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Gryphon sat down in his armchair across from the Ottomane, where Remilia had taken up her usual station with Wolfgang by her side; leaned forward with elbows on knees; and said gently,
"I think... you had better tell me about it."
Remilia gazed silently at him for a few seconds, either gathering her thoughts or her strength—possibly both.
Then, closing her eyes, she murmured as if to herself,
"So be it."
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Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Her mind evidently made up, Remilia opened her eyes, fixed them on his, and spoke.
"I should start at the beginning, I suppose. My father, Count Victor Scarlet, was a vampire nobleman from the area that eventually became Magyarovia—the eastern part of the Ostmark-Magyar Empire. The House of Skarlátvörös has deep roots in that country. Maman was a powerful witch from one of the foremost witching families of Bruges. She was nearly 600 years younger than Papa, but what did that matter? They were in love," she added with a wryly sentimental little smile.
Smiling in return, Gryphon said, "I understand."
"At any rate, you must have realized that Flandre is my sister. She's five years younger than me, our parents' second and final child. I was named after my mother. They never told me why they named Flandre as they did, but... she was born nine months after they spent a holiday visiting Maman's family in Bruges, so... you figure it out."
Gryphon couldn't help but chuckle. "Nice."
"I'm telling you all this so you understand our background," Remilia said. "I don't know what kind of ideas you might already have about vampire families, but... we were happy. Papa was a fearsome vampire lord, a great warrior and hunter of monsters... but at home, he was one of the most easygoing men I've ever known. He never even spoke sharply to us, let alone anything harsher. Maman loved him, loved this house, loved..." She paused, making an effort not to choke up, then went on, "... being our mother. And Flan and I were as close as sisters can be, despite being five years apart. Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Gryphon shook his head. "No, I'm an only child. I have five children of my own, though, including a pair of twins. I've seen the kind of bond you're talking about."
Remilia looked surprised. "I would never have thought—did you leave them behind to go to war?"
"Not as such. They're all grown. Off on their own now."
"You aren't old enough to have grown children," she objected.
"I told you I was older than you think," Gryphon said. "Please. Go on."
"... Right. I suppose... I can't stall forever. But it is important that you understand what our lives were like."
He nodded. "Take as long as you need."
"One more thing. This is important. There are no half-vampires; the children of vampire-human couples are always either one or the other. The firstborn is almost always a vampire. After that, about one in five is human. As the eldest, I've always been a vampire—but Flan... Flan was born human.
"That never mattered to us when we were kids. Our parents were worried it might, at first. Obviously, being a vampire, I was a lot stronger than she was... but it never made any difference." Smiling that sentimental little smile again, Remilia went on, "I fell in love with her the day she arrived. I would never, never have hurt her. Even as a little girl, I'd have killed anyone who tried. You need to understand that, too."
Gryphon nodded again. "I get it."
Remilia paused to collect her thoughts once more, then pressed on. "She was more outgoing than I was. Sweet-natured and kind. The kind of person your people would describe as sunny, without the frightening connotations that word has for my kind. Everyone, everyone loved Flan. She made the darkest new-moon night worth waking up for. And so... that was our life. Our nights were always happy ones... until Flandre's thirteenth summer. Then... something went wrong."
Remilia entered Flandre's bedroom silently, her feet not quite touching the floor, and slipped to her bedside. The room was dark, only a sliver of moonlight from the window falling across the bed, but that made no difference to Remilia; she could see her sister as clearly in total darkness as in broad daylight. (Theoretically. She'd never actually tried looking at her in broad daylight.)
Flandre was sleeping, but poorly, as she had for many days and nights now. Face stippled with sweat, she tossed and turned, now throwing off her covers, now unconsciously clawing them back over herself, as hot spells and chills washed over her. And she was so pale—not the very fair but radiantly healthy skin she'd inherited from their Flemish mother, but a sickly ash white, with the dark rings around her eyes so pronounced, it was if she had been beaten up.
Witnessing her sister's misery, Remilia felt her heart break, as it did every time she came into this room lately. Beside Flandre's uneasily sleeping form, the bedside table was littered with bottles and jars of their mother's finest alchemical remedies. These preparations were famous throughout Alsace and beyond for their effectiveness, their ability to cure practically anything that could ail a human body... and they had all proven utterly powerless against whatever was ravaging Flan.
Her eyes filling with tears, Remilia turned and fled before she could burst out bawling and ruin what little rest Flandre was managing to get.
