LAST EDITED ON Nov-01-20 AT 11:51 PM (EST)
[NOTE: This story takes place the day after the "testing" scene at the end of OWaW episode 20.]
Sunday, June 23, 1946
Mediterranean airspace near Marseille, Gallia
The Kawanishi H8K3 Type 2 heavy flying boat currently droning northward from its last refueling stop at Minorca was a slightly unusual example of its type. Virtually all of the Type 2s in service belonged to the Imperial Fusōnese Navy, which used them as long-range transports and maritime patrol aircraft. They were flying boats, after all. As such, it was mildly peculiar that this particular one wore the colors of the Imperial Fusōnese Army Air Service—an organization that usually didn't have much to say to its Navy counterpart, and shared virtually no other pieces of equipment with same.
For that matter, it was odd to see any IFA assets at all in the European Theater of Operations. The Army had practically no role in the Allied Expeditionary Forces, instead guarding the Fusō home islands against the occasional Neuroi probe out of far-eastern Orussia or Manchuria. Which, in a way, explained why this particular Type 2 flying boat had Army markings: no "native" Army Air Service aircraft had the endurance to make the flight halfway around the world from Fusō to Gallia, so when the Emperor suddenly chose to dispatch an officer of that force to Europe, the AAS had no choice but to go hat in hand to its hated rival, the Navy, and borrow one of their aircraft.
The aircrew may have felt some chagrin about that fact, but it mattered nothing at all to the VIP passenger. She had given the matter precisely no thought at all throughout the long, long flight from Kyōto to the edge of the Continent. If she knew about the Army/Navy rivalry at all, she considered it beneath her notice. She had bigger fish to fry. At this moment, as she had for most of her waking hours during the multi-day flight, the VIP was seated meditatively upon a tatami at the back of the cargo hold, her eyes closed, evidently indifferent to the world.
General Reimu Hakurei, Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches, didn't look much like an army general at first glance: a Fusōnese girl of fourteen or fifteen, she was dressed in a more ornate, less abbreviated version of the red-and-white miko uniform commonly worn by IFA fighting witches, with a large, lace-trimmed red bow tied at the back of her head. She looked like she ought to be sweeping the courtyard in front of a small country shrine somewhere in the mountains of central Fusō, not flying halfway around the world aboard a four-engined transport aircraft explicitly placed at her personal disposal.
Also unusually for someone with such a grandiose title, General Hakurei did not travel with an entourage. Apart from the crew of the aircraft, there was only one other person on board, and she had no official standing as far as the Imperial Fusōnese Army was concerned. She was a girl of about the same age, but her tousled mane of wavy golden hair suggested that she was not, or at least not entirely, Fusōnese. She was dressed in old-fashioned civilian clothes, a voluminous ankle-length skirt and double-breasted vest in black over a plain white blouse and petticoats, her skirt fronted with a white waist apron, rather than any sort of uniform.
Marisa Kirisame was not meditating; she wouldn't have known how to meditate if she'd tried, despite Reimu's occasional, counterproductively exasperated attempts to teach her some sort of mental discipline over the years they'd known each other. She had nothing like that sort of patience (or endurance—how could anyone sit seiza for that long without going insane, or dying of deep vein thrombosis or something?).
Instead, since very little conversation had been forthcoming from the general for most of this very long trip, had had to occupy herself instead with books. Fortunately, she'd brought a lot of them. She knew from experience that traveling on official business with Reimu was rarely what you would call entertaining.
Just now, she was sitting on one of the metal-framed canvas benches and/or bunks that were slung along the walls of the cargo hold, a yellow tabby cat dozing in her lap, and gazing out one of the small windows at the Gallian coast, which was just passing below. She hadn't been in Europe for some time, and was vaguely surprised to find that, at least from up here, it still looked the same as always. At this altitude, whatever scars the Neuroi occupation had left on southern Gallia were too small to see.
