Average Wednesday

this chapter contains violence including brief graphic violence.

I

Between the earth and firmament she could see nothing but fire.

Amid the ruins of the old ghetto she stood, like a gnat entranced by lamp-light.

There was screaming and running and cries for help and cries for deliverance.

People begged of unlistening gods to explain the events of that dire night.

Around her the Catastrophe unfolded, its fires sweeping across the meagerness that they had been given and now denied. She saw the old church burning, and the housing projects burning and crumbling, she did not even know cement could burn, but it was. Fire swept across splintered streets, and it engulfed the play park, and it melted the bus stop into an amorphous blob of plastic. Power lines and telephone lines flashed red, frayed by some unseen pressure as their poles wildly burned and their boxes sizzled.

Stunned, shaking, her eyes drawn wide enough to tear from the smoke and heat, she saw it, at the epicenter, the thing that had come in the blink of an eye like red thunder.

Beneath the Dragon and its fury, a woman walked, standing tall, proud even.

When the woman turned her head over her shoulder to look at her, she wept.

She reached out a hand, but the woman was gone, yet standing, and still, gone.

“You’ll be fine.” She said, with a gentle, careless, selfish smile.

The Dragon bellowed hatred, all eyes and horns and scales and wings.

The Woman turned to face it, and produced a hunk of purple, cubic rock.

“I want you out of our home.” She said.

There was a flash, and Minerva choked, and the dance of dreams was done, and the things that could not be changed settled, planning to haunt her life instead of her sleep.

II

 

“…and that was the weather! Now, for all you holiday travelers out there, be advised that the Charibdys has been spotted over the skies of Kalghatha and the government there has grounded all non-military high altitude flight in the area as a result. So if you were looking to build some water association in the sacred river, either put it off until they sound the all-clear, or try to find a private, low altitude flight to get where you’re go—“

Minerva reached a hand out and struck the radio-alarm clock to quiet it down.

Her hand was shaking, and it crawled over the radio and back onto her mattress on the floor, before gripping the bedsheets in cold despair. She breathed in, deep and fast, and she breathed out with a sputtering sob. She had traveled back to the ghetto, ever so briefly again, just in time for the Catastrophe. She had the six eyes of the Dragon and its oil-slick skin and its alien maw burning in the back of her eyes like the discolored haze left on an old, overused box television. It was enough to drive anyone with a soul to cry.

So she gave herself some time to cry and to think and to decompress.

She had no classes to teach or to sit-in on Wednesdays.

Minerva was a very regimental sort of person, so she gave herself fifteen minutes.

Sitting up after this moment of personal kindness, Minerva stretched out her other arm and pulled open the curtain on the other side of her mattress. She looked out the window of her second story room; though it was humble in amenities, it boasted a commanding view that still inspired awe in her. She saw the pristine waters of the lakefront, and the sweeping green patches of trees dotting the landscape, and the streets straddling the water and shore, packed with students coming and going to class and to life in general.

She saw the National out the window and the National saw her.

Lake Scio was a popular spot, and there were many lakefront apartment buildings, small shops and a food court servicing the radius of the water. Minerva felt calm staring at the water. There was beauty and balefulness both in this sight, in this place she was in.

She had been dealt some blows in life, but things were no longer so bleak.

Reaching again for the little table beside her mattress, Minerva stretched her arm past the radio-alarm clock and seized upon a glass of water. She drank it in one gulp. Then, she took a pill-holder from the same table-top, and popped open the little cap in the middle, labeled “Wednesday.” From there, Minerva took a little violet pill up to her mouth.

Another object began to ring and buzz and shake around atop her bedside table.

Before Minerva could take her pill, her homunculus received a call.

She seized the chunky little wearable, its armband straightening out as soon as the call was received, for ease of holding. Minerva put the thing to her ear, hearing through the side of the crystalline touchscreen, and speaking into a microphone hidden in the armband.

Displayed the screen, without an associated picture, was the name “Beatrix Kolsa.”

“What do you want?” Minerva asked. “Talk fast. I have to take a pill sublingually.”

“Can you do that while you come in, dear? I’ve got a special project for you!”

On the other side of the phone Beatrix Kolsa, Professor of Ancient Magical History, replied with a bubbly and unrestrained voice that irritated Minerva both in tone and content.

“Oh my god, I’m off today. I do not work today, Beatrix.” Minerva said.

“Would you work for me?” Beatrix replied in a pathetic tone of voice.

Minerva sighed. “Absolutely not! I’m sure the Department isn’t paying for it.”

There was a pause, a knowing silence, while some mischief brewed.

“What if I paid you? I just need a little help casting a spell.”

“You could not pay me enough to work today, Beatrix.”

“Would you work if I gave you a piece of uncut Alpanite?” Beatrix said cheekily.

Minerva sighed ever more deeply. She rubbed her hands over her face.

“Ugh! I’ll be there in an hour.”

She slashed viciously with her finger across the screen, cutting the call.

Minerva collapsed back onto her bed and popped the pill in her mouth.

Beatrix sure knew her to a frightening degree.

Alpanite was a stone of pure concentrated Fire.

Minerva closed her fists and kicked her legs.

She felt excited about it, and she hated how excited she was.

In a fit of mixed frustration and elation, she decided to just swallow her pill instead.

She finally stood from her bed, slipped out of her pajamas and picked up her glasses.

Wrapping her long, messy black hair into a ponytail, Minerva quickly assembled an outfit from among the very limited choices in her closet. She donned a cheap green button-down shirt, a black hoodie and a frayed pair of pants, and clapped her homunculus to her wrist. As it did whenever she wore it, the homunculus informed her that it had 92% of its storage space free. There were barely any spells downloaded to its memory.

After one last look out the window, Minerva left her room.

She had seen a bird, and it was worth noticing.

Outside her room was a hallway. There was one other door on her side of the hall, and two on the opposite side. Downstairs, the humble two-story house opened up, with a kitchen, a larger bathroom, laundry room, and a common hall. Minerva shambled into the kitchen, seeking with blurry, drowsy vision for the cupboard with her name on it, which contained her own food. Her eyes drifted; she found a note, scribbled in crayon.

Atop a bowl sealed with tin foil, standing out on the kitchen island, the note read:

Minnie! I made Oatmeal!! It has blueberries and cinnamon!

Around the letters were various hand-drawn emoji hearts and clapping hands.

Smiling, Minerva picked up a spoon, carefully removed the foil, and ate the oatmeal while drinking orange juice from a carton. It was warm, sweet, wholesome; much like the little girl that had made it and left it. Filled up and smiling, she supposed there was no sense in putting it off any longer, and finally departed her home for the lakeside road.

Outdoors, it was mid-morning. The sun was rose diligently and the wind carried the scent of the lake water and the dust from the shore. It was refreshing weather, but for those who could feel it, the auras were off. They were always off. But there were days where, if one could feel it, one really felt it; days where the overbearing Water-aligned auras of the National Academy of Esoteric Arts pushed down like a layer of emotional gravity. For one with as strong an aura of Fire and Metal as Minerva, the National was at its most antithetical.

With the knowledge she wielded now, came a perception of a world that was beautiful but could easily be unkind. The National by its very nature did not want her.

But she stayed.

She tried not to let it get her down as she walked.

Hands in her pockets, face up and eyes ahead, she walked, without concern. At least, until someone passed, paying too-close attention to her on the roads. Then her eyes turned the other way as to avoid their gaze, and she felt their sight meeting her form as a passing discomfort. It was an almost instinctual behavior, something she had learned from years of being too-different in too many ways from the common Otrarian on the streets.

From the uneven old stones along the lake, she made it to the polished concrete roads of the National, where buildings clustered, and grew toward the sky, and shadowed her.

She walked, an ant amid these monuments. After the war, the National became the foremost academy of Magic in the world, they saw the esoteric as Power more than knowledge. Everything in the National was a display of power. She walked past the plazas and gardens, where students congregated under gazebos around statues of powerful men, void of history, known only for the money that made the selfsame statues. She walked along streets laden with plaques and commemorations. Past great glass domes and massive steel cubes and pyramidal shapes all housing classrooms and labs. She walked past men in suits and ties, girls in blazers and pencil skirts, past the only casual crowds all wearing high fashion, past the money and extravagance and the sort of beauty only wrought with gold.

She walked past a man in a severe uniform and felt trembling inside her.

Her eyes caught him and his seemed almost to take her apart.

In his black coat and pants, with an armband bearing a shield-shaped, arrow-perforated heart as a badge of honor, this leaguer laid a long scornful gaze upon her like a curse.

Her skin, honey-brown and darker than his, was all he saw and all he needed to see.

Dark eyes and hair certainly did not help, they were markers too. Neither did the features of her face, gentle though they were, soft and unpronounced. Perhaps he even took issue with her body, too angular and lean, untraditional, unlike the women he knew.

They crossed within meters of one another, enough to throw a punch.

For him, she would not avert her eyes or cower.

She stared at him, and he stared back.

She stopped, and held her ground, daring him to do the same.

He seemed to flinch first, to flinch right into his filthy little copper heart.

He kept on walking. She kept staring into his back, as if in challenge.

When he was gone, she kept moving.

For a second, she had seen the crowds around him stop to look.

Good.

Let them know that the fingers that carried out their hidden hate would be broken.

Satisfied, with her head held high, Minerva walked through the National.

She did not teach on Wednesdays, but she had work to do.

III

The Anthropology building was not a monument.

It was one of the original buildings, before the war was won and the money and interest came pouring in. It was a block, a pillar, lean and tight, three stories, all chalky stone. It did not shine and glimmer in the midday sun the way other buildings did. No arcane geometries went into it. This was just some halls and classrooms, and that’s what it looked like inside and out. Isolated in the old Academy’s Terrington plaza, the building was dedicated to a historical magician and to actual historical magic, those things forgotten in the post-war remembering. Students walked around it and very few seemed to delve inside.

Minerva walked up the steps and plunged into its gloom.

Around the corner of one lonely hall was the office of Beatrix Kolsa. It was open for office hours nobody would attend, and it was a mess. There was barely space for three people to stand side-by-side, not only because it was small but because it was littered with junk. There were stacks of books and documents, stuffed animals, a pile of knick-knacks like mushroom threaded necklaces and clay bangles. Beatrix’s desk and the shelves at its side dominated the space. Both were full to burst with things out of their places.

Behind the desk was the only thing its place. Beatrix was a lovely-looking older woman, tall and photogenic in face and form, with long, light clay-brown hair, peach-pink skin. Her fashion had taken an odd turn lately. She wore a flower crown; and over an immodest tanktop and a pair of sweatpants, looking more like a slacker than her students, she wore an eccentric brown coat. It looked like a fur coat, at first glance, but Minerva knew that the fuzz was fungus, and the texture was leaves and grass, and that it smelled.

To cover up the smell, Beatrix wore an even more aggressive cinnamon perfume.

When Minerva strolled into the office, she found Beatrix applying makeup.

“Let me guess,” Minerva said, “that’s some kind of natural oil, mineral crap, right?”

Beatrix applied a gentle coat of glossy brown on her lips, and kissed into the air.

“Every little bit helps.” She said.

“Just how much Earth association do you need to build?”

Beatrix smiled. “As much as possible. Which is why I need your help, coincidentally!”

Minerva figured that was the case. She crossed her arms and sighed.

“Are we finally going to cast the spells today?”

“No. If I were to do it now there is still a chance that the relics could be compromised. It’s hard for me to describe how fragile these things are. If there is even a miniscule chance that they will crumble under my care, I cannot risk it. So I’m still building association.”

Beatrix’s research was more important than teaching; that was a small part of why Minerva was there and taught classes. Her current project was of special importance. Her colleagues in Archeology had uncovered magical relics from civilizations dating back thousands of years. They were kept preserved in suspended animation, but to be studied, they had to be mended enough to withstand scrutiny. Reversing thousands of years of decay was a daunting task, and to cast the appropriate spells at their maximum expression would require a magician steeped in the aura of the Earth schema. These days, that was rare.

So Beatrix took it upon herself to volunteer for the task, and build enough Association with the Earth. Strongly associated spells were smoother, easier to control, more effective. Minerva could have cast a mending spell on those relics right now, but none would survive the force of the magic across their surfaces. Just the release of energy would crush them.

“So why did I come in? Do you have that alpanite around?” Minerva asked.

Beatrix opened a drawer, withdrew a fist-size rock, and laid it atop a stack of papers.

Minerva leaned in to look at it through her glasses.

Rough, ashen-black stone mixed with veins of what seemed like red glass.

When looked at closely, the veins pulsed with orange light in a specific sequence.

“You’ve been holding out on me all this time!” Minerva said, amicably.

