Author's Note: And now to finally finish this arc at long last. To anyone who's still sticking with this story after such a long time without updates, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I honestly do hope to have the next chapter up by this year, but considering the length I go to (literally, as you can see in this chapter), that's not a guarantee.

I'd like to also give a shout-out to Bucue. Without their input, this story might've ended up being just another SW grimderp fest you see all too often. Check out their SW stories while you're at it, as you'll find that they're very well-researched.

Now without further rambling, here's the next chapter of Halo: Contact Neuroi.


Chapter 7 – SNAFUs For All, and To All a Good Night

Somewhere in northeast Gallia

March 26, 1945

Captain Xochitl Gutierrez laid there for a while, feeling the weight on her chest, before finally asking: "Are you okay, Madison?"

"Fine, ma'am, I think. I don't feel hurt anywhere," replied the Liberian soldier lying on top of her.

"Ah, that's good to hear. Now, would you mind getting off? I feel a bit pressed here," she said wryly.

"Oh. Oh! Y-yes, ma'am! Right away, ma'am!" said the young Private as she scrambled upright and finally off of her breastplate, her face beet-red and not entirely from exertion. Even the magically reinforced steel breastplate couldn't hide the fact that Gutierrez had a decent-sized bosom.

Still, Private Thelma Madison's energy likely meant that she was uninjured. At the very least, anyone who jumped like that couldn't have been injured enough to need medical attention.

Gutierrez levered herself up, using her M4 Sherman striker for support, and looked around at the chaos. When their M3A1 half-track had flipped onto its side, everyone had been thrown in a messy pile on the ground that looked vaguely as if they'd just been having a massed outdoor sleepover. And only now, were people finally getting up.

"Everyone! Kowalski, Tatsumiya, Hendrickson, report! Anyone injured?" she called out.

"I'm a-okay, Captain. Just need to climb out of here, is all," replied their driver, Corporal Edith Kowalski, a muffled tone from somewhere in the front of their half-track.

"Nothing to report for me personally, Captain," reported her 2IC: a small raven-haired and dark-skinned Fusoan-Native mix 1st Lieutenant by the name of Samantha Tatsumiya. The woman shoved another land witch off of her, and pushed herself upright using the butt of her Thompson submachine gun as a crutch. "This one's good too. Not even a bump or bruise. Not from something like this. Looks like everyone else is the same."

"Me too," reported one of her platoon sergeants: a tall, very tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed Sergeant named Sharon Hendrickson. The woman pushed herself upright using her own Thompson as a crutch as well with one arm, while helping a fellow land witch up with her other arm. "Although, my head feels kind of heavy for some reason," she added.

"Weeell, I don't know about you, but I think that girl on your antlers might have something to do with it," Tatsumiya drawled.

"What?" Hendrickson asked in confusion, before finally peering upwards. She was rewarded with the sight of a pale, freckled face framed by red hair looking down at her from atop the pair of massive branching antlers Hendrickson had emerging from her head.

"Um, could you let me down? Please?" the red-head asked plaintively, looking like a ginger kitten stuck on a high tree branch. Albeit, a ginger kitten with an eyepatch covering one eye.

"Ack! Sorry! I didn't notice you there," Hendrickson said quickly, bending down so that the girl could safely get herself down without risk of fall injuries. Hendrickson's elk ears flattened against her head in embarrassment as the girl carefully untangled herself and got back to the ground in one piece.

"I-It's okay, ma-ma'am!" the red-head said quickly, waving a hand frantically. "It's ju-just surprising, is all."

"Any injuries? Did I accidentally stab you anywhere…," Hendrickson paused in confusion for a moment.

"O-O'Connell, ma'am. Private Ais-Aisling O'Connell," the red-headed Private stammered out. "And n-no, ma'am."

Hendrickson breathed out a sigh of relief before looking over all the other two land witches she was leading. "They're all fine, Captain. Not a scratch on these little ones," she reported with relief.

Gutierrez nodded and then finally looked over the scene.

Their M3A1 half-track was definitely overturned, with the passenger seat door now facing skywards. Kowalski was currently in the middle of climbing out said passenger seat door, with her M1 carbine tucked under one arm as she did so. In addition, the half-track's unditching roller was lying some distance away, having apparently been ripped completely off the half-track.

Behind the overturned half-track, the company's T30 Howitzer Motor Carriage half-track pulled up and came to a stop. Hendrickson climbed into the back of the vehicle, saying something to the crew. Gutierrez's guess was that she wanted to retrieve the howitzer, plus some 75 mm shells to go with it.

6th Company's other three M3A1 half-tracks stopped right beside the overturned half-track, and their witches were quickly dismounting.

'Good to know Williams, Pleasant, and Morino are on top of things,' Gutierrez thought.

Just outside of the fork was 6th Company's M8 Light Armored Car, which was thankfully not overturned. However, it was also not moving, and no sounds of a running engine were coming from it. 1st Lieutenant Necahual "Necky" Gomez on top was yelling down something indistinct into the turret, likely at her driver or the assistant driver. Likely both, actually. Gutierrez knew that she would need to check that out at some point.

But that would have to wait, because it didn't take her long to notice the giant skid marks on the dirt road, going all the way back down the road and up it as well. She followed the path of the skid marks with her eyes, which quickly led her to the smoking wreck in the distance, barely 300 feet away.

The wreck appeared to be that of an enormous plane, maybe about the size of some of the latest heavy bombers in service with the USAAF. It looked black, but that could've been the night at work. It was roughly a diamond in overall shape, but it had the strangest design she'd ever seen. She could tell there were wings, and there was a body, but she found it hard to tell where the wings ended and the body began. It was also tilted, with its back facing them and hiding its underbelly.

"Guessing that's what ran us over?" Tatsumiya asked.

"Almost certainly," Gutierrez replied.

"Sounds like we need to pay them a visit," Hendrickson commented, now hefting a 75 mm M1 Pack Howitzer like it was made of aluminum thanks to her Superhuman Strength magic.

"Hope we do," Kowalski said from beside them, having climbed out of the half-track by now. "I'd like to get that idiot's driver license and ask 'em where they learned to drive. That idiot nearly ran us over!"

"Given how badly damaged it is already, I'd say that someone already ran it over," Tatsumiya commented wryly.

"This is Flight Lieutenant Wittgenstein to those land witches down there! Come in, land witches!"

Gutierrez started at the voice coming from her ear radio before looking upwards. Given that there was no one in the immediate area she knew by that name, she can only assume that this Wittgenstein was an air infantry witch flying out of view or flying too high to see. She didn't recognize the name though–it sounded either Karlslandic or Ostmarkian–but at least she spoke Britannish well. She'd met numerous witches who couldn't, and they were a pain to deal with. No point dwelling on that though.

"This is Captain Gutierrez. I read you, Wittgenstein," Gutierrez said, pressing on her throat mike to activate it. "Now what can I do for you, over?"

"Gutierrez, I need you and your witches to–Sherlock, you're heading towards the ground again. Raise your elevation before you–Sherlock?!"

"Daijoubu! I got her! Isaac, are you okay?" a rather shrill voice asked.

"Um, I think? I just got dizzier for a second and–hey, why do you sound so muffled? It feels like my ear is full of…oh. That's probably not good," a Britannian voice said rather laconically.

"Sherlock, what's wrong?" Wittgenstein asked.

"Well, I thought it was a bit of earwax. Unfortunately, I don't think earwax is normally this dark. And now that I think about it, now there's something warm dripping down the left side of my–"

"Kya! Your ear's bleeding!" the shrill voice shouted shrilly.

"Ah, so that's the problem."

Gutierrez fought back a sigh and giggle simultaneously. Yes, bleeding from your ears is very serious, but that Britannian reserve can be just plain ridiculous at times.

"Sherlock, can you continue to maintain level flight?" Wittgenstein asked.

"Uh, hold on for a moment, over." Several moments passed by before the Britannia voice finally spoke. "Th-that's a negative. I feel like I just got off one of those carnival rides where they spin you around and around and–"

Gutierrez thought she heard something before the Britannian voice stopped transmitting. She wasn't entirely certain, but it sounded like the beginnings of a retch.

"Sherlock?" Wittgenstein asked again, this time with more than a bit of worry seeping into her voice.

"Kzzt–ah, I'm not feeling entirely up for level flight at the moment," the Britannian said.

"Princess, requesting permission to escort I-Sherlock back to base?" the formerly shrill voice asked.

"Permission granted, Yen. Get back here asap once you've made sure Sherlock has landed safely, out."

"Wiruko, out."

Another few moments passed by before Wittgenstein spoke again: "Captain Gutierrez, are you still there?"

"I've been here this entire time," Gutierrez replied laconically.

"Then secure that Neuroi wreck. As I was about to say before…that happened, it's displayed new abilities when fighting us: either some kind of ability to launch decoys that can interfere with our radar, or it itself can interfere with radar. Capture it, make sure that it's dead, and then assist with securing it for transport to where we can study it, over."

Gutierrez looked more closely at the distant wreck. It could be a Neuroi, but it was hard to tell from this distance, especially with the wreck smoking like that. If it was though, she wouldn't be surprised. The Neuroi came in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, and it could be conceivable that one would make itself look like that.

She really didn't like the way this Wittgenstein was just handing her orders though, like she was a Private at Wittgenstein's beck and call. The call to secure a new Neuroi was a sound one; it was just Wittgenstein's tone that put her off. On the other hand, it seemed like one of her own girls had sustained some kind of injury, so that curtness might well be the result of worry for her subordinate. She was willing to give Wittgenstein the benefit of the doubt here.

"Affirmative. We'll secure the wreck, out," Gutierrez replied, firmly keeping any annoyance at Wittgenstein's tone from slipping out.

"Huh, you think that Neuroi now smoking over there was the one responsible for what happened?" Tatsumiya whispered to her.

"Could be," Gutierrez answered neutrally.

"And we're going to investigate it now. Well, isn't that great," Tatsumiya said surly.

"Well, look on the bright side: we were going to check it out anyways. It's just official now," Hendrickson said cheerfully.

It was at that moment that Williams, Pleasant, and Morino reached their group, along with the land witch platoons they led.

"Orders, ma'am?" Williams asked, carefully not saluting to avoid attracting the attention of Neuroi snipers.

Gutierrez took but a moment to decide on her orders. "Williams, have your platoon right our half-track and protect it until Kowaski can get the engine started back up."

"What? Come on, can't I take a potshot at that junk heap that ran us over?" Kowalski hefted her M1 carbine as she asked said that.

Gutierrez managed to keep from laughing outright, but she didn't even bother hiding her grin. "While I appreciate the enthusiasm, I'd rather not have to get a new driver should anything happen. There isn't anyone who can drive our half-track better than you, after all."

"Besides, someone needs to fix the engine if it's broken, right?" Hendrickson asked, almost desperate in her tone.

Kowalski scowled, but slung her carbine anyways. "Yeah, fair 'nough. Getting overturned like that must've done a number on the engine. Gotta fix that darned thing first. Hey, Madison! You better get your cute ass over here and help me fix that engine, you hear?!"

"Yes, ma'am!" Madison belted out.

Gutierrez nodded. "Now that that's settled, Pleasant! Get over to Necky and her M8, and help them out with getting it unstuck if they need it."

"Planning on getting all the glory yourself, eh?" Pleasant asked in a tone dripping with sarcasm.

Gutierrez snorted. "Trust me, no one here is planning on getting any more glory than she can handle."

Pleasant narrowed her eyes, but didn't say anything in response. She just nodded, and began ordering her platoon to follow her to the M8.

Gutierrez sighed. One of these days, she thought Pleasant's obsession with glory was going to get her killed. But as for the present…

"Hendrickson, Morino. You two are with me to secure that wreck," Gutierrez ordered.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," Morino replied, crisp and clear.

"Will do, ma'am," Hendrickson replied, but in a much more cheery tone.

Gutierrez nodded to both of them, before turning to a specific witch in particular. "O'Connell, get over here."

The red-headed Private scrambled over to Gutierrez and saluted. "Yes, ma-"

"Don't salute, you idiot!" Tatsumiya hissed at her.

O'Connell winced and immediately dropped her hand. "S-Sorry ma'am! It was just-"

"It's okay, just don't do that again," Gutierrez said, waving her hand in dismissal. "I just need you to eyeball that wreck and see if that core's still intact. Can you do it?"

O'Connell's hand started to move upwards before she stopped it and forced it back down. "Yes, ma'am," she said before flipping up her eyepatch and turning to look at the Neuroi wreck.