Marisa turned to comment on that to her traveling companion, even though she knew it was pointless, but before she had the chance, she heard the aircraft's engines ramp up from cruising power to full, felt the wings tilt as the pilots put it into an unscheduled turn. A moment later, the aircraft commander's voice crackled from the intercom speaker on the forward bulkhead:
"Attention! Neuroi approaching! Taking evasive action!"
Reimu's dark eyes popped open. "Crap," she said, and then, with a note of resignation, "I suppose, realistically, we're lucky we made it this far."
Marisa, who was closer, went to the intercom panel and pressed the push-to-talk. "Any backup in sight?"
"Gallian Navy assets are scrambling from Toulon," the voice of the aircraft's first officer reported. "ETA five minutes."
"Five minutes is a long damn time with a Neuroi shooting at you," Marisa grumbled.
"Tell me something I don't know!" the first officer replied.
Marisa laughed. "Yeah, fair point," she said. "Stand by on the witch bay, willya, I'm going out."
Marisa let go of the button and went back to her seat.
"I'll go with—" Reimu began, but Marisa waved her back before she could rise from her tatami.
"IFA's not supposed to get involved in this theater, yeah?"
"I doubt SHAEF would hold defending myself against me," Reimu replied.
"Well, if I need you, I'll holler," said Marisa.
Without further discussion, she picked up her hat, a large, broad-brimmed, bent-crowned conical affair—the classic witch's hat, except that it was slightly oversized and adorned with an enormous white bow—and settled it on her head, then said to her familiar,
"C'mon, Mr. Murgatroyd, we're going."
The cat rose, stretching with a yawn, then sprang onto her shoulder, and she went forward to the witch bay. Its built-in Striker bay was empty, the usual launch stage having been removed by IFN aircraftmen before the flight. Instead, there was only an old-fashioned straw broom, leaning nonchalantly against the bulkhead. Marisa picked it up and thumped the intercom.
"Bay doors, if you please," she said.
"Roger, opening bay doors," the first officer's voice crackled back. "Good hunting!"
With that, the floor of the witch bay split and trundled open, filling the compartment with wind noise and the roar of the Kawanishi's engines. Below, the Mediterranean sparkled in the afternoon sun.
Without further ado, Marisa stepped over the threshold and fell through the witch bay doors, plummeting into the sky. She freefell for perhaps five seconds, long enough to be absolutely sure she was clear of the aircraft, then swung herself sidesaddle onto the broom and, glowing with released magic, switched from falling to flying.
The broom's bristles left a donuts-on-a-rope contrail as she pulled steeply up, barrel rolling around the flying boat, and she sought the Neuroi. It wasn't hard to spot: a Large Type, built something like one of those swimming beetles with the two legs adapted into oars, it stood maybe a half-mile off. It seemed to sense her, which wasn't a surprise—all of the action reports from the last seven years of war left little empirical doubt that the Neuroi could sense magic—and it opened fire, filling the sky all around her with narrow red plasma beams.
Marisa had to hand it to those guys flying the Kawanishi. She didn't have a dog in the whole Fusō army/navy fight anyway, but these particular navy pilots were certainly showing their quality. They were making that big flying boat do things it didn't seem like an aircraft that size should be able to do, and so far they had managed not to get tagged.
Now, as the Neuroi switched from large anti-aircraft beams to a wider spread of smaller ones, their luck ran out. They took a hit, the beam scoring down the length of the starboard wing and blowing out the number-four engine, but the self-sealing fuel tanks prevented the damage from being any worse. Trailing smoke from the wrecked engine, they peeled away to the south.
"Crap, sorry!" Marisa called over her comm earpiece. "I wasn't in position yet."
"We're OK, but number four engine is out!" the commander reported, a tad unnecessarily. "We're making for Toulon."
"OK, I'll cover you," Marisa replied, putting on more speed as she maneuvered to put herself between the Neuroi and the airplane.
It opened up again, and this time she was ready; evading some of the beams, she deployed a shield circle to intercept the ones that stood to hit the transport, then counterattacked with a barrage of energy pulses that took the form of stylized five-pointed stars. They didn't really need to look like anything, but she'd always considered that a signature style was something every witch ought to have.