Beatrix smiled. “I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to hand it to a pretty girl.”

Minerva frowned and glared. Beatrix chuckled.

“At any rate, it’s yours once you help me with a very menial task.”

Beatrix stood up from behind her desk, squeezed around it, and kicked over the pile of knickknacks in the corner. Minerva stared quizzically until the heap of junk fell away, and unveiled a cheap red clay planter pot the size of a small garbage can, containing a brown, knobby lump of something topped with a big violet flower. It was growing in black earth.

Minerva got a shiver just looking at it. She pointed a shaking finger at it.

“Beatrix, is that a mandrake in there? Did you smuggle in a mandrake? Did you hide a mandrake under a pile of garbage and leave it in your office all this time, Beatrix?”

Minerva’s voice grew to an increasingly odd pitch as she made herself more anxious.

“Yeah.” Beatrix calmly replied.

“I thought I was supposed to be the criminal!” Minerva whimpered, hugging herself.

“Oh, honey, it won’t kill you. That’s superstition. You’re a healthy young woman. You’ll probably black out and foam at the mouth. Most of the deaths are from choking during the coma, you know? That is, if you hear the scream at all, which we won’t!”

“You’re pulling it out?” Minerva screamed.

“That’s the idea. I’ll pull it out and you stun it. Use your preferred method for it.”

Minerva put a finger over her own lips, and quietly shook her head.

“This is crazy.”

“Do you not know any stunning spells?”

“I know plenty of ways to stun something! But why a damn Mandrake!”

Beatrix crossed her own arms and looked petulant, almost childishly so.

“I read an old Hortuchemic book that said grinding a Mandrake into a drink with some yak milk and spices produces a potion that improves one’s Earth auras.” She explained.

“I read in a new Hortuchemic book that Mandrakes will kill you!” Minerva replied.

Though the last thing Minerva wanted was to be seen as a coward, this endeavor was hazardous, unnecessary and irresponsible. Beatrix was important not only to the Academy, and to Minerva’s job, but also to Minerva’s general well-being and future, in a variety of ways. For Beatrix Kolsa to be killed by a mandrake in her own office, would be a tragedy of unspeakable proportion, especially if Minerva survives to be blamed for it all.

She was an Alwi and had to tread lightly. Also, she could potentially just die herself.

Mandrakes were not to be toyed with. Even their medicinal properties were largely untested, mostly because of their potential to murder whenever handled in any way.

“Do you want that alpanite or not?” Beatrix said, frowning pointedly at her.

Minerva bit the side of her thumb anxiously.

Beatrix stared at her through narrowed, impatient eyes.

“Fine. Fine! I’ll do it.” Minerva finally said.

She really wanted that alpanite. That was a few months’ salary for a T.A.

With the right buyer anyway.

Still, even the most meager hope for some added income was enough to tip things over.

Beatrix and Minerva set the pot gently in the center of the room and made as much room around it as they possibly could. They had no protective gear, and regardless most protective gear would not fully prevent a mandrake’s scream at such close ranges. So they had to give themselves the room needed to execute their tasks perfectly the first time.

“I’ll pull, you stun.” Beatrix said.

“I don’t keep a stun downloaded to my homunculus.” Minerva cautioned.

Beatrix put her hands on her hips and leaned into Minerva’s space.

Minerva held out her hands in defense. “Listen, I can cast a bunch verbally, its fine.”

“If you say so!” Beatrix stepped back into place. “What will you cast?”

“I’ll use Pherkan Smoke Dart. Fire magic will stun it more effectively.” Minerva said.

Across the planter, Beatrix looked at her with a mix of confusion and awe.

“I’ll be frank, I’ve never seen that spell cast. I do not know the timing.”

“I can draw out the incantation to take three seconds. So count down from three in your head and then pull out the mandrake, and I’ll be ready to stun it.” Minerva said.

Beatrix tapped her feet and rubbed her own chin.

“Three as in, one-two-three, or three as in, one-otraria, two-otraria—“

“Oh my god; hell if I know, Beatrix!” Minerva shouted.

Was she talking to an adult, an actual grown-up serious adult?

Beatrix sighed. “It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine. Let me know when you’re gonna go.”

Minerva breathed in, shaking a little. “I’m going.”

Her voice came out trembling, but its power was palpable.

I sweep at the fire on Iomagn’s back–”

One.

“—and at my enemies I cast his ash of stars—“

Two.

“—Pherkan—“

Beatrix pulled on the violet petals and out came the bulbous body of the mandrake and its almost cartoonishly miserable face, with its enormous gnarled mouth forever trapped in a depressed grimace, and its downcast black slit eyes, and its four tentacle-like root legs that danced in mid-air as the woman held it, wriggling and struggling, curiously unstunned.

Black earth peeled off its body, and it was clearly very distressed.

Everything had happened a little too early. “Oh—“

Before Beatrix could say anything and before Minerva could cast anything the Mandrake spread out its maw, vacuumed in air, and screamed a scream that shook the world. It sent everything on Beatrix’s desk flying, save the chunk of Alpanite, and it shattered every bauble in the room, including Minerva and Beatrix’s delicate brains.

Minerva fell and blacked out, robbed of all senses but the immediate sensation of foam bubbling in her mouth, and the sudden thud of her own head striking the ground.

IV

A jolt of electricity coursed through the darkness and into her body.

“—come on, show me that pretty smile!”

Minerva felt something gently striking her cheek and sat up suddenly.

She looked around in fear. Beatrix was in her personal space; and Beatrix’s own space was completely destroyed. The office was a mess, the wood of the desk was cracked, there were papers everywhere, the bookshelf had fallen over Beatrix’s chair, there was glass and gel and water from all the shattered baubles of various kinds scattered on the floor.

There was no Mandrake in sight. It was completely gone.

Close at her side, Beatrix crouched to her knees, and reached out a wand to poke her.

“Stop that.” Minerva grumbled.

“Ah good, you’re awake enough to be surly.” Beatrix smiled.

Minerva groaned. “How long has it been?”

“Only a minute or two. I cast an enchantment on myself to wake me up in case the Mandrake put me in a coma. And then I cast some spells at you until you woke up.”

Only a minute or two? It had felt like an eternity of sleep in Minerva’s head.

Dreamless, wonderful sleep. No sign of the Dragon in the Mandrake’s night.

“And you didn’t cast it on me! You selfish—“

“I didn’t think it would be necessary! Please don’t hate me!”

She sounded and looked so pathetic she was impossible to hate.

“Where’s the Mandrake?” Minerva asked.

She struggled to stand, but felt herself slowly regaining control of her motor functions.

Beatrix pointed out the door. “It ran out.”

“What?”

“Mandrakes who have been unearthed by humans will go look for tall grass to hide themselves in. Their hope is that planted among the grass they will throw off pursuit.”

Minerva felt her heart sink and her brain seize up with anxiety. That Mandrake would be running cross-country, screaming at anyone who got in its way, potentially killing hundreds of people across the academy. If it ran out of the old Academy district and into the crowded streets around the monument buildings, there would be mass slaughter.

Granted, the Academy was full of horrendous individuals—

But there were at least a couple of her students Minerva would dearly miss.

At any rate, even if she would not weep for some of the dead, she would weep for the fact that the blame would fall on Beatrix and then herself. Beatrix would try to defend her, probably, but it would become a scandal, it would be blown out of proportion, Minerva’s ethnicity and her origins and her gender and all of it would be scrutinized and exploited.

Minerva’s political leanings and affiliations might come out as well.

Her life would be ruined! Worse, her career would be ruined!

“You go left, I’ll go right!” Minerva shouted.

She seized a wand from among Beatrix’s belongings and ran out of the room.

Whether or not Beatrix was following her, Minerva had to get that Mandrake back!

She ran out into the hall and saw trails of four little dirty dots along the ground as if a muddy die had landed on a four every single time. She followed the trail around the building and down the steps to the front courtyard, where she spotted the little despondent lump standing frozen in the middle of the stone path out to the street, flanked by trim grass.

In front of it, a young woman kneeled and gushed over it like it was a potential pet.

“Aww, what a cutey! Are you a familiar, little guy? Did you get lost?”

She hovered over the Mandrake, while its face grew ever more miserable-looking.

Minerva recognized the girl and felt cold and desperate.

“Jennifer, stay away from it!”

Jennifer turned to look, and the Mandrake shifted a little on its legs.

Spotting Minerva, whom it probably recognized, the Mandrake sucked in air.

Upon the winds flies a great challenge—“

Minerva had taught herself to speak incantations with incredible alacrity and in a quiet whispering voice. Just as the Mandrake launched its scream, Minerva launched a globe of force from the tip of the wand. Channeled by the wand the magical energy took a much more coherent and directed shape than if loosed through one’s hand. Unlike her previous stun, this one was quick as a bullet, and it struck the Mandrake in its mouth and sent it tumbling backwards, the force of its own silenced scream launching it meters away.

Stepping back in shock, the bubbly student was appalled at this behavior.

“Huh? Miss Orizaga, that was so mean! How could you—“

Shut up and go do your homework Jennifer!”

Minerva charged past the astonished girl waving her wand for another spell.

In the next instant, the Mandrake leaped back up onto its feet.

Without sucking in air, the Mandrake spread its mouth and stuck out its gnarled tongue.

“God damn it.” She tapped the side of her head briefly and whispered. “Mage.”

Minerva’s glasses dimmed suddenly, and the Homunculus on her wrist glowed briefly.

Initiating M.A.G.E. military spellcasting system.

Through a gloomy, amber filter before her eyes Minerva saw the Mandrake’s aura.

Large-scale rotation of energy was briefly evident before its mouth.

Danger!

By the word of Nodun, who climbed the celestial mountain—“

Again the Mandrake screamed, though it was not its killing scream this time.

Instead it had cast some natural magic, launching a wave of force Minerva’s way.

Minerva was ready, and she intercepted the wave, and broke it with a counterforce.

In the M.A.G.E display she saw the energy dissipate harmlessly around her.

She moved quickly from one incantation to the next.

I sweep at the fire on Iomagn’s back—“

Never had a Mandrake’s face looked so utterly terrorized.

Rather than fight, it turned tail and ran as fast as its little legs could carry it.

Minerva raised her wand and flung spell after spell after it, casting so quickly she felt like she had become a gun instead of a human. Her bullets slammed into the stone around the fleeing Mandrake and kicked up pillars of smoke and geysers of unwound energy and bursts of flashing light, but it was hard to score a hit on the frantically moving creature.

Gritting her teeth, Minerva deactivated M.A.G.E. and chased after the creature.

At the time of the Mandrake’s escape the old Academy was only mildly traveled compared to the lavish new Academy grounds. There was a clock tower and a series of small parkways around the Anthropology building and Terrington plaza, and ringed by the Otrarian Culture Department, Hortuchemy, the old archival Library and a small food court. That was enough space and with few enough people around to give Minerva some room for error. It was still class time, which helped limit the amount of foot traffic, but the noon period would soon end, and there would be a modest but dangerous lunch rush even here.

Minerva would have only one more chance to catch the Mandrake safely.

She spotted the little monster dashing across the street and into one of the plaza’s gardens, sweeping over the concrete with its legs as if whipping the ground to move. Students made way for it, more amused than scared, and stuck around to watch it run.

They were lucky it didn’t accidentally bump into them and get frightened.

Scrambling past the students, Minerva charged into the gardens, little cobblestone squares surrounded on three sides by smooth stone flowerbeds containing a rainbow of plant life. She found her target almost immediately. The Mandrake ran through the center of the garden, rushed around a bench seat and leaped like an olympian onto a flower bed.

It turned its odd frozen little face toward her and hesitated for a moment.

“Gotcha!”

That momentary pause gave Minerva enough time to attack.

Pherkan’s Smoke Dart erupted from her wand like a gaseous arrow.

Standing perfectly still amid the myriad colors of flowers around it, the Mandrake groaned as it finally realized it was too tall to hide among them. With grim resignation it absorbed the stunning spell, and bounced backwards like a football off the flower bed. Now it was truly out of sight. Minerva ran toward it, climbed atop the flowerbed, stomped through the flowers and found nothing on the ground on the other side but dirty root-prints.

She raised her head to the path and found the Mandrake running off again.

“God damn it!” She shouted.

Brandishing her wand, she slung another dart into the air.

The Mandrake leaped, and it struck under it, and sent it bouncing away once more.

Minerva cursed, leaped over the edge of the flowerbed and continued the pursuit.

Somehow this Mandrake was resisting a stunning spell it should’ve been weak to.

Perhaps it was a particularly old (ripe?) Mandrake?

Maybe she was too anxious? Channeling improperly?

She grit her teeth. Whatever the reason, she was running out of time.