She hurried to her mother's library-cum-laboratory as fast as her legs would carry her (having been admonished time and again, as a younger girl, not to fly in the house), dodging startled servants and ducking the attempts of a few to check her progress and ask whither she was bound in such a rush. She respected the family's domestic staff—had been raised better than to treat them as mere menials or chattel—but she didn't have time for their concern right now.
The only reason she didn't crash theatrically into the library with a dramatic banging-open of doors was because they were already open. Remilia was drawing breath to call out for her mother when she noticed the two figures standing by that lady's long, apparatus-and-books-littered work table and pulled up short. They were her mother and father, and with their backs to the door, they seemed to be deep in consultation—so deep they hadn't noticed her entering.
Instinctively, she ducked behind one of the bookcases rather than approach, then listened, all but holding her breath.
"... be something else we can do, Remi," Count Victor Scarlet was saying, in his mellow voice that still, after all these centuries in Alsace, hadn't completely shed its Carpathian accent.
Remilia, even at the sometimes-fiercely independent age of seventeen, still associated that voice and that accent with warmth and security, but the reply that came from her mother made that sensation impossible to hang onto.
"If there is, neither I nor any of the authorities I can consult know it," said Remilia the Elder ("Remi" to her husband, and absolutely no one else), in a voice heavy with fatigue and despair.
"But what about—" the Count began, but his wife cut him off, her voice rising to a hoarse shout.
"I tell you there is nothing, Victor!" Pacing agitatedly around the table, she picked up bottles and retorts and shook them at him as she named off their contents. "I've tried tincture of belladonna and garou's urine! Corpse dust and fire salt in laudanum! Styx water, salamander's tears, and willow-bark!" As she named each item, she flung it down, so that her rage was punctuated by the sound of smashing glass.
Every time it happened, Remilia the Younger winced, cringing, in her hiding place. Her mother treasured that equipment. From the time her daughters were old enough to walk, she had drilled into them that alchemical apparatus was to be respected and diligently cared for. To see and hear her so wantonly destroying it made the young vampire want to tremble with dread—and what the crimson-faced Flemish witch did next almost made her elder daughter faint with shock.
"It's all! useless!" Remi screamed, and with a single furious gesture, she swept the table clean, sending everything upon it crashing to the floor, then put her face in her hands and began to cry.
Victor's reaction to the carnage was as calm as his wife was not. He rounded the table and gathered her into his arms, petting her kerchiefed blonde head and speaking her name as soothingly as he could.
"It's no use, Victor," Remi said, her voice now so hushed that her eavesdropping daughter had to strain to hear her, even with a vampire's hearing. "Every night she sinks lower, and I cannot understand why. Nothing I try has any effect. It is as if her very blood is failing. Soon it will be unable to sustain her at all, and there is nothing... nothing I can do." Looking up at her much taller husband with red-rimmed eyes, she whispered, "Our sweet Flandre is dying."
"How long... does she have?" Victor wondered quietly.
"I cannot say," Remi murmured. "Every hour that passes takes more of her strength. She cannot have much left." Shaking her head, she pressed herself into her husband's embrace. "I doubt she can last more than one or two more nights."
Remilia the Younger stood rooted to her hiding spot, frozen with horror. She had always known, intellectually, that she was likely to live far longer than her human sister. That was the way of things. Maman's potions could theoretically keep a human young for far longer than their normally allotted lifespan, but not forever. Not a vampire's forever. Sooner or later, both Maman and Flan would leave them. Remilia and her father had discussed this before, he with the melancholy fatalism of one who has buried generations of mortal friends already, and she with the lack of real understanding inherent in any teenager.
But she understood it now. Now that understanding was burning poison within her, as her mother's words cut like razors across her heart.
Our sweet Flandre is dying. It is as if her very blood is failing.
Remilia blinked, her crimson eyes going wide, as a thought struck her like a bolt of lightning.
Whirling, she darted out of the library. This time she really did fly, good manners be damned, hurtling down the corridor and into Flandre's room. Once there, she carefully closed the door and shot the bolt. What happened next had to happen in absolute privacy. Not that there was much chance of their being disturbed, anyway; the servants had all been strictly admonished to stay clear of this room unless summoned. Only the closest family members could enter uninvited during this crisis. But better safe.
Creeping to her sister's bedside, Remilia bent down and gently shook her, saying softly, "Flan? Flan, wake up."
Flandre stirred, mumbling, then opened her eyes. In better light they would be blue, like their mother's, the blue of cornflowers.
"Sis? Is that you?"
