Avalon County Entertainment System

Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)

Program start_

Friday, May 17, 1946
0247 hrs Central European Summer Time
airspace near Mackenheim, Gallia

"Haha! One down!"

"Good shooting, Shirley. Go and reinforce Yoshika and Lynne, they're under a lot of pressure over there."

"Roger that!"

As Shirley Yeager zoomed off to follow her instructions, Mio Sakamoto flipped the polarity of her goggles and scanned the area with her witch sight. It didn't work as well in the dark as a dedicated Night Witch's radar, but it beat the portable searchlights the others were having to work by. All-hands night sorties really were a pain in the ass.

Still, when the aerial warning network calls in not one, not two, not three, but four Large-type Neuroi crossing the Rhine at two-thirty in the morning, that's not the kind of thing a responsible commander could leave to the standing Night Witch patrols. Sanya and Heidemarie had each demonstrated ably that they could handle a single Large-type on their own, and teamed up they would have had a decent chance at handling two, but for four, it was best to get everybody out of bed.

Mio touched her commbud, switching to the squadron command frequency. "Jingū to Duchess, any sign of the one that got past?"

"Negative! Negative!" the voice of Perrine Clostermann, soaked in static and the background noise of combat, came back. "Riquewihr and Anould report no contacts, their sectors. Fréland had it briefly, but they say it disappeared."

"Damn. Alert JG 11 and Deuxième Escadre to look sharp, it could be heading their way."

"Roger," Perrine acknowledged, then pointed out, "It might also have gone to ground, like the ones in the Ardennes."

"That's a risk," Mio agreed. "If it doesn't turn up, we'll have to search that sector in the morning."

Just then, Gertrud Barkhorn's voice broke in with a heterodyne squeal: "Weiß-5 to Jingū, new contacts crossing the Rhine—looks like two more of them, coming in from Mahlberg!"

"Oh, this just keeps getting better. Copy that, Weiß-5, help is on the way. Gryph—you heard?"

When no answer was forthcoming, Mio turned on her props to see Gryphon hovering nearby, his night-vision optics trained not on the battle zone to the east, but off toward the western horizon.

"Gryph? Gryph! Hey!"

Gryphon gave a mild start and turned. "Sorry. Yeah! I'm on it." So saying, he opened up his jetpack's throttle and darted away, cutting in reheat as soon as he was at a safe distance.

"Not like you to space out on me like that," Mio's voice remarked in his ear.

"Sorry," he repeated. "Past my bedtime."

"Ha ha, I heard that. Jingū to Chariot, how's your flank holding up?"

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
"Moonlight Serenade"
Bluebird B-10214-B (1939)

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
special series

Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime

© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thicker Than Water, Act VI: Nuit aux Mille Poignards

The west lawn was in ruins, the great room not much better off. Gryphon lay sprawled at her feet, his body crushed and burned, barely alive. Her sister was in the grip of a manic psychosis the likes of which she had never seen before, and appeared to have somehow hybridized herself with an alien war machine. She herself was battered and sore, her best clothes ruined, the healed wound from a staking still twinging, at least psychologically.

All in all, this full moon night was not turning out anything like Remilia Scarlet had been hoping it would.

And yet, for all that, a development had just occurred which gave her grounds for, if not hope, at least a deferment of total despair: for standing in the jagged hole where the great room's floor-to-ceiling windows used to be was a figure out of her past, one whom she had long since resigned herself that she would never see again.

At last, she found her voice. "Sakuya!"

With a slight smile, her long-lost maid nodded toward Gryphon. "Please attend to your business, m'lady," she said.

Despite the fact that she'd just arrived, she gave the impression that she knew what was going on—but then, Remilia recalled, Sakuya always gave the impression that she knew what was going on. It was one of her many skills.

Now she employed another one. She made a quick little gesture, too swift for the eye to follow, and suddenly her hands were full of blades, jutting out between all the fingers of her clenched fists like the claws of some strange beast.

"I shall occupy Lady Flandre," Sakuya went on, and then, springing into motion, she fitted deed to word.

In her heart, Remilia knew that Sakuya stood no chance against her sister. She was an incredibly capable combatant, Remilia knew that from long experience, but she was up against something here that was beyond the power of any human to confront. What had become of the man lying at her feet demonstrated that amply. It fell to her, therefore, not to waste the time she was being bought, and to hope that the price paid for it wouldn't be too dear. She didn't think she could live with it if Sakuya were to drop back into her life as mysteriously as she had left it, only to be killed immediately thereafter.

Kneeling, she lifted Gryphon's head, thumbed the top off the tiny glass phial she'd retrieved from her mother's sanctum, and then tipped its contents—a glowing, slightly oily-looking liquid, shimmering with colors—into his mouth.

As it passed his lips, a wave of rainbow light swept down his body, erasing his injuries as it went. He sat bolt upright, coughing violently, then fell back to the ground and blinked up at Remilia, deeply confused.

"What was that?" he inquired.

"Maman's strongest battle tonic," Remilia replied.

Gryphon smacked his lips. "Tastes like coconut. And metal."

"She told me once it was the distilled essence of a rainbow infused into troll blood, though I don't know if that's literally true," Remilia said. "Maman liked to tease me for not knowing much about alchemy. Can you stand?"

"I—oh wow, yeah, OK, that's really kicking in now," Gryphon observed, eyes going wide. "I think my heart rate just passed 200."

"It'll settle down in a minute," Remilia said, helping him up. "It restores your magical strength as well as healing your wounds, that's what you're feeling. How can you use magic, by the way? Men can't do that."

"I'd say 'I'm no ordinary man,' but it would be bragging," he replied, shaking his head like a punch-drunk boxer. "Oh wow. Oh wow."

