Storm The Castle (68.3)

Solstice, Eastern Wall Defensive Line

“Yuck. It reminds me of the final scene in The Last Dragoon. I can’t stand to look.”

Parinita Maharani, Chief Warrant Officer for the 1st Guards Mechanized Division, put down the binoculars and averted her eyes from over the ramparts with disgust.

At her side, Brigadier General Madiha Nakar of the selfsame unit gently touched the woman’s shoulder, comforting her with her presence as best as she could just then.

Madiha held out her hand and her lover gave her the binoculars, and she looked herself at the battlefield. From the ramparts they could see the entire desert unfold before them, a desolate expanse of swirling ruddy sand. But it was hard to see anything around what remained of the First Gate of the Conqueror’s Way, kilometers away. There was so much rubble piled so high and the ramparts viewed the bridge at such an angle that it blocked the vantage. However, though they could not see the death directly around the bridge, on the edge of the desert they saw enough corpses and blood to confirm the slaughter.

“I have never seen that film, but I guess I can imagine what it must be like.” Madiha said.

Parinita got excitable and started to gesticulate wildly as she spoke. “They packed hunks of pork and tomatoes bound in gelatin into uniforms to resemble gore, for the aftermath of the fated charge into the machine guns. It was really gross! I think it just didn’t look like what you think a human being should, even in death, so it was really shocking!”

“I see. Well, death isn’t very pretty, you know? Not in any form, not even in action film.”

Madiha put down the binoculars. Her eyes felt a little heavy from what she had seen in the battlefield, even those little hints from that far way. It never got any easier to see bodies. One learned to not see them, to avoid acknowledging them after a fight. When forced to see the butchery for what it was, Madiha found her stomach unsettled by it all.

Parinita raised a hand to her hair and wrapped long, wavy strawberry locks around a finger. She looked a little embarassed and ashamed of her previous enthusiasm.

“Hey, I’m sorry Madiha. I was being glib, but seriously. I needed to do that to process it.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m always happy to hear you talk film, remember?” Madiha replied.

She smiled at Parinita, her lover, confidante, and primary support personnel.

It was a hard smile to hold up, but it was worth it for her. Anything was.

“Right. I get carried away sometimes, though. But, anyway! It looks like the coast is clear.”

Parinita waved a hand over the desert. Madiha smiled and nodded at her lover.

They were dozens of meters above the ground, standing a few meters removed from the edge barriers of the Eastern Wall ramparts. Solstice’s heat bore down on them, it was past midday. Madiha could vaguely hear, even off in a great distance, the firing of the rampart guns on the Southern Wall of the city, which also under attack. Nocht had finally pushed far enough ahead, and slashed through enough of the defenses (or in this case at least, bolted past them), to besiege Solstice directly. Madiha had been put in charge of the defense of the Conqueror’s Way, though she had her own intentions for it.

Conqueror’s Way was so named because it was the route taken into Solstice by several conquering kings in antiquity. It used to be a rocky wasteland. It was said that whoever crossed the Conqueror’s Way, and then left the city victorious and paraded down the Way once more, and survived both journeys, would bless their rule to last a lifetime.

In modernity, it was a massive bridge, its length in the thousands of meters of stone and concrete and steel, suspended just shy of the rushing waters of the great Qural river. Once upon a time it boasted many fortifications; all of which had been pounded to rubble by repeated high-altitude bombardment during the preceding months.

Conqueror’s Way was as close as bombers could get to Solstice before the defenses got them, and as such presented the safest place to bomb where Solstice could heard it.

For a few weeks it had been a topic of great terror how Conqueror’s Way was destroyed.

Madiha intended to ride out through this bridge, or what was left of it, a hero herself.

But not yet; now was not the right time.

For now, she trusted the defenders on the remaining walls, and focused on her own.

“I have to wonder why they thought they could cross Conqueror’s Way with a company.”

Parinita turned to face Madiha with a quizzical expression. Madiha crossed her arms.

“I wager we have succeeded in hiding our numbers from aerial reconnaissance. They must have thought we left the bridge undefended after overflying and bombing it so much and seeing nobody there. Without troops on the bridge, they could walk to the very gate. Likely they intended to absorb the casualties inflicted by the rampart gunners, using those sacrifices as a means to attack the gate itself and ultimately breach the wall.”

“I guess after all that bombing they did, they must have been ready to believe it paid off.”

“That’s precisely why I allowed them the chance. It wound up helping us.” Madiha said.

In truth, there would’ve been a remote possibility of defending the bridge against air attacks. Madiha had calculated that scenario as well. Solstice’s anti-air defenses were strongest at the walls and within the city, and they were focused almost singularly on preventing overflight of the walls. It was possible, like with any artillery, to extend its cover beyond its typical range, to reorganize and retrain the shooters, and thereby extend a thin cover from the Eastern Wall’s dedicated Anti-Air to cover the Way.

It would’ve been bloody.

Conqueror’s Way was far more exposed than any part of Solstice.

Therefore, sacrificing expert anti-air gunners for the task did not sit right with Madiha, especially when the bridge could be so much more useful as a pile of rubble. Nobody understood it except her. The symbolic Conqueror’s Way, bombed out, empty. It was an enticing target, and the enemy took the bait. She had rebuffed a Company-sized attack and destroyed likely the entire enemy unit without casualties using only her recon troops. All because of deception and concealment. She found herself feeling oddly clever and elated, thinking to herself now that her deception had saved lives and killed foes.

“You got the first after-action reports in, right? What do you think?” Madiha asked.

“Gulab and Charvi were just a touch more reckless than they should’ve been.” Parinita said. “It feels like every time you give them an inch they want to fight it all themselves.”

“I will have words with them later.” Madiha replied gently.

“You should, they’re officers, and officers need to mind the back more in this army.”

Madiha nodded. “Well, right now, Chief Warrant Officer, our Kajari and Chadgura–”

Parinita grinned and laid her hands on her hips. “–Jeez, Madiha, you’re so formal–”

“–managed to produce a result,” Madiha continued, unimpeded by her lover’s teasing.

“I know!” Parinita said. “They have it harder than us. Still, it pays to be careful.”

Madiha nodded again. Sometimes she wondered how they did it.

Madiha had been an officer almost all of her career. She had fought on the front several times, and endangered her life plenty; but she could count the number of times she had been in danger at the head of an attack. For a grunt, it was every day, until the days were indeterminate. People like Gulab and Chadgura had volunteered to face death every day. Madiha was always called back to her headquarters. She was far safer than any of them.

She had to play disciplinarian, but a certain guilt tempered her response to recklessness.

“I’ll reacquaint them with the value of their lives.” Madiha said, half-jokingly.

As the desert wind blew away the scent of war, the two of them continued to watch the desert. Defense was not glamorous, and wars of defense even less so. All tales of great wars told of massive offenses and glorious charges and sweeping encirclements. Cunning was sang of when paired with initiative, and forgotten if not. So far, the Golden Army had strengthened itself and proven a tenacious defender, but Nocht kept coming, and they were driven to their last wall. All they could do was wait for an enemy to show up to fight. There was no means for them to launch effective attacks right now.

Sitting idle like this, awaiting battle on the enemy’s initiative, took a toll. On the soldiers, absolutely. But also on Madiha, who felt keenly the weight of her decisions every day.

Every defense had a cost. Today’s defenses, so far, had been free. This would change.

Madiha felt exhausted.

She could hardly believe she was still moving fluidly and standing tall.

Parinita hid it well, behind that pretty face and charming smile. But she was hurting too.

It had been a hellish, evil year, 2031.

“I think in Psychology they call it The Uncanny. You know?” Parinita said suddenly.

She had a finger on her cherry-red painted lips, and was staring off in thought.

“What are you talking about?” Madiha asked.

“Oh, um, sorry, I mean the thing from before. About how unsettling the fake corpses were in The Last Dragoon. I remember some papers on film psychology I read about that. It’s because of the unreality of it, you know? We expect things to be a certain way, but war just feels unreal to experience. At least, that’s what I believe. This violence, and all.”

Parinita shifted a little nervously on her feet. Her tongue was starting to slip from her.

Madiha nodded her head. She had understood; and she especially understood having a thought and having it turned to molten cheese in your brain by your own neuroses.

“I agree. We have an idea of what death should look like. And none of this feels right.”

“I feel it’s more that we don’t know how to think about any of it, even now.”

Parinita put her back to one of the rampart barriers and crossed her arms.

Next to her, a 76mm gun stood sentinel. It was unmanned, because the gunners were ready to rotate, and had gone on a little break. Solstice’s heat, especially on the walls, could easily reach 40 degrees or worse, and would cook one’s brain on a full shift. All essential personnel in Solstice’s defense had to be redundant, and consistently rotated.

“I go on my day to day treating it like a job, or like a favor that I’m doing for my girlfriend. When I’m alone, and I have time to myself, and there’s all the reports in front of me and all that. But looking at it like this, being confronted by it, its so eerie. I vacillate from thinking of it like a math problem. I think about stupid essay questions. ‘A train leaves the station carrying 100 tons of ammunition’ and so on.” Parinita continued, raising a finger into the air. “I am good at those. I also think of it like film sometimes. Prologue, act one, act two, climax; and the actors working tirelessly. But that’s not what it is. Just like tomatoes and pork set into jelly aren’t really a murdered human body.”

Madiha remembered what she said before. Parinita was trying to process it. She had to; to try to rationalize the unreality of everything. To try to find a way to live sanely with what they were all doing. That was Parinita. Madiha tried to shove things out of the way of her mind, the same way that same mind pushed physical things with its power.

Reaching out a hand idly, Madiha pushed on a stone on the wall and levitated it.

Parinita followed the stone around with her eyes, like a cat watching a toy.

It was odd that the most unreal thing among them was the easiest one to accept.

“Well. You’re more normal than I am I think. I think of war as a game.” Madiha said.

She was instantly ashamed of it, but she said it.

It helped at least that Parinita did not look disgusted or judging.

She smiled warmly at Madiha, catching the levitated stone out of the air in her fist.

“I learned to strategize via Academy war games. To me, its chess, except, I’m good at it.”

Madiha looked out over the desert and sighed.

It put her in a foul mood to think of it like that.

All those corpses on the desert.

Those misbegotten fools whom she hated; and yet they died because, she was better? Because she had outplayed them? Gambled and won? Any number of metaphors, they were all wrong. They all made the conflict out to be a game, or a film, or a story. There was no way to capture what had happened that wasn’t completely, utterly insane.

“Like I said before, we have to do it to process. We have to do something to understand and to carry on with the fight. We’re the victims here, after all.” Parinita replied. As soon as she said it, she seemed frustrated with herself. “I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this, to be honest. Maybe I am going insane now. It’d be inconvenient as hell.”

“You’re not insane. You’re tired. I’m tired.” Madiha said. “I haven’t slept in a week.”

“I’ve slept poorly. Maybe we need to get in bed together.” Parinita said, beaming cheekily.

“We’ve done plenty of that.” Madiha replied.

“Hah, look who’s lewd now? And you say I’m the minx here. I meant nothing erotic by it.”

Parinita put on a little grin and pretended to be innocent, circling her finger over head as if to suggest there was an angelic halo in the space over it, and not devilish little horns.

“I know you too well.” Madiha replied, grinning herself.

“Say I was being lewd, what would you do about it?”

Parinita took a few steps forward with hands behind her back and leaned into Madiha.

With a gloved finger, she pulled a little on the neck and collar of her shirt and winked.

“I’d sort you out and make you proper again.” Madiha replied.

She turned briefly toward Parinita and slipped her own finger down her coat and the neck of her shirt to grip on it and give it a teasing little tug. Parinita tittered happily.

Madiha was so glad for the shift in the conversation, even if it was a little out there.

“Let’s calm down for right now though. It’s too hot out and the gunners return soon.”

“Hey, I’m a paragon of self-control.” Parinita replied, pressing a hand against her breast.

“Right. Anyway, get the map, we’ll do one last check to make sure we report everything–”

Still feeling jovial, Madiha lifted the binoculars back up to her eyes.

There were the corpses, some of her own soldiers in parts of the bridge where she could see them, such as atop the mounds of rubble that once were gates. There was a sizeable amount of sand, and the Khamsin blowing in from the southeast was turning the air just a touch dusty and yellow, even over the Qural river. Satisfied, Madiha looked farther out.

Parinita returned and pressed herself close to the General.

“I got the map here, so what do you want to–”

Madiha spied something in the desert sand, something– uncanny.

Something large, something difficult to place. Something that shouldn’t have been there.

“Parinita, call back the rampart gunners, now. Right now!” Madiha shouted.


Observers on the eastern wall, such as General Nakar, and even those along the ground with the recon troops on Conqueror’s Way, finally spotted the enemy that now made itself known amid rising and falling dunes of the red desert. It had been carefully crawling in the distance, taking whatever path put the most geometry between itself and the walls. It had come close enough now; nothing could disguise its size, the smoke, the men around it, the vehicles that supported it. This was a battalion-sized formation.

But it was all concentrated around a single, monstrously large entity.

A massive series of camouflage nets shed from its bulk, and sand sifted off its surfaces as if it had risen from the desert like a whale from water. It had traversed the desert on the backs of several tracked tank transporters. Scopes and spyglasses could see letters on the side of the massive, metallic conveyance that held the weapon in its place for travel.

RKPX-003 VISHAP.

Around it, men in yellow and ash-gray uniforms unlocked the crate, and its lid came crashing down like a ramp. Inside, an engine roared to life, loud as a howling dragon.

Around the side of the great machine, two men watched the unfolding deployment.

“Well, General, I believe I have successfully infiltrated your weapon past enemy lines.”

One of the men sighed and patted down his own cap against his head.

“Oh, shut up, Von Drachen.”


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Chapter

Storm The Castle (68.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death.


Solstice City — Conqueror’s Way Defense Zone

For all the myth that surrounded it, Conqueror’s Way was a bridge, built out of stone in antiquity and reinforced with steel and concrete in modernity. It had withstood a horrific punishment during the war. Across its monumental bulk the bridge’s gates had been bombed to rubble, the ramparts pulverized, the bunkers and pillboxes crushed by relentless ordnance. Rubble lay undisturbed where it had fallen. Its hundred meter width was pitted and ruptured, but there was clearance here and there, where towers had fallen into the water instead of over the lanes, or where gates blew outward instead of collapsing in on themselves.

Atop the rubble of the outermost gate, soldiers of the 1st Guards Mechanized Division’s 2nd Motorized Infantry Regiment stood guard over the Conqueror’s Way. They passed a pair of binoculars among themselves, each individual hoping that they could confirm the sight before them as merely a wraith in the heat’s haze, a trick of the desert sun and partial dehydration. When the binoculars landed in the hand of eighteen-year-old Loubna Al-Alwi, and she raised them to her eyes and stared over the rubble at the edge of the desert, she saw the sand blowing up into the air in the distance, and the figures, rippling in the heat mirages, moving closer and closer, trampling in a huge mass, until she could make out uniforms, helmets, and guns.

At her side, her partner was quivering. She reached out a hand to Loubna’s shirt.

“Loubna, they’re coming. They’re really coming. We’re really going to fight.”

