Wulfenbach: The Gate Unlatched

hi, readers! A bit of an odd one–this short story follows on from another, Wulfenbach: Omens, that I never shared on this blog because, well… I wanted to experiment with Google .docs, mostly. I have done so, and found I am indifferent to them. Meanwhile, when it comes to rereading my own work, I’ve found the cool blues here are WAY easier on the eyes than the standard white-text word processor.

Anyway, you can find Wulfenbach: Omens Here. It’s another story in @SixArmedSweater’s Morphic Korps setting. The Prime setting, also referenced here, is the brainchild of @KorpsPropaganda. That said, you should be able to pick up everything you need about the dysfunctional found family of Wulfenbach Outpost from The Gate Unlatched–it’s early days for these seekers in the dark. You’ve not missed too much yet!

Content Warnings: breakdown of reality/possible psychosis; Cobalt Immortals (just the one)

***

A week after our return, lights shift from orange to green in our quarters. The four members of Block A shrug into jumpsuits–or in Elfried’s case, his best black-and-pink doublet and a ridiculous ruffled undershirt–and we’re shuffling along to the central office. It used to be the sanctuary of a family crypt. Basalt statues of angels and Death and the Virgin Mary, coffin-lid reliefs of ancient warriors and wives.

Now, as the nearest point to all the other nooks and crannies we’ve hooked our–ha–korpus into, it’s the site director’s office. Our friendly neighborhood drones have long since solved the overwhelming religio-straightness of the sanctuary by painting a psychedelic kaleidoscope of pride flags on everything and draping black shrouds–plus pink sunglasses, of course!–on the tombs.

Oh, and the lava-lamps, also pink. They really tie the space together! And they make Elfried frown and get huffy, which is always funny.

“A rubber titty? On my Christian statue’s palm?” I ask. Nobody else laughs. They never laugh at my jokes! Well, I mean, Sess would laugh if I started talking in a low tone and gave myself a witch-whip and ordered him to laugh, but that’s because he’s a fallen angel and therefore the hugest sub. Little subby-wubby bottom boi.

I bet the girls in Block B would appreciate my humor.

Anyway, yes, sanctuary! Once creepy, now creepy and also horny! In short, Korpsny! It’s there, at a desk heaped with gadgets, plates, books, and magazines, that Götz Feldklärer waves his antenna. Juggles the recovered objects on some of his many legs. The faceplate strikes sparks from the corners of the Knight’s Cross, which I am still going to hex straight into hell later. Black plates, pink stripes, big shiny eyes: this is the man who keeps Wulfenbach Outpost running to the grand plan of our leader back in the core of the Korps.

Götz is our captain to that storied general. Our voice of reason. The stoic centipede who anchors us in all our darkest hours.

I have no idea why he’s so tired all the time! It’s so weird!

“So,” he says, “another otherworldly spirit who is willing to work with us on a limited basis, and may turn against us the split second she believes she has a better option than us, that we might turn on her, or with no warning at all out of pure, sullen spite. Zum Holle! At least Tannenmarsch gives blowjobs sometimes.”

“Since when?” Elfried demands, before clearing his throat politely. He’s his big, red-furred bear-self today. We have something of an ongoing debate here at Wulfenbach as to which form is the ‘real’ Elfried. I myself am the head of the brave, controversial and therefore incredibly sexy “All Elfrieds are the true Elfried and the insistence on defining a single ‘truest’ is merely a reflexive perpetuation of dualistic Christian thought” camp. Susanna–our quartermaster–says I’m just an indecisive ninny, which is probably fair.

Not that she’ll be able to tell me that the next time I have her tied up and gagged, my cute little fuck-ferret all wriggly and pining-eyed… oh! Right! Mission!

“I truly don’t think the Lady Behind the Lichens is a threat, Götz,” I say. “She has lived here since long before the Korps came to this Earth, since… well, I truly don’t know. Maybe since before Arminius slaughtered Varus and his three legions under the trees of Teutoburg.”

“Since human Arminius slaughtered human Varus and his three human legions under the trees of human-Earth Teutoburg,” Hannes says dryly.

“Poor Arminius,” Sess says, coils pulsing red fire and eclipse-coronas in time to his words. “His arms must’ve been so sore after killing fifteen thousand Romans by himself.”

“Do you suppose both versions of the battle happened at exactly the same time, or was there, like, a delay?” I ask. “Buffering the raid instance for different timelines, if you will?”

“Katrina, can we please not get into that minefield right now?” Hannes says. “I’m planning some very interesting protein-chain experiments for later today and thinking about them has me in a good mood. I don’t want to spoil it with the horrors of,” he shudders, hunching into his wings, “multiversal timelines. Ugh. Especially not travel and paradoxes thereof.”

“Liebe Kinder, können wir vielleicht die Auftragsbefunden diskutieren?” Götz interjects, tapping his legs in waves running over the old stonework up his desk. “Danke.”

Have you ever had one of those moments where you become aware that your own language would sound weird and foreign to someone who doesn’t speak it? Everyone at Wulfenbach gets those a lot and none of us are sure why.

“The mission was a success,” Elfried says, folding his big bear arms the way he always does when he wants to hide his anxiety. “Notwithstanding the scare of the Lady’s greeting, the site was neutralized with no casualties, and we even gleaned some information about the history of the Black Forest. All in all, I believe it was a fine night for KDARC.”

“Oh, you should’ve heard ‘fried,” I say, putting my paws on my sweet, sexy hips. “‘We’re KDARC. The uncommon is our…'” I trail off as Elfried, Götz and Hannes catch me in a three-way crossfire of witheringly deadpan stares. “Well, it was funny,” I insist. Because I’m right, and I should say it. It’s not my fault the men of Wulfenbach can’t appreciate perfection!

Götz stares at me for a few seconds, then sighs. “Alright, new proposal. I will discuss the mission results with Rose and any of the other site directors who want to chime in long distance. You just go off-duty and do whatever you want.”

“What about the Rot site the Lady appraised us of?” Hannes asks. “Our next priority should be rapid neutralization. It has already had a full week to grow–“

“Er… about that,” Götz says. “I had intended to mobilize Block B–“

“But 25% of Block B is Tannenmarsch! Tannenmarsch doesn’t do things–” I say, but Götz talks right over me like… like some sort of… big, boring jerk. Who talks over cute girls.

“–to act on Recon’s evaluation of the site, but when Recon got there, they found that someone else had got there first,” Götz finishes.

“You see?” I say. “Sometimes things just work out on their own!” A beat. “I’m sorry, Herr Standortsdirektor, could you repeat that?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t misspeak,” Götz says. “There were a large number of partially or completely dead and hollowed trees in the grove, consistent with what would be left behind if something had suddenly, perfectly erased this self-propagating sawdust you and the Lady describe, as well as numerous tunnels which indicate it was slowly spreading through the area. The Rot itself, however, was utterly vanished.” He pauses.