Running her legs raw, Minerva raised her homunculus to her face.

“Beatrix, where the hell are you? It’s getting away!”

There was no response. The Mandrake crossed the gardens, passed the street, and cleared the car road, mantling over a bus stop bench and diving into a low hedgerow as if into a swimming pool. It was almost to the Hortuchemy building—inside which there would be a tragic number of victims trapped with it, or, even worse, many witnesses.

“Beatrix! Come on, answer me!”

Minerva crossed the road and cleared the hedgerow.

Scrambling up a small, grassy bump of a hill toward the Hortuchemy greenhouse, the Mandrake leaped between several freshly-planted saplings, bearing the pink and black ribbons of the Beautification Society, using its tentacles to clamber around them like a monkey. It was getting away fast! Minerva raised her wand, but then stayed her hand.

Would there be trouble if she tore up this lawn?

Would there be trouble for the flowers too?

What would people think of her, specifically, running around making messes?

The Mandrake hit the top of the hill and barreled toward the steps.

Minerva cried out in frustration and ran past the saplings to the top of the hill.

As her sneakers hit the white stone tiles leading to the Hortuchemy greenhouse, the Mandrake was almost to the door and ready to burst through the glass. Through the panels Minerva could see students, diligently working on rows of plants with schematic properties.

“Beatrix, do something already!” Minerva cried, raising her wand to take a final shot.

The Mandrake leaped headfirst to bash into the greenhouse door.

Minerva started to chant— Beneath the Mandrake the ground trembled.

A pillar of dirt, tile and concrete spiked suddenly up like a piston.

Stricken in its rotund face the Mandrake flew up and backward into the air.

From around the greenhouse, Beatrix appeared with a grin on her face.

She raised a wand into the air, and on her wrist, her homunculus flashed.

Droning noises issued from it that stirred the world around Beatrix.

Swiping her wand like a conductor’s baton, Beatrix shaved off a chunk of the pillar and launched it like a cannonball at the Mandrake as it began to lose altitude.

Again the stone smashed into the creature’s face and sent it hurtling away.

There was such brutal, palpable force to the attacks that Minerva flinched.

She watched it fall, and turned and ran toward where she thought it would land.

“Wait for me, little guy!” Beatrix shouted.

She swiped her wand toward the hill and turned a slice of it to mud.

Taking a running leap, she hit the mud like a skateboarder on a rail and rode it.

In a flash, she made it to the Mandrake before Minerva was halfway there.

The little monster hit the ground and bounced in the same undignified fashion.

Recovering from the strikes, it opened its mouth a handful of meters from Beatrix.

She stood her ground, grinning at the thing.

The Mandrake screamed.

No sound issued from its mouth.

Minerva thought the maw looked a little vacant.

“You’d need this, I think.”

Beatrix, still smiling, kneeled down and picked up something from the ground.

Amid other displaced chunks of Mandrake bark splintered from the main mass by Beatrix’s vicious attacks, there was an object that seemed part banana and part potato.

The Mandrake stared at the piece, and comically stuck its twig legs in its mouth.

Its despairing little face spread wide in every way it could.

“Mandrakes need their tongues to scream, huh?” Beatrix said. She kneeled down again and petted the Mandrake on its violet bulb. “You learn something new every day.”

In response the Mandrake dropped on its back and squirmed around.

Minerva inched closer, perturbed by the plant’s behavior.

“Is it acting like it is dying so you won’t eat it?” Minerva said.

Beatrix shrugged.

“Are you really going to grind it up?” Minerva asked, wincing at the thought.

“Nah. I can’t eat this much mandrake. I’ll grind this up.”

She held up the severed tongue.

“So what will we do with the rest of it?” Minerva said, staring at the Mandrake.

It looked as if it was having a convulsion on the ground.

“We’ll take it back and replant it. I’ll take it somewhere safe when I can.”

Minerva sighed and dropped onto her rear on the hill, exhausted.

Though there were a few students and couples and small groups who had been around to witness the event, everybody seemed to quickly get on with their business. Perhaps for people who knew and grew up with magic, this was all just an average Wednesday. People just chased after mandrakes and shot up the campus and made a racket all of the time.

“Let us get back to the office, Minerva. I’ll let you have a taste!” Beatrix said.

She held up the disturbing mandrake tongue once more, wagging it in the air.

“Go to hell.” Minerva replied.

This was probably all the thanks she would get for saving the Academy.

Beatrix picked up the Mandrake and got moving.

Minerva eventually followed.

There were a few people staring, but not for very long, and not very seriously.

Back in the office, Beatrix practically dunked the Mandrake headfirst into its pot.

It offered a few sad little shrieks in protest, and wiggled despondently, but there was not much it could do for revenge now that its scream had been stifled. From the detritus of the office Beatrix produced a food processor, and dropped the Mandrake tongue inside.

“Could you dig out the cooler, it’s under those plush toys.”

Minerva kicked over the pile of plush toys. Her foot struck the mini-fridge beneath.

“Hey! Don’t kick them, those guys are precious to me! They’re collectible!”

Without a reply, Minerva picked up the only things inside: a bottle of yak milk and a small bag of seasoning mix for milkshakes. She laid them on top of Beatrix’s desk.

Beatrix patted her on the shoulder. “You can have this.”

She picked up the alpanite rock and deposited it on Minerva’s hands.

Minerva slipped the rock into the pockets of her hoodie with a deep sigh.

She stood around waiting while Beatrix mixed the milk and seasonings, which smelled almost as strongly of cinnamon as she herself did. Into the food processor they went, alongside the mandrake tongue. Beatrix pressed down the lid of the food processor and hit the button, grinding it up slowly until the grey-white milk had become chunky and brown.

Once ground down enough, Beatrix poured the mixture in a glass.

Minerva found the drink identical to mud from color to consistency.

Perhaps the only difference was the smell of cinnamon and the sprigs of mint floating atop the muck. Beatrix looked at the glass with a downcast expression, and sniffed it.

“Well. Down the hatch I guess!”

She tipped the contents into her mouth, taking a hearty swig of the shake.

Her expression switched in a flash from downcast, to strained and downright offended.

She held the glass out at arm’s length as if it was a living thing that had attacked her.

“It’s so sour and so thick! It’s sticking to my tongue.” Beatrix said.

She smacked her lips and tongue, and a shiver worked its way down her body.

“Do you feel any more connected to the Earth?” Minerva asked.

Beatrix took another long drink. This one caused her to bend and hug herself and shake.

“I feel like I’ve swallowed some Earth and I’m going to spit it up soon.” Beatrix replied.

Minerva shrugged.

“Yeah, I thought so. See you around, Beatrix.”

She waved half-heartedly, turned on her heels and ambled out of the room.

“Wait a moment.”

Minerva turned over her shoulder.

Beatrix stretched out her hand, holding a folded envelope between the fingers.

“Your friends sent you a suspicious letter. I opened it to ensure it was safe.”

“You opened it?”

Minerva snatched the letter out of Beatrix’s hands.

She spread it open and found the paper blank. It was written in magically encrypted ink and would require a specific spell as the password to reveal its contents.

“It could have been cursed. Tell your organization to send something more innocuous.”

Beatrix shrugged as if it had nothing to do with her.

She could afford to be that blasé; the Party trusted her implicitly.

Why they thought they could, Minerva didn’t know. All of it quite annoyed her.

“Anything else of mine you messed with that I should know?” She snapped.

Beatrix shook her head and nonchalantly took another hearty sip of her mud.

While she grabbed at her throat and retched, Minerva walked out, now definitively.

V

A primal scream tore through the forest.

“Child of Hama!”

Minerva stood frozen before a gigantic figure as it thrust a weapon her way.

“The beast in you hungers! Oh this will be a glorious yA gNAGH indeed!”

There were bodies around her, slain bodies. Leaves fell around her like razors.

She looked around but the environment was blurry, indistinct. She knew only that it was dark, and it was wooded, and ringed-off, and there were gravestones sliced to bits.

Behind her, she saw a lean, vulnerable figure tied to a post as a sacrifice.

“Miss Orizaga, please run away! Please!”

It was Jennifer.

Minerva reached out a hand to aid her student.

“You dare turn your back in an honorable clash?”

There was a flash.

Her hand flew from its wrist.

She stared at it disbelief until her vision itself was cut, and her breathing was cut too.

Her body started to fall apart where it stood.

There was blood.

She was dead.

Over her remains, the beast stood, and its laugh caused reality to tremble.

Minerva sat up in bed, choking.

She reached for the glass of water at her bedside and drank through trembling lips.

Her shaking hands spilled some of the water on her.

She was in her room. She was safe, alive. Her hand was still attached.

Her guts, were all still attached.

She had not dreamed of the Dragon and the Catastrophe tonight.

Though she felt terror, the dream itself was beginning to fade even as she wept for it.

BERSERKER (71.3)

Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

Conqueror’s Way felt quiet once the Vishap ceased to be.

Without the rumbling of its tracks, the roaring of its engine, the cruel shouting of its gun; the cracking of ordinary rifles and the puttering of submachine guns felt insignificant. There was still a battle beneath the wall. Nochtish frogmen and Ayvartan rifle troops exchanged sporadic gunfire on opposing sides of the bridge in front of the gate door. Though Drachen took an early advantage through deceit and the superior fire of the submachine gunners against the bleary-eyed, exhausted Ayvartan troops on their last clips of rifle shot, they were still fighting under the shadow of the wall. They were alone.

And thus the outcome seemed to become suddenly fixed against them.

Madiha Nakar’s eyes were burning. She wiped tears on her sleeve and complained of sand in her eyes to deflect from it. Parinita could see the effects, but remained quiet.

“I have to get a closer look.” Madiha said, as if asking for permission.

“Be careful.” Parinita said. Though she had once told the General that it was her duty to command and not to endanger herself unnecessarily, she understood the circumstances.

And she trusted her lover to return to her.

Madiha turned back to the desert.

There was something out there, something eerie and foul. Wary of its presence Madiha surveyed the battlefield beneath her, spotting the Vishap’s final resting place on one edge of the bridge. Could Nocht have uncovered a power like the Majini or some other aberrant monstrosity? It was those things that usually had this effect on Madiha.

It would be a dire scene indeed if Nocht deployed some supernatural aid to get back their machine. Before whatever was out there could pounce upon her, Madiha had to decide the remainder of this battle. “On my signal, I want creeping fire all across the bridge!”

There were nods and salutes in recognition. “Yes ma’am!”

“I’ll direct it from below!”

Without warning Madiha grabbed a rope and a kit of mountain gear and descended the wall, rappelling down the side at a quick but careful pace. She dropped alongside several Svechthan mountain rifle troops whom she had called in as reinforcements. Though the bridge gate was still out, Madiha had ordered engineers to drop rappelling cables and rope ladders, and for climb-capable troops to go down and fight and then help in evacuating back up the wall. Atop the wall, snipers and machine gunners anchored themselves to the stone and leaned over the ramparts, weapons trained on the enemy.

They would provide cover for all of these affairs, but served a second purpose also.

Soon as she hit the ground, Madiha raised her revolver pistol and shot into the air.

“Across the enemy side! Annihilating fire!”

Atop the rampart, the machine gunners and snipers opened up on Nocht.

Opposite the bridge from the Ayvartan positions, a storm of gunfire swept across the stone. Blazing automatic fire punctuated by the heavy sound of BKV anti-tank sniper rifles brought the Vishap to life again in spirit, drowning out the frogmen and their submachine guns. Behind the cover of the bridge the river ran red; a dozen men seemed to drop like a line of dominoes into the water, riddled with bullets that fell like rain.

One man stood suddenly alone in the squall, leaping over the bridge wall to safety.

He looked dazed for a moment, crouching behind rubble with a pistol in hand.

Madiha cracked a little grin as she approached the Nochtish officer, brandishing her revolver. She casually walked around the stone that the officer had put his back to; she pressed the barrel of her gun on the back of his neck. Suppressing the heat and tears from her eyes as much as she could, Madiha ordered the man to stand, and he did.

Slowly, the man turned around with a wan look on his face.

Grinning viciously, she pressed the gun up against the bottom of his chin, raising it up.

“Drachen, isn’t it? You’ve a knack for this, I see.” Madiha said.

Opposite her, Gaul Von Drachen raised his hands and smiled suddenly.

“Ah, how ironic; while on the one hand I am in quite a bind, it is bittersweet to finally achieve recognition as a nemesis. Even in such a situation as this.” Von Drachen said.

“I recognize that you’re a consistent failure.” Madiha said.

Von Drachen shrugged as much as he could in his condition.

“We try things. Sometimes they work.” Von Drachen said.

Madiha had to admit to herself that this moment felt intoxicating.