"Of course it's me," Remilia replied, her voice hushed, gentle. "Listen, quickly, we don't have much time. I think I know something that can make you better."
"Maman's potions aren't working," said Flandre. "I tell her they are, so that she won't cry, but I think she knows I'm lying."
"I know," said Remilia, fighting back tears. "This is something different. Something Maman... can't do. Do you understand?"
"I..." Flandre looked puzzled for a moment; then her eyes widened in realization. "Oh. It's... it's that bad?"
Remilia nodded miserably. "It is."
Flandre didn't seem surprised. She said only, "Oh," then closed her eyes.
Remilia waited for a few seconds, then murmured, "... Flan? Are you asleep?"
Flandre shook her head, eyes still closed. "No. I'm thinking. I never imagined..."
"I know. I didn't either. But I think it's the only way."
At last, Flandre opened her eyes, seeking out her sister's in the gloom. "If we don't... I'm going to die?"
Another miserable nod. "That's what Maman thinks. I heard her talking with Papa about it."
"I thought so," said Flandre, seeming almost relieved to have the uncertainty removed. "She wouldn't tell me, but... I feel it. Like there's a fire in me that's going out. But I'm... I'm scared, Remilia."
Remilia seized Flandre's nearer hand in both of hers, bowing her head over it, and whispered, "I know. I know. I am too."
Flandre placed her other hand over Remilia's, patting them reassuringly, feeling her sister's hot tears dripping onto her knuckles.
"All right," she said softly.
Remilia raised her head, the tracks of her tears glittering on her cheeks in the moonlight. "Flan?"
"All right," Flandre repeated. Reaching up to the collar of her nightshirt, she pulled it aside, baring her slim throat.
Remilia stared at it, so pale and smooth, for a few long seconds, her nerve almost failing her.
"I'm not very good at this," she admitted, "so it's probably going to hurt."
"I know. I don't mind." Flandre extracted her other hand from Remilia's, reached up, and brushed some of her sister's tousled silver hair away from her face. "As long as it's you... it's fine." She smiled. "After this, we'll be sisters even more, won't we?"
Remilia gave a weak chuckle. "Heheh, that's true." Then she paused one last time, steeling herself. "I... OK." Swallowing hard, Remilia bent toward her sister, feeling her fangs stretching instinctively in her jaws, heat rising in her chest, as her body got an idea of what she was about to do. "Here... here I come."
"Remilia?" Flandre suddenly asked.
"What?" Remilia replied, her teeth inches from Flandre's neck.
"Whatever happens... thank you. I love you."
"I..." Remilia's voice caught in her throat. "I love you too, Flandre," she whispered. "You're my precious little sister and I'll always love you, no matter what."
And with that, she struck.
Flandre gave only one soft cry, a sound almost more of surprise than pain. Then she shifted, back arching, her hands coming up to grasp at the back of her sister's blouse. Remilia took her shoulders and held them firmly, to keep her from twisting and making the wound worse than it needed to be.
Remilia realized at once that her mother was right. Something was wrong with Flandre's blood. It was... sour was the only word she could think of to describe it. Sour, and thin, and just generally off. As a meal, it would have been supremely unsatisfying, bordering on repellent. But this wasn't about nutrition. It wasn't about Remilia's needs at all. This was just about getting it out. Making way for something else.
Remilia's hand fumbling in the dark; the sound of breaking glass, one of the medicine bottles smashed to make a tool.
"Here, little sister. Drink. Don't be afraid. It'll all be over soon."
The silence had hung heavy in the great room for many minutes by the time Remilia had recovered enough to speak again.
"There's a very strong taboo in vampire culture against turning members of your own family," she said, her tone quiet and matter-of-fact now. "I knew that. It was one of the first things Papa taught me about what it is to be a vampire. But I was seventeen. I knew better than generations of my forebears. If I thought about it at all, and I can't swear that I did, I probably assumed it was just..." She made a helpless gesture. "Superstition. Dusty old customs, like throwing salt over your shoulder.
"It doesn't really matter if I thought that, or just didn't think at all. I didn't feel I had any choice, anyway. So I did it. Drank away Flan's spoiled blood and gave her my own to take its place."