"Benjamin. Try to concentrate. Do you remember my maid I told you about?"

He blinked, trying to focus on her face. "Sure, yeah. What was her name? Sakura?"

"Sakuya," Remilia corrected him.

"Right. Sakuya," Gryphon said abstractly. "Sorry. It's so rude forgetting people's names. I've always been bad at names, and it makes me feel like a jerk."

Remilia grabbed his face between her hands and looked him intently in the eyes. "Benjamin," she repeated. Then, gently rotating his head so that he was looking the right way, she went on, "That's her now, and if you don't get your act together and help me help her, Flan is going to kill her."

"Wow, look at her go. Battlemaid, huh? Sure! Why not? I love a good battlemaid, me." He considered the scene for a moment longer, his expression profoundly thoughtful. "She's really pretty."

Remilia closed her eyes, took a deep breath through her nose, and muttered, "Forgive me. This is for your own good."

And then she smacked him across the face, being as careful as she could not to slap it clean off.

"Hap-py birthday!" he declared, feeling at his jaw to make sure it was still attached. "Whoo. OK! Good to go. Thanks." He adjusted his neck slightly and remarked, "You should need a license to pour that stuff into people."

Remilia ignored his attempt at humor and told him, "Go and find yourself something to fight with."

He nodded. "I'm on it."

As he dashed past the pitched combat taking place on the lawn, Gryphon considered his options. Remilia was right, his initial reaction to the potion she'd given him had settled down—his heart was no longer jackhammering above 200 beats per minute, and although his nerves felt jangly and fizzy, the energy boost was real as well. He didn't have a reserve of magical strength, exactly—not in the way the local witches did—but it felt almost as if the concoction had set one up somewhere within him. Like a battery, one that was taking a charge from his connection to the Force. He filed the notion away for later study. The important thing was that he felt strong, stronger than he usually did—far stronger than he had any right to, given what he'd been through already tonight.

Unfortunately, he was still not armed, nor could he fly, which would tend to complicate matters.

He entered the great room at a run, hurdling the jumbled rubble that had been the wall, and looked around. Unfortunately, Count Victor Scarlet had not been the sort of great-house owner who stuck swords and axes and the like all over the walls, and Gryphon wasn't going to make much headway wielding the works of the Dutch Masters. Really, when you got right down to it, there was only one thing in the room that would make a decent field-expedient weapon. Swallowing his pride as a swordsman, he collected it, and was about to return to the fray when he noticed something else.

Wolfgang was sitting in what was normally Gryphon's chair, his attention firmly fixed on the goings-on outside. He didn't look particularly concerned for his own safety, but the look on his face was one of worry nonetheless.

"Stay out of the line of fire, buddy," Gryphon told the Lenshound, giving his ears a quick rub. "Things are getting messy."

Wolfgang whined, nudging at his hand, and Gryphon hunkered down to get at eye level. "Worried about Flan? Me too. She's... she's really not well tonight. But don't worry too much. We'll figure something out. OK, I gotta go. Stay back and be good."

When she rejoined the battle, the first thing Remilia noticed was that Flandre had gone entirely nonverbal. Earlier in the evening, she'd been mouthy bordering on chatty, even if everything she said was unhinged, but now, as she blasted away at her sister and Sakuya, dodging, deflecting, or absorbing their counterattacks, she was just grunting, screaming, snarling. Her face was fixed in a rigid glare, eyes wide, bared teeth gritted, lip curled. Her black-and-red eyes were uneven, unfocused, and staring.

Remilia closed with her, maneuvering through the storm of plasma bolts and diverting Flandre's attention to give Sakuya some breathing space. Seizing her sister's shoulders, she leaned close, hoping to startle her into some kind of meaningful remark, however demented.

Instead, she got a good close-up look at Flandre's face and realized that something was very wrong. Wrong besides the obvious. Whatever that black crystal that had replaced the whites of her eyes was, it was... growing. It had spread to encompass the skin around her eyes as well, like some bizarre domino mask made of black glass, and now crazily angled, jaggedly bent lines of it were extending out across the rest of her face. Her eyes were fixed and staring because she could no longer move them—the spreading black crystal had frozen them in place.

"Flandre! What's happening to you?" Remilia cried, shaking her sister by the shoulders. Knowing it was futile, she nevertheless couldn't stop herself from commanding her, "Stop this at once!"

Flandre's only response was a guttural, frothy snarl, uttered without parting her teeth—the kind of sound a person would make who couldn't part her teeth.

There was nothing wrong with her arm, though, as she proved a moment later by backhanding her distracted elder sister away from her, then resuming fire.

Remilia crashed back to the ground more because she was too shocked to remember to fly than because of Flandre's blow, arriving just in time to land in a heap at Gryphon's feet as he emerged from the house.

"Benjamin," she said urgently, scrambling back to her feet. "Something is happening—"

Sakuya tried to capitalize on Flandre's momentary distraction and come at her from a different angle, launching another flurry of knives as she went, but Flandre reacted with a speed uncanny even for a vampire of her obvious power—almost before what she was reacting to had even happened. With machinelike precision, she evaded the attack, seized the maid before she could withdraw, and hurled her in a high ballistic arc, as if trying to throw her clean out of the west grounds into the woods.

"No!" Remilia cried, preparing herself for an all-out aerial sprint. Sakuya had many talents, but flying was not one of them.

Before she had a chance, another figure appeared on the roof of the house, briefly skylined against the stars, and then flung itself after Sakuya with a prodigious tile-shattering leap. Whoever it was intercepted her halfway to the ground, then spun to touch down feet-first, smashing a crater in the turf a few yards short of the boundary wall.

