Von Schtorr advised his troops, “We are going to force him to come out. The moment he appears, aim for the head and the heart. You have to hit both at the same time. No matter who appears, fire at once, without hesitation and without thought. No matter whom you see. Even if it is the Kaiser himself. Even if it is your own mother.”
Von Schtorr brought a flame to the dried grass around the box.
As heat waves shimmered around the box and fire crisped the grass, the lid flew open. He could not see who was speaking. The person remained invisible to him as long as the rune was in use.
“You are making a terrible mistake,” cried a woman’s voice. It was trilling and beautiful, buzzing with vibrations that penetrated his being, unlike anything he’d ever heard, but somehow familiar. He was not expecting a woman. He was surprised to hear her speaking in German with a Swabian accent. He knew this woman from somewhere.
And then the woman began to scream.
The dark arena within the grove still filled with the oceanic drone of the planes in the topmost branches. But now the sound grew louder, and renewed gusts swept through the shadows. Cassiopeia craned her neck, hoping these were signals of coming rescue; that at least some contingent of the many planes under her command had gone searching for her, and they had been drawn to this place by the sounds of the trapped aerial combat and lingering gunfire. So she hoped… The sounds were growing louder still, and the winds assailed the enclosure. Leaves slapped her face. Dust stung her sensitive eyes.
But the sounds were not the sounds of rescue, and the winds signaled no delivery from the dreaded shadows. Above, the trapped Honorati planes were slowly loosening from their adhesive anchors. They were descending nose down, slowly, but insistently, drooling out of the canopy, bobbing up and down on rubbery tethers, penduluming back and forth. Their spinning propellers threshed the air.
Cassiopeia found herself twisting and dodging in place, avoiding the swaying, swinging planes with their pirouetting guillotines. She kept wide of the boy’s knives. He lunged again at her, heedless of the gauntlet of slicing planes, just as he’d been of the leveled gun. She looked into the crazed eyes, a crimson reflection of her own. He’d been crafted, she thought, to bear a savage likeness to Peyotr. A simulacrum with the obvious single purpose of murdering her.
“Why would I kill your soldiers? You have so many. I might as well be swatting your flies. I am a German patriot, like yourself. My only interest lies in you. I wish to entice you to join with me. To win you over. Or kill you. One or the other. Your soldiers don’t interest me. Killing them does nothing to advance my goals. Nothing gained toward the primary goal or its alternative.
“No. Some other shapeshifter did the killing. Someone trying to provoke you. Someone trying to alert you. To put you on my trail. To make you distrust me. Imagine that! A shapeshifter, pretending to me.”
He stared at her. Long and hard, he stared. His studded aqua eye-buds probed into her inviting violet eye-buds. “I think you’ve changed your face so many times, you don’t even know who you are anymore. You don’t even know which side you’re on. You don’t even…” He lost his train of thought. She was assaulting his olfactory glands with a volatile hormonal stimulant, full of ketones, lipids, esters, alcohols, and sucrose. The sweetness. Driving him near to madness.
He struck her again.
“You don’t have to hurt me. I’ll let you in on my inner most secrets.”
He found her unbearably beautiful, and hideous as himself.
“Why do I believe you when I know you are lying?”