EL DRAGÓN (50.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, Council District

From the steps into the Council building a fresh unit of soldiers charged down the front green, avoiding the six dead men strewn about the lawn and rushing toward the corner of Council Street and its central block. Scouting the area, their weapons up as they ran, they joined a pair of men hiding on the edge of the green, huddled behind a pair of benches.

Though the sky was black, several powerful searchlights shone from the roof and from several windows in the council building, providing targeting capability to the infantry. Every street lamp along Council Street was set again to full power, having been previously dimmed to support the curfew.

Carefully the men behind the benches and bushes on the edge of the Council lawn peered down the street, perhaps expecting gunfire. There was no retaliation against them. They assembled and prepared quietly.

“How many?” asked the squad leader, leaning out toward the road.

One man answered in a panic. “Just one sir! But she’s strong–‘

With a grin the squadron leader cut the man off.

He stood from behind the bench and held out his arm.

“You coward! Just one shooter has forced you back? Move out and–”

From farther down the street a rifle round struck the squadron sergeant’s adam’s apple as he berated his men. His head nearly came off as he fell.

There was immediate panic. Even with a tracer, it should have been nearly impossible for a shooter in the dark to kill this accurately with one shot.

An entire squadron dove and scrambled for cover around the corpse of their officer but found little they could use. In front of the large, square, u-shaped Council Building the green was wide open. There was nothing but small manicured bushes, stray benches made of widely spaced boards and a pair of flagpoles to hide behind on the lawn, and all of these were many meters apart. There were the torches on the street, but in the dark these posts immediately marked the men they covered as obvious targets.

Snipers could have hidden inside the western arm of the Council Building, but then they would not be able to see the fugitive. Even the men at the forefront of the gun battle could hardly see their target, only thirty meters away, save for a flash of movement in dim lamplight after her every kill.

Madiha Nakar had picked her position on the connecting Council Street to shield her from the sight of the Council Building. She was deep enough into the street that the arms of the building could not shine their lights on her, and she was distant enough from a torch post to hide in the gloom.

While her enemies had trouble targeting her, Madiha’s own field of view to the lawn was wide open, and she had reasonable cover from the old, thick steel mail bank box set on the side of the road. It was akin to a wall. Stray bullets bounced off the side and top of the box. Its exterior was made of fairly thick metal, and any bullets that penetrated would be slowed or diverted by the papers and boxes inside the bank. She had her pick of targets whenever she peered beyond the bank. Over the iron sights, she led her shots on the men even as they struggled to escape.

One shot through a mouth; clack went the bolt action; one shot through an eye; clack; one through a nose. Three men dropped to the ground in quick succession. Madiha retreated behind cover and felt the force of several shots transfer through the metal into vibrations against her back.

Taking a deep breath, she produced a new stripper clip from the pilfered ammunition bang slung over her shoulder and fed it into the rifle. Sensing a long delay between rifle shots at her back, she peered around the postal box. Selectively targeting the men in green uniforms she retaliated anew.

Through the space between the boards on the bench backrest she saw one of the panicked men that was shouting before. She shot him in the chest.

Tracers soared through the gloom like flaming arrows. Madiha took note of as many of the flashes and cracks as she saw and heard while shooting and before hiding, divining enemy positions and retaliating accurately.

As the exchange of gunfire continued, she saw less and less of the panicked blue-uniformed civil police in the vicinity. She had hoped they would finally break and flee after a show of force, and she had been thankfully correct. There was only a smattering of green uniforms on the Council Building front green and soon, not a single blue police uniform.

She hid behind the post box anew and worked the bolt. Mentally she prepared herself for the next volley of rifle shots launched her way.

In place of the cracking of Bundu rifles she heard a continuous noise.

Dozens of rounds struck the back of the box, many penetrating into the interior and striking against the metal directly at Madiha’s back. Chips of hot metal flew overhead like the shavings of an electric saw. Bright green tracers raked the street and the road at her sides. A spraying cone of lead showered the surroundings in hot metal, hungry for her flesh. It was an enemy Norgler. She could tell from the noise; she couldn’t risk peering out.

Soon as she heard a lull Madiha fled from cover, ducking stray rifle fire to run into an alley. She put her back to the bricks of a shop wall, and closed her eyes. Hundreds of flashing green fragments blew in toward her from the edge of the alley wall as the automatic tracer fire chipped at the bricks. Stowing her rifle she withdrew her pistol and stuck out her hand, shooting blindly back into the road and toward the green, unable to tell the effect.

Before she could even think to peek again the Norgler fire resumed.

She was trapped in an alleyway. Everything was dark owing to the distance from the street lights. There seemed to be no civilians around, not on the street, in the alley or in these buildings. Nobody there to be hit by the shots but her. It was the only comforting thought she had the entire night.

There was scarcely a pause between volleys. Automatic gunfire perfectly sited the street. Her muscles tensed and she grit her teeth, flinching from bits of brick and lead flying sharply off the corner and stinging her cheeks.

She crept farther into the alley and hid between a garbage can and a set of steps into a side door. Her original intention had been to fight until she thought she had a good chance to flee to safety. She had perhaps stuck around too long; the showers of tracers made her plans impossible.

Under the cover of the Norgler there were likely men moving in against her, combing the gloomy streets. They would find her quickly even in the dark. She would be hard-pressed to deal with a rifle squadron while cornered in an alley. All they had to do was throw grenades into the alley.

She had to take action first; she could not sit here and wait to die.

From her stolen pack she withdrew a flare gun and fired it into the sky.

A canister launched heavensward and exploded with a red flash.

Under the moonless sky the flash was enough to light the entire alley.

It was a signal for help. But it also exposed her location to the enemy.

On the street six men rushed past and stacked on both sides of the alley.

Madiha crouched behind the garbage can with her head almost in her legs.

As she feared she heard a shout. Grenades came flying into the alleyway.

Over the shouting of the men Madiha heard a high-pitched roaring.

As she hoped, the grenades flew right out as a stiff gust blew into the alleyway from above. Three grenades bounced back out into the street along the ground and detonated simultaneously on top of their owners.

Madiha felt the detonations and huddled in place until she heard the last of the spraying fragments settle. When she lifted her head again, she found Kali beside her, having descended from the heavens. Even in the dark her scales seemed to glint with their own dim luminescence.

Her little dragon looked worse for wear.

Bullets had become lodged in its scales in various locations, cracking “plates” of armor but seemingly not drawing blood. Where blood had been drawn was its underbelly and wings, where shards of glass had become embedded, and bruises and blood spots had formed wherever Brass Face had managed to strike in their combat. She was clearly quite wounded.

Kali did not seem disturbed by her wounds. It sat on all fours like a cat, with its head raised, staring blankly at Madiha in the same way as usual.

“Kali, you’re hurt!” Madiha said sadly.

No response from the little dragon. It stared expectantly.