"Do you have any idea what's going on?" Remilia asked Gryphon, not taking her eyes off the scene.

"Nope. Nice entrance, though."

"Mm." She shook herself out of her reverie and looked at him. "What in the world do you have there?"

"It's a field-expedient melee weapon," Gryphon replied.

"It looks like the fireplace poker."

"It's a field. expedient. melee weapon," he repeated flatly; then, seeing Flandre turn her attention back to them, he said, "Watch out!" and stepped around Remilia.

The first few bolts, he knocked off-course with the poker field expedient melee weapon, employing his heightened energy level and a Katsujinkenryū archery counter. Flandre's volume of fire was too high to keep that up for long, though, so he switched tactics, bought himself a second with one more deflection, and then called up his Fusō-style witch shield again.

It lasted longer than before, but still blew out, albeit without knocking him on his ass this time, and it did the job of stopping the rest of that particular barrage of plasma bolts.

"Ouch," he said, shaking his stinging hand. "Her blasts are getting stronger. That's not fair."

"Look carefully," Remilia told him. "She's... changing. Whatever's happened to her is spreading."

Gryphon looked and saw that she was right. Almost all of Flandre's face was plated in Neuroi hull cladding now, her features erased by smooth planes of black crystal, and lines of it were starting to spread down her arms.

"Oh... shit."

A few seconds earlier, at the other end of the lawn, Sakuya Izayoi gathered her bearings and accustomed herself to the idea that she was not dead. Fortunately, she was a quick-witted and adaptable woman, so this was the work of only a second or so, after which she was able to dust herself off and see who had rescued her.

When she did so, she was so surprised that even her legendary composure slipped. "Meiling?! What are you doing here?"

"Isn't that kinda obvious?" Meiling replied with a cockeyed grin, setting her back on her feet. "Saving your ass, as usual."

"'As usual' indeed," said Sakuya with an impatient eyeroll. "I mean why did you come here? You must get back to the Doctor at once. If you're still on these grounds when the sun rises, you'll be trapped here."

Meiling straightened up from her shock-absorbing crouch, revealing herself to be significantly the taller of the two, and cricked her back. "Doctor's already gone," she said nonchalantly. "He figured out after you left why we couldn't hit the year you wanted. Said this place is a fixed point and he can't interfere with it."

"Are you mad? You've stranded yourself in 1946 on purpose?" Sakuya shook her head. "I don't have time for this right now. If you want to make yourself useful, come and help me deal with this situation."

And with that, she took off running, straight back toward the danger.

"Gee, Meiling, thanks a lot, I really like not being a greasy smear on the ground," Meiling muttered, trotting after her. "Oh, no worries, Sakuya. I'd do the same for any crazy time maid I can't live without."

After one further volley that her sister and Gryphon either dodged or deflected, Flandre abruptly ceased fire. Ascending until she was higher than the roof level of the house, she just... hovered there, above the lawn, looking down at them.

"What's she doing?" Remilia wondered. "Why has she stopped attacking?"

"They do this sometimes," Gryphon replied. "We're not sure, because no one has ever examined a live one, but we think whatever powers their weapons works like a capacitor."

"A what?" Remilia asked, and he reminded himself that, for all her intellect and sophistication, he was still speaking to someone who had lived her whole life in a house without electricity or running water.

"An electronic component that stores energy," he explained. "When they've used up whatever's stored in... whatever they have... they have to wait while it recharges from their main power source. Like I say, it's only a theory, but the empirical evidence supports it." He shook his head. "This is bad. She didn't just take on some Neuroi traits, she's actually transforming into a Neuroi. I didn't think that was possible, but here we are."

"What can we do?"

"I don't know."

Sakuya and Meiling hurried up, the latter slightly out of breath from having to sprint to catch up. "M'lady, are you hurt?" Sakuya asked.

"Not at this particular moment, but the night isn't over yet," said Remilia wryly, indicating the sorry state of her clothes. "I don't have time to say everything I want to say right now, Sakuya, but... welcome back."

Sakuya smiled. "A pleasure to be back, m'lady." A nod for Gryphon. "Good to see you again, Chief Hutchins."

Gryphon gave her a puzzled look. "Do we know... ?" he started to mumble, more to himself than her, but Remilia overspoke him, inquiring of Sakuya,

"Who's your friend?"

A faint blush cracked Sakuya's composure, which secretly tickled Remilia to see. She'd always enjoyed proving to herself that her perfect and elegant maid was really human after all.

"Hiya," said the taller woman for herself. "Hong Meiling. I'm sort of... with Sakuya."

"We've been traveling together for some time," Sakuya interrupted coolly, "in the company of a mutual friend."

Gryphon had no idea what was going on, but he felt an instinctive sympathy for the "babe, why you got to do me that way" look that settled on Meiling's face at Sakuya's clipped correction. He found himself automatically liking her, anyway. She was a big, rangy, rugged sort of girl, well over six feet tall and built like a feminine Mack truck, if there were such a thing. In more ways than that, she reminded him a little of his old pal Kanna Kirishima—different aesthetic, with long chestnut hair and a beret, dressed all in green and white in a vaguely Chinese style, but she had the same kind of open, honest face and uncomplicated manner.

"Nice to meet you," said Remilia with a faintly regal nod. "I am Countess Remilia Scarlet, and this is what's left of Maison Diable Écarlate. I'd give you a proper welcome, but my household is somewhat disordered at the moment. If you'll excuse me?"

So saying, she opened her wings and took to the air, rising up to hover facing her sister across the space of a few yards.

"You, uh... want to give me the short version?" Meiling asked whoever cared to answer.

