Life In The Besieged City (74.1)

This scene contains alcohol abuse and mild sexual content.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

As the sun began to fall, and the sky turned red, the rings were exchanged.

It was not a massive ceremony nor a state ceremony. There was no roaring crowd, no band, no feast, no media. They had no diamond-studded rings and no bouquet to fling. Few people knew of the occasion; fewer attended. Kuwba was their silent witness.

Curtained off with bamboo dividers, the waterside was reserved for the brides and a handful of guests. Standing at the edge of the stone ring around the oasis, framed by the trees in the background, the women held hands and looked at each other fondly, close to tears with joy. Mayor Mazibe said some words, and linked the bride’s hands together, and then stepped aside for them to recite their vows. They were brief vows. Those women, who had fallen in love exiled to a deserted island for anti-goverment activities, knew each other’s vows by heart. They had already been living those vows for years.

“Daksha.”

“Kremina.”

They were dressed as bride and groom. Daksha in a sharp black suit, and Kremina in a silver-blue dress. Daksha wore her hair gathered up in a bun, while Kremina had a flowing ponytail ringed with flowers and covered by a lacy veil. Neither one looked her forties and fifties in this scene, in this attire. Both looked like young, romantic girls, openly weeping and trembling with emotion as they held hands and stared longingly at one another. Even before the Mayor started talking, and even after he stopped, the tears would not leave their faces, but neither would their smiles. Under the falling sun, they glowed with a sublime beauty. When they drew in to kiss, even their guests wept.

Parinita Maharani was weeping most loudly, sobbing, covering her mouth with a handkerchief to snort, her makeup starting to run a little around her eyes. She felt small, like a woman struck dumb by the sublime, belittled by a grandeur that shocked her to tears. She was standing in the shadows of giants and she felt completely unworthy.

Madiha Nakar was not weeping, but she admitted to herself that she was near to it. She felt almost nothing coherent at all. She did not have the greatest grasp on her emotions.

Daksha and Kremina broke their matrimonial kiss, held their hands up to each other’s faces, and kissed again. They put their foreheads together and sobbed and smiled. They were laughing, closer than anyone had ever seen them. There was a subdued applause.

“By the power invested in me by the office of the Solstice mayorship, I declare thee both joined in official matrimony!” shouted Mayor Mazibe, so excited by the whole ceremony that he completely mixed his secular, religious, ancient and modern speech together. Everyone was too busy with the bride and the suit-bride, to truly pay him attention.

After the declaration, Charvi Chadgura and Gulab Kajari raised rifles into the air and fired into the distance. They were dressed in matching suits, acting as designated wedding shooters. It was allowed by the resort — they fired toward the empty oasis.

All of it was merely traditional. For Ayvartans the ceremony was truly nothing so grand. It was no joining of a King and Queen. Only the dress and the people stood out.

Two women in love got to have a vulnerable, touching moment beneath a falling sun.

That was all they wanted, and by all accounts, it seemed as wonderful as they dreamed.

After a loving relationship of over 20 years, Admiral Kremina Qote and Premier Daksha Kansal were finally, officially married on the 24th of the Hazel’s Frost of 2030 D.C.E.

Madiha Nakar watched everything with muted emotion, not quite knowing how to behave appropriately or what to say that would be profound. She knew that everything was beautiful and happy, and she knew that she herself felt the swelling of emotion when the brides kissed, and she felt that she wanted something like this for herself.

But it was hard to communicate it in a way that didn’t seem trite, so she mostly kept to herself and Parinita, on the periphery of the ceremony, holding hands and trembling.

“I want a ceremony just like this.” Parinita said. “I want a cozy little venue by the water with a pretty background, a beautiful dress, and a funny little man as the notary.”

Madiha put on a little smile. “We should book this place today, so we’ll get it in a year.”

Anyone could book the hotel now, and so, it was booked very far ahead of time.

“We’ll do it.” Parinita said. Her eyes teared up again. “We’ll live and we’ll shine like this.”

She tightened her grip on Madiha’s hand and Madiha gripped tightly backed.

Their hearts were full of emotion that they could scarcely identify or handle.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Hotel

“Madiha Nakar! It’s been far too long.”

Kremina Qote extended a hand to Madiha and she shook it, and Kremina laughed in return. Madiha did not know why, and thought perhaps she made some kind of embarrassing etiquette blunder. Maybe she was supposed to kiss her hand?

“Don’t break my bride’s arm, please.” Daksha joked.

Madiha laughed a little herself then, and at her side, Parinita giggled with her.

“I remember when she was just a little courier girl.” Kremina said. “To think she would grow a head taller than me and nearly rip my arm off at my own wedding day.”

“She doesn’t know her own strength.” Parinita said, trying to play along.

“I didn’t pull that hard.” Madiha said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

Kremina patted her on the arm. “Just having fun! Come now, let’s have some drinks.”

Madiha turned to Parinita, who nodded pointedly.

“Come on, of course you’ll drink. It’s practically contractual.” Kremina said.

“Take her up on that or she’ll drink it all herself.” Daksha said. “I’d prefer her a bit sober.”

After the ceremony, Kremina and Daksha relocated to the resort’s Principal suite, their best accommodation, for a short honeymoon stay before resuming their duties. Madiha and Parinita were invited for a meeting before the two lovebirds secluded themselves.

It was a palatial establishment they were given: almost a whole floor of the hotel for themselves, with a kitchen, a hot bath, a game room with pool, darts and shuffleboard, and a bedroom that was passionately red, candle-lit and smelled of sweet incense.

They caught up with Daksha at the foyer, and she took them on a little tour while Kremina dug into the alcohol cabinet, as was her wont. They soon rendezvoused at the dining room, a cozy affair, small and square with the walls decorated with paintings of things like fruits baskets, wine bottles and whole hams. Kremina put out several different bottles of champagne, rice beers, sugarcane wine, and grape wine.

There was also a bit of a spread. Fresh, crunchy vegetables in little cups; small flatbreads; and various spiced dips like lentils, chickpeas, and chutneys.

“Cheers!”

Before anyone else even reached for a glass, Kremina downed a shot of sugarcane wine.

“You only live once!” She said, slamming the glass down on the table with a satisfied grin.

In no time, she was already pouring herself a second.

Regardless of her drinking manner, Kremina looked stunning at the head of the table. Her face was bright and immaculate, the lines from her eyes giving her a stately beauty that was as well aged as the drinks being served. Her ponytail, already silvery in the past, took well to growing grayer and the flowers around it were fresh. She was well made up, with blue eyeshadow and lipstick that suited her sleek, tidy blue dress. Her shoulders were free, her bust raised up by the bodice. It looked to Madiha as if made of a futuristic metal rather than cloth because the skirt was shiny and unruffled. Madiha was used to big dresses at the very few western-style weddings she had attended in her life.

“I know I can’t stop you, but I can try to empty the bottle before you.” Daksha said.

She seized the offending item from her bride’s hand, and drank directly from it.

“That’s unfair! Well, there’s always the rice beer.” Kremina said, popping a different cork.

Truly they seemed a couple made for one another.

Though Kremina was definitely a sublime beauty, Daksha was no slouch herself. She was reminiscent of her gangster days, sans her iconic fedora, now in Madiha’s possession. Her hair was turning grayer in places, but the gradient-like effect when collected into a bun was attractive; the little lines around her lips and eyes added a regal gallantry to her overall appearance. She wore just a touch of powder on her skin. Her wedding suit was well tailored, with a black coat that accentuated her shoulders, a buttoned vest that was loose enough for her chest but well fitted, and pants that made her legs look perfectly straight. Though she was not quite the wiry brawler that she had been in the past, the Premier was still dashing and handsome enough to match the beauty of her bride.

“Madiha, we have to put up a fight!” Parinita whispered to her.

She picked up the bottle of grape wine and poured Madiha a little glass.

“Social drinking is a contest of wills. We are representing our generation!”

Madiha did not understand the collective madness of the room. Despite this, she drank dispassionately, tipping the contents into her mouth and swallowing, hoping it would please everyone involved. Parinita stared at her critically, until Madiha extended her glass out as if to ask for another pour. This brought a prize-winning smile to her girlfriend’s face, quite a match for those on the giddy brides. She happily complied.

Though it was impossible for them to outshine a pair of experienced wives on their wedding day, Madiha and Parinita certainly tried their best. Madiha herself was wearing a suit, as she was known to do. Her hair, which had gotten long enough again, was tied up in a little ponytail. She had left her coat elsewhere and dressed down to her vest and shirt, which were rather plain, but she thought her height and stature and the gentle smoothness of her face lent her a good mix of boyish-girlish charm. Daksha’s fedora also helped a little to make her stand out. Parinita, however, was the bridal guests’ trump card, in a colorful, traditional Ayvartan garb. She was draped in a purple and gold sari over a matching dress, with a plunging neck and an open midriff. Her strawberry hair was flowing and decorated with flowers, and her gold makeup was immaculate.

There were numerous cheers around the table, and with each cheer, the girls drank.

“To health!”

“To sapphism!”

“To socialism!”

In appearance, as a relatively young couple Madiha and Parinita could hold their own, but it was quickly becoming clear they were amateurs at drinking. Madiha quickly developed a headache, and Parinita was drinking shamefully slowly, trying to mask that she was a lightweight. Meanwhile, between the two, Daksha and Kremina had nearly disposed of the rice beer and sugarcane wine, and taken notice of the snacks too.

“This is too hectic.” Madiha said. “I need water.”

Parinita drooped her head and put down the bottle. “I submit also. They’re too strong.”

“Like the…second act villain?” Madiha whimpered.

“If you’re going to steal my lines, you’ll need to do better.” Parinita said weakly.

Across from them, Daksha and Kremina were giggling, chatting half-sentences and interrupting each other, the alcohol clearly starting to unwind their brains.

“Ah, if only, if only, Anatoly, Anatoly right? He was the guy?” Kremina said.

“It wasn’t Anatoly. I killed Anatoly. He was a rat.” Daksha replied.

“Okay, not him. There was a guy. A guy who drank well, remember?”

“Kremina, we knew a lot of guys.” Daksha said.

“I wish Anatoly, was here. I’d drink him to shame, that rat. I’m invincible at drinking.”

“I told you it wasn’t Anatoly who did anything. You wouldn’t drink with Anatoly.”

“We knew a lot of guys, you say. None of them here at our wedding! How rude!”

Daksha looked at the floor for a second, shaking the bottle of wine, stirring the remnants.

“A lot of them– well, they can’t help it. A lot of them died. They can’t help it.”

Kremina held up a glass. It was empty. She put it to her lips like it was full.

“To the dead!”

Daksha, her head bowed still, lifted her bottle. “To the dead.” She said, much less eagerly.

“You know who was a good drinker? Lena Ulyanova. Fantastic drinker.”

“She was.”

“Such a tiny body, could hold so much alcohol. It was death-defying. I was still better.”

Daksha shook her head. “If Lena Ulyanova was, if she was–”

“‘scuse me?”

“I said if Lena Ulyanova was alive, things would be different.”

“Yes, they would be.” Kremina poured a shot, half on the table. “She wouldn’t be dead.”

“That would be big indeed. But I think she would know get people to do things right.”

“We’re doing things right. We got married finally. We stopped living in sin.”

“I mean, things of the state.” Daksha said. She held up a bottle. “To Lena!”

“To Lena!” Kremina drank her shot.

“Bah!” Daksha put the bottle down, and it toppled over on the table and would have spilled had any decent amount of liquid remained in it. “I’m a lousy cheerer, Kremina. Lousy at drinking, lousy at cheering, lousy at everything. Lena was a genius. I’m lousy.”

Kremina patted Daksha on the shoulder, and with amazing technique, managed to leverage the gesture into a grab, taking the back of her head and pulling her down into a kiss. It was very sloppy, given she was juggling a mouthful of beer as well as her wife’s tongue, but somehow Kremina managed it, and a shocked Daksha played well along.

When their lips parted, Kremina put her forehead to Daksha’s chest.

“You don’t have to be a genius. I don’t want a genius! I want someone like me who understands being trampled and overlooked. I think the people, they want someone like that too. I think these kids need that too.” She turned to look at Parinita and Madiha.

Groggily, the two girls had been watching the exchange, without input.

At the mention of them, they snapped to attention.

“All the geniuses went and died in their lofty dreams. We’re normal people who are making a world for us. That’s our job now. And we’re doing it well.” Kremina said.

Daksha rested her own head against that of her wife. “I hope you’re right.”

They held each other there, weeping lightly, for seemingly as long as they had drank and rambled before. Madiha and Parinita did not know what to say. So they said nothing.

“To the kids!” Kremina let out an anguished cheer, launching her glass overhead.

Everyone scurried for cover. Everyone agreed to stop drinking after that.

Madiha and Parinita left the table less drunk than the brides, but also less confident.


On the foyer there was an old matchlock rifle hung up on the wall.

Madiha had to train with one of those so-called classics in the Academy, for purposes of procession duty. She despised it. Temperamental, slow-firing. Powder was easily ruined, the bullets were old and deformed and sometimes the barrel interior deformed too.

“I know you hate everything old, because your head’s poisoned by efficiency.”

Daksha stood beside Madiha and stared up at the rifle on the wall.

Parinita had gone to look after Kremina, who was, for what she claimed was the first time in her life, taking her drinking poorly and laid up in bed. Madiha wondered if it was time to consider the wedding ruined and perhaps plan a makeup, but she did not voice her concern. She had walked idly around the suite, trying to shake off the alcohol in her own head, when she was taken in by the curious token in the foyer. Then Daksha had caught up. They had been wanting to speak for a long time, Madiha knew this, she knew this desire was shared. However, there had been no good opportunity until now.

“Well, we have better rifles now.” Madiha said. “We could use those for procession.”

“These are historic. They remind us of something.” Daksha said.

