Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
Gryphon lay on his back in the grass and gazed dreamily up at the sky. You could see so many stars out here in the Alsatian countryside, far from the lights of the towns. The velvety blue-black sky was full of them, splashed straight across his field of view. They looked so close, like he could almost reach out and just pluck them out of the firmament. So near they had visible depth, three-dimensional orbs of red-white light, dancing, swarming, as though they were actually coming closer. How absolutely surreal! How beautiful!
His eyes snapped back into focus, a look of concentrated dismay replacing the spacey fascination on his face. Galvanized, he sprang to his feet and sprinted out of the area.
An instant later, waves of energy spheres tore into the ground where he'd just been lying and exploded. The concussion blew him off his feet again. He rolled with it, tumbling across the grass, then fetched painfully up against one of the low stone walls that enclosed the west lawn.
As he lay crumpled against the wall, trying to catch his breath, a figure descended into his field of view from above: a girl, coltish of build, in a jumper dress and puffy-sleeved blouse now ragged at the edges, her hair in wild disarray. She hovered perhaps a dozen paces away, her bare feet a good five yards off the ground, and favored him with a malevolent grin. The light of the full moon cast her in monochrome, all shades of silver and pewter grey, apart from two details: her eyes, blazing with scarlet madness out of a background of glassy black, and the matching glint of the crystalline "feathers" studding her outspread wings.
"You're not finished yet, are you?" asked Flandre Scarlet rhetorically, uncast plasma bolts glowing in the palms of both her upraised hands. "We've barely started. Come on!" Turning her hands outward, she poured out another fusillade of blasts, forcing Gryphon to scramble upright and leap away as the wall was pulverized.
"That's it!" Flandre cried, delighted. "Show me that human survival instinct! Show me your strength! Show me that you're worthy of House Scarlet!" With a high, cackling laugh, she pursued him relentlessly, carpeting the west lawn with explosions and wrecking everything within.
Eventually, inevitably, she nailed him. Under a full moon, with any semblance of rationality she might once have possessed stripped away, and infused with alien energies to boot, her firepower was simply too great for him to endure. One blast in a wave of them tagged his shoulder, spinning him around. He tried to marshal his resources, but they were so few by this point that it would probably have made little difference even if he had succeeded. He caught another one in the chest, another just below, and then a whole cluster of them, shredding his shirt and charring the flesh beneath. Trailing a comet tail of smoke, he hurtled back into the great room, taking out one of the few remaining intact panes of glass along the way, then slammed down on the stone floor and slid to a limp, smoldering halt an arm's length from the fireplace.
Touching down outside, Flandre stepped over her sister's body and into the great room. Heedless of the shards of glass bloodying her bare feet, she walked slowly to his side and stood frowning down at him.
"Oh. I guess you weren't worthy," she said disappointedly.
Turning away, she walked back across the glass and stood by where the wall had been, gazing up at the moon.
"It's a beautiful moon tonight, isn't it, sister?" she asked Remilia wistfully. "I wish you could see it." Then, after a brief pause, she added matter-of-factly, "I'm hungry."
Humming tunelessly to herself, Flandre wandered back into the house, trailing bloody footprints across the dining room carpet, then disappeared into the kitchen.
In the great room, Gryphon stirred, pushed himself up on one hand, then collapsed once more, his consciousness guttering.
Everything was going so well, too, he thought, and then blacked out.
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
Gryphon woke with an odd feeling of... not foreboding, exactly, but a strange sense of anticipation. It was as though there were an unaccustomed energy about, even in the stillness of Remilia's bedchamber. It was like the sensation of being awakened by a sound that is over before full wakefulness arrives, so that the erstwhile sleeper can't be completely certain it was real.
He lay still for a few moments and listened, but heard nothing other than Wolfgang snoring, somewhere down at the foot of the bed, and Remilia's quiet breathing to his right. One of her arms was draped loosely upon him, her tiny hand resting slack atop the covers on his chest, just barely visible to his human eyes in the blackout-curtained darkness. He smiled, wondering idly how she kept her fingernails so perfect. He supposed he'd never know. If he asked, she'd just smirk and say it was ancient vampire magic.
What needed to be done today? The work in the library was nearly finished. Only one more bookcase needed repair, and it was mostly intact; all of the ruined ones had been either salvaged or replaced by this point. He supposed once that was done, he ought to move on to doing something about the conservatory. Or the banisters in the entrance hall. The one on the south stairs was in decent shape, but the north one was a definite health and safety hazard to anyone who couldn't fly.
Which in this house, admittedly, was a list consisting of exactly one person, and he didn't technically live here.
Oh, right, he thought. It's the full moon tonight...
When the moon rose in a few hours, it would be full, and the curious curse afflicting Scarlet Devil Mansion would be lifted until it set. For that brief window of time, the house and its grounds would exist in normal time. Which meant that today really was truly and properly May 16, 1946.