Loubna was a few months older than Aditha, and she wanted to say something reassuring as a senior to a junior, but she knew she had nothing in her that would ease the situation. They had been waiting with the breath trapped in their chest for months. She could see in Aditha’s sweat-soaked face, in her green eyes, that fear. She felt like she could make out her own perplexed face, mirrored in the tears starting to roll out of Aditha’s eyes.

She shook her head, averted her eyes and took Aditha gently by the hand.

“We should tell the Sergeant and the 2nd Lieutenant. Come on.” Loubna said.

Aditha wiped her tears and nodded her head.

At their sides, the shimmering waters of the long, twisting Qural disappeared behind the remains of the bridge’s barriers as the pair slid down the mound of rubble to the bridge.

Leaving the other five members of the squadron atop the rubble mound, Loubna and Aditha crossed the car lanes on the pitted, uneven bridge flat and ran toward a chunk of a guard tower on the left-hand side. There were people all around, with their backs to rubble, seated with canteens out and tarps strung wherever they could be, trying to beat the heat. Beyond them lay the rubble of the second gate, still half-standing and retaining more of its shape, having only been struck directly by a single heavy bomb from a Nochtish airplane.

There were more people behind that second gate, but that was not Loubna’s destination. Instead, behind the remains of the forward guard tower the recon platoon’s command element had set up a radio under a grey, amorphous tent that looked like another piece of rubble.

Inside, 2nd Lieutenant Charvi Chadgura and 1st Sergeant Gulab Kajari were seated together, crossing out parts of the gridded desert map in conjunction with radio personnel from the Division. It was something that transpired quietly every week. Old maps were destroyed, and new ones with new positions, directions and coordinates were issued and marked up.

Everything looked almost serene, like nobody had any idea the war had arrived.

“Ma’am! There’s a problem!” Loubna said nervously. At her side, Aditha merely stared.

Lt. Chadgura looked up first. Her face, dusty from the desert wind, was fully devoid of emotion, and her speech felt dull to the ears. She was unimpressive of stature, but colorful in appearance, her silver-like hair a contrast to her dark skin. She made an impression.

“Private Al-Alwi; please explain.” replied the Lieutenant, fixing her with a strong gaze.

At her side, Sergeant Kajari pulled off a big pair of radio headphones.

She gave Loubna a big smile from over her shoulder.

“Yes ma’am.” Loubna and Aditha both stood straight and saluted. “Ma’am, at 0137 we caught sight of figures in the desert, and keeping watch on their movements, we now believe them to be the enemy, ma’am! They are making their approach from the desert, direction of uh,”

Loubna’s brain became stuck, she could not remember the surrounding areas well–

“–From the direction of Sharahad, ma’am!” Aditha added, covering for Loubna.

Loubna felt secretly the most grateful she ever had been for Aditha at that moment.

“Huh? Did they get past the 1st Tank then?” Sergeant Kajari said, turning to the 2nd Lt.

“No, they must have gone through the sands. It’s the only gap.” 2nd. Lt Chadgura said.

“So then, it’s probably a recon force and an exhausted one at that.” Sgt. Kajari said.

Sergeant Kajari stood up from the ground, and picked up a Danava type Light Machine Gun set against the wall of the guard house ruin. She stretched her arms up, and let out a big yawn, as if she had not stood up for many hours, or as if she had been bored. Wiping dust off her rump, she walked over to Loubna, who was still stiff as a board nailed to a checkpoint barrier.

Face to face, Loubna was a head taller than Sergeant Kajari. She had bigger shoulders and shorter hair and felt just a little inadequate faced with the unit’s vibrant, energetic idol.

Smiling all the while, Kajari thrust the Danava into Loubna’s hands and patted her back.

“It’ll be fine, Private Al-Alwi! Private Chatham! Let’s go hunting! We’re recon after all!”

Aditha, shorter, longer-haired, a bit more dainty, drained of color.

Loubna gulped, but Sergeant Kajari had such energy it was impossible not to follow her.

“Please be careful, Gulab.” 2nd Lt. Chadgura cried out to them.

Sergeant Kajari merely raised a hand and waved it dismissively, without even turning back.

“We’re forming two echelons! Five of you follow me up to reinforce the mound. All the rest of you stay down here, and form up behind the rubble!” Sergeant Kajari commanded.

Not one canteen was left on the ground, not one tarp strung up. Instantly, all of the platoon that was situated between the 1st and 2nd Gates began to take up fighting positions. Loubna was transfixed by them for a moment, how quickly and efficiently they moved and worked. These were Sergeant Kajari’s regulars, the elite of the 2nd Division’s Guards Reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, their leader was hopping and skipping toward the battle with Loubna in tow.

With almost a relish, Kajari charged up on top of the first gate mound, laid flat atop it, and asked for the binoculars to be passed to her. Loubna and Aditha laid down beside her. Sergeant Kajari raised the binoculars to her eyes and stared down the desert. The advancing forces were making no effort to conceal their movements. Though in fact, it was more apt to say they could not. Aside from the rise and fall of the sand, there was no cover for them to hide from the bullets. Their only protection was to move quickly and spread out their formation.

“Hmm!”

She passed the binoculars to another platoon member, and clapped her hands together.

“I knew it. I read the map correctly. Those are Republic of Ayvarta troops, comrades.” said Sergeant Kajari. “Traitors who joined with Nocht and seek to hand Solstice to them.”

“That’s the Empress’ government in the south.” Aditha said, as if to herself in shock.

“Don’t sound so impressed. Empresses and Kings and Queens are all fake.” Sergeant Kajari said sharply. “I can go around saying the desert belongs to me just as well as anybody else. And nobody has to listen to me either. They’re all cowards, and we’re teaching them a lesson.”

Out in the desert the formations of men entered combat distance, and they could see the yellow uniforms of the Republic, and the Nochtish-issue rifles being hefted up for battle, and the sabers and machetes being drawn by officers signalling their men to charge. There were over a hundred men approaching in scattered groups, all coming within a kilometer.

Sergeant Kajari suddenly stood up from the mound, and raised her rifle to her eye.

She took aim and fired a shot that seemed to resound across the empty desert.

Somewhere in the distance one of the moving figures fell and vanished.

“Take aim and fire, comrades! We’re Guards Reconnaissance, and we lead the way!”

Bullets started to drive right back at them from the desert, striking the rock and rubble, flying over them and past the brazenly upright Sergeant, and it made her mad shouting all the more imposing, all the more commanding. There were now twelve of them atop that mound, and facing the incoming onslaught seemed almost suicidal, and yet, none of them would run.

Loubna found herself reaching down her side, and she pulled up the Danava LMG and set it atop the rubble, the barrel shroud poking out from between two concrete bricks and the sight peeking just over the debris. Beside her, Aditha withdrew her rifle and laid on the rocks, taking aim with her telescopic sight. Her teeth were chattering and her hands shaking.

Sergeant Kajari laid down flat atop the rubble of the first gate and started shooting.

One by one their other comrades in the squad were picking targets and firing.

Judging by what she had seen in the binoculars the approaching enemy lacked vehicles and seemed to be low on heavy weapons. It was a mass of riflemen and bayonets, hoping to penetrate in a cavalry charge without horses. They could do it against a lightly armed position, such as theirs, but there was one wrench in that dire strategy. Sergeant Kajari had entrusted Loubna, perhaps carelessly, perhaps unthinkingly, with the tool to win the battle.

It was like everything Loubna had read in the pamphlets and in the tactical reports.

She had an automatic weapon and none of the enemy approaching her did.

They had no cover, and she had all the bullets, more bullets than the whole squadron.

Everyone’s lives were in her hands. She sweated, and looked down the Danava’s sights.

Her own hands were shaking, but she thought of Aditha and what they had gone through.

“Loubna, are you alright? You’re shaking.” Aditha said, setting up her rifle.

She patted Loubna on the shoulder. In turn, Loubna tried to steel herself for the battle.

“Adi, I’ve never shot anyone real before. But I promised.” She said, in a serious voice.

Aditha looked up from her scope in shock at those words, but she could not say anything before Loubna held down the trigger, and the metal crack of each shot silenced her.

“I promised I’d take care of you!”

Loubna shouted, and from the barrel of the Danava dozens of seething blood-red rounds flew out into the desert, kicking up sharp spears of sand and dust into the air wherever they hit. Loubna swung the gun around on its bipod, settling the sights in the general area of an enemy group and pressing and depressing the trigger rapidly. In short, rapid bursts the bullets soared down on the enemy, grouped closely but deviating in a cone spread that showered the desert.

Her entire body shook with the forces going through the weapon.

Wild and mostly innacurate, her gunfire served to disrupt the enemy’s movements. She moved her sight from group to group, launching several quick bursts before moving to the next, and causing the men to drop, to spread out, to crouch and lose their pace. Formations began to run into each other in the chaos, and the enemy march lost its discipline and efficiency.

As the men scattered, her comrades and their slower-firing weapons could pick them off.

As one, the squadron fired its rifles in time with Loubna’s bursts, and set upon the enemy.

It was powerful; her Danava was monstrously powerful.

When her gun clicked empty, Loubna ripped the pan magazine from it, and reached into Aditha’s bag beside her (she was the support gunner), and slammed a new pan into place.

“Loubna–”

Aditha again had no time to speak before Loubna, focused like bird over a bug, shot again.

This time the men were closer, and this time Loubna’s shots began to inflict upon them.

“Loubna!”

She saw it, or at least, she thought she did, when the first man she ever killed fell.

He was an officer in the midst of his men, holding out a machete, almost 500 meters close.

She set her sight on him, opened fire, and the group dispersed and dropped and scrambled away from the gunfire, but he was caught, instantly, amid the burst. He stood for seconds as if suspended in the air by cables, his arms going limp as the bullets impacted his shoulder, his elbow, his armpit, like a series of knockout boxing blows. His knee exploded from a shot, bringing his dying body down. His face swung to catch a round in the nose.

Loubna had thought the first man she would kill in this war would be some Nochtish devil in grey fatigues with skin like a ghost. Instead, she shot a man as brown as she, and he died.

There was a cosmic instant where this became apparent to her, and she thought she would be trapped in it, and she thought she would regret it so deeply that it would kill her as brutally as the bullets had killed him. But the adrenaline pushed her out of that deific second where she contemplated the power she had, and into the next deific second where she wielded the lightning like the Gods of the North had done. She raised her hand, and with a flick of the wrist had the appropriate elevation angle, and continued to shoot as she had been.

Just that simple turn of the hand guided her bullets to three other men crouching away from the gunfire, and slew them in turn, perforating their flesh and blowing up dust and sand over them. It looked for a ridiculous instant as if spears of earth had blown through their bodies, and the desert itself killed them in revenge. It was just the penetrating power of the gun.

She had shot at beef hunks as part of her training; she knew what bullets did.

Moments later, she felt a click, and a sputtering final recoil through the gun, and she stretched out her hand, shaking like mad, into Aditha’s bag for another pan. It felt numb, weakened.

Suddenly she felt a warm hand on her arm, and turned with wide-open eyes to see Aditha.

Her long, dark hair was over her honey-brown face, and she was sweating, and red in the eyes.

“Loubna, please, you’re hurt. Please.” Aditha said.

Loubna felt a sting in her shoulder.

She looked down and saw a cut in her coat, bleeding.

It hurt suddenly. Her arm started to shake even worse.

“It’s nothing.” Loubna said, her voice trembling.

“You’re shaking. Please, for the love of God, take this and settle down for a moment.”

Aditha handed her an injector, and a compress bandage, from her bag.

She returned to the scope on her sniper rifle.

“Listen. I don’t need you to protect me. In fact, I can protect you. Don’t be so conceited.”

Aditha took a deep breath, and pressed the trigger.

700 meters away a man’s head vanished into red mist.

Loubna could not read Aditha’s mind or place herself in her head.

But she wondered if Aditha had felt that moment of strange disquiet after her first kill.

Seemingly without pause, without even drawing a new breath, Aditha worked the bolt on her sniper rifle, and quickly lined up and took a second shot. Out in the desert a man trying to set up the enemy’s only visible Norgler machine gun fell down a tall sand dune with the weapon, and both ended up partially buried at the bottom of the hill by the rising winds.

“Right now the worst you could do to me is to die. Please, Loubna.”

Loubna nodded, shaken a bit by the intensity of her friend’s words.

She slid down a bit from the position of her gun, flipped onto her back, and spread her coat.

She applied the compress under her clothes and over the wound, the waxy glue sticking the bandage hard against her bleeding, cut and bruised shoulder. She took the injector and pressed it against her neck, and pressed the button, and felt the sudden prick in her skin. There was a cold pain and then a sensation of lightness as the drugs spread through her bloodstream.

“A hundred meters! We’ve got enemies dashing in!” shouted a comrade.

Rifle shots rang out, and were answered, the replies now far too close.

They could hear the boots trudging up the steep mound.

“Loubna watch out!” Aditha shouted.

Loubna looked up and saw a shadow over her with a rifle and a glinting bayonet.

Over her the Republican soldier who had breached the line raised his weapon.

Rifles and pistols went up all around him, but there wasn’t time to stop him.

He roared, and he thrust down.

Then, as if instantly meeting a wall, he sailed back from Loubna.

2nd Lieutenant Chadgura had charged up the rubble and struck him with her shoulder.

He reeled, and she drew her machete and drove it into his gut, pulling him closer.

Blood splashed onto the rubble, onto Loubna, who lay vulnerably beneath the melee.

2nd Lt. Chadgura drew her officer’s pistol, her other hand holding the dying man by the blade.

She thrust the corpse forward, where it met the rifle bayonets of a pair of republican soldiers.

She raised her pistol, and fired at both in quick succession, their faces vanishing in red gore.

“Charvi!”

Sergeant Kajari stood up from the rubble, drew her own pistol and knife, and joined 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura at the fore of the defense, shooting the men clambering desperately up from the desert below. Rifle fire sailed past her, and both officers were lucky that the enemy did not want to stop to aim at the bottom of the makeshift hill, or they would have been shot.

They had no automatic support: Loubna had the Danava, and Loubna could hardly move.

It wasn’t even the drugs or the pain.

It was fear. A man had tried to kill her, to butcher her with a blade.

It was scarier than any shootout, and Loubna felt paralyzed.

“Gulab, please hide, I am enacting a plan.” Chadgura dispassionately said.

“Like shit you are! You scared me to death!” Gulab said.

Both of them continued firing, each taking an enemy corpse in front of them as a grizzly shield.

“You may not believe me, but everything is going according to a design–”

“Oh save it, Charvi. I wasn’t just laying around either.”

Sergeant Kajari dropped her pistol and withdrew something from her back pouch.

There was a bundle of grenades linked by a string.

“Oh, well.” Chadgura said.

“Yeah, well,”

Sergeant Kajari heaved the bundle down the mound, and all the grenades primed at once.

Both tossed the bodies they were holding, absorbing stray fire as they backed away.

They rolled downhill, and Sergeant Kajari turned around and grabbed 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura. They both fell hard onto the rubble, one atop the other, and behind them a half-dozen grenades went off at once, shooting up smoke and metal and collapsing some of the footholds up the rubble of the first gate. Men were thrown bodily, and slid down, and several were caught in the blasts and shredded, and Loubna could barely see it from her vantage. There was just smoke and blood and indistinct carnage and she could hardly believe it.

It had been less than a minute’s worth of war, that exchange, and it was madness.

