engines, never dismounted, never left the line.
For the first few hours, Eila kept a worried eye on Bjelik, certain that—for all her courage and force of will—the operations officer's strengh must soon fail her. It never did, and by mid-morning, Eila had all she could do to keep a worried eye on herself, and occasionally Sanya.
She didn't even have much mental capacity to spare for marveling at Petrograd. She'd gotten an inkling of its size on the first day she arrived there, but the 586th's base had been out on the far western edge of the city, so she hadn't acquired anything like a sense of its true scale. Now, as she flew and fought high in the air over the heart of it, she could see that it was—or had been—a vast metropolis. In its day, before months of Neuroi siege had reduced it to ruins, it must have been far bigger and far grander than Helsinki, previously the largest settlement Eila had ever seen.
Now, of course, it was almost all in the same condition as the crumbling wreck of the old school where she'd lived for the last few days. Only a few of the buildings at the very heart of the city remained more or less intact: most notably a sprawling structure by the river Neva that she knew from books was the Winter Palace, residence of the Tsars. At one point, passing overhead, Eila noticed the wrecks of warships, sunk in the river alongside the palace, but with their twisted superstructures and a few wrecked turrets still protruding from the ice. She wondered which was the Aurora, which Gangut, but the battle carried them swiftly away from the place, and she had neither the time nor the opportunity to ask either of the navy witches about it.
The day wore on. It was one of the shortest of the year at this latitude, the winter solstice having been just days before, but by midday, to the defenders of the Petrograd evacuation, it felt like it had neither beginning nor end. At one point, half-dazed with exhaustion both physical and mental, Eila caught herself wondering whether they were all in fact already dead, and this was simply the eternal warfare she'd heard the old legends of Baltland foretold as the afterlife for fallen soldiers. Just this one day, over this unendingly ruined city, against infinite waves of faceless, soulless enemies, unable to escape even by dying.
She shook her head, slapped herself hard across the face—that kind of witless meandering would get a witch really killed!—and ate another wedge from the little round of hard, bitter Karlslandic chocolate Zelenko had given her at their last resupply. It tasted weird, but she felt the head-clearing burst of energy immediately, before she'd even swallowed it. According to the Orussian, it was "the latest thing—infused with raw magic," whatever that meant. Eila supposed if anyone would be clever enough to create such a thing, it would be the Karlsländer. Or the Fusōnese, but their version would probably be based on some kind of dried fish. Strange people, the Fusōnese. She'd heard about them from her sister, who had received air support from a few of their aviators in her service as a tank witch. From so far away, and yet so very Scandinavian in some of their habits.
No! Damn it, stay focused! another voice barked in her head, and Eila straightened up instinctively. She knew, on some level, that she was hallucinating—her Instructor Pilot from witch school was not speaking to her, over the radio or in any other way—but the message was a repetition of a timely one from the hardest phase of her training: Your glimpses of the future will do you no good if you aren't paying attention! Get complacent and you'll die, Juutilainen, and if you waste all the hard work I've put into you, I'll see to it you're reincarnated as my own personal tonttu, see if I don't!
Eila had no desire to be killed, but even less desire to be reincarnated as a sauna spirit bound to Instructor Pilot Korhonen's service. Shaking her head even harder, she popped another wedge of chocolate and looked around for Sanya.
She found the little Orussian just in time to see her dispatch one of the big core-bearing Neuroi with the same trick she'd used when they first met: blasting a hole in its armor with her PPSh, then lobbing a grenade into its interior before it had a chance to seal itself back up. This, Eila had seen over their subsequent sorties together, was one of Sanya's favorite tricks. With her slight frame and underpowered MiG-1 Striker, she could only carry light weapons, too light to do fatal damage to the large Neuroi by themselves, and she had not as yet developed a magical specialty that might compensate for this shortcoming. Creative use of explosives made up much of the difference.
Between the PPSh's bullet-hose rate of fire and her limited carrying capacity for grenades, though, the technique left her chronically short of ammunition. Now, for instance, as she turned away from her mortally damaged target, Eila could see that Sanya's belt and bandolier were both empty; she'd used her last grenade and had no more drums for her gun.