The starbolts did an admirable job of stripping the outer layer of armor from the sector of the Neuroi she'd hit, but Marisa recognized immediately that it was going to take a very long time to chew a target this big to death with just that. She was going to have to try and back it into a corner, set it up for a knockout blow. This was, of course, a standard witch tactic she'd read a great deal about, but within a minute or two, she'd realized she wasn't going to be able to pull it off solo. She couldn't switch instantly from rapid fire to the Sunday punch she had in reserve, and by the time she was ready for the latter, the damage she'd inflicted with the former had regenerated.
Marisa was considering calling on Reimu to give her a hand after all when she caught a glint of movement out of the corner of her eye. Wheeling out of the path of another spread of Neuroi beams, she saw a tiny dark speck approaching from landward, speeding toward the combat zone from the general direction of Marseille. Within moments, this had come near enough to resolve into the form of another witch.
The new arrival was a fellow blonde, her hair lighter, shorter, and rather neater, even though it was being blown around in flight. In her personal style, she was as atypical for a modern combat witch as Marisa herself, but in a different way. Instead of black-and-white "classic witch" attire, she was dressed in a somewhat Victorian fashion, with a long dress, blouse, and lace-edged capelet, mostly blue with some white and a few touches of red. She wasn't using a Striker Unit either, but nor did she have a broom, instead flying as casually as a normal person would walk.
As she came nearer, Marisa could see that—as she had expected—the approaching witch was not alone. Rather, she had a couple of small wingmen: a pair of dolls, both in the form of pretty blonde girls about a foot high, visually identical apart from their dresses (one red, the other blue), flying in formation with her.
"Well, well, if it isn't the one and only Squadron Leader Alice Murgatroyd, RAF, retired," called Marisa conversationally as the newcomer came within earshot. "You're a long way from London, ain't'cha? Hiya, girls," she added to the two dolls, who both took a turn around her before returning to formation with their mistress.
"Good afternoon, Miss Kirisame," said Alice pleasantly, pulling up alongside her. "I came over to Marseille yesterday. I thought to meet you and General Hakurei, but I didn't expect you to have brought a friend," she added with a sardonic smile.
"Eh, you know what it's like when you're as popular as me," said Marisa cheerfully. "They hear I'm coming to town, and everybody wants a piece of the act—" A cluster of Neuroi beams interrupted her, forcing the two witches to scatter, and Marisa replied with a barrage of her own, shouting, "Excuse you, I am talking!" Shaking her head, she sighed. "Honestly, and people say I've got no manners."
"Perhaps we should finish this and then socialise," said Alice dryly.
Marisa reached into her apron pocket and produced an octagonal object, about seven inches across by three thick, with geometric inscriptions arrayed around a circular hole in the center of its face. It seemed to be made of wood, but the central hole glowed as if there were a fire burning inside it.
"I can strip its armor, but I can't get the ol' mini-Hakkero ready to fire before it grows back," she admitted. "You soften it up, I'll knock it down?"
"That sounds most efficient," Alice agreed. "Be ready."
"I'm always ready," said Marisa with a cocky grin. Alice spared a half-second for a vaguely affectionate eyeroll, but said nothing, before launching herself into an attack run on the Neuroi.
It spotted her coming—they always seemed to, despite having no obvious eyes—and concentrated its fire. This one knew an unusual trick, which both of the witches noted would make for interesting reading in the action report on this incident: by hitting some of its beams with other beams, it could redirect its fire so that the beams converged on its target from multiple directions, in spite of all having come from the same source. Seeing it in action, Marisa assumed this was intended as a countermeasure to witches' shields, which customarily only worked in one direction at a time.
Are they learning? she wondered.
Alice, showing the sort of maneuverability usually associated with fighter-type Strikers, evaded the first wave of fire, but the Neuroi seemed to sense this as well, and its second burst was denser, drawing a tangled web of crimson death in the sky.