“Gulab, you have once again succeeded in playing the hero, so could you please–”

Sergeant Kajari, in full view of the rookies, pressed herself against 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura and took her into a kiss, fully and passionately. The 2nd Lieutenant reciprocated in confusion.

When their lips parted they were staring intensely into each other’s eyes.

“Now I succeeded.” Sergeant Kajari smiled.

2nd Lieutenant Chadgura blinked. She did not smile, but she did seem eerily content.

“You absolutely did.”

Sergeant Kajari, elated, turned to the rookies. “You all better not snitch!”

All around the mound, the rookies nodded their heads in surprise, confusion and anxiety.

“Oh right,” Sergeant Kajari looked down at Chadgura. “What was your plan, sweetie?”

“Oh yes. My plan.” Chadgura shouted. “Dabo!”

From behind them, a serene-sounding voice replied.

“Yes ma’am!”

Coming from below, a large, round man ran up the rubble, heaving in his arms a metal gun shield in one hand and a machine gun in the other. As he reached the top of the mound, he slammed into place the shield, burying its sharp underside into the rubble, and he set down the machine gun in the slot on the shield. It was a sleek, black, all-metal gun that Loubna was only vaguely familiar with. Long ammunition belts fed it, instead of pans, and it lacked the characteristic water jacket of the old Khroda machine guns: it was an A.A.W. CH-30 Chakram.

Sergeant Kajari and 2nd Lieutenant Chadgura slowly unwound themselves from each other, and both of them hid behind the gun shield with the large Corporal Dabo, and face down the remains of the enemy in the desert. Sergeant Kajari held the ammunition belts, 2nd. Lt. Chadgura ranged the gun, and Corporal Dabo’s huge hands took the gun handles.

“Platoon machine gun team, ready! Fire for effect!” 2nd. Lieutenant Chadgura shouted.

Corporal Dabo rapped the trigger of the CH-30 and unleashed a storm of firey red tracers.

Each 12.7mm shot from the long barrel of the Chakram boomed like thunder, and there were dozens of shots flying out seemingly every second. It caused a terrifying cacophony, and an even more frightening result on the battlefield. Wherever the gun turned, its shots lanced through the attackers like nothing Loubna had ever seen. This was no Khroda; each bullet was twice as long and nearly twice as thick. Flying red spears rained brutally down on the desert. In their wake whole chunks of human vanished from bodies, arms sliced off, ribcages blown out from the side, heads severed instantly from necks. The Chakram churned through the ammunition in its belt as it churned through the numbers of the enemy, wiping out whole sections and squadrons as Dabo turned the barrel from unit to unit at Chadgura’s instruction.

Loubna’s Danava was a toy compared to this devastating weapon.

It took no more than its fire alone, and the enemy’s charge was completely broken.

Loubna crawled up, and dropped next to Aditha. Both of them bore final witness.

Survivors began to flee into the desert. There were few.

Below the mound were hundreds of bodies it seemed, splayed all over the desert, at the foot of the first gate rubble mound, a few atop the mound from the earlier melee. There was blood everywhere, seeping into the already ruddy sand and turning it almost black in places. There were wounded men still crawling about without hope, and the dead lay pathetically without any uniformity in their wounds, everyone missing something or other, no body left whole.

Loubna could not draw her eyes away from the sight. It was so disgusting she wanted to vomit.

2nd Lieutenant Chadgura stood up from behind the Chakram gun shield and sighed.

“Good kills, Corporal, Sergeant. Private Al-Alwi. Everyone get ready to move back down.”

Around her, all of her comrades were standing up, their rifles against their chests, breathing heavily from the drop in adrenaline. Loubna could still hear the booming of the Chakram and the rhythmic cracking of the Danava in her ears, within the awful silence of the desert. Was that all of the enemy? She looked out over the sands, trying to ignore the scars formed by the blood and bodies on the landscape. There were no more living enemies that posed a threat.

2nd Lieutenant Chadgura raised her voice. “We will ask for reinforcements and perform body collection. Clearly the enemy is persistent. They will attack again. We held out, but we’ll need more than a recon platoon to carry out the defensive plan against this concerted an effort. ”

“You got that right. These guys were crazy. How could they keep charging like this?”

Sergeant Kajari looked quizzically at 2nd Lt. Chadgura as if her lover could answer this.

Chadgura shrugged. “They must have liked their chances against such a light defense.”

“I doubt it was just that. I feel like something’s got to be happening. But, we’ll see.”

Everyone started to wander off down the mound. Aditha stood, and tugged on Loubna’s shirt.

“We’d better go too Loubna. We should at least drink some water and lay back.” She said.

Loubna nodded silently. She felt ashamed of herself, having fought, in her reckoning, as poorly as she had in that engagement. Sergeant Kajari had entrusted everything to her, and yet–

She felt a sudden pat in the back, strong and sharp and full of vigor.

“Good work, private! Amazing for your first real combat. I knew I could count on you.”

Sergeant Kajari appeared from behind her, smiling her honey-brown smile brightly. Her braided ponytail was flying with the desert wind, and she wore the quilted shawl of a desert nomad over her uniform, for reasons unknown to Loubna. She was always smiling at the rookies, and always patting them on the back. When Loubna looked at her, Kajari winked.

“You remind me of myself, Private! Except bigger and tougher! You’re taller than my brothers!”

Loubna did not feel that was particularly flattering, but Sgt. Kajari must have meant well.

“I’m sure you’ll make a splendid soldier! Just stick with Private Chatham here, she looks like the sort who will set you straight.” Sergeant Kajari looked at Aditha and winked too.

Aditha looked between Sergeant Kajari and Loubna and turned red in the face.

“No, it’s, it’s definitely not like that.” She whimpered with embarrassment.

Loubna averted her eyes. “I don’t think this is a good time, ma’am, but thank you for trying.”

Sergeant Kajari laughed. “Listen: don’t take any levity for granted, or you’ll go insane.”

Waving and smiling one last time at the rookies, she turned and followed the 2nd Lieutenant.

Loubna looked at Aditha, and Aditha at Loubna, and they both averted their gazes after.

Loubna averted her gaze toward desert, in time to spot a column of sand blowing into the air.

She blinked, and stared, uncomprehending of what she was seeing.

Something was approaching, and it was either very large, very fast, or both.

“Adi, do you see that?”

Aditha, her arms crossed over her breasts in a meek posture, peeked over her shoulder.

Her eyes drew wide open.

She raised her sniper scope to her eyes and adjusted the magnification.

“Loubna, we had better get the officers back here.” Aditha said, her voice trembling.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Storm The Castle (68.1)

This chapter contains graphic violence and death.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — South Wall Defensive Line

Around the city of Solstice the Red Desert rolled into hills and valleys. It rose, and it fell, and patterns formed on its surface like ocean waves captured solid, an endless sea of windswept rust-colored dust parched by a brutal heat. Stones set on the ground in ancient times traced paths through the desert to the oasis that is Solstice, but these paths came and went with the winds, and with the shape and stature of the surrounding dunes.

Since the beginning of the war, the unkempt paths had all but disappeared into sand.

One of those vanished roads once led to the southern wall of Solstice, said to be the only one “touching ground.” On the famous eastern road the massive stone bridge of the Conqueror’s Way parted Solstice from the rest of the land, the Qural river flowing from the north and down underneath the massive fortification; to the west, sheer cliffs, wide pits and broad gorges, which had been filled with water artificially, blocked the city access.

And so, it was along the fated south, that the first grey shirts and the first black jackboots, climbed the sandy hills to stare face to face, for the first time, at the vast walls of the city.

Upon spying the wall for the first time, the men, already enervated by the stinging, relentless heat, grew quieter, and their muscles tensed, their whole bodies frozen still. Eyes drew wide at the distant sight of the ancient stone wall, dozens of meters tall. It was tall enough to keep the giants of nochtish legend out of the socialist’s streets. It was like staring at a cliff from far off, an obstacle one knew to be in one’s own future; it was the polished, brown stone face of a mountain that set itself on an adventurer’s weary trail.

Those who trudged up the hill without hope, simply collapsed at the peak, dead in spirit if not already dead. They had come for little reason or no reason at all, and nothing could drive them further. Months of campaigning in the desert had all but killed them, in spirit if not flesh. Those who had come to fight, loaded their weapons. Masses of men, broken up by tanks, backed up by the small, quick cars upon which their offices rode on, crested the hill, and assembled atop the sand. There were no horses. All of the horses were dead.

Some men were allowed to ride on the backs of the light tanks driving up to the wall. Many were old model light “Ranger” tanks, worn and pitted with bullets and discolored in places where old worn-out plate had been replaced with new armor. Even the most veteran of these tanks was obsolete now. It was a motley assemblage. On these tanks, men could ride atop the enclosed turret and in the back, over the engine, if they could stand the heat.

Many among the fighting men griped about the lack of sturdy, powerful M4 tanks in this crucial juncture. They suspected shortages, but did not suspect the nature of their mission.

Their true purpose was cleverly concealed by a few pieces of less expendable technology.

Among the old warhorses there were scattered signs of Nocht’s ruthless wartime evolution, enough to improve the general morale and to make the charge seem a little less doomed. These new tanks, moving at a faster clip, and with open-topped turrets boasting powerful 76mm guns inspired by the new Ayvartan tanks, were new model M3A3 R-K Hunter light tank destroyers, replacing the old, flawed Hunter artillery tanks.

Those men who got to ride on the “Rick Hunters” got a breezy journey to the starting line.

Trucks pulled artillery into place, engineers dug earthworks for the camps. Crucial water was stockpiled air-tight and under tarps. A village of tents rose to support the battle.

However, everyone’s eyes were taken by the gallantry of the front line.

Atop the hill, Nocht’s combat power arranged itself into neat, preplanned ranks.

Slowest first, fastest last, and in staggered waves down to the platoon level.

Back at the camps, numerous tents housed radio control teams, staffed by young women as had become customary, who worked the wireless boxes, set up antennae, and delivered orders from nearly endless slate of officers down the chain of command. Firing off hundreds of calls, the radio girls kept everyone on time, in place and organized, and kept their commanders appraised of the situation moment to moment. Everyone spoke in prepared codes on the radio, but officers in the tents allowed themselves to be candid.

“Bring forward the C-10 teams! We’re breaching that fucking wall!”

Thousands of men, hundreds of vehicles, assembled across a several-kilometer swath of desert, and faced the wall. Within fifteen minutes, not even enough time for the vast, long, multi-headed shadow they cast upon the sand to shift a degree, the command was shouted, and there was a convulsion along the body of this great beast, and it shrugged.

The 365th Infantry Division along with elements of the 25th Panzer Division would be the historic vanguard, the honored heroes who would initiate the 1st Wall Attack Operation.

First into the fray was the 3rd Battalion of the 365th’s 18th Regiment. One thousand men almost to the head broke off from the body of the Division and began to move across the ten kilometers of flat distance between the crowded divisional area and Solstice. It was a charge of the modern day, not a sprint of a hundred meters from speartip to speartip, but a tactical march against a fortification on a strict timetable. Some men ran as if they could cross the desert flats and fight within the minute, and those men fell ten minutes later.

Those marching steady kept weary eyes forward, on the walls that came closer and closer.

Across the desert the cry resounded, unchallenged by the silent stone: Vorwarts!

Accompanying the cry and the charge were the sound of loud, intermittent blasts behind them. It was not enough to startle anyone; they all knew the plan. They had to. Over the heads of the men, artillery guns fired heavy shells that crossed the distance to the city in moments, and they struck the stone walls like iron fists. These were the first blows of the war directly at the walls of Solstice. Chunks of stone went flying, and smoke and dust blew up in front of the wall and obscured the obstacle. Each shot sent a triumphant thrill through the mass. The 3rd Battalion picked up the pace. Within the hour they had cut the distance to half. Several tanks caught up quickly, and the Pionier engineering teams and their explosives started to make ready. In an hour more they would be in the city!

Maybe in two or three, the war might be over! They could go home, triumphant!

Owing to the wind and the dust, and the contribution of their own artillery fire to both, a yellow curtain fell over the march. There was a foul wind picking up that was scattering sand into the atmosphere, an effect known to the locals as the “khamsin.” Within an atmosphere the color of parchment that howled and stung, the 3rd Battalion did not see the shells flying over their own head. They did not see the flashes atop the wall, nor the casings falling from on high. And when the blasts fell at their backs, those ahead believed it to be their own guns, and did not see the carnage that was creeping slowly back to front.

When the dusts ahead began to settle, and their own artillery quieted, and the wall again came to view, the 3rd Battalion saw minimal damage inflicted on the stone. They paled as they saw something glinting in the scorching sunlight: reinforced plates behind a false layer of stone. All of that howitzer fire had done nothing; Solstice was still untouched.

And then there was another flash, and another, these were no trick of the desert light.

Guns started flashing from several openings on the stone. With the dust clear and the distance cut, it was possible to see a hint of gun barrels protruding over the top wall, belonging to heavy rampart guns. These impressive weapons launched massive 100+ millimeter shells along the length of the column, with one or two startling shots a minute.

The carnage they wrought distracted the men from the guns in the wall itself.

There was an instant of silence. The advancing infantry seemed not to realize their fate.

Amid the khamsin a hail of gunfire met the 3rd Battalion. At first soundless in the wind, their red tracers masked by the haze, the machine gun fire was an invisible reaper that swept across platoons and companies and put to the ground dozens of men. They fell like they had fallen all along the trek through the desert, suddenly and mysteriously, as if the heat had finally dried out the last drop of their souls. They fell as they had fallen before and so they fell forgotten, and the 3rd Battalion marched on as it had learned to.

Hidden within the soundless stone, inside the face and the columned corners and interred at the base of the wall, were machine guns, anti-tank cannons, mortar emplacements.

When mortars and gun shells began to land, blasting skyward pillars of earth and gore, and the buzzing machine gun fire started to build enough to chop men to pieces as they stood, the urgency of the situation became horrifically apparent. It was then that the bullets became visible, and that death became less abstract. The disciplined mass of the 3rd Battalion split and scattered and charged the wall in haphazard patterns, and all across the carpet of flesh blossomed horrific circles of death where howitzer shells exploded.

There was still some semblance of a plan. Guide the C-10 to the wall. The C-10, the 10th of the Wall-Breaking Potentials. Those men who ran with hope ran with that hope in hand.

Around the teams of C-10 carrying engineers, the attacking troops rallied, and so the battalion coalesced into three distinct masses with gaggles of stray soldiers between.

There was no louder sound in the desert than the Ayvartan guns. Even the panic in the invader’s heads was quieter. Shells fell savagely around the advancing infantry. A near-miss would detonate in a hail of cruel metal fragments; if the concussive blast of a nearby explosion did not take an arm or a leg, a cloud of jagged metal knives would. Any group so unlucky as to have a shell land on them disappeared, a red mist and a red splash atop the ruddy-brown sand. It was as if the men were bubbles being popped by falling needles.

Hundreds died immediately, and hundreds more followed, as the shells and the machine gun fire and the guns swept forward and back, forward and back, leaving a trail to the wall.

Tanks, lagging behind the advance, were picked off by the large-caliber guns atop the walls. There were several M3s and few M4s, and none could withstand the concentrated fire of the wall guns. They moved implacably, an iron wall buckling at its supports, some tanks trying to swerve and zig-zag, others praying as their front armor took stray shots.