"Blizzard 6, resupplying," she called on the regimental frequency, then turned and headed for the column of red smoke that marked the nearest of the ground caches.
"Seven, supporting," Eila responded automatically, turning to follow her in and provide cover. A flicker of probabilities—she turned her head—
One of the evidently infinite supply of rocket-shaped Neuroi drones, too small to have cores but big enough to be deadly, had spotted Sanya making for the landing zone and made a beeline for her. As it raced toward Sanya, its blunt nose lengthening into a lethal point, Eila cried without forethought, "Rakas, three o'clock!"
Sanya had no idea what the name meant, but instinct told her it was addressed to her; she looked to her right, saw the drone approaching, and threw up her rune shield just in time to deflect its plasma beam. It kept coming, accelerating, clearly intending to impale its target if its beam wouldn't do the job.
Eila put on more speed and opened fire, but the thing was moving so damned fast that she didn't give it enough lead at first, her initial burst passing well to the rear. Cursing, she corrected her aim, bullets tearing at the drone's structure. Not good enough—she had to hit one of the fins if she was to have any hope of deflecting it—
Gangut appeared out of nowhere, screaming like a charging Cossack, and rammed the drone amidships, spearing it on her Mosin-Nagant's bayonet like a prize fish. A rune disc, like a shield but smaller and brighter, pulsed at the base of the blade, then seemed to collapse into the steel and burst outward, sending rays of brilliant blue-white light punching out from within the alien machine in all directions. The drone disintegrated, flying apart into fragments that blew around the two witches like snow and then dissipated into nothing.
Then, before either Sanya or Eila could thank her, she tossed the former a jaunty salute and a wink, turned, and sped away, trailing behind her a wisp of smoke from the pipe she held clenched in her teeth.
Most of the lasting impressions in Eila's memory of that day were like that one: moments that stood proud of the featureless bog of misery by their suddenness, their brilliance, their strangeness.
Hibiki fighting for the entire day with that cookpot on her head, held there who-knew-how, its golden flash making her easy to spot against the dull grey of the overcast sky.
Bjelik using her antique biplane Striker's slow speed and preposterous turning ability, and her absolute mastery of its flight envelope, to completely chump a pair of converging Large Types into colliding with each other.
Colonel Yegorova seemingly everywhere at once, placing a bomb here, a cannon shell there, precisely where they would do the most good; her expression never changing, the steely tone in her voice never wavering, throughout the long, hard day.
Sanya, her face grim, clinging to the upper slope of a Large Type and calmly executing its core with one of her Nagant revolvers, after running out of grenades again.
Gangut's seemingly inexhaustible fury, expending all her cartridges and then fighting the Neuroi like some strange flying version of a Helvetian pikewitch of old until someone could bring her some more, a revolutionary battlecry never far from her lips.
Zelenko's masterful gunnery, never a round wasted; her evidently bottomless pockets that always seemed to produce exactly what was needed when it was called for; and forever, even now, smiling.
All else was a gray-red blur: the sky an endless chaos of Neuroi, darting witches, slashing beams, explosions; and on the ground, a short way off to the southeast, the only sign of human life the trains, always leaving, leaving, leaving. Where did they all come from?
The next time they could all afford to pause at once came well after sunset, though the ruined cityscape was still reasonably well illuminated at combat altitude thanks to all the fires. Battered and weary, the seven witches gathered around a small one, deliberately started in an oil drum in the remains of what had been an apartment building's courtyard, a stone's throw from the outer perimeter of the rail yard. The skies had inexplicably gone quiet, but instead of being pleased and relieved by this development, they were all suspicious of it.
"Why have they stopped coming?" Gangut wondered rhetorically as she all but inhaled the contents of a tin of beans.
"Maybe we've finally killed them all," said Zelenko, but for once, her ever-present smile didn't reach her eyes.