“They remind me of how poor these old rifles were.”

“You can be such a child sometimes.” Daksha laughed.

“What is the message supposed to be then?”

Daksha looked up at the rifle with a weary expression.

“For the Empire, these rifles represented pride. For us, they represent sin. You wield those rifles in procession to remind you to be respectful of the tools your predecessors used to commit evil. You toil with them so you understand that even with those weapons they slaughtered countless people, and that you must not just look at it as a mere tool.”

Madiha averted her gaze. She already thought of that quite often.

She just did not think of it during procession at school.

“We should consider a lecture element to procession then.” She said demurely.

“We should.” Daksha sighed.

She contemplated the rifle and crossed her arms, and began her own impromptu lecture.

“That style of rifle was imported by the Ayvartan Empire from the Elves. The Empire claimed all of the territorial Ayvartan continent for itself, including the south, like Adjar, Cissea, and Mamlakha. But they didn’t have the power to back it up, until they exercised one strength that nation-states have over tribes and villages. They engaged in diplomacy with an equal nation, a nation that taught them armed conquest the likes of which the world had never seen before. And just as the Elves spread over Afarland, Borelia, Nort, Helvetia, Mauricia, and so on, the ethnic Arjun of Solstice spread across Ayvarta.”

She referenced two historical ethnicities in Ayvarta. Down South, it used to be the Umma, and in the North, it used to be the Arjun. It was different now. There were all kinds of people everywhere. There was a third catch-all category, created for the Imperial census, called “Zungu,” people who were mixed with ‘white’ or ‘foreign’ people. There were various other ethnicities often unacknowledged. The Hudim, for example, who practiced their own unique religion and were considered an ethnic group; the Zigan nomads; various Barbar tribes in the desert; the Mamlakhs themselves, the Cisseans, and so on.

All of those peoples and territories were beyond the grasp of Solstice once again.

This time it was not an Arjun empire that conquered them, nor was it by their own hand that they were made separate from the rest of Ayvarta. It was the Nocht Federation.

“A lot was done to the Southern peoples, hundreds of years ago. Socialist Solstice has tried to make up for it here and there. We teach what we have of the Umma language, we incorporated it into the Socialist Language Standard. I named the KVW that way, a lot of the Unions, to pay homage to their language group as best as I can. And we also let the South practice self-governance as a bloc. A lot of things were overlooked that way, but it’s what the people wanted there. It’s the least we could do to make up for the past.”

Madiha found questions of ethnicity difficult to answer, but she understood, as one trying to make up for her own past, the need to fulfill those sorts of reparations. She did not hate anyone nor did she think she oppressed anyone for their ethnicity and as a good socialist she tried to be conscious of all kinds of social positions and relations, such as those of class and race and sex. But she remembered Mansa; she hated him completely, and she despised the things that he stood for, and all that he did to her and to Ayvarta.

However, the growth of his power independent of Solstice made sense when one considered the history of ethnicities in Ayvarta. His people looked up to him as a strongman who wielded Umma power in a majority Arjun world. They loved him because he positioned himself against an Arjun orthodoxy that was seen as ineffective and untrustworthy. Even if it had been the Ayvartan Empire who committed the sin in the first place, Solstice in general was tainted by it, and Solstice’s socialist project, as the successor state, had to be the one to make amends. Perhaps they didn’t do enough.

It was all such a mess.

“I really don’t know what to say that.” Madiha finally admitted.

Daksha cracked a little smile.

“I guess it’s unfair for me to act like we’re both complicit. I’ve always thought of you as an Arjun because of your physical appearance. But I honestly can’t know. And at any rate, it isn’t your place to do anything about it. I was the one who was supposed to save everybody from the tyranny of the Empire. I feel like I ended up failing at that.” She said.

The tyranny of the Empire, she said–

It jogged Madiha’s memory. She thought of how her birth was something of a mystery.

And Mansa, too, being on her mind at the same time–

“I am really sorry for everything Madiha.” Daksha said. “We used you. I struggle every day thinking of the backs we built this country on. You were just a child, and I ask myself, is all of this really worth all the desperate measures that I took to build it–”

Quite suddenly, Madiha turned to face Daksha with serious eyes.

“Am I Empress Ayvarta II, Daksha?”

She almost expected to be shot at that moment, in some dark, lurid corner of her mind. Certainly it was a shocking question to ask, and at such a moment too. At least it allowed her to dodge thinking about the question of ethnicities, which was always fearful and puzzling. And it had been on her mind for far too long now, her status. She had been afraid since hearing the insinuations from the villains she came across in Rangda, and since remembering her role in the chaos of the Revolution. She had been afraid that if she was actually some long lost noble child, she was undermining socialism by living.

So, thinking all of that, she expected Daksha to dispose of her, to end the royal line.

Instead, Daksha grinned and shook her head. She looked like she had tears in her eyes.

“On the census, you keep putting down Madiha Nakar every few years. If you want to change your name, you can do it without saying scandalous shit like that.” Daksha said.

She smiled, but there was indeed a glistening of tears she was fighting off.

Madiha chuckled. “I guess you’re unbothered by the whole thing, huh?”

“Did you expect differently? Madiha, I think of you like a daughter. I don’t know where you really came from and I never checked. To me, that doesn’t matter. Didn’t we want to erase class, sex, ethnic discrimination and all of that? Isn’t that socialism? Hell I don’t know my own ethnicity really. I was born in the South. I might be some quarter Umma or something, who cares? I never had the privilege of my ethnicity but I identify as an Arjun to make amends to people who were far more oppressed than me for far longer.”

Daksha turned to her and put both hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

“You’re what you decide to make of yourself. No matter who your parents were. Even if you end up being the long lost Empress, you killed your father. There’s no Empire now. On the census, I could put Umma or Arjun. I decided which and why. You can too.”

Madiha nodded her head solemnly. There was a lot on her mind still. This was not such a liberatory thing to be told. After all, even knowing all of this, and being given a choice, she still did not know what she truly wanted to become or what she could become at all. She just knew what she was good at, and what she was interested (or obsessed with).

She supposed that she had no choice right now but to fight this war.

So she could defer thinking about everything else when there was peace.

“At any rate, why am I being so gloomy on my wedding day?”

Daksha shook her head and picked up the matchlock from its place of honor.

“You know how to use this, of course.”

Madiha nodded. She could use any weapon by touching it. Ever since she was a child.

“Lets have a little contest then.” Daksha said.

Under the matchlock there had been a stack of plates, and a pair of boxes.

One contained charges, the other contained balls. It was a shooting kit.

“I never miss.” Madiha said apologetically. “So, I cannot lose.”

“Bah, don’t be so full of yourself.” Daksha replied. “If I can’t win, I’ll tie you.”

Madiha laughed.

“It would be a moral victory.” She said.

“It will be!” Daksha corrected her.

They went to the roof and twenty plates later, Madiha handily won.

She was not even able to throw the game for the bride’s sake.

Madiha was just not capable of throwing games.


“I’m truly growing old. My youth has absolutely left me. I’m decrepit — a crone!”

Kremina Qote bemoaned her misfortunes in the grand bedroom arrayed for her and Daksha’s honeymoon night. Dressed in full wedding regalia, she lay against the pillows with a hand over her face, tossing and turning, the blood drained from her face. She had drank too much and it made her sick. She claimed this was an unnatural occasion, an ill omen. Parinita did not know that she and Daksha had met because Kremina had fallen dead drunk and essentially got them captured by the Imperial police. She believed in Kremina’s fierce drinking reputation and told herself it was a pity that everyone aged.

“Here, drink this. Drink all of it, Mrs. Kansal. Even if you dislike the taste.”

Parinita came back from the kitchen with a mug of honey-ginger tea and a big piece of salty breaded paneer, fried quickly in ghee. She dropped the cheese plate on the dresser beside the bed, and handed Kremina the mug. “It’s a traditional cure. I vouch for it.”

Her patient moaned and protested, but eventually started drinking the tea.

“It’s awful! It’s got too much ginger!” Kremina said, recoiling from it.

“Trust me, my grandmother knew a dozen hangover cures, but this is what she did when she was hungover herself. That’s how you know it’s the real one.” Parinita said.

Kremina frowned, staring down into the mug. She took another belabored sip.

Parinita pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down. She did not need to read Kremina’s aura to understand how badly the bride must have been feeling. She looked quite worse for wear. Parinita felt like saying ‘it wasn’t even that much alcohol’, but she was playing the role of the healer. Wounding her patient even further would be cruel.

“Ugh, what a way to start my honeymoon.”

Once more, Parinita’s more vicious side wished to retort with ‘you did this to yourself.’

Instead she said, “I come from a family of faith healers! You’re in good hands.”

“Well, it turns out I don’t have faith in healers!” Kremina moaned.

She took another drink of the mug and shut her eyes hard, and clenched her teeth.

For a moment Parinita felt like the bereaved heroine of some comedy flick, caring for her whining mother in the first act to establish a dysfunctional family relation and her drive to escape into a bawdy adventure. Then the hero would arrive and sweep her away.

Unfortunately for her, Madiha was in the other room, already arrived, and unhelpful.

Still, even her current attitude couldn’t mar Kremina’s newlywed radiance. Parinita was stuck by how majestic the two of them looked. This must have been such a massive relief for them, and such a long time coming. Surrounded by tragedy and with the weight of the nation on their shoulders, they finally found the opportunity and courage to make themselves eternal to one another. Their auras had been so brilliant at the wedding that Parinita cried, overwhelmed by their beauty. Truly it was the power of love at work.

It was almost like film. Perfectly shot and directed, beautifully acted. A real fantasy.

Parinita’s fantasy; not that seeing it in the flesh made it feel any more achievable.

After all, Kremina could look like an actress, but Parinita was always her boring old self.

Still, she was quite moved by the day’s events. She was smiling like a bashful little girl.

“Ma’am, I’ve been wanting to congratulate you personally. I was so moved by the ceremony. I really want to know how you two made it so special. There was something in the air, everything was charged with electricity! It was like film, it was perfect.”

In truth there was a part of Parinita that really wanted to have a girly talk session with someone like Kremina, an elegant, sapphic bride to a strong and constantly engaged woman. She wanted to compare notes, almost, to share experiences in loving women and being loved and having a relationship that could lead to a wedding. She had never been able to talk to her grandmother and certainly not to her mother, and the closest other confidant she’d ever had was Logia Minardo — a regrettable person for that role.

Kremina looked upon her with renewed interest and cocked a little grin.

“It’s all the resort, it’s very lovely. You should put in your reservation soon. It’s very popular, and they really only do weddings now that there’s no tourism.” She said.

Her piercing gaze put Parinita quite on edge.

“Well, I’m not getting married–” She said.

Kremina leaned forward with a conspiratorial expression on her face.

“Trust me, you two should not wait. There’s no sense in waiting.”

“Us two?”

Suddenly, Parinita remembered that she could have no such discussion with her.

Parinita and Madiha were not fully open with their relationship, mostly because it was scarcely a month old and they were in the military, and in the same unit. In fact, Madiha was technically Parinita’s boss, which made the whole thing look even worse to outside observation. While it was almost an open secret, people who suspected said nothing, and people who knew, like Logia Minardo, were on their side and not keen to expose them.

So it behooved Parinita then to act dumb when Kremina pressed her.

Though the Admiral and the Premier were like family to Madiha, Parinita did not know how strict they were on her. They might not see the relationship as fully appropriate.

Her own parents would have definitely tried to scare Madiha away!

So she thought, she had to keep this as hidden as she could from Madiha’s ‘parents.’

However, her beet-red face and awkward, averted gaze made everything too clear.

Kremina quickly tried to disabuse her of any fearful notions.

“I see right through the two of you.”

Parinita was so stunned she couldn’t think of what to say.

“Whatever do you mean–”

“Why would she invite you here? Madiha always goes to parties alone, if she goes.”

“She’s not that anti-social–”

“Madiha’s never had a lot of party-going friends. She’s a private sort of person.”

Parinita briefly choked up. “Well– how do you know she–”

Kremina raised a finger to Parinita’s lips, quieting her.

“I know she’s a sapphist. She had a girlfriend before. Perhaps she has another.”

Parinita mumbled nervously. “She has friends, we’re just very good friends–”

She found herself denying everything out of impulse.

Meanwhile, Kremina seemed to be living this moment to its fullest.

“Hey, why don’t you two stay the night? There’s a guest bedroom.”

Kremina rapidly changing the subject threw Parinita entirely off-course.

Staying the night with Madiha in this gorgeous hotel full of silks and wines and candles, in a relatively private room all the way across from the brides, where nobody would bother them. An entire night just to themselves in the most sinfully lavish luxury–

Parinita blinked, quivering. “Why of course, we can’t turn down such generosity–”

“You’ll share one bed, you know. It’s only got one bed.”

Parinita started to shake, and clenched her fingers on her skirts, her face red hot.

“I suppose it can’t be helped–”

“We don’t really have a change of clothes either, so you’ll be a bit exposed.”

Parinita fanned herself. “We’re both girls, it’s okay–”

“Why it’s like your very own honeymoon night, if you were like that of course.”

“It really isn’t–”

“Just you and her, one bed, nothing but robes, warm incense, anything could happen.”

Now she was truly the heroine in a bawdy romance comedy, exposed to the audience in a moment of pure farce. Defeated, revealed to be impure, and laughed at by all.

“You win.” Parinita was shaking with embarrassment at the salacious thought of taking Madiha bedding her in the brides’ guest room. “Are you teasing me or really offering?”

She raised her hands to her face, wearing a crooked, demonic smile.

Kremina reached out and played with one of Parinita’s long locks of strawberry hair.

“Madiha is very lucky! You’re pretty, funny, and passionate.”

Parinita wanted to sink into the earth, but could not truly deny any of that.

At least the latter part of it. She almost thought Kremina would say perverted.

“Oh come on, why are you shaking so much?” Kremina said. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Daksha and I are both in the military too and nobody will object to it. You should probably keep the secret from your subordinates, in an official capacity, so that you set a good example for them. But you don’t have to keep it from me. I do want to help you.”

She reached into the drawer on the bedside dresser, and produced a key.

“Help yourself.”

She flicked the key over to Parinita. Then she picked up the paneer and took a bite.

“Now this is good stuff. This tea tastes like motor oil, but paneer can’t be done wrong.”

Parinita smiled and faked a little curtsy. “Even someone as useless as me can do it.”

She pocketed the key and felt a little cloud starting to loom over her head.

She felt ridiculous and inadequate. It had all been in good fun for the brides, the drinking and the teasing, but Parinita, she thought if any of it had been serious, then yes, she would not have kept up. She was a bad drinker, a bad liar, a foolhardy girlfriend. She looked fine in a dress, maybe a touch too chubby to really pull it off, but that was it.

“Why are you all gloomy now?” Kremina asked through a mouthful of cheese.

Parinita took a deep breath. “Madiha isn’t lucky, I’m lucky she pays me any attention.”

“What’s this all about?” Kremina asked. “Are you feeling well? Do you want tea?”

She swallowed her cheese and tried to push the mug of tea back to Parinita.

“It’s just difficult standing among titans sometimes. I feel unworthy.”

Parinita pushed the mug back toward her with a sigh.

Kremina smiled warmly and laid back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.

“And you think I don’t? I’ve never been half the woman Daksha was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Weren’t you listening when we were all drinking? We shared some wisdom then.”

Had she known Kremina possessed similar insecurities, Parinita would’ve said nothing.

“I’m being gloomy on your wedding day, it really isn’t right.” Parinita said.

“Weddings are beautiful and cheerful, but they are also gloomy too. Thinking about the future is gloomy. And after all the glitz and glamour, you wake up in bed with another person and you have to think about your life together, about all the rest of your life.”

Kremina sighed deeply, but then she sat back up, and she took Parinita’s hand.

“Listen, how you feel about yourself doesn’t reflect how your lover feels. She loves you. To you, she’s your Madiha and you’re her Parinita, and that’s what matters. I should know. I’m a mediocre Admiral who is now married to one of the most powerful women in the world. And Daksha thinks she’s mediocre and foolish and all that too. I make her feel different. She makes me feel different. I bet Madiha thinks that you are wonderful and she is a slug. I bet she doesn’t understand why a beautiful woman looks at her at all.”

Kremina caressed Parinita’s cheek and put on a warm, motherly smile for her.

Parinita smiled a little back. Under that smile, however, she was still worried. These were words that were easy to hear and be comforted by now, but to truly believe them, to deprogram years of living as someone who had to make herself verifiably ‘valuable’ to others in order to live with herself. It felt like fooling herself, like living a terrible lie.

She loved Madiha with all her heart. From that fateful day, when the war started, it was almost like insanity. All the world went insane and she went insane also, and she came to obsessively love a warrior with the world’s strongest, strictest, most insane sense of justice. Someone who stared madness in the face and made miracles happen, not for herself, but for those around her who couldn’t. She grew close to her and discovered her vulnerable side, her charming side, the little moments of sarcasm and levity that could be extracted from her, and the naive wonder with which she beheld certain things.

She grew to love her even more, to want to know everything about her, to want to know her as a person and not an idol, and to want to be by her side forever to see the world that her dark eyes envisioned. She wanted to quell the fire that was killing Madiha from the inside; to save her. But in the back of her head, she told herself, ‘I must get stronger for her, I must be useful to her.’ She could not live in Madiha’s world without strength.

Because she loved Madiha and wanted to remain at her side, to see the justice in those fiery eyes and to love the tender shadow cast by that pyre, she had to reach her level.

Perhaps, instead of being gloomy, she could at least try to be determined instead.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take your words to heart.” She said.

It was a sincere as she could sound then.

Kremina laid back on the bed and put a handkerchief over her face.

“Good. Just remember three things. Let her win sometimes; pretend she’s in the right sometimes; and let her be on top if she wants to. That’s my time-tested wife advise.”

Parinita’s hand clutched the little key Kremina gave her, and she averted her gaze again.

“I’m going to do my best too. Even if I’m drunk and sick, this is my honeymoon.”

Kremina put the mug on the dresser.

“But I’m not drinking that. I’m sorry.”

Parinita giggled.

“What if I told you the tea is what has made you so lucid these past few minutes?”

She hoped to get one over on Kremina at least once.

Kremina shook her head. “Fine. I’ll let you have this one.”

She reached over the dresser and took the mug back with a heavy sigh.


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1.8: The Fire That Consumed Canaan

This chapter contains disturbing imagery, violence and death.


Supplicant: The Servants of a Tyrant. They are created from the demesne and serve the function of worshiping the Tyrant. Like blood cells carrying oxygen throughout the body, supplicants grant the Tyrant easy access to the magic of the demesne. Should a Tyrant lose its demesne, it can survive so long as it is worshiped, and its Supplicants can survive by continuing to worship, or by constructing a new demesne for the Tyrant to occupy. Their power and appearance and their number reflects the state of the demesne and the Tyrant.


Lyudmilla’s ‘autopilot’ mentality crumbled as she soon as she found herself faced with the dreadful creature of girders and gears and cables that Moloch had become. Despite the difficulties she found doing magic with the so-called limiter off her homunculus, she had managed to keep a semblance of cool. Compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety, she managed to outwit the monster and aid Minerva with a bit of luck and good timing.

It was a fight, a battle; she had fought those before. Fighting wasn’t easy, but she could.

But she’d fought people. She froze at the sight of a monstrosity dozens of meters high, towering over her. Its shadow could have been its own separate malignant beast.

Milla felt as if she had been thrust into a completely new reality, as if pushed through a mirror into another world, and the glass had cut her, and her face and chest had felt the impact of crashing through the barrier. She struggled to stand, craning her head up as high as it would go and still not seeing all of the monster that stood in front of her.

Something had gone terribly wrong in the world around them.

Things had stopped making sense. Everything had gone stark mad.

She heard Minerva say, in a low, breathless voice, “is this his legend?”

She didn’t understand it.

Milla had seen magical creatures before. One could not avoid them! There were commonplace things, like kobolds, gnomes; and there were all kinds of videos on the internet about bigger things. Army camera footage declassified after a decade by activists that showed men firing rockets and guns and wand blasts at Mother Hydra before the peace had been brokered; cryptid style videos of blurry beasts in dense jungles far away; quickly cut news footage of academy diplomats meeting with ancient things; and so on.

And yet here she stood face to face, in the dense, hot atmosphere of this demesne, in the presence of a real Tyrant. Those beasts whose history ran parallel to all of humanity, who when mindless threatened to destroy the world and when sentient threatened to rule it. Those primordial beasts who were magic in natural form. Moloch, Lord of the Wildfire!

She was nothing in its presence. She was reduced to quivering, aware suddenly of death.

Everything was insubstantial. Under her the floor felt hollow. Above the sky was gaseous.

“Lyudmilla?”

Minerva looked over her shoulder briefly, standing before Milla like a guardian.

Ahead of them, the looming fleshless cow head of Moloch unhinged its jaw by the turn of a gear, and smoke billowed out from a dark orifice between the bones. He raised with much effort one of metallic skeletal arms, and flexed the scissor-blade claws at the end.

Minerva whipped back around to face him and raised her wand.

Her homunculus lit up and rapidly processed the gestures for her spell, a globe of vibrating, unstable force that flew from the tip of her wand and struck Moloch right in the jaw. She waved her wand as if conducting instruments, and from the tip several more of these globes peeled off and hurtled toward the monster, crashing into its jaw and eyesockets and shoulders. As Minerva’s waving grew faster the barrage became more intense, like a machine gun of thick magic bullets. All the while Minerva mumbled the maintenance chant, continuing to channel the spell alongside her homunculus.

Not one of these missiles left a mark on Moloch save for thin trails of smoke.

As the projectiles crashed and sputtered on its metal surface, the monster’s arm lit up in red. Seemingly hundreds of vein-like, pulsating, glowing orange and red lines traced and crisscrossed the length of its gear-studded shoulder and down the cable-laden forearm. Steam and smoke billowed from the gaps in the elbow and from the joints of the claws.

“Target is concentrating heat in the left arm–”

Minerva’s homunculus aired its warning as Moloch’s claw descended upon them.

It shot toward the platform like a rocket and Milla was sure she would die.

Her limbs felt as heavy and immobile as stone.

She shut her eyes, and turned her head as if about to be slapped.

A wave of hot air blew past her and she heard an ungodly metal on metal screeching.

She felt the ground rumble.

Soon Milla realized her body was left untouched and she opened her eyes.

Moloch’s metal arm lay twisted and smashed palm-up against the metal floor.

In front of Milla, Minerva stood, her hands glowing brilliantly red.

She had grabbed hold of Moloch’s arm, her claws (claws?) digging glowing orange holes into the metal. She looked as if she had taken both his hands into her own in an arm wrestling contest, and smashed aside the defeated arm in the process. Moloch’s body, suspended in front of them, seemed unaffected, and its cow-skull head did not emote.

Red smoke blew from Minerva’s hands as she pulled her claws loose from the metal and then vaulted over the jagged wrist of the mechanical arm and onto the forearm.

Milla watched in awe as Minerva ran up the arm without the impediment.

Moloch started to raise its right arm but could not do so fast enough to stop her.

Soon as her feet hit the creature’s shoulder she leaped easily onto the cow-skull head, standing with a foot on one horn and another on its crown. Smoke billowed from the creature’s eyesockets, mouth and its open chest. Glowing red veins streaked across both its broken and functioning arms and the gears all over its body grinded violently.

Moloch was struggling to counterattack, but it was far too slow to respond.

Atop him, Minerva raised her hand skyward, holding her wand, cried out “Barik!

A massive black and red aura collected around her, thicker than any Milla had seen.

She was brimming with power. Her whole body lit up as bright as her claws had been.

Suddenly several points on Moloch’s body started to light up.

Milla realized it was everywhere Minerva had shot a missile before.

She must have done as Moloch had before and hidden something in her projectiles!

Sudes!” Minerva cried out.

At her word, from each of the glowing points a thin, small metal prong surfaced.

Her purpose became obvious when, from the seething, smoking sky overhead a dozen bolts of lightning descended on Moloch’s body. Minerva leaped out of the way as the lightning smashed Moloch’s crown open and spread across the metal, striking every glowing point along the surface. Gears blew out, cables burst; high-pressure jets of smoke escaped the joints of the metal body and split apart the metal linkages in the frame.

Moloch thrashed in front of Milla like a puppet jerked about on its strings.

High above them the metallic supports and cranes and manipulator arms holding the monstrosity aloft tore with a terrific noise. Unceremoniously the metal body broke free and fell, its jaw clapping, its arms flailing. Milla nearly took a tumble, the floor shaking under her as the creature smashed into the platform and slid off into the abyss.

While Moloch was in the midst of vanishing, Minerva dropped back onto the platform.

Her hands, wreathed in a furious red aura, looked as big as her torso for an instant.

Then without transition they were simply back the way they always had been.

Almost as if Milla had hallucinated the whole thing. She blinked rapidly in confusion.

Minerva looked at her, and gave her a thumbs up with a sweet little grin.

Milla stood silent for a minute, sweat trickling down her nose and over her dry lips.

“Is it gone?” She asked.

Minerva sighed. “God, I hope so–”

Temperature spike detected,”

Minerva raised her wrist up to stare in shock at the homunculus’ screen directly.

Milla however read the Alternate-Reality text overlaid in air by the homunculus.

It had started at forty degrees, simultaneously very hot but not convincingly hot at all for a place surrounded by fire and made largely of metal. Milla thought in a place like this her shoes would be melting and her hair would have caught fire. Then the number started to climb so quickly that it made no sense. Surely Milla would have been a desiccated corpse in those kinds of temperatures, but she only felt a little bit hot.

Hot enough to sweat, to have a little trouble breathing–

Sweat started to dribble down her forehead. Long rivulets of sweat, trailing down her face, down her neck, between her breasts. Sweat streaking down her thighs.

Each breath she took ripped down her neck like a cloud of pepper.

“It’s the furnace! The furnace was the Tyrant all along!” Minerva realized.

Milla stumbled toward her, and grabbed onto her arm, coughing.

Minerva’s face seemed to go pale. She was sweating also, though not as badly.

“Lyudmilla!”

Her hand turned red again.

She pressed it down on Milla’s forehead.

For a split second Milla remembered an unpleasant feeling.

A child, drowned in the baptismal water–

But this was fire, a great fire enveloping her and for the most minute possible instant, the smallest unit of experience that could still pass off as a lived and breathed feeling, Milla felt pain. An unimaginable pain like burning to a crisp from head to toe.

It was there and then gone and yet,felt so thoroughly that it shocked her.

She gasped, and screamed, and ripped herself from Minerva’s touch.

Sweat dripped off her body like the thin rivulets of water following a fresh shower.

But she could stand, she could move and breathe. It wasn’t getting any hotter.

“Please, I’ll explain everything when we’re safe, but right now, I need your help.”

Minerva looked at her with a curious expression. Concern, probably. But visibly, it was shame. Her defiance and confidence was gone for a small moment, and she looked deeply, awfully ashamed, in the way Milla herself, often felt ashamed. When she was caught smoking or asked about her childhood or her parents; when she hit too hard with a ball at the sports club; or when she looked away from a girl who was too pretty–

In those fiery, eerie eyes, there was so much pain and shame and helplessness.

Milla couldn’t help but feel that she had to help Orizaga now.

She couldn’t look at that vulnerability and not feel ashamed of her own cowardly self.

She spread open the pages of her grimoire and held it by the spine.

“Tell me what to do, Professor.” She said.

Spared from the heat of the arena she felt it much easier to keep her wits.

Minerva smiled a little. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

On the edges of the arena, smoke belched into the sky from unseen chimneys.

Around the demesne the fiery pit burned brighter and redder than it ever had.

Once more the platform began to rumble under Milla and Minerva.

All of the gears and mechanisms hanging in the air around the demesne, seemingly attached to nothing, turned with noise and violence, suddenly alive. Though their positions correlated to no rational device, turning and pulling on nothing, the machine seemed to have some effect on the platform. As they cranked away at the air the platform shook more and more strongly, until from the abyss the smashed Moloch machine started rising. Two interlocking pieces extended from the platform, attaching the Moloch animatronic to the platform furnace and supporting him, and more cranes and arms descended and attached a mess of cables, pipes and pumps to the machine.

Grimly, several arms twisted Moloch’s head into place and snapped its limbs together.

It was like they were building up a toy. A figurine of what the God should’ve been like.

“Wyrm.”

Its call hissed out into the air and sounded filthy. It seemed to come from under them.

You stole my fire to begin your journey to the throne of the world, and yet, you stand before me now so feeble, so alone, not one supplicant to your name!”

Suddenly the Moloch machine began to smoke and turned an offensively bright red.

“I’m insulted! I’m offended! I’m vexed! Return my flame so I can be king!”

Red-hot gears on the cow-skull’s cheek turned its mouth open.

Red particulate aura traces, and smoke, and fire, all began to collect in its mouth.

It was as if the creature were vacuuming the surrounding heat and shaping it.

“Witness the Doom of Canaan!”

Jets of smoke burst from the back of the Moloch machine’s head.

Its mouth erupted in a stream of red.

Milla leaped away in one direction and Minerva in the opposite.

Pure heat swept past them like a hurtling comet, a red wall slicing across the platform.

A sudden wave of gas followed the attack, and threw Milla back in mid-air.

She landed ungracefully, crying out as she slammed into the metal floor.

Had it been any denser she would’ve been broken upon it.

But she felt almost like she had landed on a sheet of foil rather than a sturdy floor.

She raised her head from the ground.

When the fire subsided, there was a residual slag, glowing red, bubbling across the floor.

This substance formed a line at every point stricken by Moloch’s attack.

It was as if Moloch’s attack was not a beam or laser at all, as it seemed to Milla from the fanciful things she had seen in popular fiction. Instead she started to think he had sprayed molten metal at them so fast that it just seemed like a giant stream of heat.

In a sudden panic, she looked around for Minerva and thankfully found her on the opposite edge of the platform, doubled over, breathing heavily. Minerva raised her own head and she and Milla made eye contact. Minerva waved; she gestured off the edge of the platform, and then to the Moloch Machine, which was hunched over and steaming.

“I’ll distract him! Jump down into the furnace! That’s the real Tyrant!” She shouted.

Milla blinked. She looked behind herself, over the edge of the platform.

There were all kinds of pipes and devices and chutes but no clear way inside.

Eyes open wide, mouth hanging and quivering slightly, she shook her head at Minerva. Her twintails swung this way and that with the effort. She started to feel hopeless again–

There was a terrifying, dominant sound, the shearing of metal, the grinding of a gear.

Heat began to pump into the Moloch machine once more.

Again the cow-skull head on the animatronic swung its jaw open.

“You’re protected from heat Lyudmilla! Go!” Minerva shouted.

She then stood up straight and swung her wand at the machine.

From thin air in front of her a stake flew out, as fast as a professional baseball pitch.

Flying without resistance, it stuck in one of the Moloch Machine’s ribs.

Barik!”

Minerva summoned another bolt of lightning and this one launched out of her wand.

The bolt struck the stake and lashed across the Machine but could not stop its attack.

All of the arms and cranes reoriented the monster, jerking it toward Minerva.

Even as the lightning tore through its body, the heat around it grew fiercer.

It was her she wanted; it didn’t even care about Milla at all.

This is the fire that consumed Canaan!

A second blast of heat and molten metal erupted from the machine’s mouth.

In an instant it sliced through the air, a cannon shot to Minerva’s mere fastball pitch.

Minerva leaped.

She thrust skyward, stirring the air in her wake as if she had flapped massive wings.

Milla saw her form disappear inside the mass rushing her way.

Her heart sank–

Within the gas billowing up after the shot, Milla saw a speck of something.

Minerva shot out of the cloud toward the machine, dashing in the air.

Before she could cast anything the Moloch machine spread its mouth once more.

Milla realized Minerva, for all that she could dance in the air, could not stop it shooting.

Following the teacher’s body, leaping around as if from cloud to cloud, she also realized what she herself could do. Her eyes settled on the Moloch body and the pipes and cables.

She held her grimoire by the spine, with a thumb inside the pages, and took off running.

Moloch fired a third blast from its mouth, its breath attack sweeping across the sky. Minerva continued to dash to and fro around its head, getting in a kick here and there as she used the machine as a platform to take off again. She was a mere nuisance, but she was a great distraction. Without resistance, Milla ran the length of the platform, to the edge where the machine was connected. It grew larger and larger as she approached it, until she had to crane her head up high as it could to try to watch the fighting play out.

Milla looked down off the edge of the platform, breathing slowly and heavily as an unimaginable heat emanated nearby. It was as if she stood steps away from a star. This must have been what standing on the sun felt like, she thought. Looking down she could see where all the pipes and cables and metal supports reached out from the furnace, like a replacement spinal cord winding up into the hovering Moloch Machine from below.

Taking in a deep breath, and swallowing hard, she leaped down toward the pipes.

She morbidly expected her whole body to melt and end up a puddle atop the monster’s makeshift spine; though she landed clumsily and hit herself again, she found herself surprisingly whole. Her hands, touching the metal, did not sizzle or hurt. It felt eerily room temperature, no hotter than anything else. Bolting up to her feet, she looked around for a way into the furnace. Far overhead, Minerva and Moloch dueled mightily.

Milla did not need to look very long.

Right in front of her, the platform bore a massive, bull-like face. Those smokestacks Milla had seen sticking out resembled horns when viewed from this angle, and the mass connecting the Moloch Machine to the furnace stuck out of the bull’s cavernous mouth like a tongue. She could easily run across the spine and into the furnace’s interior.

There was a plan hatching in her head but it depended on what she found inside.

She made for the gaping maw only to stop a few steps short.

Several pairs of glowing eyes approached from inside the furnace.

Intermittent flashing from inside the furnace revealed many of the kilnling creatures that had been trying to harvest Cheryl and the others. They dragged themselves forward, their exposed ribs snapping open and closed like jaws. The Kilnlings lurched out of the furnace in clumsy stopping-and-starting movements, as if their locomotion went on and off the way the burners inside the furnace did. They were very large and solid, however, and their size and presence alone was enough to put Milla on the defensive.

She took a step back out of the furnace’s shadow and grit her teeth.

She remembered an old commander who admonished her for cowardice.

Tightening her grip on the spine of her grimoire, she swept her hand over the pages.

Kladenets!” She called out.

Her grimoire left her hand of its own accord and hovered off the ground.

Standing between her and the approaching monsters, it produced an image of a sword.

It seemed an ordinary sword, the butt coming to rest a few centimeters off the pages.

Milla thrust her hand forward with the palm to the enemy.

Her grimoire launched toward the kilnlings, and the glowing sword swung at them.

No arm held it, and it appeared to have no mass, but the blade nonetheless swept across the head of one of the kilnlings and battered the monster aside. Rather than slice through them the sword rang aloud on impact, screaming metal on metal as it clubbed the monsters. Despite its visible position atop the grimoire, the blade had deceptive reach. It struck as if held on an arm that could stretch, twist, and handle a blade deftly.

From head to head the blade turned, striking in turn each kilnling as they approached, and rattling their skulls with every hit. When stricken the beasts toppled off their legs and onto their sides, reacting as if concussed. No sword could have rent the metal on them, not even this one, but a good clubbing made an effective deterrent instead.

Milla rushed forward, and again by itself the grimoire charged with her, and the blade threw its terrible weight every which way. Dazed kilnlings fell aside and Milla charged past them, never staying long enough to pick a real fight. They were big and she was not terribly damaging them, but it was not her intention to brawl with them at all.

Leaping and dodging her way past the monsters, Milla penetrated the mouth of the furnace and instantly found herself faced with its immense interior. A short hallway, guarded by kilnlings, led to a massive set of interior works that funneled metal to burners, which fired off every so often to melt the metal instantly. Then the metal was dropped into a massive, glowing red pit recessed into the ground in the center of the furnace, where it was siphoned through red-hot pipes out to the Moloch Machine.

Everything was decayed, eroded, rusted, sharp and haphazard, like the kilnlings were.

Every surface in the demesne wore its armor like moth-eaten clothes.

Behind her the stricken kilnlings began to get back on their legs, and in front of her, several more started to close in from the furnace interior. She had surrounded herself.

She was not driven to panic despite this. In fact, she smirked instead.

Milla had figured there was something important inside the furnace, after fighting on top of it. She could not have been entirely sure, not being a student of engineering, but she knew it was not just a hunk of metal as it had been prior to Moloch’s transfiguration. She knew it was home to a lot of those pipes and cranes that she saw everywhere on Moloch.

Even so, she had no ordinary means to affect such a massive thing. She knew no spells that could launch an armor-piercing rocket or set off C-4 inside this furnace and damage its works. Mages could throw around lightning and fireballs and cast massive reavings and disintegrations at people and things but the larger and sturdier the affected object, the more raw power had to go into it. She could batter kilnlings, but she could not tear down this massive edifice by herself. Lyudmilla Kholodva did not have raw power.

She was tired, too.

Even at her least tired she might not have been able to tear down the furnace. She did not even really know many spells. She figured the basic packet from the Academy did not include a full combat suite; so she was relying on things she picked up here and there.

Lacking in options and in the raw strength to execute them, Lyudmilla substituted a bit of inventiveness. She was not surrounded; she had the kilnlings where she wanted them.

Sometimes, physics alone could be a force multiplier for a dynamic magician.

“Lets hope this works!”

Closing her fist, she caused the sword atop her grimoire to dissipate.

In a blink the book was back in her hands.

She held it by both covers and thrust the pages forward, trying her best to copy Minerva.

She had read her lips as she cast, and seen something of the gestures.

As for mnemonics, Milla just tried to focus on stakes and hoped for the best.

Sudes!”

A metal stake; a metal stake; a metal stake–

It was crude mnemonics, but it had an effect.

Like Minerva, her spell conjured a metal stake that flew out from between the grimoire’s pages. Lacking the precision of a wand or advanced knowledge of the spell, Milla’s casting went wild. She felt the metal portion of her very human, mixed metal and fire aura, suddenly peeling almost right off. Her whole body glowed black and red and the black burst out of her into a wave of particulate aura, lost magic consumed by the spell.

Some of this particulate, but not all, attached to the stake in the instant of conjuration.

Instead of a clean shape, it became irregular, lumpy, its weight poorly distributed.

When the stake exploded into being out in front of her, Milla felt like it not only ripped up her aura and took it with it but also ripped the breath from her lungs.

She nearly doubled over in pain, but she retained enough composure to watch.

Flying haphazardly with the speed of an artillery shell, the stake bowled past several kilnlings in front of Milla and sailed over the red pit and embedded into a gear.

No one spell could stop the machines from turning. Though there was a stake clearly stuck in the gears, the conveyors continued to turn, the burners continued to blast, and metal continued to be fed into the Moloch Machine. They had no physical logic after all. Many were not even attached to anything, and operated in an almost metaphorical way.

Milla never intended to target the machines themselves.

She was gritting her teeth from the reckless exertion, but still managing to grin.

Behind her, every Kilnling struck by her sword glowed momentarily.

Instead of following the initial taps with the Alwi spell Barik, as Minerva had, she instead reached for a trick closer to home. One that would not cook her alive from inexperience.

Taking in air, calm even as the remaining kilnlings started to close, Milla shouted:

“Lord Pherkhan, we become to metal as Earth is to the Moon! Pherkhan’s magnetism!”

As she pronounced each word a little bolt played about her grimoire and hands.

She needed all the focus she could get. A full incantation gave her time to gather energy.

Milla locked eyes on the stake and reached out mentally.

It was her favorite spell of the suite developed by the Rus War-Mage, Pherkhan.

At first the little bolts extended from one end of her grimoire to the other like the poles on a horseshoe magnet, suspended between the open pages. After receiving the full command, they traveled up the grimoire and left the pages altogether. As soon as the bolts leaped off the metal-bound corners of the grimoire they extended across the entire furnace in an invisible instant, connecting the numerous kilnlings behind and around Milla with the stake she stuck to the interior of the furnace. Dozens of tiny bolts of lightning danced between the kilnlings and the stake like blurry, flashing strings.

For a moment the kilnlings were given pause, but their relentlessness soon returned.

When the kilnlings resumed their advance, the bolts sharply, suddenly contracted.

Had they exhibited any kind of magical talent that instant could’ve been crucial.

The Kilnlings did not cast spells; so Milla’s sloppiness instead had a devastating effect.

Dozens of the metallic monsters all around Milla and in the interior of the furnace works launched into the air as if their weight meant nothing. They bounced as readily as rubber balls, drawn toward the stake as if lassoed by the strength of a giant. Milla ducked and covered her head with her grimoire. Chunks of metal flew off their bodies as the kilnlings collided with the walls and with each other hundreds of times on their way toward the stake. For a moment the hallway into the furnace works was a churning, vibrating mess of ricocheting metal. Once free of the confines of the hallway, the kilnling mass slammed into the stake faster and harder than Lyudmilla could’ve ever imagined.

Boilers cracked and burst under the violence, cranes were smashed into the furnace pit, gears knocked out of place fell heavily upon the conveyors and other works and battered the whole mechanism apart. The furnace roared and quaked as great masses of metal rained down into the pit, clogging up the lifeline to the Moloch Machine outside. Molten metal began to rise out of the pit and spill over into the corridor. Around Milla the walls started to crack and glow red, and to bleed molten metal as if grievously wounded.

That’s as far as she had planned for. It was time to run!

Milla turned around and bolted for the exit, a wave of molten metal rushing after her.

Crawling up the walls as if chasing her, the cracks in the furnace spewed and sputtered with fire and gas and searing red metal that landed around Milla in fist-sized globs. She ducked and dodged the streams, swatted away the metal with her grimoire, all the while running as fast as she could, and breathing in less and less air as it seemed to burn up.

Her vision started to waver, and the tunnel felt endlessly long, the outside world too far.

Struggling for breath, she screamed as loud as she could, “Sudes!”

In a flash of light, some of the metal flying around her collected itself into a stake.

Once fully formed the lumpy, misshapen stake shot off into the distance like a rocket.

It ate up almost all her remaining metal aura, but she had purposefully held back.

She only needed a small stake this time.

Milla pulled a chain from her blazer pocket and wrapped it around her arm.

She shut her grimoire on the end of the chain as her legs gave out on her.

Falling, she mumbled again the name of the great Pherkan and prayed.

Blue bolts of energy trailed up and down her body.

She jerked forward, and back and suddenly launched out of the tunnel.

Screaming, Milla leaped clear over the ever-burning pit.

Behind her the mouth of the bull-head furnace choked with molten metal.

All around the demesne the fires started to go out, the gears stopped turning.

Fuzzy lines like the static on a busted television started to divide the walls, the seemingly endless pit and the skybox of the demesne, and once those cleared more of the outside world, the real world, became visible again through the distortion of the demesne.

Sailing off into nothingness, Lyudmilla watched with a self-satisfied little grin as the Moloch Machine began to choke, its cow-skull head leaking molten metal from the eyesockets and from the pipeline inside its jaws. It spewed its red-hot pyroclastic attack into the air at random, vomiting up metal with no target, screaming and out of control.

As she fell she saw Minerva, briefly, and saw her light up brighter red than ever.

Wyrm!” Moloch screamed. “Wyrm!

Minerva’s voice responded, deeper and richer and more beautiful than ever.

I’m, Minerva Orizaga. Wyrm isn’t here. Thanks again for the fire.

Something like a massive whip (a tail?) lashed out from Minerva and cleaved Moloch.

Just as she watched Moloch break apart, she heard Minerva’s homunculus again.

Entity MOLOCH unstable. Temperature drop exponential. Containment successful.”

Next thing she knew, Lyudmilla Kholodova hit the ground. It was dirty, dusty.

She felt as if she had been dunked suddenly in freezing water.

Hugging herself, Milla squirmed and twisted herself onto her back.

There were trees. A canopy; she could see the blue sky and the stars.

Nothing was burning anymore.

Milla pushed herself up from the ground, to her knees.

How much time had passed? She scanned her surroundings. It was still dark.

Suddenly she heard a scream, a girl’s scream.

Milla struggled up to her feet, stumbling and swaying, a little dizzy.

She managed to maneuver herself through the trees and found herself back at the clearing where the Moloch statue had first been unearthed. She arrived in time to see the crumbling statue, Phillip struggling to stand and trying to snake away, and that armored man, Ajax, menacingly approaching Amber, Jenn and Cheryl. The girls squirmed away from him on the ground, crawling on their backs until they hit the treeline again.

“Let go of that.” Ajax hissed. His voice was eerie. It sounded as if it was coming from a broken radio in his helmet, hissing and scratching and becoming inaudible for a second or two in the middle of this syllable or that. It made it difficult to understand him.

He was dragging one of his feet, and his hands were limp at his sides.

Milla summoned her grimoire to her hands, and stumbled out of the forest.

“Get away from them!” She cried.

He turned his head partially over his shoulder. His eyes glowed on and off, sparking.

Ajax stared at Milla, and then at his own feet, where his two subordinates lay beaten.

He stared at the Moloch statue, broken, its once incredible aura sputtering away.

He charged without warning–

But in the direction of the treeline, to escape!

Milla grit her teeth and made to follow. Could she get him?

Ajax did not get far; in the next instant he bounced back into the clearing and hit the dirt.

From the wood, Minerva appeared.

Vorra leaped down from the canopy, visibly wounded, but alive and seemingly mobile.

“Milord, he is faltering.” She said.

They had Ajax surrounded. Judging by his last attempt, he was on his last legs.

Ajax picked one of his subordinate’s clubs off the floor.

“Alwi trash– you–” His voice broke up. “Undone– I’ll–”

He threw himself forward and swung his weapon.

It stretched to cover the gap and came at Minerva’s side like a whip.

She held out her wand at her side and the metal bounced off of it.

Ambling casually toward Ajax, Minerva then swung her wand at him wordlessly.

A wave of force blasted the weapon off Ajax’s hands, and took several fingers with it.

Surprisingly he did not whimper, did not cry out, despite this brutal amputation.

He was clearly done fighting but he continued to try to escape.

Minerva would have none of it.

Ajax struggled to stand; a second blast from Minerva’s wand threw him back to the ground. Her eyes were fixed on him with a cold, steely hatred that shook Milla in its intensity. Each step she took, Minerva swung her wand, and Ajax was blasted in his chest, and thrown back; blasted in his legs until the armor was pummeled off them; and blasted in his head, jerking his neck left and right until his battered helm fell off.

Beneath the plate legs, there was nothing. Beneath the breastplate, nothing.

There was nothing beneath the helmet either.

Ajax had been nothing but a construct. Had it been the entire time? Had he swapped?

Minerva disregarded the empty suit of armor and walked over to the girls.

She knelt beside them with a smile. “You all have been through a lot. It feels silly to ask this, but are you ok? Are you hurt? Do you need a hospital? Can you talk to the police?”

Amber and Jenn stared dumbfounded at Minerva for a second before throwing themselves at her, hugging her and crying, shaken thoroughly by their experience. Minerva seemed to not know what to do other than stand there and allow herself to be thoroughly grappled. She eventually started rubbing their backs in a motherly way.

Vorra hid in the wood, sitting solemnly with her back to a tree, breathing heavily.

Cheryl sat at the edge of the clearing, staring at the Ajax armor, empty-eyed. In her hands she was turning over the orange-red orb that had come out of the Moloch statue’s head.

Somehow despite everything, they all had survived that mess.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She nearly dropped her grimoire out of exhaustion.

She managed to keep a steady grip on it.

So she was ready when she heard the dirt sifting.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

She turned her head and fixed a murderous glare on Phillip, his face caked in his own blood, weeping, gritting what was left of his teeth through a broken mouth. He had been trying to crawl up the steeper side of the clearing and out of anyone’s sight. He said nothing, and merely stopped where he had been. Milla pointed her grimoire his way.

“Sit down or I’ll sit you down.” Milla said.

From across the clearing, Minerva let go of Amber and Jenn, who then clung to Cheryl.

“Yes, Phillip Theimer, we’ll need to repair your face so you can talk to the police.”

Minerva spoke, and Milla thought she saw Phillip shake. He knelt down, giving up.

Whatever glorious night he thought he might have was now over.


Next morning, having gotten no sleep and talked to too many different uniformed persons, Lyudmilla Kholodova and Minerva Orizaga found themselves in the office of Miriam Hirsch, who was disheveled, having had to dress quickly and arrive at the Humanities’ main department very early to deal with the ugly situation. Word was getting around about what happened. Police were investigating, the students were variously in hospital care and out of it, and the Department itself was in a furor about it.

Minerva rarely spoke to Miriam Hirch without Beatrix around. Her office felt empty and oppressive. There was nothing separating Minerva from Miriam, nothing shielding her.

Miriam had an intimating expression, full of barely restrained anger.

“University Police tried to explain it to me, and I couldn’t believe a word I was hearing, so I would like to hear it from you instead. What the hell happened last night, Minerva?”

Minerva was annoyed by everything, but she tried to keep things matter-of-fact and she spoke so quickly and in such a tone that Miriam, try as she might, couldn’t interrupt.

“It is my understanding that at around midnight three boys identifying themselves with the Otrarian nationalist group ‘Iron Flags’ cooperated with Phillip Theimer to lead several girls to a clearing in the Whispering Wood with the intent to perform a dark ritual to summon the Tyrant Moloch. They intended to make sacrifices to a statue that had been popularly mistaken to represent Baphomet that had appeared suddenly some time ago in the woods. This statue had a carved orb of Agnicite that was sealing some of Moloch’s demesne, and upon its release, the Tyrant was unleashed. However, it was severely weakened from having to express his main element of Fire through its antagonistic element, Metal. With Lyudmilla Kholodova’s help, I contained the Tyrant and detained Phillip, Trent and Arnes. Ajax, the fourth conspirator, was piloting a construct from afar all along. I called the authorities and an investigation is underway.”

At several points in the story Miriam Hirch seemed to want to interrupt as if it was inherently a ridiculous thing to say. Minerva talked over her enough times to keep her quiet and get her whole message across. At the end of it, Miriam sat dumbfounded.

“You contained a Tyrant?” Miriam asked at last, regaining a bit of composure.

“Yes.”

Minerva reached into her coat, withdrew the fire orb and put it on Miriam’s desk.

“Put that under the tightest security you’ve got, ma’am.” She said.

Miriam picked up the orb and instantly shook with goosebumps and dropped it.

“My word!”

“It’s not something to take lightly, that’s for sure.” Minerva said.

Miriam looked momentarily offended. She left the orb on her desk.

“Setting all that of that aside for later. I want to know about the facts I can confirm right now. What happened to Phillip Theimer? He claims you injured him.” Miriam said.

She had seemingly ignored the part where Minerva implicated him in the crime.

Of course, the word of a white Otrarian boy with a donor father carried a lot of weight.

Minerva sighed. “He was attacked by the leader of the Flags, nom de guerre Ajax. Ajax had manipulated him into providing his own girlfriend, Cheryl von Schutzherr, as human material for the ritual. Whether he intended to seal Moloch in her or otherwise–”

“You realize how ridiculous that sounds?” Miriam said. “The Theimer family have been supporters of the Academy for generations. They’re a completely above-board family.”

She sounded strangely and specifically outraged about this.

“I say nothing of the family; only what I collected at the crime scene.” Minerva said.

In truth she hadn’t been there at the time, but she had Lyudmilla’s testimony.

Miriam sighed heavily and rubbed her palms over her own face.

“Minerva, I support the teachers under my direction, but to engage in such unserious he-said she-said talk, and where it concerns a student claiming you assaulted him–”

Lyudmilla cut Miriam off and spoke, her accent thicker owing to her anger.

“Ms. Orizaga did not hurt him at all! I’ll testify to that. I smacked Phillip in the face!”

“You’ll speak when prompted, Miss Kholodova!” Miriam shouted. “Tread lightly!”

Lyudmilla scowled at her, squeezing her own knees as she sat on the couch.

Miriam sighed and rubbed her own forehead and started sifting through some papers.

Minerva’s heart beat faster. What was going on here?

She had contained a Tyrant and saved the lives of those girls.

Did she not care? Was she ready to ignore all of that as a fabrication?

This was so ridiculous, unfair and unjust to an unrealistic degree, and yet, possible.

A fleetingly possible thing that somehow happened all of the time.

Miriam was just outright ignoring her words and defending Theimer.

Minerva was an Alwi, a person hated in this society. She had this etched in her skin.

Was Miriam trying to frame her for the entire situation right now?

“Ma’am, I’m not sure I understand what your point is. Please speak plainly.”

 

“Fact of the matter is, Minerva, Lyudmilla Kholodova is not exactly a trustworthy prospect in a situation like this. Phillip Theimer claims he is innocent and a victim. I can believe Trent and Arnes were implicated in something, though goodness knows what, but I’m struggling to believe stuff about rituals and tyrants and a mysterious fourth man.”

Minerva couldn’t tell if Miriam was really so tortured over this or faking all of it.

She certainly sounded and acted annoyed and uncomfortable but it seemed all too easy for her to abandon Minerva and Lyudmilla at this juncture for well-moneyed words.

“And all this talking about Tyrants– yes you have that orb, but it’s just, it’s too much! I cannot believe that a Tyrant was summoned, that it attacked, that you contained it–”

“I’ll give you the data collected by my Homunculus!” Minerva shouted at her.

Miriam glared at Minerva, clearly offended now at her tone. “I don’t want it! Ugh. It’s not enough I have to deal with Beatrix now you’re also making problems. At least when Beatrix comes up with some scheme to endanger students she owns up without excuses!”

“Now it’s a scheme? Nationalists attack your students and suddenly it’s my scheme?”

The Department Head was taken aback by this and quickly retreated from her rhetoric.

“I’m not saying that!” Miriam said. “I’m not accusing you! Goodness. You’re clearly giving in to emotion, Minerva, we can’t have this discussion and I can’t defend you if you’re showing this kind of attitude! It’s Academy policy to first side with the students–”

Minerva intended to shout ‘you were never going to defend me,’ but then someone did.

Bursting through the door into the office was the blonde-haired, starry-eyed, and clearly furious young lady known only as Cheryl, but actually named Cheryl von Schutzherr.

She stormed into the room and charged right up to Miriam’s desk, her eyes afire.

Behind her, Beatrix Kolsa ambled in with a bewildered expression, and shrugged.

“You’re the Department Head? What the hell is this?” Cheryl said. “Why did you summon Ms. Orizaga and Milla instead of that no-good piece of shit who just tried to kill me!”

Miriam blinked, taken aback. “Language! Ms. Schutzherr, I’m just, I wanted to–”

“Minerva Orizuh– Minerva saved my life! Milla Khalod– Milla saved my life!”