This feeling of triumph, superiority. She had crushed him. She and her troops had struggled so much; they had lost lives, they had been pushed back to Solstice. And after humiliation and humiliation, this was a victory. Not a Pyrrhic victory, not a fighting retreat. Nocht failed to breach the wall — any of the walls — and lost a multitude of units and now, one of their premier generals. And that last catch was Madiha’s to reel in.

“You’re going to try a cornucopia of new things, Drachen.” Madiha said, giving in a little to that ferocious side of herself. “A procession of interrogation rooms, a few hearings with the Ayvartan Military Tribunal. Maybe a firing squad.” She cracked another grin.

“This is so unlike you.” Von Drachen frowned. “This stock military personality. I preferred that air of arcane mystery, that– that angelic, child-like naivety, that rounded out your killing edge. Mayhap I can speak to the other Madiha Nakar right now?”

“Shut up, Von Drachen.” Madiha said.

Who did this idiot think he was? To speak to her with such familiarity?

Von Drachen sighed. “I’m distraught. I wanted your war to be outsider art.”

Madiha swung her revolver and struck Von Drachen across the cheek, drawing blood and knocking him to the floor. She acted on reflex; she was angry, and his despicable, performative familiarity hit a raw nerve. She hated him. She wanted to kill him.

Her fingers shook on the trigger, but she mastered herself in time.

Turning her head, she called for one of the Svechthan mountaineers to come closer.

“Restrain him and lift him up the wall. I want him confined to a solitary hot box and curing in the sun before the gate is repaired!” She said, shouting out an order.

At once, the mountain troops grabbed hold of Drachen and began to work on him.

Madiha turned from her defeated foe to the Vishap while her soldiers restrained him.

Though much of the machine had been damaged, there was enough of it left to perhaps reverse engineer some of its remaining complicated systems. Madiha was not an engineer, but she thought its ability to bear the load of such massive armor and still move must have been mechanically impressive after its trip through the desert.

“Once the gate is repaired I want that hunk of metal dragged inside.” Madiha ordered.

Alongside her, inspecting the tank also, Charvi Chadgura saluted in recognition.

“Yes ma’am!”

She turned back to the tank, and then slowly turned to the side, staring off the bridge.

“Something wrong?” Madiha asked.

There were were heat mirages that warped everything exposed to the light of the sun. Solstice was scorching, a hot plate of a region with more desert than some countries had land. Madiha had gotten used to the heat, more or less, but when it came time to get her bearings she did not have the eyes to beat the mirages. Staring in the same direction as Chadgura she saw the sand and the river shore dancing, and the sky no more stable.

Then Chadgura turned to the bridge, and pointed.

“It’s Gulab.” She said.

Her face expressionless and her tone void of emotion, Chadgura stretched her out and Madiha’s eyes followed the line of it to the bridge ahead. Three small figures tumbled and tossed in the mirages; when they were close enough to penetrate the illusions, it was clear the bodies belonged to Gulab Kajari and two of her subordinates. Gulab was unarmed, roughed up; her braided ponytail was pulled almost free of its characteristic twists, her face was caked in grease and blood and dirt, her hands were shaking. The two privates with her looked no better. They stopped short of the General, and of the Vishap they sent to the slaughter, and bent to their knees, gasping for breath, barely speaking.

“Cloud,” Gulab began, breathing ragged, “Cloud, over there. Weird cloud. Coming.”

Madiha ripped the binoculars from Chadgura’s belt while the latter rushed to put a knee down beside Kajari and look her over, administering first aid on several wounds.

“Ow! That, stings, Charvi,”

“Be brave. I love you.”

Through the binoculars, Madiha stared over the heads of her lovebird subordinates and into the desert, where there was indeed a gaseous mantle spreading forward from the dunes. Though at first she wanted to believe it was the khamsin, or a run of the mill sandstorm brewing up, Madiha knew it was not dark enough nor quick enough to be either of these things. There was no characteristic blowing of sand, no trickle of cutting wind to build into a true desert storm. This was some other anomaly entirely.

Her eyes began to burn again. She could feel it; inside the cloud.

She threw the binoculars on the ground and produced her radio.

“Sound the biohazard alarm! Nocht’s launched a gas attack! Evacuate everyone off this bridge now, right now!” She shouted. “Right now!” She put down her radio and ignored the protests of the receiving operator who wanted standard procedural confirmation.

Chadgura, Gulab and the younger soldiers all their snapped their heads up in alarm.

“All of you need to run away now!” Madiha shouted.

From her hip pack, she produced a gas mask.

Gulab’s face went pale. “You can’t go out there General! If it’s really poison gas–”

“I’m going to confirm.” Madiha said. “Run now! That’s an order.”

Madiha shoved past Gulab and in parting pushed her as if to take the first step for her.

She charged away, donning the mask, as the cloud started to move over the bridge.

Madiha looked over her shoulder once, to see if her order was being followed.

She saw troops starting to go back over the ropes. Gas masks were handed out.

Gulab was protesting, but Chadgura and her subordinates pulled her back and away.

Everyone saw the cloud now. They could not overlook it. It was as if the sky had been drawn to the earth somehow. Thick white gas emanating from seemingly everywhere swallowed up the landscape ahead, progressively picking up speed from walking to running pace as it approached. Conqueror’s Way fell to the devouring mist. It was unlike anything the desert had seen before, and Madiha was running right into the center.

Her eyes burned so bad she thought they’d turn to jelly; she fought to suppress the feeling. She broke through the cloud, almost expecting it to eject her, to solidify and smash her to pieces as if she’d ran into a brick wall. She felt instead the gas parting, and an eerie, desiccating cold, an antithesis of both the dry heat and clinging humidity she was used to. This was not poison gas. She knew that. She’d always known it.

She just wanted everyone to get out. She knew there was something dangerous here.

Her vision was limited; the gas mask was restrictive. It must have been how horses felt–

Madiha felt a pinprick, a shock, a bolt of something from her side, that told her to duck.

She dropped suddenly mid-run.

And she felt something big and heavy going over her head.

Madiha skidded clumsily to a stop on the ground, and cast off her gas mask.

She found a chunk of something glistening, transparent blue, smashed into the bridge.

“Huh. You avoided it.”

Amid parting mists on a ruined bridge in the middle of the great desert, two primal forces met, eyes locked on one another. Madiha felt the burning ever worse, as she laid eyes upon the woman in the black Nochtish uniform with the eagle on her peaked cap. Long, black hair, dark skin, and icy eyes; tall, lean, powerful. She carried herself with an easy, careless gait, her furry ears twitching, her fuzzy tail curling in the air as if with the wind itself. Something about her provoked a psychic revulsion. Madiha felt the horrid twinge of hatred, twisting at her heart, gripping her brain in frustrated malice.

She mastered herself, as much as she could. She was shaking.

Both of them were shaking. She saw the woman’s clenched fist, quivering.

Her eyes seethed with icy mist the way Madiha’s raged with smoke and flame.

“Get out of my way.”

She was pushing; just like Madiha pushed. But she was pushing with her voice.

She was trying to control Madiha. Nakedly, openly, casually, and without remorse.

Gritting her teeth in anger, Madiha stood up from the ground defiantly.

Her counterpart smiled. “Oh shit! You can do it, can’t you?”

As the woman said this she reared back and pitched something at Madiha.

Almost instinctively Madiha pushed and swatted a baseball-sized chunk of hail away.

“Ha ha! You can! So I can’t just fuck with your head like I do everyone else then.”

“What do you call it?” Madiha asked. “ESP or Magic?”

“The Doctors say ESP and the Church men say Magic. I don’t care.”

Neither of them was speaking the same language. Madiha could tell from reading her lips that this woman was speaking some form of Nochtish, and Madiha herself was pointedly speaking in standard Ayvartan. But they understood one another, the words from their lips both perfect for the physical motions of their speech and yet, understood, universally. They were both people who could fundamentally understand anything.

Madiha realized that this was their Madiha. As she was the Warlord, maybe this was the–

She knew it immediately. This was the Champion.

“Madiha Nakar.” She said.

Across from her, the woman grinned viciously.

It reminded Madiha too much of her own grin, when she felt the ferocity rise in her.

“Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather.”

Their next instant went fast as lightning.

Madiha threw a hand forward and pushed, and in the same instant Aatto pushed back.

There was a glimmer in their eyes and a blinding flash in the world.

Like a curtain drawing and shutting, the mist blew apart and settled back in a second.

Madiha’s hand snapped back painfully and she slid a meter away.

Aatto drew back as if she’d been charged to the shoulder, gripping her wrist.

Neither could flick the other away as they had gotten used to doing to objects, to pests.

“You know, that shit makes me kinda mad.” Aatto said.

“You and me both.” Madiha replied.

There was something ushering them forward, driving them insane.

A weight, a rushing force that prevented them from turning.

There was history at their backs, more than the 2031 years they even knew.

And it bayed for blood.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Status Update

I apologize for the lack of communication.

During the past month I fell into a deep depression and it made it very hard to work. There’s been some big changes in life, and something very painful, personal and dangerous happened to me that I’m not comfortable going into details about. I’m safe right now, but it’s been very hard to get back on the horse and Make Some Content. If you follow me on twitter and tumblr you might see me post and think “well, Madiha looks like she’s doing fine!” But those are my little respites. People who know me more personally know that I’ve been struggling a lot. There’s been times this past month where I have straight up just wanted to give up. Where it felt impossible to continue.

So, I want everyone here to know and understand that I desperately want to be able to continue The Solstice War. To do more creative stuff. To start new projects, to make more podcasts, to play with video, to Do More. Your support has been invaluable to me. I work a rather miserable day job that leaves me with no money to put toward my future, to get some entertainment, or to buy the tools I’ve needed to do my creative works. Heck, it was the money from my Patreon and from books and donations that built the computer I’m using right now and it was that money that fixed this computer when it broke last Sunday.

Y’all and your support have been my future and my hope all this time. Things have gotten dark, and have gotten hard, and I’ve been doing my best to try to recover. I wanted to let you know that. I don’t know when I’ll be able to write my next thing or do my next podcast or make a video or anything right now. I’m trying to get back in, but it’s been hard. It’s harder than it seems. I’m so grateful for your support and I want to ask for your understanding and your patience as well. I’m trying to get out from the dark. Please bear with me.

BERSERKER (71.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — Armaments Hill

Premier Daksha Kansal saw the smoke trail from the Prajna shots trace the sky outside her window. She steepled her fingers on her desk, and waited for news. For the Prajna to fire required her authorization: she was informed of every target, of the ammunition to be used and the aftermath of the attack. Prajna ammunition was valuable and hard to manufacture. It was quite alarming then, that the Prajnas had been fired several dozen times since the Nochtish army moved within its 50 kilometer maximum range.

While she waited, she went over a packet of disparate combat reports given to her by her SIVIRA, the overall HQ unit for the Golden Army. There was no connection between the reports: a battle report from Sahr, a month ago; three weeks ago a skirmish between a patrol unit and an elven forward element around Kharabad; five days ago, a sniping shootout between a special agent of the KVW and a Jager from the Nochtish army.

There was only one connecting thread. All of the men and women highlighted in these reports for their heroics, gallantry, and exemplary bravery in holding back the enemy, had died cementing their legends. Daksha had to review each case so she could write a letter awarding them the title of Hero of the Socialist Peoples. It would have been an affront to them to simply send a form letter to their grieving parents. Every Hero Daksha crowned would receive a full accounting. Even if she had to spend hours and hours.

She never shook; she never wept. She had given every tear years and years ago. But she was not an automaton. It was exhausting work. Her eyes often wandered away from it.

Often she begged silently for any respite from it.

Sometimes, like on that day, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in.” Daksha said.

Through the double doors, a small entourage of blonde-haired, blue-eyed and blue-dressed Helvetians arrived, accompanied by a single Ayvartan staffer from the SIVIRA. Chief among them was Larissa Finesse, a comely blond woman with a cold expression, dressed in a bright blue coat and fur cap that seemed utterly out of place in the Ayvartan spring. She arrived, nodded her head toward Daksha and stretched out a hand.

Daksha shook with her at arm’s length, briefly and with a face just as dispassionate.

“You look professional, Premier. I am pleased with how you’ve made up.” Larissa said.

“Are you here to flirt? I’m not interested.” Daksha replied with a grin.

Larissa turned up her nose and crossed her arms at the jab. “I am not predisposed toward older women; at any rate it is not flirting, but relevant to my purpose.”

“You know the city’s being shot at? I thought you’d have run farther north.”

“I am staying here.” Larissa said bluntly. “I’m not some lend-lease bean counter, I’m a diplomat, and Solstice is a diplomatic nexus. I am unafraid to remain, Premier.”

