Troubled Sky (57.1)

This scene contains violence and death.

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Ocean Road trembled, buckling under the fury of dozens of tanks.

Burning red tracers flew over the streets, pitting the ground, smashing windows and walls, cutting through street-lights. Commanding the northern streets were several echelons of hull down Goblin tanks, their front armor reinforced with stacks of sandbags and chained-up wooden logs and concrete blocks.  Acting as mobile pillboxes set in staggered ranks, they spat AP-HE tracers with abandon, firing as fast as their beleaguered crews could handle, barely aiming. Even as they faced an encroaching enemy, they did not maneuver for an advantage, staying as still as the stone wall they were meant to represent.

Challenging their control were the Hobgoblin tanks of Shayma El-Amin’s 3rd Tank Battalion. Against the stone wall of the enemy, the Hobgoblins danced. There was barely any fire from them at first. Moving in coordinated groups of three, the tanks advanced using the buildings for cover, the alleyways to avoid lanes of fire, weaving an intricate pattern of track marks as they swung around the unguarded connecting streets. Even as the ground detonated all around them from the saturation bombardment of dozens of tank guns firing down the street, the Hobgoblins encroached with a steeled discipline.

At first the 8th Ram’s Goblin tanks believed they were confusing the enemy with their mass attacks, and the moving pillboxes felt the rush of victory. One Hobgoblin that clumsily exposed a flank was penetrated through the side; another had its track damaged, and was stranded in the middle of the road. Fire began to concentrate upon it until, after dozens of rounds, its pitted, ruined front armor gave in, and the tank violently exploded.

Two kills! Had the radios been working correctly the 8th Ram would have been abuzz with the sound of victory. Even in the face of the enemy’s strange new tanks, the old Goblin could score a victory! Not a single Goblin had yet suffered violence. For the first fifteen minutes of battle it seemed that the unmoving pillboxes had stopped their enemy.

Then suddenly the Hobgoblins reappeared directly behind the defensive line.

No one had thought the “retreating” enemy was actually bypassing them entirely.

Coming in from the alleys and the side streets, smashing through storefronts, the Hobgoblins opened fire. Unprotected engine compartments went up in smoke. Goblins all over the defensive line started to catch fire and explode. Any single 76mm shot from a Hobgoblin sliced through the Goblin’s armor like paper, turning the engine block to slag and cooking the crews inside their compartments. All over the lower Ocean Road the light tanks went up like signal bonfires. Outmaneuvered and encircled, and encumbered by their improvised armor and tight stationary positions, the Goblins could not redeploy.

After the fifteen minutes in which they held the line, it only took Shayma El-Amin’s tanks three minutes to completely dismantle it. Almost half of Ocean Road was open country, or it would be when the wrecks and the fire was cleared out. Engineers advanced from the bottom of the road, following the lead of the tanks. The 3rd Tank Battalion set track on Ocean Road proper and once more faced the north for the next phase of their attack.

“Forward! We’re breaking through to the rally point! 3rd Company will be the speartip, and 2nd Company will follow in from behind us! 1st Company, fade to the rear as we move past you; you’ve earned your rest. See if you can find any survivors in your two wrecks!”

Major Shayma El-Amin set her radio handset back on its unit, a vicious grin on her face. She adjusted her peaked cap and laid back on the commander’s seat of her Hobgoblin. A few centimeters below her, her gunner adjusted the gun and prepared the ready rack, while farther below and to the front, their driver slowly and steadily maneuvered them toward the front of the pack. Ocean Road could hold about six Hobgoblin widths of tank before becoming too crowded. Shayma had immediately noticed this when she arrived.

Ahead of her, the eight remaining tanks of the 1st Company began to make way for her own Company. All in all her battalion had thirty-five “main” tanks, not counting support such as the Kobolds she had allowed Burundi to borrow. She had spent 1/3 of her strength to tackle the first half of the operation. She intended to finish this with the other 2/3.

Her tanks advanced in staggered, alternating triangle formations. Each formation was three tanks, two forward, one rear, and stuck to one side of the road. Behind them, with about thirty meters of distance, a second triangle would take the opposite side of the road, with only these six foremost tanks attacking, to avoid friendly fire. Swinging her periscope behind her, Shayma could see that her vanguard was adhering to this doctrine excellently.

Her own platoon, a two-tank Headquarters, followed safely farther behind, and then the reserve triangle with three more tanks spread out among the center, left and right lanes.