Gutierrez stepped forward to get a look at O'Connell's face. Magic Eye witches were always fascinating to look at. Their magic always gave them such interesting eyes. Each one had a unique iris color and pupil shape. In Connell's case, her left eye was a bright cyan that literally glowed with magic, providing a sharp contrast to her blue right eye. It didn't stop at the iris either. Her left pupil was shaped like an 8-pointed star, with the star's arms and center contracting and expanding like a normal pupil to boot. It gave O'Connell an unearthly quality that contrasted with her otherwise normal, and pretty, face.

'The girl's probably going to have to fend off no small amount of suitors when she gets older,' Gutierrez thought wryly. 'Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if she was getting a few suitors now.'

"I don't see anything," O'Connell said in a distracted tone.

That broke Gutierrez out of her reverie. "You're going to have to explain a lot better than that, O'Connell," she said in amused exasperation.

"Oh! Um, I…can't see a core. Anywhere," O'Connell replied.

Gutierrez looked her in surprise. "Not even shards of a core?"

"Um…no, ma'am. Not that I can see."

Gutierrez rubber her chin as she stared at the distant wreck. "A coreless Neuroi? That big?" she wondered out loud.

"Guess they're making them bigger these days," Tatsumiya commented.

"But, shouldn't a Neuroi that big have a core? It can't regenerate without it, after all," Hendrickson commented back. "If it can't regenerate, that's a lot of metal that's lost."

"Who knows? Maybe this is some kind of kamikaze Neuroi. You know, something that's meant to be tossed at us and forgotten," Tatsumiya countered.

Hendrickson winced. "Isn't that kind of…insensitive?"

Tatsumiya shrugged. "I'm sort of Fusoan, so it's okay."

"Hmm," was Hendrickson's only reply.

"So what do you see in there, O'Connell?" Gutierrez asked, curious as to whether this apparently coreless Neuroi still has any tricks up its sleeve.

"Umm…I see something…warm? In the center near the back, and one closer to the front, and one…no, two more above that one."

"Warm? And two of them?" Gutierrez asked.

"Y-yes. The one in the back…it's like…something that used to be really hot, and now it isn't. It's still hot, but it's…cooling down, so it's…warm. And the one in the front is much colder than the center warm thing and is really small, but it's…staying at the same warmness and isn't getting colder. The two above that one are also staying warm, but they're also a lot warmer than the first warm thing. And…actually, one of the warm things above is actually pretty hot. It's a weird kind of hot, but it's still hot."

"But they're not cores?" Gutierrez asked, now really intrigued.

"Um…no. It's not. I mean, they don't look anything like the broken cores they showed me and the other Magic Eye witches in boot camp."

Gutierrez now stared at the wreck with great interest.

"Oh! And um, the front small warm thing is moving."

Gutierrez snapped her gaze back to O'Connell. "Moving?!" she asked sharply.

"Y-Yes!" O'Connell squeaked. "I-It's not moving very fast, but um, it's definitely moving."

Gutierrez nodded. "Right, that's enough. Hendrickson, Morino, we'll advance towards the wreck in Attack Pattern Charlie Two, and partially surround it in a semicircle. I'll anchor Hendrickson, and Tatsumiya will anchor Morino. Now go!"

Hendrickson and Morino immediately began issuing the appropriate orders to their platoons. Their respective platoons began forming up into two triangles facing the wreck: one on the left, and the other on the right. Gutierrez moved into the center of Hendrickson's triangle right behind Hendrickson herself, and Tatsumiya moved behind Morino in her triangle to do the same. The witches in the triangles then turned on their shields and began track-dashing towards the wreck, forming a pattern that looks like a pair of chevrons when viewed from above.

Gutierrez kept expecting the wreck to do something, but all it did was sit there as the formation very quickly closed the distance. Given their current speed of 22 mph on this dirt road, in seconds, they were right in front of the wreck.

The wreck looked even worse up close. The source of the smoke turned out to be a large hole in its right wing, although it seemed to be dying down even as she looked at it. A large portion of its right side also seemed to be blackened and scorched, as though a Neuroi death ray gave it a close call on that side. And to add a final touch to the scene, there was a piece of what looked like broken landing gear lying nearby. It looked as though it'd snapped off, and the wheel was still spinning. Curiously, the wheel was also glowing a bright red-orange, as though someone had heated it with a god-sized blowtorch.

"Hendrickson, I'm going to circle the wreck once, to get a better look. Cover me," Gutierrez ordered before track-dashing off.

"Yes, ma-but wait for me!" Hendrickson said in a panic as she quickly track-dashed after her CO.

Despite dashing off at the beginning, Gutierrez did slow down to allow Hendrickson to catch up. Hendrickson then took up position in between Gutierrez and the wreck as Gutierrez circled it.

The wreck didn't look all that bad from its front. At least, Gutierrez assumed that it was its front. There was a strange bulge covered in sheets of metal in the center, and on either side of it were things that looked like air intakes. While she wasn't intimately familiar with aircraft design, she was fairly certain that air intakes didn't go in the back of a plane, so ergo this must be the front.

Continuing her circle, Gutierrez went around back to the belly of the wreck, which looked just as bad as its top. The wreck's bottom side still had two pieces of landing gear that looked remarkably intact considering what they went through, although their wheels were glowing just as red hot as the detached one. What drew her eye though was the massive hole in the bottom of the wreck. The rim of the hole was glowing red hot, and the metal there was peeling outwards like a superheated metallic flower. It looked as if something within the wreck had blown outwards, creating that oddly-shaped hole. Unfortunately, she couldn't see what'd caused the explosion, because the hole was crammed full of some kind of black gunk that was partially spilling out of the hole, and there was no way she was going to get up close to it to examine it.

Finally, Gutierrez reached what she assumed was the rear of the aircraft, assuming that previous section was the front. Now though, she was completely certain that this was the rear, because you don't normally put engines on a plane's front. There were three big nozzles that looked like jet engines in total, though why anyone needed three engines on an aircraft was something she couldn't figure out. Maybe she'll get an answer out of whoever are sent to scavenge this thing when they arrive.

So she and Hendrickson passed by the wreck, still track-dashing at top speed, before completing the circle and returning back to where they'd started.

"Now what, Rosey?" Hendrickson asked, keeping her eyes and her 75mm M1 pack howitzer pointed at the wreck.

Before Gutierrez could reply, a squeal of static suddenly came out of her earpiece, followed by a female voice saying: "Testing, testing. Can you all hear me out there, over?"

Gutierrez reached up to her throat mike and pressed the transmit button. "Who is this? Identify yourself, over," she ordered.

"Ah, my apologies. This is the pilot of the downed aerospacecraft in front of you, assuming that I am addressing the group of women right in front of my craft, over."

Gutierrez took the opportunity to use hand signals to order Hendrickson's and Morino's platoons to slowly approach the "aerospacecraft" on foot, while her own mind was working in high gear at the revelations being fired at her.

'Pilot?!' she thought in shock. 'Dammit, this is no Neuroi. What've I gotten myself into?'

"And I am speaking to you and the women surrounding my craft to warn you not to attempt to board, over."

"Shit," Gutierrez cursed under her breath. 'So she, or maybe it, can see us from in there? Well, no point in the hand signals then.'

"Hendrickson, Morino, halt," She ordered before speaking on the radio again: "So, why shouldn't we board your…plane, then? If I may ask, over?"

"Because if you do, I will detonate the scuttling charges I have placed and armed throughout my craft, and destroy this craft and me with her."

Every single witch immediately raised their shields in response to that statement. Gutierrez was no exception, only as she did so, she crept closer to O'Connell.

"The same goes for those two women circling above us. If they fly too close, I will detonate those charges, over."

"Scheisse," Gutierrez heard that Wittgenstein woman curse over radio. It must've slipped out while she was using her magic radar.

"O'Connell," Gutierrez whispered.

The young girl jumped and looked back in shock, apparently having never noticed that Gutierrez had moved next to her. At least she had the presence of mind to keep her shield facing towards the wreck, so there was that.

"Look in that wreck again, and tell me what your Magic Eye sees. Don't just look for heat signatures this time. Tell me what you actually see in there," Gutierrez ordered.

O'Connell nodded before looking towards the wreck and raising her eyepatch once more.

"Okay…um…huh, okay, that's weird," O'Connell muttered.

Gutierrez fought an urge to groan. She reminded herself that O'Connell was only 12, just barely out of boot camp. It was a given that witches that green would be frustrating to deal with.

"Words, O'Connell. And details, if you don't mind," Gutierrez said dryly.

"Oh, right! Sorry. Um, it's kind of dark in there. There's lighting, but it's this dim red color. It's making everything look weird."

"Could be some kind of emergency lighting," Gutierrez noted. "Do you see anything that could be bombs? Or whatever these 'scuttling charges' are supposed to be?"

"Uh…I…don't know. Everything in this thing looks so…weird. The red light is just making things worse. I can't tell what any of it is supposed to be, much less what's a bomb or not. Sorry."

'Well, I guess it's a bit much to expect a green Private like this to be able to do the work of a trained bomb disposal engineer,' Gutierrez thought to herself.

"Oh, but there's…looks like someone is in there."

It took Gutierrez a few moments to process that, and a few moments more to formulate a response, which ended up being: "Explain. Now."

"Ack! Um, there's…someone, just one, sitting on this…door in the…floor…that leads to…a small tube-shaped room…that leads to another door on the thing's bottom that leads outside."

Gutierrez gazed at the wreck in contemplation. "What does it look like? The…person?"

"It…she…it kinda looks human. It has two legs and two arms with hands, and is basically human-shaped. But…it's wearing some kind of…clothes that fits over its entire body. And…it's wearing a helmet that's hiding its face. I can't see anything but a big, curved piece of glass. At least, I think it's glass. There's…a…kind of…thick part on its chest? That looks kinda like they might be…well, bosoms, but that's it."

Gutierrez politely kept from laughing at the emphasis on "bosom". "Can't you see under its clothes and check?" she asked.

Gutierrez was surprised to see a blush form on O'Connell's face.

"I, I, I'd never! Th-that's not, not decent!" O'Connell said frantically, waving her arms like an epileptic windmill.

Guiterrez raised an intrigued eyebrow at this reaction. "Okay, I guess it's not that important in the grand scheme of things right now. What is important though, is what she, or it, is doing."

After taking a few moments to calm down, O'Connell then reported: "Um, she's just sitting there, looking down at the door on the floor…oh, there's a little window on it. That's what she's looking at. And she's holding…a gun."

"What model?"

"Um…I…don't know. It kinda looks…a really big slide pistol with a foregrip and a stock. There's writing on the left side of the slide, hold on…let me zoom in and adjust the angle a bit…it says 'Mis-rye-ah Armory', and below that it says 'Twelve Point Seven Millimeter Automatic'. The other side of the slide says…'Model 6 One…sorry, I Slash C', and below that is 'UNSC Property'."

"Hold on, hold on. O'Connell, this might sound crazy, but how are you able to read the writing on a gun being held by someone inside that…thing?"

O'Connell stopped looking at the wreck and turned to look at Gutierrez, Magic Eye still glowing with cyan light.

"Um, because the words are in Britannish?" O'Connell replied questioningly.

O'Connell kneaded her temples. There were so many, many, many things wrong with that fact. Is this some kind of secret Britannian project they've stumbled onto now? Like that SNAFU with the Warlock nearly a year ago? Were they now all about to get fucked over by another Britannian secret superweapon, just like those poor Fussies that tried to defend the Akagi from the Warlock when it went berserk?

"Did…I say something wrong?" O'Connell asked, although it was more of a whisper coming from her.

"No, dear. It's nothing you said," Gutierrez reassured her, even as her thoughts were threatening to spin out of control in her own head. "Just keeping watching it…her, fine, just her. Keep watching her to see if she makes a move."

"Um, okay," O'Connell replied quietly.

Gutierrez raised an eyebrow.

Tatsumiya, who'd been watching, rolled her eyes.

Hendrickson was shaking, holding back giggles.

Morino made no comment, though she did sigh.

"Um, I mean, yes, ma'am!" O'Connell said a bit louder.

'Okay, now that the funny stuff is over, let's think. If this thing was going to kill us all, it would've done so already. Or at least it would've tried. Also, if it was some kind of secret Britannian weapon, why would its pilot–and that would be smart of those Brits if they did make this–try to keep us away from it like this? Is it…a bluff?

