EDITOR'S NOTE: This story takes place between Episodes 08, "Back to Work", and 09, "A New Normal". Sort of. You'll see when you get there.
Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
It was a dark and stormy night.
Of course that is a cliché so banal as to verge on self-parody, but in this instance, it is also completely true. The night was dark, and it was stormy, and the darkness and storminess were significant to the events that followed. A dark and stormy night was no time for a man and his dog to be trying to navigate the narrow, twisting, eccentrically crowned backroads of rural Alsace by the mail-slot blackout headlights of a military vehicle.
At the wheel of the U.S. Army Jeep so employed, the man—known to his driver's license as Benjamin Hutchins and to everyone who actually knew him as Gryphon—squinted into the rain-sheeted darkness and cursed himself for a fool.
"We should've been home before dark," he grumbled to his copilot. "If I had a brain we'd be kicking back in the living room with a hot chocolate listening to our new records right now. But nooo, someone had to hang around the bookstore until closing time."
In the passenger seat, Wolfgang Amadeus Beagle made no reply to these remarks, although if Gryphon had spared a moment to glance at him, the sidelong look he was getting would have confirmed that the Lenshound was fully on board with his self-indictment—not that he really needed to look, since, as the only two Lensmen on this plane of existence, they shared something of a psychic link.
Agreed, that nonverbal link now seemed to reply. This is entirely your fault.
"And where the hell did this storm come from?" Gryphon went on, pausing to swerve around a tree branch that sprawled suddenly into the road. "This is Alsace, not friggin' Bermuda. They're not supposed to have god damn hurricanes here."
Again, Wolfgang didn't reply, other than to hunker down a little deeper into his rain poncho and silently wish they had borrowed a vehicle with a proper roof, rather than the Jeep's pathetic tent, for this little expedition.
"Ahh, screw this!" Gryphon concluded as another branch narrowly missed them. Hunching over the wheel, he peered into the murk ahead, looking for a place to turn around. "We're going back to Colmar to wait this ou—shit!"
Ahead, a figure suddenly appeared out of the darkness, lurching onto the road and into the feeble tunnel of light cast by the Jeep's shrouded headlamps. Reacting instinctively, Gryphon slammed the clutch and brake pedals to the floor. On the wet tarmac, with the Jeep's primitive brakes, this had little effect other than to add the shriek of outraged rubber to the roar of the rain on the sodden canvas roof.
The figure in the road froze as the headlights fell upon it. At that moment, a web of lightning crazed the sky, throwing the whole scene before Gryphon into sharp-shadowed, near-monochromatic relief. For just an instant, it all lay before him like a freeze-frame shot. She was a girl, no more than twelve or thirteen years old, in a dress and cap that were old-fashioned, but not out of place out here in the Alsatian countryside. Her face was in deep shadow, but her eyes blazed crimson out of the darkness that hid the rest of her features, wide with a strange mixture of surprise and an almost palpable fury.
Most of the details eluded him at the time, to be discovered only upon later review. His conscious mind had more immediately important things to worry about, such as what he was going to do to keep from running her over. Braking wasn't working worth a damn, and he was using up the available road fast.
Gritting his teeth, he took his foot off the brake pedal, wrenched at the wheel with one hand, and yanked the Jeep's handbrake with the other. At the same time, he feathered the clutch and started putting on some power, trying to convert the hydroplane skid into a sideways slide that would, he hoped, flick the Jeep's tail around the girl without hitting her. This would have been tricky in any car, but pulling it off without rolling the Jeep—a vehicle never renowned for its stability—was going to call for all the skill he could bring to bear.
The Jeep's nose began to swing. Just as the headlights slid off the girl and left her in darkness, he saw her raise a hand, as if in hopes of fending off the two and a half tons of metal coming toward her. For a half-second, it seemed like the maneuver was working—
—something hit the driver's-side rear of the Jeep with an impact like a rocket from a bazooka, smashing that quarter of the vehicle to pieces. The wheel and bits of the suspension hurtled off into the night, never to be seen again. The rest of the Jeep spun the other way, hurled clean off the road by the impact. By some miracle it stayed upright, bouncing out of control across the ditch, and crashed through a stand of small trees before fetching up against one large enough to halt its progress for good.