"The Neuroi never do anything without a motive," Bjelik mused. "Even if no human being can fathom what it is."
Yegorova gave her operations officer a worried look. They all looked terrible—windburned, bloodied, spent—but Bjelik was the worst off of the lot. Her eye was sunken in a deep, dark ring, and in the firelight it glowed with an unhealthy intensity. Was it Eila's imagination, or had her hair actually begun to go silver at the temples, just below her raven's wings? It hadn't been like that before, had it? She was elderly by witch standards, but she still couldn't be older than twenty-four or -five.
Bjelik seemed to sense the others' eyes upon her; looking up from her contemplation of the fire, she looked faintly irked and said, "Don't trouble yourselves about me, youngsters." Then, with a dry little smile that faintly shocked Eila by its sudden appearance, she added, "In Orussia the old women are always the strongest. Most of you should know that already."
The rest of them took that with the respectful silence it warranted, finished up their impromptu dinner, and then set about redistributing their supplies and restocking their ammunition once more.
Once she had eaten all the beans, Gangut tossed the empty tin aside, cleaned her spoon with a handful of snow and put it away in an inside pocket somewhere, then took out her tobacco pouch and started meticulously repacking her pipe. Looking up from her work, she saw Eila, not really watching her, but with her fatigue-blank eyes mostly looking in her direction.
Catching her eye, the elder witch held out the pouch. "Smoke?"
Eila didn't, and didn't really want to start, but knowing how carefully Gangut had hoarded her supply, she also couldn't bring herself to snub such obvious, extravagant generosity. She remembered a squadronmate back home telling her once, in one of those random barracks conversations that wandered into weird corners, that the tissue-like paper Browning ammunition belts came wrapped in could be used to make an improvised cigarette; so she carefully took a pinch of Gangut's tobacco, tore off a piece of the paper from inside the open ammo can at her side, and clumsily rolled it up, then lit it on the flame from the navy witch's proffered lighter.
It tasted mostly of the lubricating oil the ammunition paper was soaked in, and Eila wondered briefly what smoking that stuff was going to do to her lungs, but on the other hand, could it possibly be the most dangerous thing she did today?
"First Zelenko's bathtub vodka, now this," Hibiki observed with a fond little smile. "We'll make a man of you yet, Comrade."
Eila arched an eyebrow at her, but any verbal reply was forestalled by the arrival of a young man—really little more than a boy, no older than Yegorova or Zelenko—in the uniform of an Imperial Guard captain, scrambling over the jumbled brickwork of the fallen wall separating the witches' bivouac from the rail yard.
"Colonel Yegorova," he said breathlessly, saluting. "Her Majesty the Tsaritsa bids me to inform you that—in large part thanks to your regiment's efforts—the evacuation is proceeding ahead of schedule. The last civilian trains are loading now; the imperial party is preparing to depart within the hour."
"Excellent," Yegorova replied. "In that case, Captain Romanov, perhaps we had better be briefed on the plan for the endgame."
"The line is clear as far as Tikhvin, where the 703rd is waiting to provide cover for the run to Moscow," Romanov said. "You must cover the rear and ensure that no Neuroi forces threaten to stop us from leaving the city. Once we're clear, you're to get out any way you can. Follow us, or make for Suomus or Petrozavodsk—disengage and get out however you can. I am aware," he went on before anyone could speak, "that this is a shabby plan at best, but we can come up with nothing better. Our forces are in total disarray. You seven are the last witches left in Petrograd."
Zelenko shook her head, but placed a hand on the young officer's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"I want a dacha, Nikita," she said. "A nice one. On a lake. It doesn't have to be big or fancy, but it has to be on a lake. With good fishing..." She paused, sighing, and then went on in a tone that somehow managed to be bitter and weary and yet still cheerful at the same time, "... and no fucking Neuroi."
"If we survive this, Katyusha," the captain replied, "I daresay all seven of you will have whatever you want."
Yegorova did that two-puffs-and-done thing to another cigarette, blowing the second batch of smoke out in the course of a long, tired sigh. "All right," she said. "Let's all make sure we're re-armed and ready to go. We'll rest here until..."