Minerva and Lyudmilla both wilted. Cheryl couldn’t pronounce their surnames.

“That’s–” Miriam seemed to shrink in her chair. “That’s– well– Phillip Theimer also–”

“I’m sure that fucking rat has something to say too! Then he should say it to my face! To all our faces! To us and to Amber and Jenn, he tried to get us all killed for his buddies in the Iron Whatever! Instead he’s trying to hide behind you, isn’t he? You’re covering up for him! He should be in this room so I can shout his face off along with yours!”

Miriam turned bright red and nearly fell over with her chair. “Why I– I never–”

“You listen to me! I’ll tell the cops, I’ll tell the courts, I’ll tell the tabloids, I’ll talk to anyone! I’ll vlog about it! I got 3000 followers! I’ll tell everyone that Phillip Theimer is a sick, lying freak who seduced and led me along so he could literally kill me! And I’ll tell my daddy to donate all the money you dirtbags get from him to animal shelters! I’ll call him right now!” Cheryl, breathlessly shouting at the top of her lungs right in Miriam’s face, produced a cellphone and shoved that right into Miriam’s face too. “I’ll make these rickety walls come right down on you if you think you can get away with hiding this!”

“Please– I wasn’t– I didn’t mean to–” Miriam, a grown woman, was almost in tears.

Cheryl continued to shout, at the top of her lungs, her voice bravely holding out.

“Minerva and Lyudmilla better leave this room with medals! Medals! You, and your cops, and your stupid department, you didn’t do shit to help me! I was nearly killed by a bunch of LARPers and a big ugly metal bull! KILLED! You didn’t do shit about it! I was nearly killed! A bunch of lunatics go to this school planning to kill innocent girls and you didn’t know, you didn’t do anything, who knows how many girls have been victims here?”

“Of course not– Our school– we pride ourselves– we’re very safe–”

Are you going to do something?” Cheryl put her face to Miriam’s, baring her teeth.

Miriam backed her office chair up to the wall behind her in fear.

Cheryl’s eyes watered, her nose ran, and her face was beet red. She was shaking.

The full force of everything that had happened to her, and of everything that could have happened to her, hit right there like a dam bursting. She had screamed out as much of it as she could, but now she was shivering, hugging herself, weeping openly, sobbing loud. Her knees shook. She looked to be in agony, unable to contain herself. Lyudmilla made to stand but Minerva shook her head and put out an arm to stop her. She had to be delicate.

Beatrix moved closer to the desk and took Cheryl by the shoulders, giving her someone to cry on. For once she looked almost like a responsible adult, comforting Cheryl.

“There, there.” Beatrix said.

Miriam Hirch, nearly weeping herself, glared daggers at Beatrix, who smiled in return.

“Miriam, I caught wind of what happened from the university police when they came to the Department last night. I predicted you’d handle this situation very poorly. I want to believe you’re just trying to get out of doing paperwork, because you are lazy. At any rate I felt that, out of everyone involved, this girl deserved to have her voice heard, and I wanted to make sure that she did.” She turned her head a little and winked at Minerva.

Minerva allowed herself a restrained smile back at Beatrix.

“Yes, very– very well.” Miriam stuttered.

“If I remember correctly, the von Schutzherr grants go directly to the Humanities, do they not? It’s twice the Theimer grant money too.” Beatrix mused aloud. “As someone whose research depends on things like that, I also felt my voice mattered too.”

Miriam sank atop her desk.

“I’ll– I’ll take care of things. It’s fine. Everyone please. Go.”

Beatrix led Cheryl away slowly, rubbing her back and wiping her tears, smiling at her.

Before she could be taken through the door, Lyudmilla turned around on the couch.

She shouted, “Cheryl! You’re really cool, you know?”

And Cheryl held a shaking thumbs up in response, before vanishing out the door.

With Beatrix and Cheryl gone there was a sudden silence.

It dropped between everyone like lead walls.

“Ms. Hirch, perhaps I should take this orb for safe-keeping.” Minerva finally said.

Miriam sighed. “Yes. Yes. Please leave.”

Nodding, Minerva quickly swiped the orb from Miriam’s desk and left the room.

Soon as the office was vacated Miriam slammed the door.

There was another sudden falling of silence. It was as if the world itself, having held its breath throughout that entire drama, could finally breathe and take stock in things.

Everything ended up working itself out somehow.

Out in the halls again, Minerva checked the time on her homunculus and sighed.

The National waited for nobody. Life, outside oneself, had to keep going.

“I’m gonna be so late for my office hours.” She groaned.

“You’re gonna hold office hours? After all this?”

Behind her, Lyudmilla Kholodova approached with a questioning expression.

She looked mightly disheveled, her blazer frayed and spotted, her hair messy, a distinct ashen pall over her otherwise fair skin. Probably owing to the smoke and the fire. Minerva wondered what was going through her head now. She didn’t look tired or shocked or vulnerable, like she had been in the demesne a few times. She seemed well.

Minerva turned fully to meet her. She recalled Lyudmilla’s heroics in the demesne.

This girl had potential, and some hidden depths to her. Minerva kinda liked her.

“Well, the students need my help whether or not I was nearly killed by a monster.”

Lyudmilla seemed amused by the answer.

“And whether or not your Department nearly betrayed you.”

“That’s not the student’s fault. They have a right to an education you know.”

“That’s dedication. I’m straight-up blowing the rest of class this week after this shit.”

Minerva grinned a little. “That’s honestly fair. I’d encourage you to show up though.”

“Yeah, you would do that, Professor.” Lyudmilla grinned back at her.

“It’s just Ms. Orizaga, please.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla then reached into her blazer and pulled out a letter for Minerva.

“I got this in the mail. Just uh. I guess I want you to know, that I got it.”

Though she seemed conflicted at first, she made up her mind quickly.

Minerva took the letter and unfurled it. It was the notice of apprenticeship.

Officially signed by Miriam Hirch and dated about a day before Minerva was told.

“How do you feel about it?” Minerva asked.

“Well, I can’t say no now. This is too cool, you know?” Lyudmilla bent forward, her arms stretched behind her with the fingers interlocked, rocking. She had an air of mischief.

She spun her finger idly and one of the hair bobbles on her twin-tails spun with it.

“I won’t tell anyone you’re some kind of superhero if you teach me your tricks.”

Minerva sighed. What a little devil she had on her hands! She should’ve known.

“I’m not a superhero.” Minerva said. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

“Yeah, and I’m just an innocent maid, never smoked a joint, never touched a boob.”

Lyudmilla stuck her tongue out at Minerva.

“You’ll find I’m far less impressive outside of a fire-rich demesne.”

“My standards are very, very low.” Lyudmilla said, cackling.

“You’re a handful.” Minerva said. “Listen, if you’re fine with this arrangement, then I’m glad. I know I promised I’d explain everything to you, and I will, but right now, I really need to work. So lets meet somewhere private later and we can discuss all of this.”

“Fine. But I’ll tag along for today anyway. No discussion necessary.”

Minerva nodded. “It’s gonna be boring you know. I plan to act like nothing happened.”

“Me too. It’s too early for me to have a big cry and scream like Cheryl did. I’m too icy for that. Anyway. I’m here at your service for both mundane and magical tasks, master.”

“Oh god no. There’s enough people who call me master. Just, Minerva, or something.”

Lyudmilla grinned. “Ah, yeah, how’s that subby dragon of yours doing, Professor?”

Nothing happened.” Minerva said dangerously.

“Ah fine, fine.” Lyudmilla replied cheerfully.

Together they got going to Minerva’s office.

 

At least, regardless of everything, her job always gave her something else to do.

Right now, the only world she knew or wanted was her students and a pile of papers.

She was the first Alwi magician of the National! She had to keep performance high.

“If I’m your apprentice, can I look at the quiz keys?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Yes you can. They’re all there in the textbook if you read it.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla started to whistle intermittently. “I guess I should’ve expected that.”


That night, Minerva arrived at her home just off the edge of Lake Bratten and the Whispering Woods, feeling exhausted, and like the feelings she had been damming for the sake of the world were about to burst through the wall of her heart. Still, she made herself smile for the little girl at the front desk, and waved at her when she passed.

“Oh, Minnie!” Laksha called out. She looked sad. “Your girlfriend came in this morning looking a little, bad. Did something happen to her Minnie? Is she going to be okay?”

Minerva continued to smile. “She did a big heroic thing, Laksha. But she’ll be okay.”

“Wow! I’ll get her some meat sometime to thank her for being a hero.” Laksha said.

Her frown had immediately turned into a starry-eyed smile.

“Thank you. She’d love that. Good night, Laksha.”

Upstairs, Minerva practically fell through her front door. Using the back of her foot, she shut the door behind herself and practically crawled up to Vorra’s mound. Sitting atop the pile of magazines, again dressed only in one of Minerva’s ill-fitting button-downs, Vorra sat, looking out their window to the lake and the moonlit, cloudless night.

She turned her head over her shoulder and gazed fondly at her arriving partner.

Her tail wagged slowly and gently. She had bandaged her sides up, but there was damage to hidden things, like her wings, and her ribs, that would take time to heal inside.

“Milord, good to see you. This Academy ill deserves your tireless effort.”

“Yeah, it sucks, but it’s good to have on the resume, you know?”

“I do not, milord, but I am pleased that your efforts fulfill you.”

Minerva got herself up to Vorra and sat by her side. She kissed her on the cheek.

“How are you?”

“Milord, of course I am on the mend. I am a dragon. I am power itself.”

“It’s really been a day.”

“It has been a day, as you say, milord.”

Vorra rested her head on Minerva’s shoulder and vibrated, with a slight hissing purr.

Tears built up in Minerva’s eyes and feeling Vorra at her side caused them to spill.

“Vorra, Wyrm was a monster, wasn’t he? Am I a monster too?” Minerva asked.

She clutched her chest, where, in her deepest nightmares, she felt Wyrm exist.

Everything that she had seen and heard in Moloch’s demesne, all of the horror and power and hatred, seemed to fall upon her at that very moment. It hit harder than the craven cowardice of Miriam Hirch or the abject cruelty of Ajax. Both of those things were evil, but they existed outside of her as verifiable lies. Neither of them could say truthfully that Minerva was a monster, that she was abominable and inhuman. But then Moloch–

“I say milord, with the utmost certainty, that you are you, and whatever you desire.”

Vorra turned to Minerva and kissed her briefly on her lips.

“Wyrm would have never accepted me as a Queen because I was not born one.” She said, staring directly into Minerva’s eyes and centimeters away from her face. “Denounce me for my bias, but I prefer you as King.” She laughed gently. “I love you, Minerva.”

“I love you too.” Minerva said. Those kinds of sentimental things were a bit hard and almost felt embarrassing to say, but Minerva really felt it at that moment. It was not at all what she expected as a child, that she would be the beloved of a dragon staring at the moon from the National Academy just a day after containing the evil of a Tyrant.

“Minerva,” she was pointedly not saying ‘milord’, “You possess the bravery to transmute all that you once thought fundamental, and to struggle against that which you are told you are unfit to change. I admire that about you. It draws me to you. Truly, I believe you can become anything you desire. I believe even by desiring it alone, you will become it.”

Minerva felt fresh tears coming up, and she clung to Vorra with a smile. “Thank you.”

Vorra purred at her side. “I was discarded, alone, unwanted, without future. Now I am here. To me, that is the greatest portent signalling that anything is now possible.”

Whatever it was that lay ahead, surely a series of hardships; Minerva felt she could do it.

She had made it this far and changed so much. There would be more change coming.

All of those tyrannical things that had once chained her up — she had wounded them.

“God, what am I even going to say in my report to the Party. This is really a lot.”

“It is, as you say, a lot, milord.”


Bright blue waves filtered into the elevator through glass panes.

When the doors opened at the bottom floor, Miriam Hirsch walked through a hallway of glass, reinforced by titanium supports. She followed a long carpet to a dead end with a wide, unobstructed pane of glass with a view into the massive aquarium all around it.

“I requested an audience, headmaster.” Miriam said, her voice trembling.

All around her, a cold voice reverberated through the water and glass.

I am listening.

“Phillip Theimer has been taken into custody. The Theimer fund has pulled from the Academy. I thought you should be made aware. It’s– it’s rare for this to happen here.”

Theimer deserved his fate. He aided the heresy of summoning a Pretender God.

Miriam was surprised to hear the headmaster already knew.

Then again, the headmaster was a strong diviner. His water aura was massive.

All of the water around her was like a scrying glass. He could see her.

He could see through her.

And yet, it was in her nature to lie, to conceal, to conspire, and so, she did.

“Yes, headmaster. I felt compelled to seek your input. Our elite families are valuable–”

I am aware of what has happened. I am aware, that you thought to shield him of his crime. I am aware of your connection. I am aware of your small mindedness.”

Miriam flinched and drew back a step.

“I– I simply couldn’t believe such a thing could happen at our school.”

I care not about the the Iron Flags; I care not about politics. Summoning Pretender Gods is becoming quite a trend again among you. I care about that. It is a heresy.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

In the next instant the water outside the glass became obstructed.

In its place was a massive eye, more complicated than that of any human being.

Miriam nearly fainted from shock. The depth of that eye felt like it might suck her in.

You are all forgetting the purpose of humans to me. Call me by name, human.

Miriam choked up, nodding her head. “Yes, Great Lord Leviathan.”

Slowly the eye retreated from the glass, and became smaller, until it was clear that it was one of many along the side of a sleek serpentine head adorned with many-colored crests.

I desire to meet Minerva Orizaga. Teaching, is valuable. Learning, is valuable. Discovering, is valuable. As long as they remain valuable I will not interfere. Minerva Orizaga, might be valuable. I desire to confirm that.

Leviathan, the God of Water, surged forward again until his eye covered the glass.

Do not forget what is valuable to me. Do not confuse it for what you value.