Daksha had to admit, she thought low of Larissa, and this was turning her around.

“I appreciate it. So, why have I been blessed with a visit from so fine a lady?”

Larissa narrowed her eyes.

“Now who’s flirting?”

Daksha chuckled. “I’m married now, you know.”

“That has never stopped anyone.”

“You’d know?”

Both women seemed to then become aware of the staffers staring at them.

“At any rate,” Larissa finally said. “Helvetia is on a war footing for the first time in many years, Premier, and the Helvetian people are still very ignorant of our allies. I wish to run a series of propaganda ads and filmed shorts on both you and Stahl. I want to sell you to the Helvetians, and in so doing, sell your nations to them to build confidence.”

“And you’re starting with me? Stalh would have flirted you all through the night.”

Daksha always had to get in the last barb. It was not altogether untrue; she took this line of attack because while Larissa made a career for herself shouting hoarse about what a tyrant Daksha Kansal was, the Premier knew foreign diplomats tended to mingle in their work. And there was no more bothersome libel than one which was partially true.

Some of the staffers chuckled, while Larissa closed her fists and glared daggers.

“Don’t tell her I said that.” Daksha winked. It was bad diplomacy, perhaps, but Helvetians were irksome, and also too beholden to Ayvartans now to be able to begrudge anything.

Larissa scoffed. “Behind the makeup and the suit you’re still a vulgar bandit, I see.”

Daksha raised a hand to her chest, in a mock girlish way. “Larissa, you’ll find I possess many qualities beloved by the Helvetians, starting with my sense of humor. Why, I am also a strong advocate of human rights, and a complete, unrepentant féministe.”

“Yes, well. Unfortunately, you will be allowed to make that rosy case.” Larissa said.

It was true that Daksha was still rowdy at heart, but she was a popular leader now.

To this effect, Daksha had changed just a little. She had her hair cut shorter, and she arranged it in a bun. She wore reading glasses, and even a bit of makeup. She felt like a strict school teacher, all prim and proper and dolled up. She wore the same uniform, but laden with impressive titles and awards that inspired confidence and served as evidence of her leadership skill. For once in her life, she was wearing her Hero of Socialist Labor medals. Her physical appearance had changed a little too. There were a few more lines of age creeping around her eyes, mouth and cheek, creasing the dark skin. Her hair was a little more white in places and less black in others. She was less fit; not lifting as much.

All part of her transformation into the metaphorical mother of the Ayvartan people.

Like Lena, she was to be a symbol of the motherland, a literal socialist mother.

Her wayward children were under her wing, protected, guided, provided for.

She received a starring role in posters and newsreels and other propaganda. In her customary uniform, with her hair in a bun and glasses on her face, looking sternly at cowards and thieves, smiling reassuringly at the injured, gazing solemnly at soldiers on the battlefield and grinning with delight at soldiers in battle performing heroic deeds. Premier Daksha Kansal: military leader, civilian star role model, and yes, mom to all.

Some of her propagandists went as far as to suggest she become a literal mother until she snapped and told them of both her lesbianism and the inability of even the notorious “gender miracle worker” Dr. Willhelmina Kappel to give a child to two sapphic women.

Despite the artifice, it was useful now that she had the eye of people beyond Ayvarta.

“I look forward to seeing what becomes of me once the footage is cut.” Daksha said.

“I’ve half a mind to edit them as I used to with my editorials on you. But I’ll be gentle.”

Larissa was hissing venomously now, which was music to Daksha’s ears.

“We should begin filming post-haste.” She said, once she had collected herself from her momentary anger at Daksha’s scandalous attacks. “Getting some war footage will show everyone the state of Solstice. They will be sympathetic and will cry with us for justice.”

Daksha lturned her head to get a quick glance at the state of the capital.

Since the “siege” of Solstice had begun it felt like the sky overhead was turning grey from all the shell smoke. Solstice was changing. It was becoming hardened to this state of war. Looking through the glass leading to the balcony, Daksha could see the sky and much of Solstice’s skyline stretching out below. Armaments Hill was one of the highest points in Solstice, and the city flowed outside that window like the texture on a complex painting, the bumps of millions of small houses, the sharp, thick thrusts of the city’s few ‘scrapers, ten and twenty stories tall, the deft twists of the brush that created roads, and the walls, the massive walls that protected them all, stone giants in the horizon standing sentinel.

Solstice was enduring a pounding today, but all of those trails in the sky that signified war, were also emblematic of resistance. They were fighting; and yet undefeated.

In that, Solstice had not changed. It was still The Invincible City in the red desert.

And Daksha had to make sure that it remained as such.

“Very well. But I’m waiting for the results of an attack. I should have them soon–”

Before Larissa had a chance to hear her defer the meeting, the double doors opened suddenly and without a knock for a rather mismatched pair of folk Daksha did not remember ever meeting. Larissa gave them a quizzical look as they walked up to Daksha’s desk, and bowed their heads together. She and her staff stood aside. Man and woman, but it was clear they had no connection. He was a Helvetian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed; blue uniformed, too. An older man with groomed facial hair and a beret.

She was a young woman, perhaps around Madiha’s age, svelte and fit, her skin a light tan, her green eyes folded in the way characteristic to easterners. Likely Kitanese, she was fairly tall, long-limbed, elegant, mature. She dressed in a refined, sleeveless shirt that resembled the top half of a mandarin gown, along with a pair of tight silk trousers and cloth shoes, all a resplendent green. Her hair was cut above the shoulder, brown and loose but fine and groomed, her bangs swept so as not to cover her eyes and the rearmost locks of her hair flared ever so slightly up, like a bird’s raised tail feathers.

“Premier, it is an honor.” said the man. “And Lady Larissa, I did not expect to see you, I apologize, but I am fresh off the boat as I can be. I am Captain Hayter Durand of the Helvetian Naval Expeditionary Forces: East. I am glad I could make it here so quickly. When I heard Solstice was under attack, I feared the worst. Sorry about the short notice.”

Daksha chuckled. “It was such short notice that I wasn’t notified at all.” She said.

At Durand’s side the girl raised a delicate hand to her painted lips and laughed.

Larissa glared at Durand, and especially seemed to target his rank insignia.

“Excuse me, Premier, Lady.” Durand said. “I spoke with the war counsel, Chakma–”

“It’s fine, you’re here now.” Daksha said, quickly and bluntly. “I’m interested in why a Helvetian would leave the Eastern theater for the South, and especially why he would be in a hurry to meet in this besieged city. You are a long way from your post, Captain.”

“Yes, we would all like some explanation.” Larissa said, in a deliberate, venomous tone.

“Apologies. I was part of the task force assigned to transfer manpower requested from Helvetian commands to the Golden Army for Lend Lease.” Durand said. “As per the terms of the Pact. The Helvetian Expeditionary Corps has been fighting for some time already, but, Helvetia promised you an army, and we have delivered the rest of that army today.”

Durand nodded with a smile toward the young woman, and she bowed her head.

“I am Yanyu Zhuge, commander of the Kitanese 8th Route Army.” She said.

Yanyu spoke in a way that almost magic. Her voice was lovely, for sure, but it was the easy, fluent way with which she handled Ayvartan that was most captivating of all. It reminded her of when Madiha spoke foreign languages. It was almost as if she was not saying anything foreign, but instead was simply being understood no matter her speech.

There was an air of refinement and a breezy regality to her that was quite stunning.

“Zhuge, the star of the Kitanese communists. I’ve heard of your exploits.” Larissa said.

She crossed her arms and continued to glance between icily Durand and Yanyu.

Daksha blinked and looked over the girl. “I see. You’re far from home also, comrade.”

Yanyu crossed her arms over her breast and smiled easily at Daksha.

“Premier, it is because I recognize this is the true battleground of world communism.”

Durand seemed to shudder at the concept, but he aired none of his thoughts on it.

Larissa’s expression remained unchanged.

For Yanyu it seemed natural, every word she said. In fact, she seemed subtly eager.

“Your homeland is facing its own communist struggle. I don’t know that I can in good conscience accept your forces here, while your homes and comrades are in danger.”

Daksha did not really mean that. She would take any forces she could get. Not out of desperation, at least not yet, but to stack the deck. Every rifle was a good rifle where she stood. However, she wanted to test Yanyu. She wanted her to say something revealing. Daksha had little contact with the Kitan Red Guards since their inception. She had sent nominal aid, along with Svechtha, but both countries wanted to lay low on the world stage, and openly stoking the flames of Kitanese civil war seemed a fool move then.

She wondered whether Yanyu held a grudge. Whether Yanyu had an agenda here.

Perhaps it was because she just got done talking to a snake like Larissa, but Daksha was skeptical of this development. The Helvetians, bringing communists here to her? And Larissa seemed surprised and vexed by this. Surely this kind of thing was her doing?

Waiting for her answer, Daksha watched as Yanyu put on a cheerful, girlish smile.

It was a smile that reminded her eerily of another little daughter of the revolution.

It broke, momentarily, that air of reserved, mature, empress-like determination.

However, her words were just as easy, just as fluent as ever, even in that girlish voice.

“Premier, should communism fall in Ayvarta, it would have no hope in Yu. We read books from you and Lena Ulyanova in our schools in the mountains of southern Kitan. Nationalist tyrants burn your books as they burn our villages; Hanwan imperialists do the same. We have our own words and concepts and ideas, and our own identity as communists, and so we are aware that we cannot suffer the loss of Ayvarta. Our words aren’t being burned. Kitanese communism is patient and well-guarded. Do not worry.”

Daksha felt almost moved. Some part of her was still on its tiptoes, claws ready, subtly wondering if she was being deliberately disarmed. Yanyu looked completely innocent. She was telling the truth, Daksha thought. She believed, like Madiha believed. She talked like that girl did. Raised on the red books, selfless in sacrificing herself for other’s sake.

She glanced at Larissa, who in turn closed her eyes and seemed to take a step back.

“Very well. So this army is part of the forces Helvetia promised.” Daksha said. For now she had to hold back her latent drive to praise and cheer the young, and remain neutral toward Yanyu. Instead she addressed Durand again. “However, Kitan has never been part of the Pact agreements, since its recognized government is unwilling to speak with a communist nation. So I must ask where Helvetia stands on using the Kitanese for this.”

“I would comment, but it seems I have been circumvented.”

“I apologize, Lady Larissa. This was part of the wishes of the Kitanese under Helvetia’s charge, and a decision of the Helvetian GQG.” Durand then turned to Daksha. “There’s not just Kitanese people in this army, Premier. Lady Zhuge should explain this–”

Yanyu joined in. “A sizable part of the 8th Route Army are communist volunteers from other parts of the world. Communists from every continent are among us: Aglians, Ayvartans, Borelians, Yuans, Occideans, and even a battalion of Nochtish communists.”

“So Helvetia started a volunteer drive for us?” Daksha asked.

Larissa openly and disdainfully shrugged.

“Negative, Premier.” Yanyu said. “These were people inspired to fight for Kitan based on their own convictions. Many have fought imperialism for a decade now. They organized among themselves and decided to leave when the 8th Route Army left Kitan and came to fight here. Not all of them ascribe to our views. Some are liberals, I’m sorry to say; some are anarchists; and so on. But they have traveled with the struggle for longer than I.”

“So they’re irregulars.” Daksha replied, a bit coldly. That detail mattered, and she was not as happy to have received from Helvetia a dozen battalions of ragtag fools with a poor materialist analysis of the world as opposed to a modern Chasseur division or three. Was it not lady Tsung herself who said to struggle against liberalism? This was disappointing.

“Don’t worry!” Yanyu waved her hands in front of herself as if to dismiss the concern. “We’re all disciplined and we will follow your rules. Besides, the volunteers are only one division and I’ve got three. My reliable Red Guards compose the other two divisions.”

Had Daksha never met Madiha before, Yanyu would have looked ridiculous, a girl not even out of her twenties talking about her divisions like she knew what war was. However, Madiha and her entire warring generation existed. This was their war, a war that young people fought and led in. Yanyu felt like her country’s miracle worker.

Which made Daksha feel almost guilty when she decided then and there to keep her.

“Alright, I appreciate the aid, Yanyu Zhuge. It is an honor to have you here.”

“Premier, do not thank me yet. I have not yet been useful to you, and furthermore, I lend my aid in part because I would like to ask a favor of you.” Yanyu said. “And I believe Mr. Durand’s GQG friends have a favor to ask from you also. You are welcome to decline.”

Daksha blinked, and leaned forward, steepling her fingers once more. “I am listening.”

“I would like to meet Madiha Nakar.” Yanyu said, her voice suddenly serious.

“That’s all? You could have met her for free. She’s like my daughter.” Daksha said.