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
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Wakefulness came a lot more slowly than unconsciousness had, and after the way his evening had turned out, Gryphon was happy to let it take as much time as it wanted. As soon as his brain was online enough to notice these things, he'd concluded he was far too comfortable to trouble himself with being fully awake. Not that his bed at St-Ulrich was not comfortable, but it couldn't hold a candle to the one he was in right now.
Hang on. What?
With a reluctance bordering on outright acknowledgement that the idea was a bad one, he opened his eyes, sat up, and had a look around.
He was in a very large, very old-fashioned bedroom, easily twice the size of his room at St-Ulrich and decorated in a far less utilitarian style. Apart from the fireplace crackling away on the far wall and a few strategically placed candles, the only light in the room was that of the full moon, streaming in through the tall window next to the bed; evidently the storm had passed while he was out. The (very comfortable) bed turned out, on closer inspection, to be a huge fourposter of some light-colored wood, complete with a canopy of rich, soft, heavy fabric fringed in golden tassels. It, and the froth of silken covers Gryphon found himself under—indeed, practically everything in the room—all seemed to be white, all rendered a gleaming silver by the moonlight.
"Wolfgang. Are you OK?" he asked. The hound, curled up beside him, glanced up and gave him a single tail wag. To Gryphon's relief, the Lens link suggested that only Wolfgang's faith in his master's driving skills had been harmed in the crash.
Gryphon petted him, earning another wag, and mused quietly, "Hound dog, I don't think we're in Kansas any more."
Wolfgang didn't seem concerned; if anything, it appeared he thought getting out of bed was an even worse idea than Gryphon's unconscious mind had. He stayed where he was as his master climbed down, finding a thick, soft rug under his bare feet. Someone had undressed him down to his skivvies and, upon further investigation, hung his clothes to dry on a couple of late Louis XV chairs arranged with their backs to the fireplace. His shoes were there too, standing by the fire tools, and looked like they had been carefully brushed clean of the mud that must have been caked on them. Even his .45 pistol was right where it ought to be.
"Whoever lives here is hospitable, anyway," he remarked to Wolfgang, and got dressed—though, after a moment's consideration, he left the gunbelt where it was, hanging on one of the chairs.
Once decent, he went to the door, half-expecting to find it locked for some reason. It wasn't, nor did it creak stereotypically as he opened it; in fact, it swung smoothly and silently, its hinges evidently well-oiled. Beyond it, dimly lit by candles flickering in wall sconces, he found a corridor as long, wide, and high-ceilinged as the room's proportions had suggested it would be.
"Hello?" he said, looking first one way, then the other. There was no sign of anyone, but he thought he detected a brighter glow down at the end of the hallway to his left, as of the glow from a better-lit room spilling out. After a few moment's contemplation, he noticed a faint scent of roasted meat, which seemed to be coming from the same direction.
Gryphon consulted his internal diagnostics and determined that he was, in fact, quite hungry.
"Well," he mused aloud, "I guess we might as well check it out. C'mon, hound dog."
Wolfgang got down from the bed with a beleaguered sigh and trotted across the room to join him, and the two of them set off.
In the flickering shadows of the widely spaced candles, Gryphon got only fleeting impressions: dark wood paneling, threadbare carpet over slightly uneven flagstones, worn tapestries. In contrast with the old-but-well-kept feel of the bedroom he'd awakened in, this corridor felt as if it belonged to a building that was run-down, if not outright abandoned.
The corridor emptied into what appeared to be the upper-level balcony of an aristocratic country house's entrance hall, with two staircases on his right leading down to the ground floor and the outside doors, and the mate to the corridor he'd just emerged from. This space was likewise formerly-grand and dilapidated, with most of the windows boarded over and the stairway railings sagging, although the chandelier was intact and lighted. Gryphon made his way warily down the nearer of the two staircases, finding to his relief that the stairs themselves still seemed reasonably stable.
Under the stairs and balcony, there were corridors leading off to left and right, and three doors set into the rear wall, opposite the entrance. The ones to left and right were closed, but in the center, a tall double door stood open, letting both candlelight and the sound of music spill out into the entrance hall.
More curious than ever, he entered the double doorway, and found himself in a country-house great room, the sort that doubled as formal dining room or ballroom depending on the occasion. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, like the nave of a cathedral, and the far wall was more glass than masonry, surmounted by a giant rose window that framed the full moon so theatrically, he assumed its placement had to have been designed with that in mind.