Madiha reached out and petted it on the head as Parinita had taught her.

Kali purred and closed its eyes.

Madiha felt foolish; what she said before was obvious, but she felt strongly compelled to acknowledge it to herself. Kali had been hurt. Her actions and decisions had not just affected herself or the enemy. Her little friend had been badly beaten around. She did not even know how much Kali really understood things. Though it had the aptitude to fight, and some apparent knowledge of how its enemies were fighting her (what shooting was, and how to deflect big projectiles) she felt strange attributing that much agency to it. Madiha still thought of her as a pet that needed care.

And as far as caring for Kali went, Madiha had failed miserably.

She was about to punctuate her failure even further.

From her bag she withdrew a thick bundle of grenades.

“Kali, can you understand me?”

Kali stared at her, craning its head to one side.

Madiha reached out her hand to pet her head again.

She settled her palm over Kali’s head and projected an image.

“Can you see this man too?”

She tried to gently push into Kali’s mind the image of a male soldier with a Norgler. She focused on the size of the weapon, on the way a man would be holding it, on the noise and visual effect of the weapon. It was akin to drawing a sketch for a trainee to help them visualize an enemy target.

There was no protest to the psychic display.

She was not trying to intrude on Kali’s mind like she did to Brass Face’s. Through the tenuous connection she conveyed her non-aggression as strongly as she could. She tried to evoke a one-way conversation, a giving of information, a telling of facts. Madiha took not even a trickle of Kali’s thoughts. In turn the dragon was calm and gentle, completely trusting.

In a few seconds she was satisfied with the picture she had projected.

Madiha removed her hand from Kali’s head and smiled at her pet.

“Kali, I need you to drop this on that man. Can you do that?”

Soon as she was done speaking the exterior alley lit up with green tracers.

Kali seized the bundle of grenades from Madiha’s hands and took off.

In the preceding days Madiha had only ever really see Kali float and glide, but today she was flying as though propelled by her own little engine. She flapped her wings once and generated enough wind to lift dust from the floor and to lift her whole body into the sky. She elevated without concern, flying directly up and down as if unburdened by the physics of aviation.

She disappeared from over the alley. Madiha crouched along the edge of the wall, hurrying toward the street. She pulled on the leg of a corpse, drawing the remains into the alley and pilfering ammunition. Just a meter overhead and scarcely a meter of brick from the street, the Norgler’s fire resumed slicing the pavement and the corner of the shop. Hundreds of bullet holes had scarred the street and the lips of the alleyway walls.

Madiha sat against the wall, pistol in hand, waiting for a sign.

There came another volley of Norgler fire, chipping at the walls anew.

Then a loud blast quieted the gun mid-spray.

Madiha charged out of the alleyway, firing her pistol up the street. She found a trio of men running from the lawn and attacked them, shooting two before ducking back behind the mail bank. She spotted several more men that had been assembling on the green, and were now stumbling around wounded and dazed from the explosion. Amid a circle of burnt grass and running blood were a pair of bodies lying on a mangled pile of metal tubing and cooked ammo that had once been an automatic weapon.

Overhead Kali circled like a vulture smelling carrion in the air.

With the Norgler suppressed and the men scattered, now was the time to flee. Madiha withdrew her flare gun, popped a new canister into the weapon and aimed further down the street. She unloaded a flare, set her sights on Ocean Road at the end of the block, perhaps a kilometer away, and took off under the red flash, hoping that Kali would see it and follow.

As she left cover and ran Madiha felt a closer, hotter flash behind her.

Chunks of metal flew past her as the box exploded a dozen meters back.

Eyes drawn wide with terror, Madiha looked over her shoulder mid-run.

She found herself suddenly turning gold under a pair of bright lights.

Blinded at first, she caught a glimpse of her aggressor when the lights moved from over her body and instead illuminated the road ahead.

Moving into the green from beyond Council Street was a Goblin light tank, the ubiquitous main tank of the Territorial Army. Characteristically angled tracks bore it forward, its three-section glacis with a flat front plate facing Madiha. Atop its thinly armored, riveted hull was an off-center turret with a thin gun and a linked machine gun, and atop that was a pintle-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun, rarely seen equipped.

One 45mm high-explosive shell was all it took to smash the mail bank.

Against other tanks it was lacking, but a Goblin was deadly to infantry.

Madiha saw the gun barrel light up as she glanced again over her shoulder.

In an instant a second shell flew past, infinitely faster than she could run.

Had it deviated a meter toward her it would have struck Madiha directly.

Instead thirty meters ahead it exploded on the road, scattering fragments.

Madiha shielded her face with her arms, turned on her heels and dove blindly into the nearest alleyway. She felt a sting on her flank; a fragment must have bitten into the back of her ribs somewhere. Flinching from the new pain, she found herself scarcely a few dozen meters from where she had started, stranded in a wide alley mostly adjacent to her last refuge.

Behind her she heard the loud whining of the tracks as the Goblin neared.

The Cisseans must have cried out for help to the rogue 8th Division.

Or perhaps they had just pressed a captured Goblin into their own service.

Regardless Madiha now had to contend with a tank.

She cast wild eyes around the alley and found a large dumpster belonging to the shops on this block. She put down the lid and climbed atop, and leaped up. Her hands barely seized a second-story windowsill, and she pulled herself up. Over the smaller building at her other side she could see the tank coming closer. It thankfully could not see her, not with its optics.

Pressed precariously against the shop window, Madiha withdrew her pistol and shot the glass, creating an opening. Using her knife she smashed off as much of the sharp glass as she could from the bottom half of the window and slid herself inside. She found herself in a dark storage room that seemed empty, dusty and cobwebbed. There were windows on the other end of the room, and she rushed toward them and crouched.

On the street below she heard the tracks and the engine come closer.

She heard the road wheels, characteristically slamming in protest as the Goblin tank tried to navigate the ten centimeter step up from the flat road to the alley street. Goblin road wheels were quite poorly arranged and any change in elevation caused them to lift violently and issue a harsh noise.

It was likely trying to turn into the alleyway below to corner her.

Giving chase in such a way was quite an amateurish mistake.

In such a tight melee the tank was under as much danger as its prey.

Madiha stood up against the corner of the room, between windows.

She peeked outside and confirmed her suspicions.

The Goblin had turned into the alley to search for her.

Madiha withdrew a lone anti-tank grenade from her ammunition bag.

She cracked open the window, primed the grenade and threw it.

Landing atop the engine compartment, the grenade’s cylindrical explosive head detonated violently. A cloud of smoke billowed from the back of the tank as the roof of the rear hull practically melted. Immediately the Goblin’s tracks ceased to whine and the engine ceased to rumble.

Fires burst from within the ruined grates once covering the engine.

There was no movement from within the tank. Had anyone survived they would have bolted out of the hatches. But judging by the detonation and the fires, and the slag that had become of the rear hull roof, it was likely that a shower of metal spall had killed everyone inside, if not the heat of the initial detonation. The Goblin tank was completely paralyzed.