Yanyu looked a little surprised and a bit red in the face and averted her eyes.

“Lady Larissa, and Premier Kansal.” Durand said with a more serious air than before. “My message from Army GQG is this. Helvetia is right now fighting the Nochtish forces in the Arctic ring and we are also preparing for land invasions of Mauricia and Afarland. We hope to be in Lubon in a year’s time. We absolutely require Ayvarta’s help in creating another front, this one in Kitan and the far eastern sea, if Solstice survives the year.”

Daksha tapped her fingers together in the steeple. This was sudden.

It would not be the last sudden thing that day.

Before Larissa could vent her growing outrage at this demand and her lack of a role in its inception, and before Daksha could say even a word in response, the air in the room grew very still and thin. All sounds they wanted to emit were then stifled and quenched.

In front of them, Yanyu’s eyes glowed.

Green rings appeared around her irises, and she seemed to shake in place.

She’s coming.” Yanyu said, as if in a trance. “Madiha’s in danger.”


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“Ah! What cruel god to have created the waters! I despise them!”

Though he had learned to swim, Von Drachen was still far from the most proficient swimmer, and all of his men were already up and fighting by the time he extracted himself from the water, breathing heavily and struggling to stand. He was pulled up to the barrier by a soldier in a black wetsuit, and found many more of his soldiers fighting already. They had the good fortune to have hit ground near a portion of the bridge where a tower had fallen over, providing good rubble for cover. His men pulled submachine guns free from waterproof bags and enfiladed the Ayvartan portions near the gate.

All manner of red tracers went flying over his head as he got settled.

There was a blazing exchange of gunfire happening as Von Drachen entered the scene. Across the bridge from him there were a dozen Ayvartans around a the remains of a collapsed, bullet-riddled tent, shooting back with a machine gun and rifles. This was likely their command post. Their cover was sparse, however, while his own men had the strong, chest-high concrete barriers. There were Ayvartans scattered all about, fighting ineffectively from any isolated rubble. He had successfully flanked the lot of them.

And this close to the gate, the wall gunners could not adequately target him.

Water was vile, but swimming was a powerful ability.

His own men fought with discipline. They engaged in groups of three submachine gunners, peeking up from the barriers, shooting at targets of opportunity, and then hiding from return fire while three more men attacked from farther up or further down the barrier. Though their position was confined to the left side of the bridge, they had many men and various angles from which they could shoot. While half his men engaged he ordered the remainder to crawl down the bridge and climb the rubble to flank.

Meanwhile, Von Drachen produced his own bag, and pulled his uniform from it.

“Keep fighting,” he said, “our lively friend is on its way.”

Von Drachen buttoned up his coat and put on his shoes in time to watch the Vishap come barreling through the second gate. He smiled, and he clapped for it, standing up to greet it alongside three of his men, dutifully firing on the Ayvartan position and suppressing it while he showed his support. To be the first man inside Solstice; what an honor–

In the next instant, the smile on Von Drachen’s face twitched as the Vishap exploded.

Already worse for wear, the Vishap was blown forward by an unseen blast and propelled across the bridge. Sliding on a streak of flame, throwing up rubble and churning up the bridge floor, the crippled superweapon came to rest, wheels spinning helplessly, its gun staring into space, almost off the edge of the Conqueror’s Way, with no line to the gate.

Von Drachen clapped his hands one final time and crouched with his back to the barrier.

“Hmm. Plan B.”

He waved over one of his men who was crouched with him.

He had a large waterproof pack with an X marking on it.

“Alvarez, we’re deploying the C-10 on the gate.” Von Drachen said.

Alvarez looked as if he was surprised to be addressed by name.

Von Drachen, puzzled by the reaction, tried to explain his orders once more.

He did not count on a far louder sound than his voice rising suddenly nearby.

A shell sailed over the collecting heads of Von Drachen’s platoon and struck the wall.

Rock and shrapnel exploded out from the impact and rained down on the bridge.

Von Drachen covered his head.

“Looks like our so-called superweapon is still alive!” Von Drachen shouted.

He peered over the barrier, briefly glancing over to Alvarez to find him dead, his forehead crushed by a stone come flying from the wall. He frowned at the sight.

Seizing Alvarez’s explosive pack, he pushed the corpse into the river.

“Water burials are honored in some countries.” He told the rest of his men.

Many of them stared at him.

“Look at the road! Our injured friend has company, you know!”

Von Drachen pointed to the Ayvartan side of the bridge.

Against the wishes of a shouting officer, it seemed, several men and women desperate to see the Vishap stopped once and for all ran out of cover with grenades in their hands.

This breach of discipline was most opportune. Von Drachen ordered covering fire.

His men rose as one from behind the concrete barrier and opened fire.

An overwhelming amount of submachine gun bullets crossed the bridge from their side.

Not one of the Ayvartan runners made it to the Vishap’s corpse.

Not one Ayvartan gun responded to the salvo. His men fired continuously on them.

Von Drachen took the opportunity and jumped the barrier with the C-10 in hand.

He ran as fast as his feet could carry him, crossing the no-man’s land, ducking fire.

He was within breathing distance of the gate, the closest any enemy had gotten to–

Just as he raised his head to behold the great wall and its gate, he saw a muzzle flash.

Overhead, one of the wall guns fired on the Vishap at an oddly direct angle.

Von Drachen watched as the shell flew downward from the wall and struck the Vishap.

There was a colossal explosion.

Such a blast could only have been generated by a 152mm gun or higher, but, he had seen all the aerial photographs, and he read the plans their collaborators in the Republic had given them, and various other sources. He knew all the guns on this wall were 76mm caliber at the largest, with the bigger guns used as indirect artillery behind the wall.

He looked briefly up again, and he thought he saw her.

He saw her red eyes, staring down at him in disdain.

Von Drachen dropped the C-10 pack, and made for his own side of the bridge.

He reached for his hand radio, carefully preserved in a waterproof bag.

“Von Fennec, it is likely I will be captured now. My new plan is to escape Armaments Hill somehow and attempt to undergo a guerrilla or sabotage campaign inside the city, and–”

His clearly stressed voice was met with dismissal from the other side.

“One moment,” said a woman’s voice.

In the next instant, Von Fennec took to the airwaves himself, scoffing.

“Von Drachen you’re not going anywhere! We’re protocol thirteen, and I need you there to keep things controlled. She’s coming to get you and the Vishap! You’d better live!”

Von Drachen looked out into the desert, sighing. “I’d rather be captured.”


On the bridge below them, the Vishap came to a halt, its legs chopped out from under it.

“You did it, Kajari. I hope you survived it.”

“I’m sure she did, Madiha.”

“I’ve got to make good on it now, Parinita. Let’s go.”

Atop the wall, Madiha watched with anticipation as Agni and a pair of engineers slid the gun barrel into the completed mechanism of the 152mm howitzer and fastened the recoil buffers tight, finishing the assembly of the gun. It was unmounted, merely sitting on the floor of the rampart without its carriage parts or gun shield, and its optical and ranging equipment lay on the floor as well. There were various other unused parts around.

There were also five shell crates containing pieces of the gun’s two-part ammunition.

“I completed my miracle.” Agni said. “It normally takes eight people an hour, you know.”

“With all due respect General, that gun will fall apart after a shot or two, and in its current state, its too unstable to be accurate anyway,” one engineer remarked.

“She knows. I explained all of this.” Agni said, in her toneless, matter-of-fact voice.

“Yes Sergeant! I am just sincerely hoping this gun needn’t be used.” He replied.

Madiha smiled. “You’re dismissed, corporal. See if you can help with the gate.”

She waved away the two men helping Agni and waited for them to be gone.

“Parinita, hold me from behind, okay?” Madiha said.

Parinita dropped her radio headset on the floor and stood behind Madiha.

“Agni, you load and fire, on my signal.”

Raising one curious eyebrow but otherwise inexpressive, Sergeant Agni nodded.

Madiha took in a deep breath, and focused on the howitzer on the floor.

Her eyes went red and her head felt hot as she pushed gently on the howitzer.

It vibrated gently and began to rise off the floor.

It was the heaviest thing Madiha had ever moved, she thought. She could feel her body tense up, and her brain, also, tensing like a muscle at the limit of its endurance. Her hands shook and she grit her teeth. She was out of practice for this sort of thing, but the howitzer was moving, sliding gently across the ground over to the rampart. Her shaking arms and legs steadied a little, and she lifted the howitzer off the ground a few meters.

Her head felt like it would explode, so hot and tight was the sensation.

“I’ve got you, Madiha. You can do this.”

Parinita embraced her from behind, one hand around the waist, and the other perhaps a little too close to Madiha’s breasts than appropriate, but Madiha didn’t mind then. Having the touch of a healer, Parinita could cool off the burning sensation Madiha felt when she pushed too much or invoked the fire inside her. She could feel Parinita shaking behind her, however. There was a slowly building pain, pinpricks of it, in her brain.

“Madiha, I’m having to go through a bit of effort myself.” Parinita said.

She felt her lover’s grip tighten, and her chest press against Madiha’s back.

This was such an effort that Parinita was being taxed trying to keep it controlled.

But Madiha had the gun over the rampart, and she was pointing it down.

“Now, Agni!”

Agni, staring silently at the spectacle, blinked her eyes rapidly.

“Yes ma’am.”

She quickly picked up the heavy projectile portion of the shell, unlocked the breech, and shoved the object inside. Behind it came the brass-colored propellant casing, a long, thin tube. Once both pieces of the shell were inside the gun, Agni locked the breach tightly.

“I’m firing, ma’am! Get ready!”

Madiha took a deep breath, and Parinita tightened her grip.

Agni pulled the firing pin.

For Madiha it was like trying to hold back an earthquake. She felt the force of the gun diffuse into the air and it was as if she was holding the piece not with her mind but with spectral arms that could be shaken, and that were shaking, and it took all her strength to keep the gun from wobbling as it fired. A bright muzzle flash followed the ejection of the shell, and the recuperator simply couldn’t handle it, and the gun started to come apart.

All eyes turned to the bridge, where the shell sailed into the front of the Vishap.

The explosion that followed consumed the front of the Vishap in smoke, and nearly knocked the hulk fully off the bridge. It just barely managed to hang on to the stone.

When the smoke cleared the damage was immense. All of the concrete and armor in an area the size of a watermelon had collapsed inside and left a smoking pit amid the face of the Vishap. A quarter of the gun mantlet was blasted off and the rest came unseated, and the gun hung half-out of the orifice, almost like an eye plucked from its socket.

That was the end of the Vishap. Madiha let go of the howitzer.

Agni took a step back as the gun came crashing down onto the rampart, spilling apart.

One recoil buffer went flying, the recuperator was crushed, and barrel twisted off.

But it had served its purpose. This ramshackle gun had finally put an end to the Vishap.

Madiha looked down at it from the ramparts.

“Tell the Svechthan mountain troops and the snipers that they’re clear to rappel down.”

Parinita nodded her head and let go of Madiha slowly. She was breathing heavily from her exertions, but smiling and triumphant. Even Sergeant Agni looked relieved after her own efforts. There were enemies invading the bridge, but with the Vishap gone the existential threat to the gate was gone with it, and they could rally once more. Even as they spoke, Madiha could see her troops rallying once more and the frogmen and their officer on the bridge beginning to retreat back closer to the water they came from.

“Tell HQ that the eastern sector is tentatively clear–”

Madiha felt an eerie, sudden chill that prompted her to quiet suddenly.

It was as if there was a sound, distant, just on the edge of her ability to hear it.

Her pupils dilated, and red rings began to burn around her irises.

She looked down at the bridge again, gritting her teeth, her hands smoking.

“Madiha?” Parinita asked. “What’s wrong? You’re burning up!”

Parinita rushed to her side, and applied her healing touch.

Madiha felt her eyes sting so badly she started to tear up.

“Something’s coming.” Madiha said, words drawn from some ancient, prophetic sense.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.2)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

Gulab scarcely had time to guide her shaken troops back into the shadow of the Vishap before the trails of fire appeared far overhead and arced violently down to the bridge.

“Get down!” She shouted, physically shielding those close.

She pulled down Loubna and Aditha in time for the first warheads to come crashing down like meteors. Waves of heat washed over the squadron as flames engulfed the bridge, barely contained by the concrete barriers along the edge of the bridge. Ravenous tongues of fire lashed out over the bridge, shrapnel bounced off the top of the barriers and cascaded into the river. They saw enemy infantry, on fire or badly maimed or both, climbing and tumbling and thrown bodily over the barriers and falling to their deaths in the river below, swept up by the current under the stone and out of their sight.