It was too much. Single shots to the front plate outright destroyed the light tanks, and even the brand new M3s would falter, their open tops exposing their crews to shrapnel and flame. M4 tanks shot in the cheek, would diffuse the blast across their hulls and rattle mad every man inside it. Whether or not the armor survived, the machinery inside was doomed, shaken to pieces. Many tanks were abandoned, serving no function but cover. The Ayvartan fire was accurate and ferocious, and when the line of tanks stalled, it joined the other human detritus of the operation, a vast graveyard soiling the southern desert.

But while the battle raged on, the landscape was shifting.

Wind and war moved the sand and the earth, creating craters, mounds, features otherwise missing in the flat terrain between the Division and Solstice. While their heavy machinery and thick formations crumbled, individual men clung to life within the storm like dogs hurled into ocean water. Within one or two kilometers, a step away from their destination, the men of the 3rd Battalion could huddle in holes and against the shadowed parts of their ephemeral sandy hills and found a measure of safety. Machine gun fire was sailing above them, and shells striking safely behind them. They now had a foothold.

“This is Storm-Two!”

At the head of the bloody march, a captain from a C-10 team picked up a radio.

“Repeat, this is Storm-Two! We’ve made it to the shadow of the wall!”

“Acknowledged, Storm-Two,” replied a dispassionate female voice. She was speaking in code, but the Captain knew her words immediately, having memorized the ciphers, and so in his mind he heard her speaking crisp Nochtish. “1st and 2nd Battalion will move forward soon to reinforce the approach. Ready to deploy the C-10 against the wall.”

“Division, I don’t think we can advance in this condition. We’ve lost almost everything up here.” the Captain grimly said, huddled behind a boulder unearthed by a fortunate wind. Around him were maybe a dozen engineers and riflemen, and the big packs of C-10 bombs.

“Losses are within acceptable parameters,” corrected the voice, “continue the attack.”

The Captain knew that as that radio went dead, another dozen of his men went dead too.

Still, he turned to them, and he raised his hand and waved to the wall with conviction.

“Huddle around the engineers! We’re taking that C-10 to the fucking wall!” He shouted.

There were stares of disbelief, even as the men’s bodies slowly went to work.

Back in the rear, the 1st and 2nd Battalions started to retrace the steps of the 3rd. Little had changed for them. In this battlefield even the veterans among them knew nothing. Without having seen the fire falling first-hand, without the intimate yet split-second knowledge of the good shell-holes, the blind spots, the good cover, these men were butchered the same as before. It was only Ayvartan reloading and refitting, which became more frequent as ammo cycled and barrels overheated, that allowed many to escape.

Those at the front threw themselves at the wall. Escorting the C-10 explosive teams, stray platoons and even impromptu squadrons of survivors organized, shouted their last words, and charged with rifles up. Machine guns on the base of the wall opened fire, cutting dozens of them down in plain sight. For the last 1 kilometer dash of the fight, there was little cover, little sand, no boulders, no shell-holes. Just dry, packed dirt, a wall and death.

“Run! Run! Run!”

Storm-Two was reduced to near-incoherence the slobber from his visceral screams evaporating in the heat and the scorching wind of the khamsin. Ahead of him he saw the bullets, the screeching red tracers flying by him like fiery arrows, and each one could have been for him and each one wasn’t. At his side one of his men took a bullet in the eye and collapsed. Another’s helmet flew off his head from a dozen shots, and the thirteenth blew his nose apart. Storm-Two could barely register what was happening. He ran, and he ran, clutching the explosive pack, charging into the curtain of bullets, and not one hit him.

With a final, guttural cry he stamped the pack against the stone of the wall, maneuvering himself so that he stood between two obvious firing ports built into the stone and hidden by the sand. He slammed the C-10 pack against the wall, and he reached inside of it.

There was a mechanism, wires, string, a tiny snap lever, attached to thick, gray blocks.

His entire body shook and rattled as hundreds of thousands of bullets flew out from the wall. He thought he could feel every instant of recoil, every muzzle burst, every click of the trigger, through the cold stone of the southern wall. He kept the pack up, fumbled with the mechanism. He wasn’t even thinking that if it exploded, it would take him.

He was at the wall. Nobody knew. Nobody was alive to know. But he was there.

He took the C-10 home, and he was going to blow a hole in the fucking wall.

Storm-Two linked the wires, waited for the tell-tale sign of an electric charge.

Around him the gunfire intensified. Overhead the wall cannons fired, and he felt the massive energy of several heavy guns transferring down the wall, shaking up his guts. He thought he would throw up. He shuttered his eyes. Had he heard the fizzing noise?

He looked at the C-10 pack, and he saw no smoke, no sparks.

Had he missed it? Storm-Two was too deep to back off.

At least he would die a hero. He would destroy the wall. He would win the war.

He held the pack against the stone and put his head head to it.

In a few minutes, certainly–

Nothing.

Far behind him several artillery shells exploded, wiping out more men and machines.

He looked desperately inside the pack for signs that it was armed, that it would blow.

He prayed for death, and he could not have it. His C-10 remained unexploded.

It was a dud. He had a dud bomb.

Storm-Two dropped the pack, collapsed onto his knees.

In front of him, a stone slid on the wall.

For a brief instant, Storm-Two saw a face in the wall.

Clean, soft, with large eyes and little expression. Long hair, lovely lips, dark brown skin.

He was regarded, quizzically at first, by the Ayvartan behind the defenses.

Storm-Two looked up in futility.

He put his fist to his chest, and then he raised his arm to sign the eagle’s wing.

He died patriotically as the Ayvartan behind the stones shot him in the face with her rifle.

She closed the stone, locked the armored hatch behind it, and returned to her post.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Declaration (66.1)

This scene briefly contains sexual content.


42nd of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Nocht — Rhinea

“Ugh.”

She awakened to an atmosphere of heat and sweat, but also cold, clinging to her skin. Once the haze of pleasure had blown out of the room with the central air, it left behind the staid reality that followed a fantasy. She was back in the world, a person once more inhibited, and she could hardly stand the disappointment and tedium she felt then.

It was the least delectable part of the transgression: dealing with the consequences.

“Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

Cecilia Foss mumbled to herself as she stared into the placid face of the very nude woman in front of her, peeling the woman’s legs off her waist while at the same time gently extricating herself from the arms of her sleeping boyfriend, just behind her. It had become almost a talent, a series of acrobatics, to retrieve herself in such situations. Making sure not to awaken anyone, she slowly left her bedmates, gently stirring behind her.

Surveying the scene, there were a lot of cigarettes, a lot of drinks, a lot of discarded rubber. This was a hotel room made for thrashing, thank God; she was certainly not going to pay any fees for it. She recalled all too clearly the reason for all this. She wished she didn’t; in short it was stress, greed, hunger and neediness and loneliness. Perhaps not so short.

It was an important date, too! And she had blown it off to fuck a computer and her boy.

“Ugh. I’m the worst. God damn it. She’s waiting; Agatha’s going to be waiting.”

She found her leggings, her heels, her skirt and blazer, and the rest of it, strewn about the room. Her brassiere was nowhere to be found; Cecilia glanced over the bed with misty eyes, shook her head, and stubbornly dressed without it. God knows she needed it, but life wasn’t always so forgiving. She dressed, patted everything down, took a quick trip to the restroom to wash her face and apply a coat of lipstick– and the moment she turned around again, making to leave the bathroom, there she was at the door. Cecilia sighed.

“It’s so like you to hit me and run like this, Lia. This must be the millionth time.”

Gretchen had on a fake, coquettish pouting face, her short, curly brown locks greatly disturbed, her body wrapped in her partner’s discarded button-down shirt. Dangling from her fingers was Cecilia’s brassiere. Seeing it again, Cecilia kind of wanted it back; it was big, lacy and cute and firm and having walked a few meters without it she dearly missed it.

“I’m losing my touch. I didn’t expect you to be awake.” Cecilia said.

“No, trust me, you’ve still got your touch.” Gretchen said, winking at her.

Cecilia averted her gaze. “Usually I’m enough for the women I’m seeing.”

Gretchen scoffed and rolled her eyes. “So you can fuck everyone, but everyone has to–.”

“Yes, it’s not fair but it’s how things work around here.” Cecilia interrupted with a grin.

She could not help but feel a little bit jealous of the rings on their fingers; just a little.

Not because she wanted the same; she just didn’t want people in her life to leave her out.

Though judging by the current events, she would not have to worry about that too much.

Gretchen flicked the bra at her, and Cecilia caught it.

Casually, she started to undress again so as to put it on.

“Where are you off to now? Three-timing me?”

“You can’t really call it that? At any rate, I’m meeting a friend.”

“Just a friend?”

“She’s a special friend, but yes. She’s married.”

“Wow. Do you realize what you just said?”

“I know.”

She was married in a way nobody else Cecilia slept with was “married.” Even these two.

It was commonly said by the conservatives that Nocht had lost god, had lost marriage, had lost itself in the frenzy of power and industrialism. Its institutions were a shambles as were its ethics. For the state was only war and killing, the sex of machines; for the treasury, there was only plunder and privation, the sex of economy; and for individual people, whatever indulgence was their sex. Cecilia was not the average Nochtish citizen.

She had never had a faith in anything to begin with.

She told herself, she was a simple person. She just wanted to have fun, pure, easy fun, with whatever pleasure she set her sights on. She found things and took them because she wanted them and because she could. Difficult things to get, became games to be won.

But in the end even the difficult things remained simple.

Or so she thought; but the way her stomach churned and her heart trembled when she thought of meeting Agatha Lehner, after all she had done, after all that had been done to her, to both of them. It was not simple at all. It was the most complicated thing for her.

Achim never made her feel that way.

She thought he would; but he never did. He was simple, just like her.

Simple and comforting in his simplicity, which is what she liked about him.

She had known Agatha longer; and she only became more complicated with time.

“I’m still here, you know.”

Cecilia tried to move to the door, lost in thought.

She was nearly face to face with Gretchen.

Gretchen was complicated too, but in a simple way.

“I’m not going to let you dine and dash this time.” Gretchen said.

Cecilia smiled.

She leaned forward, pulled Gretchen in by the tie around her neck, pilfered from her man.

She took her sloppily painted lips into her own luscious red embrace.

“I’ll see you later. Alone.”

She spoke as her tongue parted her lover’s, and she walked off at the same time too.

Gretchen made no argument.


Nocht Federation — Windsbach, Haupt Radar Center

High atop the mountains separating Windsbach from the northernmost Republics, was a snow unlike anyone had ever seen, even in the mountain villages. However, the signals technicians at the Windsbach Haupt Radar Center did not see this snow fall, silver and swirling like ribbons from the clouds. Since the war began they were on long, rotating shifts that did not end until one was sure, with perfect certainty, to be replaced for at least twelve hours with another restless soul awaiting the slaughter come out from the sky.

All of them had been reared as adults on the nihilism of “the bomber will always get through.” And yet, their job was to stand defiant against it. Should the bomber come, they had to know when, from where, and what it sought. They had to deliver the unspoken retribution that nearly always came to the bomber that “got through.” Scrambling fighters, summoning air defense. These were part of their responsibilities. They had to protect the civilians too, by sounding the air raid sirens and alerting the fire brigades.

Like diviners from ancient times, they had only their scrying glasses: the massive FREIJA radar arrays, top of the line technology, hooked up to glowing green displays that pulsed with eldritch life inside the cold steel bunkers. While Ayvarta slowly toyed with short ranged mobile ground radars hiding in puny trucks, Nocht gambled its money on colossal stationary radars with incredible range and power. Untold amounts of energy flowed into the FREIJA arrays, and their signals could cover vast quadrants of Nocht’s sky and coast.

Inside the FREIJA bunkers, the technicians watched the green light pulse, and they waited.

For the long-timers, the magic had worn off. Their own planes showed up on the radar too, though nowadays, practices had evolved such that advanced warning was given to them to prevent panic and disarray. Seeing those blips made the possibility of an enemy blip far less mythical. Those were hunks of metal in the sky too. Newcomers were glued to their cathode-ray tubes, as interested in them as children had become with Television.

On that fateful winter day of the 42nd, radar technician Helmut Weigel sat in front of his CRT and saw nothing. He waited for hours, he ate his lunch at his desk, he read a book, nervously peeking at his station radar between pages to the point it almost became a character in stories. He looked over the energy output, checked the temperature and atmospheric pressure readings, and pored over various other gauges every thirty minutes.

His shift passed; he declared his intention to stand so as not to startle anyone.

From the upper floors where the military officers congregated, a young woman in uniform came down and urged him to stay in his seat. His replacement had an accident.

“You will have to stay here.”She said. “We’ll procure food and a chance of clothes, and I can stay here for fifteen minutes while you wash up. But you must come back to work.”

Helmut did not protest. What had he to go back to? He lived on his own in the village.

“What kind of food can I get?”

That was his only question, to which the young woman did not reply. She urged him out.

Once he was clean and had on a fresh shirt, coat and a change of pants, he sat back down.

Until a replacement could be found, he was on shift. He would keep working.

He stared at his screen, and saw a dozen blips all clustered together.

On his desk, just below all the gauges, he turned a page on his book. He was almost done with it, but he had another in his suitcase. Helmut loved fantasy adventures, with brave heroes and nasty goblins and mysterious dames. He put one back in his suitcase, retrieved another, and spread it open right in front of his monitor. He saw the blaring blips again.

Helmut put down his book, and he stared dumbfounded at the screen.

Coming in from the east were dozens of bombers.

Hundreds of them.

Helmut stared until the green glow burned in his retinas.

He reached for the telephone at his side.

“Hello? My CRT is broken. Can you send someone down here?”

Procedure dictated he describe the problem in detail–

But on the other end, an engineer too cheerful to have work simply said, “Sure!”

And then they hung up on him.

Helmut stared back at the screen. They were not going away.

Those blips were moving.

He ripped a piece of paper from the side of his workstation and found the numbers for his counterparts in various other stations. Every week they performed a comprehensive data corroboration drill, where Helmut and all of his colleagues in Windbach would call their doppelgangers in Junzien or Tauta or Ciel, and compare readings where their signals met.

“Hello, this is Helmut Weigel, station #13 Windbach. My station’s catching a large concentration of enemy aircraft coming in east-southeast at latitude–”

Helmut described everything he needed to and while he did, he heard an eerie echo from every station around him. People rattling off coordinates and latitudes on the phone, the sharp twisting of the rotary dials, the incredulous chatter between every stations.

“I’m afraid I don’t see anything on my end Helmut. I think you’ve got an ACS fault.”

Automatic control system, the mechanical network that kept the gauges running and regulated the current between stations and dishes, and so on. To so casually say that the entire FREIJA system in Windbach was broken to so fundamental a point put Helmut greatly at ease. Around the room, there was a great heaving sigh of relief as more information came in. No other overlapping stations saw the cluster. It was just ACS.

“Radar techs can go home! We’ll request patrol flights to cover the gap.”

That same girl from earlier, who told Helmut to stay, was now ordering everyone to go.

People grabbed their coats, lined up at the door, and made their way out.

Until the stations were fixed there was no use keeping extraneous staff around.

Outside though, the radar technicians paused all at once, considering the landscape.

Blowing in the wind, all around them, was a snow of silver ribbons mixed in with white.

Helmut held out his hand, and he caught strands, like Hollyday tinsel.