She trailed off, lifting her eyes to the fire-glow sky above the ruined apartment house's roof to the east, and stared hard into the night for several tense seconds.
"I think you had best get back to your train, Nikolai Alexievich," she said without looking away from the sky. "You don't want to miss your departure... and we are about to be very busy."
"May the spirits guard you," said the deeply moved young officer, unsuccessfully hiding the tears that had sprung to his eyes with a salute; then he turned and hurried away.
"Prepare yourselves, comrades," Yegorova said, gathering up her weapons in an unhurried but brisk manner. "The next wave is inbound."
"Who was that guy?" Eila asked Sanya quietly as she stowed one last ammunition belt. "It sure looked like the colonel and Zelenko knew him."
"Grand Duke Nikolai," Sanya murmured in reply, sorting through the remaining grenades for the last of the Mills bombs. "The Tsaritsa's nephew."
Eila blinked. "Zelenko was treating him like an old boyfriend."
"That is exactly what he is to her," Gangut told them both with a sage grin. "The three of them were at school together before she went to witch training. He and Katyusha were quite the item for a little while there. Here, little songbird," she went kindly on to Sanya. "I will relieve you of those rifle cartridges at last."
As the 586th rose into the darkened sky once more, the sight that greeted them across the burning ruins of Petrograd did not inspire confidence or hope. From the southwest, like all of the other assaults of this interminable day, came the largest force of Neuroi they had yet seen—both fliers and, stomping through the remains of the outlying districts, the first ground units to approach from that direction. It was impossible to tell the true extent of either formation, ground or air; the rearmost elements in both disappeared into the night beyond the fires' glow.
Eila felt a cold shock as she remembered the scale of the city from before, and realized that the edge of the fires was miles away.
"Ilmatar," she murmured. "How can there still be so many of them?"
"This is their ultimate push," Gangut said, grinning with a strange satisfaction around the stem of her pipe. "They know, somehow they know they're close to taking the city now."
Bjelik nodded. "This is how it happened in Vienna," she said.
"Except Franz Ferdinand and his court didn't escape," Sanya said softly. Eila glanced at her, saw the look of worry there—the first slip of her fierce battle face—and suddenly remembered what she'd said a few days before. Her parents are court musicians. They must be on that train.
"They did not," Bjelik agreed.
"And Ostmark died with them," said Hibiki.
"That will not happen here," Yegorova declared flatly. Flying out ahead of the others, she turned to address them, a fire burning behind her usually impassive eyes. "We cannot save the city, comrades. Even to try would be folly. But we can save the soul of Orussia. We can—we must—and we will!"
Wheeling on her props, she raised her free hand, then swept it forward, bellowing: "Attack!"
The night was like a compressed, concentrated, exaggerated version of the day. To Eila, it felt like all the fury, all the danger, and all the violence of a battle that had taken ten hours was all repeated in the space of one. Running on fumes and chocolate (and starting to wonder in the back of her mind whether it was possible to form an addiction to the latter), she caromed from one flash of terror or burst of exultation (often both at the same time) to another with nothing but jumbled patterns of nonsense memory in between.
Just to add a special edge to the whole business, another storm blew in off the Gulf of Suomus, as if it had followed the Neuroi wave into the city, and before long the entire battle zone was engulfed in wind-driven snow and even deeper cold. It made the visibility, already poor, verge on terrible; it made weapons, already unnaturally heavy in fatigue-cramped hands, that much harder to control or even retain. Not for the first time, Eila wondered whether this entire business—the invasion, the conditions under which they were being forced to oppose it—were some terrible revenge of the gods, or just the cruelest prank they could think of.
The worst of the storm's many baneful effects was that it separated the witches. Between the violent winds and the terrible visibilty, they simply couldn't maintain even a semblance of a mutually supportive formation—often lost sight of each other outright. Even the radio reception suffered, great washes of static filling their ears whenever the wind surged or suddenly backed. The air felt charged, prickly, like the leading wave of a thunderstorm, although if there were lightning, Eila never noticed it amid the chaos of muzzle flames, plasma beams, and bomb-flashes.
