• Published 16th Nov 2012
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A Great Endeavor - Rune Soldier Dan



On July 3, 1943, Equestria declared war on the Axis Powers. These are the stories of those times.

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Chapter 8: Warlocks in Winter (Part 2)

Several days after the winter offensive began, Allied commanders finally realized the strength behind the assault. Patton was already aligning his forces for a counterblow, but the engaged units were floundering for want of leadership. The battered 1st and 9th US armies were nominally under General Bradley’s command, but the ill-lucked officer was in Paris when the attack struck. Eisenhower needed a leader for the defense, and he needed it yesterday.

General Montgomery would have been a solid, but controversial choice. As a veteran of the Africa front, he was well-versed in deflecting the blitzkrieg with ad-hoc forces. But he was distrusted by his allies. Cooperation with the Cloud Kickers would be essential, and they despised him for blaming the Arnhem defeat on Soarin. With the old Anglo-American rivalry rising, the US armies would scarcely be more cooperative.

Instead, Eisenhower settled on a less-disliked, but no less controversial appointment. Princess Celestia had been a frequent sight in his headquarters, flying out when ordered to oversee battles and provide leadership. Months of quietly doing her duty had earned Eisenhower’s trust, and now she was charged with blunting the last German assault. Specifically, he ordered her to hold the Meuse River at all costs. Bastogne, St. Vith, and the other crossroad towns would be on their own until Patton arrived.




December 19, 1944
North of Bastogne




“FIVE HOURS?!!”

Peiper’s engineer just nodded, cool as the snow around them. “Yes Sir, about five hours to clear the mines. No way around it.”

Colonel Peiper growled, pinching the bridge of his nose. “The mighty Waffen-SS, crippled by mines and snow…right, get on it.”

The young colonel smiled wanly as the next man approached him. “Sergeant Bergen, I really hope you have better news for me.”

They had served together long enough to be comfortable in each other’s presence. Bergen offered his officer a cigarette, then leaned in to light the smoke off his own.

“Well, we took St. Vith.” Another of the crossroad towns in German hands, though the sergeant hardly sounded jubilant. “30 hours behind schedule. They had to commit warlocks to do it, too. Any idea how much unicorn dust we have to work with?”

“Not a clue.”

Peiper blew out a cloud, tobacco smoke mixing with his chilly breath. “All the warlocks are in the southern attacks. They gave me extra panzers to compensate, but we’re nowhere close to being on schedule. We need to pick up the pace.”

The men smoked in silence for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts as prisoners trudged past them. Bergen’s thumbs were hooked over his belt, the crag-faced blonde letting his cigarette dangle in his mouth. Peiper gripped his in his teeth, hands thrust into pockets and foot tapping irately. The Meuse River – his own objective – was almost too much to hope for at this point, let alone Antwerp and Brussels beyond. Too much time had been lost the last few days. Too much life had been lost in the last few years. There wasn’t enough left for the task at hand. It was hopeless.

But was it? Maybe someone else would move faster than expected, or the Allies would respond slower. Maybe some unexpected help would arrive – even a few soldiers would be decisive if they carried a certain chalky powder. Maybe all their efforts would be barely enough. Counting on luck to carry them through was sheer desperation…

“But what else can we do?”

Peiper cast an embarrassed glance to the side, but Bergen hadn’t heard him. The slim sergeant was leaning forward, thumbs now hooked in his back pockets. His attention had become fixed on the prisoner column. American soldiers, with maybe a dozen earth ponies mixed in with them. A nervous lieutenant with a Bronks accent was trying to keep them organized, but the pace was still painfully slow. It would’ve been nice to send the whole gang to the rear, but Peiper couldn’t spare the men to do even that.

Bergen lit a new cigarette for himself, bizarrely interested in the spectacle. An orange mare was giving one of her human comrades a lift, but even she was starting to lag from fatigue.

“Do we really have time to bother with prisoners?” Bergen grunted.

Peiper shrugged laconically. “Not really.”

They smoked in silence for another few minutes, watching their disarmed foes trudge past. Bergen removed his hand from his pocket and started fidgeting with his collar button. He lit his third cigarette, and lit Peiper’s second off it. They puffed silently, both minds racing. The conversation had led them to a hard subject, and neither was keen to continue.

A very large part of Colonel Peiper wanted to move on. Drop the cigarette into the snow and check on the minesweepers. Leave this strange, unspoken abyss behind them.