He wanted to report it, right away. But at the door to the bunker, he met with disdain.

“Just go and don’t cause any trouble.”

Helmut was speechless.

Aluminum. He wanted to say that word.

It had a radar signature. They had to know, right?

Why was aluminum falling from the sky?


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Dominoes (64.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council

Palladin Arsenica Livia Varus felt her brain trembling as she tried to process the sudden, deadly turn in her fortunes. She had hastily recalled all of her radio personnel back to her communications room upon discovering Von Drachen’s escape, and there she stood, pacing, rubbing her temples, eyes wide open, jaw hanging open enough to gasp.

“Order all units to fall back to Council and Ocean Road! Shut them down immediately!”

This nonspecific order belied her helplessness. On all sides the Ayvartan attack was slicing through her units. She was being pushed back from Rangda University, from the old 8th Division base, from Ocean Road itself. Madiha Nakar had come suddenly alive again and was sweeping her aside wherever she moved. Arsenica tried to raise her voice but her voice was not a gun, and all around the Lady Paladin, her guns were being silenced, one by one, shot by shot. Radio contact was sketchy at best, and she was short on field leadership.

It was almost enough to make her regret having sacrificed the Paladin combat team once led by her rival for the throne, Gwendolyn Vittoria. Almost, but not quite. She had her pride and still, and this pride was the rod set against her spine and keeping her upright. Throughout the battle, she waited, and she paced, and she hovered like a grim reaper over her radio personnel, over her tactical advisors, over the maps on the battlefield table.

“I want the Cheshires to dig in right on Ocean Road, do not allow anything through! I want barricades erected with whatever can be spared, and I want every gun we’ve got peering over or around cover and shooting until we’re out of ammunition! Use captured Ayvartan weapons, use anything! Throw rocks if you have to! We cannot let them through!”

Paladin Arsenica shouted as if it was a lack of effort and motivation that rendered a rock unable to pierce a tank. Her radio personnel relayed her orders with trembling voices and shaking hands, and they sat at the edge of their seats as if standing on tip-toe, nervously awaiting futile replies. There was nothing for them to hear back save incredulity and desperation, none of which was communicated back to the Paladin. But she was not as foolish as everyone around her assumed, not completely. She knew what was happening.

She was content, however, to remain uninformed. Ignorance allowed for some hope.

Then came the dreadful final blow in the place least expected. Northern Rangda, so stable, quiet, the bulwark sector that had been clinched by the elves at the start of the battle, began to call Arsenica’s headquarters. They called for help. Arsenica’s operators could hardly pass on the depth of the fear in their contact’s voices, and so Arsenica was coaxed into speaking and listening personally. She discovered then that horrific, final truth.

Amid sounds of heated gunfire, a woman’s voice pleaded, “Lady Paladin, we need support right away, the 8th Division is attacking every defensive line, and they’ve broken through to the east and south, heading into Ocean Road! We can’t contain them like this!”

Arsenica said nothing, and put the handset back onto the radio, and turned away.

The 8th Division, which had been several times humiliated, demoralized, broken, disarmed. Pushed into hiding in the darkest, deepest recesses of the city, cut off from supply and command, their communications compromised. Madiha Nakar had damaged them and the elven landings had broken them. So then, why? How? She thought she was hearing all their radio chatter: were they sending fake broadcasts and communicating personally among themselves? She could have sworn they were defeated, and yet here they were, using the last of their blood, bayonets and paltry ammunition to assault her.

And they were winning.

And they had won.

When this sudden surge of manpower met the lines of the Ayvartan motorized infantry under Nakar, they would become as floodwater uncontained. Surely that was their goal; any fool could see that Madiha Nakar had struck some kind of bargain with her former enemies against the threat of the elves, and this was the result. Arsenica had nothing that could stop such a press of bodies. She was barely hanging on as it was because Madiha Nakar had to stretch herself thin to cover the entirety of Arsenica’s line, as she desired to.

Had Von Drachen realized what was happening? She had taken an interest in him, but like all the toys of her girlhood, she had ignored him and was all but ready to discard him.

She could not indulge this fantasy for too long; gunfire erupted outside.

There was an explosion, one not distant enough, that alarmed the whole building.

The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.

Everyone in the room was looking at her.

Arsenica had a haunted appearance. Her skin had turned ghost-pale, her eyes shadowed.

She turned to the radio operators, then cast a sweeping glare at the knights out in the hall.

“What are you all waiting for? An order to retreat? You will receive none! You will remain here or lose your honor as cowards! Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?”

She drew her sword, and advanced out into the hall, red in the face.

There was a yelp of fear and a most surprising result.

As Arsenica raised her hand to strike down the first subordinate who looked to eager to run, she was struck in the face by an iron-gloved fist. She felt the cold of the gauntlet and the heat of rushing blood as the fist swiped across her face. Arsenica dropped to the ground, bloody, her nose broken, in excruciating pain. She looked through her hands, pressing on her own face and mouth as if trying to keep the blood in, and saw the face of a stoic, black-haired elven woman, who gave her a filthy look as she lay on the carpet.

“Gisella?” Arsenica cried, in disbelief and despondence.

Gisella turned her back and left the hall at a brisk pace.

From around the departing knight, some lesser subordinates became emboldened.

Three younger girls approached Arsenica, and with vengeance in their eyes, lifted their metal boots and kicked. They struck her breasts, her belly, her limbs. Arsenica cried out and pleaded, but they neither intended to sustain their assault nor stay it completely. Each girl delivered several quick, hit and run kicks, before running away, peeling back one by one as each had their seconds fill of thrashing their superior. Shaking, bleeding, hardly able to move, Arsenica curled up on the ground, and cried, her vision blurring with pain.

Passing beside her, the radio personnel then fled, thankfully without violence.

Within minutes, the hallway and the room and maybe the council building, were empty.

Empty, save for a blonde, classically-elven girl, shaking in her ill-fitting breastplate.

She looked barely an adult and her eyes were filled with tears.

When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.

The Paladin covered her body with her arms as best as she could, and curled up.

She was expecting to be struck, but instead, the girl touched her gently.

“Lady Paladin, I’m sorry, please, lets get you back up.”

Arsenica groaned, every inch of her body screaming with pain as the girl helped her to stand on one foot, and supported the woman over her shoulder. Huffing and puffing with the effort, the girl struggled to get Arsenica back into the communications room, where she laid her on the couch, and wiped the blood from her face, and brought her wine.

“It’s my ration ma’am. You can have it.”

She poured the drink between Arsenica’s broken, bloody lips.

It was hot. That wine had been in a tin pressed against this girl’s body for days.

And yet, that strange act of kindness gave the drink a strange potency.

Arsenica did not feel better. She could not. But she felt an odd inkling of relief.

Watching her drink, the girl started wiping her own tears, and looking down at her.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I couldn’t– I wouldn’t have been able to fight them all. I was scared if I pulled my gun they would all start shooting and everyone would die. I’m so sorry.”

She locked eyes with her battered superior, pulling back the tin once it was empty.

“You– you don’t deserve it ma’am. I admired you for a very long time ma’am. Those girls have no upbringing! How dare they do this. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I’m so sorry about everything. All of us, if we’d tried harder, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m sorry.”

That girl apologized more and more and the reasons why made less and less sense.

Arsenica wanted to ask her for her name, but she couldn’t find the strength to talk.

Instead, she curled up tighter, and wept, traumatized and uncomprehending.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XX

Solstice War Book 1: Generalplan Suden is now on sale! Check it out!

This chapter contains violence, graphic violence, death and slurs.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope

At the gate barring the way into the old stones of Saint Orrea’s Hope a pair of guards spotted an unmarked civilian truck approaching. Though they shouted warnings and drew weapons the truck climbed the hill with steady purpose. Soon as the truck crested the hill, it accelerated, and the guards began to shoot, but it was too late. Both doors swung open, men leaped from the cab, and the runaway vehicle overran the guards and struck the gate.

As the nose of the car crumpled against the iron-supported wooden gates, a cache of explosives in the back detonated with a resounding thunder and a bright red flash. Sheer crushing pressure blew the wooden gate apart and left smoldering chunks of wood and a twisted hulk in the path. Around this bonfire charged the men of the legion, and at their head, Byanca Geta shouted directions, and put her plan into motion. It was now or never.

“Minimus, take your group around the side of the monastery and climb to the peak, they’ve got to have their radios there! We can’t jam them forever. Crowley, your group will swing around the southern rise and take the hill! I’ll plunge right into the front!”

No man could argue against a plan that put the lead officer in the most dangerous position and her subordinates in relative advantage. Their flames kindled by Byanca’s bravery and passion, the Legionnaires took up their weapons and charged. As a unified column they stormed past the gate, charged to the front gardens of the temple. Saint Orrea was nestled into the mountainside on a complex territory. Beyond the trees and the greenhouses and the great rosehedge-lined plaza was the temple, on raised ground, a massive compound with a great central courtyard, two long wings of dormitories and prayer spaces, and the tower, deep in its heart, where Salvatrice had to reside. To the south, a steep climb overlooked the entire battlefield, and in the north, was the path directly to the peak.

“Charge, men! For Princess and country!” Byanca shouted, raising a fist into the air.

Byanca charged with the men, at the head of the column. She controlled her speed so that they could keep up with them. Halfway to the gardens, on the open stretch of mountainous dirt path, the column broke up into the three groups. Minimus reluctantly took his men north, Crowley south; dead ahead, Byanca saw the dark, masked figures of the illuminati, appearing from behind the concrete balustrades atop the great and many stone steps bridging the dozen meter climb from garden up to the level of the temple.

One masked man swung his arm, beckoning, and a machine gun bipod slammed atop the balustrades with a clank that felt ominously audible even amid the tramping of boots.

“Keep moving!” Byanca shouted. Several of her men were hesitating.

Mid-run, Byanca withdrew a flare gun, and popped a quick, unaimed shot into the air.

Roughly over the machine gunner as he began to shoot.

A wild spray of gunfire flew over the charging men as the gunner swept his weapon to try to cover the breadth of the column. Byanca felt shots graze past her, and heard men fall behind her, but she urged everyone to move to the gardens only dozens of meters ahead. More of the Illuminati soldiers began to join the machine gunner, using smaller arms to try to pick off more of Byanca’s men as the charge neared the cover of the gardens.

Byanca heard the first shell go whistling past and she smiled to herself.

“Take cover in the gardens, hunker down and wait for my signal!”

Ahead of her, the first mortar strike nearly drowned out her commands.

Her first shell exploded just short of the balustrade protecting the machine gunner, kicking up a cloud of smoke and fragments into the air from the steps below. Immediately the Illuminati’s suppressing gunfire halted; that first shell was followed quickly by a dozen more, falling randomly and suddenly at haphazard intervals. Columns of smoke and ripped concrete and fleeting fireballs rose and fell across the steps and atop them and along the front of the temple. Balustrade rails blew forward and with them Illuminati soldiers went flying from their positions. A direct shell hit crushed the machine gunner like a hammer blow fallen from the sky. Overhead, tracer trails lined the heavens.

Under the cover of her artillery, the forward assault group made it to the gardens and took cover behind the hedges, among the trees, and around the greenhouses. They waited, heads down, while mortar attacks rocked the enemy line, inaccurate but persistent.

Though Byanca’s centuriae could not drag heavy artillery out to the mountains, they brought plenty of pack mortars, easily assembled from portable parts, as well as a few towable heavy mortars. In all she deployed nine pieces and significant amounts of ammunition, all safely firing from positions outside the gates and along the path.

However, her men lacked the training to make coordinated attacks. They would likely respond poorly and without coordination to requests via radio against anything but the pre-sited and pre-calculated positions along the temple’s face and the step balustrades. All they could do was open up a surge of shellfire and hope to kill by sheer volume.

It was enough for Byanca. She just needed an opening, a way in, and now she had it.

As the balustrades overlooking the garden endured the shelling, Byanca crept closer, moving from cover to cover. At her flanks, a few dozen soldiers followed her example. She counted down the minutes as the shells fell and the gunfire paused, and she wove from bush to tree to rose hedge to greenhouse, creeping closer to the steps and the raised area of the temple grounds. When the shelling paused, and the smoke started to billow away with the mountain winds, Byanca was at the foot of the fateful steps where she met Salva.

“Bayonets ready! Charge into them while they’re dazed! Conserve ammunition!”

Byanca shouted, waved over her own head, and charged with her rifle drawn.

There was a great clamor as her men shouted with her, and they charged the steps, and climbed up the walls and clambered over the mounds of debris and the remains of the balustrades. Making it onto the raised temple grounds from the lower garden, Byanca found herself faced with the great gilded and stained glass face of Saint Orrea’s Hope, and the dazed, wounded and struggling Illuminatus that stood guarding the structure.

At once, her own men descended upon the fallen Illuminati, their tormentors and oppressors in the weeks past, and there was a brutal slaughter that Byanca would not dare to try to step. Kicking and trampling and stabbing, dozens of her soldiers brutalized the fallen illuminati, and took their heavy weapons and grenades and began to roam the temple exterior like an angry mob, while she made with whoever was still rational to the doors of the church. Everything was happening fast. She heard gunfire nearby, but saw no shots flying toward her. She had to make for the center of the compound with haste.

She stuck a bundle of grenades against the iron-barred door, and hid behind the pillars.

Seconds later the bundle blew a hole between the halves of the door and they slid open.

Byanca placed her feathered bersaglieri cap atop her bayonet and stuck it out of cover.

Automatic gunfire flew out from between the half-open doors and perforated the cap.

“Grenades out! Down the entry hall of the church!” Byanca called out.

Six men remained at her side, and they nodded and complied. One by one they threw their grenades. Byanca could not see into the church, hiding behind the pillars beside the door, but she heard the blasts go off one after another, and she raised her rifle and leaned out to peer quickly into the church. Through the dissipating smoke she found a few more of the Illuminati, battered and broken against the decorated pillars of the entry hallway.

Had she any faith in God left she might have felt remorse for killing in his house.

Now all she wondered, briefly, was why the Illuminati were putting up such a disorganized fight. She had caught them by surprise, sure; but why were they this badly out of sorts? She heard the gunfire flying all around the outside, near and distant, and she was almost sure that her men were meeting the challenge of the dug-in cultists without desperation. Was this why they needed the anarchists? Because their own ranks were so poor in battle?

She recalled the brief battle in the forest, and the fighting in the makeshift prison.

Were the Illuminati losing their faculties? In both instances they had exhibited very basic tactics, such as the deployment of heavy weaponry and use of cover. But their maneuver was poor. Did they lack the will to fight beyond simple entrenchment and charge attacks? Surely if they were legion soldiers before, they should still have their training in mind.

So what was in their minds then? What had happened to them?

Was their command that weak? Perhaps Tarkus wasn’t meant to give orders then.

As she walked into the church, and crossed the blood-stained red carpet, past the entry hallway, past the pews, around the altar, and out the back, to the inner courtyard, Byanca faced no resistance. She ordered her men to fall in behind her and to cover her, and she left the primary temple building, and ran out into the pearl-tiled courtyard, surrounded by hedge walls, encompassing four fountains, a few great big trees, and amid it all, the tower.

Salvatrice had to be there. She could not be in the middle of all this carnage.

The Illuminati– no, Tarkus Marcel, would have brought her there.