Well, even if it is a bluff, we can't afford to call it. We have no way to confirm if it's a bluff or not. And if the pilot isn't bluffing, we're all dead. And even if by some miracle we don't die, there goes one very valuable wreck we could've analyzed. Guess the only thing to do is to call in reinforcements, and buy some time by keeping the pilot talking.'

Gutierrez pressed the transmit button on her throat mike once more. "Hey, you in there. Are you still listening, over?"

A few moments passed by before the same female voice replied: "Yes, over."

"Well, Miss…you know, 'you in there' is probably going to get old really fast. So, you got a name you can tell us, over?" Gutierrez asked.

Another few moments passed by before the female voice replied: "Hex, over."

Gutierrez raised an eyebrow at the name, or rather obvious alias. She wondered if this was a witch she was dealing with. "Just Hex, over?"

"Yes, over."

'Not much for conversation, are you, Hex? Even if you're obviously using an alias,' Gutierrez thought. 'That alias though…'

Taking her finger of the transmit button, she leaned towards O'Connell. "Is she a witch?" she whispered.

"Um…she doesn't have any familiar things though. No ears or tail," O'Connell replied.

"Can't you look into her to see if she has magic?"

"…I can do that?"

Gutierrez sighed. "De nada. Just keep watching."

Her hand returned to the transmit button. "Well then, Hex, it looks like we're in an Aztecan standoff here. Us with our strikers and witch guns, and you with your scuttling charges. Between those, we can't touch each other. So unless you want us to sit here, pointing our guns at each other until the end of time, why don't we discuss your surrender options here, over?"

"I refuse, over."

"Well, that was quick. Mind telling me what's so bad about surrendering, over?"

"Cole Protocol. I refuse, over."

Gutierrez raised an eyebrow at the wreck. "I have no idea what that means, Hex. What's this Coal Protocol you're going on about? Are you planning on setting up a grill in there, and make carne asada for tlacoyos in there, over?"

Minutes passed. No reply came.

Gutierrez sighed before transmitting again. "Look, we're not going to leave, and if you set off those 'scuttling charges', you're just going to kill yourself for no reason. Sure, it's been a while since anyone was taken prisoner, but it's not like we're going to be barbarians about it. If you surrender, we'll see that you get treated well, over."

More minutes passed. Still no reply came forward.

Gutierrez rubbed her temples in annoyance. 'Guess we'll just have to starve her out then.'

She was just about to call for reinforcements to set up a round-the-clock patrol around the wreck when her ear radio suddenly squawked.

"Gutierrez, this is Wittgenstein. Come in, we have a problem, over."

Gutierrez grimaced, and pressed to transmit. "I hear you, Wittgenstein. Go ahead, over."

"I've detected multiple small objects inbound straight at your position from the northeast, 140 km and closing. Radar cross-sections match those of Pilum-class small Neuroi.

'You've got to be kidding me.'

"ETA at current flight speed and distance: about 15 minutes. I count 78-wait, no! There are 76 now! 2 of them just…vanished? No, wait, fragments detected! You! Whoever's shooting them down! Identify yourself!"

The volume of Wittgenstein's transmission was high enough that Gutierrez wished, not for the first time, that there was a way to control the volume on these ear radios.

"Doesn't sound like they're in an answering mood, si?" another voice transmitted, still female but deeper in tone than Wittgenstein.

"Casanova, stay here and continue providing air support," Wittgenstein ordered.

"Roger, Princess. I'll just make a call to Dijon and get Carl and that cute DeBlanc here too," replied the deeper-voiced witch.

"What?! Why would you–" A long moment of silence passed by. "Fine, get those Liberions here. We need all the help we can get here. In the meantime, I will go and engage those Pila before they get any closer, out," Wittgenstein said.

Gutierrez couldn't see anything of the air witches from down on the ground, but the cessation of any more transmissions suggested that Wittgenstein had gone to intercept the Neuroi.

"Looks like I'll be the one covering you all from the air now, over?" the deeper-voiced witch transmitted.

"Looks like it…Casanova?" Gutierrez asked, wondering how this witch managed to get a nickname like that. "We'll be counting on you, over."

A full-throated laugh emerged from Guiterrez's ear radio. "Si, I'll do that. I just wish I had a better gun for this than my Modello 38. She's not a bad gun, quit the opposite really, but 9 mm feels a bit…inadequate at times, over."

Gutierrez grimaced in sympathy. Being stuck with a 9mm submachine gun for aerial combat didn't sound like a situation she'd ever want to get into. Having only a short-ranged and low velocity gun for shooting at targets traveling at hundreds of miles per hour over hundreds of feet? No thank you, ma'am.

"Want to trade for a Thompson? Those would hit harder than your SMG, over," Gutierrez offered.

"Ha, ha, no thank you. If I have to choose between range and accuracy, and that stopping power you Liberians love so much, I'll take the former. I have my Flee-ger-hammer for when I need stopping power, thank you very much, over."

Gutierrez grinned. She could get to like this Casanova. "Roger that, Casanova. Good luck then, and…what's that phrase? Good hunting? Over."

"Si! You get it! And that's a wilco to you. I'll shoot down any Neuroi that gets near here, out!"

As the last of Casanova's voice faded from the airwaves, her parting words made Gutierrez realize something. She looked more closely at the battle damage on the wreck. The gaping hole in the right wing was glowing along the edges, exactly as though a Neuroi heat ray had burned a hole through it. It wasn't too far a stretch to conclude that these Neuroi had caused that damage, and now have come to finish the job.

Gutierrez quickly transmitted: "Hey, Hex. If you've been listening to all this, now might be the time to surrender to us. Unless you want those Neuroi to get you instead, over?"

A minute passed before, fortunately, Hex replied: "Two hours. You will wait two hours, and then you will let me leave. Then you can have her, over."

A multitude of questions tried to escape her throat all at once, but the one that somehow emerged first was: "'Her', over?"

"My ship. She won't be flying again anytime soon. So if you let me leave free and alive, I'll disarm the scuttling charges and let you have her, over."

'Huh, interesting tidbit of info there.'

"And where do you think you'll be going? There's nothing around here but wilderness. Why not just come back with us to where we'll take your ship, over?"

"I have no need. My pickup will be arriving in two hours. Do I have your word, over?"

Gutierrez's eyes widened. 'Pickup? So there's more of you? That could be a problem, but then again…it might be better if these guys pick up their own rather than the Neuroi.'

"We'll leave you alone when your friends pick you up, and we get your ship? You got yourself a deal. So now what, over?"

Another minute passed before Hex spoke again: "Now I've communicated the deal to my comrades. They will be providing support for your…air forces soon. In addition, I will be using whatever weapons and equipment that are still functioning on my ship to defend myself, and in the process, you all as well, over."

Gutierrez raised an eyebrow. "Only so long as you don't fire any of those weapons at us here on the ground. And I'd imagine that Casanova up there wouldn't be too happy at getting shot at by whatever you have in there either, over."

"You'd be right about that, Captain. Unless you were planning to fire some tiramisu up here, by any chance?" Casanova asked.

"Ha," said Hex in the kind of tone that suggested that no amount of amusement was being experienced by the speaker whatsoever. "Regardless, I have no intention of firing on you unless you give me reason to, and given that these…New-roy are apparently very determined to finish me off, I'd rather not have to fight two enemies at once, thank you very much, over."

Gutierrez raised an eyebrow. That kind of attitude was…unusual. It's almost as if Hex had never heard of the Neuroi before, but that can't be. You'd had to have been living under a rock for the past four decades to not have heard of the Neuroi. Even longer really, if you believe the ancient legends.

Regardless, it appeared that she now had a deal. "Agreed, over," Gutierrez replied.

"Same here, signorina, over," replied Casanova.

"Then we have an agreement." A few seconds passed by. "Good luck then, and good hunting. Out."

In the silence left by Hex, Gutierrez took a deep breath to ready herself before reaching up to her neck to transmit once more. "Tatsumiya, get over here to my position. Hendrickson, Morino, encircle the wreck with your squads, face outwards from it, and prepare to defend against air attack. Williams, Pleasant, encircle your assigned targets and prepare to defend against the same. Enemy is Pilum-class small Neuroi, estimated count is 40-plus. Don't let a single heat ray hit whatever it is you're guarding, and for the Lady's sake, don't let them get close enough to kamikaze with their warheads. Do you all copy, over?"

"Hendrickson here, Rosey. Defend the banged up wreck thingy, I copy, over."

"Morino. Defend the wreck, I copy, over."

"Williams here. Defend the half-tracks, I copy, over."

"Pleasant. Yeah, sure, defend Necky's fucking M8, I copy, over."

"Alright, I copy you all. Now get to it, out," Gutierrez concluded, releasing the transmit button on her throat mike. "O'Connell, stay," she ordered vocally as the young Private was about to dash off to join the rest of her platoon.

"Uh, yes, ma'am?" O'Connell asked.

"Just stay put here for now until…ah, Tatsumiya. You're finally here."

"Yep. So what's up?" the little Fusoan-Liberian asked.

"Can you and O'Connell keep an eye on the wreck, and the pilot inside? Make sure she isn't doing anything funny in there?"

Tatsumiya raised an intrigued eyebrow. "You think she'll try something? With the Neuroi gunning for her?"

"I don't think so, and I hope not. But I don't know for sure," Gutierrez replied.

Tatsumiya nodded. "Roger then," she said before turning to O'Connell. "Alright, Private, you give me a running report on that pilot's exact location and whatever she's doing, pronto."

"Yes, ma'am," O'Connell replied before doing just that.

Gutierrez nodded and now turned her sights to the northeast skies. She did all she could from down here. Now it was up to the air infantry…and whatever these guys had.

'Although,' she thought as she briefly summoned a small flame into her hand with her magic before putting it out. 'Maybe not.'


Somewhere over northeastern Gallia

March 26, 1945

"Hrm, this is going to be a tricky fight,"Wittgenstein mused to herself.

70 Pila remaini–69 Pila remaining, spread out in a loose formation. Very loose. So loose, that they were stretched out over several square kilometers in area. While it made shooting each one down easier, unfortunately, it also means that she can't just shoot down the entire formation in a few passes. She had to chase down each and every one, or else at least one is going to reach the wreck.

Which meant that whoever was shooting them down right now and had caused them to split up like that in the first place, was making her job so much more difficult.

"Do you hear me, whoever or whatever you are?! You made these Pila split up in such a wide group that now it's virtually impossible to hunt them all down before your own pilot is dead! It's all. Your. Fault!" Wittgenstein yelled out over magic radio.

Alas, despite the volume of Wittgenstein's tirade, there was no reply from the airwaves.

At least, not immediately.

"Testing, testing. Can you in the steel legs hear me, over?" asked an unknown male voice over the airwaves soon afterwards.

Wittgenstein only blinked once before immediately sweeping her magic radar towards where the transmission was coming from. "Who is this? Identify yourself, over!"she ordered in her best command voice.

"For various reasons, I can't tell you that exactly. You may call me Dandy in the meantime though, over."

There was a moment of silence.

"Dandy?" Wittgenstein asked incredulously, before shaking her head. She's heard stranger callsigns/nicknames before. She can deal with "Dandy". "Very well then, Dandy. What do you have to say to me that's so important right now? Assuming that you are the same group that's my making my current job so difficult, be quick about your explanation, over."

"Hmm, very well then. Here's the five-second ad version: my subordinate has negotiated a temporary alliance between us and your forces. We are to assist each other in intercepting these 'Pilum'-class New-roy before they can reach my subordinate and bring her to any harm, over."

"Subordinate…do you mean this Hex character, over?"Wittgenstein asked.

"Yes, the one you and your…flight shot down, over,"

"She was flying in restricted airspace in an unknown aircraft and refused to identify herself even after being hailed. Shooting her down was entirely justified under those circumstances, over," Wittgenstein said coldly.

Another moment of silence passed by.

"Regardless of the circumstances in which Hex was shot down, I wish to keep this incident from becoming a lethal one for her, which I'm sure you'd understand, would you not, over?" Dandy asked with all the dryness of an Egyptian desert.

There was another moment of silence before Wittgenstein replied: "Very well then. If we are to assist each other in shooting down the Pila, we need to know exactly what you'll do so that we don't get in each other's way. Or worse, we accidentally shoot each other in the process, over."

"…First of all, what do I call you? I can't just keep calling you 'you' now, can I, over?"

For another few moments, the need to answer with her callsign/nickname warred with her distaste for it. In the end though, Wittgenstein relented and replied: "You may call me 'Princess', over."

"Ah, alright then, Princess," Dandy said politely.

Wittgenstein privately thought it was almost as bad as if he'd started laughing, but there was more important things to focus on now.

"Do you happen to have a way to communicate securely, without everyone else hearing what we're planning, over?" Dandy asked pointedly.

Wittgenstein narrowed her eyes as she thought about that ridiculous demand. Did this idiot not know anything about Neuroi and how they operate?

"If by 'everyone else' you mean the Neuroi, operational security isn't a concern right now. Whatever we discuss now, even if they're listening in right now, they're not going to have time to come up with a counter before we destroy them. So just say it: what are you going to do, over," said Wittgenstein. Not asked, said. In her best command voice too.

One last moment of silence passed. "Two of us, me and another subordinate you may call 'Tex', are going to perform beyond visual range missile attacks and high-speed attack runs on that swarm, Princess. We'll try to take as many as we can in each run, but from the looks of how my other subordinate is doing so far, we'll only shoot down only a few each per run. Fortunately, I've two more…subordinates, let's call them. Their callsigns are Cyclops One and Cyclops Two. I'll dispatch them to you, and they'll help you take down those Pila. They're much more agile than our craft, and their weapon systems are suitable for the task…for as long as their ammunition lasts. They're currently approaching you from your six, so it'd be good if you didn't shoot them down, over."

Upon hearing that, Wittgenstein immediately directed her magic radar backwards, scanning for the supposed Cyclops One and Two. Immediately, a single contact lit up in her mind's eye.

'Two? I only detect one,' Wittgenstein thought as she looked backwards to see what was approaching.

She was quite shocked to see a pair of aircraft pull up behind her. At least, she thought they were aircraft. She'd never seen anything like them save for a prototype she'd once seen the Luftwaffe test. For the life of her, she couldn't remember what the prototype had been called, but these two had the same general shape: a pair of swept-back wings that melded with the fuselage such that the two were almost indistinguishable. The key differences between these things and the prototype were that:

A. These things were painted a black that seemed to drink in the moon and starlight, save for one that seemed to have streaks of a lighter grey at random.

B. Only one of them was visible to her magic radar, and that was the one with grey streaks. Her magic radar kept insisting that the pure black one wasn't there…no, it was if she looked closely enough. It's just that her same magic radar insisted that it was the size of a gnat, which it clearly wasn't unless there was something seriously wrong with her eyes.

C. There was no cockpit. None. Just a smooth, curved surface where a cockpit would logically be.

All of them were significant sources of worry for Wittgenstein, but the last one worried her the most. There was none of the characteristic screeching and wailing, and no sign of any red hexagons, but the clear lack of any pilot reminded her too much of the Neuroi for her liking.

So she almost but not quite jumped in midair when a pair of voices sounded across the airwaves:

"Cyclops One, ready to assist with the neutralization of the enemy, Princess, over."

"Cyclops Two, ready to assist with the neutralization of the enemy, Princess, over."

Wittgenstein raised an eyebrow. The voices apparently coming from Cyclops One and Two were the oddest she'd ever heard. She couldn't decide if they sounded like a high-pitched man or a low-pitched woman, and there was a weird crackly quality to it, like listening to a radio with slightly less than perfect reception. She had no idea what to make of them. All she knew was that their odd voices only put her further on edge.

Wittgenstein shook her head to clear it. This was no time to be worrying. Land witches were powerful, but even they would be vulnerable to massed air attack. She would keep one eye on these…aircraft, but her primary mission was to take out those Pila before they reached those land witches and that downed…presumed aircraft.

"Cyclops One, Cyclops Two; all of you just concentrate on shooting the Pila down one at a time. We don't know how many this Dandy and this Tex will be able to take down-"

"Dandy, Fox Three, Fox Three, Fox Three, Fox Three."

'What does that even mean-' Wittgenstein's thoughts ground to a halt as she watched four very small radar contacts streak out from Dandy's "aircraft" on her magic radar. 'They're still well over 300 kilometers out from the Pila! What does he hope to accomplish by firing rockets at that range-'

Her thoughts hit the brakes once more as the four presumed rockets Dandy launched suddenly accelerated to impossible speeds and rocketed–she chided herself for the pun even now–away towards the Pila. Based on how fast they were travelling according to her magic radar, the rockets were moving at least 9 times faster than the speed of sound. Or in other words: nearly 30 times the maximum airspeed of her own Jungfrau Ju 88 heavy fighter striker. At those speeds, the rockets closed the 300-plus km range in just under two minutes.

And in that time, Dandy's aircraft launched another five salvoes of rockets, making it 20 rockets in total inbound towards the Pila.

'10 seconds between salvoes, so a 10 second reload time, and an over 300 kilometer effective range? I wasn't aware anyone had developed anything like that, unless it's another secret project like the Warlock, which admittedly this could very well be.'

She continued observing the rockets on her magic radar as they closed in on the Pila. She raised an eyebrow as each rocket began emitting radar from their noses when they neared the Neuroi, and then subtly adjusted their course to intercept them. "Near" in this case being several kilometers away from the closest Pilum.

The Pila were tiny targets relatively speaking: barely 10 meters long and only 60 cm in diameter. Even witches had to close the range to assure hits against them. But given that the rockets waited until they were almost right on top of them to activate their radars, it was probably their equivalent of closing the range. And given how quickly the rockets were moving, she thought it highly unlikely that the Neuroi would be able to react in time to do anything about it.

And they didn't. The first wave of rockets slammed into their unsuspecting targets like falcons swooping down on helpless prey. Four Pila simply vanished, with barely even any debris for her to detect.

The second wave hit 10 seconds later and met with similar results.

It was only with the third wave that the Pila swarm started to maneuver. They'd only just started before the wave of rockets slammed into them, obliterating another four Pila.

With the fourth wave, the Pila began spreading out even more and diving towards the ground. This time, one of the rockets tried to chase a Pilum that was diving almost straight down into the ground. It seemed to try to predict the Pilum's flight path and moved to intercept, but forgot the ground was in the way, and thus intercepted the ground instead. The Pilum, likely shocked that it was still alive, tried to pull up, but was going too fast and thus also ended up intercepting the ground as well, meeting the same fate as its pursuer.

The fifth and final wave crashed into the Pila swarm even as they were wildly maneuvering at very low altitudes. Wittgenstein lost track of the rockets at this point due to the Pila swarm deciding to dip below treetop level of a forest, of all things. She detected five sprays of debris from the forest though, and given the rockets' performance thus far, she assumed that they were successful as well.

'95% hit rate, as far as I can tell, and the one that missed still ended up killing its target, albeit by luck. Impossibly fast rockets with miniature radar emitters in their noses…however they're making that work, the mystery only deepens.

'Focus, Heinrike. The mission isn't complete. They're still more Neuroi to shoot down.'

"Dandy, if you have any more of those rockets, target the edges of that swarm. We need them to clump back up. With them so dispersed like this, we'll have a hard time shooting them all down before they reach your Hex, over," Wittgenstein transmitted.

"Unfortunately, I'm Winchester. That was my last…rocket, as you called it. I'm stuck with guns from here on out, over," Dandy explained.

"What about your wingmate then? This Tex, over?" Wittgenstein pressed.

"Don't got no rakets. Got rekenning bots, but no rakets, uver," replied a perturbed and gravelly male voice.

'…Great Thunderer, I've found someone who's more difficult to understand than Kuroda.'

"What Tex means is that he only has recon drones loaded into his magazines, but no rockets, over," Dandy quickly added.

'Well, on one hand, they don't have particularly large magazines for those rockets, assuming that Dandy hasn't already launched any rockets beforehand. On the other hand, we needed all the firepower we can get.'

"Very well, then, Dandy. Just target the edges of that swarm regardless, over," Wittgenstein finally replied.

"Wilco, Princess. Good luck then, and good hunting, out," Dandy replied before he and Tex accelerated and zoomed towards the swarm, somehow exceeding Mach 3 according to her magic radar.

'Technical mysteries later. Now's the time for action,' Wittgenstein reminded herself.

"Cyclops One, Cyclops Two, spread out and engage at will when you see those Pila, out," Wittgenstein ordered.

Both of them acknowledged their orders, so that was good, even if the odd tones still raised Wittgenstein's hackles.

As the three of them approached the swarm, her magic radar caught random Pila on the edges exploding into debris as Dandy and Tex approached them. It was then that she caught "sight" of a third aircraft on her magic radar, apparently the same model as the other two, also apparently swooping by the swarm at high speeds, making random Pila explode.

'That must be the one who'd caused the swarm to spread out in the first place. If only I could grab that idiot pilot and shake him.'

As it was though, Dandy must've communicated her instructions to this unnamed pilot, because only the Pila at the edges of the swarm exploded. As she'd hoped, it was causing the rest of the Pila to start to clump back up into a group, like a school of fish that'd only just realized a predator was picking them off.

And that was when a familiar and detestable voice suddenly called out of the blue:

"Princess, this is Colt. Me and Jen are inbound to your position and will arrive in…15 minutes, according to Jen, over," said one Flight Lieutenant Marian Carl.

Wittgenstein bit back a retort. Even though her pride was practically screaming at her by now, her common sense told it to shut up and take the help.

"This is Princess. We will engage the Pila in less than five minutes. Can you not speed up your progress?" Wittgenstein asked, a little bit of acid seeping into her tone.

A short moment passed before Carl answered: "I can, at least. My magic can let me do that. I can make it to your position in…about 5 minutes, give or take. I…don't have any night-fighting ability though. I got something on my M1919 that lets me see at night, but it only works out to something like 70 yards."

Wittgenstein did some mental calculations to convert it into metric, and cursed at the 64 meters she came up with. That was practically spitting range in aerial combat. Carl had to be right on top of any Pilum just to see it, and it was certainly no good for sighting one of those things from a distance.

"Can I…shit, can I count on you to vector me into those Pie-la so I can engage 'em, over?"

For a moment, Wittgenstein was about to retort that she wasn't a flying air traffic controller for Carl to conveniently use, but then her common sense and duty both came by and slugged her pride with a pair of right hooks. Both of them knew very well that killing these Neuroi took top priority for the moment.

"Affirmative, Colt. I'll correct your course if you get lost. Just get over here asap, over," Wittgenstein said as calmly as she could manage.

"Marines don't get lost," Carl growled. "If I don't find those blasted Pie-la, it'll be because a certain someone gave me bad directions, over."

Wittgenstein instinctively started to form a retort, but then stopped and really thought about that scenario.

'That Liberian doesn't have any night vision abilities, and all she has is something that only lets her see at night out to only 64 meters. She is entirely dependent on me to guide her towards the Pila if she leaves Jen's company. If I fail to guide her to the Neuroi, it will be my fault.'

Thinking about that scenario, and how Carl was actually right, made Wittgenstein want to beat her head against the nearest wall. Unfortunately, she was in midair at the moment, and the only available surface was her MG151/20, which would not take to being used as a blunt force stress relief instrument well. Thus, Wittgenstein forced down the stress, and replied:

"You have my word as a noble that I will. Not. Fail. And if your puny commoner brain won't accept the word of a noble, then accept the word of Princess: squadron leader of Able Unit! Over!" Wittgenstein practically screamed over the radio.

Several moments passed before Carl finally replied: "Heh, fine. I'll take that, Princess. I'll be counting on you now. Colt, out."

Wittgenstein took a few calming breaths of the frigid night air, slowed to comfortable speeds by the same half-formed shield that kept her face from being lashed by wind as she flew at several hundred kph, and prepared herself to engage the rapidly approaching cloud of Pila.

The Pila were visible from her angle as like a swarm of angry red fireflies. Wittgenstein knew that these lights were the single death ray port on the noses of the Pila. They were slow firing, only capable of a maximum observed rate of one beam every 10 seconds, and the Pila were customarily bad at aiming them, but they were incredibly lethal if a witch allowed one to hit her directly. She'd seen witches literally explode into bits of steaming meat and bone from being hit center of mass. Therefore, it seemed like a good idea to not get hit, and she was planning not to let that happen.

Wittgenstein raised her shield, and charged the swarm, making the necessary toe movements to flood her strikers' engines with liquid ether to give the engines a boost in power. This war emergency power (WEP) mode resulted in only a 2% increase in maximum flight speed along with a slight boost to acceleration rate, but that 2% could make the different between life and death, as it was doing now.

The glow intensified from some of the lights an instant before a barrage of crimson beams screamed out towards her. One of the beams crashed into Wittgenstein's shield, splitting into smaller beams that passed around and past her as her shield did weird things to the movement of the particles making up the beam. The rest of the beams missed, many by quite a lot, although some came a bit worryingly close.

'Volley firing to make up for the distance and lack of accuracy? As I expected,' Wittgenstein thought. 'I see that not all of you fired though. Clever.'

In an instant, the swarm had passed, with Wittgenstein making a brief maneuver to avoid colliding with a Pilum that swerved alarmingly close to her, obviously trying to ram her. Shield or no shield, Wittgenstein would not have put much stock in her chances of surviving a Pilum detonating its nearly 1000 kg warhead upon her. Even if she were to somehow survive the concussion, she would almost certainly not survive the impact with the ground in her unconscious, unshielded state.

Immediately after passing the swarm, Wittgenstein went into hover mode and spun around, keeping her shield raised the entire time. She was just in time to see the Pila that hadn't fired perform a spin in midair, and fired a volley of crimson beams right at her. At this short a range, even Neuroi could be accurate, as evidenced by the several beams that crashed into Wittgenstein's shield. She gave thanks to her Ju-88 striker unit for having such strong shields before turning her attention to the ones who'd dared try to slay her.

The Pila that'd turned to fire quickly spun back on course and fired their engines to rejoin the rest of their swarm. Wittgenstein fired a burst from her MG151/20 at one of the rapidly retreating engine flares. She was rewarded with one of the engines flares winking out, and her magic radar caught its rapid descent towards the ground. A flash of light on the ground below, followed shortly by a thunderclap and a rising debris cloud marked the Pilum's end.

'One down. Only 40 to go,' she mused as she began pursuing the swarm.

As she began closing the distance with the swarm though, said swarm suddenly split into two groups of 20: one that went left, and another that went right.

One type of novice witch might've hesitated, unsure which group to pursue. Another type of novice witch would've immediately began pursuing one of the groups, intent on shooting them down. Wittgenstein did neither. Instead, she slowly pretended to pursue the group that'd split to the right, while at the same time keeping a close eye on the group that'd went left via her magic radar.

Sure enough, the first group banked left, while the other group swung back around to the right in a perfect Thatch Weave. Wittgenstein immediately cut her strikers' engines, swung them downwards, and gunned the engines, instantly dropping her airspeed. She then raised her shield in the direction of the incoming group and began firing short bursts at the incoming red lights.

One of said lights suddenly exploded into a fiery blossom, creating an almighty BOOM that shook her from the force of the shockwave.

'Must've hit the warhead,' Wittgenstein conjectured before shuddering. 'Now the count is 39, but I can't let one of those things blow up too close. The last thing I want to do is try to fly home with blown-out eardrums.'

Fortunately, instead of pressing the attack, the remaining Pila spread out from their brethren's detonation like a startled school of fish before turning around and heading back to rejoin the other group.

'Well, at least they're bunching back into a single group,' she thought as she tilted forward and started accelerating towards them.

"This is Colt. I should be about a minute or so out, Princess. How close am I to your position, over?"

Wittgenstein resisted the urge to curse Colt, and glanced at her radar display for Colt's current position. Seeing where Colt actually was, she had to grudgingly give the Liberian some credit. Even without any magic ability to help her fight at night, she was pretty close.

"This is Princess, adjust course 3 degrees to your left, and you should-"

Then suddenly, five of the Pila spun around midflight and raced towards her.

"Callyoubacklater, out!" Wittgenstein shouted, before immediately pulling a U-turn and accelerating away, firing behind her all the while.

The Pila spread out, which proved to be fortuitous for them, because one 20 mm shell from her MG 151/20 managed to clip one of them. The high-explosive mine shell detonated, ripping through the Neuroi missile's thin skin with a shower of fragments, causing the Neuroi's 67 kg warhead to blow itself to smithereens.

That still left four though, and they were all heading straight for her.

Suddenly, twin streams of fire emerged out of the darkness and intersected with two of the Pila, causing them to erupt in twin fireballs as a pair of winged shaped roared past Wittgenstein.

'Huh, so they are useful, after all,' she thought as she opened up on one of her remaining two pursuers.

Another Pilum erupted into fire as a 20 mm explosive bullet detonated its warhead. This explosion was so close that it actually knocked her back, throwing her aim off-target. As she fought for control, she saw the last one accelerate towards her on a suicide run.

She saw everything move in slow motion as she tried to bring her M151/20 back on target. Even as she concluded that there was no time to shoot it down before it got within range, a stream of tracers suddenly emerged out of her field of vision, and impacted the Pilum. Before her eyes, the Pilum came apart like shattering glass instead of exploding, and the debris sprayed her shield. Many bounced off, some just stopped there for a moment before falling down to the ground far below.

So concentrated on her near-death was she was surprised when she felt a tap on her shoulder, causing her to swing her gun around as fast as she could-

Only for a gloved hand to catch her MG 151/20 autocannon by its barrel, thankfully preventing Wittgenstein from pointing it at what she now saw as that annoying Liberian: Flight Lieutenant Marian Carl.

As Wittgenstein realized that verdammt Liberian had just likely saved her, her pride warred with her gratitude for control of her mouth. So nothing emerged even as Wittgenstein was processing the fact that Carl's voice was emerging from her ear radio, but she could barely hear a peep.

"Well?! Speak up! I can barely hear you!" Wittgenstein yelled.

Except, she could barely even hear her own voice. She knew that she was screaming at maximum volume, yet her voice sounded like it was coming from miles away. Actually, now that she realized it, the sound of her own striker engines sounded like a dull roar from a tiger with laryngitis.

Finally though, Carl threw up her arms, flew over to Wittgenstein, grabbed her shoulder, and yelled into her familiar ear: "Can you hear me now?!"

At least, Wittgenstein assumed that Carl was screaming it. It sounded like Carl was speaking normally, if a bit quietly. Then again, considering how her own hearing seemed to be malfunctioning at the moment…

"Well, now I can!" Wittgenstein shouted. "One of those Pila-"

"Nearly blew up in your face!" Carl interrupted. "I know! I saw the flash and heard the boom! Guess those mine shells you Karlslanders love so much has its drawbacks, huh?!"

Wittgenstein thought about retorting, but unfortunately, Carl had a point. So instead, she shouted: "We still need to pursue the others! There are still…34 left! 34 1000 kg bombs will be enough to destroy anything, let alone a single crashed fighter!"

"I know! Just point me at them, and I can take 'em down!"

"Are you stupid, Liberian?! I just said there are 34 of them! That's far more than you can hope to take down on your own!"

"Well, you were chasing them too!"

"I-" Wittgenstein was about to retort that she was much better than Carl was, but then she remembered that she needed to be saved by the Liberian from just 5 Pila. Plus, there was another reasonable point: "What if they change course?! You just said your weapon can only see…what in Odin's name is that?!"

Wittgenstein found herself staring at a massive scope situated on top of Carl's M1919A6 machine gun. The scope had what appeared to be an infrared searchlight on top of it, of all things. It was like Liberion looked at the Vampir for the Sturmgewehr, and decided that it would look great on a machine gun.

Carl noticed her looking at her weapon, and shrugged. "Yeah, I know! Not great, but at least it works! Sort of."

"What?!"

"Never mind! Just point me at those Pila, and I'll take care of 'em!"

"Nein! If I let you go flying off, you'll just drift off course again! You need me!"

"If I wait for you and your Junker to catch up, we'll never catch 'em!"

"That's Jungfrau! And you go on without me, you'll never catch them either!"

The two witches stared at each other for a few moments, engaging in a fierce struggle of willpower, before Carl sighed.

"Fine! But we'll lose 'em either way! So what the fuck are we supposed to do?!"

Wittgenstein racked her brain for a solution, and then jumped as that not-quite-male, not-quite-female voice of Cyclops One (or possibly Two) announced: "Bandit ETA to Hex's position: T-minus 240 seconds and counting. Bandit count is currently 25-correction: 24. Unit designated as 'Princess' is advised to proceed with haste, over."

Wittgenstein was about to snap at Cyclops One or Two, when a mental light bulb suddenly clicked on in her head. "Cyclops One, Cyclops Two, what's your maximum flight speed at our altitude, over?!"

"Maximum flight speed at Princess's current altitude is 3062.7 kph."

If Wittgenstein had been drinking anything at that point, she would've choked on it. That was 2.5 times the speed of sound, for Odin's sake! As it was, Wittgenstein shook her head and asked further: "Do both of you have anything we can grab onto, over?!"

"Comprehension error. Please further specify query."

Carl flew a bit closer. "Okay, aside from that being the weirdest fucking way to ask 'I don't get you' I've ever heard in my life, what are you thinking?!"

Wittgenstein grinned back at her. "I'm thinking that we could, how you say in Liberian?! 'Hitch a ride now'! Cyclops One and Two! Get over here and fly alongside us! I want to get a better look at you! Let's see where the best place we can grab onto is!"


Somewhere half-buried in northeastern France

T+15 Earth Days

'Current bandit count is 22,' Bruce reported mentally.'ETA: 210 seconds and counting. Looks like at least one of them is going to hit us, in spite of all the help we're getting.'

'Affirmative. Any response from port dorsal PDL?' Iosava asked mentally.

'Nope. Laser's still responding, but the door's still jammed tight. Doesn't matter how hard I'm trying to force the motors. It just won't open.'

Iosava sighed. 'We'll just have to depend on that starboard dorsal PDL then. Set PDL to fire only when it determines it has 90% probability of hitting or higher. Reserve power for full shields dorsal though. With that laser partially occluded by our hull like that, we'll need them. Don't hold any power back.'

'Use it or lose it, aye.'

'…I really wish you hadn't said that.'


Somewhere over northeastern Gallia

March 26, 1945

When she'd started flying this night, Flight Lieutenant Marian Carl never thought she'd end up like this. With "this" being: holding onto some bit of machinery inside the bomb bay of some kind of faux Neuroi thing with one hand, while the other was gripping the pistol grip of her M1919A6 "light" machine gun. All the while being shoved right up to the last witch she'd want to be shoved up against in the entire world.

And yet, that was exactly what she was doing right this moment.

"Hey, Princess! You mind not shoving your elbow into my arm?!" Carl growled.

"Well, maybe if you stop shoving your elbow into my face, I would!" Wittgenstein growled back.

The two witches glared at each other for a moment before carefully moving their limbs out of each other's range.

"Why the fuck do we have to both be in the same clunker?" Carl muttered.

"In case you weren't listening the first time, the other 'Cyclops' is damaged and can't open its bomb bay doors. That is why we are in this ding!" Wittgenstein shouted over the roar of said clunker's engines. "I don't like this anymore than you do, but we need to kill those Neuroi. Now are you going to shut up and work with me, or not?!"

Carl let out a disgusted growl. The Princess was still fucking annoying, but she was right. "Fine, fine! Let's get this over with!"

"This is a most atypical situation, over," the faux Neuroi she was in protested over radio.

"Well, this ain't exactly my kind of thing either, so shut it and let's do our job, over," Carl radioed back.

"Affirmative. Beginning acceleration in 3…2…1…mark."

One moment Carl was busy holding on to something that looked like a tiny elevator, and the next she was being pushed back against the rear of the bomb bay, with the tips of her strikers pressing against the aft end of the bay. Her blood wasn't quite rushing to her feet, but it felt like it.

And then an almost imperceptible shudder went through the faux Neuroi's airframe.

'That felt like the sound barrier,' Carl thought excitedly.

The second time it happened made her blood pump even more. She didn't have a speedometer–no witch did as far as she knew–but she didn't need one to know that she'd just gone past Mach 2.

'I just went faster than any witch in a jet striker,' Carl thought giddily. 'Now if only I'd done it under my own power, that would've been better.'

"Pila swarm dead ahead! Bandit count is currently 20! ETA at this speed…30 seconds! Prepare to engage!" Wittgenstein shouted.

And with that, all idle thoughts faded away as Carl's left hand briefly let go of the mini-elevator to turn on the infrared searchlight on top. She then peeked through the scope to confirm that it was working, and then banged on the side of the weapons bay. "Hey, you going to let us out or not?!" she yelled.

The door below her suddenly swung open as if in reply.

Carl grinned. "Thanks!" she yelled out before throwing herself out the open bay and gunning her engines.

Everything afterwards seemed to happen in slow motion to her.