Instead, he opened his mouth. “If we lose this fight, we’ll spend the rest of our lives wondering. ‘Could things have been different if we fought a little harder, or moved a little faster?’”

“Yep,” Bergen said with even neutrality, lighting yet another smoke. He really should conserve his rations, but what the hell? They might all die today anyway.

Others had noticed the orange mare’s fatigue. After a hushed argument, her rider painfully dismounted and got on the large red pony. The American’s coat was discolored from a bleeding back wound, but he seemed more worried about the mare.

“Sergeant,” Peiper began, never making eye contact. “You need to do everything to make sure we win this. No matter what. Those are your orders.”

Bergen was no fool. An eye slid to the side to take in his officer. “Sir...exactly, what are you ordering me to do?”

Peiper gave a mental sigh. He counted Bergen as a friend, but the man was pragmatic. If they found themselves on trial for war crimes, Bergen wanted to have every soldier’s best defense: ‘I was only following orders.’ And if Peiper was specific, it couldn’t be deflected back with the claim that he ordered no atrocities.

The young colonel swallowed and turned fully to his sergeant. “Fine. Bergen, here are your orders…”



------



December 20, 1944
Namur, Belgium
Along the Meuse River



When word came that Princess Celestia was in command, no one quite knew what to think. Several soldiers asked Rarity for her opinion, but she didn’t know either. Celestia was wise and kind, certainly, but a military officer? Even Rarity couldn’t be sure she’d succeed at her chosen task.

The Princess hadn’t brought the sun with her to Namur. Grey clouds filled the sky, making a good match for the town below. Drab houses poked out of dirty snow, and even the people seemed grey and worn. There was just something about this place that seemed to suck the color out of everything.

If the setting was cheerless, the soldiers matched it perfectly. Faces were set in tight, worried frowns. The lucky ones huddled in buildings, and the rest made camp amidst the oil-stained snow. The British regulars Rarity traveled with were the only fresh, front-line soldiers to be seen. The rest? Military police. Truck drivers. Refugees from shattered units. Celestia was to hold the bridges at all costs, but it would be ugly if the Germans attacked.

At least there were tanks, and Rarity wasn’t the only one happy to see them. Squadrons of British “fireflies,” parked protectively in front of their infantry comrades.

Rarity swallowed as she strode down those dirty streets. With the tanks here, the river seemed secure. Maybe Celestia would listen to what she had to say.

She shook her head. Of course Celestia would listen. She had to.

Rarity was no exception to the omnipresent dirt – it was painfully obvious on her white coat, but she was used to it after six months at war.

Somehow, neither the filth nor the greyness seemed to touch Celestia. The princess’ hair was as vibrant as ever, and her coat as pure. The alicorn was surrounded by a gaggle of nervous officers, each one perfectly happy to be receiving orders. Having someone ‘in charge’ meant direction and planning, even if that someone happened to be a pony. Pride and rivalries had been forgotten as the death toll mounted.

“Your Highness,” Rarity stuttered, poking her head in between two grey, dirty men. Then a little louder, “Your Highness!”

Celestia looked at her, and the gaze caused Rarity to cringe. There was a…hardness around the princess that she hadn’t seen before. The gaze was cool and aloof, more reminiscent of a stern aristocrat than the kindly ruler Rarity knew. Even the soldiers around her seemed cowed in her presence.

Ignoring the sidelong glares of a few humans, Rarity went on. “Princess, it’s Twilight Sparkle. A few of the refugees said she’s trapped in Bastogne. Is there…”

At the wrong moment, she felt all of their gazes. She flushed, knowing they would hold her in contempt for asking. But her friendship outweighed her fear. “Can we break through to them? Help them somehow? Can we at least get her out of there?”

“Wrong side of the river,” one of the officers grunted.

Rarity swallowed again and braced herself, looking sternly ahead. She had learned very quickly that the war didn’t care for individuals. Mueller had become a great friend, and the war swallowed him whole. Not one of these officers cared for him, or for Twilight either. The friendships, the people…they simply didn’t count when it came to war.

One of the captains caught her gaze, and she glared fiercely. Maybe it was a silly thing to hope for, but she’d be as silly as she needed to be for Twilight. It was stupid to ask an army to move to save one life, but Rarity would be the stupidest pony in the world if it meant saving Twilight. Let the humans laugh! Let them titter and gossip about how soft Equestrians are. Twilight was worth it. She was worth it to Rarity, and she was definitely worth it to Celestia.