He wondered how it was that the sky still followed its normal rhythms the rest of the time. He and Remilia had watched the moon go through its regular phases through the windows of the great hall all month, after all, and the sun rose and set every day as usual. The length of time between moon phases was entirely as it should be, as well. Yet, except while the full moon was in the sky, the house did not exist in the ordinary world, and anyone attempting to leave by the front door would quickly find himself in the back yard.
Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown, Gryphon remarked wryly to himself. He knew a fair bit about magic and a fair bit about the workings of spacetime, but what had happened here was quite beyond his expertise in both fields.
Instead, he reflected on the significance of the date. If all had/would gone/go according to plan, he was inhabiting a time paradox right now, or would be once the moon rose—because he should also be a few miles to the north, at Château Saint-Ulrich, today. Fortunately, the other him would surely have the nous not to come down here, since he would already have lived the day this him was living right now, and...
Ugh. Time travel. It all got so confusing so fast. Which was why he tried as much as possible to avoid doing it, but in this instance...
Remilia stirred, her hand on his chest flexing, then patting the covers. He reached and took it in his own, turning slightly to face her, and a moment later she raised herself up on her other elbow and grinned sleepily at him.
"Good evening, stranger," she remarked. "It's rare to find you still here when I wake." She settled back down again, cuddling in against his shoulder, and said contentedly, "I like it. We should arrange it more often."
"You're awake early," he told her. "The sun's still up."
"Must be the full moon. I'm starting to feel it already, and it hasn't even risen yet." She chuckled. "I hope you're ready for a full-moon night in a house of vampires."
"There are only two of you," Gryphon observed, "and as you're both reasonably fond of me, I expect I'll survive."
Remilia's voice was less playful as she replied, "Flan nearly killed you yesternight."
"You say that so blandly." Remilia yawned and snuggled even closer, her voice going blurry as she went on, "Only one other human I've ever known was as blasé about her mortality as you are, and she didn't age..."
"Uh, yeah, about that... there's something you probably ought to know. ... Remilia?"
Her only reply was a soft snore. Impending full moon or no, she'd gone back to sleep.
Y'know what, that there bookcase can wait, Gryphon decided, and settled in to get a few more winks himself.
It was just after sunset when a Liberion Army 2½-ton truck appeared, plodding along Route D1B between Ribeauvillé and Colmar. In the passenger seat, a man in the uniform of a Karlsland Luftwaffe aviation mechanic sat puzzling over a hand-drawn map.
"I'm going to need you to tell me what to do here pretty soon," the driver—a younger man in Imperial Fusō Naval Air Service enlisted fatigues—said. "Isn't there supposed to be a turnoff?"
"Ja, ja, there is, I'm just trying to work out where the hell it is," grumbled Oberfeldwebel Heinz Mertens, rotating the map in his hands.
Aircraft Technician Seaman First Class Mako Iwamatsu sighed. "Well, figure it out quickly, will you, Bimmel? We're nearly to Bennwihr, and it's supposed to be before there."
"This diagram is not drawn very precisely," Mertens remarked dryly. He peered more closely at the paper. "Ach, was bedeutet das?" Holding up the map, he pointed and said, "Does that say 'dairy' to you?"
"I'm sort of driving?" noted Iwamatsu with audibly exercised patience.
"Aha! There it is!" Mertens declared, pointing. "Just before the dairy, that's what it says."
Iwamatsu raised his eyebrows. "That's a road? We wouldn't even call that a road back in Akase."
Mertens shrugged. "Road, trail, cowpath, whatever—it's the only right turning between here and Bennwihr, it has to be it."
As he negotiated the turn, the deuce-and-a-half thumping and jolting as it left the pavement, Iwamatsu said, "Isn't this where Captain Hutchins wrecked his Jeep last month?"
"Now that you mention it, I think you're right," agreed Mertens.
"You know, when I joined the Navy, I pictured myself on a ship somewhere in the South Seas," said Iwamatsu. "And here I am, driving a Liberion truck into some creepy woods in the middle of nowhere in Gallia." He grinned. "It's a glamorous life."
Dressing after the evening bath, Gryphon inadvertently pulled one of the buttons off his increasingly threadbare shirt and sighed.
"This uniform's seen better days," he remarked, then chuckled. "I didn't pack for an extended stay at Scarlet Devil Suites. Maybe I should risk a run to Colmar before Le Magasin closes. I probably won't run into myself, what would I be doing in town on a Thursday?"
"That seems risky," Remilia said, knotting her crimson ascot before the tin mirror of her vanity. "But if you go, I'll give you a list of a few things to pick up. Fresh provisions are always good."
"You see, I can be useful," he kidded her. "Here, you're off-center. This mirror needs a polish, I'll put that on my to-do list."
She glanced up and back over her shoulder, smiling, as he stood behind her and adjusted her neckcloth. "You're very useful. More useful than you need to be, really." Affecting aristocratic languor, she went on, "I shall find it so ever tiresome doing everything myself again when you go back to your life."
She said it lightly, as a joke, but Gryphon knew her well enough by now to recognize that his departure—no longer imminent, as he had no intention of decamping on this particular full moon like they'd both originally planned, but inevitable sooner or later—was weighing on her mind a bit.