"The blonde girl is Lady Flandre, m'lady's younger sister," Sakuya told her. "She's... unwell, mentally. I gather we've arrived in the middle of one of her rampages... although from the state of things, I suspect it may be the worst one on record."

"It's actually worse than that," said Gryphon, and he gave them the five-cent rundown on the Neuroi threat and what Flandre had done before they arrived.

"Flandre... can you hear me?" Remilia asked, her voice hushed. "If you can, I need you to fight what's happening to you. You're a vampire of the House of Scarlet and my sister. You can defeat this corruption. You can't be consumed by some... alien machine." She folded her arms. "After all this time, that cannot be your fate. I will not allow it."

Slowly, with a sound like glass being crushed, Flandre tilted her head, her eyes focusing on her sister like camera lenses.

"Are you trying to speak?" Remilia wondered, drifting closer. Flandre's face was blank, just an expressionless crystal mask, but Remilia was certain she could hear muffled sounds coming from within.

"Fight it, Flandre!" Remilia urged her. "For the first time in my life, I'm telling you to fight! Put that fury that burns within you to good use for once. Fight!"

More muffled grunts and glassy creaking sounds were her answer—until, with a rippling crack that sounded almost like a volley of gunfire, the crystal mask cracked across its lower half. Part of the plating fell away, disintegrating, and uncovered Flandre's teeth, bared in a feral snarl...

... At which point the muffled grunts were revealed as laughter, which now spilled out unchecked. It was Flandre's voice, with the sharp, crazed inflection that always came out at the height of her madness... but it was something else as well, a metallic timbre, with an undercurrent of echoes reflecting from glass. As Remilia backed away in shock and horror, Flandre's warped laughter rose higher and higher until it was a full-on hysterical cackle.

And then she opened fire again.

Team Shanghai Alice
"U.N. Owen Was Her?"
Dolls in Pseudo Paradise (2002)

Remilia, caught completely off-guard, took the first salvo right in the face, spiraling down in a plume of smoke to crash on the lawn, to accompanying cries of dismay from everyone gathered below. She was on her feet again at once, beating out a small fire in what remained of her coat, and her face had completely regenerated by the time they reached her—but then they all had to run for it again, because Flandre was coming for them.

"Couldn't have had the boys bring me my jetpack, oh noooo," Gryphon grumbled as he dive-rolled out of the line of fire yet again. "Can't go messing up the causality vectors, now, can we? Fucking time travel."

"I heard that," Meiling agreed.

Sakuya blinked. "Causality—m'lady, do you have The World?"

"Always," Remilia replied, fishing the watch from an inside pocket. "But I'm glad to return it to its rightful owner," she added, and underhanded the device to Sakuya, who caught it as stylishly as Gryphon thought he had ever seen anyone catch a thrown object. It wasn't a showy kind of stylishness—she made it look unintentional, even effortless—yet it was flawless.

She really is perfect, he thought admiringly as Sakuya pressed the stud that converted the watch to vortex manipulator mode, then made several quick, deft adjustments before turning, watch in one hand, fistful of knives in the other, to face the oncoming storm.

"The World!" she declared, then pressed the manipulator's execute control. From outside the device's influence, time didn't stop so much as ripple...

... and suddenly, the sky around Flandre was full of knives, flying toward her from every angle, as if they had spontaneously manifested in a collapsing spherical formation. They did her no lasting harm—both her vampiric flesh and the Neuroi crystal encroaching over it regenerated almost at once—but the surprise and the physical impact of that many blades at once disrupted her charge, forcing her to break off and come around again.

As she did, Gryphon spotted something—a flash of crimson from one of the fractures in the Neuroi plating that was now spreading over Flandre's torso—and with a sinking feeling, he knew what they would have to do.

"I have an idea," he said as they all regrouped in the meager cover of a crater left by a previous volley. "It's hella risky, but I think it's the only chance we've got. First, we need to keep her busy until she's drawn down her weapon power again."

"Gotcha," said Meiling. "You need a bullet sponge, I'm your girl."

"Don't get yourself killed," Sakuya cautioned her.

"Oh, now you care," said Meiling wryly, drawing another blush (and, in turn, a muted giggle from Remilia, even under the circumstances).

With that, she vaulted out of the crater and ran into the open, waving her arms as if to say, Hey, dummy, I'm over here!

"Sakuya," Gryphon went on. "Once she's tapped out and stops to recharge, I need you to do what you just did—only, if you can, narrow the point of impact. I'll show you where to aim."

Sakuya nodded. "Understood."

"Remilia... you're going to have the hardest job of all."

Remilia nodded. "I know." Her face went cold and still. "I have to be the one to kill her."

"Only part of her," Gryphon said, gripping her shoulder. "If we destroy the core, the Neuroi that's taking her over will die. Once it's gone, her own body should be able to regenerate."

"What if you're wrong?"

"Then that's on me, and I'll face the consequences. We don't fully understand the Neuroi, and I only know what I've learned from you about this world's vampires, but... this is the only shot I can see for any of us that leaves any chance at all for her."

Remilia gazed silently at him for what seemed like a minute, but could only have been a second or two.

"Who are you?" she asked quietly.

"I'll tell you everything when this is over—if you still want to hear it. I promise."

Remilia lapsed into silence again. She said nothing while they hunkered down in their crater and watched Meiling lead Flandre a merry chase.

Gryphon had at first taken Meiling for something akin to a Hoffmanite, a person with the inbuilt brawn necessary to survive a high-gravity environment, but looking at the feats of superhuman strength and agility she was performing out there, he now wondered whether someplace like Krypton weren't a more plausible explanation of her origins. She didn't have that kind of power, no, but she could easily be a third- or fourth-generation descendant of a single Kryptonian ancestor. What was more, she was obviously well-trained in some particularly acrobatic martial art—something that had a flavor of kung fu, but more of the sort found in wuxia cinema than real life.