She had no idea how long they had been at it—it might have been an hour, or two, or five hundred—when a tiny voice shouted under the crackle in her headset:
"—under way now! Five minutes—"
Though she had no way of proving it, Eila would always insist that the Neuroi, too, had heard that signal. Heard it, and understood what it meant: for they suddenly seemed to double their efforts, and the only thing that kept their suddenly escalated assault from annihilating the defenders was the fact that they, too, were so badly hampered by this horrible weather.
In the midst of all this chaos, hemmed in on all sides by a massive enemy force that seemed to have flown into a murderous frenzy, Eila heard another voice, this one much clearer and stronger.
"Comrades! Away! Scatter—fast as you can!"
Captain Bjelik? Eila wondered, and through a sudden gap in the sheets of blowing snow, she saw the operations officer hovering perhaps a hundred yards away.
Bjelik had lost her weapon, her greatcoat, and much of the right half of her Striker; with a wince, Eila realized that if she hadn't already been missing her right foot, she would now. It didn't seem to bother her. She stood stock-still, balanced on her remaining prop like a woman standing on firm ground. Her remaining eye blazed with a cold white light; her hands were raised, fingers positioned in what Eila recognized with a thrill as the shapes of the old sorcery, the kind virtually no one ever practiced any more. A pair of miniature rune circles, like the one Gangut had used on her bayonet to kill that Neuroi drone, glowed just beyond the tips of her fingers, wheeling so fast that their symbols blurred into rings of flickering white light.
For the first time since she had been identified and trained as a witch, Eila felt a surge of probabilities and had no idea what it meant. Something was about to happen. Something big. Something terrible. Something... final. But she hadn't the slightest clue what it would be or what she was supposed to do about it.
Suddenly, the Tarot card she'd drawn just before launching that morning flashed past her mind's eye.
Bjelik didn't see Eila; the Suomi was on her blind side. She had no way of knowing that at least one of her squadronmates hadn't heeded her call to flee the area; and now, surrounded by rapidly advancing Neuroi, she would have had no way of doing anything about it even had she known.
Their beams lanced out, seeking her. As they did, the wind picked up still further, gusting so hard it bent the aliens' flight paths and fouled their aim, scattering the beams all around. Eila, too, faltered, almost tumbling out of control; her headset was torn away; her machine gun was wrenched from her cold-numbed hands and vanished into the dark. Struggling to keep from being knocked clean out of the sky by the howling gale, Eila barely heard the next thing Evgeniya Bjelik said, though the elder witch bellowed it at the top of her voice:
"Grandmother—! Hear me! Orussia needs you now!"
And the storm, already madder than Eila had ever seen in her life, went berserk. The world disappeared utterly, blotted out by snow and icy mist and slashing sleet. Eila's Striker went completely out of control. Tumbling like a leaf, she struggled not to go blank with panic and lose control of her magic. If she did, she would surely perish.
Not that it was at all clear to her that she wouldn't anyway. Jagged webs of lightning began ripping through the heart of the storm, their strobe flashes illuminating icicles the size of uprooted trees, so big and solid and driven so hard by the wind that they punched clean through the armored hulls of Neuroi. The lightning itself put paid to more than one of the aliens as well, blasting them to fragments.
As Eila fought futilely for control of her flight path, a small, dark shape loomed up out of the mist. In the first instant she thought it was a Neuroi drone, but the spirits whispered to her of what it truly was, and what its fate would be if she didn't summon all the strength she had left to reach it.
This she did, battling the unnatural wind with all the force of her Suomi stubbornness behind it, and reaching out until she felt like her shoulder must surely snap clean through, she seized hold of Sanya's hand and pulled her close.
Now they were together, and so desperately embraced that it would take more than wind, however apocalyptic, to separate them; but they still had no control, even working together. They tumbled end-over-end through the lightning-streaked chaos of the storm, blinded, all but deafened, all symbolic meaning stripped from their world.