"In what way," he inquired, pausing to kiss her on the cheek, "is what I'm doing right now not my life?"
Her face colored with a mix of pleasure and embarrassment. "You know what I mean."
"I'm sure I'm getting along just fine without me," Gryphon assured her, making her giggle. Then he leaned a little farther down and kissed the side of her neck, which made her jump.
"Ah! Not there, you beast," she said, her blush flaming.
Gryphon chuckled. "A vampire who's weak to having her neck kissed? There's a joke in there somewhere."
"Yes, yes, very funny," said Remilia with a roll of her eyes. "Don't make me regret permitting you a few liberties."
"I wouldn't dream of it, my lady—hm?" Gryphon straightened, looking toward the front of the house, as the sound of a vehicle's horn came from outside.
Remilia rose, looking baffled. "Who on Earth...?"
Gryphon went to the window, nudged aside the blackout curtain, and then laughed. To her curious look, he said, "It looks like I have a delivery. Be right back."
"There's nobody here, Mako," Mertens opined. "We must have lost our way somewhere back there. Look at this place, it's obvious no one has lived here since before the war. Probably long before."
"I'm amazed it's still here at all," Iwamatsu mused. "Why didn't the Neuroi level it?"
"Maybe they don't like spooky houses in the woods any more than I do," said Mertens. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Iwamatsu was about to agree, put the truck in gear, and start turning around when a light appeared in the crumbling mansion's front hall. A moment later, one of the great double front doors opened and a man emerged carrying a three-armed candelabrum—a man both members of the truck's crew were startled to recognize.
"Captain Hutchins!" Mertens declared, leaning out of his window. "What in the world are you doing here?"
Captain, is it? Hmm, Gryphon thought to himself, but what he said out loud, with a smile, was,
"Bimmel! Mako! You're right on time. Thanks for coming all this way. What did you bring me?"
"Everything you asked for, of course, but what—" Mertens began.
"Great. Thank you," Gryphon interrupted him smoothly. "C'mon, I'll give you a hand unloading so you can get back before anyone misses you."
The truck was fairly fully loaded, but working diligently, the three men were able to get everything out of it and stacked neatly in the front hall within only a few minutes. When the job was done, Gryphon chivvied them outside without being too overbearing about it. As he guided them back to the truck, a hand on each man's shoulder, he leaned them together confidentially and said,
"Thanks for your help, fellas. Now listen, this establishment is AMS on a strictly NTK basis, so MTW when you RTB, you follow? If anyone finds out what we're doing here, we'll be SOL PDQ. A-OK?"
"Uh... aye aye, Major," said Iwamatsu. He was clearly baffled by the entire affair, but as a disciplined sailor of Fusō, he firmly believed that his was not to question what the hell the officers were up to.
"Roger that, sir," Mertens agreed. With a conspiratorial wink and a finger alongside his nose, he added, "They won't get anything out of us!"
"Good man," Gryphon said approvingly, then slapped both their shoulders and let them go. "Thanks again."
Neither Mertens nor Iwamatsu spoke until they had rejoined Route D1B and were headed back north to Ribeauvillé.
"That was a bit merkwürdig," said Mertens matter-of-factly.
"Mm. It must be nice being an officer," Iwamatsu reflected. "You don't have to explain yourself to the ranks, and you can dress however you want. Did you see the state of his uniform?"
"No inspections at grueslige Waldvilla-Watche, I suppose," said Mertens philosophically, lighting up a cigarette.
"What is all this stuff?" Remilia wondered, regarding the stack of materials Gryphon and the two aircraftmen had just unloaded from the truck.
"Looks like I sent me a care package," said Gryphon. "Lessee, I've got some tools... a bunch of construction materials and supplies... nails! I've got nails! Halle-freakin'-lujah, I can stop scavenging them from the demo scrap. Some fresh clothes, again, a heartfelt thank you to my future self. And... the rest of this looks like rations from Romagna and Fusō." He turned a grin to her. "Maybe I ought to do some of the cooking the next few days."
Remilia smiled. "Maybe, but not today. Today I have something special planned."
"Can you give me a hint?"
"No." She made a shooing gesture, her smile shading toward a smirk. "Go and do something with yourself, and no peeking into the kitchen, it's a surprise."
Some time later, he was finishing up the last of the bookcases when the ticking of toenails on the stone floor heralded the arrival of Wolfgang.
"And where have you been all evening, hm?" Gryphon asked as the Lenshound trotted in from the entrance hall.
Wolfgang replied by stopping in the doorway and uttering a short bay.
"What's that, boy?" said Gryphon. "Timmy fell down the well again?"
"Hrf," Wolfgang replied, failing to appreciate the joke.
"Ah. Lunch. I see." Downing tools, Gryphon brushed sawdust from himself and came around his improvised workbench to meet the hound.
"How is it," he inquired as Wolfgang led him across to the great room, "that if it's for me, you can't be bothered, but you'll run errands for her?"
Wolfgang did not deem the question worthy of comment. Gryphon hadn't expected him to. He was preparing to make a sarcastic reference to a claim Remilia had made when they met, to the effect that dogs were weak and easily dominated creatures, when he rounded the doorway and was momentarily rendered mute.