Her observers thought she was going to get away with it, in fact, until the very end, when Flandre finally managed to get the range and then fire for effect—and Meiling, out of room, went down in a hail of plasma bolts, disappearing behind the curtain of smoke and dust they raised as they pummeled the ground all around her.

Sakuya did not cry out, although Gryphon had the sense she very much wanted to. Instead, her fist closed so convulsively on the fresh cluster of knives she had ready that she drew blood from between her fingers.

The mission was accomplished, though. Flandre ceased firing, the Neuroi glow in her eyes and wing crystals diminished, and then withdrew to her high-altitude watch position to recharge.

"This is it," Gryphon said to Sakuya. "Don't waste it. Give us one minute—mark. Go. Go!"

With a grimly purposeful expression and no verbal acknowledgement, Sakuya rose, thumbed The World's activator, and vanished.

"Do you know what to aim for?" Gryphon asked Remilia.

"Yes," she replied, her voice as purposeful as her maid's face had been. "I've killed Neuroi before."

Of course, Gryphon thought. During the occupation.

Out loud, he said only. "Good."

"You know," Remilia said conversationally, her eyes fixed on Flandre, "I never came right out and said 'I love you'. For the record, I do... but if this goes wrong, I'll almost certainly kill you."

Gryphon nodded. "I understand." He clapped her on the shoulder. "It's time. Good luck."

Remilia rose, brushed futilely at her clothes, then flew up to face the thing that had been her sister again.

Flandre was almost completely covered by the black crystal skin now, only her hair and teeth showing. At least she'd stopped laughing; she was silent as she turned to face Remilia.

"Flandre," said Remilia quietly. "I promised I would always love you, no matter what. And I will. Forever. But if you don't stop this right now... that won't prevent me from putting you down."

Flandre's mechanized eyes stared back at her, as if unseeing. Then her still-exposed mouth smirked, uttering a hollow, juddering, metallic sound that might have been a Neuroi laugh. The plasma emitter ports in her palms began to glow.

The time-ripple again, the knives again, but this time they didn't envelop her from all sides. They all came from the front, a conical surge of flashing blades that tore into the crystalline armor covering her chest. Flakes and shards of black scattered into the night, glittering in the reddening light of the near-setting moon—and beneath, the crimson gleam of a tiny Neuroi core.

The Flandre-Neuroi seemed to sense its vulnerability, and the method it chose for addressing the problem was counterattack. Its wing crystals brightening, it surged toward Remilia, opening fire as it came.

Remilia seemed almost to ignore the plasma fire, evading it with short, precise maneuvers that took her only inches from her starting point. All her attention, the full focus of her being, was on that glowing red point. She could already see the plating starting to close, the edges of the hole "growing" back toward each other.

"Papa, Maman, guide my hand," she whispered, and then, in a thunderous voice that could be heard clearly on the ground below, "Divine Lance!"

Scarlet lightning split the sky, coalescing into the shape of the weapon she'd been holding before, when Flandre had tricked her into lowering her guard: a spear, easily twice as long as Remilia was tall, and made of pure, concentrated, blood-red energy. Meeting the Flandre-Neuroi's charge with her own, Remilia drove the weapon home with all of her strength, screaming as she did so its Name:

"Spear the Gungnir!"

Like its namesake, the enchanted lance of Odin All-Father, Remilia's Gungnir struck its target true, shattering the Flandre-Neuroi's core. The two flying figures flashed past each other, Remilia leaving a wake of crackling crimson energy, the Flandre-Neuroi trailing a plume of glowing red dust that was all that remained of its core.

With the typical chiming sound of a Neuroi's destruction, the black crystal coating Flandre's body went white and sheeted away, peeling off in her slipstream like dried mud and dissipating into the night. Completely limp, she plummeted along a ballistic arc—

—and fell neatly into the arms of an extremely bedraggled but very much not dead Hong Meiling, who completed her second extreme rescue leap of the night without incident.

Gryphon and Sakuya converged at the run on Meiling, who gently laid Flandre out on one of the few remaining patches of intact grass. Moments later, Remilia swooped down and alighted along with them, then fell to her knees next to her sister, moaning her name.

The younger vampire looked as badly wrecked as Gryphon had earlier in the evening—more so, since, though burned and smashed, he hadn't had a black-edged hole in his chest.

"Oh spirits," Meiling murmured, taking off her hat and holding it to her chest.

Yet, in spite of her condition, Flandre's eyelids flickered, then opened. The eyes beneath were as they should have been, red on white, and although full of pain and exhaustion, that was proof that their owner was still alive.

"Sis?" Flandre asked, her voice almost inaudible.

"Yes, Flan. I'm here."

"I'm... cold," Flandre whispered, reaching out a hand. "Where's Wolfgang?"

"He's—" Remilia began, but as if summoned by his name, the hound bounded out of the darkness, then pushed his head under her outstretched hand. "He's right here."

"Good boy," said Flandre, rubbing Wolfgang's head. "I really messed up this time, didn't I?"

"It's fine. It's fine," Remilia insisted, struggling not to let her voice break. "We can fix the house. Again."

Flandre chuckled. "At least it'll be the last time."

"Don't say that."

"I'm not healing... am I?"

"You need fresh blood, that's all." Remilia turned to the others, any reticence she might have had about imposing on them wiped away by the urgency of the situation. "Can any of you..."

"Uh... I'm game, but I'm not actually human, so I dunno how that would work out," Meiling said awkwardly, a hand behind her head.

Sakuya drew one of her blades. "Of course I'll—" she began, but Gryphon gently took it from her.