“Brace yourselves, here comes the enemy’s second rank!” Shayma warned her tanks.

Ahead of them the 8th Division’s remaining pillbox goblins remained dug in, while infantry began to wheel artillery and anti-tank guns closer to the front. Guns poked out from the streetside windows, and sandbag circles protected mortar pits. Ocean Road steepened, and the 8th Division started to have a marginal high ground advantage. At the peak of the city, a pair of Orc tanks aimed their short-barreled guns down on them.

“Switch to high explosive rounds and fire on the artillery positions first!”

3rd Battalion’s tanks immediately acted on Shayma’s orders. All the while moving, the Hobgoblins opened a barrage of inaccurate but powerful fire on the enemy’s foremost artillery defenses. Explosive shells 76mm in caliber flew from the Hobgoblin’s muzzles and struck the earth and sandbags surrounding dug-in 76mm howitzers and 82mm mortars. Smoke and dust and shattered concrete burst skyward in front of the defenders and obscured their sight temporarily. Within the cloud a few fires raged from burnt ammo.

The 8th Division quickly retaliated. Howitzers and mortars adjusted for close fire and attacked through the cloud, casting explosives around and over the advancing tanks. Muzzles flashed and falling shells whizzed and sang, but the payload landed harmlessly behind and around the Hobgoblins. Fragments bounced off armor and no tank caught fire.

Shayma smiled to herself, baring a flash of white fangs, protected amid the blasts.

The 8th Division was operating on experience with slower and weaker tanks than a Hobgoblin and it showed in their every decision. Her armor could more than withstand indirect fire, and her tracks would always outrun it. Their gunnery just was too weak.

Quickly closing to within a hundred meters of the enemy, the Hobgoblins switched targets. Priority went to hard targets: the Goblins and the Orcs spread around the line.

Anti-armor fire grew fiercer the closer they moved.

At such short ranges the Goblin’s gun could punch above its weight class.

It was not enough. Armor piercing shells struck the fronts of the Hobgoblins and bounced off the thick, steeply sloped armor of the glacis and the strong, hardened armor of the gun mantlet, inflicting seemingly no damage. A Goblin’s 45mm gun could not penetrate the front of a Hobgoblin; if it could not be done under 100 meters, then it was impossible.

Across the enemy line, panic visibly set in. Shayma’s tanks coolly pressed their advantage.

HE shell casings popped out of the 76mm guns, and the lead Hobgoblins reloaded AP-HE.

Turrets quickly turned, guns correct elevation, and everyone found targets.

For an instant, the 3rd Tank Company’s formation paused completely.

In the few seconds that followed they fired almost a dozen deadly accurate shots.

Goblins went up in smoke throughout the defensive line, penetrated through their improvised armor of logs and blocks and the thin flat glacis armor behind it. Atop the hill both of the defending Orcs were accurately struck on the thinner armor on the bottom of their glacis plates, and the detonations inside their turrets sent smoke and fire blowing out of their guns until they finally exploded, spraying metal over nearby infantry.

Within the smoke and dust lifted by the previous high explosive attacks Shayma’s gunner indicated several moving shadows and outlines. Once the dust started to clear more, they could see several positions abandoned. Intact anti-tank guns were left behind. Mortars were decrewed. Useless machine guns, including a few Norglers, were discarded.

Soon as the last Hobgoblin gun sounded, Shayma ordered the advance to continue.

Her 3rd Company trundled forward, and then started to split up.

Taking adjacent road connections and alleyways, they dispersed from the center and opened the way for the fresh 2nd Company to repeat the two-phase barrage: first high explosive attacks on the defensive positions, and then armor piercing attacks on any remaining or arriving armor. Meanwhile Shayma’s Headquarters platoon drove through a connecting road and hooked around the enemy defenses; much of the rest of her 3rd Company did the same, dispersing through the urban environment in the same way they had dispersed through the Kalu wood, peeling off the line and evading enemy positions.

Bypassing the enemy strong point, Shayma and her tanks pinched off the rear of the enemy’s positions. Farther down the road her 2nd Company advanced to the positions previously held by the third. Now there were 12 tanks that could fire safely on the main road, and they held positions all around the enemy. They had formed a vice, and as the gunfire began to rain from all sides, it was clear that the vice was tightening quickly.

Once more the Kalu Raiders encircled the enemy line, and this fact was not lost on the enemy. More and more 8th Division troops gave in and abandoned their positions and weapons and even their uniforms. Retreating enemies threw themselves on the ground and begged for mercy. Those still nominally fighting hunkered down in their posts and waited for the cruel fire to blow over them. Remaining Goblin pillbox tanks popped their hatches and the crew waved signal flags in surrender. Ocean Road was quickly broken.

Hull-down tactics, a porous line of thick formations with nonexistent flanks, and outdated equipment exposed completely to a technically superior enemy — it was amateur hour tanking, Shayma knew. Standing at the top of Ocean Road and looking down on Rangda and the distant ocean, Major El-Amin became the first of Colonel Madiha Nakar’s commanders to take her assigned objectives, and she did so in little over an hour’s time.

Even so, much of the 8th Division did not know that they had been split into two sections in Rangda and that neither section had the power now to unite with the other. All of them knew even less that they would soon become nearly irrelevant to the conflict entirely.

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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVI

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.

50th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Cuvenen

Upon leaving the road, the Redcoats found themselves overwhelmed in the forest gloom.

Terry the dog quickly became a beacon of light in the shadows of the Cuvenen.

Sylvano could readily understand why the elves left the ancient wood. It was incredibly dense, overgrown, hostile. There was not one spot free of the claustrophobic green. Vines crawled along the moist, sinking earth. Broad, massive trees stretched in haphazard directions and seemed to join at their crowns to form a second, closer sky that was eternally green and gloomy. Between them grew bushes and mosses and flowers and all manner of flora that seemed out of place — how did they grow so green with so little sun?

Around the party the air was thick with the scent of green matter. It made Sylvano gag, and he could have sworn that the smell was a tangible chemical making his eyes weep. It was an oppressive environment. Sylvano felt smothered despite being quite free to move.

Cuvenen was a labyrinth, a cage that enthralled and captured the unaware. It was one gigantic flytrap distributed among a great spread of hectares. There was visual beauty in its shamelessly colorful and fertile occupants, but every other sense was hammered by the surroundings. Somehow, Clarissa could navigate this forest. Perhaps that was part of her royal privilege. But for Sylvano and Salvatrice’s loyal redcoats, the wood was indistinct.

Terry, however, navigated the forest expertly. It was as if she could see a world that they did not. With her snout to the dirt, she confidently walked under the boughs, over the roots, around the trees, through the bushes. She had a straight line to something and she was following it without deviation. Sylvano could only hope it was Clarissa’s path too.

Still, a dog was a dog, and Sylvano, just like Salvatrice, could not fully trust it.

“How do we know she’s on the right track?” Sylvano asked.

At his side, Centurion Byanca Geta sighed loudly in exasperation. She had been having the same trouble as everyone else keeping up with the dog and following her through the wood. Byanca’s boots sank into the soft dirt and mud close to the trees and slipped on the wet, hard earth and stone that lay between them. Her clothing had more than once gotten caught on thorny thickets and on the grasping fingers of long, gnarled boughs.

“She’s a hunting dog, she’s tracked rabbits overland and caught them as they leaped out of their tunnels before! She’s leading us the right away, just have some faith in her.”

Sylvano crossed his arms and huffed but all of his ready arguments were too petty to say.

Nightfall seemed to thicken every meter of wood. Without an awareness of the gaps between every tree in the distance, the forest seemed a wall, with every step feeling like it should have been met with immovable force. Sylvano felt his breathing tighten. Byanca withdrew an electric torch, a military model with an adjustable power switch. She set it to the dimmest setting and pointed it to the floor to avoid exposing too much light.

It barely seemed to make a difference, so dense was the darkness that had fallen.

Ahead of them Terry slowed down, perhaps conscious of the limitations of her masters, and for once they caught up and walked directly alongside the dog through the forest.

Very soon, however, the dog came to a sudden and complete stop. It directed its snout up from the ground and toward a direction, and tensed its body, making no sound. Byanca urged quiet, and shut off her torch. Bowing low, she, Giuseppa and Torvald snuck through a wall of bushes that Terry had been pointing into. Sylvano moved behind them as stealthily as he could. He was practiced in sneaking around, but by no means an expert, and especially not in the woodland. Through the bush, he peered into the forest ahead.