To her surprise, the captain didn’t laugh or get angry. He just sighed and looked away. These men had seen war. They knew what was going through Rarity’s head, and saw a little bit of themselves in it. When a close friend was in danger, who cared for logic?

Of course it was worth risking the war to save one life.

But of course it wasn’t.

The tired men shifted quietly away from Rarity, looking to Celestia to say what needed to be said. Some of them had to be wondering if she had the strength to say it.

It lasted for an instant, but it was there – the mask of the aloof general dropped, and the Princess grimaced. Twilight Sparkle might die in a thousand morbid ways, or might already be dead. She’d blame herself forever if it happened. But great trust had been placed in Celestia. She held the lives of thousands in her hooves, maybe even the fate of the war. She couldn’t betray that. Everyone knew the river was first priority, and there wasn’t even enough to defend it well.

Everyone gave a start when one of the grey-faced men took a step forward and spoke. “Ma’am, maybe we could spare something? Launch a raid, pull out their wounded? Give Jerry something to think about?”

Rarity looked at the man, eyes wide. She didn’t expect any of them to speak up for her.

Any of ‘them.’ How silly of me. Rarity gave a tiny smile and nodded at him. The knot of grey men was more than that, they were that many individuals. Not just a crowd looking down on her, but each one of them with a mind, with thoughts and feelings and Generosity. A few were smirking, others had sympathetic or supportive eyes. No two completely alike.

Individuals. She was asking them to fight and die for Twilight’s sake. Rarity felt a strange weariness settle on her head. But Twilight’s worth it.

Celestia said it in a voice like a mother shushing her baby, but the words were reproachful. “There will be no attack.”

“But-“ Rarity and the man who spoke up said it at the same time.

The tone didn’t change, but – coming from Celestia – no argument was brokered. “This is not an open meeting. Return to your unit and await orders.”

Celestia glanced at Rarity’s advocate and the man shrunk backwards, avoiding the gaze. A few of the heads bobbed gently. No one could argue the princess was right.

She didn’t even say Rarity’s name. The little unicorn glared at her princess for a second before her eye slid to the side. Around her stood the motely band of individuals she wanted to fight for Twilight. And die for her. Some were heroes at heart and would do so gladly.

Slowly, Rarity’s head lowered in defeat. She wanted to argue. She knew Celestia loved Twilight, that she wasn’t as indifferent as she appeared before the officers. Rarity wanted to pounce on that like a weakness and twist Celestia’s guilt until she acquiesced.

But somehow, she didn’t have the heart to do it.

The streets were grey and cold as she plod back to their campsite. Plenty of pony cooks had come to Europe, but none were around here. Dinner would be a ration bar, same as it had been for the last week. Men and ponies huddled around weak fires, occupying themselves with worrying and being cold.

At least two warm faces greeted her: Stern Glare, her guard, and a friendly little Londoner named Ben Cook.

Her face told them the answer. Stern shrugged unhappily. “I told you she wouldn’t.”

“And I still had to try,” Rarity came back with a sad smile.

“Hey, you got guts. I sure couldn’t do it.” Cook grinned and passed her a tin cup. Bless him, it was piping hot and had a tea bag in it.

He had scrounged some sugar for the tea, and he beamed when she noticed. Cook was one of those people who just lived for others. He would raise the sun himself if he could.

It was easy to see him as an individual. Stern, too. But the rest of them, they were more than greyness and uniforms. Each one was a life. Princess Celestia was right. To risk many lives for one would be selfish.

Individuals, not just crowds. She frowned, letting her head sink once more. Rarity had acquired a strange kind of wisdom, one she would be far happier without.

She sighed and turned away, looking to curl up in her bedroll for a while. There wasn’t much else to do.

“Hey, who’s the letter from?” Cook’s voice called from behind her. Rarity turned, blinking, causing a small envelope to dislodge from her mane.

Cook grinned slyly. “Wotsit you call it, your ‘special somepony?’”

Rarity ignored him, looking with befuddlement at the note. In her mane? How on earth did it get there? Blinking and wondering, she daintily slit the seal with her magic and floated the paper up before her.



Rarity,

The matter is being taken care of. Please trust me.