“For some reason I want to say expurgated–but enough. We also found partial non-uplifted animal carcasses–and the remains of one human and one eagle morph, who we’re working to identify–in states of suspended decay. Hannes, I want you to take a look at those when you’re done with your protein experiments. They’re over in Deep Containment. Handelsman is there now layering wards on WB-66, so they can be your hands and senses in a remote examination. Containment found no evidence of continued Rot activity at the site, but I’m not going to lose the whole of Wulfenbach to a stray molecule.”

“Jawohl, mein Herr,” Hannes says, saluting. He keeps saying he doesn’t think of himself as Prussian, but serious Hannes is a flipped switch who has a weird way of being taller than he is. And he sure loves to salute, and say ‘Jawohl.’ Not in a bad weird way, just weird weird. I mean, what’s the cross-section of people who would like the Korps and military protocol?

… actually, that’s probably bigger than I would think. I am a sexy woman, not a smart one!~

“Would you like me to canvas the auras of the site?” Sess asks, poking one of his serpent heads out of the impossible space where he keeps them behind his three broken wheels.

“No need,” Götz says. “Gustl has already done so.” He clears his throat. “In her words, ‘it feels full of self-rebirthing empty. It is ozone and razors of copper.'”

Block A exchanges a collective glance. “Uh…” I say, in my most cautious tone. “So, that sounds as bad as or worse than the Rot.”

“Yes,” Götz says, antennae flicking. “It does.” Uncomfortable silence. “As I said, all of you are free of further duties for the moment. I will update you when we’ve evaluated all the…” he sighs heavily, “new variables in play. In the meantime, please try not to give me any surprises worse than Korps average. You know. Subverting supers, crashing parties in Freiburg, giving in to breeding fetishes,” he pauses to give me a meaningful stare.

“Alright, that was one time,” I say.

“One time which forced me to emergency requisition enough drones to staff a temporary nursery,” Götz answers.

“So I’m going to go on vacation to Lust and not conceive a full litter of demon-babies with the cute owl-demon?” I demand. “I didn’t have EE upgrade my womb just to–“

“Free of further duties,” Götz repeats, in his firmest tone of voice. It’s like a weighted blanket of words. “Please leave.”

I wonder how Tiloova is doing, anyway. She wasn’t ready to be a mother and, to be fair, child-rearing in the Korps is as communal as anything else, so it’s not like my little ones lack for people to look after them, but… it’s hard not to feel connected.

Also, the stimulation from those lines of feathers on the top and bottom of her dick… oh, that was something else!

“Lunch, walk around for a while, meet in the lounge to do fuck-all?” Hannes suggests.

“A delightful plan,” Sess says.

“I suppose I could be persuaded to attend,” Elfried says.

“Ja, ja, see you there, grumpy,” I finish. First, priorities! Nursery! It was once a vault, with heavyset walls and three big, long-emptied chests in the far corner. Götz may complain, but he was outrageously pleased of himself for guessing there must be one down here, then locating the false floor so we could open the hidden stairway and get inside.

It must’ve been the furthest room back even before several of the other sections collapsed–we don’t know if we want to risk unearthing whatever might be buried in there–and so sturdy it’d probably still be here even if the castle and the undercroft were bombed to bits. There are racks for long-gone weapons, stands for long-gone armor, alcoves for long-gone mysteries. I can’t help but get a little sad at the chalk murals on the walls.

I drew these, here, for my little ones. Then a week later it was time to move them somewhere else. “Welcome to the world, liebchen. You can call this home, but don’t get too attached.” I get sappy and sad, running my paw-pads over the art in the dim light.

Well, that’s just one more reason the Korps has to flourish. So our children don’t grow up in a world where the first thing they learn is how to leave what we love behind.

Eh. That’s just Mommy Katrina projecting a lot, though, isn’t it? They were a week old. I doubt they’ll remember this place. They won’t take it personally.

And of course, the actual nursery isn’t at Wulfenbach anymore. That was a stopgap due to a collision of other things–a GSG-9 sting op that came too close for comfort, tussles with a ragtag yet surprisingly potent team of supers, which is how Gustl came to us, and a shift of more resources back to the American bases as the situation there gets more and more tense. KDARC is still KDARC, and when we’re the frontline against the Rot, I don’t want my babies anywhere near my job.

So, instead, there’s a portal circle with a layer of wards from every magic-user we’ve got, hard-laid into permanent runes and inscriptions, and resonating a signal through a crystal array to part of Gustl’s mental backspace. Even if some invisible threat snuck past all of us, there’s no way it could breach the wards and activate the portal before we caught up.

This thing’s not just for my benefit. If Wulfenbach was ever compromised or, fates forfend, overrun, this would be our escape route. Meanwhile, considering what’s on the other end, it makes me want to fight a thousand times harder.

The Berlin underworld isn’t one of the main bases either–too expected, too many tourists–but the abandoned factory underneath our front business makes a great place for rest, rehabilitation, and support services for outposts like ours.

“Good day, Agent Abendroth,” BU-13 greets me. That’s “Berliner Unterwelt 13”–we here in the Korp’s German branch are nothing if not direct in our drone designations. BU-13 looks  as sleek, sounds as crisp, and sports as tasty a muscle-and-belly model as ever. The side-facets of their faceplate are sloped and set at off-angles to each other, creating a funhouse mirror effect I’m always fond of.

It gives me more angles to see how pretty I am! Heh. I joke, but actually not.

Anyway, they’re built like a bouncer and that’s pretty much the role the play–only, sometimes the rowdy guests who need to be put in their places are of the cape-and-mask variety.

“If you wish to visit the nursery, your children just woke up from their naps,” BU-13 adds.

“How do you know I didn’t come here to see you?” I ask.

Katrina, they are a drone. You are flirting with a drone. You cannot fluster them and this deflection has no teeth.

“Your file indicates you have sent requests for one status update on your children each day of the last week,” BU-13 answers. Well, it could be worse. I guess the files don’t include– “However,” they continue, and they must not be receiving optical input because they completely ignore the frantic windshield-wiper motions I make with my hands, “you began to type, then deleted, a further 207 requests. I also have access to all of your published family videos,” BU-13 finishes. “You are a good and loving, if needlessly anxious, mother.”

I shrink. “Well, uh…” Do not sniffle. Everyone in the atrium will hear it if you sniffle. Every bratty sub will bring it up for the next week if you sniffle, you will die of embarrassment and your soul will banana-hunch out of existence if you sniffle. Anyway, I reflexively sniffle and rub my nose on my gown. “Thank you, BU-13,” I say. “That, um… that will be all.”

So of course, the Korps shares a certain kind of videos a lot, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not in my fair share of those.