She looked Gryphon in the face for the first time in a while, searching his features to see whether he were revolted by what he'd been told. He didn't seem to be; he looked back at her with the same solemn, compassionate look he'd had throughout her sorry tale. Seeing it, she wiped her eyes for the hundredth time, took a shuddering breath, and continued,
"In all the stupid novels about us—including the ones written by our own kind!—it's always so peaceful. Usually they both just go to sleep when it's done and wake up the next night, refreshed and ready to get started on the rest of their lives. But in real life... it hurts. The change hurts the one who's turning, because her body is remaking itself from the inside out; and the one who did the turning is in pain too, because you've just given up a part of your essence, suddenly, violently, and your whole being is in shock." She hugged herself, shivering at the memory. "It was horrible.
"And then Flan... went berserk. When the change took hold, she threw me off her, so hard I ended up on the other side of the room. And she started screaming, like a bane sídhe, or one of those bog spirits they have up in Suomus. She jumped out of bed and just started... destroying things."
Remilia shook her head. "I was stunned. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. And just to make it worse, even a person as small as Flan... that's too much blood for me. It wasn't good blood, either. Between that, the shock of the turning, her reaction, and the enormity of what I'd just done, I couldn't keep it down.
"Naturally, that was when Papa broke down the door. 'Remilia! What have you done?!' I couldn't answer him. I was too busy being sick all over the floor, and besides, what would I have said? 'Look! I turned Flan! Now she doesn't have to die! Only why is she attacking you?'"
"What eventually stopped her?" Gryphon asked.
"Maman and Papa," Remilia said. "They were... very strong. It wasn't easy, even for them, but eventually they were able to knock her out. By then they'd all but destroyed half of that wing of the house. She was so powerful, even then. It was terrifying.
"I found out later that a lot of humans go mad when they're first turned. Usually it passes quickly, in the first night. But Flan..." She stared at her hands, lying slack in her lap, for a few moments, then raised her eyes to Gryphon's. "Flan never got better. When she awoke, the berserker rage had gone, but her mind was... broken. It's like she's two people now, and..." She sniffled again. "Neither one of them is my Flan. One of them is a child, pleasant, but strange. She showed you that side of her tonight. The other... well, you saw the way she treated me. The Other is sharper, older, but so full of hate she can barely function."
"She seemed to be functioning just fine, for some values of functioning," Gryphon opined.
"She was unusually verbal tonight," Remilia agreed. "Her head comes closest to clearing around the time of the new moon. And she had you to focus on. But... she can't be trusted. Cannot even trust herself. It's not that she's self-destructive so much as that she destroys everything, including herself.
"That's why it put the fear of the gods into me when she asked you to play," she elaborated. "Flan's toys don't last long. Her childlike side doesn't know her own strength, and the Other... doesn't care. You know the old phrase, 'a danger to herself and others'? Flandre is a danger to herself and everyone."
"Which is why she's confined to the basement."
Remilia nodded. "Papa's decree, originally. Even in the state she's in, she recognized his word as law. I don't know why she continues to obey now that he's gone, really. As you saw tonight, she doesn't always. Sometimes she comes up. Either the Child gets bored and forgets she's not supposed to, or the Other takes hold and decides she'll do it just to taunt me."
"She's been outside, you know," Gryphon said. "She's the person I almost ran over in the storm the night we met. I'd bet any amount of money on it."
"I know. That was the Other. I was chasing her when it happened. She caused that storm. She thought the rain would stop me, and it did slow me down enough that I couldn't catch her. That, and making sure she hadn't killed you. Fortunately, she seems to have decided that shaking me off was victory enough. When I got back to the house with you, she'd already returned." She chuckled darkly. "She even put the door back. To mock me with its uselessness, I imagine."
They said nothing for a few moments. Then, sighing, Remilia moved Wolfgang to the unoccupied part of the couch and stood up. "Anyway, that's it. That's the story. My little sister is a monster—one which I created. She's my responsibility, doubly so now that our parents are dead. I'll watch over her for the rest of my life. It's all I can do."
"So that's what you meant when you said everything you have left in the world is here," Gryphon said thoughtfully. "You weren't talking about the things. You meant Flandre."
Remilia nodded. "Hate me or not, she's all that's left of my family... and I'm all that's left of hers. I promised I'd always love her, no matter what."
When he didn't reply, she assumed the worst. Tears springing to her eyes again, she said, "I told you if you knew you would hate me, too. But I beg of you, at least understand this. I did it to save her. I was desperate to save her." Her expression became fierce as she raised a fist and declared, "I saw her fate and I defied it."
The flash of anger passed, and her mood subsided back into wretchedness as it burned out. Hanging her head, she went on, "And the gods punished us both. I wish..." Another shuddering sigh. "I wish I'd had the strength to let her go. Because I didn't, she's wandered lost in the half-light of her own mind, in constant pain, for more than 400 years. I did that!" she cried despairingly. "I made that. And in her lucid moments, she knows it. And I couldn't say what's worse. That my baby sister, the only kin I have left or ever will have, hates me with all of her fractured soul... or that she's absolutely right.