Because it was pragmatic, but also because there was a significance to it; Byanca felt it in her gut. Seeing the gleaming white tower that was once part of the old dormitory, and that now stood alone on the new courtyard, Byanca remembered that fateful time of her life that she spent with the princess, and knew in her heart that she would now set her free.

Beyond the hedges on either side of her, hundreds of meters, she saw gunfire, and plumes of smoke, and heard men shouting and raging. She ran as fast as her legs could take her through the open center of the courtyard, making for the door to the tower steps.

She waved her hand mid-run and beckoned her men to run with her from the church.

As she turned to meet their eyes, she felt something fast and dense rush past her.

Her men exited the church in single file, but something struck over their heads.

In an instant the columns and the awning of the white rear portico came crashing down.

All of her men disappeared beneath a mound of rubble that blocked the rear of the church.

Byanca stopped cold, and faced the tower again.

Her enemy left the shadow of the steps.

Standing across from her was Legatus Tarkus Marcel. She could not see his eyes, or the expression on his face. He was clad in silver-white segmented armor, and a covering, snout-like helmet, and gauntlets bedecked in black crystal with strange devices affixed to the cuffs. He had a cape that billowed behind him, and affixed to his arm and braced at his hip was a boyes anti-tank rifle with its distinctive top-loading magazine against his elbow.

Byanca raised her rifle and took aim.

The Legatus raised his arm.

She felt something then, a noise like the space around her crying, budging, ripping.

There was a droning noise that seemed to issue from the Legatus.

And the glass and steel jewelry on his cuffs lit a bright green.

Before Byanca could react, or discern what was happening, she felt a gust carry her off.

Flung from her feet, Byanca rolled along the ground like a kickball.

She came to a stop near the bloody rubble pile that was once her loyal squadron.

All of the world was spinning, and that infernal noise recurred in her brain.

Tarkus Marcel, almost mournfully, addressed her.

“Centurion Byanca Geta. You should not have come here.”


Salvatrice sat on the tower’s grandiose couch, cradling Carmela in her arms and staring grimly at the doorway and the stained glass windows. She heard the rumble of artillery explosions in the distance, and the ceaseless cracking of rifles and machine guns closer to the courtyard. Something had come to Saint Orrea’s, and it was not moving slowly.

Canelle sat at the table, hiding a broken wine bottle below the table. Salvatrice had twice warned her not to pursue some foolish act of bravery, but she knew if this situation went on longer her maid would snap and charge into an Illuminati’s gun. Whether for her own sake or for Salvatrice’s; at this point Canelle looked hopeless enough just to do it.

“Are you feeling better?” Salvatrice asked.

Against her chest, Carmela nestled her head closer, and raised her arms to the princess’ shoulders. Tears were building in her eyes, but she forced them down with a sniffle.

“We can’t stay here Salva.” She said. “We’re leverage as long as we’re in this tower.”

Salvatrice bowed her head to tighten herself around Carmela, embracing her warmly.

She wished she could have had more moments like this with here, when they counted.

“I don’t want to risk you getting hurt.” Salvatrice said.

“We will all be hurt if we stay here. You know it’s true.” Carmela said.

She looked up at Salvatrice’s eyes and clutched the princely garb her lover had been given.

“Salvatrice, if your love for me kills you, I could never forgive myself. And if it kills all of us, I cannot see that as anything but a mocking tragedy. I want to live — with you.”

Salvatrice knew she would eventually say something like that.

Knowing also what her lover would say next, Salvatrice interrupted her.

“I’ll go. I have an idea.”

Carmela seemed to have predicted what would happen as well.

She looked resigned, and pulled herself away from Salvatrice.

Eventually a small smile crept its way on her expression.

“You’re always so quick to defend me. I wish you were that quick to defend yourself.”

“I think this time I’m doing both.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela nodded. She held Salvatrice’s hands in her own.

Salvatrice leaned forward and kissed her.

It was brief, but heartbreakingly sweet. Salvatrice would be satisfied with it as a final kiss.

She stood from the couch, and made her way past the table and toward the door.

“Canelle, guard Carmela with your life, for me; okay?” She said.

Truly she did not want Canelle to do any such thing.

However, upon receiving such a dire order, Canelle stayed in place like a good guard dog.

Had she been told nothing she would have tried to stop Salvatrice from leaving.

“Yes ma’am. Please be careful.” She said.

Salvatrice nodded and made for the door.

It was unlocked.

She pushed open the double wooden doors. Directly outside was a landing hall with the steps down the tower lying frustratingly close by; but they were guarded by two armed guards, wearing the Illuminati uniform and mask. Soon as she opened the door they turned to face her, but they did not approach and did not raise their weapons to her.

Salvatrice felt a lump in her throat, and her heart was thrashing with anxiety.

She stood her ground in front of the guards, and tried to project a sense of majesty.

Arms crossed, chin up, with a sneer of royal disdain copied from her mother.

“Is your revered Caesar not standing before you?” She said.

In response the guards quickly saluted with their weapons.

Ave Caesar!” they shouted.

Though sickened by the behavior she had to exhibit, and the sources that taught her to behave in such a way, Salvatrice continued to posture. She had nurtured a hope that the Illuminati’s reverence of her was not just an act, but something that was deeply ingrained in them. She had hoped beyond hope that by acknowledging the Caesar they all saw, she could manipulate them. It appeared to be working. But there might still be grave limits.

“That’s better.” She said. “I desire to survey my troops in this fateful time. Escort me.”

Both Illuminati turned to face each other briefly, exchanging a silent understanding.

“Caesar, with all due respect, it is simply too dangerous out there. Armed men have assaulted the compound. The Legatus wishes for you to remain here where you are safe.”

“What kind of pitiful king,” Salvatrice nearly choked upon saying that last, dreadful word, but through a brief struggle she continued almost naturally. “Waits in the rear while the loyal men of the guard die in battle? I must fight alongside them. Do you not desire to achieve glory alongside your revered king? You will be highly decorated, made heroes!”

Salvatrice raised her voice, and tried to evoke the deep tone she associated with a king.

It almost hurt to put on this show. It was not at all what she wanted to be.

And it was grotesque how easily it came to her.

Upon hearing her renewed demands, the two guards’ rigid stances seemed to falter. She saw a quiver winding its way through their shaking hands. Their jaws set. It was if they were struggling against invisible bonds that forced them tight. Salvatrice pushed more.

She asked them the most fateful question of all.

“Do your loyalties lie with the Legatus or your king?” She asked.

This line of attack, the Illuminati could not ignore. At once, it was as if she had sliced through the chains the Legatus had used to bind them, and they raised their weapons, but not to her. They pointed them down the steps, and took a maneuver stance. Beckoning with their hands, they made ready to escort her down the steps and out to the battlefield.

Salvatrice, quiet and nearly shaking herself from the tension of the moment, followed behind them, still carrying herself as she believed a king would. Her proud steps and stone expression hid a conflict inside her, an energy and emotion both incredibly nervous and eerily intoxicated. Was this the power of a King? Did she really have a power inside her?

Tarkus Marcel would know. She had to ask him so much.

Why did he bring her to this desolate place?

Why did he make her this army?

Why did he make her a King?


Byanca rolled behind a piece of debris, hoping to avoid a shot that never sounded.

She did not feel the strangeness around her that came with Tarkus’ previous efforts, nor did she hear the more corporeal effect of his anti-tank rifle firing. She did hear his greaves, the metal sliding as he took slow, deliberate steps forward from the door of the tower. Byanca, reeling from the attack, and partly disoriented, withdrew her pistol from its holster and with shaking hands pulled out her magazine, counted the rounds, and pushed it back into place. Cocking back the hammer, putting her back to the rubble, she waited.

Amid the dust and the chunks of concrete and stone she heard a low, buzzing noise.

She saw, embedded in the rubble, a radio box, and the grizzly arm of one of her soldiers.

Covering her mouth and nose, she crouched forward, and stealthily procured the handset.

She heard a broadcast going out among her radio troops, steeped with the sound of battle.

“We’re facing fierce resistance here! We need some forces diverted, post-haste!”

It was Minimus, with the assault team tasked with taking the Illuminati radio down.

“These Illuminati are dug-in hard! They’ve got control of the peak and they’re bringing in more equipment to overpower our signal jamming. We can’t press them much longer–”

Byanca heard a sharp noise and a gushing, horrific sound and dropped the handset.

She scurried back to cover, and realized that time was running shorter than she thought.

Her lofty plans would have to be redrawn. She might not stop the Illuminati at all.

But at least she could save the Princess. She could do this one selfish thing. She had to.

“Tarkus Marcel, release Princess Salvatrice at once!” Byanca shouted.

Her skin bristled, every fine, invisible hair on her neck, her back, her legs, all standing.

Something was building in strength and coming toward her.

She leaped, almost instinctively, out of cover and behind an chunk of collapsed pillar.

Behind her, something struck the rubble she had been using for cover.

Chunks of rock flew everywhere. Byanca cowered in her new hiding place.

Her whole body was shaking incessantly and uncontrollably, from her heart to her muscles, a nervous, manic spasm, mixed courage and terror. She had no clue what Tarkus had done in his previous assault. That force that she felt was not anything she had ever felt. It was not a turbine, certainly wind had nothing to do with it. There had been no fire or fragments or metal, so it was not a projectile. It was as if the world had shifted around her and flung her from its surface. It was a force of some kind. That was all she understood.

For a child who grew up in Saint Orrea, as part of a project to return Magic to the world, Magic was the last thing on her mind. Even when confronted with such an eerie sight, such an unplaceable object; she had seen the failure of Magic! She knew Magic was dead.

So what was that power if not magic? She could not understand it.

All she could do was to fight back to the best of her ability. She had made it this far.

Byanca stood suddenly from behind the rubble and fired off several shots from her pistol.

Tarkus recoiled as the bullets struck his breastplate and helmet.

He drew a step back, fell down to one knee, but he took a deep, audible breath.

Byanca thought she could see the pebbles on the ground around him shaking suddenly.

She took off from behind the collapsed pillar and made for one of the fountains.

Tarkus extended his hand, and the strange devices on his cuff emitted droning noises.

Behind her, an inaudible explosion blew apart the pillar moments after she left it.

There was no sense of power, no explosion, no sound, no rush of air pressure.

This was not a conventional weapon, not a shell or a bullet, or anything she knew.

It was perhaps even not something of Aer. It felt too alien, eerie, too lacking in presence.

Byanca rolled behind the raised wall of the fountain basin and crouched for cover.

“Tarkus, why are you working with the anarchists? Where do your loyalties lie?”

She found herself shouting this, secretly hoping Tarkus would answer.

Any answer would have him made seem more vulnerable and human.

In a moment the clanking of the greaves stopped, and the droning ceased.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the King who will restore our Empire.”

“Stop calling her that! Salvatrice is a princess of Lubon!” Byanca shouted.

She had to stop herself from saying ‘my princess of Lubon’.

“Caesar is whatever they decide to be. Caesar is a special child.” Tarkus said.

Byanca peered over the fountain, very briefly, and found Tarkus facing her.

It was almost like staring down a tank. His anti-tank rifle was up, attached to his left arm and connected to what must have been an ammunition feed system on his back.

However, Byanca knew the most dangerous thing about him were those cuff devices.

“Tarkus, I’m leaving with the Princess. I don’t– I don’t even care what happens to the Queen or the monarchy. But I cannot let you have her. You– you want to change her.”

Byanca found it difficult to speak. She stuttered; it was a struggle to admit even this.

Even this tiny sliver of what she truly felt about Salvatrice.

“I want Caesar to take their rightful place. It can only be He.” Tarkus said.

She heard the clanks of his armor once more. He was approaching.

“You fear these dying machines of a world forgotten, Centurion, but this is a fraction of the power boiling within Caesar’s blood. They will soon vanish. Caesar will be eternal.”

Byanca heard the droning noise again, and once more she leapt to her feet and ran.

Behind her, the fountain spontaneously, silently, eerily exploded.

She saw bits of the whimsical mermaid on the fountain go flying past, a severed stone head, flakes of crystalline scale from the finishing work. Water rose into the air and came drizzling down through the courtyard. Byanca turned her pistol aside and fired blindly on Tarkus as she made for the next nearest object, a concrete planter with a dead tree.

“Centurion, all I have done, I have done to grant Caesar the power of a King. I made him an army. I will awaken his voice. And I will now grant him the throne.” Tarkus shouted.

He was speaking as if in a dangerous passion. Byanca felt a sudden terror at his words.

“We are at a crossroads of history. There is no time for half measures. In a thousand years time, the Earth, the Air, the Water, and the Flame, will all be dead, as Magic now is. To survive, we need a leader almost divine, someone who can make us rally, force us to change. We need a unifying, singular purpose to grow, to strengthen ourselves, and save our star.”

Byanca heard the devices spinning up their infernal noise and knew she could not run.

“You do not understand it, but it has to be Caesar. It cannot be anyone else.”

She stood up from cover, raised her pistol, and took aim.

Tarkus thrust his fists forward and Byanca felt their power crackling over her skin.

She pressed the trigger, three times in quick succession, before the force flung her back.

Tarkus jerked back his arm in pain, and blood dribbled from under the armor.

From his cuffs, the droning noise grew out of control.

Byanca hit the ground hard and flat like a dropped brick, but she had succeeded.

On the Legatus’ left arm, there was both blood, and sparks, and fire.

He ripped the cuff device from his gauntlet as if peeling off a wristwatch and hurled it.

It landed on the floor between them like a ball of tin foil.

Byanca could hardly believe that tiny machine had produced such power.

Looking at its remains on the floor it seemed almost a false thing.

“Centurion, you’ve interfered enough!”

Clanking and crunching, quick and sudden; Byanca struggled to stand, but in an instant it seemed, Tarkus was upon her, and he seized her effortlessly from the ground, and took her up by the neck and squeezed. He lifted her, and she hung. He seemed impossibly tall, like a colossus, daunting in his armor. She could not see into the helmet. He moved so quickly for his frame that she thought perhaps there was nothing in the armor, but a phantom.

His free, unwounded arm raised her higher, and squeezed tighter. Byanca felt dizzy.

“I had dreamed of a world where you could have been the King’s right hand, Geta. That is why I gave you this assignment. You were a step above the rest, in your skill, in your loyalty, in your determination. But you took all the wrong turns. I wish you would have stayed in your prison cell. After the fact, I’m sure the King would have loved to have you.”

Byanca delivered a kick to Tarkus’ breastplate that did nothing but clang.

Tarkus squeezed harder, and she kicked, and kicked, and kicked.

Her steel-toed and -taloned boots delivered deadly kicks, but not armor-piercing ones.

“Those legs were made for running, not fighting, bersaglieri.”

Her body started to demand air; she could hold her breath over a minute, while running, while swimming or diving. She could run the whole Legion training course without breathing. But she was human, and her allotted time had run out. Her world wavered.

She looked down at Tarkus, hateful, angry, and she kicked again.

On his chest, she spotted a ding, where the armor had been dented.

Dented?

No, it was not her kicks alone. She had shot the breastplate before.

The bullet hole?

Her kicking must have further collapsed the hole made in the breastplate.

She had shot the gauntlets too; and she had shot his helmet.

Tarkus shook her, trying to her remaining life from her.

Her quivering hand reached for her knife.

With the last of her strength she drove the blade through a bullet-hole on Tarkus’ helmet.