Miriam, feeling suddenly the weight of the plutocratic kickbacks that got her into her position, that got her clothed, that got her respectability, bowed her head to Leviathan.

“Yes, headmaster, great lord.”


Story 1 — Lord of the Wildfire, END


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Election Year (73.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content.


43rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — “Jewel of the Orient”

Ramja Biswa heaved a sigh of relief after closing the door behind her and flipping the sign on the door from Geöffnet to Geschlossen. She briefly stood by and watched the day’s last customers walk away, through the soft drift of snow falling from the sky. She picked up a broom and glumly she began to sweep the entrance and dust off the welcome mat.

Though the sun was in retreat, it was not yet night, and normally Ramja would await dinner service instead of cleaning up; but the Jewel of the Orient, Rhinea’s most underrated 2-star Arjun-style restaurant, did not open for Friday night hours.

There was too rowdy, nasty and often racist a crowd out for it to be profitable.

“You need to be more confident with our customers.”

Behind the counter an older woman appeared, tinkering with the register. Pink-skinned with white-blond hair, dressed in a sari and a silk garment, and with an exhausted expression; she was the owner of the restaurant, and she certainly did her best to look it.

Ramja gripped her broom with both hands.

Replying in the Ayvartan tongue, she said, “I’m confident! But we need to be careful too!”

“Practice your Nochtish,” replied the boss, whose Ayvartan was quite rusty.

“Malakar, I’m always nervous about the northerners causing trouble!” Ramja said. “You let anyone in and you let them do whatever they want up front, it’s nuts in here.”

Her Nochtish had gotten much better since she moved in with her girlfriend.

Malakar scoffed. “There’s nothing to be concerned about.”

Few people could tell that Malakar was actually mixed race. Malakar and Ramja had lived in Nocht roughly the same amount of time, but Malakar was older, she already knew the language from her Nochtish father, so she found it much easier to integrate and to acquire capital. She also looked less conspicuous. There were jokes by regulars that Ramja brought more color and authenticity to the restaurant than Malakar.

She was brown-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed; easier to pick out than her boss.

Ramja could not help but feel sometimes that Malakar did actually want her for the authenticity — despite the cold, she was dressed in a sari and a tight blouse and skirt that perhaps too clearly accentuated certain parts of her. She felt like a mascot character.

It only added to the amount of eyes that would naturally be on her.

“Men around here are racist, yes, but they won’t do anything except say things. If they say things and eat we have their money, it doesn’t matter. Just calm down.” Malakar said.

“At my old job, a man almost fought my boss because I was around.” Ramja said. “And you see all kinds of things in the papers. People aren’t happy about Ayvartans at all.”

“Your old job was a chocolate place full of Franks, of course there’d be racists.”

“My– best friend is a Frank!”

Ramja almost said my girlfriend which, would not have been advantageous for her.

Malakar, as far as Ramja knew, was not a homosexual.

Though they could relate as Ayvartans a little, sexuality alienated them just a bit.

It was just easier for Malakar to go around without worrying.

“See? If a Frank can love you as a comrade, any other racist can too.”

“She’s not racist!”

Malakar chuckled. Ramja sighed and went on with her sweeping.

She was grateful to the older woman for the job. It had been hard finding work after the chocolate place; her girlfriend tried all kinds of things, but she just had no connections who would take on an Ayvartan without a state-issued proof of language competency. At last however a local mosque connected her with the restaurant. Neither Malakar nor Ramja were of the Diyah faith, but many Diyah were Ayvartans, so the Jewel was known and traveled and well-liked by Diyah, and the Diyah were compassionate to Ayvartans.

“I’m thinking of opening tomorrow. I hear some men are coming back from the war for the first time; maybe they’ll be back with a taste for dal and curry.” Malakar mused.

“Malakar, they’ll come back wanting to pour the lentils over your head.” Ramja said.

“Oh please, this is starting to seem less cute and to verge on frustrating.”

“I’ll calm down! But you need to consider these things more than never.”

“Fine, fine. Okay. Lets open tomorrow, but I’ll load this guy just in case.”

From behind the counter a grinning Malakar produced a sawed-off Ayvartan rifle.

She held it in one hand like a pistol, the other hand stroking the woodwork.

“You’re awful! It’s no wonder you’re unmarried!” Ramja said, half in jest, half serious.

About a half hour later all of Ramja’s cleaning was done in the front. She swept the floor, wiped down their tables and the counter, and made sure all the spice shakers and sauce bottles were good enough for the (thankfully limited) operation tomorrow. The Jewel was a small place, so it was easy to keep it neat, and it paid to do so. Malakar was pleased.

“I’m locking up soon, but I can wait for her to pick you up.” said the boss.

She disappeared into the kitchen, unlikely to come out for a while.

Ramja nodded, and took a seat by the window, looking out at the lightly falling snow.

A few minutes later, a figure in a fancy coat walked by the window and knocked on it.

Ramja grabbed her coat and ran outside.

Bonjour darling. I parked around the corner.”

Ramja was as elated to greet her girlfriend then as she had been a month ago when they first hooked up. She was a glamorous blond named Cecilia Foss. Sharply-dressed, her lips and eyeliner well made-up, with her hair in a utilitarian ponytail and thin spectacles perched on her nose, Cecilia was like an actress or a singer to Ramja, a celebrity, a person she thought she’d only ever see in magazine covers or theaters. But she was here now.

Cecilia reached out a hand to hold Ramja’s own.

Its delicate solidity and warmth were mesmerizing.

“I’m so happy to see you!” Ramja said.

Wordlessly, Cecilia’s other hand pulled Ramja in suddenly and she kissed her.

Her kisses were ravenous; Ramja was startled at first and afraid of being seen.

However it was snowing, and the street was deserted, and the few cars driving by likely weren’t seeing anything; and what’s more, she was too delighted to care about it for long.

Ramja felt like she would be devoured as Cecilia’s lips locked with her own. She took long draws of her lips, as if she wanted to savor her taste. Ramja was almost left breathless. At first only the soft shock of a playful bite gave Ramja room. Cecilia was so forward! But she was skilled. After taking Ramja’s lips a dozen times she teased and then thrust with her tongue, one hand holding Ramja’s head forward and the other creeping elsewhere.

Though she had kissed before meeting Cecilia, it had never been like this for Ramja.

She fell in a trance, following Cecilia’s lead perfectly through each pull of the lips and tongue. She loved it, she loved how on top of everything Cecilia was, it was so sexy! She was lost in the fervor as their lips joined, drew back for breath, and quickly and fully reunited. Ramja’s hands settled under around Cecilia’s waist, under her coat, gripping.

Feeling this, Cecilia nearly drove Ramja back to the door of the restaurant.

Her hands started to dance as well as her tongue did; Ramja had to politely intervene.

“Not here.” She said, peeling Cecilia’s hand from her thigh.

Both of them drew gently back, breathing hot air into each other’s gasping mouths.

“You’re right. I apologize. I’ve got some bad habits to shed.” Cecilia said.

Her cheeks flushed, and she looked almost demure for once.

Ramja smiled. “We can pick it up where we left off at home.”

They walked down the street together, though for modesty’s sake, and the awareness of their position, they did not hold hands. There were few people out because of the cold weather. Everyone was taking their cars or the buses, and vehicles were covered in snow. Ramja thought, probably nobody was watching the street. And what would they see anyway? But still, holding hands on the street was a bit more visible than two women one in front of the other in a recessed doorway. It was such an odd situation.

Unlike in Ayvarta, where girls just kissed girls and it was nothing, the Federation was very cruel to what Cecilia referred to as a “sapphic.” Ramja trusted Cecilia on that.

The Federation was very cruel about a lot of things, after all.

“I’m working tomorrow, can you drive me Cecilia?”

“You’re working on a weekend?”

“Malakar wanted to open to see if we can get any GIs coming back.”

“Well, I can drive you.”

“Thank you.”

They were talking in Nochtish, quite comfortably. Both had accents, but they understood each other. Certainly, Ramja was very comfortable talking to her own partner this way.

Cecilia huffed suddenly; Ramja saw a tiny white breath fly out of her.

“You don’t have to work at all, you know. I can support you just fine.” She said.

“I know! But I just feel bad sitting around. Everyone’s always talking about merit–”

“Everyone’s an idiot, believe me.”

“Oh, Cecilia, I just want to earn my own money too–”

“If I was a man, would you feel more secure letting me take care of you?”

Ramja blinked hard, staring blankly at her girlfriend.

“What’s this about? Is something troubling you Cecilia?”

She had only really known Cecilia for a month before they decided to move in together, so it wasn’t as if the two had shared their life’s stories with one another. Cecilia was always open, when asked; but Ramja couldn’t help but feel she still hadn’t asked the right questions to really understand her mysterious, glamorous, wonderful girlfriend.

That was scary, and also made her feel anxious and a little unworthy.

So she had on a rather worried expression when she asked Cecilia this.

And obviously, Cecilia must have picked up on it immediately.

In the next instant, however, they were around the corner, and at the car.

It was a small, fairly recent Oder Olympus model, a cozy two-door convertible.

Once they were both seated inside, they were silent for a moment.

Cecilia sighed deeply and put her hand on Ramja’s own.

She met Ramja’s dark eyes with those mesmerizing blues the girl loved so much.

“Look, Ramja, I’m sorry. To be completely honest, and this must sound so pathetic, I had a bad day at the office and now I got something an old girlfriend told me stuck in my head. I should have put it out of my head and thought about the wonderful girlfriend I have now, instead, but you know, I’m a disaster, so I’m just flashing back to that awful mess.”

Ramja smiled. She was almost relieved that it was something that silly.

“Cecilia, I may not speak Nochtish very well, but I’m not a child, you know? We’re both adults, and I can help you with your problems if you talk to me without being cryptic.”

“I know. Ugh. Okay. Today some nitwit at work got away with the credit for a project I was on, and it just. It reminded me. She basically said ‘I wish you were a man.’ As if me being a man would’ve solved our problems so fucking easily. It’s stuck in my craw now.”

Ramja nodded sympathetically.

“Oh, Cecilia, that’s an odd thing to say. I think you’re an absolutely wonderful woman.”

“I know I am, darling. But there’s certainly things a man is allowed in this world that a woman isn’t.” Cecilia sighed again, shaking her head. “That’s what’s getting to me.”

“Well, I don’t want you to be a man. I wouldn’t feel more secure at all.” Ramja said.

Cecilia shook her head. “Sometimes I wish I had my old job. But, it’s better I have you.”

As far as Ramja understood it, Cecilia’s old job (and presumably her old girlfriend with it) was some kind of government job, that she left behind to go work at the Central Bank. Ramja started dating her in the process of her leaving that job and finding her new one. It had been strange but fortunate; they met at the chocolate shop, both their lives seem to have exploded after that, but then they picked up the pieces together. It was romantic.

“I’m glad you’re here, Cecilia. You made my life a lot brighter.” Ramja said.

“You too darling.” Cecilia said. “Honestly, you saved me from a mess. Not the other way.”

“Well, I helped you quit drinking, I guess, but you still smoke too much.” Ramja teased.

“I haven’t smoked at all today.” Cecilia said, defensively clutching her coat pocket.

“You’ll smoke after we have sex. You always do.” Ramja said, giggling.

“Ugh. I’m so predictable. Listen. I’ll try not to.”

Cecilia started the engine and drove them out from the side of the alleyway and down the road toward the tight little inner city apartment that acted as their new love nest. Rhinea had been Ramja’s home for many years, but 2030 had transformed it. In the inner city there was still all the hustle and bustle around the office buildings, hotels, train stations and the stock market. Old town was reeling from the war, however. Factories that once made meats and clothes and toys were shells of their selves, and the council houses were emptied of the poor. Market street was a shadow; the stadium was empty.

The Jewel still got plenty of business. Its clientele did not go to the war.

But there were far less lavish birthdays being booked, according to Malakar.

“It’s sad around here. I wish I could’ve gotten a job in the city proper.” Ramja said.

“Once we get you your language certificate, I can get you in at the bank.” Cecilia said.

“Can you?”

“I’ve got an old friend there, y’know.”

Cecilia gently slowed the car to a stop.

Ahead of them a pair of wooden barriers came down, blocking off a level crossing.

Moments later a massive train thundered past them, pulling many open cars each loaded with military vehicles. Ramja was amazed at some of them. They were armed, tractor-like things, big and rounded off and sharp and heavy, intimidating but fascinating all the same. Those were certainly artillery cannons that they bore, Ramja knew that much. She had read about some of the things that happened during the Ayvartan civil war before.

Cecilia, however, had a concerned look on her face as the long, long train passed them.

“Those are not Sentinels.” She said to herself, in a barely whisper.

“What do you mean?” Ramja asked.

“They’re too big.” Cecilia said. She was still a captive to the sight of the vehicles.

Ramja crossed her arms and sat back and sighed.

She thought of something cheeky to get her attention while they waited out the train.

“How many girlfriends did you have before me, Cecilia?”

“Huh? What? You’re asking– Ugh.”

Cecilia looked so annoyed by the question that Ramja laughed.

Ramja was not insecure about it. Cecilia had made her passion for her very clear.

She was curious though. Nobody could help but be gently curious about such things.

Especially because Cecilia so often mentioned “old friends” who did her favors.

Old lady friends usually.

“Come on, I promise I won’t be mad or jealous. Heck, I’ll tell you, I had a girlfriend once, a girl from the mosque. We called it off because of an arranged marriage. So, your turn.”

After a while of grunting and groaning Cecilia, with an anguished face, said, “just guess.”

Ramja burst out laughing, and tapped her hands on the car door.

“Wow, that many, Cecilia? I knew the first time you made love to me that you must have been a woman with experience. But I thought also, there had to be an upper limit to the number of women in Nocht who slept with other women. Now though, I’m not so sure.”