Though the rookies gaped and gasped at the ruined men, Gulab had long since learned to tune out the immediate casualties of the enemy. She kept everyone in line and urged them to stay down until her signal. This was a god-sent opportunity for them right now.

From behind the wall, the rockets came relentlessly for what seemed like a solid minute or more of non-stop bursting and blasting, running down like a series of stomping steps all over the bridge from the back of the Vishap and stretching almost to the desert itself. When the pounding of the rockets eased up for long enough, Gulab dared to peek over the wall briefly. Smoke billowed from the scattered fires left in the rocket’s wake, and the bridge was pitted and cracked all over from the explosions. There were corpses, charred and charring, and she felt the residual heat from the explosions. It was different from the dry, windy heat of the desert. It was chemical, noxious, it reeked like a coal mine.

And slowly creating distance was the Vishap, almost to the rubble of the second gate.

Gulab shook her head and crawled back down to her squadron, who looked at her with their eyes wide open, their hands shaking, their weapons dropped on the bridge-side.

Seer, in particular, was so despondent and shaken that Gulab knew she was done now.

“We’ve only got one more shot at this while the bridge is clear.” She said. She couldn’t spare time for comfort right now. She was an officer, and she had a mission. It was just like the General, like Madiha Nakar, everything was like she had told her. Everything had to be for the mission. Steeling herself, though she felt uncomfortable with the hardness of her own tone, Gulab continued quickly. “Loubna, Jaffar, you’re going to throw fragmentation grenades at the machine guns on top of the Vishap. You’ll shut down the guns and I’ll run in and jam an anti-tank grenade into the track and stop it. Okay?”

“Sergeant, you’ll die!” Aditha shouted. “You’ll absolutely die if you go out there like–”

Gulab puffed out her chest and stuck her hands to her hips, grinning at Aditha.

“Hah! You think this hunk of metal scares me? I’ll have you know I hunted rock bears in the inner mountains for years. And those could turn on a dime in less than a second!”

She shook her finger right in Aditha’s face, who stared on in speechless confusion.

“Act your rank, rookie! Rookies don’t worry about their officers! It’s the other way around! Loubna, Jaffar, you have your orders. Aditha, lead Seer up to the C.P.! Now!”

Aditha looked at Seer, who in turn was staring at the ground despondently.

She took her hand by the hand and reluctantly led her away, following the river and keeping their heads low below the wall. Gulab barely watched them go; she had precious little time. Already the bridge was starting to shake, and rock started to fly as the Vishap crunched into the rubble of the second gate, its bulldozer blades and gun blasting into it.

“Come on!”

Loubna and Jaffar swallowed hard and followed Gulab as she crouched and ran beneath the bridge barrier and followed close to the Vishap’s position. Beneath her she could feel the ground shake from the machine’s struggle. She heard its infernal engine pounding so hard that the vibration seemed to overwhelm that of her own heart. She grit her teeth.

Everyone got into position in the shadow of the Vishap, grenades in hand.

“Throw now!” Gulab called out.

Loubna and Jaffar pulled the grenade pins, stood, and each quickly made their throws.

Before them the Vishap was gargantuan. It was like a mountain enduring falling stones.

Two explosions consumed the roof of the Vishap in smoke for an instant.

Gulab had little time to check whether it had worked as she intended. At least for a moment, the Vishap was blinded, and she had her chance. Taking in a deep breath, she jumped, climbed the barricade, and landed on the other side in a run. She threw her anti-tank grenade by its handle as straight as she could, and ran around the back of the Vishap. She heard an explosion and saw sparks flying from under the machine.

She was on the bridge, running past the corpses of the men caught in the rocket attack.

It was hot. It was hellish. She peered over her shoulder at the nearby Vishap.

On the floor, the Vishap’s track flew out the back of its churned-up track guard in pieces.

Gulab nearly caught one of the chunks.

She stopped dead in her tracks, catching her breath, staring.

She wanted to laugh. They had done it! They had crippled the machine!

Then in front of the Vishap, there was a terrible flash.

Gulab nearly tumbled from the shock of the explosive blast from the Vishap’s main gun.

In moments, the rubble of the second gate vanished, like a door opening before them.

There was screeching. Sparks went out from the Vishap’s side, where metal met rock.

Beneath the machine, something struggled, metal on metal, something ground.

Something twisted, something labored, more than it possibly could have.

Gulab felt the vibration in her stomach, in her throat, punching her adam’s apple.

She felt her heart sink as the Vishap’s road wheels began to turn on its injured side.

It once more started to move.

Stunned to silence, Gulab’s eyes helplessly tracked the machine as it began to inch away, and then they darted to the top, where the smoke had cleared and the two rear machine guns were slowly turning around to meet her. She could almost see the flash of the guns and the flash of the eyes behind the guns, and what she did then was turn, and run.

At her back twin glowing trails of tracer rounds slashed the air with a ravenous fury.

Gulab threw herself forward moments into her dash, hitting the dirt in a shell crater.

She fell in with a corpse and quickly pushed herself under it.

She covered her head with her hands as the trail of bullets caught up to her.

Nothing but the sounds of a thousand hornets buzzing–

Chunks of stone and spent casings and dust and something fluid trickling, trickling–

Gulab felt a series of impacts along her back and cried out.

It was like a hammer pounding away at the body on top of her.

Blood started to pool at the bottom of the crater and she felt cold and numb and limp.

Her hands shaking, her strength wavering, she pulled the hand radio in her bag to her mouth. Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she drew in a long, labored breath.

“I’m pinned down behind the Vishap! I need help!” she shouted desperately.

Briefly she heard Charvi’s voice answering back, inter-cut with a sound like gunfire.

“Gulab, stay down, we can’t–!”

More noise; the radio signal cut out abruptly.

Charvi was in danger too! But how–

There was no time to think about it. Gulab had to escape and stop the Vishap.

All of the blood wasn’t hers. It came from the corpse. Nothing had impacted her body.

She raised herself slowly, and in turn raised the body above the cover of the shell crater.

She felt the bullets striking around the shell crater, and an impact on the corpse.

Gritting her teeth, Gulab once more lowered herself into the crater.

Her eyes filled with tears. She felt helpless to do anything.

She pulled the radio back up to her face and started turning the frequency dial.

“I can’t wait longer! I’m attacking the Vishap! I’m sorry Charvi! This is my only chance!”

Even if she was hit by the guns, even if she was killed, she could at least take out the tracks! She was not her father at all. His hard words weren’t backed up by anything! Gulab Kajari was a woman who would sacrifice her own life to defend her charges!

Feeling anxious and overwhelmed and not thinking straight, Gulab thrust herself up.

At her back, the advancing Vishap adjusted its machine guns. It was not shooting.

Reloading?

Gulab quickly reached into the pouch of the dead man and took his anti-tank grenade.

She glanced it. Her heart nearly stopped when she noticed the expandable fins on it.

It was a panzerwurfmine! Those things were impossible to use!

She dropped it back into the crater and grabbed the corpse’s pouch.

Inside she quickly found what looked like blocks of clay.

“A satchel!”

Feeling a ray of desperate hope, she stood up off the shell crater and charged.

Her bomb in one hand, and the radio in the other, committing the last of her strength to either radio in her own death or the crippling of the Vishap. She girded herself for it.

There was no more time. She closed in as fast as she could.

There were flashes from machine gun mounts atop the Vishap.

Twin bursts of gunfire sailed past the dashing Gulab.

She felt something graze her skin, releasing a sharp, short spurt of blood.

Gulab’s feet went unsteady, and she nearly fell.

For an instant she felt suspended in water, struggling to gain any ground.

She thought she could see each individual bullet flying her way, closing in.

Her cheek was cut; a pouch fell off her side; her hip was clipped, the closest shot yet.

She was struck then, she knew it, and the force was almost enough to throw her down.

She hit the button on the radio.

What would she say?

“I’m sorry I gave you false hope, Charvi, but you love an utter fraud–”

But before she could even transmit, someone preempted her and called first.

“Gulachka, don’t worry. ‘Mommy’s’ got you.”

In the next instant, she saw flashes inside both of the machine gun cupolas in quick succession. There were sparks and a brief flame like an incendiary round going off.

Both machine guns moved to stare in different, haphazard directions.

There was a shred of light inside each cupola where someone had penetrated.

Gulab briefly glanced at the wall, where she knew she could see the flash of a gun.

And she recognized the voice. It was the little blue haired sniper: Captain Illynichna!

She had saved her! She saved her from the guns–

Gulab’s face went red and she slammed the button on her hand radio.

“Change your callsign, right now Illynicha!” She shouted.

Chto?” went the voice again, clearly Illynichna’s. “Gulachka?”

“I refuse to call you ‘Mommy’! Have you no shame?”

“What are you talking about? I chose this sign because of my deep respect for mothers–”

“Change it now!”

Atop the Vishap one of the Cupola swung open.

A man thrust from atop the tank, his face ruined with scars, blood and burns.

His shaking hand wielded a pistol at Gulab.

Before he could shoot, however, he was pierced from the side by a friendly red tracer.

Gulab took off running after the Vishap, and with her came Loubna and Jaffar.

“I’m sorry Sergeant!” Loubna cried, a rifle in her hand, “My throw didn’t do anything!”

Jaffar cast eyes down at the floor, perhaps ashamed of his own ineffective attack.

All of three of them were mere meters from the Vishap, and the Vishap itself was beginning to cross the second gate, and would in moments be within shooting distance of the gate into Solstice itself. It would be able to shoot the first artillery to ever hit the city interior in decades, and the first to ever threaten the Socialist community inside.

No matter what, Gulab had to prevent this disaster.

And she had to get through that hunk of metal to assist Charvi as well!

Her own insecurities, and everyone else’s, could be dealt with later.

“I’m just glad to see you safe!” Gulab said. “I’m going to need your help.”

She raised the hand radio to her lips once more. “Illynichna, what’s wrong at the C.P.?”

Presumably from atop the wall, the Svecthan captain replied. “Frogmen, Gulachka! A sizeable amount of infantry came out from the river and onto the bridge to assist the Vishap. We don’t know how they managed it: they must be world class swimmers.”

“Without the Vishap they’ll have to retreat.” Gulab said. “Illynichna, is Charvi okay?”

There was an instant between her question and the reply that nearly lanced her heart.

“Yes, she is alive.” Illynicha said.

“Assist her then! I’ll take out the Vishap!” Gulab said.

“You will what?”

“Just do it!”

Gulab pocketed the hand radio, and turned to Loubna and Jaffar.

All of them were practically in the shadow of the Vishap.

And they seemed just as helpless against it as before, even if they couldn’t be shot by it.

It took being within meters of the beast, staring it dead-on, to realize how solid every part of it was. How thick the metal seemed, how armored, how invincible. Even the individual rivets seemed unassailable. Substantial battle damage had been inflicted on it, and yet every scar seemed inconsequential while the machine continued to lumber on.

“Tanks rears are supposed to be the least armored part, but, this is a lot still.”

Gulab found herself able to run right behind the Vishap at its pace.

“We’ve only got one bomb.” Gulab lifted the satchel to show Loubna and Jaffar.

“Ma’am, I have an idea.” Loubna said.

She pointed at the top of the Vishap. “If the engine is at the back of the tank, then, there must not be a lot separating those machine gun points from the engine block.”

Gulab blinked. She smiled and grinned wildly. “You’re a genius!”

She speed up the pace and took a leap.

Her feet hit the track guard of the Vishap, and she climbed up.

In front of her, two remaining machine guns were busy firing forward.

Gulab could see the final gate ahead, and the C.P. just off the main bridge thoroughfare.

There were tracers flying everywhere there.

Her whole body was screaming with pain and exhaustion. She felt the heat like the cruel beam of light from a magnifying glass, burning the ants below. The Vishap itself was like a frying pan, its armor unbearably hot to touch, gleaming in the sun despite the hundreds, maybe thousands of pockmarks upon its surface. Gulab’s head was pounding with bad thoughts and with grave fears and anxieties. It took so much from her to climb onto that machine, and to drop herself inside the ripped-up machine gun mount.

There was a little drum-shaped space there, sealed off. There was a corpse, and a ruined Norgler with ammunition still laying, protected in a case on the wall.

Gulab faced the front of the Vishap from inside and set the charge.

She had maybe ten seconds to spare, so she scrambled back atop the Vishap.

There was no time to climb down, and Gulab’s strength, sapped by the heat and the stress, would not suffice for it. She threw herself off the machine and onto the floor.

Below, Loubna and Jaffar rushed to catch her.

All of them hit the ground together and fell back into a shallow crater.

And ahead of them, the explosive went off with a greater fury than Gulab imagined.

She felt a wave of heat and power coming from the blast that knocked them all back.