"Shanghai! Hōrai!" Alice barked, and without needing to elaborate what she wanted them to do, her two companion dolls broke formation and began darting around, bringing their own tiny but effective shields to bear. They effectively became mobile barriers, flitting around their mistress like the electrons in a fanciful diagram of a helium atom, intercepting and deflecting the many-angled beams as they converged from all around.
That's cool, Marisa thought as she swooped down into the cleared track of sky left in their wake, as if following a minesweeper through a cleared channel. They couldn't do that the last time I saw her. She's been working hard. She smirked at her fellow witch, though Alice wasn't anything close to looking at her, and added internally, "Retired", my ass.
The next trick was even more impressive, though it was one Marisa had seen before. As she drew to within what would normally have been firing range of the Neuroi, Alice produced a handful of cards, holding them fanned out like she was about to perform a (not-actually-magic) magic trick.
"Doll Barrage!" she cried, flinging the cards out in a broad arc with a sweep of her hand. "Operation Hydra!"
As they flew, the cards glowed, then split apart into dozens of bright points of light, each of which resolved into an individual doll. Each of these was a tiny blonde girl, similar in face and feature to Shanghai and Hōrai, but all were dressed in the sheepskin clothes of RAF Bomber Command crewmen, caps, intercom headsets, and all. With grimly determined expressions on their tiny porcelain faces, they formed up and dove on the Neuroi from above, evading close-in defensive fire as they went.
A couple were hit and obliterated by the Neuroi's hastily redirected beams, but most of them got through, plunging into the alien war machine's crystalline upper hull armor—and as each one struck the surface, it (she?) exploded, pulverizing and tearing away a chunk of the structure. The wave of explosions rippled across the whole upper plate, stripping it away and revealing the incomprehensible white and grey structures within.
Marisa spotted the core, twinkling red about halfway back. Pulling some altitude so she wouldn't be shooting straight past Alice, she leaned out over the side of her broom and leveled the octagonal device. As she took aim, she chanted an incantation so well-worn in her memory, she didn't even consciously register the meaning of the words any longer:
"And I shall shed my light over darkness,
for the dark things cannot stand the light..."
The mini-Hakkero began to glow brighter and whine like a charging capacitor, vibrating more and more violently in her hand as it concentrated and amplified the magic she was dumping into it. She hung on and kept charging for as long as she dared, watching the leading edge of the regenerating armor close in on the core, then let it loose by uttering the spell's keyphrase:
With a noise like an incontinent and disgruntled blast furnace, the mini-Hakkero unleashed a raving beam of white light, so big and bright it could easily be seen as far away as Aix-en-Provence even in broad daylight. The beam transfixed the Neuroi, disintegrating not just its core, but everything within a radius of about 15 feet around it, leaving a circular hole big enough for a sufficiently nervy pilot to fly a small aircraft through. The rest of it hung there for a couple of seconds while the echoes of the blast died away, then burst into silvery snow with that characteristic sound all fighting witches had learned to relish.
"Phew!" Marisa declared, wiping sweat from her forehead with her free arm, and swung around to pull up in a hover alongside Alice. "Outstanding. A pleasure working with you as always, Squadron Leader Murgatroyd," she said with a grin.
Smiling, Alice held up a hand; specks of light gathered in it, converging from the vicinity of the dead Neuroi's slowly settling debris cloud, and then materialized into the handful of cards she'd deployed the Doll Barrage from.
"Are you quite certain you even needed to know where the enemy's core was?" she asked archly, putting the cards away.
"I hear they move 'em around sometimes," Marisa replied. "They're getting tricksier. And I can only do that once on an average day, so, y'know. Be a helluva note to miss."
"I suppose you've a point there. Where's Reimu, by the way?"
"Still aboard," Marisa said, nodding toward the transport, which was still just visible, trucking away at best speed to the south. "IFA personnel aren't supposed to fight in this sector."
"Ah, of course. But civilians in combat, that's perfectly fine," Alice observed with a wry little smile.
Marisa ignored that little jab with magnificent insouciance and said instead, "C'mon, the AC told me they were heading for Toulon. Let's go meet 'em."