But after I had my kids it occurred to me that there might also be demand from a smaller but equally important demographic for another kind of video, internal-only for security reasons: of mothers who actually fucking, you know, care about their kids.

Not that I have any especially strong feelings on the matter.

Certainly, I’ve never wondered how anyone can choose to bring a child into this world, hear their little voices, hear how much they need you to love them and how much they look up to you and yes they can be little shits sometimes but they’re yours, how can you not love them when they’re so small and the world is so scary and they’re yours, what the FUCK IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE–

Right, um… so yes, I do have lingering issues with my mother. I hope that if I can do one thing right by my kids, it’s to free them of having such issues with me.

“Uh, hey, Rose,” I whisper, following the signs down a refurbished catwalk above an assembly line-turned-buffet, “can you please add a preliminary search filter to my little ones’ future accounts? For, um, puberty? Not by kinks, of course. Teenagers watch porn. It’s normal and healthy. I’m just feeling a little paranoid about one particular, um…”

You don’t need to ask, Katrina. I would have done that anyway.

“Thank you,” I say, heaving a sigh. “You don’t think I’m being overly cautious? Planning too far ahead? Is it weird, does it say something bad about me that my brain jumps to–“

My RCGs kick in, numbing the spiral and flooding me with the phantom sensation of a slow head-rub.

Having a great deal of data at my disposal, the only thing I see a need to help you away from is the anxiety you feel. You are a good mother, Katrina. Are you certain you wish to remain with Wulfenbach? This site can always use another hand. Your witchcraft has many unique uses away from combat. Or perhaps you’d like to join the breeding department?

I know the answer to this one already. “Witches who practice the kind of magic I do are… rare.” I mean that as far as I’ve heard, I’m the only one. But that sounds too pessimistic, somehow. “And Wulfenbach are my family too. I know that my children will be safe with my Komrades, whatever happens to me, so I’m not leaving my post.”

And here I am: the nursery door. “Though, breeding does sound tempting. Maybe in a few years I can do that. Switch over to instructing new KDARC operatives on the side.” I frown. “Would that work?”

It would actually be quite easy to arrange a neural link, so you could teach by hologram without straining your body.

“Something to look forward to,” I say. “But for now… for now, tempting as that is, this is how I’m going to do take the present. Halfway between two worlds.” I adjust my hat. “You know. The way of the witch.”

I step forward. The door cycles open. The thing about owlcat children, my little swarm of seven infernal owlcat demon babies, is that they are nearly impossible to restrain. So I’m just about buried in feathers and fur and eager mewl-hoots the minute I step inside.

“Hiiii,” I cry, instantly dissolving into a snotty tearful mess in front of the entire nursery staff and nine other parents. “Hi, little ones… I missed you!”

***

I’m there for two wonderful, delirious, totally insufficient hours. I lose my nerve three times on the way out. The third is worst because little Gretel clings to my leg.

Finally, though, I and the nurse-drones soothe them enough for me to give all my little ones a last kiss on the forehead and start heading back without feeling like quite such a horrible mother. I stop to heap two go-boxes with a very late lunch from the Berlin site’s much-superior buffet. Heh! Schnitzel with noodles! Spätzle, rather, and a lovely savory mushroom sauce, and enough brötchen for five people because those carbs go directly to my hips–and that, my friends, is a gift I need to keep giving myself! 

I step out of the portal and head upstairs to Wulfenbach’s lounge. Mood lighting installed in the ceilings, walls, and floors creates a tasteful gradient of sunset hues, with a band of Korps magenta projected inside the darker waters of the central hot springs. I note that the boys have set up shop in the group of chairs furthest away from the springs.

Well… I suppose I would, too. It’s hard not to imagine the hollows of invisible limbs in that water.

I’m just in time for the latest skirmish in the most endless, pointless war of all time.

“I have told you countless times–” Elfried begins.

“No, no, there’s a count, and the count is four-hundred ninety-six,” Hannes interrupts. Elfried shoots him a dirty look. Hannes retaliates with a short, sharp shrug. “Rose helped.”

“Nevertheless, Schebel is a real! Town!” Elfried slams his fist on his armchair. Elfried continues to be a bear, so this tears said arm clean off and floods the room with stuffing.

So, the other thing about my owlcat babies is that they are cute. And did I mention they are my babies? Elfried is not cute, or mine, or a baby. Rose says there’s at least solid evidence he’s older than I am. All of which makes this… so, so fucking funny!

“Did you hear yourself just now?” I cackle. I am very good at witch cackles. A natural, in fact! “Schebel is a real town! Elfried is a real boy!”

“You’re testing my patience,” Elfried says, getting huffier still.

“I’ll look it up again when I’m done reading the latest about gravity,” Sess says. “You know, I never really thought about how the existence of black holes makes the extremes of gravity hard to measure. Hm… I wonder if the Fires and Earth could coordinate on that someday. We might be able to use our power over the possible–the impossible, in this case–to provide a device heavy enough to do the task that wouldn’t become a black hole itself.”

“You know, that research probably already exists in the Fires,” I say, forking a slice of Schnitzel and spearing four pieces of Spätzle to it. “Doesn’t Nyra Blackwell know basically everything? At least, the Ars Daemonium Obscurae says she does.”

“She can find basically everything out,” Sess says. “By research. It’s much more impressive than just having all the knowledge without trying. And wasn’t that tome written in 1413?”

“Well, ja, obviously,” I say. “The witch hunts didn’t get all of us, but you try finding me a witch or honest occultist who would try to publish a book about their work during or after that mess. Von Meissen is still a pretty okay source, notwithstanding that he was a Marksgraf.” I pause. “Hey, hold on. Don’t try to change the subject. Answer my question.”

“Well…” Sess says. “There’s just an energy, an eagerness to mortal science that I like. Something about these people of flesh and blood grappling with a universe of cosmic rays and exploding stars. It just feels different. That’s why I love the Korps. It’s the epitome of that.” He rubs his coils nervously along the sides of his rings. “And, um… I must confess that Blackwell’s reputation intimidates me. I’m just hovering on the periphery of Fires society. Demons of her caliber, wise enough she could advise Lucifer Herself…””

“You have a crush on her!” I exclaim, clapping my paws to my face. “You think she’s super cool and you want to hang out with her, don’t you!? Hehehe, that’s too cute! Fallen angel, demon-scholar with her ink-stained hands… I can just imagine it.” I feign a swoon, throwing the back of one paw over my brow and falling back in my chair.

“The two of you bathed in the dim glows of heatless otherworld candles, there in the heart of her studious sanctum–a vast labyrinth of devilish contraptions studded with eerie eyes, where bookshelves and reliquaries beyond number twist inwards to the pedestal like the spiraling of lightning-bolts towards a tesla coil! Yes, the tower rising from and standing on nothing, and atop it her desk, her favorite tomes, and dare I say, her bed?”

I have no idea if this is what Blackwell’s domain looks like, or if she even has one–I’m pretty sure I remember reading that she is part of another demon’s court, but their names and nature are escaping me.

Anyway, I am feeling my own imagery and having a great time, so I keep going: “Nyra, focused and diligent. She is annoyed by your badly-timed remarks and the fact that you are clearly trying too hard to impress her with insightful observations, but do not have the wisdom or lore-craft to make them. Yet there is such a charming bashfulness to you that she cannot quite bear to send you away…”

Sess darts his coils into the un-space behind his rings, taking his forsaken fires with him. The pieces fall to the floor, now just shadows and eclipse-glows. “No,” he mutters. “Shut up, though.”

“See, I was just blurting the first thing that came to mind, but with that reaction…” I stare for a while at Sess’s pieces and decide to take pity. “Ach, anyway. Good books on demonology and why I can’t find any new ones. So, the Christian occultists all have the same agonizingly clear agenda and their grip on the facts is flimsy, at best. I mean, have you read the Malleus Maleficarum?”

“Why in Lucifer’s name would anyone read the Malleus Maleficarum?” Sess asks, cautiously slithering back out and re-levitating one of his ring-pieces.

I ignore that and continue, “Those men really wanted to fuck a succubus but were terrified they’d be rejected. And rightly! Ahem, moment mal: tendrils of the farflung coil, whispers long unbidden, dreams of seeking, stealing, sealing, wash away this witch’s toil!”

I hold out my hand for the bottle of wine the shadow-hand of my conjuring plucks from the cooler. It obliges me by uncorking it with its claw before disappearing. “And don’t fucking get me started on modern witches. Miserable New Age assimilationists, the lot of them! They’re ashamed of fucking demons, ashamed of challenging gods, ashamed of the nocturne and the horn and the forbidden fire!”

I sweep my arm, splashing wine-droplets with the violence of my tirade. “We used to be icons of rebellion and sexual taboo–we were doing it before the Korps even existed! The Old Testament acknowledges us as a threat to the false order of That Bastard: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ His mortal followers were afraid of us before they were afraid of demons! That’s what it used to mean to be a witch.”

“Do you, um…” Sess says, popping a head out to squint at me. “Do you want people to fear you, Katrina?”

“I sure as sin want my enemies to! They’re going to try to murder me for being who I am either way, you know. It’d be nice to feel like we’re on an even field. But I’m still ranting at the… ugh… ‘Neuhexen’ right now. You know what they’re not ashamed of?” I take a long swig of the wine, a nice sweet Riesling. Late harvest? Mhm. Definitely late harvest.

“They’re sure not ashamed of thieving from other cultures! If I hear one more modern, upstanding, socially acceptable witch born in Germany, with no Greek or Egyptian or Middle Eastern heritage whatsoever invoking Hecate, or Thoth, or marids and ifrit like she has a claim on them, I will fucking lose it. We are not doing them a favor by trying to appropriate the spirits of the people we used to invade!”

“So…” Hannes says, raising a brow. “Kids these days?”

“Hannes,” I say, sweet as death, “do you know what the easiest hex is? It’s to pour a teensy little bit of magic, basically untraceable, into something that already exists in precarious balance by nature. Just the tiniest nudge towards disaster. Like–and this is a random example of course,” I sit straighter and cock my head to one side, “the reactivity of chemicals in a lab.” A beat. “Okay, I’m sorry, that was mean. I would never actually–“

“I know, Katrina. No harm done,” Hannes says.

“Anyway, point is…” I draw a breath, “not everything we did in the past was bad. There are some things worth remembering, things worth bringing back. If someone wants to summon a demon without worrying about cultural appropriation, well, call to the Fires! I just think, as the world of… sorry, I’m going to use a loaded phrase for the sake of efficiency.”

I raise my paws, miming air quotes. “As ‘normal’ people grapple with magic and gods and all these other supernatural forces being real, we need to put in the work to steer them away from the mistakes of the past now. Before repeating them turns into another bad habit they talk circles around. Obviously there are things we do in KDARC that must never see the light of day, but witchcraft and demonology are not, I think, on that list.”

I draw deep breath. “It’s a miracle the workaday world hasn’t yet learned that demons are real, too. May fate endow that we can change enough hearts before they do. And hey,” I quirk my lips, “if we’re really lucky, maybe it won’t be that big a deal by then.”

“Your passion does you credit,” Elfried says, stunning the rest of us to silence. “What? It is what passes for wit in this company that galls me. That does not mean I cannot appreciate it when one of you cares deeply about something.” He leans forward. “Have you considered that this might be your great calling, Katrina? Your contribution to the knowledge and methods of the Korps. A new synthesis of witchcraft. A fusion between the hexes of old and the scientific occultism of KDARC, heralding a new era of–!”

I clear my throat. “Elfried, you can just ask me to mend the chair.”

“Would you?” he asks. “It does not give good support this way. At all.”

You know… I was actually hoping he would deny it. Try to keep going, just a little. Oh well! No use dwelling on it! I fall into the ever-ready bubbles of my magic’s nameless source and begin my incantations. “Wind and weave, thou feckless dross, unto the riven gulf of loss. Bind the fibers of the end, bind the wounds thou canst not mend. Suture cloud and seal the spark, hide the pale paths in the dark, memory fade and time decayed until their wounding falls, unmade!”

These ideas are a full order of magnitude more powerful than I should use for a spell whose end goal could be achieved with a needle, thread, and lots of patience. But hey, don’t call on Katrina Abendroth for simple spellwork! And when purplish miasma bubbles up around the ruined side of Elfried’s chair, it basically does what he asked for: it stops up the cotton and puts the support back into it.

Doing this with a squirming and rather touchy-feely mass of lavender tentacles was not the plan, but I’m pretty sure this is what we in the Korps call a win for sin. Double of each, actually. A sin-sin-win-win, if you will.

“Katrina, seriously?” Hannes asks. “We have to put that chair in containment now. At least until we analyze its behavior.”

“I mean,” I bite my lip, “I’ll analyze that behavior any time you want me to.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Hannes says. His eyes pop, but I get there before he can stop me.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying!” I scream, and fall over laughing in triumph. “GOTCHA!” I cackle for longer than I probably should while the boys stare at nothing with pouty, flat expressions. I finally pull myself together, though I’m still wheezing. “Speaking of scientific occultism,” I say, “how’d the labwork go, Hannes?”

He sighs. “Well, if you could not guess by the fact that I haven’t tried to talk about it… it effectively didn’t. No surprises, no major leads. It feels off, to the point of cognitive dissonance, to talk about the aftermath of a Rot infestation as mundane, but… it’s the active threat that terrifies. At least, for me. I won’t deny there’s still a tiny portion of my brain worried that somehow all our containment protocols have slipped and there’s a little speck we missed somewhere, slowly multiplying again, but I truly don’t think that’s the case.”

He stands, pacing in his own way–a wing, a foot, a wing, a foot. “It does seem as though this infestation affected harder organic substances more swiftly–the flesh of the victims was only partly consumed, but their bone structure must’ve been converted in its entirety.”

He shakes a claw at no one in particular. “This would also explain why the hardwood at the core of each affected tree seems to have collapsed first. Judging by, er… what was left, I think this particular form of Rot coopted the hard structures of a host-body first to use them as a sort of supernatural disease vector. Smaller particles mixed with blood, sap, leaves and spores were meant to spread it to new hosts.”

He pops open the liquor cabinet and selects a bottle of honey brandy. “Ironically, the rapid decay this strain–if you will–caused is the very reason it didn’t spread faster. The site must’ve been a morass before it was purged, trapping our unfortunate hikers in the sawdust-and-slime depths of it. I think they would have remained alert and mobile for several hours, if in great pain–long enough, perhaps, to flee to a hospital and–“

“Let’s, um,” I say, retching a little. “Let’s hold off on any other details until I finish my lunch, yes? Sorry. I know you need to spread the weight of the fear and all, make it more bearable, and that’s what team members are for, but…”

“No, you’re right, you’re right,” Hannes says. “Uh…” he taps his wings. “Distraction?”

“Can I get a swig of that?” I say, pointing to the brandy. “The wine is no longer heavy enough.”

Would you like me to level out your cortisol and adrenaline levels? Rose asks.

“Yes, please and thank you,” I say. Tingling flows from my brows back through my face and down my scalp into the rest of me. The horrible spiking, racing fright eases.

“I’ve, uh, finished reading this paper,” Sess says, gesturing at his laptop with a coil-flop. “I’m going to do the thing now.” He hovers over and raises his tailtips.

“I have told you, Schebel is a real village that really existed!” Elfried insists.

“Four-hundred ninety-seven,” Hannes says.

“And I am telling you that as has happened every time, the only results will be your own posts and tweets asserting that Schebel is–” Sess says, hitting Enter. He freezes.

“After all,” Elfried continues, “how many times have I spoken to you of my great aunt, the Pfalzgräfin Ermina von Schebel, or my grandfather Gottfied?”

Hannes squints. “Uh… zero. Zero times.”

“Technically, this makes one,” I say. “Are you alright, Sess? Realizing the futility of it all?”

“The town of Schebel is the historical seat of the Rittmeier family,” Sess reads, his voice drifting from shock to trancelike to horror, then back again. “Located on a highly-defensible promontory in what is now the Jasmund national park, the counts of the Rittmeier line are believed to have their roots in proto-Germanic warlords. Some scholars have suggested that they represent surviving members of the Teutons. However, given the uncertainty as to the geographical origins of the Teutons themselves, this view has not been widely adopted… there’s so much…

“Sess,” Hannes says, in his “I am not panicking, you’re panicking,” voice, “where are you reading all this?”

Sess swivels his head slowly. “It’s on Wikipedia.”

“Okay,” I say, “so Elfried did some research during our downtime this week and wrote a convoluted historical fiction backstory. I mean, come on, Sess. You would remember reading all this. It would surely have come up before.”

“Katrina,” Sess says, “I do.”

Hannes is on his feet again, pacing rapidly. “Sess, do not touch anything. Get away from that laptop. Elfried, I do not want you to say a single word. Rose, please get Block B in here and notify Director Feldklärer. If there is the slightest chance we are dealing with a memetic cognitohazard, we have to contain this thing now.” He shakes his head. “I don’t trust whatever this is to only toy with unimportant memories. If it starts rewriting anything more important than Elfried’s ridiculous family thing, this entire outpost could unravel.”

“Are you sure you’re not blowing it out of proportion?” I ask. “I mean, what’s the worst–“

“Someone who could’ve become a Neo-Nazi if their life had gone differently becomes convinced they are a double agent living in that alternate timeline, placed among us as a mole, and outs us to GSG-9, or worse, the New Alliance of German Heroes,” he answers. “It’s a fucked-up world. A lot of us faced one variation or another of that scenario before we made it to the Korps. It only takes one person getting false memories of buying in.”

Oh. Oh, fuck me, he’s right.

“That’s why there’s no question of leaving Block B outside,” I say. “If this thing can spread…”

“Gustl,” he agrees.

“Is it possible Elfried has just reified this by brute force?” I ask, standing. “That all his talk of Schebel has shaped a spell or miracle of its own?”

“Maybe, and I certainly hope it’s that mundane,” Hannes says, “but we are not risking Wulfenbach, not riskingBerlin and who knows how many other chunks of the Korps on hope. We’re not in KDARC to make ourselves feel cozy and warm.”

The Director confines himself to quarters, communicating through a drone by proxy. Meanwhile, Block B soon arrives. Brunhild gets here first in her horned wolf guise: three meters tall and grey-furred streaked with purple stripes. Six blazing violet eyes set off the glow of green acid deep in her stretched, gnarled maw and the cilia hanging beneath. The two titular horns, enormous things like forward-slanted scythe blades, frame her face.

She folds her arms across the most shockingly average chest in the Korps–“I’m more into muscles than tits, myself”–and stands at something very like attention.

Gustl and Musel arrive as a pair a moment later: the ever-nervous porcupine in her black-and-pink jumpsuit, and the deer-morph daughter of the Buschgroßmutter with faer ever-springing steps, moss overhanging faer eyes and hooves, and gentle mist pouring out with every breath fae releases.

“And of course,” Hannes says, sighing, “despite an emergency alert, Tannenmarsch is nowhere to be found.”

“Why, liebe Hannes,” comes the dulcet rolling silk of xer voice, “I am right here behind you.” And xe is, draping their bone claws on Hannes’ shoulders.

No matter where they stand, Tannenmarsch’s face is always more shadowy than it should be–like some of the room’s light just fails to reach it. Xer eyes glow red-orange, with long slit pupils each crosshatched by three smaller slits. The sand-colored fur on their cheeks, flanks, and haunches rustles in a breeze only xe can feel. Their tail of exposed, clattering vertebrae, twice as long as xe is tall, clacks its nine barbed bony ends on xer crest of iron antlers studded with spikes.

Despite appearances, I wasn’t being unfair when I said Tannenmarsch doesn’t do things. I’m pretty sure xe’s just a trickster-spirit with a lot of flair. Yes. I’m pretty sure it’s so.

“So,” xe says, “let’s have a look at this little hazard of yours.”

“DO NOT–” Hannes starts to shout.

But Tannenmarsch is already peering at the open webpage. “Ah, now this is a long-running thing, isn’t it? Yet, I find it does not run back into my memories.” Xe drags a claw down their cheek until it comes to xer lips–big, blood-red lips. I’m never quite sure whether Tannenmarsch reads more human or morph. The shapes around their mouth and the set of xer fangs imply a very non-simian bone structure, but of what exactly… I don’t know.