The great room was much better-lit than anywhere else in the house he'd seen so far, though even here, all the illumination save the moonlight came from fire: candles in wall sconces, as out in the hall, plus a fireplace easily four times the size of the one in the bedroom, numerous candelabra, and a pair of great crystal chandeliers. In that light, he could see that the room was divided into two areas. On the left, it was entirely dominated by a dining table that could have seated twenty people, while the right-hand half, where the fireplace was, seemed to have been set up as an informal sort of living room. Here there was comfortable-looking antique furniture and a scattering of tables, most haphazardly piled with books, one supporting a wind-up phonograph and a stack of records.
«I see you're finally awake,» came a Gallic-speaking female voice from the far end of the table. «Come closer. Let me get a look at you in better light.»
Shrugging inwardly, Gryphon crossed toward the head of the table, where he found a thronelike chair with no place setting before it, but one at each of the normal chairs to its left and right. Sitting—or rather lounging, with an insouciance that bordered on arrogance—in the head chair was the most remarkable-looking person he'd set eyes on in some time.
The first thing Gryphon noticed about her was that she was tiny. Judging against the height of the chair, which was a little taller than he was, he guessed she couldn't have stood taller than about four-foot-ten. She wore a pink two-piece skirt set that wouldn't have looked out of place on a moppet in a Victorian storybook, all ruffles and petticoats and red ribbon trim with bows, and inside it her build was very fine, almost birdlike. Despite this, she gave no impression of being sickly or underfed; indeed, the brightness of her eyes and the ruddiness of her cheeks, made even more apparent by the whiteness of her skin, gave her an air of robust good health.
Her pale face was heart-shaped, with large eyes and rounded cheeks, but sharply pointed nose and chin. Her ears were also pointed, jutting out through the short fall of tousled silver waves that escaped from under a ribbon-tied mob cap (the second one of those he'd seen tonight, what were the odds?) adorned with a jaunty red cockade. All of those details impressed themselves on his mind in due time—but they all had to take a back seat to the eyes, which were the second thing after her stature that he noticed, and which arrested him completely for a moment.
They were red—deep blood-red, not the pink of albinism—and they had vertical pupils. Intelligence danced in them, and confidence, and amusement as well. She might look and dress like a character who had just stepped out of a Gallian storybook about a girl's life in the Second Empire, but her eyes were not the eyes of a child. This was a grown woman... albeit a very small one.
«Well. You're reasonably presentable when you're awake,» she said, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. Then, rising from her chair, she gave him a courtly bow, more in the fashion of a man than a woman of the era she looked like she was from.
Which was when he noticed her wings. Set low on her back, black and smooth, they resembled those of a large bat, and as she got to her feet they fluffed out to a span roughly equaling her height. They looked much too small to support her in actual flight, even as petite as she was, but just the fact that she had them was striking enough.
«Allow me to introduce myself,» she said. «I am Countess Remilia Scarlet, mistress of Maison Diable Écarlate...» She paused fractionally, the smirk touching her face again, as she straightened and added, «... at your service.» Then, becoming serious, she went on, «Welcome to my home. Enter freely and of your own will! Enter freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring.»
The last part had a rehearsed flavor to it, as if it were something she were accustomed to saying by long custom, and no longer gave much thought to what the words actually meant. He certainly hadn't entered the building of his own will, after all. Still, it was a polite and well-bred enough little speech, and Gryphon found himself bowing in return (albeit in more of a Japanese style) and doing his best to reply in kind,
«Thank you, Countess Scarlet. My name is Benjamin Hutchins, and this is Wolfgang. We're grateful for your help and your hospitality.»
Remilia wrinkled her nose, the expression just short of a wince, although her crimson eyes remained merry. "Your accent is horrific, Monsieur," she said, and he noticed she spoke English with a faint Britannian intonation. "Let's speak your language." Then, gesturing to the place setting to her left, she said, "You've had a hard night. Perhaps you would care to dine?"
Thanking her again, sat down, arranged his napkin, and was mildly surprised when the Countess served him herself, from covered platters and a soup tureen, on fine bone china. The meal was a simple one—slices of roast beef, small roast potatoes, and consommé—but it was perfectly executed, hearty, and generally exactly what he needed just then, particularly teamed up with the red wine she decanted to go with it. Gryphon wasn't really much of a wine guy, but this one, he decided, made the whole surreal occasion hang together.