Soon the fire would reach the ammunition and explode a final time.

Madiha pulled the window open the whole way. Enduring the stinging at her side, she gingerly leaped onto the Goblin’s turret. She misjudged the jump; she hit the turret roof hard, and nearly slid off with her momentum. Groaning, she sat up and began to pull free her prize. Madiha took the Danava machine gun from the simple mounting atop the turret.

Now she had a real weapon on her hands.

Faint and distant, she heard the trampling of boots over the hissing fires from the tank’s engine. Madiha cast a quick glance overhead, making sure that Kali was still airborne. Finding her dragon flying over the alleys, Madiha signaled to her, leaped down from the tank and ran further into the dark alleys and around the backs of the shops on Council Street.

She had a good weapon, a head start and the night.

She was sure she could get away now.

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This scene contains violence, graphic violence, graphic descriptions of injury, death, body horror and disfigurement. Reader discretion is advised.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

“You employed the foul timbre. I do not understand.”

Standing before Madiha and Von Drachen, the Brass Mask turned its four gore-strewn snouts toward the hole left on the ground by Mansa’s trinket. Madiha’s mind was slowed by the weight of the creature’s presence. She tried to think of where this creature could have come from and what its relation was to the Majini that she knew. Those beings were just bodies with masks and cloaks, or so she had thought. Were they all like this?

She felt the monster’s every move like a throb within her head.

“We did nothing. Mansa unearthed you.” Madiha said.

At her side, Von Drachen glanced at her with a startled look.

“Are you talking to it? What on Aer do you hope to accomplish with that?”

“To escape with my life, perhaps?” Madiha snapped back.

“I can assure you that thing is unlikely to respond diplomatically!”

Judging by his attitude, Madiha intimated that Von Drachen could not understand the Majini. It was either speaking only to her or she was the only one present who could hear. Perhaps only those with “ESP” could hear it. Madiha would operate with this idea in mind; she did not desire to ask Von Drachen whether he could or not. He was still her enemy and any information she could withhold from him might have a later use.

In the moment this discovery provided no succor or advantage. Madiha, in fact, felt ever more alone and trapped. Though she had Von Drachen’s tenuous support during this standoff, in reality it was only she and the Majini who could affect the ultimate outcome. Her exhausted mind and weary body shook with indecision. Nobody dared move and possibly prompt an attack. The Majini continued to ramble to the air, unvoiced, unheard.

Ayvarta enslaved me. Did he use me to rekindle the human flame– no! He already had power! Even as I stood, a wall casting shadow o’er man, man created sparks. Four sparks on the four corners. And yet you employ the timbre too?”

She saw the eyes within the Majini’s slimy, fleshy face spinning every which way. Its black and purple, slimy gums and teeth seemed to expand and contract, as if taking in breaths of air without any visible nostrils.

Madiha glanced over her shoulder very briefly. Chakrani was still dormant in the far corner of the room. She had thankfully survived the shooting and the strange detonation that killed Mansa, and though unconscious she was unharmed. She was at least presently removed from the standoff.

It was imperative to keep Brass Face occupied and away from her.

I do not understand. Too much time has passed. But my purpose remains.

In a flash the Majini made the first move.

Madiha saw an inkling of its movement, like a glint in the air and a shuddering in her spine that warned her of danger, but her body could never react as fast as her mind. In the next instant the Majini had shifted its entire bulk behind them and with one massive hand seized Von Drachen’s companion and lifted him by his head. Frost-covered claws clamped down over the man’s face and neck. He kicked his legs and screamed and pulled on the digits but could not get free of the beast.

Von Drachen calmly raised his pistol and opened fire on the monster, squeezing rounds into its abdomen and legs and face, at every bit of its figure not blocked by the body of his own flailing man. Madiha’s reflex was to join him, but she lowered her pistol right after first raising it. Every shot seemed to go through the Majini without any effect except raising wisps of vapor that dissipated into the air after a second or two.

Unflinching amid gunfire, the creature tightened its grip on the man.

I will borrow this flesh.

Trails of white vapor blew from the man’s skin as the claw bit into him.

Madiha found herself paralyzed with fear at the sight.

Von Drachen stopped shooting and stared, mouth agape.

The Cazador screamed and wailed in desperate agony as his flesh sloughed.

Through the transformation his voice distorted and eventually muted.

They were spared much of the sight, but between digits of the gruesome claw Madiha could see an eye moving wildly within its socket, turning a copper color and becoming slitted as the lids fused together save for a thin line in the middle. Around the socket the skin discolored, liquefied, shed, bubbled and then set anew, bleached white, smooth, and solid. The man’s limbs turned black, indistinct and gelatinous. The Army uniform over his body began to sink in places as his muscles rapidly emaciated. He became too thin, too long, unrecognizable as human. Rags of slimy skin over bone.

From behind the Majini’s back its second arm reached for the window and ripped a curtain from its bars. In an unnatural flurry of movement, it draped the cloth over the man and wrapped him in it before the changes to his body had fully set, and then it released the corpse on the floor.

It should have hit the floor, limp and dead from the horrors done to it.

Defying all natural logic, it fell onto unseen feet and stood solid.

Hard all-white faceless head, like a mask, and a thin, tall cylindrical body in drapes. Long limbs that seemed to protrude and retract when needed.

The Brass Face had made something that frighteningly resembled a Majini.

And somewhere beneath all of that was the tormented remains of a man.

All who cannot be turned will be killed. Until the timbre is forgotten anew.

Von Drachen stared at the monster, and then at the monster that had once been a man. He raised his hand to his mouth, his teeth chattering.

“Shooting that cube was a mistake.” He mumbled to himself.

Madiha swallowed and it felt like she was forcing a stone down her throat.

Though the “newborn” Majini presented a problem, it also gave her an idea. Her overwhelming fear did not completely smother her tactical mind. Indeed, only in the desperate rush of emotion did she find her way.

There was something bundled deep within that cloak that she could use.

“Hit the dirt!” Madiha shouted.

She had no time to confirm whether or not Von Drachen was following her order, and she could only pray that Chakrani would be spared the violence.

There was no other choice.

Madiha set her feet and drew in a deep breath.

Both the monster and its master recognized the danger.

Madiha was an instant quicker than them.

She thrust out her least injured arm and her mind flashed the image of an old Territorial Army stick grenade, hanging from the belt of the disfigured man. Thinking faster than the enemy could move she lit a spark within the high-explosive blasting cap and ignited the TNT inside.

Unthinking, the new Majini reared back for a charge.

It made it two running steps from Brass Face before detonating.