They caught up and escorted the N8K to the Gallian Navy base at Toulon, where it landed without incident in the seaplane basin and taxiied up to one of the bigger piers. Gallian sailors turned out to help the crew tie up and make all fast, and by the time the crew and single remaining passenger disembarked, a work crew from the aircraft maintenance and repair department was already assessing the needed repairs.
"Everywhere you go, you just have to put on a show, don't you?" asked Reimu as she stepped off the pier.
"Magic ain't magic if it ain't flashy," Marisa replied with a grin. "Look who I ran into!"
"Good afternoon, General Hakurei," said Alice, giving an RAF salute (adorably mirrored by her two doll companions, the blue-clad one of whom had to leave off petting Marisa's familiar to do so). "It's been some time. You're looking well."
"Alice!" said Reimu with a smile. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise. What brings you to the far end of Gallia?"
"The same thing as the two of you," Alice replied. "The Ministry for War is quite interested in the new metamagical movement that's rumored to be developing up north—particularly since, according to the latest intelligence, Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth is a follower."
"Oh ho!" said Marisa, her eyebrows going up. "The plot thickens."
"Officially, that's nothing to do with me," Reimu said. "His Majesty the Emperor sent me here to officiate at the wedding of his most decorated combat witch next month." With an affectedly nonchalant air, she added, "Whether I choose to spend the preliminary time investigating strange things that are afoot at the base where she's wing commander is entirely up to me."
"Convenient," said Marisa. "I suppose that's even a step beyond my I-was-never-here clearance."
"General," said the H8K's aircraft commander, hustling toward them from a consultation with the Gallian ground crew. "Looks like we'll be stuck here for a few days waiting for parts before they can start on the repairs."
"Well, it's not really surprising that they wouldn't have engine parts for a Kawanishi flying boat here, I suppose. Never mind, Captain, do as you must. I'm sure we can find our own transport up to Ribeauvillé from here."
"Aye aye, General. When our repairs are complete, should we wait for you here or head north?"
"You might as well stay here," said Reimu. "We don't know where our investigation may take us. Stand by here if the Gallians don't mind, and I'll send for you when you're needed."
"Roger that, ma'am." The pilot saluted, then turned and went back to his aircraft.
"Well, I dunno about you two, but I'm starving," said Marisa. "What do you say we see if we can score some chow before we line up a flight out of here?"
"Have you considered just occasionally not throwing your entire available stock of energy into a single blast?" asked Alice dryly as the three of them began walking toward the nearby clusters of base buildings.
Marisa grinned. "Go big or go home, that's my philosophy."
"How very Liberion."
"Hey, if you'd'a had us over here in '41, the Neuroi never would'a taken Gallia."
"And whose fault is it that you didn't show up until the middle of '42?"
"Don't look at me, I wasn't old enough to vote then."
"You're still not old enough to vote now," Reimu pointed out.
"Details. Details," said Marisa dismissively. Then, corraling a passing Gallian sailor, she asked, "Hey buddy, which way to the mess?"
The sailor gave her a perplexed look. "Comment?"
Speaking slowly and loudly, but no more Gallicly, Marisa repeated the question: "Which. Way. To. The. Mess?"
Alice sighed. "Are you quite certain your parents are diplomats?" she said, then spoke to the sailor in apologetic Gallic.
Reimu, who understood a little bit of that language, stifled a giggle, as she picked up just enough to know that, in addition to repeating the question in a form intelligible to him, she had also asked him to please excuse Marisa on the grounds that she was very stupid.
"What?" asked Marisa, eyeing her two fellow witches suspiciously.
"Nothing," Reimu said unconvincingly.
"The officers' mess is this way," said Alice serenely. "They may even let us in despite your tragic hat."
"There's nothing tragic about my hat!" Marisa insisted.
"Exeunt, bickering," Reimu quipped, and they all laughed as they made their way toward a belated lunch.
"The Pros from Dover" - an Our Witches at War Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited