Summary: Despite her esoteric upbringing, Katya Orlova is an ace pilot in the Red Air Force's all female Night Witches bomber squadron. On the savage eastern front, she leads the battle against the occult machinations of the Axis Powers.
The Northwatch Keep Sortie
Silhouetted against the silver light of a gibbous moon were a trio of silently gliding Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. The leading plane, a well-armed U-2LNB variant, broke off from the other two to descend towards the sea of pine trees that towered above the ground. Resisting the temptation to start the engine and pull up to safety, the goggle-wearing aviatrix at the controls deftly guided her craft towards the eerie lights shifting through the trees below.
"Lt. Orlova, we are in position," said her new navigator, Warrant Officer Nadia Federova. "Weapons ready, but do you really think they'll be enough for the target?"
"Well, Nadia, we'll just have to aim well," Lt. Ekaterina "Katya" Orlova said. "We're getting close to the castle, so aim for the courtyard."
"What about the others? Aren't they going to help us?"
"No, they have other targets. It's just us."
"Figures they leave the important stuff out of the briefing."
"There's a good reason for that," Katya Orlova said. "Now hold on."
As she pulled back on her controls, Katya momentarily mused about her navigator's indecision before trying to locate the ancient castle along the Baltic Coast. Navigating under the stars, her blue eyes vainly scanned across the treetops for the towering coastal cliffs the briefing had mentioned. As she felt to the cool wind wiping around her face, she listened to the crashing of distant waves reverberating through the darkness. Banking her biplane to the side, she beheld the green, forested sea beneath her replaced by the abject blackness of the unseen ocean waves below.
As the plane silently guided into position, Katya saw flecks of sea foam pounding against the cliffs as the tides ceaseless pulverized the cliffs before them. Even in the near-total darkness, she could see the edge of the overhang where unpaved road precariously wound above an utter plunge into the ocean. At the terminus of the route was an angular structure perched precariously above the ocean like a predatory raptor. She focused on the task she had performed dozens of times.
Katya had recalled the target from the mission briefing was Northwatch Keep, an ancient castle occupied by the Teutonic Knights in ages past. Below her, she could see the perverse symbol of ancient barbarity beneath her. Appropriately enough, the Waffen-SS had taken up residence in the castle with its Gothic towers and shadow-haunted parapets. Thousands had died with those walls, and she was about to offer appropriate victims to the Grim Reaper's insatiable appetite. She angled her plane towards the barely visible courtyard like an assassin's dagger for her attack run.
"Bank left," Nadia said in a frantic tone just above a whisper. "Now."
"No. We'll miss the courtyard," Katya replied. "They don't have any searchlights on."
"Just do it. Trust me," Nadia said. "Don't you find that strange?"
Upon brief rumination, Katya conceded to Nadia's logic. The courtyard bore no signs of inhabitation other than a handful of lanterns placed in the windows, which she found enigmatic compared to the lethal gaze of searchlights that accompanied the well-equipped units she often struck. In the insufficient illumination of starlight and sparse lights, the aviatrix momentarily thought she saw geometric lines in white paint or chalk upon the stone courtyard.
As Katya tarried a moment too long to change course, she was blinded by a powerful electric light that shone directly into her eyes from a nearby tower. She saw the outline of what could only be a hulking enemy soldier against the artificial sun that seared her retinas. In her blinded panic, she released the bombs below her plane as an automatic cannon opened fire underneath her. She heard the pounding of Nadia's own heavy ShKAS machinegun as she activated the engine and banked left too late, fully expecting to be perforated by a barrage of shells and flak pellets. Their bombs exploded somewhere behind them, causing her ears to ring.
Katya felt the entire biplane shake as something tore through the left wing. The engine coughed and sputtered before dying completely. The aviatrix cursed to herself as she saw the leaking fuel line. The plane began to drop precariously low, and a stream of profanity followed from her mouth as she realized it would not be a soft landing.
"Put us down now. Remember the road?" came Nadia's suggestion.
Instead of dismissing it, Katya immediately brought the plane down. She had nothing to lose but their lives, which would be forfeit if they had to ditch in the frigid waters or amongst the tree branches. Below her, the narrow roadway was visible for only split second intervals coinciding with Nadia's machinegun bursts. In that pandemonium of machine gun staccato and mechanical rattling, she brought the Po-2 to the ground.
Katya had landed a plane dozens of times, but the impact of the ground was especially daunting this time. The crash almost smashed her head against the gages, but she threw her hands over her head in time to prevent a concussion. The now-familiar sound of Nadia's machinegun had fallen silent, but the aviatrix had more immediate concerns. She wrestling with the controls was like trying to strangle a bear, so she never relaxed as the plane bounded up and down the uneven road. Seeing the cliff ahead, she turned hard to the right, and instead careened to a stop in a ditch before the woods. For a long moment, she panted heavily.
"They knew we were coming," Katya said to herself. "They must've spotted us coming in."
"I can repair the plane," said Nadia with a stoic calmness. "But they will be coming soon."
Katya sighed. She had long toyed with death, but only now was did the weight of her risky decisions press upon her awareness. She saw lights activating down the road, and she decided how she wanted to be remembered. She checked the two braces of Nagant revolvers and hopped out of the plane's cockpit.
"Nadia, I will buy you time," Katya said as she began her walk. "As your superior officer, it is my duty to ensure the target is destroyed and you get back safely."
"Lt. Orlova, I would ask you let me stay. You are at far greater risk than I am."
"You? I've seen your record. Barely surviving training, barely making qualification, but knowledgeable on mechanics and maps. You stand the better chance of making it back than I do," Katya said, listening to the distant sound of echoing voices. "This is an order from your superior officer."
"Very well, Lt. Orlova. It was an honor flying with you. You may need this," Nadia said as she handed her commander a long object. "Please take it with you. You can free him."
So occupied in with the threat of imminent violence, Katya disregarded the copilot's words in favor of her gift. She first thought she had been given some long mechanical tool, but the aviatrix quickly recognized the curved leather sheath as an implement of a different sort. She briefly withdrew the shasqua, the curved Cossack saber, before sliding it on her belt. She briefly wondered why a brown-haired woman of nearly elfin appearance would have such a thing in the airplane. Turning towards the approaching Germans, she saw Nadia vanish under the wing to fix the fuel line.
Katya entered the woods and prepared to meet the oncoming Nazis. She imagined if they had motor vehicles, they'd already be driving down the road, but the absence of rumbling engines and hurried gait of running mean indicated to her the soldiers were on foot. Given the discrete nature of the Waffen-SS's occult operations, they undoubtedly preferred to keep a low profile. Too many men and materiel would draw attention. Even so, the aviatrix knew they were operating on borrowed time, as reinforcements from another base would eventually arrive.
Katya hoped by that time, the plane would be repaired and the target destroyed. If her bombs had not hit the target, then she would try to take down as many fascists as she could in the old fashioned way. From the smoke that rose over the treetops, she had no doubt they would be approaching directly from the road. Loosing the straps on her belt holsters, she tried to flank the enemy through the woods.
With a revolver in each hand, Katya Orlova listened to the Nazi positions by their shouting and running. An eerie breeze blew through the skeletal branches above, causing every needle to whisper like the rattle of bare bones. Each step into the eternal night beneath the branches was enough to cause her to believe every horror tale she had heard about the dark forests. She forced herself to dispel speculating about phantasmal horrors as to better envision the terrifying realities and trivialized brutality of modern war.
Katya found it was easier said than done in a forest where every footfall reverberated in an uncanny, unnerving way that gnawed at her sanity. She felt as though behind every tree could lurk a sprite or legendary beast, or every toadstool could be inhabited by the fair folk. The advancing soldiers could have been an another world for the ability of the forest to mesmerize and disorient her.
Katya tried to get her bearings by listening, but thought she saw another figure moving through the woods. Pressing herself against the trunk of a massive tree for cover, she readied herself for her final attack. Her first entrance would be her only chance to make it home, so she wanted to ensure it was as devastating as possible. She cautiously probed around the tree trunk with the barrel of her revolver, but saw nothing. Exhaling in relief, she sighed as she turned to her head back behind the safety of the tree.
Katya's eyes opened wide when she saw him standing before her. A disheveled middle-aged man with an unkempt beard and a ragged cassock reached made contact with steely blue eyes, and pointed towards her right with an outstretched hand. The aviatrix blinked and gasped in utter disbelief, only for the man to disappear. Consigning the image to her overactive psyche, she nevertheless turned a quick glance to where the man pointed. Through the woods, she could see a familiar bulky figure contrasted before an electric light.
Katya beheld her enemy at a far more personal level than she had from the air. As her eyes adjusted to the white incandesce light, she saw he wore a Waffen-SS officer's overcoat bearing the marks of an Obersturmführer. He wore a flat cap bearing the death's head emblem, and a pistol and sword hung from a leather belt with the same emblem. The aviatrix used her other hand to steady her grip on her revolver, trying to line up a shot on the unaware officer. She saw the other men clearly enough, but she wanted to decapitate their leadership.
Katya cursed to herself as her shot was obstructed when the officer moved behind a tree. She took a small step forwards, only to step on a dry twig. She never knew if the sound was loud enough to draw her enemy's attention, but the officer's gaze unerringly fell upon her. He stepped behind an advancing soldier as he drew his pistol, and Katya fell back behind the tree.
"Bring me the Witch. I shall get an Iron Cross for this!" he shouted in German.
As the soldiers advanced, Katya heard a soldier protest. "But, sir, I shot-"
A pistol shot rang out on the edge of the forest, and Katya saw the body of a Waffen-SS trooper fall off the cliff.
"I shot down the Witch," the officer said. "Any more that would steal my triumph?"
The officer's smoking Luger shifted back towards the forest, but the line of advancing troops momentarily turned to see their commander's rash execution. Taking a revolver in each hand, she exploited the opportunity that fate had given her. She tossed a pair into the air as she opened fire with the other. Lances of fire moved with the practiced precision of a battlefield surgeon as her hands raked across the enemy squad.
With her wrists crossed and hands pressed against each other, Katya acted upon a serpentine quickness with a brace of Nagant revolvers. Her Macedonian shooting technique dropped fourteen soldiers. Before they could react to the sudden fusillade, she grabbed the other two revolvers before they hit the ground and continued her barrage of gunfire. In less than a half second, twenty seven Waffen-SS troopers fell were dead or mortally wounded. The officer's dominant hand had been shot, and a portion of his finger fell to the ground with the mangled remains of his Luger. She cursed her lousy aim with the last shot.
What Katya did not expect was for the wounded officer to charge her with his dress sword. The needlelike blade left its scabbard with the alacrity of a charging wolf. The thin degen rotated in the officer's hand as the aviatrix forced herself back. The shasqua's scabbard struck her leg, instantly reminding her of the navigator's peculiar gift. She pulled the blade out and twirled it, getting a feel as the heavy blade sliced through the air like a propeller.
Katya saw the degen thrust towards her chest like a venomous adder, only for her Cossack blade to turn it aside. The officer's face became a reddened mask of pure hatred. He unleashed a deep, but untrained thrust at her position, relying upon his superior strength to drive the point home. With a sidestep and parry, the swords resounded like a pair of knitting needles.
Seeing her opponent her line of attack, she kicked him in the side of the knee. The Waffen-SS officer's stance buckled for a moment was all she needed. She slipped her finger onto the rear of the shasqua and rammed through the officer's stomach. The hefty man kept fighting, cursing in German as he blindly swung at the aviatrix. His limp strike barely managed to cut Katya's brown leather jacket, and his head was removed from his body by Katya's second strike. In an appropriate whim of cosmic irony, the severed head rolled through the mud until it stopped within the beam of the carbon-arc searchlight in the distant tower the aviatrix first saw him contrasted against.
Before darting back into the woods, Katya grabbed a small leather-bound book off the corpse's belt. Black and purple blood flowed profusely from the officer's neck-stump, mingling with mud to paint an arabesque of bile on the ground. Grasping a rifle, ammunition, and grenades from the nearby dead soldiers, she sprinted back under the cover of the woods.
As she fumbled in the darkness to load her weapons, Katya could scarcely believe she had dispatched the entire patrol with such trivial efficiency. It was a small point of nationalistic pride that she saw the rifle she had grabbed in haste was a Russian semi-automatic SVT-40, undoubtedly captured in battle. The fact the fascist invaders intent on extermination of the Slavic peoples used such a weapon caused her to chortle to herself. As she shoved rounds from a stripper clip into the magazine, she thought she saw the warmly smiling face of the monk from before. When she turned her head, all that remained were the nocturnal sounds of the ancient forest.
With her weapon in hand, Katya cautiously approached the now-illuminated road. She had half-expected to be cut down by machinegun and rifle fire from the tower, but the realization that no one was watching the road was enough to goad her into further investigation. Her worries that some lazy sniper would awaken and take her head off provided impetus to continue her advance through the woods, until she was fully under the shadow of the castle. Cautiously, she scanned the nearby windows and tower for any signs of movement. Seeing none, she took cover behind a tree and skimmed through the journal.
Katya saw the first pages were not written in standard Latin characters, but instead angular, runic characters characteristic of Thule Society occult documents. Her mother had drilled her in a multitude of languages and occult traditions from around the world, but the aviatrix could not help but wonder at their plans for the keep. An unnatural breeze shifted the pages of the notebook, terminating on a folded note wedged in between the pages. Unfurling it, she read the details of a ritual.
At the edge of the forest was a castle wall that at least one of their bombs had reduced to rubble. Underneath was soaked in light barely sufficient to read in, but presented an ideal location for spying upon the courtyard. While just out of sight of the courtyard, Katya had sufficient light to read due to the light upon the nearby tower. A look over the note in hand showed a complex summoning ritual, with instructions for acolytes and initiates on how to prepare the ritual circle. While she tried skimming through the book, the remainder was written in an unknown cipher, but she had a simple plan: prevent the ritual from succeeding.
Katya cautiously advanced behind a wall of fallen stone to peer into the ancient courtyard before her. The second bomb had struck a corner of the magic circle, so a robed man chalked the charred section of ground. Another man chanted from within the circle, emptying a pouch of ashes upon a copper dragon figurine. At least two other acolytes in black robes repeated the chant. An unnatural illumination emerged from beneath them, with a sound like the cackling of unseen flames and clacking of heavy claws. They had been so involved in the ritual, the aviatrix wondered if they had ignored the gunfire outside.
Eager to conclude it, Katya shot the robed man completing the ritual circle, and then the man with the ashes. She then shot out the searchlight before emptying the remainder of her clip in a final, spiteful burst and grenade at the Thule Society cultists before sprinting into the woods. With the road plunged back into blackness, she ran parallel to it to avoid tripping on a root or unintentionally falling into the sea below. The last thing she wanted was to be remembered as a member of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment that had succumbed to such an ignoble demise.
Katya ran until her lungs felt on the verge of bursting. Behind her, she expected to hear the demonic sewing machine-like sound of an MG-42, but the otherworldly glow emanating from the now-distant increased in intensity. Something large and dangerous growled from another world, and the aviatrix ran as fast as a terrified mortal's legs could move.
Katya halted her expeditious retreat when she saw headlights. Like the eyes of nocturnal demons, a convoy of multiple vehicles was rapidly approaching her position. Fortunately, she saw that Nadia had repaired the plane, brought it out onto the road, and had started the engine. Her navigator greeted her with a salute. The extent of the repairs, as Katya could tell, consisted of tying a scarf around the fuel line.
"I knew you'd find it useful," she said. "And I knew you'd be back."
"I told you to take off, Nadia. You disobeyed a direct order from your superior."
"And you seem happy I did," Nadia responded. "Our mission is not completed yet. We need to get airborne before our company arrives."
Katya grumbled to herself as she tried turning the plane. Realizing the roadway was too uneven and irregular for a successful takeoff, she instead turned hard to the right.
"Nadia, hold on. I'm about to try a very bad idea."
Katya drove the plane forwards, directly off the edge of the cliff. The wind whipped around her plane like a chorus of shrieking angels. She pulled up as hard and as fast as she could, ripping the aircraft out of its nosedive as the top of a massive wave brushed along the underside of the landing gear. The plane began to stabilize once more, climbing towards the sky as she beheld what was occurring beneath them.
A half-track and two troop trucks followed the coastal road towards the fortress, but Katya noticed something moved within the ruined castle. The glowing had ceased abruptly, leaving a dark void where the courtyard had been. A flash of flame temporarily lightened the interior of Northwatch Keep.
"Wait, what is that?" Nadia asked nervously.
A trio of large, reptilian heads emerged from the ground as a dark shape slithered over a broken wall. The swosh of massive wings could be heard over the engine's droning. She reached for a pistol, knowing it would to little against whatever had been called forth. The massive predator darkened the sky above them for an instant, smothering the starlight above like a funeral shroud. She heard Nadia wince quietly.
Much to Katya's relief, the entity did not head for them. Instead, she saw a dark form circling the convoy below. The cannon from the half-track opened up, where it was joined by volleys of rifle fire. In the maddened discharge of weapons, she could see the magnificent creature as it expanded its entire wingspan. The beast responded with a torrent of flames that engulfed the entire convoy in one pass.