First, the faux Neuroi above her let out a strange sound from its right side. It sounded like a giant piece of cloth being ripped apart. The sound was quickly followed by the sight of several of the red lights in front of her disappearing in showers of sparkling debris.

"Bandit count is 16!" Wittgenstein shouted, this time over radio.

Carl quickly brought up her M1919A6, and began firing short bursts at the closest Pilum. The third burst saw the rocket-like Neuroi explode into a shower of debris, and she quickly switched her fire to another one.

Meanwhile, she heard Wittgenstein's MG 151/20 begin firing, making a rapid pounding sound like a slightly faster than normal jackhammer. After a few seconds, a Pila further away suddenly erupted in a fireball and thunderclap combo, taking out several of its fellows that'd been unlucky enough to be near it.

"10 left!"

The Pilum she'd been firing at finally broke apart into sparkling debris. '9 left,' she thought before switching to a new target.

There was a sudden roaring overhead. Blue-white beams flashed, painfully bright against the night sky, and suddenly 6 of the Pila detonated in more fireballs. By now though, the swarm had split up, so the explosions didn't catch any more Pila in their fiery embrace.

'3 left,' Carl thought as she was firing bursts at a Pilum. It too shattered after a while and she quickly switched to the second-to-last one. 'Now just 2-'

Her M1919A6 clicked on empty.

"Shit!" She hurried to reload, madly opening the cover latch and practically ripping off and throwing away the metal box that'd previously held a 250-round belt of .30-06 M2 ball ammunition, with every third round a M2 Tracer for better accuracy at a night like this.

Even as she loaded a new box onto the tray, and hurried to load the new belt into the gun, she knew that she wouldn't be in time. She could already make out the dark mass of that downed…fighter that Able Unit had shot down in the distance, still spewing out smoke.

Down below, she could make out other, much smaller shapes. These must be the land witches she'd heard over the radio. However, they were much too far away to affect this battle. And by the time the range closed to where they could, they'd only have seconds to engage anyways, so they were basically no help.

In the distance however, above the downed fighter, she could see a small shape that seemed to be flying towards them.

"Casanova here! All you witches ahead of me! Shields up!"

Carl's eyes widened, and she just got her shield up ahead of her as Visconti's shape twinkled, and bullets began whizzing by around her.

'What the hell is she shooting with?' Carl thought as she watched a very tiny round smack into her shield. She saw how tiny it was before it quickly blew away with the slipstream. 'Some kind of pistol? Sure isn't that Karlsandic multi-bazooka she loves so much.'

Heedless of that incoming fire though, the 2 remaining Pila surged onwards. They were actually firing their nose-mounted death rays at Visconti's distant shape. It wasn't stopping her fire, but it seemed to be throwing off her aim, considering how none of them were really hitting-

And just as Carl thought that, a bullet smacked right into one of the Pila's tailfins and sent it careening downwards into the ground.

"Good shot, Casanova! One more to go!" Carl shouted into her transmitter.

Before Visconti could reply though, suddenly a female voice said over the airwaves: "All allied units, do not enter the vicinity of that last enemy aircraft, over."

Before Carl could ask who that was, Wittgenstein spoke up with: "Hex, what's the meaning of this, over?!"

Just as Wittgenstein had asked that though, the last Pilum suddenly exploded. Carl blinked in surprise. There was no warning. No indication of anything that'd happened. One moment, the Pilum was there. The next, it had just exploded for no reason that she could discern. Although she did note that the Pilum's nose seemed to glow brightly for a moment. Unfortunately, that was all she had to go on in regards to what might've happened with the Neuroi, and it wasn't much.

"Hex, one bandit splashed, over," Hex said rather smugly.

Carl blinked in surprise and looked more closely at the downed fighter as she continued flying towards it. If she squinted, she thought she could see some kind of dark shape on its port wing, but from this distance and in the dead of night, she couldn't tell what it was.

"Okay, Hex, I see what you meant," Wittgenstein said dryly. "Now, perhaps next time, you could warn us a bit sooner before you…wait, what is that…Pilum inbound! It's not dead! Twelve o'clock low, altitude…agh, too low!"

'What?!'

Carl hastily finished reloading her light machine gun, and began peering closely at the ground below through the sights of her weapon. Finally, after far too long, she just barely managed to spot a small, slim shape darker than its surroundings…

'Shit! That one Casanova got! It hadn't crashed!'

…just before its nose suddenly erupted in a trio of needle-thin red beams.

"No!" she yelled out, helpless to stop the beams from this high above. She'd just managed to cock her weapon, and now she started firing at the Pilum far below, even knowing that it was far too late to do anything.

Two of the beams slammed against the fallen fighter. Carl expected them to tear glowing holes in it, so she was shocked when she saw the beams hit some kind of glowing, golden bubble that'd materialized on the fighter.

'What in the world-'

The third beam however did something strange. It suddenly curved sharply downwards towards the ground. Specifically: towards a tiny shape on the ground. A shape that looked suspiciously human-shaped.

'Is that a witch-'

All thought ground to a halt as the beam bent around the shape, and suddenly flung itself at the rapidly incoming Pilum. She wasn't sure if she was more surprised or the Neuroi was, but the Neuroi at least no longer had to worry about it, since it was now a rapidly blooming fireball courtesy of its own detonating warhead.

"Yeah, take that you rust bucket!" Carl yelled out.

"Good job, whichever one of you witches down there did that!" Wittgenstein also said happily over radio.

"Tha…that would be me," said a female voice, who sounded a bit out of breath. "Thermokinesis is a pretty useful power, isn't it?"

"Are you alright, Captain Gutierrez, over?" Wittgenstein asked in a worried tone.

"I'm fine. Just had a long day today, is all. Or rather, night. Speaking of which, hey Hex, you alive over there, over?" Gutierrez asked.

Carl thought Gutierrez's reply sounded a bit too quick, but shrugged it off to focus on what's important for now.

Which was the fact that there wasn't a single response from Hex.

"Hey, Hex! You okay?! Answer me, will you, over?!" Gutierrez shouted, worry in her tone.

Carl grimaced when still no answer was forthcoming. Whatever that strange golden shield was, it looked like it wasn't completely effective against that barrage of death rays.

"Hey, you people up there in those fighters! Do we have your word that you won't start shooting at us if we go check in on Hex, over?!" Gutierrez asked.

"One moment, please, over," came a calm Britannian voice.

That "one moment" stretched out over at least a minute, by Carl's standards. Finally though, that Britannian voice came back with:

"Dandy to Captain Gutierrez. You have permission to confirm Hex's status, over."

Carl breathed out a breath that she hadn't realized she was holding. Even as she listened to Gutierrez give a stream of orders to her land witches, she wondered if there was even any point to checking on Hex's status. Judging by what she saw from people shot by Neuroi death rays, if Hex had been hit, well, her chances were pretty slim, to say the least.

'Those land witches had better have a good medical witch down there,' Carl thought.


Somewhere in northeastern Gallia

March 26, 1945

Captain Gutierrez, Lieutenant Tatsumiya, Sergeant Hendrickson, and Sergeant Morino stood right in front of the wreck of Hex's strange fighter. The other land witches were busy circling the wreck.

Up close, it seemed quite a bit bigger than it had appeared to be from afar. It also seemed to have no entrance that Gutierrez can make out. Which, considering their goal, posed a bit of a problem. Although, there was one advantage to being this close to it: they could now see why Hex wasn't responding. The hole in the fighter's top side with the glowing rim–big enough to fit her arm through–probably had something to do with that.

"Ya think she's medium or well-done in there?" Tatsumiya asked laconically.

"Only one way to find out," Gutierrez said before triggering her throat mike. "Gutierrez to you people in the sky. There's a big hole in Hex's fighter. Looks like the work of that Pilum's death ray barrage. We need to get in there to see if she's still alive. How the hell do we get in this thing, over?"

"Tremaine to Gutierrez, there should be an airlock door on the dorsal and ventral side of Hex's fighter. Just turn the handle clockwise until it stops, and then pull, over," replied a Britannian male voice.

Hendrickson scratched her head at the base of one of her massive antlers. "So that means…" she started to say.

"Top and bottom," Tatsumiya interrupted before Hendrickson could say anything. "Dorsal is top, and ventral is bottom."

Hendrickson tilted her head, all the while still staring at Hex's fighter. "But…which one is easier for us to get to?"

Tatsumiya gave her a Look. "The bottom, of course! We'd have to climb all the way to the top one."

"But…wasn't it dragging along the ground?"

"Yeah? And?"

"And scraping up a whole bunch of dirt with it like a giant dirt-scrapey thing?"

That remark made Tatsumiya stop with her mouth half-open, and then think on it for a few seconds. Her serpentine familiar tail swayed back and forth as she thought, producing a rattling sound with each shake. "That's…actually a good point," she admitted.

"Well, we won't find out just by standing here," Gutierrez said. "Hendrickson, Tatsumiya, since you two have been arguing about this so much, you two check out that bottom door. Morino, head up with me to check out that top door. The rest of you girls, establish a perimeter and tell us if any more Neuroi arrive. Copy?"

A chorus of "Yes, ma'ams" sounded over the radio, serving as a signal for everyone to get to their tasks.

Fortunately, the fighter's angle wasn't steep enough to prevent Gutierrez and Morino from clambering onto the top of it. The rubber pads on the soles of their land strikers' feet also helped there, and soon, they were more or less on "top" of the fighter. A quick scan around also revealed a round section of hull with a handle sunk into the middle. It couldn't have screamed "Door!" any louder than if it'd tried. Unfortunately, the glowing rim of the hole also intersected the rim of the door.

"Damn," Gutierrez muttered. "You think this thing will still open, Morino?"

"Only one way to find out," Morino replied before crouching down and working the handle. She did exactly as this Tremaine instructed: turn clockwise until it doesn't go any further, and then pull. Only, Morino seemed to be having trouble doing exactly.

"Here, let me help," Gutierrez said as she took hold of another part of the handle and pulled with Morino.

Finally, with a loud groan and a screech of metal, the door finally opened up. They both stared down into the opening, revealing a small tubular chamber lit by dim red lighting.

"Tatsumiya here…and Hendrickson too, over," Tatsumiya suddenly said over radio.

Gutiuerrez spent a few seconds panting before activating her throat mike and saying: "Go ahead, over."

"The whole underside of this thing is packed with dirt. I can't even see the hatch from here. Should we start digging, over?"

"No need. The door on top's open. Just get up here and help us explore this thing, over."

"Wilco, out."

Gutierrez stared once more into the strangely eerie space left by the open door. "Well, time to see what's in there-"

"Hold it, ma'am," Morino said sharply, putting an arm out to block Gutierrez's progress. "As your soldier, I cannot allow you to risk yourself like this. I will go first, and you will follow me. Or you will shoot whatever tries to kill me."

Before Gutierrez could even protest, Morino had leapt down into the chamber. Gutierrez heard an audible metallic thump as her M24 light land strikers met a presumably metal floor. Gutierrez looked down into the hold to see Morino looking around, only a couple of feet below.

"Find anything trying to kill you down there?" Gutierrez asked dryly.

"Not yet," Morino replied with all seriousness, and with complete immunity to sarcasm. "I see a small cabinet set into the wall, with a helmet and a folded set of garments under it. That's it for the walls, but the floor though…" Morino crouched down. "There appears to be a rectangular door set into the floor. There are rectangular metal hoops running down the middle of the door, which look suspiciously like ladder rungs. There's no handle on the door itself, but there is one next to it though. I suspect that if I operate it, it should open."

"Indeed. Well, give it a try then."

"Yes, ma'am," Morino said before standing to one side, reached over to the handle, and after fiddling around it with it for a minute, twisted it and pulled.

The door beneath her suddenly made a hissing sound before it swung downwards. When the door stopped moving, Morino took the opportunity to jump down into the area beneath, forgoing the ladder entirely. After a minute, Morino shouted:

"It's clear, ma'am! You may proceed!"

"Yes, mom," Gutierrez muttered before climbing down the ladder rungs.

Reaching the bottom of the ladder, Gutierrez found herself in some kind of small room. With an emphasis on small. The room had just a bit more space than the passenger compartment of her squad's M3 half-tracks, but only just. There seemed to be something that looked suspiciously like a toilet in one corner, and next to that was something that could only be described as a sink with a bubble covering it. The rest of the room seemed to be made up of doors, drawers of varying sizes embedded into the walls, and odd knick-knacks and doohickeys she couldn't possibly explain if her life depended on it.

"No sign of Hex though," Gutierrez muttered. "Now where could she be?"