You must not question me now, Rarity. I promise, when this is over, you can say whatever you want to me and I will listen.

Stay warm,

Princess Celestia



The note crumpled into her saddlebag, Rarity not daring to give it a second glance. The Princess listened to her. Twilight would be rescued, and it would be other people who had to see their friends die.

Somehow, that didn’t cheer her up very much. It was still far too cold out here. Rarity shivered and crawled into her bedroll, curling up into as tight a ball as she could.


------


The rivalry had turned into a team, and it was as good a team as anyone could ask for.

Twilight Sparkle, the unicorn prodigy. Brilliant with numbers, data, and maps. She had the deployments of every unit in the Bastogne festung memorized, almost down to the platoon. All she needed was a town name and she could recite how recently it had been attacked. A unit number would bring out how many fights the men had been in and how much fight they had left.

For all her knowledge and memory, though, Twilight didn’t know how to lead soldiers into battle. That task fell to General Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne, commander of the defense. Was an attack a feint or an assault? Which position should be bolstered with their precious few tanks? And what was the foe thinking? Seeing the truth through the fog of war took instinct and training, not just knowledge.

And they were rising to the occasion. The duo and a host of lesser officers now filled the map room. The windows were boarded up – only a few artillery shells had hit the town, but best not to take chances. Kerosene lamps hung day and night, offering small warmth to those inside. People stamped their feet, drank hot coffee, and endured the cold. You couldn’t get away from it, so you just made do.

Not a face was smiling as they discussed the situation. They had done well so far, frustrating the enemy at every turn. But help was a long way off, and everything was running low. Food. Ammo. Men. Twilight could tally and organize things magnificently, make them stretch further than they had any right to. But no matter how often you counted, there was less every day. The Germans kept slogging forward.

“They don’t have a choice but to hit us,” McAuliffe grumbled, tracing the circle around Bastogne with his finger. “Too much of their army has spilled past us. If they retreat, they’ll need the crossroads to escape. They’ll throw everything at us if they need to, if that’s what it takes.”

In the grand scheme of things, it was wonderful. With the Germans hesitating, looking back instead of forwards, their attack was faltering. To those in Bastogne, though, it was a dubious honor. The Germans were as trapped as the 101st, and would fight like wolves to secure their road home.

Col. Beckett pointed to another, smaller circle. His voice was confident, the heart behind it believing more and more that things would work out alright. “We command the heights. While we have that, we can see wherever they attack and pound it with the guns up there. They’re not going to be able to break us, not if we keep going like we have been.”

McAuliffe’s eyebrows raised. “Maybe. At least we can hold out until Patton shows up.”

“Damn Patton,” Beckett snapped with a smile. He was a Bradley man through-and-through. “Patton can clean up after we’re done.”

“…Pardon my French, Miss Sparkle,” he added as an afterthought.

Twilight nodded wanly, sipping bleary-eyed at her coffee. The bookish unicorn was pulling her weight, but the bad food, cold, and long hours were hitting her a lot harder than the athletic soldiers.

McAuliffe circled one of the outlying villages with the pencil. “Anyway, first item on our agenda: This place was hit yesterday evening. They held on, but there’s less than a hundred left and the nearby sectors are already strapped. Where can we pull troops from?”

“Quiet front over here, Sir.”

The general eyed the indicated part and grunted. “We’ve already stripped almost everything from there. Can we borrow from our reserve?”

Beckett’s response was silenced by a thumping knock at the door. An officer opened it, letting in the comparative chill of the main hall. A frowning captain in an army uniform stepped quickly past, snow on his boots and grime-faced.

He saluted McAuliffe, offering an envelope with his other hand. “Message to you, Sir. Jerry’s compliments.”

Another grunt came from the general, his eyes still moving over the list of units around Bastogne. “Maybe just send the tanks up from…er, read it out, Captain. I’m a little busy here.”

The captain nodded and tore open the envelope, pausing once to cough wetly before beginning.



”To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.”



“Nuts.”

McAuliffe grumbled the word and shrugged, eyes still moving down his list.

An expectant silence hung over the others, but that seemed to be all the general had to say on the matter. He hummed a tuneless ditty as he searched for the answer, finally settling on one. “Those stragglers from the 89th, they just fell in around the villages on the East side. Might as well transfer them somewhere more important.”

Everyone else still seemed to be waiting for his opinion on the message. He glanced upward pointedly, annoyed at the silence. “Thoughts, people?”