Like his cuffs, like the breastplate, the armor gave way like tin foil, as if it had lost its resistance like a balloon loses air once punctured in any way. Whether it was magic or metal that had given this armor and Tarkus his strength, all of it seemed to wane.

His fingers unwound, and he stumbled back.

Byanca fell to the floor, gasping for air.

“Only,” she struggled to stand, shaking, angry, “only one person is allowed to choke me!”

She swung forward and delivered a clumsy kick, full of resurgent passion.

Her steel-toed boot struck his neck, and Tarkus fell on his back.

Stepping over his fallen body, Byanca ran toward the tower.

In the distance she saw smoke rising from beyond the hedges. She craned her head up, and saw along the distant path to the mountain’s peak, lengths of it higher up the temple grounds. There were brief flashes of tracer fire and perhaps grenade detonations. Not once during her skirmish with the Legatus had the gunfire let up, not for even a second.

Byanca made it almost to the tower, when she saw a figure emerging from the doorway.

Expecting more Illuminati, she raised her pistol.

Then the face she saw made her drop her weapon, and nearly drew tears from her.

Dressed in a regal coat and pants, with a cold expression on her face, flanked by two Illuminati guards, was Salvatrice herself. She looked every bit the King that Tarkus had said she would become. Had she not had the same pale red rosey hair, and the same eyes and features on her face, and that lithe and unassuming figure, Byanca would have said, this could not have been Salvatrice, but truly it was Caesar. And that terrified her.

“Princess?” Byanca asked. She prayed that there would be an answer.

In response, Salvatrice, not Caesar, sighed, and put a hand to her hip, and shook her head.

“Of course it was you, doing all of this. No one else is so eager to get killed for me.”

She glanced askance at the eerily obedient Illuminati men at her side.

“Except perhaps these two. Byanca, are you alright?” Salvatrice said.

Byanca hugged herself, and started to sob, and to cry.

“Are you hurt? I’m going to need you to be able to control all of this, you know.”

Salvatrice smiled a small, wry little smile, and Byanca only cried all the harder.

Her princess was still there, still alive, still unchanged. Still the same difficult girl.

“Listen, I’m sorry. I was just. I was being cheeky. I appreciate you–”

From behind them all sounded a great roar, and there was a rumbling in the air.

Tarkus could hardly lift his gun anymore, and collapsed back down to one knee.

Byanca turned in time for the anti-tank shell to fly past her.

Salvatrice stood frozen in time for a second, smiling, unknowing, beautiful, perfect.

Somewhere, too close, so distant, in a horrifying liminal space, there was a blast.

When Byanca whipped around again, the damage had already been done. The Boyes shell soared past her and sailed toward Salvatrice. One of the Illuminati, standing in defense, had his head demolished, and the shell detonated as it would having passed the armor plating of a tank, and the fragments and fire, flew out, and Salvatrice was struck.

Her right eye vanished with a splash of blood and flesh, and she collapsed.


Aer was a shadow-shrouded world enkindled by a dying flame.

Fuel and fire; it was an infinite cycle. People died and the flame burnt brighter for those who lived. But the natural order was distorted. Too much death, too much desolation, and the fire grew bountiful, and then waned, and only the shadow would ultimately remain. Great cycles of violence followed by the whisper-quiet peace of the dead. Periods of bright flames that cast scorching hot light on the evolution of humankind; followed by dark eras of stagnation where the world, burnt to red-hot ash, did nothing but rest and rebuild.

There was a great war, yes, but a scant few embers left to kindle a good burn.

Soon the fire would go out, and the shadow would prevail.

And yet, she saw differently.

She saw the world flame go out, and she saw the death of Magic.

She was illuminated.

The waning of the Flame and the end of the cycle and the death of Magic and the World brought out not darkness, but a great, flashing, warm, beautiful light. For what did Fire truly bring? It was not shadow that it cast, but smoke. Without fire, without smoke, there would again be Light! She saw, with great elation, that none were tethered to these ancient precepts any more. There was a great power awakening within humanity, a beautiful light.

Bathed in the light, she reached out to the ancient boundaries, and she pushed them away.


Byanca stared, dumb-struck, at the corpse of Salvatrice Vittoria.

She could not fathom this being the end, but something in her own physicality knew, and it mourned before her intellect did. Her knees buckled, and her eyes teared up, her nose burnt, her throat caught, and her whole body was shaking. But she could not comprehend the image of Salvatrice, lying on the ground in a pool of blood forming from her head.

That was an impossible image. It simply could not be.

At Salvatrice’s side the remaining Illuminati guard was breaking down. He collapsed to his knees, and he ripped his mask from his face, and he raised his hands over his eyes. To Byanca’s confusion, she saw him digging his fingers into his own eyes and did not understand for a good, long time the extent of the damage he was inflicting then. He, too, passed, out of her sight, out of her understanding, ripped from the world. She blinked.

“Salva.” Byanca said. Her voice was quivering.

Why wasn’t the Princess answering anymore? Could an adult please explain?

Byanca’s slow march to mourning was quickly, brutally interrupted.

She heard an unearthly roar coming from behind her.

Undergoing what seemed like a gargantuan effort, Tarkus Marcel lifted himself, up on one foot, up on the other, up from his knees. He detached his anti-tank gun, and bleeding from the head, from the chest, from the arm, breathing hoarse and heavy, he began to take pulverizing steps toward Byanca. Slow and deliberate, each one seemed to build on the rest, and Tarkus began to pick up speed, and as he ran, his helmet wept blood.

He let out an anguished cry as his charge took him within meters of Byanca.

Still in shock from the events that had transpired, Byanca did not move.

In the next instant, the massive bulk of Tarkus and his armor collided with Byanca.

She was thrown bodily, and stricken with a fist. Tarkus descended upon her.

His arms tightened around her throat, and he slammed her into the ground.

“You worthless bitch! Look at what you’ve done! What you’ve done to me!”

He slammed her head against the ground. She reeled, unarmed, helpless.

She had dropped her pistol and her knife and could not use them against him.

Blood frothed and bubbled from the edges of the closed mouthpiece on the helmet.

From the knife, still protruding from Tarkus’ head, came a trickle of blood.

“Everything we spent years conspiring towards, everything we sacrificed lives for, you have undone! You have destroyed this nation! You have destroyed this world!”

He lifted Byanca and slammed her again into the ground. Her consciousness wavered.

“You killed him! You killed him! You made me kill him!” Tarkus shouted in madness. “We will never escape our fates on this cursed rock because you killed our glorious Caesar!

Caesar was what he called Salvatrice, was it not? Did he mean– she killed– Salvatrice–?

Tarkus’ entire form began to swim in and out of focus, as if distorted by a curtain of water.

Byanca suddenly, and too clearly, understood what had happened.

Her whole body grew limp save for one arm, which carried out her dreadful purpose.

From her ammunition pouch, Byanca withdrew a grenade. One last piece of kit.

She lifted it — pin off, ready to blow — to Tarkus’ face, as if handing it like a gift.

Tarkus froze in the middle of his fury. In less than seconds, it would detonate.

Byanca wept, keeping a cold, resigned, inexpressive face on Tarkus’ eyeholes.

She had nothing left anymore but to take him with her.

She felt the dreadful device in her hands ready itself, and awaited her final moment.

Like a golf ball, the grenade suddenly pitched away into the air.

From off Byanca’s hand, the bomb soared away and detonated in the sky.

Pushed away by some kind of power.

Tarkus drew back from Byanca, dropping the injured woman on the floor.

“Tarkus, stop.”

He craned his head, and shook, and froze up.

Byanca tried to turn to see what he was seeing, but her whole body was giving up.

She had suffered so much abuse, that it was pure agony moving even a centimeter.

She struggled for several seconds to turn herself, and finally dropped onto her side.

She came to stare at the tower, at the foot of which she saw Salvatrice, standing.

Her face was caked in blood. She stood on unsteady legs. Her hand was out.

Her eyes seemed to glow; bright, emerald green, and flickering as if with flame.

“Tarkus. You will stop.”

Salvatrice spoke in a ragged voice. She outstretched her hand.

Tarkus was forced down to the ground instantly, his knees audibly snapping.

“Tarkus, you will stop. You will stop.”

The Legatus raised a shaking arm, fighting as if against gravity itself.

His remaining gauntlet cuff made its last, weak droning racket, crying out.

Byanca thought she saw the force, the rippling effect of Tarkus’ strange attack.

Something flew out at Salvatrice, soundless and relentless, but like a wave upon a rock, it split, and slammed uselessly into the tower. Salvatrice pushed her hand out once more.

Held up before him in defense, Tarkus’ gauntlet cracked, and split, and shattered.

His entire arm seemed to detonate as if its own grenade. Blood, bone and gore flew out.

“You will stop, forever, Tarkus. Forever.” Salvatrice gasped.

On the messy remains of the gauntlet, the black-purple crystals adorning it cracked.

Through the cracks, something rippled out, like bolts of visible electricity.

“Your King orders you to cease, Tarkus. To cease. Now.” Salvatrice cried out.

Tarkus looked up at Salvatrice, and his helmet cracked and split from her power.

Beneath the metal, Tarkus was smiling, reverent, overjoyed. He wept in pitiful cheer.

Ave Caesar!” He cried out.

There was a flash of unlight, of pure blackness that consumed the air itself.

From the gauntlets, from those foul black crystals, something immense was unleashed.

Legatus Tarkus Marcel suddenly disappeared beneath a black orb, trapped inside an effect akin to a void on the world, a place that was simply bereft matter. When the eerie, alien energy had consumed itself, it vanished as if it had never been, and left behind a perfect circle of consumed earth on the ground next to Byanca. A bare crater, perfectly smooth.

There was no smoke, no heat, nothing. Everything in the orb was just gone.

Tarkus was gone, perfectly removed, forever.

Salvatrice fell down to one knee, and raised her hand to her own face.

“All of you will stop!” She cried out. “All of this has got to stop! Now! Right now!”

She bowed her head, blood dribbling down the hand covering her gouged eye.

Along the ground, something even more immense than the gargantuan powers previously flung coursed its way through the world. Byanca felt the heat wash over her suddenly, and she burnt for an instant, enough to know she had hurt but with no lasting agony. She flinched, and she squirmed on the ground, and then there was eerie silence all around.

Not one more gunshot, not one more mortar round. All of the fighting had ceased.

Salvatrice, holding her bloody face in her hand, became wreathed in fire.

Emerald green fire burned beneath the blood pouring from the wound on her face.

The Princess silently dropped onto the ground.

Byanca summoned the last of her strength and darted from the ground.

She ran as she never had before.

Throwing herself in the final stretch of her arduous journey, Byanca caught Salvatrice.

It was not romantic, it was not gallant or graceful.

Awkwardly, the two wounded women became entangled and fell together and collapsed.

Neither was conscious, neither understood then what one had done for the other.

Amid mingling blood from many wounds, the two lay on the ground of Saint Orrea, where their journey had begun so long ago, and now, where it ended anew, or anew began.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Pallas — Royal Palace Grounds

On the execution grounds, the condemned were paraded out in rags, covered in visible wounds from the torments delivered to them for their crimes. A dozen legionnaires in royal purple and red uniforms, gaudy, ceremonial, forced prisoners toward the courtyard wall with bayonets and swords. Beneath this raised inner rampart they were arrayed; upon that wall, the royal spectators and their esteemed guests would watch them die. The VIPs were seated atop the very wall against which the traitors would be thrown up. It was a true royal privilege. Nobody but the Queen and her esteemed entourage was allowed to see this.

“There are at least fifty people here. Goodness. However will this mess unfold now?”

Maid Lillith Mariel chuckled heartily, seated next to the Queen herself as if in the position of a wife to a King. She was dressed like a maid still, cap and all, but her apron had some filligree to it, and her sleeves and skirt were longer, more regal. Passionale Vittoria was herself, dressed at the height of Queenly fashion, in a bold emerald gown with the neck and much of the shoulder cut out and bare. She coldly regarded the traitors, offering not even a smirk of amusement for their plight. She looked upon them with as much interest and pity as she would look upon a wall, or the ground. She sipped wine, and she waited.

“Are they really going to shoot them one by one?” asked Byanca Geta. She felt her stomach turning at this grizzly thought, and the scars of her now weeks-old wounds, felt strangely itchy with discomfort under the heat of the noon sun, high in the sky. She was uncomfortable in her legion dress uniform, a bevy of medals gleaming in the light.

“Of course not. That would be madness. They must have prepared special arrangements.”

Salvatrice Vittoria replied with an expression as cold and uncaring as her mother’s own.

Despite everything that had transpired, the Princess looked more regal than she ever had. She was dressed in a most astounding gown, rose-gold like her own hair, form-fitting, hugging her breast, with a tight, high neck, long sleeves. It fit over her like a glittering glove, and it was tantalizingly filmy in places, revealing something of the skin beneath. High fashion, ultra-modern, chic. She wore her hair to the shoulder, and Cannelle had seen to her cosmetics, lending her a mature air. Her red eyepatch was adorned with a rose.

Her wheelchair had been lifted up to the rampart for this special occasion.

“Is it just the Illuminati among them? Or were the anarchist officers finally found?”

At Salvatrice’s side, mirroring the position of the Maid relative to the Queen, was Carmela Sabbadin. This one time, Salvatrice had outdone her in regal femininity. Perhaps she had allowed this course of events to transpire, as her outfit seemed very deliberate. Carmela was dressed almost as if for business, in a pencil skirt and a coat, with leggings and high heels. She was all black and white and gold, and her wavy hair was luxuriantly long.

She was Salvatrice’s choice for a guest to invite to this festivity. When she gave Salvatrice a longing look, and touched her hand, she seemed overjoyed. However, when regarding the prisoners, she was just as cold as everyone else in attendance. This was all catharsis.

“Tarkus Marcel had maintained detailed records of the anarchist contacts he duped and exploited, and many of the bases he had uncovered. Through these leads, we found many of these traitors.” Vittoria said. “Almost all of the men before you are anarchists. Tarkus’ cult is buried in a mass unmarked grave in the mountains. They are beneath even this.”

Byanca suppressed a sigh. She could have gotten behind shooting the Illuminati.

This, however, was just petty and pointless.

“Are we ready?” Vittoria called out.

On the execution grounds, one of the legionnaire officers saluted.

Out from behind him, two men produced a crate, and set it on a table.

Taking out the contents, they slowly and deliberately pieced together before the chained-up anarchists a Nochtish model Norgler machine gun. They set it on the table, bipod out, and again, with overdramatic care and attention, they loaded the weapon. Once the ammo belt was affixed, and the gun properly ranged, the two men stepped aside, and the officer, given the Honor of the Shot, took his place behind the machine gun and signaled.

Lillith Mariel produced a small, golden treasure box, and opened it for her Queen.

From inside it, Vittoria produced a flare gun wrapped in a silken handkerchief.

She withdrew the weapon, and popped off the shot. It detonated in mid-air like fireworks.

At once, the officer casually knelt close to the gun and held down the trigger.

Suddenly the quiet execution grounds were filled with screams muffled by sawing noise.

As the officer swept the execution ground with streams of gunfire, catching every man in the mass before him, many of Lillith’s subordinate maids appeared with delicate plates of snacks in hand. There was cheese, olives, wine, and all kinds of delectable things. Salvatrice and Carmela nibbled and chatted. Lillith seized one of the plates for herself, and she cheerfully hand-fed Vittoria her favorite bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and oil.