He was also amused, and pleased, to note that she prepared a dish for Wolfgang as well, serving him roast beef drizzled with the consommé on one of the same bone-china plates. Then, the duties of a hostess completed, she retired to her throne, slouching with one knee drawn up and her fingers laced upon it, and watched him eat with an expression that combined continued amusement and a sort of languid fascination.
At length, she remarked in a voice that had just a faint edge on it, "You seem oddly unconcerned for a man in your position, Mr. Hutchins."
Gryphon raised an eyebrow at her, finished the mouthful of beef he was working on, then inquired casually, "How so?"
"Come now," Remilia chided him. "You're obviously no rural simpleton. From your clothes, your accent, and what was left of your vehicle, I'd guess you're a Liberion. Here as part of their army against the Neuroi, most likely. You people pride yourselves on your canniness, do you not?" She smiled fully for the first time, deliberately showing him her very white teeth and prominent canines. "I saw you notice my wings, even though you were so polite as to pretend you hadn't. You must have an inkling what I am."
"Some possibilities have crossed my mind," Gryphon conceded, but he kept eating as though none of them particularly bothered him. "The name of your house is kind of a tip-off, too. Scarlet Devil Mansion? Very evocative."
"I didn't name it," Remilia informed him, pouring herself some of the wine. "The farmers hereabouts did, in the 1500s. Occasionally, on the night of the full moon, they would see me about my business, my clothes stained from the night's work." She sipped from her glass, deliberately letting a bead of the red liquid drop from one corner of her mouth and run down to her chin, then darted out her pointed tongue to swipe it up before it could fall onto her blouse. "My table manners weren't so refined in those days," she added with a dangerous little smile. "At any rate, thus I became la Diable Écarlate—the Scarlet Devil—to our neighbors, and the name of the house logically followed."
Gryphon looked around the room. "So you've lived here for a while."
"All my life. I was born here. In the very room you woke up in, as a matter of fact," he added with a faintly impish air, as if hoping the revelation would shock him.
"Hm." He addressed himself to a potato, then said offhandedly, "Your bed is very comfortable, and you have lovely taste in bedclothes."
Her color heightened slightly. "Thank you," she said, momentarily disarmed by the sudden compliment. Then, recovering her faintly sinister demeanor with a visible effort, she returned to her previous topic and said, "Perhaps I should retract my assumption that you're not a simpleton. Most men would show at least some concern at the idea of dining with a vampire."
Gryphon shrugged. "Vampires are people too," he said. "Hell, some of my best friends are vampires. One of them even claims—in jest, unfortunately!—to be my love slave."
Remilia blinked at him, the sinister cast entirely wiped from her face by bemusement. She put it back again, with greater effort this time, and said with forced-sounding scorn, "This is not a joking matter, Mr. Hutchins."
"Call me Gryphon," he replied. "All my friends do. Anyway." He gestured to Wolfgang, who had finished his dinner and was now sitting at the foot of Remilia's chair, gazing calmly up at her. "Wolfgang seems to like you, and he's never steered me wrong yet. He's a much better judge of character than I am."
Remilia looked down at the dog, who thumped his tail on the floor at her glance, then up at his master with a look of incredulity on her face. "You think you can take me lightly on the basis of your dog's reaction?" she demanded, her wings spreading involuntarily as she leaned forward in her chair. "You fool! Dogs are nothing but the poor relations of wolves, weak creatures, easily dominated by—"
"Hrf," Wolfgang interrupted, pawing at her knee.
"What?" she asked, breaking off from berating Gryphon to address the dog instead.
"Hrf," he repeated, pawing again.
"Oh, sorry," said Remilia. She got up from the chair; with a look of satisfaction, Wolfgang hopped into it, then turned around twice, curled up, and went happily to sleep in her place.
Remilia watched this operation with a faint smile, then shook her head, turned back to Gryphon, and said haughtily, "Where was I? Oh yes—easily dominated by one whose will is stronger."
"So I see," Gryphon said dryly, and then, "This soup is fantastic, by the way. My compliments to the chef."
"Thank you," Remilia replied automatically. "I haven't cooked for anyone but myself in years, so I wasn't sure..."
She trailed off, a scarlet (as it were) blush rising in her face, as he looked placidly back at her. For a few seconds, they stared at each other, the vampire struggling to force outrage onto her face, the human striving to keep amusement off of his.
They cracked simultaneously, both of them uttering an involuntary snort, and then they dissolved together into helpless, table-banging laughter.