"She's never fed directly from a person," he said. "She won't know when to stop, she'd probably kill you. If anybody's going to take that risk, it should be me."

Recalling his warning to her about the unpredictable nature of his blood, Remilia nearly objected; but then she remembered the effect a small taste of it had had on her, a few nights before. It hadn't done her any harm. On the contrary, it had lifted her spirits, left her feeling energized. Dared she gamble that she and her sister were enough alike that the effects would be positive for her as well?

Drawing a deep breath, she nodded and said almost inaudibly, "Do it."

Kneeling beside Flandre, Gryphon looked at the knife he'd taken from Sakuya as if he didn't know what it was, then stuck it absently in his hip pocket before scooping the tiny blonde up and cradling her gently in his arms.

"Flan? Honey? Can you hear me?" he asked softly.

Flandre smiled weakly, and a little dreamily. "Hi. I guess you won Try Not to Die after all..."

"I guess so. Do you want to make it best two out of three? We can... we can play the kissing game if you want."

Her eyes flickered open again, looking at him in amazement. "You actually want to play the kissing game?"

"I would love to," he said.

The dreamy smile again. "OK. Hold still..."

Gryphon braced himself, knowing from experience that this part wasn't going to be much fun—and then, to his near-infinite surprise, Flandre hooked her arms around his neck, leaned up, and kissed him. Inexpertly, the kind of kiss that comes from someone who learned about it in books—but it was definitely a proper kiss, all the same, not a euphemism for something else. Startled, the onlookers glanced uncomfortably away, apart from Remilia, who was too astonished to even react.

"How was that? Do I win?" Flandre asked weakly.

"It... was nice," Gryphon said awkwardly. "But... Flan... wouldn't you like to try the other kind? From earlier?"

"Nah. I wasn't really gonna, I was just messing with Sis," Flandre murmured, her eyes slipping shut once more. "I'm tired. Can I go to bed now?"

This is ridiculous, Gryphon thought. I'm out here trying and failing to convince a vampire to bite me... He glanced at the eastern horizon, which was just starting to go pink. And the sun's coming up soon. Wonderful.

He racked his brain for a second or two, then made one of those snap decisions that, when they worked, made people think he knew what he was doing. With a quick, angry, before-I-realize-what-a-stupid-idea-this-is motion, he plucked the dagger he'd taken from Sakuya out of his pocket and slashed the side of his neck with it, then gently lifted Flandre up, pressed her slack mouth to the wound, and trusted in the power of instinct.

She caught on quickly enough.

It was... not as terrible as the last time it had happened, he assumed largely because she was too weak at first to be really violent about it. Or maybe she was just naturally gentler than Saya. He didn't really care to repeat either experiment to increase his data set.

Dimly, before he lost consciousness, Gryphon heard Hong Meiling's voice as if from the far end of a corridor, and if he'd been able, it would have made him laugh:

"Oh man. That ain't right."

He woke to warm dimness, soft silk, and the scent of roses.

None of which was calculated to make him want to get up, ordinarily, but to his mild surprise, Gryphon found that he'd had enough of sleeping for the moment. Shrugging inwardly, he sat up and had a look around.

As he might have expected, he was in Remilia's bedroom. The room wasn't completely dark, since there was a fire going in the fireplace, and the light of the waning gibbous moon was streaming in through the window next to the bed. He seemed to be alone, which was slightly surprising and also slightly disappointing.

Yawning, he climbed out of bed and hunted for something to wear. This didn't take long, since one of the new sets of fatigues Bimmel and Mako had brought for him was neatly laid out on the dressing table, as though in anticipation of his wanting it. His shoes were there as well, freshly cleaned and polished, and his U.S. Army-issue wristwatch, which told him the time was currently 2:32 and was—amazingly, considering the night it had recently had—running.

They really build these things to last, he mused to himself, strapping on the watch.

Outside, he found the corridor brightly lit, with every single sconce encandled. The walls were polished, the floor swept; even the threadbare carpets looked as good as ever they could. The front hall, too, had been scrubbed and polished, and the stacks of supplies moved elsewhere. He wondered where they'd ended up, but supposed he'd find out in due course.

On his way across the front hall to the great room, Gryphon noticed something different about the basement door and stopped to take a closer look. All of the extra security hardware—the bolts, the bar, the metal straps—were gone, and the door itself looked new. He frowned. There were a couple of things that could mean, and at least one of them was very bad. It was with a mild sense of worry that he moved on and entered the great room.

Like the corridor and entry, the room was as brightly lit as it could be without gas or electricity, with fresh candles in all the places where candles could go and a fire crackling merrily on the hearth. To his surprise, the west wall was back where it belonged, complete with all its windows—and one new addition: the central windows at floor level had been replaced by a French door, providing direct access from the room to the west lawn.

I suppose they must call them Gallian doors here, he thought abstractly.

The only person in evidence was Remilia. Dressed as she almost always was, she was standing by the open Gallian door, looking out into the grounds.

Her sharp vampire ears must have caught the sound of his shoes on the floor, for before he could speak, she turned and saw him standing in the doorway. For a moment she looked slightly surprised. Then, her face breaking into a broad smile, she flew to his arms in a way that was not metaphorical.

"You're finally awake," she said, holding him tight. "I was beginning to think I would have to give you another dose of Maman's medicine."

"Nah, I just needed some rest," he said nonchalantly. (Might as well downplay the fact that the "rest" was really a regenerative coma triggered by near-total exsanguination. Why be dramatic?) "How long was I out?"

"Two nights."

"You fixed all this in two nights?"