In his absence, Remilia had adjusted the lighting in the great room, normally the best-lit room in the house, so that it resembled the way he'd seen it on his first night there. Only about half the usual number of candles were lit, the fireplace was banked low, and center stage had been handed over to the full moon, now climbing its way up the floor-to-ceiling windows on the west wall.
In front of that window, the dining table was laid with its usual three places: Remilia's, at the head; the one to her left, which Gryphon had come to think of as his; and the one to her right, which was always set, though there was never anyone to sit at it. Arrayed between was a range of covered serving platters and the soup tureen, along with two bottles: one of Château Latour, and one—the larger of the two, standing nearer to Remilia's place—unlabeled.
Remilia herself stood before her thronelike chair at the head of the table, dressed differently than Gryphon had yet seen her. Ordinarily, she favored simple skirt-and-blouse sets in a vaguely Victorian style, with bows and ribbon trim, and sometimes a red silk ascot. Pink seemed to be her favored color for these dresses, though sometimes she wore white. A fastidious dresser, she wore fresh clothes every day, but they were so alike it was difficult to tell.
Since he'd last seen her, however, she had changed into an arrestingly different set of clothes. In general outline, they were broadly similar, with a wide petticoated skirt and short, puffy sleeves, but this outfit was much more elaborate, with intricate embroidery in black, red, and silver; a black, lace-ruffle-fronted underblouse with long sleeves ending in bridal gauntlets and a high red-and-white collar; and a bold crimson sash about her waist. Even her hat, though still the ever-present mob cap, was fancier, with a larger-than-usual red cockade and a couple of white flowers tucked into the ribbon.
The full effect was to make her seem older than she normally looked. A bit taller, too; he suspected that if he could see her feet from here, he'd see shoes with a bit of a heel to them, rather than her customary flats.
As they had been when he'd first encountered her, her aristocratic manners were in full effect. Spreading her hands before her, she declared grandly,
"Bienvenue! Entrez librement et de votre propre gré! Entrez librement, allez en toute sécurité et laissez quelque chose du bonheur que vous apportez."
It was the same speech she'd given him on the first night—"enter freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring"—but he decided he liked the sound of it better in Gallic.
Acutely conscious of the fact that he was wearing his ratty old nearly-worn-out Liberion fatigues and still had sawdust on him, Gryphon bowed in as courtly a fashion as he could manage and replied, "Merci, Mademoiselle la Comtesse. Je suis heureux d’être ici."
Remilia smiled, her crimson eyes twinkling. "Your pronunciation is improving," she said, "but I think I like you better speaking English, anyway. You sound more like yourself." She gestured to his usual place. "Please, be seated! Let us begin."
Lunch was the most elaborate meal she had yet presented him with, a panoply of Gallian, Flemish, and west Karlsland dishes befitting their location in an ancient, much-contested borderland, all prepared (as far as his admittedly not-very-sophisticated palate could tell) perfectly: nothing too heavy, not the kind of meal that would lead to post-prandial torpor, but varied, delicious, and in every way satisfactory.
He told her so, when it was all finished and they were lingering over their after-dinner drinks, and Remilia received the compliment with a mild blush that didn't go with her outfit, but did make her look more like he was accustomed to seeing her.
"You don't usually go all in on lunch," Gryphon observed, sipping his wine.
He'd noticed that, over the course of the meal, Remilia had put away a substantial share of the contents of the unmarked bottle standing by her own place. If it was blood, and he was reasonably sure it was, it represented a far greater quantity than he was used to seeing her take. Normally she was satisfied with just a spoonful or two added to things here and there at each meal, and perhaps a small glass in the wee hours, but she must have downed at least half of... how much did one of those big wine bottles hold? A liter and a half? Something like that.
"It's true, I'm normally a light eater at midnight. Not on this night, though. Under a full moon, I can't wait for dinnertime." She half-smiled, half-smirked. "If I tried, I might lose my patience halfway between and do something... unladylike."
Gryphon nodded, as if this were a normal conversation, and said, "I see."
"Besides," said Remilia, "I originally planned this as your going-away dinner. Your last meal under my roof," she said with a melancholy smile. The smile brightened as she went on, "Then your plans changed, and it became an occasion to celebrate." She refilled her glass and held it up. "So here's to another month."
Smiling, Gryphon poured himself a little more Latour and touched his glass to hers. "I'll drink to that."
They were both just about to drink when a thin, brittle voice said from the door out into the entrance hall,
With matching little starts that would probably have amused them in a different context, Gryphon and Remilia looked to the doorway.
Flandre was standing there, leaning against the doorjamb—not in a casual or jaunty way, but as if she needed it to hold her up. Her face was pale, eyes dark-rimmed; her hat was missing, and her hair even more disheveled than usual.
A moment later, Gryphon saw why her hair was that way, as she ran both hands fitfully through it, half combing it with her fingers but half just pulling at it, leaving it even worse than before. Her eyes, too, were wild, and didn't seem to quite match in size, as she fixed them on Gryphon with a look of heart-wrenching dismay.