“It, it’ll take time to pull them out,” Twilight said, pulling herself back to reality. “We might just shuffle – send troops from the reserve as reinforcements, and pull those soldiers back to the reserve.”

“Sounds good,” McAuliffe almost snapped, briskly moving the conversation along. “Next up: One of the fuel depots about ten miles out is about to be overrun. My first instinct is to just blow it, but we’re low on gas ourselves here. Do we have any prospects of pulling anything out before Jerry gets there?”

The captain coughed loudly. When that did not interrupt the general’s musings, he coughed again.

“Blow your nose, Captain,” McAuliffe said distractedly.

“Sir, the Germans will be expecting an answer. What is your response?”

“Ah, shoot, I dunno.” McAuliffe scratched the back of his head, frowning. They weren’t surrendering – not yet, anyway – but he really didn’t want to waste time with negotiations or letters or-

Twilight suddenly grinned as a thought hit her head. The rough general looked at her, eyebrows raised. There wasn’t anything funny about the situation, especially for her. No unicorn wanted to be a prisoner.

“Something funny, Miss Sparkle?”

There it was again, the flash of a smile as the thought returned. She looked at him. There were bags under those big eyes, but the gears of knowledge behind them had released a spark of humor.

“Why not just say the first thing you said?”

There were several blinks around the table. Beckett was the first to crack a grin, but others followed. The worn captain barked a laugh.

McAuliffe gave that vague smile of someone who doesn’t quite get the joke. “Uh, which was…?”



------



“Nuts?”

“Nuts,” Stauller said with a shrug. “’From the American Commander: Nuts.’ That’s all the return letter said.

His companion – a witty black-hair named Derek – stopped his trek for a moment, pausing to lean on a tree jutting out at a 45-degree angle. This damn hill. More like a mountain.

“So that’s a ‘no?’” Derek grumbled. He wasn’t used to missing a joke.

“Seems so.”

“So why didn’t they just say ‘no?’” Derek was breathing heavily as he grumbled, but they were almost there. “Damn Americans. They think they’re cute.”

Private Gessler fell in with the pair – a 14-year old, keeping up as best as he could. “You’d rather be on the East front? I heard the Russians kill our kind even if we surrender.”

Derek gave the kid a hard glance, but he did that to all the SS soldiers. Especially the kids. “The Reds never need a good excuse. And I’d rather be on the God-given road up this hill.”

“Their guns are watching the road,” Stauller said dully.

“Tch.” Derek punched his shoulder, resuming his trudge through the snow. “Stauller, when someone is complaining, they’re not interested in logic.”

A fourth man met them, retracing his steps back down the mountain. There was little love between the two cynics and the zealot Haufmann, but today they were all business.

The sharp-faced fanatic held up a hand as he approached the other three. “They’re just over that next ridgeline. Be ready.”

“Where’s Fritz?”

Their fifth. Five men assaulting an American artillery emplacement, complete with guards and infantry support.

But they were warlocks. It would be enough.

“He’ll be coming from the sky, as usual. The showoff.” Haufmann grunted the words, fumbling with his pouch. He dropped it once before managing to get it open. It was so cold out here.

The others began readying their own tools, taking out pinches of the dangerous powder. Unicorn dust. Unethical, perhaps, but ethics wouldn’t save Germany from destruction.

“I hate how it makes me feel,” Derek grunted. “I always throw up afterwards. Anyone else hear about Obsfuhrer Kraftstein? His third time using it, he just starts coughing up blood and doesn’t stop until he’s dead.”

“Could happen to any of us,” Stauller muttered in discrete agreement.

This wasn’t natural. Every warlock was familiar with the vague, but undeniable feeling of wrongness whenever they used the powder. Their bodies rebelled against it. Sometimes violently.

Still…

Haufmann took his own powder by licking it. “No help for it.”

Ja, ja, no help for it.” Derek hated the taste – like sweetened chalkdust – so he just snorted his own. “I just hope Fritz follows our lead.”

And they were off. The dust brought with it physical strain, but an amazing awareness. A rush of sensation as the mundane human body felt the magic flow through it. Sensing the burning inside as the precious dust was processed, and the eyes taking in every sight with perfect detail. Fueled by the rush, their bodies picked up speed, and their minds moved to match.