"So now you know. My crime. My penance. My shame. All of it."
Gryphon still didn't speak, his face closed down in thought. Remilia's shoulders and wings sagged in resignation. "You can keep using my bedchamber while you're stuck here," she said, disconsolate. "I'll sleep in the corridor. Or the scullery, there are no windows in thereUWAAA~!"
The last part emerged in an up-rising squeak as, still without a word, Gryphon got to his feet and swept her up in a bear hug—picked her clean up off the floor and held her tight, one hand on the back of her head where it rested on his shoulder, the other forearm crossing her back just below her wings.
Startled out of her gloom, Remilia struggled, her feet kicking and wings flapping futilely. "Unhand me at once, you... you libertine!"
"Stupid," Gryphon murmured into her hair, not relinquishing her in the slightest. "You thought I'd hate you for that? What do you think I am?"
She kept kicking for a moment, then relented. She'd never really been serious about getting free anyway; if she had been, there was no way he could have hung onto her. She'd only objected out of sheer reflex, and now that it had passed, she let the relief sweep over her and relaxed into his embrace.
After lunch, in a calmer (if melancholy) mood, they returned to the library, where Remilia took up a perch high atop one of the tall bookcases and watched him repair another.
"I'm sorry you got dragged into this," she said after a while.
Gryphon paused in selecting lumber for one of the replacement shelves he needed to make, looked up at her, and smiled. "I'm not."
"Why? You must have better things to be doing than wallow in my family's misery."
He shook his head. "Nope. Not if there's a chance I can do some good."
"I don't believe in chance," said Remilia.
"Well, you should," Gryphon said. "I leave Colmar thirty seconds sooner or thirty seconds later, and none of this happens. Sometimes chance is everything. Besides—if I hadn't gotten mixed up in this, I'd never have met you." As he bent to get started sanding the new shelf, he shook his head and added, "And that just wouldn't do."
Remilia blushed faintly, pleased by the remark, but then grew glum again and said, "We'll see whether you still feel that way when Flan turns on you."
"You two have lived like this since 1794?" he asked. "Do you ever see each other except when she comes up to... whatever she's doing?"
"No. Not any more. I tried, for years I tried to reach her. I would go down to her room and beg her to forgive me. She either doesn't understand what I'm talking about, or throws it in my face. Eventually..." She sighed. "It shames me to admit it, but eventually I gave up and just started leaving supplies for her at the bottom of the stairs. Even an immortal can only beat her head against a stone wall for so long. She won't forgive me. Maybe she can't."
"And yet she still minds you. I saw that earlier."
"But I told you before, I don't know why. Even at her worst, she would obey Papa. She respected him. But even when our parents were gone and we were alone in the world, she kept abiding by their rules... most of the time." Remilia sighed. "And I've never understood why. I'm by no means a weakling..." The declaration lacked the boastful air her assessments of her own prowess usually carried, and the reason for that became clear as she went on, "... but Flandre is much more powerful than I. If she ever tires of the game and decides to finish it—and me—she can. But she doesn't."
Gryphon flipped the shelf in progress over and set to work on the other side. "Maybe, deep down, she still loves you."
"If so, it's on a level I can't reach," Remilia said sadly.
"Hmm. She seemed to like me all right," he mused. "Maybe I should try talking with her."
"Are you out of your mind?" Remilia demanded. She jumped down from her perch (and never mind that these bookcases were easily a dozen feet tall) and confronted him. "What are you thinking you'll do? Just walk into her lair and strike up a conversation?"
He shrugged. "Could do. I've gotten away with dumber ideas. And probably talked to crazier people. Maybe she'd benefit from an outside perspective. Somebody who... wasn't there."
Remilia shook her head. "She'll kill you."
"Maybe. Although it might be harder for her to do than you think. Also... did you notice? Wolfgang didn't so much as growl at her. Remember what I told you when we met? He's a good judge of character."
Remilia rolled her eyes. "I assumed that was what you Liberions think of as witty banter."
"No, it's completely true. He has a sense for people. He can read their... their characters, sometimes better than they can themselves. And he didn't take against Flandre, even when she was talking to you. OK, I can see you think I'm crazy," he added to the look in her eyes, "but I'm totally serious."
She folded her arms obstinately. "That's ludicrous. I could stop you."