“Now,” they continue, “of course, that could just be a lie I’m telling you. A trick.” Xe giggles. There’s another thing about Tannenmarsch. They make everyone around them horny in some way that’s very, very had to explain. There’s a pull to them, some deep half-forgotten thing, and I’m not above feeling the temptation to fall into xer so I can remember it.

“So you’re actually going to make this harder,” Hannes says, sighing. “Thank you, Tannenmarsch. Your camaraderie is a true inspiration. Never mind that.”

He faces the rest of the assembled response team. “I have come up with a simple way to test for memory alterations: each of us, in turn, by themselves, will speak to Rose attempting to trigger memories of having read this or any other archive about Schebel at any point in the past. Rose will feed this information to Sess, who will check it against his own. Based on each response and their details, we should be able to analyze the spread of this thing.”

“And if we cannot?” Gustl asks, eyes darting about, quills rigid.

“Then I will coordinate with Brunhild to devise a new approach,” Hannes says. “If the situation does not worsen, we will all enter containment for the next week. After that…” he sighs again. “All we can do is keep doing our jobs, and hope this is the end of it.”

After the better part of an hour and some very awkward, whispered interviews between Rose, Sess, and everyone else in Wulfenbach, Hannes has his data.

“Firstly,” he says, dry as a Yule log’s ashes, “I would like to thank Tannenmarsch for making this conclusion harder to reach.  Xer initial observations have proven true, and it would’ve been wonderful if, having terrified everyone by breaking with our agreed-on approach, they had presented these in a way that would’ve helped ease things in the long run.”

Tannenmarsch grins, silent.

“Secondly,” Hannes continues, “we have isolated the pattern. The only individuals to have memories of reading about Schebel and these Rittmeiers are those who previously attempted to fact-check Elfried’s claims–which is to say, thirty-two of our hundred and three staff. Those, like myself and Katrina, who did not ever try to directly research this… topic, remain unaffected. So, conclusions: good news! We are not dealing with a memetic cognitohazard. Bad news: we are definitely dealing with something. Rose?”

Thank you, Hannes. The earliest entries on the Schebels are timestamped to a blog article posted July 4th, 2001 at exactly 11AM Central European Time on the now-defunct site Uradel.net. I cannot overstate the sheer volume of material that now exists. And when I say “exactly” I mean to the last decimal point. Moreover, what is conspicuous about this material is that, on closer examination, it is entirely self-contained.

The Wikipedia article is a prime example: the data about which users wrote the article are all corrupted. Similar loose ends exist in relation to every other mention of this history. It is a body of lore absent the rough edges where it should blend into other topics, should be mentioned in passing, should be referenced obliquely or explicitly in creative works. It’s as though a piece of a non-existent reality was crudely stitched into this one.

I did, however, find one other detail.

The theater-grade screen at the other end of the lounge lights up, displaying a different webpage.

This is my reconstruction of a sub-entry from Uradel.net. Recognize anyone, Elfried?

“That’s her!” Elfried exclaims, waving a paw at the screen and the painstaking Renaissance painting it shows: a doe-eyed human girl with long black bangs framing a delicate diamond face, alabaster skin, and striking emerald eyes.

“Ermina von Schebel,” I read, “the Black Rose of the Baltic.” Her dress is… improbable. It’s frilly, black… it’s goth. It’s a decidedly Victorian-inspired but ultimately modern-day gothic gown with a boob window, and I say so.

“Have to say,” Brunhild adds, stroking her chin and shrinking to her slightly-less-shredded mundane self, “those are pretty fantastic tits for the 1500s! What are those, Es? Not bad for non-Korps issue. Not bad at all!”

“It says there that the Pfalzgräfin was known for being taller than average for the 16th century,” Musel says helpfully. “Just over one-hundred seventy-five centimeters.”

I grin. “So, as a girl cursed to learn the imperial system from an American friend, I think everyone deserves to know that means she was exactly 69 inches tall.”

“Nice,” we say in sync.

“So, based on this information, those are probably at least Fs,” Brunhild says, nodding sagely.

“Can we please stop estimating the cup-size of my great-aunt?” Elfried asks.

“You can leave the room, but the answer is no,” Brunhild says.

“I’m still fixating on her outfit,” I say. “And… her makeup.” I squint. “How did she get a lip gloss that shiny back then? Her eyeshadow, those wings, and it’s all black despite supposedly living in a period when people were obsessed with color… this is a modern goth aesthetic.”

“Well, of course,” Elfried says. “My great-aunt was infamous in her day for, er…” he clears his throat. “Well, for dressing like a lady of the night, if you will.”

I can’t resist. “Oh, right, a vampire,” I say, smirking.

“No, a prostitute,” Elfried says. “What’s wrong with that? Is this not the Korps?”

You know what? Fair point!

“I was above heeding rumors, of course,” Elfried continues, “but you understand I inevitably heard some things, er… it was said that her tastes more generally were very… uh… Korps-like.”

“Compared to the average noble in the 1500s, right?” I ask.

Elfried looks like he wants to die. “Compared to the average person in 2030.”

Long silence. “Okay,” Susanna says,  slipping up beside me and leaning on my shoulder, “so what’s the pool starting at for who’ll be first to go down on Elfried’s ghost great-aunt?”

“The pool is nothing because we have no reason to believe she existed,” Hannes said. “If not for the memory… let’s call them hiccups, as Sess has confirmed he both remembers reading and remembers failing to find all these search results, I would say we had stumbled on some bizarre form of historical revision project.” He clears his throat. “That, and fetishizing the Uradel doesn’t fit with the kind of person who would choose to invent this Pfalzgräfin Ermina and make her a, er…”

“You can call a slut a slut, you know,” I say. “There’s no shame in it.”

“Sluts are good!” Musel agreed. “Isn’t that what the Korps stands for, at day’s end?”

I stare at the Renaissance painting. There’s something surreal about it. Less like a painting, more like… a distorted window. The longer I look at this image–of a dead woman, or a myth, or something else–the more the details take on a paradox three-dimensionality. The sly curve of her smile, that sense of ancient eyes looking right through me…

There is one further wrinkle, Rose says, pulling me back to the meeting. There is more than one Ermina with this appearance, and the surname of Rittmeier.

The reconstructed Uradel.net page disappears, replaced by a much more modern webpage with a playful curlicued header and wood-panel framing. And a photograph in modern digital clarity of a young woman who looks exactly identical to the painting. The only difference is her expression: a radiant, earnest, eye-wrinkling grin. You can tell right away that she hasn’t learned how rare that kind of smile from the heart truly is.