"I can't tell where we're going!" Eila cried helplessly. "Sanya—I can't see!"
Sanya tightened her grip further, and replied almost inaudibly, "Neither can I."
Green light flickered around the tiny Orussian's bowed head, surrounding her face in what Eila's stress-fevered imagination saw as a kind of stylized crown of thorns, and then the storm intensified still further and she knew no more.
Eila woke, slowly and not altogether willingly, to an aching body and a fumbling, foggy mind. Opening her eyes, she instantly regretted it, hissing and squinting in bright daylight shining on fresh snow. Where in Ilmatar's name was she? How did she get here? What was this small shape curled up against her chest, her right arm thrown protectively over it?
Hitching herself up on one elbow, Eila looked down, though she almost didn't dare. Sanya lay half beside and half under her, both of them mostly buried in snow. The tiny Orussian's face was pale—more so than usual?—and serene.
"Sanya?" asked Eila softly, hesitantly shaking her by the shoulder.
"Hm?" Sanya said, blinking awake. She took stock of her situation for a moment, then looked up in puzzlement to meet Eila's eyes.
"Eila?" she murmured. "What—oh."
"Yeah," Eila replied. She rose carefully to hands and knees, feeling the snow shift and slide off her back, then got unsteadily to her feet. After taking a moment to collect herself, she helped Sanya rise as well, brushing snow from her tattered coat, then looked around.
They were in a sparse pine forest, logged within the last three or four years, on slanting ground near the top of a hill or small ridge, such that there were no trees immediately around them. A few feet in front of Eila, the ground sloped away again, down into a thicker part of the forest, and a few dozen yards off was the blank expanse of what must be a small frozen lake.
"This looks like Suomus," Eila said, rubbing thoughtfully at the back of her head. "I think... yeah. I think we must be somewhere near Rautu. How the heck did we get here?"
"Eila," said Sanya, tugging on her sleeve. "Eila."
"What?" asked Eila, turning around; then she fell silent, her eyes going wide.
Looking south from the top of the ridge where they stood, on a day as clear as this, they could see all the way to the Gulf of Suomus, its vast frozen expanse reaching off to the right.
Immediately in front of them, the snow from about halfway up the ridge to where they'd come to rest was disturbed, little fragments of what had been their Strikers jutting up and catching the sunlight here and there. Beyond, out past the woods, the city of Petrograd should have been just visible as a smudge of dark buildings against the southern horizon, leading down to the Gulf.
Instead, there was a mountain. One that shouldn't be there, that hadn't been there, its flanks glittering like crystal in the bright winter sunshine.
No... not crystal.
The whole ruined, empty city, from the shore of the Gulf halfway to Lake Ladoga... entombed in a mountain of ice that had to be a kilometer tall.
Staring at it in silent disbelief, Eila almost didn't notice Sanya taking her hand; when at length she did, she turned her head to see Sanya looking up at her with an odd expression that combined tears of grief with a small but genuine smile.
"Thank you for saving my life," she said quietly.
Eila felt the same weird expression settle on her own face as she drew the Orussian into an embrace.
"Thank you for saving mine," she replied, and they stood there for a long few minutes before, at last, turning away from the frozen city and starting the long trudge to Rautu.
Witolda Urbanowicz stared in silent astonishment at her wingmate for almost a full minute, then let out a long, low whistle.
"When you are having a bad Christmas, Suomi," she said softly, "you are not fooling around."
Eila Juutilainen-Litvyak muffled a dark laugh and wiped tears from her face. "Well, it was bad and yet it wasn't. I mean... it was terrible. But we did what we set out to do. The Orussian royal family escaped, first to Moscow, then to Yekaterinburg. Orussia as a country survived, stayed in the war. And Sanya and I..." She trailed off, then shrugged. "We must have made a name for ourselves. It wasn't long after that Minna scouted us for the Libau Detachment, the special flight that eventually became the 501st. I never even made it back to my old outfit." Chuckling, she added, "I don't think Nipa's ever really forgiven me for not coming back. She didn't see me again, or get to meet Sanya, until we went to Suomus on leave after Britannia, and that was three years later."