In a burst of violent light the Majini disappeared, and a wave of heat and pressure tore suddenly across the room. Madiha had less than seconds to act. Out of pure defensive reflex her mind pushed against the blast, deflecting the concussive force screaming toward her. Her arm flared with intense pain, and she fell onto her back, the wind knocked out of her instead of the viscera. Brass Face recoiled violently from the blast and struck the nearby wall, smashing through the cement and falling under a heap of rubble.

Madiha could not tell whether it had tried to flee or whether the blast flung it away. She struggled to force herself upright, both of her arms functional but sounding a painful alarm with every movement. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she made it up onto her knees to find the vicinity caked in wet black and purple viscera and ashen jelly. This filth had spread across the room, save for a clean halo around her where she had pushed the blast and its byproducts and blocked their effects.

With Brass Face’s bulk removed from her sight, Madiha could again see Chakrani tied to her chair against the corner of the room. She could run for her– but there was no telling whether she had the advantage yet.

As she stood from the floor she scanned the room for Von Drachen.

Near the collapsed wall, she found him lying under the corpse of the soldier Jota took from him. He looked scuffed but relatively unharmed for the events that transpired. Von Drachen had hidden under the corpse; mutilated and burnt, the body had shielded him from the brunt of the blast. Luckily for him, he had managed to take the man’s grenade and flung it across the room before the violence erupted around him.

Soon as Madiha made eye contact with Von Drachen, he pushed the body off himself and stood on unsteady legs, dusting some of the alien jelly from his shoulders and arms. An enthusiastic smile played about his lips.

“I commend you on surviving to the end of this madness, Colonel Nakar!” Von Drachen said. “Now, allow me a few words about the dissolution of our truce.”

Madiha felt a fresh jolt of stress in her chest. “No! You idiot, it’s not–”

“Now, now, madam, I’m talking.” He raised his pistol to her.

Before Madiha could shout, a soundless roar psychically drowned her out.

Behind them the rubble shifted, and Brass Face stood from the mound.

Dust and masonry sifted off its shoulders. It appeared almost unharmed.

Rotating as if independent of its neck, the creature’s head stared at them.

Its grotesque snouts and teeth reformed into a mask.

Along its clean brass center, the wave-form symbols furiously oscillated.

With its grotesque head hidden again, Madiha felt the weight of its presence lessen. A burden lifted from her mind. She could almost think straight again. Her breathing still quick with stress, she took a guarded stance and waited. Running away in a panic would only get her killed.

And it would abandon Chakrani to an unimaginable fate.

“Truce?” Von Drachen asked in a strained, sickened voice.

“Move only in reaction to it.” She warned. “It’ll take advantage of any mistake.”

Von Drachen frowned. “I suppose that precludes running away?”

Brass Face turned to face them, slow and deliberate. It did not pounce or charge or blink behind them as she had seen it do in the past. On its lower body she saw trails of chill air seeping through a frayed, burnt patch of cloak. There was a wound there but it was as if her eyes refused to recognize it. Blurry flesh seemed to roil and bubble and shift upon this surface.

Von Drachen’s lower lip quivered. He raised his hand to his mouth to gag.

Perhaps he had seen it; maybe even more of it than she.

Madiha said nothing, too transfixed by the monster to speak.

Once its head fully turned to meet them, the rest of its body began to twist to match, turning thin and long like a snake but with the suggestion of shoulders atop its upper section. From the midsection pieces of cloak rustled and separated. An arm lifted as the upper body twisted into the room; Brass Face suddenly raised its gnarled claw as if aiming for Madiha.

Madiha felt the air in the room turning very cold and dense.

It became suddenly hard to breathe.

When she gasped for air her breath was visible, white as snow.

“Outside, now!” She shouted, her voice dwindling.

“I thought you said–”

“Forget it! Now!”

Von Drachen quickly turned and ran for the door to the meeting room.

Between the fingers of Brass Face’s claws, frost and ice started to form.

Crackling and crunching like falling glass, the frost swirling around its fingers compacted and lengthened into a long shaft in less than seconds.

Madiha tore herself from the sight and ran out behind Von Drachen.

She felt a force strong as a hurricane gust and cold as a blizzard sweep past.

Behind her the lance of ice shattered and thundered like an explosive.

Over her shoulder Madiha caught a glimpse of the wall turned mirror-like with ice.

She ran out into the broad, enclosed hallway connecting the meeting room and felt both trepidation and relief when she found it deserted, save for Von Drachen. Any more people around could have become new Majini. She put her back to the empty hall behind them and aimed her pistol at the hole in the wall. She saw some of Brass Face’s cloak trailing from it.

“Come out of there and fight us seriously, you animal!” She shouted.

“What are you doing?” cried Von Drachen.

She hoped the monster could understand her at all. It never seemed to reply to her; it only spoke at her. She had to taunt it away from Chakrani and out into the hall, where she had more room to avoid its projectiles.

Her worry was short-lived. Brass Face understood.

It slowly turned itself back around to face them anew in the hall.

Incarnation of Ayvarta, without the prism you are vermin to me.”

It shambled farther out of the meeting room through the hole in the wall.

Von Drachen hurried from the middle of the hall to Madiha’s side.

He raised his pistol alongside hers and gulped hard, shaking.

“Why isn’t it charging anymore? It was awful quick a second ago!” He asked.

“I must have hurt its feet.” Madiha replied. Her breath was quick, her heart struggling and her lungs raw, but she managed to keep a strong front.

“It isn’t even moving closer.”

“It must be focused on defense now that it can’t charge us.”

“God. At least you’re still thinking. Do you have a plan of attack, Nakar?”

“Do you?”

“Out of respect for your great intellect, I shall allow you to lead us.”

Von Drachen cracked a nervous grin without looking at her.

Madiha would have rolled her eyes in any other situation but this.

Meanwhile their enemy waited, clicking its claws together.

Brass Face’s mask waveforms gently rose and fell as it stared them down.

Incarnation of Ayvarta.” It mumbled soundlessly.

Was it sizing her up? Comparing her to the old Emperor before striking?

Madiha felt a chill whenever it spoke those words. It treated her like an extension of the Warlord that it had encountered, and not as her own person. The First Emperor, Ayvarta I, who set out to conquer the four corners of Ayvarta and unite its disparate ethnicities and civilizations. He accomplished this task using the power that she had been cursed to hold.

Had Ayvarta been the first, the original? Or just the one Brass Face knew?

It was eerie. To Brass Face, she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.

Another in a long line of half-lives tainted by the man’s conquests.

Perhaps even linked to the ancient tyrant by blood.

Incarnation of Ayvarta.

There was power behind that statement, the unknowable intellect of something that was ancient to an extreme Madiha could not imagine. Was it right in the way that it thought of her? She felt as if all of her fears about herself, all of the existential suffering she felt, was confirmed in the words of this beast. Maybe she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.

Maybe Mansa was right and Madiha Nakar was nothing at all.

Von Drachen glanced at her nervously. “Colonel, are you–”

“I’m thinking.”