Gryphon nodded. "Probably."
She hesitated. "But if you think there's really a chance..."
"I do. I can't promise anything, but I think it's worth trying. Besides..." He reached and gently laid his hand on her shoulder. "I can't bear the thought of going back to my life and leaving the two of you to... this. Not if there's something I can try."
Without thinking about it, Remilia reached up and loosely took hold of his wrist, but didn't move his hand away. "You mean that," she said softly. "You'd risk a horrible death just for that."
He shrugged. "It's what I do. I try to help."
"Who are you?" she asked, her voice quieter still.
Gryphon smiled, thinking of something he'd been told Zoner once said. "A throw of the dice that's gone your way."
"I told you," Remilia said. "I don't believe in chance."
"And I told you," Gryphon replied, patting her cheek, "that you should."
Descending into a dark basement carrying a bullseye lantern made Gryphon feel like a Victorian adventurer, or at least how he assumed Victorian adventurers would feel. The fact that he was going down there in search of a confrontation with a literal vampire just added verisimilitude.
Of course, there was the small matter that he was woefully underequipped for such a confrontation. He carried no wooden stakes, no garlic, no holy water, not even a lousy cross made from a couple of popsicle sticks and a rubber band. (Actually, what holy symbol would you even use in this dimension? he wondered. And holy water by whose standards?) All he had was the lantern and a beagle.
"You might want to go back," he said quietly to Wolfgang.
The wordless impression he got back from the Lens link was basically: Nah.
Shrugging inwardly, Gryphon followed the instructions Remilia had given him. Down the hall, past the empty casks (he noticed in the lanternlight that one of them was branded "1347"; he wondered whether it was a date), hang a left, and it's the first door on the right. There were sconces down here, but they didn't have candles in them, presumably because the only person who ever came down here could see in total darkness.
Should have gotten those optic implants Zoner kept trying to sell me after all, he said ruefully to himself, then found himself facing the door in question.
It was an ordinary interior door, just like the ones upstairs, but for some metal reinforcing and a sign painted in a childish hand:
CELA SIGNIFIE QUE VOUS
After a moment's hesitation, Gryphon knocked on the door. He hadn't really thought this part through. What if she didn't answer? He wasn't going to go inside uninvited. Not only was that rude, it might be suicidal. After the tense parting he'd just had from Remilia, he was going to feel pretty stupid if he just had to turn around and go straight back upstairs.
He was just about to try again when a quiet, slightly tremulous voice came from behind the door: "Qu'est-ce?"
"It's me," he said, and then realized he'd never had a chance to tell her his name. "Uh, your sister's guest."
"Did she send you?" came the sharper, more mature voice of the Other.
"No," Gryphon replied, then added honestly, "In fact, she tried to talk me out of coming."
That seemed to amuse her; there came the sound of giggling, and then the metallic scraping of what sounded like several bolts being drawn. The door opened a few inches, and Flandre's red eyes glittered in the low light of the lantern.
"You have to carry a light," she observed, her voice soft and a little spacey. She shook her head sadly. "Humans are so pathetic. What's up? Did you change your mind about playing with me?"
"Not as such. I'd just like to talk."
"Talking isn't playing. Talking is no good." She started to shut the door, then noticed Wolfgang standing at his master's side and opened it again. "Is... is that a dog?" she asked, a note of wonder coming into her voice.
"Uh, yes, yes he is. This is Wolfgang."
"Oh, he's so cute!" Flandre cried, crouching with knees together to get a better look, her hands clasped under her chin. Then, looking up at Gryphon, she said in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, "He gets to live!"
"Well, that's... good," said Gryphon, a trifle uncomfortably.
"You, I haven't made up my mind about yet," the Other added, eyes narrowing. "Do you have a name, or shall I just call you her majesty's thrall?"
"My name is Ben, but most people call me Gryphon."
She looked puzzled. "'Gryphon'? Gryphons are extinct. Unless you're the last one." She smiled nastily. "In which case they soon may be."
"I'm not your enemy, Flandre."
She straightened up, the cheerful-but-weird light replacing the Other's nasty glare in her eyes, and said, "Prove it! Play with me!"
"Maybe. What kind of game?"
"Goody!" she declared, then grabbed his free hand and dragged him into the room.
She wasn't gripping very hard, or exerting undue force to move him, but he got the distinct sense that if he resisted, she would have no trouble at all forcing the issue. Or just tearing him limb from limb.
Well, in for a penny...