Byanca watched the execution with wide eyes and could not bear to eat through it.


After the last droplet of blood hit the dirt, and masked corpse detail legionnaires arrived, Byanca stood, and made to take Salvatrice’s wheelchair to lead her back to her room. She immediately found that her hand reached for the handle at the same time as the Queen’s had, and she very nearly touched Her Majesty. She recoiled, as if shocked with electricity.

Vittoria’s face had no expression. She regarded Byanca with seemingly little emotion.

“I will take my daughter for a moment, Centurion. Despite my age I am most capable of pushing a chair. Please escort Ms. Sabbadin to the Princess’ quarters, and wait.”

Vittoria took hold of Salvatrice’s wheelchair. The Princess gave Byanca a weary glance.

“I’ll see you later.” She said. She put up a small smile for her Centurion and a much more lively one for her lover, and she waved as her mother wheeled her around off the ramparts.

Soon as they were out of sight, she dropped the facade, and breathed a deep sigh.

Salvatrice was exhausted. Her whole body was in constant pain. She had lost an eye, and what was under the eyepatch was a quite unseemly wound. Canelle had made her a pretty eyepatch that hid it and accented her beauty, but it was frustrating. Her depth perception was shot, making daily tasks more difficult to do. And not only had that eye spilled out of her head, it seemed as if some of her brains had as well. She had only recently regained any sort of motor function, and thus she had only just started physical rehabilitation.

During her first therapy she exhibited the miraculous ability to stand, and to move her arms and legs, and proved that she was not paralyzed. However it was inadvisable that she stand often or for long periods, according to her doctors. They said, maybe in a year, she would be able to walk painlessly for a few hours at a time. Her wheelchair had become a new companion, and people she loved took turns wheeling her around the palace grounds.

This was the first time her mother had decided to be the one to do so.

She took Salvatrice around the back of the Palace, and to the inner courtyard garden.

There, they walked under the shade of the massive Father-Tree, or, in reality, its close kin.

“You knew about Tarkus and the anarchists. You used me as bait.” Salvatrice said.

She had no reason to be pleasant to her mother, not when removed from polite company.

She had no desire to make familial small talk. She had issues to bring up.

Queen Vittoria answered, in her typical way. “I knew there were plans in motion.”

“You used me.”

“Tarkus was the one responsible for lowering security at the College and for the fake arrests and the broadcast and all of that nonsense. He was tasked only with helping you accomplish the task I had given you. I hoped he would be discrete enough to make you confident in your own power and ability. I am not displeased with the results, ultimately.”

“I’m crippled. Clarissa is dead. People died. And there’s no 17th Legion now.”

“Immaterial. You carried yourself wonderfully and that is what matters.” Vittoria said.

Salvatrice raised her hand in a fury and pushed on a nearby pedestal.

There was a bust of an elven king, and in the next instant there was not.

An invisible force battered away the object, sending it flying like a bullet into the Tree.

Upon striking the sacred, ancient bark, it burst into a hundred pieces.

“That could be your head.” Salvatrice said coldly.

Vittoria was unfazed. “I already gave you permission to kill me if you want to.”

Fuck you.”

Vittoria ignored that outburst. “Besides–”

The Queen bent down over the wheelchair, her head beside Salvatrice’s.

She extended her own arm.

Salvatrice felt the push.

It was weaker than her own, and yet, somehow, it felt more efficient. Practiced.

Vittoria pushed on another bust of another Elven King, and flung it toward the tree.

Its trajectory was much more stable, even if far less brutal and fast.

In the instant before striking the tree, the bust stopped in mid-air, and gently descended.

“I’m familiar with that trick.” Vittoria said. “I am happy to finally see your rendition.”

Salvatrice was momentarily speechless. Vittoria walked around the wheelchair.

She stood in front of her daughter, and she knelt down, and looked her in the eyes.

In Vittoria’s face, this close, Salvatrice saw so much of her own. Too much of it.

“I knew someday, that the child of that man and myself, would exhibit a power greater than both of ours combined. Others knew, but those men are all dead. I killed them, little by little, while keeping you safe, and secluded, and unaware. Tarkus was the last of those snakes because he was my snake. Now that he’s dead, I beg you not to show off too much.”

Salvatrice could have crushed her mother’s head like a watermelon.

She knew she had the ability to do that now. It would hurt. It would hurt tremendously.

She might not be able to stand for days after doing such a thing.

But she could do it.

She did not, because she was not ready for the consequences.

But she told herself she could do it. At any time. This woman was powerless.

That made it much easier to smile warmly and laugh at her mother’s display.

Like a good child.

“I will take care with it, dear Mother.”


Byanca waited outside the hall. At her side was Terry the dog, the only official survivor of the ill-fated Redcoats other than herself. All the troops brought to the mountain to fight the Illuminati had perished. After Salvatrice went out of control, everyone who had been shooting simply, stopped. They stopped forever. Salvatrice did not know everything that had happened, and in fact, Byanca herself was unsure if this was all fanciful dreaming.

So to say that Salvatrice killed hundreds of people in the blink of an eye was a bit much.

She knew Salvatrice could do things now, things that felt different than the things Tarkus did that Byanca, also, did not understand. Salvatrice knew too. They tried to keep it quiet.

For better or worse, it seemed as if the Illuminati, Tarkus, and all of those conspiracies and secrets, would just die on that mountain, or in this palace. There would be no parting of the curtain that would make everything neat and tidy. Life simply did not work that way. There was too much wound up in it. Each of those people was a universe of contradictions, of strings tying them to a hundred others. To unearth it all would take a lifetime.

At least Byanca was alive and Salvatrice was alive. That was a good base to work from.

They had a lifetime at all now, and for that, Byanca was grateful.

Byanca waited, pacing the halls. Soon she had a companion in her pacing. Peeling off from a group of maids that included the cheeky Lillith Mariel, who had been teaching her a thing or three, was Canelle, Salvatrice’s maid. She was dressed like a palace maid herself, owing to the Princess’ relocation to Pallas proper. She seemed ecstatic to live the Palace life now.

Full of energy, Canelle was constantly in maid-mode, and would inspect every gilded surface on the Palace halls for imperfections that she would cheerfully rectify there.

This time, it was a spot on a table next to Byanca. She wiped it gleefully clean.

“Good afternoon Centurion!” She said, while working on the spot.

“Hello.” Byanca replied. “Feeling peppy?”

“Most certainly! Tell me, what did you think of the Princess’ attire?”

“It was amazing.” Byanca said.

“I could scream! I’m so happy! I have access to so many materials and facilities here. You may not believe me, but I designed and made that dress myself. It was my dream!”

Canelle hugged herself and jumped up and down with joy.

It was good that a least one person was unequivocally satisfied with all of this.

“I never knew you had it in you. You should leave Pallas and start a couture place.”

“No! Never!” Canelle said, suddenly serious. “Only the Princess shall wear my treasures!”

Byanca laughed.

“Ahem,”

Behind the two of them, a pair of exquisitely-dressed visitors had arrived.

Byanca and Canelle both turned to find Vittoria and Salvatrice waiting for them to notice.

Canelle was immediately distraught, and fumbled to take Salvatrice’s chair from Vittoria.

She seemed driven both mad with anxiety about being in the presence of the Queen, and then also mad with anxiety at the honor of wheeling the Princess around once more.

“Please calm down.” Vittoria said.

“Yes, your majesty!” Canelle said, quite extremely uncalm.

Vittoria silently stared at her, and then at Byanca in turn.

Byanca blinked.

“Take care of my daughter.” Vittoria said tersely.

The Queen then turned and promptly left their side. Byanca blinked again, confused.

“Ignore her.” Salvatrice said.

Inside the Princess’ grand suite, Carmela Sabbadin waited beside the bed, staring out the window. When Salvatrice wheeled in through the door, she stood up immediately, and took the wheelchair from Canelle, who was not entirely eager to give up, but deferred when the Princess insisted. Byanca watched the whole thing unfold, as it had unfolded a dozen times already since Salvatrice began recovering, and she shook her head.

In due time, the Princess was dressed in more casual, comfortable clothing, and finally installed in her bed. Canelle bounced away to make tea and cakes, and Carmela sat beside the bed, and held hands with Salvatrice. Byanca stood guard, saying nothing much.

“Salvatrice, I spoke with the Queen’s maid, and she has agreed I can come visit any time.”

Carmela seemed so relieved to be able to say those words. Salvatrice smirked lightly.

“Maid? She’s more like her girlfriend. Anyway, it was never a problem, you know.”

“Do I? I honestly felt like your mother hated me.” Carmela said.

“She hates everyone but Lillith. It’s fine. I’m glad you can visit, at any rate.”

Carmela held Salvatrice’s hand in both of her own, rubbing her fingers and palm.

“I bought a chic new apartment in Pallas. I’ll never be apart from you.”

Salvatrice looked at her with wide eyes. “Carmela, you shouldn’t have–”

“Money is no object when it comes to my beloved. I can transplant my life anywhere that you are. And who knows? There’s no greater land of opportunity than Pallas. Under the shadow of the Palace, maybe I can make a fortune through my cunning and skill.”

Carmela grinned devilishly and Salvatrice seemed rather worried about all of this.

“Just watch Salvatrice. I’ve already appeared before your mother as your esteemed friend, and I’m now aware of your mother’s own predilections. We can make this work out!”

Byanca felt rather awkward, listening to Carmela gossip with such a glint in her eyes.

“You’re putting the cart cities ahead of the horse.” Salvatrice said weakly.

There was no dimming Carmela’s enthusiasm however. She was brimming with energy.

“Nonetheless– I should leave you to rest. You’ll need your strength for a date out on the town soon! I’m going to make all sorts of wonderful arrangements. There’s so much happening in Pallas, you know? It’s nothing like sleepy Palladi. I’ll be in touch.”

Carmela leaned forward, and she and the Princess kissed for what seemed like minutes.

Byanca modestly averted her eyes.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

“I love you too.”

Once their little exchange was done, Carmela turned and strode confidently past Byanca.

She paused for a moment, and smacked Byanca on the shoulder cheerfully.

“Keep up the good work!”

Byanca saluted.

Carmela saluted back with a grin on her face, and finally left the room.

“She’s so excited. This city has its claws sunk deep into her. She’s truly a big city girl.” Salvatrice said, sounding exhausted. “I’m so ill, I just can’t party like she does.”

“Help, I’ve partied and I can’t get up.” Byanca said mockingly.

Salvatrice shot her the patented look of princessly disdain she had cultivated for so long.

“A little familiar, aren’t you, Centurion?”

Byanca stood stiffer, and saluted.

Salvatrice laid back in bed with a huff. “Oh stop that already.”

“How are you feeling?” Byanca asked.

“I’m constantly in pain and this room is too stuffy and fake-smelling.”

Salvatrice casually swiped her hand at a window, and the glass slid suddenly open by itself.

Byanca shivered. She always shivered when Salvatrice used her trick.

Especially because she thought she saw a fiery aura overtake the Princess when she did it.

Whenever she drew close, it disappeared. She did not understand why.

Because it came and went, it was not a problem. But it was still strange to get used to.

Byanca shook her head.

“I mean, how are you actually feeling Salvatrice? A lot has transpired, hasn’t it?”

Salvatrice shook her head. “Too much to process.”

She looked out the window. Outside, the sun was setting over the Father-Tree.

“We’ll have to process it at some point.”

“You’re right, unfortunately.”

“Well then. What do you intend to do next?” Byanca asked.

“That’s such an exhausting question.” Salvatrice sighed.

“I’m just nervous.” Byanca replied.

Salvatrice looked at her, a small, tired smile on her lips.

“Right now, I’m going to enjoy a life on the town with my social butterfly girlfriend, and spend a year trying to walk again, and maybe cross-dress in my spare time. Is that ok?”

Byanca nodded. “It’s fine. I was just thinking. In case anything else happens, perhaps I should be back on the street, trying to recruit a new independent guard corps for you.”

Salvatrice turned her face to the window again. “Carmela would probably approve.”

“She was rather fond of bankrolling the last bunch of mercenaries we fielded.”

“She is too adventurous for her own good.” Salvatrice sighed again.

“Would you approve?” Byanca asked.

“I think I can find some use for you and more of your armed thugs.” Salvatrice said.

Byanca smiled. At least, despite everything that happened, the Princess was still the Princess, complicated moods and bad personality and all. It was familiar, even if their surroundings were too new, and their circumstances and challenges far too new. She had been nervous that her presence was unnecessary, that the Princess would have no new ambitions, and no need of her. Now Byanca knew that, as much as Carmela and Canelle, she was a part of the Princess’ vision as well. She still had a place in this strange world.

She would take armed thug for now. It was a base they could work things out from.

“I was thinking we could call it a proper Princess Guard. Inspire some professionalism.”

In fact, Byanca had many ideas for a new organization. She was a soldier, after all.

Given the failure of the Blackshirt Legion, she was hungry for a legitimate alternative, as much as she was hungry for a chance to serve the Princess and continue to prove herself.

Salvatrice, however, seemed to have her own ideas as well. She gave Byanca a little laugh.

Her face turned into a cold, self-assured smirk that Byanca thought she had seen before.

“These days, Centurion, I think I’m drawn more toward calling them the Illuminati.

There was a little green glint in Salvatrice’s eyes that betrayed something different.


Last Chapter |~| Il Fine?

HEADHUNTERS (63.1)

this scene contains violence and death


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda

Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.

The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.

“Lydia, watch out!”

Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.

Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.

Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.

The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.

Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.

She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.

She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.

“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”

Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.

She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.

Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.

Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.

There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.

“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.

Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.

Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.

“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.

“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.

“Orders are orders.”

Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.

Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.

Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.

She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.

Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.

“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.

“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.

They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.

Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.

“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.

“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”

Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.

In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.

It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.

Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.

Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.

“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”

“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.

Lydia laughed.

She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“How are you holding up?” She whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said.

“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”

Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.

“I apologize.”

“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”

“I know. But appearances are important.”

“Gwen–”

“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”

She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.

“Gwen–”

Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.

“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”

Lydia felt a sense of alarm.

“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”

“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”

Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.

“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.

Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.

She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.

“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.

Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.

Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.

“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.

Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.

“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”

There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.

Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.

They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.

“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”

After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.

She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.

Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.

Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.

Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.

She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.

Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.

When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.

Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.

Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.

This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.

“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.

Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.

A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.

She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.

A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.

Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.

They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.

Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.

Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.

There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.

Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.

From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.

Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.

“Silica, no!”

Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”

“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.

Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!

Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.

Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.

As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.

Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.

Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.

Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.

But the world did not stop for anyone else.

From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–

Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.

Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.

Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.

“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.

She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.

Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.

Crack!

Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.

Her myrta was jammed.

She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.

Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?

Arsenica had led them to this fate.

Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.

Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?

“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”

Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.

In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.

At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.

Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.

Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.

Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.

She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.

Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.

All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.

“Gwendolyn!”

She breathed in smoke, coughed.

Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.

A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.

It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.

Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.

Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.

Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.

Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.

Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.

“Lydia!”

She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.

She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.

There was blood on her forehead.

“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”

“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”

“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.

She glanced back at the road.

Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.

“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”

She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.

Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.

“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”

Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.

Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.

Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.

She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.

“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”

Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.

There was an explosion in the near distance.

Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.

Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.

Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.

They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.

“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”

Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.

Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.

“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part