She could not dwell on that. Madiha might not exist; but she could die.

For Solstice’s sake she had to survive to make something of Madiha Nakar.

For Parinita’s sake the most. She wanted desperately to see her again.

Her mind quickly refocused.

In the monster’s own words, Ayvarta once had control over it.

Did Ayvarta capture Brass Face to use it; or because he couldn’t kill it?

Could she kill Brass Face in modernity, if Ayvarta failed in antiquity?

She had to believe he wanted to use it; and that the prism was a way to contain its powers without having to kill it. And therefore that it could be killed and that Ayvarta could have killed it. She had killed Majini using the flame before. Once lit on fire their parched bodies went up like torches.

From a distance, they could avoid the darts. But if she got close enough–

She started to visualize a way forward.

Hopefully she had inherited more from Ayvarta than just his powers.

“Are you ready?” She whispered.

“Of course not. Nonetheless: how do we stop it?” Von Drachen asked.

“I need to get close to it.” Madiha said.

“And then what?”

“That’s classified information.”

Von Drachen raised an eyebrow. Madiha made no expression whatsoever.

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Fallibilis (48.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ

For reasons unknown to the troops a high alert alarm and a quick deployment order were issued to the 1st Motor Rifles, and deep into the night the soldiers found themselves suiting and dressing up, gathering their rifles, machine guns and explosives. They stood in attention at their barracks, at the training field, and across the road to the depots. Rangda’s official gate guards for the base were disarmed and detained for security reasons, and replaced with reliable Gendarmes attached to the Regiment.

Hobgoblin tanks began to patrol the base. Anti-aircraft guns and spotlights were trained skyward against possible bombardment. Chimeras, Giants and the Regiment’s organic towed artillery prepared themselves for the possibility of enemy indirect fires that would need to be spotted, tracked and countered. Trucks lined up in case a strike was ordered — or an evacuation. Thousands of troops undertook the deployment they had been training for days now to swiftly perform, under the circumstances they feared the most.

And though they had expected to hear the voice of the Colonel delivering this fateful order and perhaps offering words of encouragement, it was instead a hasty command from Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani, whose voice nearly cracked during the address.

Little did they know the stress she was going through and the dire reasons behind it.

“She hasn’t reported back at all!”

Unlike the rising troops, the 1st Regiment Headquarters was wracked by a lack of doctrine and planning. They knew what to do in any situation but the one they were currently experiencing. Padmaja and Bhishma sleepily monitored the radio and looked out the window for any signs of friendly troops come to deliver messages — or arriving undesirables bringing ordnance. There was no paucity of movement. Minardo paced the room behind Parinita, who was stomping back and forth in circles so often she seemed to be cutting a line on the floor. Her face and eyes were turning redder by the second.

It was well past midnight. Madiha had not yet returned.

Were they to engage in hostilities the 1st Regiment would do so effectively leaderless.

Parinita spent most of her words on self-flagellation and few to give orders.

“I knew this was a bad idea!” Parinita shouted. She twirled a lock of her hair around her index finger and bit into the tip of another finger. “I should have never agreed to it. I should have told her to send a letter to that monstrous trollop telling her off! I should have been pushy and jealous, I shouldn’t have been so quick to be the good one here–”

Minardo reached out a hand to Parinita’s shoulder and stopped her.

Parinita looked over her shoulder, nearly weeping.

“You’ll be ill-positioned to help her if you panic now.” Minardo said.

Her hand was shaking on Parinita’s shoulder. She was worried too. They all were.

“Madiha swore Chakrani wasn’t up to anything. But look at all this!” Parinita said.

She pointed out the window. Minardo did not seem to know what to look at.

“The Colonel can take care of herself. I doubt she will have gone down easily.” Minardo replied, trying to calm the situation. “I’d wager if anyone tried to catch her she would run into the city. She has the most strategic mind I’ve ever known. Trust her, Maharani.”

“With the city coming under lock-down how can we even find out?” Parinita shouted.

Minardo shook her head.

Parinita thrust her fists up into the air and resumed her feverish pacing.

Scratch scratch.

There was a noise at the door.

Every pair of eyes turned immediately to face it.

Padmaja rushed out from behind her table and threw open the front.

From behind the door, Kali pranced into the room with her head held up high.

In her mouth, she had a rat.

Once the momentary suspense faded, everyone resumed their rising panic.

Kali glanced across the room.

She dropped the rat on the floor and pushed on it with her head.

Nobody seemed to pay her any attention. Everyone was too busy fretting.

Recognition dawned upon her eyes. She seemed to realize who was missing.

In the next instant Kali leaped onto Padmaja’s table and charged toward the window.

She thrust through the frame like a rocket, smashing the glass and tearing apart the wood and concrete and flying out into the night sky. In seconds she had become a distant blur that no human eye could track. Under the moonless sky she disappeared.

Parinita and Minardo stood at the smashed window, perplexed.

“We just had this repaired!” Padmaja cried out.

Nobody quite knew what to do but to pray. The 1st Regiment was in many ways an extension of its commander. Only she could decide how they would fight right now. They were like an infant without a parent. Perhaps with the skill to walk; but no direction to go.

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Coup De Cœur (47.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.

51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.


Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.

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Operation Monsoon (0.0)

This scene and much of the story as a whole, contains scenes of violence and death, as well as descriptions of weapons and their effects. Please be advised when reading.

Under a brutal northern snowfall the old Federation capital of Junzien was alive with the fire of history. It was a day when every thread of Nocht’s timeline would tragically collide.

Cheering crowds gathered along the streets as the Presidential motorcade departed the Hotel Reich and made its way toward the Foundation Stone at the site of the former capitol building. Alongside the motorcade the crowd marched as a procession, throwing roses and lighting snapping sticks, hoping to catch a glimpse when the President finally lit the ceremonial fireworks that symbolized the old fortress cannons, their heavy shells striking down the approaching monarchist enemy in the name of independence.

Clad in their thickest winter coats the citizens braved the cold drift to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Federation of Northern States. To the northern people, it was still better known as the Nocht Federation, for the man who first lit the matches that sounded the fateful cannons. But that ancient name was not the one sung on this triumphant day.

President Achim Lehner leaned back in his seat, arms behind his head, listening to the crowd as they chanted his name and recited several of his campaign slogans. He cast a sly smile toward his radiant wife, dolled up in pigments and shiny hair, mink and silk, sitting with one limousine seat between them, hoping she would join the festivities. She coldly and immediately shrugged off his attentions, staring out the window with her head held up on a closed fist. He could see her half-closed, bored eyes reflected in the tinted glass.

No matter; he was riding too high to care. Whatever embittered her this time would soon pass. Chuckling to himself, he leaned forward from his seat, rubbing his hands.

Across from him, his lovely secretary leaned to meet him, and handed him papers.

“Revised copies of the speech, as requested.” She said.