"Feel free to light some of these candles if you want," she said, gesturing around. "It'll be hard for us to play if you can't see."
He found a candlestick that still had a candle in it on a small table, lit it from the lantern, and then went around the room, finding more candles and lighting them from the first. Before long, the room was decently illuminated, and he could shutter the lantern and get a look at where he actually was.
It was a bedroom, much like her sister's upstairs but for the lack of windows, and the fact that where Remilia liked all of her bed things in white, Flandre apparently preferred red. The place was a bit of a mess, which he had been more or less expecting, but he noticed at once that it was only cluttered, not filthy. She evidently had enough on the ball to look after herself in a basic sort of way: her bedclothes, and the clothing she was wearing, were reasonably clean and she'd obviously kept up her personal hygiene. The only smell in the room was a slightly musty, not unpleasant scent of... undergroundness. They were obviously in the basement of an old house, but apart from that, nothing.
He could also see that most of the clutter was in the form of various toys, of the sort a child of two or three centuries before might have had, and that they were all—as Remilia had warned him—broken. Bent tin soldiers; dolls with their heads and arms pulled off; disemboweled stuffed animals; the splintered remains of wooden items whose original configurations he could only guess at.
There were also a lot of books, all scattered haphazardly around, as if she'd just dropped them wherever she happened to be when she either finished or lost interest in them. None of them seemed to be damaged, though, apart from whatever bends and folds they might have suffered from being discarded. Others were piled on what looked like it was supposed to be a dressing table, and on the bedside stands.
"Well, Monsieur Gryphon?" Flandre asked, seating herself on her bed and bouncing a couple of times. "What do you think of my room? It's charming, don't you think?" In what was apparently an off-axis attempt at coquettish seduction, she put a fingertip to her smiling lower lip and added, "You're the first gentleman I've ever had in here, you know. You should feel honored."
Does she even know what this behavior pattern actually means? Gryphon wondered. He guessed probably not. More likely she'd picked it up in one of those books.
"It's lovely," he said, and he wasn't even really lying. If it weren't in a locked and bolted basement, and if he didn't suspect this was the first time it had been lit up in decades, it would have been quite a pleasant space.
"Thank you! Now then. What shall we play?" She gave the finger-to-lip smile again and said, "I know! How about the kissing game?"
Oh, Lord, they do grow up so fast, Gryphon thought to himself. "Sorry, I don't think that's a good idea. I'm much too old for you."
That seemed to tickle her enormously. She threw herself back on the bed and laughed uproariously, arms and legs flailing, completely unconcerned about what anyone might or might not see.
"Oh, monsieur," she said at length, wiping the tears of mirth from her eyes. "You truly are a fool. Too old for me, forsooth! Oh, I do enjoy you."
Suddenly, Flandre bolted upright, then rolled off the bed to the floor, sprang to her feet like a jack-in-the-box, and stalked toward him on tiptoes. She was a little taller than her sister—she must have been on the verge of growing into quite a tall girl when her adolescence was abruptly cut short by her turning—but that was still short enough that she had to be on tiptoes in order to look him in his face, which, before he could react, she was holding between her hands.
Her touch was gentle, her slim hands warm and soft, but again he could sense the power behind them. His zanshin was screaming at him to for Christ's sake make up his mind to fight or flee or something other than standing there like a dickhead with a death wish, but he pushed it down. No sudden moves, now. Smooth. Everything smooth...
And then, to his infinite surprise, she paraphrased Shakespeare.
"Here's a skull now," she said, caressing his head with both hands like a bowler would polish a bowling ball, or a blind person get a sense of someone's face. "This same skull, sir, was Gryphon's skull, the queen's jester."
Just as abruptly, she released him and stepped back, declaiming, "Alas! Poor Gryphon! I knew him, Remilia: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..." As she spoke she walked around him, and then abruptly sprang into the piggyback position, her arms around his neck, slender legs locked around his waist.
"He hath borne me on his back a thousand times!" she declared, then broke from the script and added, "Now giddyup!"
Tonight has taken a very strange turn, Gryphon mused inwardly, and giddied up.
In the great room, Remilia pulled The World from her pocket and consulted it for the thousandth time, only to find to her dismay that only 32 seconds had passed.
She wasn't hearing any sounds of mayhem from downstairs, which she might have expected if things had taken a really serious turn, but then again, the floors were thick, and was breaking a human body really that noisy? She'd never done it, but she suspected not. They were pretty soft, after all, even those as fit as she knew her guest's to be...