"You're leaving?" she asked, her voice breaking into a squeak halfway through.
Remilia was halfway out of her seat, mouth opening to correct her sister's misconception, but Gryphon beat her to it, rising and taking a step toward Flandre with his hands raised placatingly.
"No, of course I'm not leaving," he said, as soothingly as he could.
Anger flashed, contorting her face. "Liar!" she snapped. "I heard it!"
The worst thing about this, from Gryphon's perspective, was that this was not the Other confronting him now. The Other wouldn't give a damn if he disappeared, never to be seen again. This was the Child—the aspect of Flandre's fractured personality he had spent the last two weeks building a bond with—who had now misunderstood something only half-overheard and thought he had betrayed her. That was far, far worse.
With an alarmed sense that the situation was already out of control, he tried his best to calm her. "No, Flan, you didn't hear the whole thing. We were talking about how I'm not going to leave. I planned to, but that was before I met you, and now I'm staying. I would never run out on you."
Flandre advanced slowly until she was within arm's reach of him, staring hard into his eyes, her feelings all but waging open war across the battlefield of her face.
Then, in a voice that was somewhere in between the Child's and the Other's, she said, "Prove it. Play a game with me."
"What kind of game do you want to play, Flan?" he asked gently.
"Benjamin, beware—" Remilia tried to say, but Flandre turned and raged at her,
"You keep out of this! You miserable sangsue! This is between me and your... whatever he is to you! Is he your thrall? Your toy? Your servant? Is he Sakuya's replacement? Have you even tasted him?"
Remilia's face, which had gone as white as her clothes at her sister's sudden appearance, now flushed with rage.
«Enough!» she barked. «Flandre, you overstep yourself! Return to your chambers and perhaps I will overlook this—»
"Save your breath," Flandre spat. "This has gone too far for me to back down now." She grinned crookedly, her fangs glinting, and said with an off-kilter laugh, "I've a feeling we're going to settle this tonight."
Then, flashing out a hand, she seized Gryphon by the front of his shirt and lifted him clean off the floor, with no more difficulty than he had picking up a glass of wine.
"And as for you," she said sweetly into his face, "we're going to play a new game. I call it Try Not to Die!"
And with that, she hurled him bodily through the great window, sending him flying in a cloud of glass shards and broken masonry out onto the broad, moonlit expanse of the west lawn.
Remilia had swept forward to confront her sister, but seeing Gryphon so handled shocked her into immobility for a critical quarter-second—all the time Flandre needed to seize her as she had him.
"Wait your turn," the blonde hissed, then flung her sister in the opposite direction, into the entrance hall—by way not of the door, but rather the wall next to the door.
Outside, Gryphon skidded to a halt on the lawn, plowing up a furrow in the grass with his face, but retained his wits and was on his feet before he'd quite stopped rolling. Immediately kicking into combat mode, he looked around for something, anything, he could use as a weapon. He wasn't fool enough to think he would survive long going up against anyone as powerful as Flandre empty-handed.
Unfortunately, the west lawn was a lawn, and lawns are not places with an abundance of readily improvised weapons.
"The rules of this game are simple," Flandre declared, stepping out onto the lawn through the hole he'd made. "It's all in the name, really. You try not to die. And I try to make you!"
And with that, she started hurling bolts of energy at him.
This was a form of magic Gryphon was unfamiliar with. In his experience, only a few of today's witches could use magic directly as an offensive weapon. It was a technique rarely taught nowadays, because the use of magically supercharged weapons was far more efficient. A witch employing the method Flandre was using would exhaust herself very quickly indeed—too fast to be really effective in combat.
Flandre, standing in the light of the full moon, evidently had cause for no such concern. She wasn't just throwing a few spellbolts at him, she was deluging him with them, flinging them by the fistful in waves. For the first few seconds, the only thing that kept him alive was the fact that the pattern spread with range, creating gaps big enough for him to throw his body into and avoid getting hit.
That wasn't going to work forever.
After thirty or forty seconds of frantic survival that felt like hours, he had his first break, and even if it wasn't much of one, he seized it gladly. A wave of Flandre's barrages demolished a tree, one of the few that were dotted around the lawn, and one of the fragments was a piece of a branch that would just about serve as a clumsy bokutō. It was green wood, which was far from ideal, but it was at least large, and heavy, and vaguely the right shape and size. It was something, which was more than he'd had a moment before.
Gryphon scooped it up on the run, flipping it into his hands, and immediately felt his form become more centered. With even the semblance of a sword in his hands, everything just... made more sense. His ki harmonized better with the Force, or something. He wasn't in the mood to analyze it right now. Instead he filed it away for later consideration, assuming there was a "later".
What it meant in the short term was that he now had an inner position from which to mount a defense. Planting his feet, he set himself, focused his inner energy, and counterattacked.