Once Gryphon was finished eating, they adjourned with the wine to the area by the fireplace. Remilia wound the phonograph and put on another record, this one a piano piece Gryphon vaguely recognized, then curled up with her wineglass beside Wolfgang on an Ottomane sofa, opposite the armchair Gryphon had chosen for himself.
Gryphon held up his own glass to catch the firelight, then asked, "Am I drinking bloodwine? If so, it's well-blended. I can't taste the blood at all."
Remilia shook her head. "No, this is just Château Mouton-d'Armailhacq." She gave him the sinister smile again, although now it was edged with slightly self-mocking mirth, and said, "You're in luck today. As vampires go, I've quite a modest appetite. I experience true bloodlust only once a month, and I just happen to have sated this month's but a short while before you came along."
"How did you find me?" he wondered.
"You were hard to miss," she replied, a trifle evasively. "You made all the noise in the world when you crashed your machine."
He frowned, piecing the memory together, and the image of the person he'd nearly run down flashed in his mind. "There was a young woman—a girl, really—she stepped suddenly into the road. I nearly hit her. I did hit something, but whatever it was, it can't have been her. Did you see any sign of her when you found me?"
"There were only you and Wolfgang when I arrived," she said, idly petting the contented hound with her free hand.
"I wonder what happened to her," Gryphon mused.
"I'm sure she found her way home," Remilia replied. "Probably a dairymaid from one of the nearby farms. These Alsatian farm girls aren't well-lettered, but they're cunning and tough."
"Hmm," he said, sounding unconvinced.
For the next couple of hours, while the moon slowly worked its way down the giant window, they listened to records and made surreally ordinary conversation. Most of it had to do with his impressions of Alsace (generally quite favorable); the current state of the war (looking up, but still with a long way to go); and literature, a topic which was readily accessible from the piles of books at hand. Gryphon confessed that he was, in particular, still at quite an early stage of his appreciation of the Gallic canon, having learned the language fairly late in life.
After making some earnest, not to say eager, recommendations of titles he might try, Remilia yawned decorously (but not too decorously to put her fangs on full display), then took a large, nickel-cased watch from a pocket of her skirt, consulted it, and put it away. "It's nearly dawn," she said. "Time for good vampires to be in bed. You must be tired yourself after such a long night."
"I am a bit," Gryphon admitted.
"Well, then." She rose and picked up the nearest candelabrum. "Shall we?" she said, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Gryphon regarded her blandly as he got to his own feet. "There are a few ways I could interpret that."
"None of the other beds in this house has been fit to sleep in for many years," she told him. "Anyway, there's plenty of room in mine..." She gave him a challenging smirk. "Unless you're shy. I wasn't under the impression that was a common trait of Liberion men."
The look he gave her in return was slightly sardonic, but then he shrugged wryly and said, "OK, sure. Why not."
"Besides," Remilia added cheerfully as he roused Wolfgang and they followed her out of the dining room, "if you try anything, I'll kill you."
"Good to know," Gryphon said equably. "For the record, wasn't considering it anyway."
In the Countess's bedchamber, they piled some of the surplus pillows (of which there were many) down the centerline of the bed, after which they each still had an area roughly equivalent to the double bed Gryphon had back at Château Saint-Ulrich. Following that operation, they put out the candles, banked the fireplace, and drew heavy drapes on the windows, working in peaceable silence all the while, then took turns preparing for bed behind an antique dressing screen.
"Well, good morning, my strange Liberion," said Remilia, snuggling down with Wolfgang in the side of the bed away from the window. "Sleep well, and tonight we'll discuss your fate."
"I'm not sure I like the sound of that," Gryphon observed mildly, but she was already asleep—and snoring, he noticed, adorably in sync with the Lenshound.
"Traitor," he mumbled to the dog, then curled up with his back to them and went to sleep himself.
He woke disoriented from a jumble of fractured dreams, many of them involving that lightning-strobe glimpse of the girl he'd nearly killed. Stupid, that. How old was he, that he didn't know better than to drive at that speed in the rain, on a road as bad as that, in a car with such questionable handling? He wasn't likely to have managed to kill himself with such a moronic stunt, but a random stranger and his faithful hound had both had narrow escapes.
Gryphon wasn't sure he agreed with Countess Scarlet's dismissive suggestion as to who the girl had been and where she'd gone to. It had seemed too pat when she offered it, as though she didn't really believe it either—or as though she knew better, but wished to change the subject.