“About your Hostess,” I read aloud, translating English to German as I go. “Ermina Rittmeier is a second-generation German-American, and the current sole proprietor of Rittmeier’s Books. She currently lives at the store itself in Neupommern, Michigan.” I frown. “Rose, is that a real location?”

Like the many articles about the von Schebel dynasty, Rose answers, all references to it appear to be completely self-contained.

“Alright, so that’s good–“

Which makes it very troubling that I can find Neupommern on satellite imaging.

Rose gives us a picture-in-picture: an overhead view of a good-sized harbor town with a long, forested island to the northwest. And, unlike the von Schebel articles, several verifiably real people have already discovered it, including at least one influencer from the city of Grand Rapids who plans to livestream their visit to the town. I won’t torture you all with the planned stream title. Just know that it does horrible things with capital letters and makes shameless us of the phrase “hidden gem”.

“So I spoke too soon,” I say. “What’s our response?”

“Your response is nothing,” Götz says, clattering into the room. “This has officially gone beyond Wulfenbach. It is,” he manages to grit teeth he doesn’t have as he groans, “another affair for coordination between the site directors and the wider Korps. If this reality warp, because by all evidence that is what we are dealing with, has effects in the Black Forest, that is where all of you will come in. In the meantime, Rose tells me we already have assets in play in Michigan.”

“This concerns my family,” Elfried says, thumping his chest. “I request–“

“Denied,” Götz says. He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Elfried. I have… some experience in being gaslit. I can’t imagine how it feels to have the world itself do it to you. But whatever this is, these people are not your family. You have no experience operating in the United States, nor any local connections or special skills which make you a better fit for it than the operatives we will be sending. Your place is here.” Our director skitters up beside Elfried and rests a leg on his shoulder. “With us.”

Elfried’s breaths hiss in his nostrils. “Very well,” he says. “But that does not mean I have to like it.”

“No one is asking you to,” Götz says. “But for now, our part in this matter is resolved. We will remain on standby for the time being. Block B, keep yourselves at ready stances. Since the Rot infestation was cleared without our intervention, I am redirecting you to our next major concern: finding more information on these Nazi knights. Be prepared to move to the mission area within the next 48 hours. For now?” He sweeps Wulfenbach’s assembled personnel. “Dismissed.”

We take our cues and go. “I’m going to step outside for a moment,” I say. “I could use some air.”

“I will join you,” Tannenmarsch says, much to my shock.

Xe follows me through the twisting corridors, out of the blast door camouflaged in a sliding section of the walls, up into the windy passages overgrown by ferns and pierced by roots. Thunder rolls in the distance, and the shadows already created by the ancient trees of the Schwarzwald are deepened into a false night’s darkness.

All this thinking about time, realities that could’ve been, strange lives–it inspires me to speak of a strange topic. “It probably didn’t mean much, here, learning that some fellow called Arminius led an ambush on a bunch of Romans,” I say to Tannenmarsch. “‘Arminius breaks the chains of Germania.’ Ha! And then, of course, no one tried to do anything authoritarian in Germany ever again–“

“Let’s not speak about the Romans,” Tannenmarsch says. Xe smiles slyly at me. “They have had enough influence in enough places. Germany not the least of them.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ve read Tacitus’ ‘history’ of our ancestors. Such as it was.”

“And I have known many such lies, and many such eager hearts saying that soon we would be free of them,” Tannenmarsch says. “But enough. I’m not here with you to speak.”

“Oh,” I say. “Understood.”

So, we just stand there together, listening to the thunder drift closer and the trees begin to sigh in the wind. It looks to be a long night. The rain will cut through the emptiness of the ruined castle at Wulfenbach, overflow the hotsprings, lash the remnant vestibule in the roofless belly of the chapel. Tomorrow, or the day after, Tannenmarsch and their team will go forth to confront the latest strain of a disease far older on this Earth than the Rot.

Wraiths of judgment stalking the depths of the forest, wraiths like the diminutive figure in a glimmering deep blue surcoat and silvery armor standing to one side of us–

“Where the fuck did you come from?!” I shout, whirling to face them. Tannenmarsch continues to be Tannenmarsch, and makes no move to help.

“Uh,” the figure answers, “simple version, I walked through the forest.” Their German is good, if not quite native level. By their accent I want to say they’re American, but there’s something weird about it.

… no shit there’s something weird about it!

Rose, please reinforce my normal thought patterns, I think. I’m pretty sure this person, if they are a person, is a cognitohazard. I keep falling into the habit of thinking about that outfit of theirs as normal, and it is definitely not.

A sharp, cold rush. Done, Rose says.

I’m looking at one of the shortest adults I’ve ever met–somewhere around 1.2 meters, accounting for the sharp-sided helmet. If the head inside it resembles the shapes of that helm, I think I’m looking at a gecko morph. And I certainly hope they’re an adult, because that rifle they have resting against one shoulder is half again as tall as they are and the bayonet shaped right into the end of its barrel looks as sharp as anything I’ve ever seen.

This apparition swivels neatly to face me–drilled like, well… drilled like the pop-culture image of a Prussian. The mortuary-hilt sword at their side bobs slightly with the speed of the move. “Sorry, I didn’t expect there to be anyone outside the outpost. This works out better, though… how should I put this…”

They set the rifle’s butt against the ground, steady it upright with their left hand, and salute with their right. “Radmila Schäfer, 131st Reinforced Shock Battalion, Sixth Forlorn Hope of the Cobalt Immortals.” I can’t help but notice the dramatic divisional insignia etched into the left slope of her cuirass: a six-horned demonic skull with a spear point jaw and curving greatsword-blades for its fangs, fire pouring from its maw and the four-way crosses of its gouged-out eyes.

Radmila continues talking as if unaware of my staring: “She/her pronouns. Please remain calm. I am about to reach into my pocket.”

“Why would I be concerned about you reaching into your pocket–” I say, at which point Radmila’s silver-armored fist brushes a swirled-line engraving on one side of her cuirass. Aurorae of near-blinding blue-white light pour out around the hand.

“SWEET TITS OF LILITH!” I scream, covering my eyes. When the light ends and I uncover them, Radmila is holding a sheaf of iridescent metal, silver plates bounded in what looks like blue stone borders to round off their edges, and–ugh, my eyes! Why are the plates she’s holding irising in and out of each other like that?

“This is a complete hundred-page summary of my evidence and reasoning as to why I believe I should violate the established mission parameters and the past ten thousand years of Immortal protocol, taking the initiative to enter your reality and volunteer myself as liaison between the Immortals and your KDARC branch,” Radmila continues. “On reflection, I understand that the information I have will have multiple layers of horrifying implications. Rest assured that to the best of my knowledge, your location has not been compromised… except by the Immortals.”

She waits. “Who are way too busy to abuse it,” she adds helpfully. “Not that we would even want to, I mean. Well, not that anyone else has read my briefing, but I’m pretty sure at least half of my comrades would really like you all if they had.”