Gessler floated off the ground, but the rest just sped forward. Their feet never hit the snow long enough to leave a mark, but their passage was marked by scorched land as their magical auras came alive. The distance was crossed in seconds, and the four of them flew speedily over the final ridge. They saw the big guns. They saw the people.

Artillerymen of all armies had reputations as cowards, but the men they fell upon were steel. These soldiers had fended off all the conventional attacks on their position, and were used to melee and sacrifice. They were hardened by battle and the knowledge that everyone in the town below was counting on them. Many had seen warlocks before, and knew their shields were far from invincible. All it took was one lucky bullet.

That wasn’t to say they weren’t surprised. No one could climb the ice-slick ridge the warlocks had leapt, so they never even guarded it. A lot of things changed when warlocks hit the field.

Pistol and carbine shots rang out as the crews exploded into activity. Cook fires and card games were abandoned as American soldiers leapt into foxholes and behind their howitzers.

Such instincts served them well fighting tanks and infantry, but this was a different kind of battle. Derek swept upwards with his arm, and a line of fire exploded out of the ground and dashed before him. Scorched bodies were thrown out of foxholes. The line crossed one of the cannons and it leapt into the air, mangled and twisted.

Sometimes there were explosions without fire wherever the men gestured. Stauller had a bit more control, channeling his power into efficient magic bursts that sought out their target. The rest were just wielding a power they could not hope to master. Even in the heat of combat, there was small relief as they felt the magic wane slowly, fired off as clumsy, brutal death at their foes.

Derek winced as his aura flashed bright for an instant. A bullet that had his name on it had been whisked away by the unchecked power swirling about him. The Americans were overwhelmed, but they had a last card to play. As much firepower as they could muster flew at the assaulting warlocks, and under that cover a trio of unicorns in golden armor charged.

A white mare with horn shining silver came at Stauller, but he was the best of them. A swipe of his hand, and a mystic parry sent her reeling. He didn’t have any style, just efficiency. He fought defensively, not taking chances. He didn’t have to.

One unicorn, a larger male, paused before Gessler and raised its horn in salute. It was a last mistake. Gessler rushed his front at the same time Haufmann struck from the side. The unicorn was lightning fast – both blows were parried by hasty magic shields, but the action had turned him fully away from Derek. The Wehmacht veteran hurled a cone of grey fire at him, annihilating the poor fool.

Derek gave a grim smile. Unicorns had romantic notions of ‘magic duels,’ one-one-one combat between spellcasters. Those who survived learned very quickly that that’s not how this war worked.

Which left…

Derek braced suddenly, willing his shield to strengthen as the third unicorn attacked. She was small and brown, and apparently scrappy as hell. She didn’t stop to channel her own magic, she just plunged into his shield, lighting up her horn like a purple sun. She sliced right through it and plowed into him. A last-instant dodge let Derek avoid the horn, but not the mass behind it. He gasped as she slammed into him.

She didn’t stop. She reared back and punched him, breaking a rib with a solid hoof. Derek grunted and raised his arms. The Equestrian braced, but the magic wasn’t aimed at her. Derek just blew himself backwards with telekinesis. Unsubtle and messy, but he needed space. This mare was good at her job.

The launch had propelled him a few dozen feet that she was quickly crossing. The other warlocks had turned on Stauller’s “duel,” but she wasn’t about to give them time to save him.

The face was memorable. She was probably very cute by Equestrian standards, with the big eyes and short stature that marked most of the species. But on her face was written hatred. Not the grimace soldiers get as they kill each other to stay alive. No, to her, this was very, very personal.

A small part of Derek’s brain shrugged. It made sense, of course. By now, they had to know how warlocks got their powers. The cruel harvest. Unicorns in cages, waiting until their horn had regrown enough to take again. Derek always thought cutting a horn would be like cutting a nail, but his brother was in the business and said otherwise. He said that unicorns could sense it, that they screamed even if they got morphine first. And she had to know it. Of course she hated him.

She had green eyes. A gold band was around her horn. A wedding ring?

And then she was gone. A meteor of flame fell from the sky, close enough to scorch Derek’s face. It was hot, hot enough to bake through the snow and a few inches of the rock beneath. Maybe her ring had been blown free – he liked to think a little bit of her survived.