He got carefully out of bed, padded to one of the windows, and peeked around the blackout curtain, careful not to let any daylight fall on the bed, if there were still any to be had outside. There was, but not very much. The shadows of the trees in the mansion's grounds were long, the sky just starting to darken; he judged it perhaps a half-hour to sunset.
Unsure quite what to do with himself, he went and dressed in the dark, reflecting as he did so that this particular set of fatigues was going to need to spend some quality time with the castle laundry when he got back to Saint-Ulrich. When he came out from behind the dressing screen, he saw two dully glowing crimson eyes watching him from the bed.
"Good evening, stranger," said Remilia.
"Countess," he replied.
"Are you always this formal with women you've spent the day in bed with?" she wondered with a tilt of her head.
Without waiting for an answer, Remilia hopped out of bed, trotted across the room in her nightdress, and turned over the banked coals in the fireplace, then added some fresh wood and stoked the fire expertly back to life. That job done, she returned the poker to its stand, collected the candlestick from the mantelpiece, lit the candle from the fireplace, and went around the room lighting the others with it.
"I trust you slept well?" she inquired as she worked. "I certainly did. Best day's rest I've had in ages. Maybe I should get a dog of my own." Pausing at one of the sconces on the far wall, she shot him a wink back over her shoulder and added, "Or a Liberion."
"I'm told we can be handy to have around," Gryphon said dryly. "Although not all Gallians agree."
"Surpayé, obsédé par le sexe, et par ici," she quipped merrily, all but skipping behind the dressing screen. Then, leaning her head back around to grin at him, she added, "Although I've only seen evidence of one of those things so far."
"Well, I am indisputably over here," Gryphon conceded, deadpan, "but I actually don't get paid at all."
"I suppose that only leaves item deux to be determined, then," came her voice in reply, slightly muffled by rustling fabric.
"Your ladyship," he said, feeling unaccountably awkward, "Wolfgang and I appreciate your hospitality very much, but we have to—"
"Ah!" she interrupted, raising one open hand above the top of the screen. "None of that until after breakfast."
"... As you wish."
"Breakfast" turned out to be wheatcakes and strawberry jam, eaten in the same place at the giant table in the dining room, while Wolfgang got some of the cold roast beef from the night before. Gryphon was interested to note that Remilia ate along with him at this meal—not all vampires of his acquaintance could or would do that—although he tried not to think too hard about the fact that her jam came out of a different jar than his, and seemed to be a somewhat darker shade of red. He wondered where the milk and butter came from. Surely she didn't keep a cow? For that matter, when did she clear away the supper dishes? They'd gone straight from the table to the "living room" area to bed.
Once they'd eaten, he tried again: "I'm very grateful for your hospitality, Countess, but Wolfgang and I have to get back to our unit. Our wingmates will be worried sick. We've been gone more than a day—they're probably already scouring the countryside for us."
Remilia sat looking down at her empty plate for a moment; when she raised her head and met his eyes, all the playfulness had gone from her expression.
"I'm afraid it's not that simple."
Gryphon frowned inwardly. His zanshin had never detected the slightest threat from this woman, and it detected none now. There were certain dark arts that could conceal hostile intentions even from the finely honed danger sense of a samurai augmented by the Force, though, and if anyone could plausibly know one, it would be a centuries-old vampire of obvious high caste. Had he been unwittingly playing along this whole time with a creature making some sort of game out of his own murder?
She saw the thought process play out on his face and bowed her head again, saying nothing.
"Are you about to ruin the mood by telling me I'm your prisoner now?" he asked.
Remilia shook her head. "Not exactly. It's not that you're my prisoner... it's more like, for the next 28 days, we're both prisoners."
Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "Explain."
Remilia hesitated, then faced him again and said, "It's a long and shabby story, and I don't care to relive it for you. The point is, this house..." She hesitated. "I'm not sure how to explain it. The house and grounds are... slightly out of step with time. It's only possible to come and go on the night of the full moon. Until the next one comes, there's no escape."
He gazed expressionlessly back at her for a long few seconds. Then, without a word—just an upraised index finger—he rose, turned, and left the room with Wolfgang trotting at his heels. She heard the front door creak and bang.
Half an hour later, it creaked and banged again, and Gryphon walked back into the great room, his face as blank as it had been when he left, Wolfgang still trailing behind. Silently, he resumed his seat at the table, while the hound curled up nonchalantly at the foot of Remilia's chair.