"Ma'am? Do you hear that?" Morino asked.

Gutierrez started to open her mouth to ask, but instead, closed it back up and listened to her surroundings more carefully. In the silence, she finally noticed a sound coming from a door on the far side of the room. It was the sound of someone hitting metal, over and over again. It sounded random at first, but after a few while though, she realized that it was in a pattern: three quick hits, then three hits spaced apart, and then three quick hits again.

"SOS!" Gutierrez said in understanding. "Morino."

Morino nodded, and together, they both rushed to the door.

The door was metal, rectangular, and solid-looking. Very solid-looking. However, it clearly wasn't solid enough to withstand a Neuroi beam, as evidenced by the half-molten state of what used to be the door handle.

"Well, now we know that Hex is probably stuck in there, and why," Gutierrez dryly commented, looking from the remains of the door handle to the two holes in the walls that neatly line up with the handle. She then took the buttstock of her magic combat gun and rapped it on the door. "Hey! You're okay in there?!" she yelled.

"If you mean aside from being trapped in here?" a female voice on the other side, presumably Hex, asked just as dryly, muffled by the door. "More or less. The door is stuck closed, and I can't tell why from here."

"Ah. That would be because you don't really have a door handle anymore."

"…Shit."

Gutierrez could only nod in agreement. "You need some help getting out of there?"

"I appreciate the thought, but I doubt you'll be able to do anything on your end. Not unless you have a plasma torch on you right now."

Morino stared at the door, cocking her head to the side, before asking in a disbelieving tone: "Why on Earth would anyone make a blood-powered torch?"

"…What?" Hex asked just as disbelievingly.

Gutierrez, meanwhile, merely scratched her head thoughtfully. "We don't have anything like that, but I think we do have a way to deal with this. Now if only-"

"Hey! You two down there?!" Tatsumiya yelled from above.

"Speak of the devil," Gutierrez said before walking over to the area beneath the lowered hatch and yelling up: "Yeah! We are!"

"Nice! You mind if we come down there?!" Tatsumiya asked.

Gutierrez looked around at the cramped surroundings. "No room for both of you! Although, we could sure use Hendrickson if you're up there!"

"Oh, really?!" she heard Hendrickson squeal. "Hey, do you mind holding this for a moment?"

"Hold-oh, what the…seriously?!"

Gutierrez heard a loud clang after that, and raised an eyebrow imagining the cause.

"Just keep it from falling. Be back in a jiffy!" Hendrickson said cheerfully before yelling. "Look out below!"

Gutierrez quickly stood aside just as the 6' 4" and nearly 200 lb witch (minus her M4A3E2 strikers) landed on the metal floor with a loud CLANG in the infantry equivalent of a 2-point landing. Minus her M1W pack howitzer, she noted.

"You do know that there's a ladder here, right?" Gutierrez said dryly.

"I just figured that this was faster, is all," Hendrickson replied cheerfully before standing up. "So what's the situation?"

Gutierrez motioned for Hendrickson to follow her, and led her to the broken door Hex was behind. With only a minimum of antler-clanging on the surroundings.

Gutierrez jerked a thumb at the door. "See this? Door's busted, and Hex is stuck behind it. Think you can get it open?"

Gutierrez stood aside as Hendrickson closely examined the door. She then nodded to herself before cracking her knuckles. "Hex, dear? Are you still behind there?" she asked.

"Yeeees," Hex replied, sounding very unsure. "I fail to see how you could-"

"Do you know which way the door is supposed to open? Do I push or pull?"

"From your side? You push. But-"

"Alrighty! Now, could you be a dear and step away from the door? And tell me when you're far enough away? I don't want to accidentally push the door into you if I push too hard."

"Uh…there's not enough room for me to step away here. I'll just clang when I'm on the opposite side."

"Roger that!"

It took a few moments, but eventually, they heard a muffled clang from the door, like it was coming from a long way away.

Hendrickson took that as her moment to shine. Literally. She glowed with a blue light as she drove her Superhuman Strength ability to its limits. She then stepped back a few steps, and then charged into the door, shoulder-first. There was an impressive CLUNG as the door visibly buckled, but didn't quite give way. Hendrickson pouted for a moment, before shoulder-bashing the door again. It took one more shoulder bash before the door finally swung open with a tortured sound of squealing metal, revealing a very small room…and another metal door, identical to the first.

"Hex? Are you behind this door?" Hendrickson asked in a puzzled tone.

"…Yes," came Hex's reply. Gutierrez thought her voice sounded a bit shaky.

"Are you stuck behind it too? Do you need me to-"

"NO! I mean, this door works. I just…how did you…I'm just going to come out now."

"Alrighty!" Hendrickson replied cheerfully.

"Bear in mind that I'm armed, but I'm not going to shoot. I will keep the muzzle pointed down at the floor. Do you understand?"

"Roger that!"

"Very well then." The door made a metallic thunk, and it finally opened up.

Gutierrez had been ready for anything, but the sight of a humanoid figure holding some kind of a strange gun in her right hand, pointing towards the floor like she said, threw her off for a moment. She looked like a person in a strange military-looking suit, with a helmet whose front looked like one big, curved plate of reflective glass, hiding the face underneath. There was a metal plate covering her chest, but there was a certain bulginess to it that suggested that this was a woman, even leaving aside her feminine voice.

Witches and…whatever Hex was stared at each other for what seemed like forever, before Hendrickson extended her hand towards Hex. "My name's Sharon Hendrickson. What's yours?" she asked cheerfully.

Hex stared at the offered hand for a moment before gingerly shaking it with her free left hand. "It's still Hex," she replied.

Hendrickson pouted. "Aww, that can't be your real name, can it?"

"It's not," was Hex's only reply.

"Come on! I told you mine. Can't you tell me yours?" Hendrickson pressed.

"…Iosava. Yelena Iosava."

Gutierrez scratched her head at the name. It sounded vaguely Orussian to her. Were the Russkies responsible for this? She shook her head in disbelief. The Orussians were known for many things, but hyper-advanced planes weren't one of them. She stepped forward and offered her own hand to Iosava.

"My name's Xochitl Gutierrez. That one back there who can't fit in here is Elaine Morino. There's one, no two, more up on top who really can't fit in here with all of us. They're Samantha Tatsumiya and, I think, Aisling O'Connell."

Iosava took Gutierrez's offered hand. "Roger."

When Iosava had let go of her hand, Gutierrez said: "Now, there's a lot of questions I want to ask, and there doesn't seem to be any place to sit. So…"

Iosava sighed. "Very well then, if we must. If you can just step aside for a moment, I can prepare some seats. Of sorts."

Gutierrez nodded and stepped back to allow Iosava to squeeze through, keeping a careful eye on the gun Iosava was carrying. Fortunately, Iosava didn't try anything. She only stepped over to what seemed like a bare wall before, with a groan, she pulled down…a bed? She went over to the opposite wall and pulled down a series of metal panels that folded out into a table with a chair attached. She then went back to the bed and sat down heavily on it.

"One of you will have to sit on the table. Or stand. I don't care. Just let me rest for a moment while you ask your questions," Iosava said with a huff.

"Are you okay? That doesn't look like it should've tired you out that much," Morino said.

"Normally, it wouldn't. But it's a bit difficult to perform physical labor with fractured ribs."

Instantly, Morino was crouched next to her. "Fractured ribs?! Why didn't you say something?! Here, hold still while I take a look at it."

"I don't-" Iosava's words ground to a halt as Morino put down her magic combat gun and placed both her hands above Iosava's chest. A soft blue light began emanating from said hands, only to suddenly die as Iosava just as suddenly pointed her gun at Morino. "What was that?"

The atmosphere suddenly became very tense as both Gutierrez and Hendrickson found themselves pointing their weapons at Iosava, while Iosava kept her gun pointed at Morino.

"I was just attempting to examine your ribs. I was not attempting to harm you in any way," Morino said calmly, both hands raised.

"Examine? With what? You're not holding anything, and furthermore, what was that light?" Iosava asked further.

"The light? Do you mean the etherlight from my magic?" Morino asked, more curious now.

"The…what? Did you say magic? And did you say 'eether-light'? What is that?"

All the witches present looked at Iosava in confusion.

"Do…you not know what etherlight is?" Morino asked, now in disbelief.

"Assume that I do not. What is this 'eether-light'?"

Morino thought for a moment before answering: "Etherlight: noun: the azure light produced by activated ether in response to magic. Taken straight from Webster's Second dictionary, printed 1934."

"Magic?"

Morino raised an eyebrow. "Yes, that's what I said."

"Magic…do you honestly expect me to believe that?"

Morino could only stare at Iosava in response, as did the other witches.

"Yes," was Morino's only answer to Iosava's patently absurd question.

Iosava didn't say anything for a few moments. Finally, she asked: "This…magic. What exactly were you trying to do again?"

Morino sighed. "Again, I was attempting to use my magic ability to examine your injuries, and then hopefully heal you."

"And…you are able to do this…without needing to remove my clothes?"

"No, and I have no interest in finding out what you look like under there."

There was silence for a few moments before it was broken. But not by Iosava.

"But, don't you like girls?" Hendrickson asked.

Morino turned to glare at Hendrickson. "Just because I like girls doesn't mean I want to strip every girl I meet at every opportunity!"

"Sorry, sorry!" Hendrickson said sheepishly, but still keeping her weapon's muzzle pointed firmly at Iosava.

Finally, Iosava sighed and lowered her gun. "Fine. Just examine my injuries. No more."

Morino nodded, and then once more raised both her hands to Iosava's chest. Once more, etherlight began emanating from her hands as she used her Healing ability to examine Iosava's injuries.

"Hmm, I see transverse fractures on your ribs two through six. It almost looks like a bull ran into your chest."

"That would be my crash harness' fault. My landing wasn't exactly gentle," Iosava said in a deadpan tone.

'We noticed,' Gutierrez thought, not wishing to speak it aloud and aggravate Iosava, given how disturbed she seemed to be right now.

"Okay, I can heal these injuries if you would allow me…to…what in the world?"

"Something wrong?" Gutierrez asked, noticing how Morino was the one who sounded shaken. And Morino never sounded shaken.

"What…what are these things?"

"What 'things' are you talking about?" Iosava asked warily.

"Where do I even begin? That the back of your neck is just one big machine connected to your brain? All the tiny swimming machines in your blood? That machine wrapped around your heart? What are those things?!"

Silence reigned for another couple moments more.

"How do you even know that?" Iosava asked, somehow sounding even more freaked out than she already was before.

"I just told you! Magic!"

"That explains nothing!"

"It explains everything!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy now, dear," Hendrickson said suddenly, gently patting Morino's helmet at the same time. "No need to get into a shouting match now. We're trying to heal her now, not deafen her."

Morino stopped and took deep breaths. Many deep breaths. It was only after a dozen such breaths that she finally said: "Iosava, if you want me to heal you, I need you to tell me what these machines are and if they're harming you. If I don't know what they are, it could result in some strange things happening with the healing process."

"I told you: you are to only examine my injuries with your…magic. I have no desire for you to attempt to 'heal' me," Iosava replied, still sounding shaken, but less so than before.

"You would rather walk around with fractured ribs than let me heal you?" Morino asked, now sounding bemused.

"Given what you said about things possibly going wrong with your 'magic healing' in regards with my implants, the fact that I'm not in immediate danger of dying, and the fact that I have rescue inbound in…about an hour, there is no need for you attempt anything so potentially dangerous."

Morino chewed her lip for a moment before finally nodding. "Fine, you have a point, even if it goes against all my training to leave an injured patient be. We'll wait for your friends then. Although, implants?"

Iosava sighed, and thus spent some time explaining what an implant was, and then what those specific implants in her body apparently did. The more Iosava explained, the higher Gutierrez's eyebrow tried to rise into her hair. Some of…no, a lot of what Iosava was saying sounded completely insane. Like out of a pulp science fiction novel. A machine that automatically restarted her heart if it stopped beating? Tiny machines in her blood that hunted down germs? A machine that allowed Iosava to plug wires into herself, and remember things for her? It just sounded like so much fantasy to her.

Still, Iosava's tale was absorbing. It wasn't absorbing enough though, for her to not notice the several loud thumps that suddenly resounded from above them.

"What was-"

"Where is she?!" shouted a very angry and female voice from through the hatch.

All the witches present looked at the "she" in question, whose only reply after a moment was:

"Shit."