To do that, he had to sprint toward Flandre through the storm of energy pulses, trusting in the Force and zanshin to show him the path. Twice he batted aside spellbolts that were too close to his course; the second time, he was close enough to see the surprise on her face as it happened. Swinging in on her from the left, he shaped his strike in hopes of disrupting her pattern and possibly—just possibly—breaking her fugue so that he could make another attempt at getting through to her.
A fraction too late, he realized she was on to him. She pivoted, evading him—even fueled by the Force, he was slower than she was—and seized the branch in one hand. He hung on, focusing all his will, as he would on a proper sword...
... but it was not a proper sword, and with a pop of refluxed energy he could feel in his bones, the wood broke, leaving her holding one half and him the other. Gryphon reeled backward, his arms tingling, and fell to one knee.
Laughing, Flandre unleased another burst of eldritch blasts, eviently intending to mow him down where he knelt. Time seemed to stretch as his perceptions went into overdrive, mind racing, searching for a path to Not Dead—and in an instant's flash of insight, he saw one. When in Rome...
Raising the broken stub of his faux sword, he summoned his energies and shaped them in a configuration he'd learned from watching Mio Sakamoto, during that long-ago summer when he'd trained her in the ways of Katsujinkenryū and taught her to use it as a replacement for her lost magic. A witch's rune-shield, the wheeling magic circle his aerial comrades used to protect themselves from Neuroi plasma weapons, sprang into being before him and turned aside Flandre's latest assault.
It was an imperfect defense, though. Gryphon didn't use the shield spell very often, since it didn't interact very neatly with any of his other techniques, and so his focus on it was imperfect. Hampered further by the backlash from the loss of his weapon, he was able to maintain it for only a moment: long enough to save his life, but in doing so it was overwhelmed and destroyed. The blast flattened him, laying him out full-length on the ground, surrounded by jagged shards of his ersatz weapon.
Flandre tossed aside the half-branch she'd been left holding and walked over to her fallen opponent. By the time he'd partly regained consciousness, but not command of his body, she had knelt beside him and was leaning over his body, looking down into his face.
"I win," she said softly. A little smile tugged at her lips, as if involuntarily. "And now we're going to play a different kind of kissing game."
She opened her mouth, her fangs extending to twice their usual length, and he had just enough time to think abstractly, Oh. So that's what it means, before—
"Flandre!" Remilia's voice thundered.
Dusty and battered, her finery torn, Remilia stood just outside the broken wall of the great room, her feet planted wide apart and wings fully spread, her normally pleasant face filled with wrath. In one hand, she held a long, ornate spear that seemed to be made not of wood or metal, but a concentrated flux of blood-red energy, crackling and fizzling gently in the still night air.
"Leave him be!" Remilia commanded. "If you're bent on making this a final confrontation, then let it be between us and us alone. Do not drag outsiders into our family's sorry business."
Scowling, Flandre abandoned the operation and turned, still crouching over Gryphon, to face her sister.
"You're the one who brought him into our home," she pointed out. "You should have left him where he lay."
"He might have died," Remilia replied.
"So what? He's nothing. A human. This world is full of them."
As she spoke, Flandre slowly picked up the largest of the shards of wood, the remains of Gryphon's improvised weapon, and as she rose to her feet, she held it behind her back in one hand.
"You don't believe that," Remilia said, a pleading note slipping into her voice. "Flandre, this one is special. You know that as well as I. He understands us. He accepts us. Even you. Even me."
Flandre took a step toward Remilia, then another. "Do you really think so?"
"I know it. And so do you. Don't you?"
"I..." Flandre shook her head, hand pressed to her brow. "I don't know. I can't... I don't know what I'm doing."
What does she want with that stick? Gryphon wondered, his mind still working as if wading through treacle.
"I know, little sister." All the wrath was gone from Remilia's voice now, replaced by sorrow and concern. "Stop this, Flandre. Can't you stop? It's not too late. You haven't done any permanent harm. We can forget all about this."
And why is she hiding it?
"Really?" Flandre asked. She'd almost reached Remilia now, pausing just out of stabbing range in case she decided to use that spear after all.
"Can you... can you forgive me?" she asked.
"Of course," Remilia replied. "We'll both forgive you. We love you, Flandre."
Then, dismissing the weapon, she held her arms open. "Come here."
Adrenaline poured into Gryphon's bloodstream, snapping him the rest of the way back to consciousness. Bolting upright, he cried, "Flan, no, don't—!"
Just as Flandre, instead of accepting her sister's forgiving embrace, drew back her hand and plunged the shard of wood into Remilia's chest.
It went in smoothly, swiftly, with a sound like someone hitting a watermelon with an axe. Flandre's strength was such that she needed only one clean strike to drive the wooden stake straight through her sister's body, transfixing her heart. No mallet required.
Remilia opened her mouth to speak, but only blood emerged, pouring down the front of her body. She fell to her knees, her hands grabbing nervelessly at Flandre's shoulders and then losing all strength, sliding limply down and off.
With a mocking smile, Flandre put a hand on Remilia's shoulder, then gave her a push sideways. She toppled onto her side and lay still, blood pooling around her.
"Looks like nobody is winning Try Not to Die today," Flandre observed with a demented giggle. She noticed movement out of the corner of her eye; turning, she saw Gryphon struggling to his feet.
"If you had any sense at all," she said, with the same involuntary-looking smile as before, "you'd run. I might even let you go."
Gryphon shook his head, his expression grim and red-rimmed eyes intent. "That's not going to happen."
"Oh, you're not going to do something stupid like try to avenge my sister, are you?" Flandre asked, sounding disappointed. "You don't even really like her, she just used her power to make you think you did."
He didn't dignify that remark with a rebuttal; just stood there, staring her down, like a coldly hostile version of the calm look he'd used to defuse Remilia so many times.
Flandre was drawing breath to offer some further comment when a shadow suddenly fell across them both, too sharply and abruptly to be a cloud crossing the moon. Slowly, they both turned and looked up.
There was a great black shape in the sky, like a bird, or a bat, but too geometrically regular and far too large to be either. Completely black, its surface entirely featureless except for a fringe of glowing red crystalline spikes that studded its trailing edge, it hovered above them, blocking out the moon.
Naturally, some part of Gryphon thought grimly. They're attracted to magic, and Flan's been throwing it around by the hundredweight.
The Neuroi hovered silently a moment longer, as if trying to figure out the meaning of the tableau it had just run across, and then opened fire.
Feeling that diving for nonexistent cover was becoming something of a lifepath, Gryphon barely avoided being ashed by the first beam, and knew that his night had just gone from terrible to terminal. Flan he might, might, be able to talk down, even in her present condition. A Large-type Neuroi? Not so much. And with no weapon, no jetpack, and no backup for miles, there was precisely nothing he was going to be able to do about it.
For her part, Flandre had no idea what the thing in the sky was, but she also didn't care. It was interrupting.
Screaming with rage, she charged. The Neuroi turned its attention to her, lacing the air around her with fire. She avoided some, counterblasted others with her own magic, and (to Gryphon's vague amazement) tanked a couple of blasts outright, shrugging off wounds that would have put an ordinary person into fatal shock and regenerating from them before missing more than one stride.
When she was near enough, she coiled herself and leaped, the force of her takeoff cratering the ground beneath her. Despite their uselesness, her unfinished wings spread by instinct as she hurtled upward, body arched, then threw herself forward like an old-fashioned high jumper clearing the bar. More plasma fire criscrossed the air, but she slipped through its web and landed on the Neuroi's upper hull, her fingers digging into its slick crystalline surface.
In his time with the 501st, Gryphon had seen witches make direct physical attacks against Neuroi before—it was how Mio operated about half the time, ignoring her cannon in favor of slashing aerial strikes with her swords, and Trude Barkhorn had been known to punch one occasionally. He'd never seen anyone just plunge her fingers into the crystal matrix and start ripping off chunks, though, and that was what Flandre did, shredding the carapace faster than the Neuroi could self-repair.
And once she'd made a big enough hole, she disappeared inside.
The Neuroi hovered there for a few seconds longer, as if confused by what had just occurred. Then, with the typical bell-like sound, it burst into glowing white fragments and dissipated.
Instead of falling from the sky amid said fragments, Flandre remained aloft, standing in the air where the Neuroi had been. Her clothes were in rags, her shoes gone entirely. Little flecks of glowing red matter tumbled from the corners of her lips as she contentedly wiped her mouth with the back of one hand, and with a thrill of horror, Gryphon realized that she hadn't smashed the Neuroi's core...
... she'd eaten it.
In the renewed moonlight, she looked down at him, her head tilted at a strange angle. As he watched, the shining whites of her eyes went black, a sleek crystalline black, like the hull of a Neuroi, with their crimson irises blazing out against it.
Down the length of her wings, the erstwhile Neuroi's red crystal spikes sprouted like strange art-deco feathers: seven to each side, glowing brightly.
As last things to see go, Gryphon thought to himself, I have to admit that's not too shabby.
A moment later, laughing hysterically, Flandre filled the sky with red Neuroi plasma balls, then sent them all after him.
The next time Gryphon regained consciousness after his fading thought of Everything was going so well, Flandre was gone—still in the kitchen, or off destroying Mulhouse, or who knew? He had no idea how long he'd been out, or how long he'd stay back. His body was wrecked, to an extent that would take several days to regenerate, if he lived that long.
Slowly, painfully, he raised his head and looked outside. Remilia still lay where she'd fallen, on her side, the shard of wood transfixing her body... but her body was still there. It hadn't crumbled away to dust. Which meant there might be a chance. He wasn't sure. He didn't really know how vampires worked in this world, how they were alike to and different from those of his home reality—and there was a fair bit of variation among individuals back home, in any case.
But it was a chance, and right now it was the only one he could see.
Crawling to her hurt like hell and took forever. What was more, his only path led straight across the field of broken glass, which added just the right je ne sais quoi to the experience. All the while he half-expected Flandre to appear and finish him off, but at least that much luck was with him.
When, at least, he reached Remilia, he paused, falling into himself, and gathered all the remaining energy in his crushed, burned, battered body. He would only have one chance at this.