"I walked straight away from the front of the house," he said, his tone casual.
Remilia nodded. "I figured as much."
"After I'd gone about half a mile, I crested a ridge and found myself walking toward the back of the house," he went on.
She nodded again. "I know."
"You knew this would happen."
"I could've left last night, before the moon went down."
"But you kept me here, knowing that once it set, I'd be trapped."
"And now you claim you're not keeping me prisoner? Because I have to be honest, this is starting to seem very being-kept-prisoner-y to me. I've been kept prisoner before, and it felt an awful lot like this."
Remilia gave him a stricken look. "No, it's just—we were having such a nice time, I couldn't bring myself—I haven't had company in so—"
Abruptly, she pulled herself up short, like a frustrated rider jerking the reins of a recalcitrant horse, and forced a sneer onto her face whether it wanted to be there or not. Straightening up, she swung her legs out over one arm of her throne-chair and reclined against the other arm, arms folded across her chest, then said,
"Bah! What does it matter? I am a vampire! The priorities of mortals are of no consequence to me. Resign yourself to your fate, human. You'll stay here until I decide you no longer amuse me." Elevating her chin, she eyed him coldly and added with as much dark menace as she could summon, "Pray that night does not come soon."
Gryphon looked straight back at her, never taking his eyes off hers. Vampire and human stared at each other for nearly a minute in total silence, her expression imperious, his almost unreadably impassive.
Then, a crimson blush rising from her collar to her hairline, Remilia looked away and closed her eyes, her posture wilting from an insolent slouch to something more like an unsuccessful attempt to collapse in on herself and disappear into a singularity.
"... are you mad?" she asked in a small voice, opening one eye to glance at him and then quickly away again.
"I am a bit," Gryphon admitted. Rising, he paced a short distance away, then turned back and added, "I mean, not so much for myself. A month of downtime isn't necessarily a bad thing, I haven't had a break in... well, a while. But a bunch of people I care about are going to be very upset. I don't like that, and I don't appreciate that you didn't even ask."
His piece said, he walked over to the "living room", sat down in the armchair he'd occupied the night before, and picked up the nearest book pretty much at random.
Remilia left him alone for the next few hours. It was around midnight when she crept into the circle of light cast by the fireplace and said quietly, "Lunch is ready."
Without comment, Gryphon marked his place, put down the book, and returned to the table, which he found laid with a cheese board, bread, and slices of cold beef.
"I don't eat much," Remilia explained, "so I usually have very light lunches. I hope this is OK."
Gryphon nodded. "This is fine. Thanks."
She poured some tea for both of them, adding a spoonful of her "jam" from breakfast to her own, and sat sipping it while he ate in silence.
Finally, she could stand it no longer. "I'm sorry, all right?" she said suddenly. "It wasn't a calculated thing. I really intended to send you away after dinner, but... I just..." She bowed her head and addressed the next remark in a whisper to the tablecloth. "... couldn't."
He regarded her thoughtfully for a few seconds, and when he spoke again, his voice was gentle:
"What?" Remilia asked.
"It's OK," he said. When she raised her head, wide-eyed with surprise and hope, he qualified, "I mean, it's going to be a pain in the ass, and some folks are going to be very mad at me. But it's not the end of the world."
Then, while she fumbled for something to say, he went on, "How long have you been alone?"
"I— I—" Her vampire-lord dignity kicked in again at that too-trenchant question. Straightening, she folded her arms, raised her chin, and snapped, "Solitude is no hardship to a vampire! We are the kings and queens of the night, lone hunters in the dark. We thirst for mortals' blood, not their company."
Gryphon's face made it plain he wasn't buying. "Remilia."
She held her scowl for only a second or so this time, then relented with sagging shoulders and drooping wings. "Since 1794."
He blinked. He'd been expecting her to say it had been a while, but he had never imagined the answer would be a century and a half.
"How have you survived all this time?" he wondered.
"This is a very old house," she said. "There are bottles and casks in my cellar that are older than your country... and not all of them contain wine."
"Do I want to know where it came from?" he wondered aloud.
"Donated, believe it or not," she replied. "Things were different in my father's day. We lived openly among the people of this region then. Quite a few of them were happy to help us, and Papa was an expert at storing and preserving supplies. He called it 'siege preparation', said he'd learned it during the Shadow-Beast Wars in the 1100s. It was his hobby. Or obsession, as I'm sure Maman would have put it." With a nostalgic little smile, she added, "When I was a little girl, he used to boast that he'd built a store that could see us through an ice age."