Blink! Where did that come from? Not that it wasn't true, but...
Blast! Only another twenty seconds? Had she stopped time by mistake? No...
A moment later, she heard the boom of the basement door closing, followed by the rattle of bolts and the thud of the bar being replaced. Her heart leaped at the sound; surely Flandre, coming up to boast of whatever horrors she had wrought, wouldn't have bothered to close the door after her.
Her hope was vindicated when Gryphon and Wolfgang entered, replaced a moment later by fresh dismay as she saw the bruised and battered state of the former. Wolfgang was fine, thank heavens, but his master looked like he'd gone a couple of rounds with a heavyweight boxer, and come off the worse. He walked with a distinct limp, and showed evident signs of fatigue on top of that. Without a word he wobbled to the table, picked up last night's bottle of d'Armailhacq, and then lurched to his armchair, flopped into it, and drank the remaining quarter-bottle in one go, dregs and all.
Following which, with every evidence of sincerity, he said in a satisfied sort of voice, "Well! I think that went all right!"
"All right?!" Remilia demanded, coming to her feet. "You're a mess! Wait here."
"I have no intention of moving from this spot before dinner is on the table, I assure you," he said dryly, but she was already running into the kitchen to wet a towel from the pump and bring it back to him.
"What did she do to you?" she asked as she dabbed at his face.
"Nothing much, really. First we played horsie, and I'm pretty sure she only broke three of my ribs. Then leapfrog, and she didn't mean to kick me in the head, so that's fine. Arm wrestling was a bad idea, but fortunately it was so easy for her that she lost interest before she could actually dislocate my elbow. Thumb wrestling was an even worse idea," he added, "but thumbs heal fast. My real mistake was agreeing to rock-paper-scissors." He pointed to the livid bruise in the center of his forehead. "Where I come from we don't do the flick-on-the-head part. Good thing I rolled with that!"
Remilia paused in her attempts at ministering to his wounds, stepped back, and stared at him.
"You... you played actual games with her?"
"Well, if you can call leapfrog a 'game'. I mean I suppose it kind of has rules."
"I'm being serious! You actually played with Flandre? And you're... alive?"
"I'm too tired to be dead," Gryphon greed. "That girl has some energy! I guess I would too if I were cooped up in a basement all the time. Anyway, I didn't agree to all the games she proposed. Run Rabbit Run needed too much room, hide and seek would have been pointless, and the 'kissing game', whatever that might entail, was right out. I'm not trying to explain that one to a judge."
Remilia looked deeply perplexed. "... The 'kissing game'?"
"I said I don't know." Before she could interrogate him further, he went on, "Anyway I'm going to need a few things for tomorrow. Do you have any sewing stuff? You must, you still have clothes after 150 years in this vortex or whatever it is."
"Yes, of course," she said, and then, "What do you need that for?"
"Well, Flan has some stuffed toys and dolls that could use a little love. I figured tomorrow I'd see if I can fix them."
"You're going back? After she put you through this?"
"Sure. Weren't you listening? She had a good time. I think she's decided she likes me. And she loves Wolfgang! The first thing she said when she saw him was, 'He's so cute! He gets to live.' Which is nice."
Remilia gave him a level stare. "It disturbs me how sanguine you are about this."
"As it were?" Gryphon said with a wink, and she blushed as she realized the pun she'd just made. Then he went on, "Seriously, though. It was hard work and I'm a bit beat up, but I really do think it went well. She didn't refuse to see me, or throw me out. After the first couple of minutes, I never saw the Other at all. And..." He paused, not sure how to phrase the next part, and then decided to just go right up the middle. "I wish you could have seen it. She had so much fun. When her mood is right, she has a smile that could light up the moon."
"I know. I remember it from... before." Remilia bowed her head, tears slipping down her cheeks. "My baby sister's beautiful smile. I can't tell you how much I envy you that you've seen it tonight."
He got up, a bit stiffly, and hugged her. "Well, if I keep working at it, maybe you'll see it again."
She put her arms around him in turn, pressing the side of her face to his chest, and her voice was slightly blurred by the position as she pointed out,
"You only have two weeks, though."
"I have as long as it takes," Gryphon corrected her gently.
Remilia looked up at him. "What?"
Smiling, Gryphon flicked her mischievously on the forehead (much, much more gently than her sister had flicked his). "The World is a time manipulator," he reminded her. "It doesn't care if I want to go back one month, or two, or 500 years. It'll get me back to April '46 from whenever." He squeezed her tighter and repeated, "I have as long as it takes."
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