"Sakuya and Meiling did most of the work," Remilia allowed, leading him gently deeper into the room without ever really letting go of him. "I had no idea Sakuya had masonry skills. Perhaps she didn't. I get the impression that she wandered far longer than she's been missing, if you know what I mean."

Gryphon nodded. "Time travel. It's a bitch sometimes." He looked around, still feeling the anxiety that had touched him when he saw the basement door, and said a bit awkwardly, "Uh... how's... how'd we do?"

Remilia's smile got even broader, if such a thing were possible, and with shining eyes she tugged him toward the Gallian door. "Come and see."

He went, and, after a moment to accustom his eyes to the low light, he saw. The west lawn, scene of so much violence and destruction in the recent past, had been... well, not repaired, most of the grass was still missing, and presumably would be until either fresh turf or seed could be procured. The craters had been filled in and the whole area graded, however, and someone had erected a gazebo and dotted some torches around here and there, making the area nearest the house into a sort of patio or picnic area.

Out there, Meiling and Flandre were chasing each other in a great circle around the gazebo, laughing uproariously and making dramatic declarations that whoever lost the race would be eaten. Wolfgang, evidently afflicted with a rare case of the zoomies, was keeping pace with Flandre, racing along beside her and uttering the occasional bay of joy.

Gryphon felt his eyes fill with tears at the sight of Flandre, alive and hearty, enjoying herself so freely in the open air.

"She looks good," he said, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve.

"She's better than good," Remilia replied, drawing him close to her again. "She's... she's herself again. She's whole." She sniffled and squeezed him even tighter. "After all these years, my sweet Flandre's come back to me."

"Oh," said Gryphon, and it wasn't a noncommittal "oh"; it was the "oh" of a man who is too overcome by emotion to say more than one syllable. He let his arm do the talking instead, looping it around Remilia's shoulders and hugging her back, and the two of them stood there and blubbered like children for a little while at the sight of Flandre and her new playmate having such a fine time.

When the moment had passed, Remilia mopped first her tears, and then his, with a folded handkerchief. She seemed on the verge of speaking, but just then, Flandre happened to glance toward the house and notice them standing there.

"Big brother!" she cried, breaking orbit and making straight for him.

Remilia chuckled and disengaged, standing clear, and he braced himself for impact—but when it came, it was surprisingly mild, no worse than being tackle hugged by any early-teenager would be.

"Big brother, you're awake!" said Flandre, hugging him tight, but not endangering any bones, while Wolfgang gamboled happily at their feet. "I was so worried!"

"I was worried about you, too, Flan," Gryphon replied, hugging her back. "But it looks like we both got away with it, huh, kiddo?" he added with a slightly teary-eyed grin.

"Oh right—look! Look!" she said, letting him go and backing up a little. "Check out my wings! Aren't they pretty?"

She turned her back to show them off to best advantage, stretching them out to their full extension. The fourteen crystal "feathers" she'd manifested when she'd devoured the Neuroi core were still there, but they were no longer that signature angry red. The ones closest to her spine were still red, but a more vibrant, less sinister shade; and from there they glittered in all the colors of the rainbow, in order, from a rich sunset orange right through until the ones at her wingtips shone a beautiful bright violet.

"They're amazing," Gryphon agreed. "Prettiest wings I've ever seen." Laughing happily, Flandre turned back around and resumed hugging him.

"Well hey, look who decided to rejoin the living," Meiling declared, sauntering up at a more leisurely pace than her playmate. "Are you a vampire now too?"

"That's not how it works!" Flandre objected before either Gryphon or Remilia could say anything, making them both laugh.

"Oh! Sorry!" Meiling replied, raising her hands in cheerful surrender. "I skipped class the day they covered that, I guess."

Sakuya emerged from the kitchen, saw the little tableau by the door, and smiled. "Excuse me, everyone, but supper is ready. Good evening, Chief, you look well."

"Thank you, I feel great," Gryphon replied, and then, with a grin, "and hungry!"

In the back of his mind, he felt the same mild puzzlement he'd felt the first time she called him Chief. He would swear he'd never met her before; he might be bad with names sometimes, but he hardly ever forgot a face, and he certainly wouldn't have forgotten one like hers.

"Please take a seat, then, and I'll get started serving," said Sakuya, and with an impeccable little bow-curtsey, she withdrew back into the kitchen.

Remilia and Gryphon went to their usual spots, of course. Not surprisingly, Flandre claimed the seat to Gryphon's left. Meiling sat opposite her, leaving the place to Remilia's right—the one that had been set and unused throughout Gryphon's time in the house—still unoccupied. A moment later, Sakuya emerged from the kitchen, carrying a heavily laden tray with her customary perfect aplomb, and began deploying the lunch items therefrom, starting with beverages.

"The '89 Heidsieck, as requested, m'lady," she said, placing a bottle of champagne where both Remilia and Gryphon could reach it. "And for the young mistress, a nice A-positive. Meiling, I'm afraid we haven't any huangjiu in the house at the moment, so you'll have to make do with Chardonnay."

"That'll work," said Meiling agreeably. "I'm easy when it comes to alcohol."

"As it were," said Sakuya coolly, making Meiling blush, Remilia laugh, and Flandre look puzzled. "As to the main course," Sakuya went on as if nothing had happened, "as this is a special occasion, I've prepared a traditional Alsatian baekeoffe tonight."

"Oh, I haven't had baekeoffe for ages," said Remilia happily. "Perfect as always, Sakuya."

"Thank you, m'lady," said Sakuya, placing the heavy earthenware dish before her. "If you would care to do the honors?" she added, proffering one of her ubiquitous daggers, and with a grin, Remilia ceremoniously slit open the dish's bread seal.

"For what we are about to receive, let us all be truly thankful," declared Flandre solemnly, and then, feeling everyone's surprised eyes upon her, she blushed. "What? Isn't that what you're supposed to say?"