"Are you know what happened to the others?" Witolda wondered.
"Well... Captain Bjelik died, of course," said Eila sadly. "Or we assume she did. She was never seen again. She's probably still in Petrograd, somewhere in all that ice. It never melts, you know, not even in high summer."
Witolda nodded. "I am hearing stories of Petrograd Glacier, how it is so much elemental magic no one can even be telling how much. I am always assuming they were exaggerated."
"No... no, they're true enough," said Eila. She lapsed into a pensive silence for a moment, then brightened with an effort and said, "Everyone else made it out, though. I get letters every now and then. Gangut and Hibiki went east, linked up with the Pacific Fleet. Last I heard they were in Fusō. Zelenko got her dacha and retired," she added with a little smile. "And General Yegorova is Marshal Zhukov's chief of staff for aviation."
"I am thought that name was familiar," Witolda said. "We are meeting once, a year or so ago." Frowning, she went on, "I am afraid I was being not very polite."
That got a small laugh, if only a small one, from Eila. "For what it's worth, I doubt she cared," she said.
"Ha. I am suppose not." Witolda rose, dusting at her knees, and gestured to the nearby bulk of Château Saint-Ulrich, which was beginning to glow pink with the impending dawn. "Look at that, Suomi, we are talking all night. Is good thing neither one of us has shift today."
Eila got up as well, regarding the vista below. "Huh. Yeah." She drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh, stretching her back, then turned to the Polonian and said seriously, "I haven't told that story in a long time. I'm not sure I've ever told all of it. But... it's good to think of things like that sometimes. To... remember why we're here. Why we're doing this, why we were... were given these gifts we have. And why we have to stand together. Whoever we are, wherever we come from."
Witolda regarded her face thoughtfully in the predawn light, then nodded again, her curls bobbing. "Yes," she agreed. "Is very good."
Then, with a sudden air of preoccupation, she went on, "Well, I am keeping you far too long. Good morning, Suomi girl," then went to the hatch, pulled it open, and started a hasty descent.
What's she in such a hurry for all of a sudden? wondered Eila, and then she felt a twitch of time and understood. Oh, yeah, she thought. She sees the future too, doesn't she?
Then, "Oh—be careful of the—"
Too late; there came a sudden crashing thud from below.
"Am being OK!" Witolda's voice assured her from the open hatch a moment later.
Shaking her head, a fond little smile stealing onto her face in spite of herself, Eila went back to the edge of the turret and leaned on the parapet, watching the dawnlight creep up the side of Saint-Ulrich's tower.
A moment later, the drone of propellers reached her ears, and then Sanya came into view, cruising slowly in from the north. She was headed for the castle, props drooping, but her body language perked up a little as she noticed the blue-clad figure at the top of the neighboring turret. Changing course, she swooped down on the Girsberg and landed next to Eila.
"What are you doing up so early?" she wondered.
"Actually, I've been up all night," Eila replied, taking her hand. "Bear Girl asked me how you and I met... so I told her about Petrograd." She gestured vaguely to the valley. "And here we are."
"Oh," said Sanya, a faintly troubled look passing over her face. She knew her wife did not enjoy talking about Petrograd, any more than she herself did. That, as much as or more than the hour, explained the tired, drawn look on Eila's face—although she noticed with interest that there was a certain air of satisfaction, almost of serenity, underlying it.
"You never get to see the dawn," Sanya mused, standing next to Eila and enjoying the sensation of being the taller one for once, since she was wearing her Striker and Eila was not.
"Not if I can help it," Eila replied with a wry little smile.
"Well..." said Sanya, squeezing Eila's hand, and they stood in silence for a few moments as the light of dawn flooded down the valley, bathing the village of Ribeauvillé in its glow.
"Welcome to the beginning of the world," Sanya finished, then leaned down and kissed her.
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