Beholding the inferno below, Katya almost felt sorry for the Waffen-SS as a few survivors vainly tried to extinguish the flames. One fell off the cliff, illuminating the jagged stone until his body vanished under the surf. The flying creature circled back, strafing the survivors with a second sky-born baptism of fire. Fear consumed the aviatrix as she turned back towards base.
"So they summoned Zmey Gorynych," Katya said. "Where's Dobrynya Nikitich when you need him?"
"Wait, so that's a dragon?"
"It's our next target. Since the Nazis can't control it, it falls to us bogatyrs of the sky to save the day."
With that, Katya turned the plane around.
"How? Their guns did nothing."
"Nadia, just shoot it, and let me do the rest. Do you trust me?"
"I'm not sure."
"First you disobey me and now you don't trust me?" Katya said with a sigh. "No navigator will last by not trusting their pilot."
"Very well. Have it your way," Nadia said as she opened fire at the dragon.
A roar only aptly described as draconic resonated across the ocean cliffs. Katya saw a steady stream of tracer rounds strike the titanic flyer's wings. Imagining herself against the enormity of the creature, she imagined it would easily rival a strategic bomber for size, and each head could easily swallow a grown man whole. The dragon cried once more before flying after them with a speed like a fighter.
As the dragon closed the distance with them, Katya saw it vomit up fire. Immediately, she pulled into a climb, and Nadia screamed. Forces within her stomach churned as the angle of ascent became completely perpendicular to the ground. She felt the engine chugging harder as the air became thinner, and could feel heat behind her. Whether it was hot air from the machine gun or dragon, she neither knew nor cared.
Katya became worried when the machinegun stopped firing. Behind her, she saw Nadia struggling to clear a jam. The dragon was still behind them, futilely vomiting fire as it tried to close the distance between them. The ground grew small beneath them, becoming a murky sheet far below them. The slag and ash remaining from the convoy was the only thing she could make out on the ground far below.
Katya looked out directly beneath her to see one of the dragon's heads lunging directly at her. Realizing the chance she had been waiting for, she pulled out a grenade from earlier and armed it. The dragon snapped close enough to bite her arm off, but the other heads were undoubtedly ready to flare up at her. Seeing the mouth of a head open below, the grenade fell into the beast's opened maul.
For a few tense moments, Katya feared the explosive had been a dud. The dragon was close enough to burn the plane up and devour them like two meager morsels. Three heads converged on them with an ultraterrene wrath. The aviatrix wondered if she should pray to any god that would listen. It was then the body of the beast exploded, causing brackish ichor to seep from the dragon's severed neck-stumps. The hydra-like beast dissolved into oblivion as its remains plummeted towards the ocean below. The aviatrix did not know why the body evaporated like snow in the sun, but did not question her good fortune.
"Now, Warrant Officer, we return to base," Katya said. "Good work."
"Thank you, Lt. Orlova. How did you know how to defeat a dragon?"
"I remembered how I dealt with ground attack aircraft and improvised," Katya said as she leveled the plane out. "Now, Nadia, no more need for ranks. You've more than earned it."
As she banked towards base, Katya thought she saw a familiar face sitting upon the wing. The cleric's robe and hair ruffled in the wind, and in the darkness, it was hard to tell the difference. The aviatrix looked behind her when her navigator spoke.
"Do you know who that is?" Nadia asked.
"You can see him too?"
"Yes, Katya. I have a sensitivity for such things. That's why I felt drawn to you."
"He is something of a magnet for strange things, and he has followed me my entire life."
"Is he helpful or harmful?"
Katya wondered if Nadia recognized his eyes and her own were the same color, the icy blue of a Siberian winter. She quickly tried to change the subject.
"I'll let you in on a little secret. Do you know why they don't tell us anything in the briefing?"
"Because they don't know what they're dealing with?"
"Exactly. They are smart enough to know I am proficient at dealing with such things," Katya said. "And he makes it possible."
"Do you know his name?"
"I have some ideas."
Katya deigned not to mention his name, as her father's full name of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin still carried a negative stigma even in the decades since the revolution. She could not choose her parents or comrades, but she could make the best of the situations life gave her. She turned the plane towards home, preparing to rejoin the squadron.