"It is," Remilia agreed with a sentimental smile. "I just haven't heard anyone say it at the table in a long time." She lifted her fork, then noticed that once she'd finished serving, Sakuya had withdrawn to take up a station by the kitchen door, tray clasped vertically before her.

Giving her a puzzled what-are-you-doing? look, Remilia gestured to the place to her right and said, "Sit down, Sakuya."

"Servants do not sit at table with the family, m'lady," Sakuya pointed out primly.

Remilia rose from her throne-chair and turned to face her maid, fists on hips. "Sakuya. I haven't kept that place setting there for the last 76 years so you could not use it when you finally came home. Now sit!" she ordered, pointing imperiously at the empty chair.

Sakuya gave a put-upon sigh. "Very well, m'lady, if you insist—but I fear for the consequences to the discipline of the house." Then, her façade cracking, she smiled and gave her employer an impish wink before taking her seat, dishing herself up some stew, and being poured a measure of the champagne.

And just like that, where there had been one taking lonely meals at this long table for decades, and two sharing a little pool of companionship for the last month, there was now, as Sakuya had implied, something like a family. An ad-hoc one, to be sure, but in Gryphon's experience, the ad-hoc ones were sometimes the best.

As he had the thought, Flandre asked him, "Big brother, would you please pass the butter?"

"Mais bien sûr oui, ma chouchoutte," he replied, making her giggle with his poor Gallic.

"I think it's sweet that you call him 'big brother'," Meiling said with a grin.

"Well, of course I do," Flandre replied unconcernedly, buttering a hunk of bread. "We share a blood tie now. Besides, he's going to marry my big sister, isn't he?"

There was a brief silence, diners pausing with loaded forks or lifted glasses halfway to the hangar. Flandre carried on as if unaware she'd said anything arresting, slipping a bit of stewed beef to Wolfgang under the table while everyone was distracted.

Sakuya and Meiling both stared, not at Flandre, but at Gryphon and Remilia, who were looking at each other with matching looks of startled bemusement.

Gryphon tilted his head inquisitively. "Am I?"

Remilia looked blankly back at him for a moment, then smiled her most aristocratic smile.

"One isn't entirely against the idea," she allowed grandly.

Sakuya took her watch from her pocket, clicked the stem, and suddenly there was cake.

After dinner, Sakuya disappeared into the kitchen and Flandre, with a finely telegraphed wink for her seatmate, manufactured a reason to take Meiling off and show her the library. Meiling knew what was up, of course, but played along, and both parties were therefore satisified that they had put one over on the other, which Gryphon knew from experience was a critical ingredient in good intergenerational relations.

Left alone with the last of the champagne, Gryphon and Remilia sipped in silence for a few minutes.

"It appears," Remilia observed at length, "that my little sister has outmaneuvered us both."

Gryphon quaffed the last swallow in his glass. "So it seems."

"I must know many things before my conditional agreement becomes unconditional," she warned him.

"Absolutely proper," he agreed.

"And that assumes that you're amenable to the idea, of course. One wouldn't like to let Flan presume to speak for you."

"In this instance, her presumption is perfectly acceptable," said Gryphon, as formally as possible. They regarded each other coolly and properly for a few moments, then broke up laughing and adjourned to the living room.

"So. Where do you want me to start?" Gryphon asked, taking his usual seat.

"Not here," Remilia told him. "That's a conversation for a more intimate setting." She grinned slyly. "Perhaps we should have another decadent morning bath before bed." She wound the phonograph and put on a record, then held out her hand. "For right now... let's dance."

And so they did. Unusually for an Ink Spots record, the one she'd chosen was a fairly up-tempo number, not really suitable for slow dancing, and he wondered where she'd learned to Lindy.

Sakuya stood unnoticed in the doorway from the kitchen and watched the two of them hop and twirl around the living room, grinning at each other like a pair of fools all the while. The sight brought a little smile to her lips. How long had it been since she saw the mistress so happy and carefree? Even before her inadvertent disappearance from the mansion, it had been years. Probably decades.

She glanced at her watch and, humming the song's melody line to herself, went off to prepare the bath. It would be perfectly ready at exactly the moment they required it, of course. She had a reputation to live up to, after all.

The Ink Spots feat. Ella Fitzgerald
"I'm Beginning to See the Light"

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
special series

Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime

Thicker Than Water, Act VI: Nuit aux Mille Poignards

written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

Geoff Depew
Philp Jeremy Moyer
Jaymie Wagner
The EPU Usual Suspects

Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice

Bacon Comics chief
Derek Bacon

E P U (colour) 2020

I never cared much for moonlit skies
I never winked back at fireflies
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I'm beginning to see the light
I never went in for afterglow
Or candlelight on the mistletoe
But now when you turn the lamp down low
I'm beginning to see the light

Used to ramble through the park
Shadow boxing in the dark
Then you came and caused a spark
That's a four-alarm fire now

I never made love by lanternshine
I never saw rainbows in my wine
But now that your lips are burning mine
I'm beginning to see the light

I never cared much for moonlit skies
I never winked back at fireflies
But now that the stars are in your eyes
I'm beginning to see the light
I never went in for afterglow
Or candlelight on the mistletoe
But now when you turn the lamp down low
I'm beginning to see the light

Used to ramble through the park
Shadow boxing in the dark
Then you came and caused a spark
That's a four-alarm fire now

I never made love by lanternshine
I never saw rainbows in my wine
But now that your lips are burning mine
I'm beginning to see the light, boy
Beginning to see the light, boy
Beginning to see the light

Now that your lips they are burning on mine
I'm beginning to see the light!