“Cecilia, doll, you never cease to impress.” He replied.

Scanning the lines, he was elated to find his most recent successes were all featured on the pages. He could reveal to the world, even before the press, the capitulation of the Cissean rebellion, and the establishment of Nocht’s newest ally in the global south. He had finally put that war to bed as he had promised. He was almost assured an eight-year term now.

And where were the pundits now? Lehner laughed aloud. This was too good.

Turning out of the hotel avenue, the motorcade drove deep into the urban heart of Junzien, through roads flanked with buildings wedged one between the other, gray, gloomy cement and glass monuments to the city’s endurance. Lehner much preferred the new capital further up Rhinea, a larger, more modern place, sleek and efficient and artful, but Junzien was his people’s heart. So he begrudgingly made space for it in his own.

“We have to start moving quick after this. Build Cissea up.” Lehner said.

“Unfortunately, the island campaigns have sapped the strength of the Bundesmarine.” Cecilia quickly replied. “Our capacity to ship to Cissea is currently very limited.”

“Work on that, darlin’. It’s nothin’ that can’t be be fixed. You gotta find the problems and the solutions and you move heaven and earth — that’s what all of you are here for.”

“We can start on it; but in this case we need to move an ocean.” Cecilia said.

Lehner burst out laughing, slapping his knees. “God. I keep remembering why I hired you. And I just think to myself ‘damn, Lehner, good move, my man, good move.'”

Cecilia pushed up her glasses, her face reflecting his own impish grin.

At Lehner’s side, his wife’s expression soured ever so slightly more.

Outside the snowfall thickened, but the people struggled all the more to keep up. Everyone was used to the conditions of this venerable celebration. It had been this cold on that fateful day, and yet the rebel soldiers fought on nonetheless. Lehner waved through the tinted glass at the marchers, men, women, and children, cheering and running. They were separated from the motorcade by marching policemen in dress uniform.

Slowly the motorcade was poised to escape the tightest confines of Junzien.

Lehner picked a glass of wine from the side of his limousine seat.

There was a flash and a crack from up ahead.

At once the limousine came to a stop sudden enough to shake President Lehner.

Red wine spilled on his shirt and coat.

Lehner threw his hands up in anger. “Fuck! What the hell–”

Red blood sprayed on the window beside him, and there was a thud on the glass as one of the police escorts hit the limousine, falling dead with shells through his chest.

Muzzles flashed skyward, and gunfire rang out from inside the crowd.

Police drew their pistols in a split-second response and fired into the streets.

Panicked marchers ran every which way to escape the carnage.

Grenades flew out from the throngs and detonated among the motorcade.

Glass windshields shattered on police cars and motorcycles. Fuel tanks went up in columns of flame, sending shards of metal screaming through the crowd and roasting special agents and foot police inside their vehicles. Policemen fighting on the streets were grazed or clipped by metal shards and many fell. Amid the massacre the limousine stood unharmed, explosive fragments bouncing off its sloped, disguised armor plating.

From the rapidly thinning crowd, an assailant in a covering trenchcoat and hat opened fire into the window of the limousine. Twin wounds marred the glass, each composed of dozens of concentric circles with a cap lodged between. His gun failed to penetrate.

Agatha Lehner nevertheless screamed and ducked against her husband in fear.

President Lehner grit his teeth.

“Cecilia.” He said, more aggravated than anxious.

Shaking with nervousness, Cecilia slammed her heeled shoe on the floor, and dug out from under a sliding panel a sleek, fully automatic Norgler machine gun, top of the line.

She clumsily pulled up the cover on the feed tray, slid the ammunition belt into it, locked it in place, and pulled back the charging handle to ready the weapon. It fed with a satisfying click, just like they had practiced. She held the gun aloft, her shoulders shaking.

Outside the assailants concentrated their gunfire on the limousine.

Bulletproof glass absorbed a dozen rounds of punishment.

It was getting hard to see the fight.

Lehner nodded his head with determination and Cecilia nodded back. She dropped between the rows of seats in the back of the limousine, sidling close to the door with the Norgler in hand. She pushed it up to the door. Lehner leaned down, holding his wife close, both their heads down under the level of the windows for safety. He pulled a catch.

On the door a panel just large enough for the Norgler opened.

Cecilia pushed the gun through the slot and slipped a slender finger over the trigger.

Swinging the weapon from side to side she opened fire indiscriminately.

At once a noise like an automatic saw overwhelmed the sounds of battle.

Casings dropped to the floor of the limousine by the dozens every second as Cecilia held down the trigger on the Norgler, barely controlling its overwhelming fire. She closed her eyes and held on to the weapon as bursts of automatic fire swept from the side of the limousine. Lehner peered over the window and watched as best as he could through the marred glass as the weapon rained lead on the streets. He strained his eyes and saw the trenchcoat men as they were brutally cut down with barely a struggle.

Another sharp click and the Norgler ejected its last casing.

Once the noise of the automatic fire died down, the street was empty and silent.

Lehner waited in the limousine, stroking his wife’s shoulders and pulling her head to his chest, her tears soaking into the wine-stained coat and shirt. He sighed deeply.

Cecilia stood up from the floor, sweating, breathing heavily.

“It’s a hell of a gun.” She said, her voice trembling.

After several minutes, a surviving police officer knocked on the window.

President Lehner stepped out of his battered limousine and inspected the carnage.

His weary eyes rolled over the blood and viscera, the bodies of innocents, of officers, of assailants alike, the burning wrecks, the bullet casings littered all over the ground, all of the madness that had unfolded on his streets in mere moments on this historic day.

Only one detail burned in his mind at that instant.

All of the weapons he saw gripped in the death-frozen fingers of the soon-to-be infamous Federation Day Terrorists, were of Ayvartan make. Their grenades, their firearms, all of their arsenal had been manufactured in the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.

“That’s damning.” He told himself under a cold breath. “And useful.”

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Ghede River Warfare (41.1)

This scene contains violence and a graphic depiction of disease.

46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu North, near the Ghede

Turning in from the road, Field Marshal Haus’ Sentinel Foot 8-wheeled armored car followed a series of blue flags across several kilometers of the wood. There were no men, and any tracks from patrolmen were carefully covered; but any traveler with a keen enough eye would have been wary of the rags hanging from various trees across the forest. Each flag was a different amount of meters from the next, but the path was still there for those who knew where to look and how to interpret the posted signs.

Standing out of the Sentinel-type 50mm gun turret that was the vehicle’s namesake, Haus directed his driver through the thick, hard terrain, crossing the forest toward the northern riverside. They did not come across a single other soul along the way. Haus knew the significance of the flags, and the lack of patrols did not disturb him.

It was all of his own design, after all. He had ordered the patrols ended.

He would need every last man he could spare in the center for this next effort.