Ahead of them the train whistled, and the armored vehicles on the cars rattled loudly.

“You look so innocent on the outside, but you’re awful thorny.” Cecilia mumbled.

“It’s an Ayvartan talent. We’re all polite, but also vicious. It’s why everyone hates us.”

“Eh. Damn it. I slept around a lot, okay? I was young, and a mess.” Cecilia said. “That’s just how naive sapphic women communicate in this society, you know? It’s by having sex. We had sex before we could say more than sentence fragments to each other.”

“Wow.” Ramja replied.

“I was young!” Cecilia whined.

Ramja said aloud in mock wonder, “You could’ve been young yesterday.”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“I care now that it’s this much fun.”

“Ugh. I’m going to shut you up the instant we make it through the front door.”

Ramja put on a little grin. “I’d like that.” She patted Cecilia on the shoulder.

Finally the crossing barriers lifted, and the train charged out of sight.

But the little Olympus wasn’t moving across the track yet.

Cecilia looked at Ramja, and finally smiled, and she also, surprisingly, started to tear up.

“I do love you so much, darling.”

Ramja started to tear up as well. Those were words she just was not used to hearing in the Federation of Northern States. For a woman like Cecilia to not just bed her, but love her, and for Ramja to love back. It was hard. It simply didn’t happen.

It felt miraculous.

It wasn’t just Cecilia who was a mess; everything was a mess.

Ramja was a mess too in her own way. The Federation was a mess. The times; oh they were a mess. At least, however, they managed to weather the mess together now.

2031 was not shaping up to be a good year if they were both crying together at the mere thought of two women having a steady relationship, at the thought that past mistakes and current challenges could be reduced to fodder for jokes on a wintry car ride.

2031, however, was their year.


Previous Part || Next Part

BERSERKER (71.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death, and brief homophobia.


To the outside world it seemed Loupland was covered in a perpetual snow.

In the spring, however, Loupland thawed just like the world beyond the arctic sea.

Green grasses peered from under their blanket of snow. Flowers, covered in cold dew, rose from the earth, seeking the returning sun. It was the eye in the storm that seemed to consume the little country. A respite from the blizzards. In days gone by, the folk would have come out to till the fields and hold markets and dance under the festival wreaths.

Times changed, but at least the children still laughed and played.

That spring, a little girl from the village decided to go climb the mountain. She did not climb far, but she climbed far for a child. For a child, she felt she had climbed the entire mountain, in her kirtle and smock, getting dirty, laughing aloud and alone. She climbed over big boulders and ran up little hills and after an hour or two she could look back and see the village below her like a little brown square etched on the green and white earth.

On that day and atop that climb, the little girl met a demon on the mountain.

She was scared at first, to see the creature bundled up in a cloak, huffing and puffing and making noises to scare her away. But her curiosity led her to draw nearer to the monster and to stare into its eyes, and she laughed and called it a little imp and ruffled its cloak.

“I’m not an imp.” said the creature dejectedly.

“Can I stay here and play?” asked the village girl.

“Whatever. Don’t tell anyone about me.” replied the imp.

She returned the next day, and found the imp again and brought some food.

She found the imp not wanting for food, its lair strewn with frozen bones.

She returned the next day and brought the imp toys since it was clearly a child.

She found the imp to be a girl by her choice of a doll, which she clung to tightly.

She returned the next day and brought the imp a kirtle and a little smock.

“I don’t wanna dress up.” said the imp dejectedly.

“Will you dress up for me?” asked the village girl.

“No!”

And the imp dressed in the kirtle and smock, but kept her cloak wrapped around herself.

“I’ll come back with more tomorrow!”

“You really do not have to.”

She returned the next day having brought a blanket, stitched up into a cloak.

“Will you wear this for me?” asked the village girl.

“Ugh.”

She helped the imp into her new cloak.

She found the imp had a furry little tail, and she wagged her own furry little tail.

Day after day, the village girl awakened early, ate her porridge and drank her milk quickly, and ran off laughing and smiling to the mountain to play with her newfound friend. She showed her friend many things from the village, fruits and toys and sweets. The imp barely played, choosing mostly to watch, but it was enough that she remained. She followed the village girl wherever the village girl wanted, and they explored the caves and crevices of the mountain, and climbed higher and lower, and had fun.

One day the imp stopped the village girl and spoke to her in a new voice.

“Want to see something strange?”

“Yes! Show me!”

Eager to learn anything at all about her new friend, the village girl followed the imp to a spring formed out of thawing ice, where the imp reached down into the water, and took from it a big fistful of frost. As her hand rose from the water, the spring froze where the fist had entered, the little waves and ripples on its surface etched hard in the ice.

She really was a demon! A demon that could do witchcraft! It was amazing!

Never had the village girl been this excited.

“Promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”

“I promise!”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”

“I won’t! I never have!”

And so the village girl returned home, and every day she would leave for the mountains to play again, and she enjoyed many moons of the thaw season in this fashion. But the thaw season was too short for the village and too short for the girl. Soon the snows began to blow over Loupland once more, and the thaw season, and its thaw jobs began to wane.

Despite this the village girl was resolved. Whenever she had no lessons or finished them early, she would put on her coat, put on warm leggings and thick boots, and she would go out, though the mountain was treacherous and slippery. Though she even took a few bumps, the village girl was very brave and made it to the Imp’s hideout without fail.

“Stop coming here.” Said the imp.

“No! Lets play.”

Reluctant as always the little imp would play with the village girl.

“Soon we’ll be separated by the ice. Or something else.” said the imp.

“No! Lets play.” replied the village girl.

She made a great effort to meet her friend whenever she could.

However, the village around her was changing. With the coming of the snow, there were more people walking the street with nothing to do, crowding the shops and bars, being loud. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt dangerous to go outside, but the village girl kept going, heedless of anyone’s caution. Her routine went unchanged.

One day, however, without her noticing, three men followed her right to the mountain.

They had bottles in their hands, and strange expressions on their faces.

“Every bloody day you leave the village, and come here, for what? Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“Little girls shouldn’t be running around making a racket when the village is struggling.”

“You’re too carefree! It pisses everybody off. What’s up here that’s so special?”

They reminded the village girl of her own father; drunk, jobless, shouting every word.

She felt very nervous, and could not answer their questions, and it made them irate.

“Didn’t your mother teach you respect? Huh? You think you can look down on us?”

One of the men shoved the girl down at the maw of the imp’s cave, and she cried.

In the next instant, the imp stepped out from the shadowed rocks.

She gazed coldly at the men and they gazed quizzically back at her.

“Who’s this? Why she hiding out here? Who’s daughter is she?”

“I’m nobody’s daughter. Go away.”

Confused, the drunks commiserated while the imp stared all of them down.

“Huh? What’s with that tone, you brat? You think you can talk to us like that?”

All three men had emptied their bottles and held them like clubs.

Across from them the imp stood unfazed.

Her tail stretched straight behind her, and her ears were raised in alert.

Meanwhile the village girl tried to calm everybody down.

“She’s not bad! She plays with me! She’s just living out here. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You shut up, you brat. You wanna get hit again?”

One of the men raised an arm to strike the village girl with cruel ease.

In mid-air, the arm stopped moving.

The Imp’s eyes turned icy blue.

“What is–”

Suddenly the man started to scream.

His raised arm started to shake, and his whole body contorted in pain. Dark black veins threaded visibly through her skin, becoming harder and sharper as if the blood inside them was thickening, hardening, stretching. Everyone present watched in horror as the man’s arm started to peel away along lines of the sinews like a blossoming flower of skin and gore, and the stem, blood frozen sharp right under his skin, glowing, and glowing!

The captive man was in such pain and terror that he could not scream anymore. He slobbered and twitched and hung as if his arm was dangling from an invisible shackle, suspended by some unknown force like a sack of meat, the blood in his veins freezing.

“Aatto no!” shouted Petra, little village girl Petra who only wanted everyone to get along.

“It’s a witch! It’s a witch! Kill her! Kill her!”

In an insane frenzy the remaining two men charged past their dying ally, bottles in hand.

“I’m sorry Petra, but you can’t hear what is in their disgusting heads like I can.”

Aatto, Petra’s friend, the mystical little imp of the mountain, raised her hand and without expression, pushed on the men and sent them flying off the mountainside, their bodies twisting and smashing and clinging to the snow and rock, collecting into balls of slush and blood. Blood drew from her nose and from her eyes, her glowing, icy-blue eyes.

Petra saw it, the blue steam that emanated from Aatto whenever she committed this sin.

She rushed to her friend and hugged her around the waist, weeping openly into her.

“Why are you crying?” Aatto shouted angrily. “They were going to hurt you!”

“I’m not crying for them.” Petra said, sobbing and screaming. “I’m crying for you!”

At Petra’s touch, the steam started to calm, and Aatto started to shake. She wept a little.

“Shut up, Petra. I did a good thing for once. I did a good thing.” Aatto muttered.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

“Aatto! Open up!”

Atop a wooden staircase, Petra banged on the door of the camp’s command center module, a small air-conditioned mobile home set on the bed of a tank transporter. She saw beads of water dancing on the shuttered windows, and could feel air coming from under the door, so she knew Aatto was inside. She banged on the door twice, but there was no response. Behind her, General Von Fennec tapped his feet on the step impatiently.

“Why did she lock herself in here? I’ll have you both know this is my command center!”

Petra sheepishly turned to the General with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.

“Ah, well, Aatto really doesn’t like the heat, anything above 20 celsius is bad for her see–”

“Get that door open this instant, and that punk out in the desert fighting! Now!”

“Yes sir!”

Petra twisted sharply back around to face the door and started to twist the handle.

She brought a foot up to the door and kicked it, doing little to move it.

Though she had basic combat training, Petra Hamalainen Happydays was not a fighter, but a support officer. Specifically, a radio operator, as well as deputy to Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather. She was, compared to the tall and fit Lt. Stormyweather, smaller, plumper, and far less capable of battering down a door. She stopped for a moment to tie her golden hair up into a ponytail, her tail swishing to and fro with excitement.

This pause to gather herself before her next attack prompted Von Fennec to scoff.

“Good god you’re all so useless. Out of my way!”

Von Fennec pushed Petra aside, and put his shoulder up to the door.

In the next instant, the General charged the door, and the door suddenly opened.

Von Fennec tumbled into the room, smashing into the carpet.

Petra stood at the doorway, her hands raised in alarm.

“Petra,” someone mumbled in an aggrieved-sounding tone.

Inside the command center, behind Von Fennec’s desk, was Aatto herself, seated sloppily on a rotating chair with her arms dangling, her head thrown back. Her black uniform jacket and shirt were both unbuttoned down to the belly, bearing glistening brown skin and a hint of muscle — and well over a hint of her breasts, her brassiere’s central clip snapped apart so as to almost fully bare them also. Her hair was down, long and black. She was sweating like, well, a dog; all of her body was profusely moist, and her icy blue eyes looked like they would roll back into her head. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

“Petra, I’m dying.” Aatto said. “Petra it’s 44 degrees. I am going to die here.”

Sighing, Petra wiped sweat from her own brow and maneuvered around the fallen Von Fennec as carefully as she could. She rushed to Aatto’s side and immediately fastened her brassiere back and started to unbutton her shirt and jacket, trying to save her dignity.

“Aatto you’re an officer now! And in an army of men! You can’t behave this way!”

“Petra, I’m absolutely going to die. I am melting.” Aatto mumbled.

She fixed Petra with a pathetic look. She had absolutely beautiful eyes, even then.

Petra tried not to stare too deep into them as she fixed the Lieutenant back up.

“Aatto, you slob! You barbarian!”

Petra sighed again, and behind her, Von Fennec helped himself up from the ground.

“You have a mission, you witch! You monster! Go out there this instant.”

“Petra, I’m so hot.” Aatto said, ignoring Von Fennec.

Von Fennec grit his teeth, while on the chair Aatto swooned and slumped.

“Aatto!”

Petra raised a hand to Aatto’s brow and found her blazing hot.

She couldn’t spot any of the blue steam, the sign that Aatto had overdone it with her ESP.

So it was not a supernatural malady — that fact scared Petra even more.

She could, somehow, heal Aatto’s self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she couldn’t heal this.

“She’s burning up, General!” Petra said.

Von Fennec stood, silent, stupefied.

“If I lose her, and the Vishap, and Von Drachen. My career– no, I’ll be over! I’ll be killed!”

He rushed to the desk and started shaking Aatto.

Petra grabbed hold of him and shoved him back.

“This isn’t helping, General!”

“Do something Petra! Do something for God’s sake!”

“I regret so much. I’ll never get to marry Petra.” Aatto said.

Von Fennec blinked and stopped struggling. Petra covered her mouth, scandalized.

“WHAT?” She then shouted.

“We’ll never get to raise a litter of pups–”

“EXCUSE ME?” Petra shouted again.

Von Fennec took a step back from the chair and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

He then suddenly kicked the chair, knocking it from under Aatto.

“Lieutenant Stormyweather, I order you to assault Conqueror’s Way this instant! Your sexual deviancy will be overlooked if you succeed!” General Von Fennec shouted.

On the floor, Aatto started laughing uproariously, and the room suddenly cooled.

It was as if all the heat of the desert had been extinguished with a thought.

“Will do, General Von Fennec! Just give me some water and a target.” Aatto said.

“There’s an entire goddamn river where you’re going! Move! Both of you!”

Petra, mortified, red in the face, and far more tantalized by these sapphic ideas than any good girl of Loupland should be, stormed off with her hands balled into fists, stomping.

Aatto raised herself off the ground, and looked out the door with distress.

“Wait, Petra! I wasn’t kidding! Let’s get married!”

She ran out the door herself, Von Fennec staring at her back with gritted teeth.

Like Petra, he too knew the weapon that lurked inside that oafish bush-tailed girl.


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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.


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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?


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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.


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