Consumed in a beautiful and terrifying flash of light, the rear of the Vishap exploded like a tin can under pressure, ejecting its wheels and parts of its complicated suspension system into the air. Bits and pieces of the monster went flying everywhere like a cloud of shrapnel. Gulab raised her head and immediately lowered it and forced Loubna and Jaffar down; over their heads went a sheet of armor spinning like a thrown chakram.

The Vishap was propelled forward by the blast, and it slid on the smooth stone of the inner thoroughfare, the jagged metal of its underside and remaining wheels casting sparks as the machine flew out of the second gate, skidded around the bridge and smashed into one of the side barriers, stuck partially off the bridge with its cannon facing away from the innermost gate. Flames played about the massive rupture on the rear of the machine, and its remaining track and wheels spun haphazardly in a futile show of its remaining life. Fluid trickled out of it and spread into a puddle, like blood.

Gulab managed to force herself straight, sitting knees-down. At her side, Loubna and Jaffar were thoroughly exhausted, and laid on their backs, panting and panicking.

“We nearly died! We nearly died!” Loubna screamed, checking her body for wounds.

Her head was cloudy, but in that instant, Gulab felt an incredible sense of triumph.

She raised the hand radio to her lips. “Sergeant Kajari, reporting one tank down!”

Almost in the instant she transmitted, an ear-splitting boom sounded ahead.

The Vishap’s gun fired a round and struck the right-hand wall next to the gate.

Ancient rock chipped off the wall and into the water; there was a sizeable dent.

Gulab dropped the radio, and felt all of her remaining strength leaving her.

Had she failed?


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — North Solstice

Deep in the heart of Solstice, under the shadow of Armaments Hill, the ground began to tremble violently. Several blocks out from the headquarters of the Golden Army the shocks and the stirring of Solstice’s three great biting heads could be felt in the floor and the walls. At the Varnavat Artillery Base, there was nothing but blacktop and three massive structures. Stone turntables each the size of a city block, arranged in a triangle around a central control tower, began to turn three massive 800mm cannons.

All three cannons, each 20 meters long, lay on enormous steel bases. Recoil tubes larger than two adult men standing atop each other and thicker than a sand worm were installed atop the barrel to carefully reset the weapon as it slid across a mount some 15 meters long, criss-crossed by the skeletal components of its wheel-driven elevation mechanism. Each gun had a crew of 250 men and women assigned to it for setup, maintenance and repair, along with an elite 15-troop gunnery crew. These hundreds of people crowded the spinning terrain of each turntable, tightening screws, lubricating parts, working the cranes that raised 4-ton explosive shells up to the massive breeches.

Before the Solstice War, the Prajna had not been fired in anger since the revolution.

Now it felt almost routine. At the Sivira HQ not too far away, at Armaments Hill just a stone’s throw from Varnavat, in the surrounding streets, and even in the control tower a hair’s breadth from the epicenter, there was no stress. Civilians passed by the base on their way to work or shop in the North Solstice City District; at the military installations men and women walked the halls with their feet gently quaking, and with the earth’s palpitations winding their way through their guts and lungs, and they bore it quietly.

Every one of the three 800mm Prajna Super-Heavy Howitzers turned its barrel South.

Lieutenant Adesh Gurunath of the 5th Guards Mechanized Artilery Brigade watched the massive guns moving, settling, and the teeming mass of humanity that crewed them, with a mixture of awe, pride, and a lingering, uncomfortable sense of mortality, fear, despair. He was dressed in the formal uniform, coat, button-down, skirt, leggings; his shoulder-length hair wrapped in a bun, his glasses dripping with sweat from his brow, his entire face, ordinarily pleasant, soft and effete, contorted with anxious disbelief.

At his side, his previous superior, now-Major Rahani, outdid him in military elegance with the addition of a bright rose in his hair and a touch of makeup around his eyes and on his lips. Smiling, with a hand on his hip, he patted Adesh gently in the shoulder. His own skirt was just a little bit shorter than Adesh’s, who wore a more conservative woman’s uniform. Both of them had dressed up their best for the facility tour.

“I knew you’d love to see it. My husband is an engineer here, you know.” He said.

He pointed toward the third gun with a winking eye. Adesh made no expression.

He had wondered so many times before: why me? His life had been spared in battle so many times; he had felled so many foes with so little understanding of how or why; he had been promoted away from his friends for so long. Now Rahani had chosen him to bear witness to this. Rahani was going to become one of these powerful, elite gunners.

“Please don’t be nervous. I know on some level that these weapons scare you and you hate using them. I just wanted you to get the full picture of what they can do, before you decide anything.” Rahani said. “I know you’ve been through so much, Adesh. You’re on the cusp of major turning points in your life. You can’t just go with the flow anymore.”

Major Rahani wrapped an arm around Adesh, and drew him close in a motherly way.

“You like guns, right? I think seeing this might help you understand some things.”

In front of them, the guns began to elevate, and then were set into their final arc.

“For the artillery, we are at a crossroads between movement and power. We’ve never had to think about this before, not the way we do now. This right here, is the power you could have by staying rooted where you are now. By stalwartly defending this place.”

Adesh raised his eyes to the barrels of the three Prajna as their breeches locked down.

Standing beside the control tower, he saw flag-wavers come running out of the building.

“You’re here, in Solstice now. You could stay here, like I have. Isn’t this magnificent?”

There was a great and mighty shock that sucked up all other sound.

From the barrel of the Prajna came a flash like a bolt of lightning, and copious black smoke belched out in the wake of a massive, red-hot shell that rushed to the horizon like a shooting star. Beneath Adesh’s feet the ground quaked, and he felt the onrushing force of the gun’s shot like a tidal wave, washing over him. Into his every bone, to the marrow; within his guts; even his eyes felt like they were shaking with its power. He wept openly.

In succession, the second and third guns fired their own projectiles, and Adesh nearly fell; had it not been for Rahani holding him close, perhaps both of them would have fallen. Gunnery and engineering personnel all around stood in the same shocked silence, picking themselves up from their own exposure to the god-like force of the gun firing.

Somewhere out there, something was going to catch those stars and die.

Adesh stood, speechless.

He wished so much that Eshe and Nnenia could be here with him.

He wished he knew where they were.

He wished things hadn’t resolved the way they did.

Rahani, at his side, smiled and waved off the rapidly disappearing shells.

He sighed deeply, and turned to Adesh again.

“We could defend this city’s walls until the end of the war, safe and sound. No more fighting, no more stress, helplessness, powerlessness. We would have 15,000 of the quickest guns in the world, and the three biggest guns in the world, at our disposal. We can do desk work, start families, make passionate love to our partners every night.”

Something small, insignificant almost, wandered in from the edge of Adesh’s vision.

There was a Chimera moving about, towing one of the Prajna’s massive shells.

Its gun was bound up with cloth. There was no need for it to shoot. It was just a tractor.

“But this is a new age also.” Rahani said. “You could follow this war to another border. You could follow General Nakar, the only person in this army speaking of Attacking.”

“I could leave the army.” Adesh said, sobbing.

“You won’t.” Rahani said. “I know because I said it once too. I see a lot of myself in you.”

Adesh hated how right Rahani was, despite how much he loved him that moment for it.

Rahani, with his gentle smile and pretty features, who had saved him so many times.

He was always there for him. Even now, when he had no responsibility toward him.

“You want to do what is right; but you also have to do what is right for you. All of our people are part of this war now. But you don’t need to sacrifice your life for it.”

Rahani pointed at the Prajna’s once more as if reintroducing them to Adesh.

“Please consider it before you return to Mechanized again, Adesh.”

It was a kind, wonderful gesture.

But Adesh knew what he would do.

It was so kind and so wonderful because it was so unnecessary, so ineffective.

He was the only one in that field, it seemed, who saw that Chimera trundling about.

Adesh knew he would unbundle that gun and leave everyone behind. On those tracks.

Rahani sighed a little bit. “My hubbie will be busy, so, lets grab a bite and catch up!”

He clapped his hands together happily. Adesh nodded his head.

“I would like that. You’re the only one of us I can visit anymore.” Adesh said.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Major General Von Fennec stood on the back seat of his utility truck and watched in a mixture of horror and exasperation as a shower of rocket fire wiped his and Von Drachen’s troops off the bridge to Conqueror’s Way. He had heard of the Ayvartan rocket troops and their howling ordnance, but seeing it with his own eyes was like watching meteors raining from the sky on his men. It was sudden, infernal, and vexing.

The disdainful hand of a fiery goddess, slapping his men like pieces off a game board.

Truly that Madiha Nakar had a knack for setting her own battlefields aflame.

Setting down his binoculars and turning away from the scene of half his men burning to death and the rest fleeing like cowards, the general tapped his foot against the rib of a girl below him on the back of the truck, crouched in clear discomfort beside a portable radio. She groaned upon being struck this way, and grumpily turned her blond head.

“Casualty estimates, right now.” He demanded.

Promptly but with a trembling in her voice, the young woman responded.

“Major Yavez is saying a hundred and thirty, at least. Battalion combat-ineffective.”

“What about the Vishap?”

“It appears unharmed sir.”

Von Fennec sighed with a deep relief. He dropped his binoculars on top of the girl.

“Acceptable. Tell those idiots to get back on the bridge ASAP. Combat ineffective my ass.”

The General left the girl, speechless and rubbing her head, and dropped off the truck and onto the sand. His all-terrain quarter-ton “Peep” truck was parked in the far edge of the battlespace, with a full view of the bridge but ample distance between himself and any guns. He had been watching the battle with a keen interest in the Vishap’s advance. He was an old warhorse of the days of carriage-drawn artillery, and rose through the ranks with the mortar and howitzer men of the last war. This Vishap was really something else.

He was excited to be entrusted with it. To him, it meant Lehner still believed in the old staff, that he was bringing the respected elder statesmen of the army into his future.

Unlike his compatriots, Von Fennec readily dispensed with tradition if it suited him.

Now even the artillery men could know the glory of the assault! They could finally take whole cities by themselves, and humiliate the enemy in the fashion of the infantry! No more was the artillery a lowly thing dragged behind the lines, or saddled with the thankless defense of worthless camps and fortresses. Now in this age of maneuver, the innocent artillery that fired unknowingly into the sky, could itself know blood and fire!

All he had to do was watch the Vishap as it crept toward the city, and await victory.

Now that was progress he could agree with.

Von Fennec walked back toward the tall dunes surrounding his camp.

“Sherry, I shall be in my command tent, tell those cowards to get back in line–”

Moments after he turned his back, as the firestorm died down on the bridge and the Vishap’s gate-smashing shells once more became the loudest presence on the field of battle, Von Fennec felt a trembling moving from the floor to his legs, up his bones.

He shuddered, and turned once more toward the city.

He saw trails of smoke stretching over the sky like black lances.

And the speartip was a trio of glowing-red shells like stars being shot into space.

From the back of the peep truck, Sherry stared at him with terror in her eyes.

“General, the Prajnas have been fired! We’ve got three shells, south-bound!”

Von Fennec sighed deeply with great relief.

“Not my problem then! We’re attacking from the east. Tell my men to keep fighting.”

Safe knowing he was not the target of those monstrous guns, Von Fennec once more turned his back on the truck and the city and ambled away, his gait irregular from horse-back injuries sustained long ago. He had a bottle of wine in a personal icebox on his command vehicle. He could see his HQ already, near the Vishap’s old container. A tank transporter with what resembled a little house on the bed instead of a vehicle.

Several minutes later and sopping wet with sweat, he put his fist to the HQ’s door.

Finally, time for a well-earned rest and maybe a bit of drunkenness.

Von Drachen was out there somewhere, he could do the commanding–

Von Fennec then heard the beeping of a horn, and turned to see the Peep rushing close.

Confused, he watched silently as it pulled sharply up in front of him.

Sherry was in a panic in the back. She was waving her arms with every word said.

Her glasses practically fell off, and her professional-looking hair bun was out of sorts.

“General!” She cried out, short of breath.

Von Fennec turned back around and reached for the door, hoping to ignore her.

“Corps is calling an immediate retreat out of Prajna range!”

Von Fennec stopped and abruptly turned sharply over his shoulder.

“They’ve sustained casualties as high as the divisional level. Our southern thrust is broken, we’re practically fighting alone, and we’re closest to the city.” Sherry said.

Von Fennec blinked.

To retreat would mean–

“We can’t abandon the Vishap! My career will be over!” Von Fennec said.

He turned his head sharply every which way, looking for that uppity mutt.

“Where is Aatto?! Get that bitch out here! We need to extract the Vishap immediately!”

Von Fennec was losing his sun-addled mind entirely.

Demure and white as a ghost, Sherry mumbled, “Sir, um, about that–”


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