He looked up and scowled. Fritz. With scarf billowing behind him, goggles over his eyes, riding his damn motorcycle in the sky. Stauller was effective, but Fritz had style. Maybe it made him a better warlock, because he took to flying his precious bike through the sky like it wasn’t even a thing. Smile like the sunrise, ego like he raised the sun himself, God-damned “Just in Time” Fritz. He did that on purpose.

“Just in time, eh, Derek?” The fifth warlock called down to him.

Derek didn’t even give him a response. Let Fritz have his style. Derek just wanted to do his duty and go home after the war was lost. Won. Whatever.

The Allies had lost the heights, but that didn’t stop them from trying to hang on. German infantry was attacking up the road again, and this time there were no big guns to stop them. However tenacious the defenders might be, now they were just scattered men without any support. Easy prey.

The crews kept fighting after the unicorns fell, but some were starting to panic. Derek would’ve done the same. The ones fleeing were the smart ones.

A redhead with more freckles than face kept firing his carbine. There were few enough left that Derek could start seeing them as individuals, not that he cared to.

“Sorry,” he said with a laconic shrug, and pressed his fingers together. He tried to kill the man with a single bolt, like how Stauller did it. The concentrated beam frayed and flared almost immediately, burning the kid and everything within five meters of him. Derek shrugged again. Messy or clean, no real difference.

The last of the crews were bolting. A few of the German tanks and halftracks had already broken through to the warlocks, and the rest weren’t far behind. The hill’s defenses had been neatly punctured, and now it rested in German hands.

Fritz had come down, and gestured the others over to the hillcrest. “Nice view?”

Bastogne and the surrounding countryside. Stauller nodded. “Damn nice view.”





As December waned, Bastogne’s fate balanced on the edge of a knife. The Americans in the town were short of all supplies, utterly exhausted, and enjoyed no prospects of immediate relief. The Germans needed Bastogne, and needed it badly. It would be crucial if they broke through the Meuse, and it would be crucial if they had to retreat. For a week they attacked, tenacious soldiers and heavy tanks fighting with every ounce of strength and wit they possessed. And for a week the Allied troops held on, repulsing each blow with their own might and cunning.

The weak link in McAuliffe’s chain was an isolated, vital hill that commanded the area. The Germans assaulted it on December 20 but were narrowly repulsed by ad hoc forces. On December 22 a new attack was made, this time employing warlocks to strike in support of the conventional forces. This blow was a total success, and the hill was overrun in a matter of hours.

The perimeter around Bastogne remained intact, but the siege had been turned on its head. Now it was the Allies under constant, accurate artillery fire. Now it was them who had every move seen by the enemy. The timely shuffling of reserves now was observed, and the tired Americans were fired upon every step they took.

McAuliffe and Twilight saw the writing on the wall. After a terse late-night discussion, they agreed to commit to a counter-attack to take back the hill. The bulk of their armor was arrayed to spearhead the hasty blow.

The massing of tanks was observed, and accounted for. As they sallied out, the shermans clashed almost immediately with tigers and king tigers of the 2nd Panzer division, ready and waiting for them. The brief confrontation savaged the American counterblow. The remaining tanks limped behind the tentative safety of the perimeter. From the hill above, artillery harried the retreat well after the battle was lost.

And yet above even the seized hill, flecks of color were visible. Lines of clear sky were being drawn through the endless overcast. The pegasi had arrived in force. And more would come every day, their leaders now well aware of the scale of this last great Axis offensive. After the pegasi would come the infinite Allied bombers, and on their heels would come Patton. The noose had tightened, both around McAuliffe and his assailants. Now it just remained to be seen who would fall first.

And the final stage of the Siege began.

Author's Note:

Huh, got my first...hate-mail regarding this story. Kinda shook me up at first, but I guess that's just the internet for you. There are some odd people out there, and that's coming from a guy who writes pony fanfiction.

There is a bit of a point of divergence here...historically, the heights were never taken and Bastogne remained fairly secure throughout the siege. It seems reasonable to think that the presence of German 'wizards' might change things, able to launch powerful assaults without buildup or armor support. Certainly enough for a tactical edge, which is all that would be needed to take a single hill. That one event then sets up a rather more desperate battle for Bastogne...

And yes, McAuliffe's famous catchphrase was kind of uttered on accident. Maybe not as badass as shouting "NUTS" with a waving American flag and explosion in the background. But to me it makes him feel more like a human than a statue.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Call me at home if you wanna go out for brews later.

Dan

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