There is a fire inside you that is greater than distance or time.
Teeth gritted, blackness hovering at the edges of his vision, he took hold of the improvised stake, made certain of his grip, and wrenched it free.
He had just enough time to feel a surge of triumph before the blackness welled up and he fell down into it.
Remilia drew a harsh, ragged breath and sat up, her hand instinctively rising to clutch at the spot where the wound had been. It was already gone, closed before her lungs started working again, but the memory of it, she knew, would linger for some time.
Shaking her head, she fought to orient herself. She was still where she'd fallen, outside the wrecked great room of her house. Parts of the west lawn were on fire, and the rest was a cratered ruin.
Gryphon lay on his back beside her, his body a war-torn landscape, the bloody stake still clutched in his hand.
"Gods," she whispered. She wanted to touch him, try to comfort him, but there was nowhere that wasn't burned or bloodied. Was he even alive? Yes, he seemed to be breathing... barely... but who knew for how long?
Rising on unsteady legs, Remilia looked around, but could see no sign of Flandre. She staggered through the remains of the great room wall, her head spinning, and caught herself before she could sprawl headlong next to the dining table.
There. The bottle. She seized it and drank its remaining contents greedily, all sense of decorum abandoned. Too fast, and too much, like when she was a little girl, so that the excess ran down her chin and neck and soiled her clothing. In this case, her clothing was already ruined, so what did it matter?
As she drank, Remilia thought of Marthe for the first time in decades, maybe centuries. Beautiful, kind-natured, sweet-blooded Marthe, her first love, her first... not a victim, for she had been a willing participant. Conquest? Not really that, either, it had been her idea from the start. Those furtive, giggling rendez-vous by moonlight at the back gate of her home in the village. Remilia, Remilia, won't you? I would be so honored... Fifteen years old, the both of them, and neither with a clue in the world what they were doing. Only Remilia's tiny stomach had saved poor naïve Marthe's life, she was sure, and it surely hadn't saved her frock. Then flying home with her clothes soaked, attracting the superstitious attention of farmhands staggering home from the alehouse... the Scarlet Devil forevermore, all thanks to her clumsy teenage drinking.
The bottle was empty and the screaming thirst in her belly was gone... replaced by rage. Her first instinct was to tear the house apart, stone by stone if necessary, until she found Flandre, and then end her... but reason prevailed. First she had to do something about Benjamin.
Or rather... her mother did.
It took her only a minute or two to find what she was looking for. After all this time, she knew where everything her mother had left behind was to be found, including this one precious little glass phial. If only she would not be too late.
She returned to the great room at speed, and found Flandre out on the lawn, standing over Gryphon and regarding him curiously.
"Do you see this?" the blonde asked conversationally, nudging Gryphon's still-clenched fist with her toes. She turned and gave Remilia her crooked, uneven-eyed smile. "He used the last of his strength to save you instead of himself," she said, a thread of wonder in her voice.
Remilia lifted her chin. "Why does that surprise you?" she asked. "He loves me."
Flandre looked down at the fallen man for a moment, then back at her sister.
"He's an idiot," she said matter-of-factly.
"Get away from him, Flandre. I won't allow you to harm him any further."
"You still think you can stop me? Can't you see? I was stronger than you before, and now..." She spread her wings, the crystal spikes tinkling, and her black-red eyes sparkled from within.
"Oh, Flandre," said Remilia sadly. "What have you done?"
"I don't know!" Flandre replied. "But it feels amazing. Watch this!" She looked down at Gryphon again, then leveled an open hand toward him, a bubble of crimson energy forming on her palm.
Flandre blinked. "Huh?" She turned to look an accusation at her sister, to find that Remilia wasn't where she had been, either. Now deeply puzzled, the blonde turned around—and there they were, halfway across the lawn, by the stump of the tree she'd blown up earlier. Gryphon was still stretched out on the ground. Remilia knelt beside him, grinning a defiant little grin. One of her hands was spread protectively over the fallen man's chest. In the other, she held a small, shiny object.
"You didn't run far enough!" Flandre screamed, spreading her wings again.
A glint of silver; the sound of something small but heavy flicking through the air; an impact. Flandre's body jerked. With a cry that was as much anger as pain, she twisted, reaching behind her, and pulled a throwing dagger from her back.
From behind her, a voice spoke, and the sound of it sent a surge of unidentifiably tangled emotion racing up Remilia's spine:
"That's quite enough of that, young mistress."
Still holding the knife, Flandre turned toward the sound. Standing in the jagged hole where the great window had been was the figure of a woman. Tall by comparison with the sisters, well-made, twentyish but grey-haired, she had a bandolier of daggers slung across her chest—an equipment choice somewhat at odds with her clothing, since she wore the frilled and aproned uniform of a Victorian lady's-maid.
Remilia stared past her sister at this apparation, her throat gone suddenly dry and burning, and so tight that only the barest whisper could emerge:
The maid smiled. "Sorry to have kept you waiting, m'lady."
to be concluded
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
Philp Jeremy Moyer
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020