Haus found himself painlessly navigating through the forest into the T-Battalion staging area, an eerie space devoid of trees save for one massive trunk with a hollow that embraced the entire clearing, and a deeply bowed crown of evergreen leaves. Hundreds of men lurked in the outskirts, and what seemed like a hundred loitered within the clearing itself, sitting on the beds of trucks, with their backs against crates, downcast.

Standing under the ancient, mournful giant, they seemed defeated already.

It was an atmosphere that was fit for mourning, punctuated by screams of agony that resounded across the clearing — there was a commotion in a nearby medical tent.

Haus stared quizzically from atop his turret.

“Cathrin, I think you should stay in the car for this one.” He said, wincing at the noise.

Below him, seated calmly beside a radio, Cathrin bowed her head in acknowledgment.

Haus pulled himself up from the turret hatch, and climbed down the side of the Sentinel Foot. He hit the floor in a quick stride and hurried to the medical tent. Sweeping aside the entrance flaps, Haus found several men gathered around a bed where another landser lay, struggling against belt bonds and screaming as loudly as his lungs would allow. Between fits and screams sounded recurring snapping noises, and few of the men backed away with each snap. As Haus closed in on the mob, he averted his eyes.

From a bleeding ulcer on the bound man’s leg a long, sharp worm struggled against a stick held from afar by a medic, who was driven to near hysterics by the terror of his task. As he turned his stick, he wound the worm around it, and pulled more of its length from the man’s wound. Haus thought the abomination must have been at least a meter long, and thick as a thumb. At the beast’s front end, dripping jaws snapped at the men.

“Messiah defend.” Haus intoned. “What the hell happened to this man?”

“Sir!” One of the men in the sidelines, a Sergeant judging by his pins, saluted the Field Marshal while the rest of the men watched in stunned horror or wincing sympathy. The Sergeant swallowed hard, glanced at the bloody sight, and explained, “He came in this morning saying his leg hurt. He couldn’t remove his boot, so we got the medic to cut his leg, and we found that thing. He must’ve drank unfiltered water somewhere, maybe a few weeks ago, and got infected; this thing must’ve grown in him and it wants out now!”

“Why the hell would you drink unfiltered water around here?”

Twist; the worm snapped, the man screamed, the medic gingerly turned the stick.

Blood spurted on the bed.

One of the tent guards grabbed hold of his mouth and ran outside, leaving his rifle.

His choking and heaving joined the cacophony of bodily noises in the tent.

The Sergeant cringed. He pinned his eyes on Haus, the least unsettling sight in the tent.

“It was part of our survival training sir! River water is supposed to be fresh!” He said.

“Fresh as in not salt water! It’s still unsafe!” Haus replied. He felt a touch irate that he was being made to witness such a grotesque sight that could’ve been prevented.

He almost wanted to take out his handgun and shoot the worm dead.

But then it might putrefy inside the man and that would definitely cripple him.

“You’re all dismissed from the operation; stay here, tend to this man, and please, for the love of God, enlighten your units about the price of carelessness in this bestial nation.”

Shaking his head at the men, Haus left the tent.

Fresh screaming followed him out.

“Where is Major Troppf?” He called out.

A gaggle of depressed-looking soldiers pointed him into the wood.

“Look lively!” Haus shouted at them. “We’re carrying out an operation today!”

There were nods in response but no change in demeanor.

Haus returned to the Sentinel Foot and tapped his knuckles on the armor. Out from the top popped Cathrin’s blond head, peeking over the hatch just enough for a pair of bespectacled blue eyes and some golden hair to come into view. She blinked, and Haus silently beckoned her to follow. She pulled herself over the hatch, and climbed delicately down the side, clip-board in hand, a radio backpack fastened by her waist-belt and around her shoulders, and its paired headset perched on her crown. She had traded her heels for combat boots, and wore thicker, sturdier black leggings with her skirt uniform.

“What was the commotion?” She asked. Was seemed out of place; the man in the tent had never quite stopped screaming. They had merely gotten used to the noise now, enough that it blended into the background of rustling leaves and billowing breezes and pattering boots.

“I’d rather not recall it.” Haus replied. “Come on.”

Ambling a short distance out from the clearing, Haus and Cathrin followed the landser’s vague directions and found a big tent with the symbol for a headquarters. It was surrounded by bushes and camouflaged with a net entwined with twigs and leaves and green branches. Inside, Major Troppf, an older man with a gaunt face, sat behind a skeletal folding table, spinning a pencil around. He looked sleepy and bored.

At the sight of the Field Marshal, he dropped his pencil and thrust up from his chair.

“Sir!” He raised his arms in salute.

Haus stared inexpressively at the man. “Are your troops ready?”

“Yes sir! We’ve mobilized the entire battalion to this general area.”

“Have they been appraised of the situation?”

“They’ve been taught what they need to do.”

Haus was not especially pleased with that answer.

One could teach a parrot words, but they would not know their context or meaning. A parrot could say your name, but it would never be able to call it out with any emotion or in a complete sentence. He would have hoped in the past few hours he could have told the troops the exact nature of Haus’ plan and the day’s strategy, but it was too late for that now. He would have to hope his parrots could sing their words well enough.

As Haus’ gaze fell more bluntly upon Troppf, the Major averted his own.

“I will be taking tactical command at the front.” Haus said. “Tell your units to keep contact with Ms. Habich here at all times, and to answer any command from myself immediately.”

Major Troppf looked taken aback. His eyes rose again to Haus’ face, and he raised his hands as if trying to calm down an irate child. “Sir, with all due respect, it is too dangerous for the Field Marshal to take to the front! We can command the battle from here; this headquarters might not seem like much, but our radio reception is reliable.”

Haus felt insulted; what commander didn’t pine for the war at the front?

“If I was not willing to get my hands dirty I would not have come this far.” He said.

Without further explanation, Haus turned his back on the Major and ambled nonchalantly out of the tent. Cathrin remained behind only long enough to hand the stunned Troppf a card with the frequencies she would be using. After that, she too turned on her heel and vacated the area. They returned to the Sentinel Foot, through the little gaggles of men lying depressingly about, and under the almost rhythmic cries of the worm-stricken man.

“What was your impression of him?” Haus asked aloud, as if to the air.

Cathrin answered. She pushed up her glasses; her face was coolly dispassionate.

“Another man who thought he could slide by; unwilling to take risks.”

“Unwilling, or incapable?”


“You’re a harsh but precise judge of character.”

Haus offered Cathrin a hand, and helped lift her onto the step at the back of the Sentinel Foot. It was help she did not need, but that he always offered, and that she always took. She opened the hatch, and climbed inside. Haus followed. They settled in their places. A box of ammo for him; the little corner where the radios had been bolted to the armored wall, for her. At the front, their driver waved a greeting. They would not be leaving yet.

“Is Von Sturm’s presence required at the front?” Cathrin asked, sliding her headset gently onto her head and over her ears. She adjusted the microphone on her collar. If necessary, she could ring him up, and he could arrive within the hour. He had more than enough time.