Sometime before

Somewhere above France

T+15 Earth Days

"You still haven't been able to raise Hex?" now-Captain Artemis Kosotis murmured over the roar of the Pelican's fusion thrusters. Even at this low setting for atmospheric flight, the noise they put out was still amazing. Thankfully, the microphones and speakers in her ODST armor's helmet was able to filter out even this level of background noise.

"No, Captain Kosotis. All our hails are being met with silence," the pilot, a Lieutenant (JG) Koskinen, reported.

Kosotis gritted her teeth. The last thing she'd heard was that local military forces were approaching "Hex" Iosava's position. Given how long it took to reach her, odds are, she was either captured or…well, dead.

Well, only one way to make sure. If Iosava was dead, Heaven help the locals. Because the Helljumpers certainly weren't.

"Captain Koskinen here, ETA to target location is now 1 minute," the pilot reported, this time over the dropship's intercom.

Kosotis activated a 1 minute countdown in her HUD, and then turned to the loadmaster. "O'Hanrahan, open the rear door!" Next, she turned to the Mgalekgolo leader of the heavy infantry. "Zurru, get you and your mechs ready for drop!"

The loadmaster quickly walked over to the release lever with the oddly stately gait of someone wearing magnetic-soled boots, and pulled. The rear door clunked, and then lowered into a ramp that currently exited into howling winds and night sky.

At the same time, Zurru and their Jotun mechs reached up and released the clamps holding them onto the sides of the Pelican. They then walked with heavy steps up to the open rear door, using the magnetic pads of their feet to stay grounded.

Kosotis turned around and used her VISR to identify the next-highest ranking Marine among the ones currently sitting in the dropship, who turned out to be a Lance Corporal J. Branley.

"Lance Corporal Branley, you're in charge now! Don't disappoint me!"

"I-wait, what?" Branley asked, carefully looking around and likely scanning his comrades with his own HUD before turning back to her and snapping off a salute that bounced off his helmet. "I mean, yes, ma'am! I won't let you down!"

"Good!" Kosotis replied, and then watched the countdown drop to 5…4…3…2…1…and finally 0.

"Heavy infantry! Go, go, go!" Kosotis shouted.

With that signal given, Zurru and the mechs dashed off the ramp and leapt off, with Zurru themself letting out a roar in the process.

"Now Helljumpers! Go, go, go!"

And with that, Kosotis and her ODSTs also dashed out the back of the Pelican, launching themselves into the night air as though they were skydivers. As Kosotis fell spread-eagled, her VISR highlighted the wreck of the Stiletto in a green outline to indicate a friendly. The falling Mgalekgolo and Jotun mechs also received similarly green outlines for the same reason.

Her VISR also highlighted 5 people around the wreck, with 2 of them actually standing on top of it near the dorsal airlock hatch. Currently, her VISR chose to outline them in yellow as unknown contacts. Those outlines would shortly be red soon enough, if these locals decide to pick a fight with them…or if they did anything to Hex. Which seemed far too likely considering that the Stiletto's dorsal airlock hatch was clearly open for all to see.

Below, she could see the Zurru and the mechs' jump jets flare to slow their fall at the end. They landed in a circle around the Stiletto wreck, weapons pointing outward, before popping smoke from their shoulder-mounted dischargers. The thick clouds of white smoke were making the yellow contacts back off. She noted that they weren't retreating though; they still had their weapons pointed at the Mgalekgolo and the mechs.

"Looks like we've got veterans there," Kosotis remarked to her fireteam over maser. No need to give any information to a potential hostile.

"Ooh, nice! That means they'll give us a good fight!" replied Staff Sergeant Niki Lykaios merrily.

"Niki," a deep feminine voice said in a scolding tone.

"Yeah, yeah, Eylaki. I'll behave," Lykaios said in a bashful tone.

Staff Sergeant Eylul Kalieva only nodded in reply, causing Lykaios to laugh in turn.

"Seriously, you two can flirt later," Kosotis said dryly."Right now, we have a job to do. Thalassopoulos?"

"Yeah."

Kosotis raised an eyebrow at Thalassopoulos's curt reply, but said nothing. The possibility that Iosava was injured, or worse, must be eating her up inside. She knew that Thalassopoulos needed all the concentration in the world right now, so she left her to it.

In any case, they were now in the terminal phase of their descent. "Pop jets…now!" Kosotis shouted.

All at once, the 4 ODSTs flared their Series 12 Single Operator Lift Apparatus jetpacks. The trio of jet flares from each jetpack drastically slowed their descent, turning what would've been a leg-cracking landing into a merely leg-creaking one, while also allowing the ODSTs to keep their weapons trained on the two figures in front of them all the while.

Kosotis, in particular, kept her MA5K trained on the woman in front of her as she examined her. And indeed, she was a woman, judging by the feminine undergarments, aka: panties, she had on. She also appeared to be a veteran, judging by the speed at which she dropped the massive object she'd been holding, and drew some kind of large sniper rifle/anti-material rifle and a submachine gun, aiming them at herself and Lykaios respectively.

Said woman also had two things Kosotis knew a human woman should not have in this day and age: eyes with vertically slit pupils, and a long scaly tail emerging from her lower back that ended in a long, segmented rattle. At this moment, said rattle was rattling as furiously as a maraca player with a seizure. While she had nothing against heavily gene-modded humans like Thalassopoulos, she was fairly certain that WWII-era nations should not have the gene-mod tech to make anything like the woman before her.

So this…this disturbed her far more than she'd care to admit. And that wasn't even taking into account the fact that A) the woman had some kind of strange machine mounted on her legs, and B) she was wearing only panties to cover her lower bits.

"Well, well, well. Who invited you guys to this party?" the woman asked in a joking tone while maintaining her gaze on Kosotis, although her body language said it was anything but.

"We invited ourselves," Kosotis replied curtly. "And we're here to get a very specific guest away from this party."

"She means the pilot of this thing, bitch," Thalassopoulos cut in angrily. "Where is she?! If you've harmed a hair on you, I'll-"

"Hold fire! I repeat, hold fire!" shouted a female voice from the open hatch of the Stiletto.

"Yelena!?" Thalassopoulos shouted, her tone a mixture of surprise and joy.

"I'm alive and unharmed! Hold fire!" Iosava's voice continued from the hatch.

"Yelena, hold on! I'm coming!" Thalassopoulos shouted back.

Before Kosotis could say anything, Thalassopoulos was already running to the open hatch, and clambered down the ladder rungs like a sea monkey, leaving some very confused ODSTs and natives behind her.

"Captain Kosotis, hold fire!" the voice of Tremaine rang in her helmet's comms. "I repeat-"

"Hold fire, yes, I got that. Now do you mind explaining what the fuck is going on, over?" Kosotis replied in a tone implying that she was busy repressing an urge to shout it out.

Tremaine went on to explain exactly what the fuck was going on: which consisted of a long story of beam-firing aliens, WWII-era soldiers, and female soldiers in leg-mounted personal aircraft apparently called "witches". And most importantly, the deal Iosava worked out with said WWII soldiers and "witches" that he completely neglected to inform her and everyone else on the Pelican until now. Tremaine ended that long overdue explanation it with: "My apologies for not informing you of this sooner, Captain Kosotis, over."

Kosotis fought an urge to shout at Tremaine, and instead merely growled: "Why did you not see fit to inform me of this until now, over?"

"That, unfortunately, is my fault. I spoke with Fearless about our deal. I had assumed that Fearless would inform you of the details once I had finished. I was wrong. Terribly so. I'm afraid I must beg your forgiveness for this, over."

Kosotis' growl ended up turning into a groan. British English sometimes sounded weird to her, and she was sure she wasn't alone in this. "It's okay. Clusterfucks happen. Just don't do this again, and don't actually beg. I mean it, out."

"S-so…does this mean that we're not going to, you know, shoot?" replied the other "witch" woman shakily, although Kosotis realized with a start that this "woman" actually appeared to be a young girl.

"Seems like it. Hopefully," replied the rattlesnake "witch".

Several moments of silence passed by as the standoff between her ODSTs and the two "witches" slowly petered away as both sides slowly lowered their weapons. Likewise, Zurru and his mech unit lowered their weapons, keeping the muzzles of their massive 30mm Gauss rifles pointing at nothing but dirt as their smoke began dissipating, revealing that the "witches" surrounding them were also doing the same.

"Well, looks like we've got a dropship to call over, if you don't mind," Kosotis asked the rattlesnake "witch".

Said rattlesnake "witch" shrugged. "Not up to me. That's a call for my CO."

"Which would be me," said another woman who climbed out from the open dorsal airlock hatch. Kosotis noted that this woman was yet another of these "witches", if the green and black- feathered ears and green, black, and white-feathered tail was any indication. "And that would depend on what a dropship is, and what it's going to do when it gets here."

Kosotis sighed, more in relief than exasperation. "Well, we've got plenty of time since we're not shooting at each other. Might as well get started with the explanations."

"So does this mean that we won't get to have an epic fight with these guys after all?" Lykaios piped up.

Kalieva's response was to reach over and bop Lykaios on her head, producing a metallic Ding as armored gauntlet met helmet. "Down girl," Kalieva simply said.

"Yes, Eylaki."


A short time later

50 meters from the Stiletto crash zone

T+15 Earth Days

Lance Corporal Jakob Branley hadn't been a soldier for very long, so he was still expecting to see some new and strange things during his tour of duty. However, he thought few sights could be stranger than the one that greeted him, his fireteam, and everyone else still onboard the Pelican when the rear ramp door lowered and revealed 2 groups of girls and young women, each of them standing just at an angle on both sides of the door, wielding odd-looking and bulky guns that were currently aimed at the ground, and equipped with a decidedly odd combination of leg-mounted war machines and panties.

Yes, panties. Branley had to blink several times before he confirmed that the girls and women were indeed wearing nothing but panties on their lower halves. If it weren't for the situation, Branley would be saying "Excuse me" and trying to look anywhere but at the panties. As it was, he was more focused on the girls' and women's guns than anything else. Which included their whispers and mutters. Guess they'd never seen UNSC Marines in battle armor before.

Fortunately, the ODSTs were walking in between the panties girls into the Pelican, with 1 ODST supporting someone in UNSCN pilot's suit. Presumably, this was the downed pilot they'd come to rescue, which was definitely a relief for Branley. Although he did wonder a bit about why the pilot had what looked like a pointy witch's hat on her helmet, he decided that it wasn't important enough to bring up. Behind them, a Mgalekgolo and 3 combat mechs marched into the Pelican with them, taking up the rear position as the ramp door raised back up, this time without any problems.

"Mission accomplished, ladies and gentlemen," Kosotis said, sounding just a bit weary. "Now let's head home."

Moments passed as they strapped themselves into the seats (and clamps for Zurru and his mechs), and they all felt the nearly imperceptible movements of the Pelican taking off.

"So, what was with the cute girls in the panties?" Daidouji asked.

Even as Branley gave his teammate an odd look, Kosotis sighed. "It's a long story, and I'm done with story time for tonight. Just wait for the after action report, and then you can read all about it then," she said with a note of finality.

And that was that for the rest of the voyage back to Fearless.


506th "Noble Witches" Joint Fighter Wing A-Unit Base, Sedan, Gallia, Earth

March 26, 1945

Squadron Leader Rosalie de Hemricourt de Grunne sat down heavily in a chair in the base's operations center as the news rolled in. The situation between them and these strange people had defused with no hostilities, the Neuroi attempting to breach the front lines had all been intercepted and shot down (thanks in no small part to Squadron Leader Heidemarie Schnaufer, who'd shot down the Falcos to prevent them from firing off any more missiles), there wasn't a single casualty among the Allied forces, and preparations were being made to move that strange aircraft to a more secure site for examination. Apparently, said preparations involved several witches with the Superhuman Strength ability and a pair of Liberian M25 tank transporters being driven in tandem, but the how was irrelevant. All that matters is that they're now finally going to get to look at this thing (in addition to whatever it was that invaded the Gallia Hive Crash Site's airspace) in a secure site.

Even if said "secure site" turned out to be Château de Sedan itself, which given their proximity to the crash site, seemed to be looking more and more likely.

"So, is it over now?" the voice of Wing Commander Geena Preddy came from the radio de Grunne had been using to communicate with Dijon base.

Smiling wearily, de Grunne pressed the transmit button to reply: "My dear, I'm afraid that this might be only the beginning of whatever we've found ourselves in. For better or worse."

In her mind's eye, de Grunne could see Preddy shrug in response. "Fair enough. At least this will be…interesting."