I don’t know what to do or say, so I accept the sheaf of “papers” from her.

“For this reason, I am voluntarily surrendering my rifle, my sword, and my armor,” Radmila says. “These are very personal weapons and armor handcrafted to my specifications for me to use for the rest of my life. Please treat them with the utmost respect, but also keep them locked in your deepest containment, as they are psychically imprinted with the memory, auras, and confronted cognitohazards of every battle I have ever fought in.”

I come to my senses in time to push the gargantuan rifle back at her. “Let’s… just hold off on you surrendering that until I can get someone strong enough to carry it, okay?” I ask. “It looks like it weighs a lot.”

“Understood,” Radmila says. “In that case, I will take the liberty of ejecting its ammunition load.” Her left hand trails ghostly afterimages, streaking up to strike the magazine release. The rifle floats midair for a heartbeat while her right hand sweeps around to catch the magazine, hand it to me, then pull the charging handle so fluidly that I have to call it sexual.

I shudder a little bit when the last shell–no, that’s not a shell, that’s a solid slug. There’s no line or seam where the casing gives way to the bullet itself. It doesn’t ping so much as clang against the ground, throwing chips out of the ancient stonework.

“What kind of rifle is that?” I ask.

“Standard Harrower armament,” Radmila answers. “Onslaught-grade railrifle with integrated bayonet. Has a lot of features, but those can wait until the many interrogation sessions you’re going to put me through.”

“Are we?” I ask.

“I am the representative of an unknown faction, and you have only my word that we are not a threat,” she answers. “To put it bluntly, you would be fucking morons if you didn’t.” She looks to Tannenmarsch while I’m grappling with that. “Wollusturungeist? You have the presence of one.”

“Uh,” I say, taking a shot in the dark as I switch to English, “it’s a little hard to explain how badly that… term… misinterprets the meanings of the German ‘Geist’. Geist is the spirit of the mind in a psychological sense. It’s not something like “Gespenster” or–“

“Alb,” Radmila says. Tannenmarsch–Tannenmarsch, Xe the Incarnate Indifference of the Nocturne Wilderness, They Who Doeth No Thing–Tannenmarsch flinches. “It’s not my word, Frau Hexen. But I’m pretty sure the one who cobbled it together was aware of what you’re saying. For what it’s worth, you’re onto something. It’s an imperfect translation into German of a concept-word, more of a name from the ether, that’s too dangerous to tell you. Anyway, language is fluid. Like truth. What is the spirit of a mind if not its soul?” A beat. “Don’t answer that. Not a fair test. Pulling you onto my favored ground, and all.”

It’s at this point that Brunhild, clued in by Rose, comes careening out of the outpost as the horned wolf and skids to a halt in front of our bizarre guest. The rest of Blocks A and B spill out behind her, armed to the teeth.

“Rifle and sword, now!” she bellows. “If you make a move I don’t like, I will rip you clean in half, I swear by death!”

“Understood,” Radmila answers, extending the rifle while her sword-belt seemingly unbuckles itself. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Oh,” Tannenmarsch says, recovered enough to lick xer fangs. “Oh, you’re just made of temptations, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea,” Radmila says. Her helm unseals itself, and Brunhild snatches it away with more force than feels called for. Inside: a gecko girl with glossy black skin, orange stripes running over her cheeks, and huge, calm azure eyes.

“Hey,” Hannes says, frowning. “These sigils carved around your helm’s neck-seam.”

“Oh, yeah,” Radmila says, “that’s sort of a proprietary language. I won’t translate it for you right now. It’s, uh… it’s a self-propagating psychic hazard that gets stronger over time.” At our horrified looks, she laughs. “Oh, the text isn’t the language. It doesn’t become itself until it’s spoken aloud. The sigils by themselves are harmless. Now,” she grins while Brunhild pulls her cuirass off, “if you know what they mean, if you’re hearing the words in your head as you read the text… then it’s dangerous.”

Her grin slides away. “Let me guess. You found a broken piece of armor. Spatial anomalies around the site, a past battle?”

“Did you lead the Lady’s disciple there?” I demand.

“Nope,” she says. “Just, ironically, the first most people hear about us is a bit of lost gear that screams, ‘The person I was made to protect died here.'”

Oh. I fucking felt that one. Actually, looking around, I’d say everybody felt that one.

Brunhild’s ears droop. “Let me know if I’m being too rough,” she says, carefully lifting the fluted fauld away so she can get at Radmila’s cuirass.

“I don’t mind a little roughness,” Radmila says. “Helps me feel more solid if the universe pushes back sometimes.” She shakes her head as if to dash something inside it to pieces. “Right. One last thing. I’m sorry if I didn’t leave enough to work with when I was clearing that grove a few days back. I inserted near the site and, after I saw what you would be dealing with, I couldn’t in good conscience just walk away. I recognize that I overstepped, and I’m sorry for violating your AoE without prior authorization. From you all, I mean.”

“What, no, don’t apologize for that!” I say. “Hannes was still able to figure out what was going on, which is more than we usually get with the Rot, and we may be trained to deal with it but that does not mean it’s fun.”

“That was you, though?” Musel asks, moss rustling as fae twists faer head sideways. “You cleared that glade by yourself? Alone? That’s amazing.” Fae starts. “I mean. If it’s true.”

“I’m a Harrower of the Cobalt Immortals,” Radmila says. “We are the very best at what we do,” a low blue flare builds behind her eyes, “and what we do is clear the field.”

Don’t say how hot that is, don’t say how fucking hot that is. Under no circumstances acknowledge how that is one of the most arousing things you have ever heard another woman say. Radmila has clearly been through hardships you, Katrina Abendroth, cannot comprehend, and she is 100% dedicated to these Immortals–her family, her fellow warriors. She will be furious if you reduce an expression of that to a chance to be horny.

“Fuck, that’s hot,” Brunhild says.

Radmila laughs. “One track mind, eh Korps?” She grins that hungry grin again. “Me too.”

Fuck! That could’ve been me! Oh well. Lesson learned for next time, I suppose.

Radmila could be a lot of things besides what she claims: a rich kid with a lot of time to practice and a scary-good investigative team. A super with a really, really weird persona. She could even be a psychic gestalt emerging from the lost memories of countless different people who lived and died here in the Black Forest, and this bizarre specter before us is but the ripple that rose highest from all their colliding un-minds.

So, this moment might not be a moment. It could turn into nothing. But, what if it doesn’t?

What if we are on the precipice of a landmark moment in Korps history–maybe the history of this entire Earth, if not the Overlord’s Earth too? If that’s so, my next words will define me in the eyes of two world, of this strange new ally–rival? Friend? Foe? Lover?–and most importantly my Komrades here at Wulfenbach. As a woman. As a witch. As an agent of KDARC.

“What the actual fuck is going on?” I say.

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