“No, let him come if he wants to.” Haus said.

Cathrin nodded. “Do you desire for him to appear?”

“It would improve my respect for him.” Haus replied.

He looked over his shoulder at the Sentinel turret near the vehicle’s front, set atop the highest point of the Sentinel Foot’s backward-sloping armor. Steps on the wall allowed one to climb into the turret basket, which projected down into the chassis, and from there onto the gunner’s seat. Though the Foot was only lightly armored, its 50mm Sentinel gun packed a better punch than the M5 Light Tanks that constituted most of the 13th’s armor power.

It encapsulated Haus’ view of war. High risk, high reward.

Unlike many of his Generals, he could climb on that turret and fight.

He wanted to.

“How much is your respect worth?” Cathrin asked.

Haus chuckled. He could tell what she was implying.

“In the end, whether he appears or not, Von Sturm will retain a position, because men other than me who gave him a position do not desire to be proven wrong about their judgment. His name, his legacy, and what he represents, make him too big to fail too utterly. Propriety dictates that he will be part of this army, will have missions, and may even share in the glory at the end of the hostilities. He cannot fail anyone but himself.”

“I see.”

Cathrin nodded her head, and turned her back on Haus, returning to her radios.

“Then I don’t think your respect is worth enough for him to come.” She said.

Haus smiled. “You really are a cruel girl.”

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, North

Selene Lucci slept well considering the circumstances.

It helped that prisoners were held in a tent that was exceedingly dark.

She could hardly see the features of her hands or the thick seam stitches on the sleeves of her dress. It was fairly cool when she laid close to the ground, and the earth was soft and comforting. Her captivity was relatively more livable than she had imagined.

Cages had come to mind, but instead she was only chained.

Her legs were chained to a block which had been buried beneath the tent, thus preventing her from even attempting to drag it around. Her arms were chained, but there was a lot of slack, and they were not tied behind her back as they were when she was kidnapped from the village. And she had been left well enough alone since yesterday, so she did not have to contend with any blathering Nochtish interrogators or guards.

God had truly blessed her.

Having carried her through that first night, she hoped He might deign to give her a way out of this test which He had put before her. Comfortable captivity was still captivity.

In the morning, Selene woke, and sat on a chair which had been left for her.

She could not see outside the tent. Her only source of light was a thin slit beneath the door, which was otherwise fastened tight from the outside with a zipper, and made of a fabric that allowed no light to filter through the cloth. Still, she frequently turned her eyes to the slit, and the very dim light filtering into her confinement. Should someone come to the door of the tent even that precious sliver of light would become obvious shadow.

Soon the slit was shadowed, as she expected.

Outside, the zipper came undone, and the tent flap parted.

Selene expected the sudden entry of sunlight to blind her. But the effect was far less dramatic than she envisioned. When the tent flaps opened, she caught a glimpse of green and brown from the tent’s surroundings, but the light in the tent was still dim, as was the world outside of it. Carrying a little lamp and a tray of food, Kern Beckert entered the tent. He had on the same dismal expression as he did yesterday.

She felt nothing at his appearance. She turned her head from the door.

“I brought food.” He said. He sounded drained.

“Comforting to know I won’t starve.” Selene dryly replied. He cringed a little. Causing him discomfort had become almost empowering to her. He was visibly torn up about what he was doing, but if he did not stop nor change, then he was the same as the rest. His regrets were useless to her; his squirming in her presence was at least mildly amusing.

Kern ambled toward the chair and set the tray on her lap. He put a spoon in her hand.

“It’s oatmeal, with milk. There’s a sugar packet on the tray too.”

Selene considered playing the hard prisoner, and refusing her food, maybe even tossing the tray at Kern and soiling his smart grey uniform. Would that have caused him to recoil? Would he have gotten angry, or felt the words of his uncouth companion with the gun vindicated by her actions? Would he think her a savage in a savage land?

She stared down at the oatmeal, dimly lit by the tiny orange flicker from the lamp.

She dipped her spoon in it, and ate. It was bland, but it was food.

She was hungry, and playing tough would get her nowhere.

Catharthic as it was, she might have to lighten up on the northern boy.

“Are you going to be my guard?” She asked.

“No,” he replied. He sttuttered his next words. “I’m going to the front soon. There’ll be another guard posted. I just thought– I don’t know. I wanted to come see you.”

Selene raised her eyes off her tray and glared at him.

“I’m far from comfortable being in your thoughts.” She said.

“I expected that.” Kern said. He rubbed his hand down his face. “I’m going to go. Please stay put and don’t rile up the guards, Sister. Nobody wants you to come to harm. I think once we’re past this river, they’ll let you go. Everyone thinks you might give up our position if you are released now, but that won’t matter when we move forward.”

Selene scoffed. “This is ridiculous. How could I give up your position now? To whom? I can’t escape north, through your lines, only south. And you’ve conquered the South.”

“I don’t know.” Kern said. He sighed. “I don’t know. I’m truly sorry.”

He turned around, hands in his pockets, head drooping, and left the tent.

Outside, he zipped the tent again.

She vaguely heard his first few steps away from the tent.

Then, like everything else in the outside world, the sound of him was blocked off.

On her lap, she still had the tray.

Oatmeal, sugar, a milk bag, a rounded spoon.

And a hard, metal tray.

Sensing the opportunity, Selene ate voraciously, spooning oatmeal into her mouth with zeal, drinking her milk in one gulp, and tossing aside the sugar. She picked up the tray and hid it behind her back on the chair. She tossed her spoon away as well.

Then she waited.

Time passed, indistinct to her. She finally saw the zipper pulling down.

Again the tent opened. A slim, brown-haired boy entered the room.

Unlike Kern, he did not have a lamp. Like Kern, he left the tent flap open.

“Afternoon ma’am. I’m Private Cohls. I’ll be sitting just outside the tent. Pull on the flap if you need to use the latrine, I’ll unlock ya. Food and drink comes three times a day.”

As he spoke, he closed in to within a few meters.

Selene had tested the length of her leg shackle the previous night.

Young, and smiling, cheerful, the Private entered her little circle.

Perhaps he was happy to have a cute girl for company, or under his power.

“Just gimme a shout if you want something. I’ll try to accomodate. My boss might be wanting to talk to you soon. I’ll give you a heads-up about that. Anyway. Nice to meet–”

He came close enough to stretch out a hand to shake.

Selene bolted up from her chair and hurled herself forward.

Swinging the tray, she struck the man on the jaw.

Blood and teeth sprayed into the air.

Private Cohls hit the ground. Selene heard a keyring jingling as he collapsed.

She knelt beside him and picked his body.

Her shackles soon fell to the floor beside him.

Through the open tent flap, Selene charged into the forest.

“God preserve me, for what I’ve done cannot be taken back.” She prayed.

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