"I guess that explains how you made it through the Neuroi occupation."
Remilia nodded. "Sustained by my father's foresight... and the generosity of neighbors now gone for many seasons." Her aristocratic smile flashed again as she raised her teacup, her wings spreading as grandly as they could, and added, "Here's to them."
"I'll drink to that," Gryphon said, raising his own. Then, after fitting deed to word, he wondered, "Now that the Neuroi are gone, why do you stay?" he wondered. "Couldn't you leave, any full moon?"
Remilia answered the question with questions of her own: "And go where? How far would I get before the sun rose? Besides, this is my home. Everything I have left in the world is here."
"Well, I can't help you with the second part, but as for the first, I'm sure you could make it as far as Ribeauvillé," Gryphon said. "That's where I'm based. Do you know Château Saint-Ulrich?"
"Of course. It belonged to a cousin of mine, once, but he's long dead now. It's been in ruins for centuries."
Gryphon shook his head. "The Allied Forces rebuilt it last year. I live there. It's the headquarters of the wing of air witches I fly with. And we're a... pretty eclectic outfit," he said with a wry, fond little smile. "I'm sure if you turned up there, I could convince the lady in charge to take you in."
Remilia folded her arms again. "I won't be a refugee. Grant me at least that much pride."
Gryphon raised his hands in surrender. "OK. Peace. I won't bug you about it. I just... I can't stay here forever."
A shadow crossed her features, casting her expression down. "I know." Closing her eyes, she went on softly, "You're only human, after all."
Probably not the time to say, "Actually, have I got news for you," Gryphon reflected internally.
"I meant it a little shorter-term than that," he noted instead. "I've got a war to get back to. There are people counting on me. But I'm starting to feel a bit fond of you, you know," he added, making her blink and go wide-eyed again, "and I'd like to help you if I can."
"I... I appreciate that," Remilia said, as if conceding a point. "I do. And I swear to you, when the next full moon comes, I won't stop you from leaving. I..." She hesitated, as if psyching herself up for something, then said in a slight rush, "I think I can even arrange things so that your comrades never know you were gone."
Gryphon tilted his head curiously. "How?"
"With this," she said, taking the large watch he'd seen the night before from her pocket. Holding it out, she showed him its face. It looked like a perfectly normal, perhaps slightly oversized open-faced vest-pocket watch, the kind that used to be called a railroadman's chronometer, with a smaller inset dial counting the seconds.
"It's an arcane artifact," she explained, and then, at the press of a stud a few degrees offset from the stem, the face of the watch transformed, its components rearranging in an intricate mechanical dance. In a second or so, it had changed to a much more complicated, multi-layered, slightly mindbending configuration that looked deeper than the actual physical size of the watch.
To his immense surprise, Gryphon recognized it at once.
"That... that's a Mark I vortex manipulator," he said. "Where did you get it?"
"It belonged to my last lady's-maid," Remilia said, returning the watch to its ordinary form and putting it away. "I never knew how she came by it. She was... amazing. One of the most capable humans I've ever known. She mainly used this watch to help her make the household run more smoothly, but she was also my self-appointed bodyguard, and she had the skill to make that title mean something. With this, she could stop time for everyone but herself, or be in several places at once, or sometimes even undo things that had happened, although that didn't always work. She called it 'The World'." Her face clouding, she continued, "She left it behind when she... departed my service."
She paused for a moment, collecting herself, then went on in a more upbeat tone, "I mostly kept it as a memento of happier nights, but I've figured out a little of how it works. When the next full moon comes, I think The World can make it so that when you leave the house, you go back to yesternight. Your friends will never know anything happened. Although you'll have to explain for yourself what became of your machine," she added with a spark of her old playfulness.
Then, sobering again, she asked, "So... will you forgive me?"
Gryphon seemed to be lost in thought, his reaction deferred just long enough that his silence was beginning to make her feel uneasy. Then he smiled.
"Be a helluva long month if I didn't, wouldn't it?" he remarked.
With a cry of delight, Remilia sprang impulsively from her chair to embrace him, her arms around his neck.
She's really warm, he remarked inwardly as he returned the hug, and he wasn't only thinking of her body temperature.
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
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020