There was a makeshift clearing, where trees had been felled but the canopy above was still so thick with the boughs and crowns of neighboring trees that the removal hardly changed the layout. In place of those trees there was a large camp, a series of tents and shacks built in and around the remaining trees. In the center of the camp there was a much larger tent with stacks of crates making up its walls. There were scattered foxholes forming defensive perimenters, many lazily abandoned, some lazily manned. There was a campfire burning in every other one.  Sylvano could not tell if the men were armed or not. He could only see silhouettes, both of the men sitting and those wandering about in meandering patrols.

In the distance he could hear rushing water. They were near a river, so they could get fresh water, and they could probably hunt and forage in the Cuvenen. It was a sustainable camp.

“Where is Clarissa?” Sylvano asked.

“She might be in a tent, being debriefed. We’ll have to get closer.” Byanca said.

“Can Terry lead us to her?”

Sylvano looked down at the dog. Terry gathered up her paws and laid on the floor.

Byanca shook her head. “She’s a dog, not a sneak thief. She’d just alert them.”

Sylvano sighed.

He had expected a much bigger presence, with tunnels and heavy weapons and light artillery and everything that he had been told the anarchists possessed and was to be feared. She did not expect a tent village for lightly armed, beggarly looking folk. It seemed as if their own little band of redcoats might be more heavily armed based solely on the Norgler Giuseppa carried slung behind her back. At Byanca’s urging, she withdrew the weapon, loaded it, and lay prone with it in the bushes on overwatch duty.

“Cover us. We’re going around the camp. We’ll shoot a flare if we need to escape.”

Giuseppa nodded her head in response and Byanca waved Torvald and Sylvano toward a low ditch that seemed to skirt much of the length of the camp starting where their bushes ended. Byanca crawled on her belly with a pistol in hand started to navigate the little trench. Sylvano thought she could not possibly be serious, but Torvald quickly got on his own stomach and started to move, hugging the wet, mossy wall of the selfsame trench.

Feeling an anxious thumping in her chest, Sylvano got on his own stomach and followed.

It was extremely dark. Light from the campfires danced over the trench but could hardly penetrate inside it. Ahead of him, Sylvano’s allies became indistinct shapes that blended with the dirt and the rock and the moss. Worms and bugs and creatures crawled among them in the natural ditch as they snuck through it, circumventing the outer ring of the anarchist defense. It was like swimming in mud. Sylvano pulled himself slowly with his forearms and hips and knees. Torvald’s boots were almost all he could see of the man.

In this way they crawled for several meters, unseen but incredibly vulnerable. There was no fighting position they could take from their current predicament that would help them. Being caught meant a swift death by bayoneting, sitting helpless like rats in a cage. All of them had pistols but lying on their bellies they would be unlikely to have the first shot.

Sylvano’s eyes drifted nervously from the foul-smelling earth to the rocky wall at his side.

Over the shallow trench the fire-light stirred suddenly.

Sylvano heard footsteps and froze up.

Ahead, Byanca raised her hand enough for Sylvano to see it in the dim illumination.

She then retracted it, and Sylvano saw no more of her. Torvald hugged the ground lower.

Sylvano quickly did the same.

He heard the footsteps come closer.

Overhead, he saw a shadow stretch, dividing the light that danced over the trench.

There was a sharp, sudden flash and a short fizzing noise.

Sylvano smelled smoke. Tobacco smoke.

Then the footsteps started to drift far once more.

Torvald started moving. Sylvano assumed Byanca was moving too, and followed closely.

As they crawled around the outer rim of the camp a pair of voices started to sound louder than the fire and footsteps and general chatter. Sylvano could not make them out at first. Following the trench, however, they came upon a thick, broad tree that blocked the camp’s sight to them. Covered in its shadow, Byanca stood from the trench, and stacked behind the tree. Torvald followed, and Sylvano left last and put his back to the tree with them. Now standing, he could peer around the bulk of the tree and see the men on patrol.

In the light of the campfire their rifle bayonets glinted; Sylvano swallowed hard.



Byanca lifted her finger to her lip. “Listen.”

Sylvano crawled closer to Byanca. Around the tree was a tent, strung from the branches. He tried to make out the speech coming from inside, and managed to catch a familiar voice speaking about familiar topics. Holding his breath intermittently, since even the slightest sound disturbed his understanding, Sylvano tried to put together as much as he could.

“–weapons will be arriving any moment now. Be patient.” a man was saying.

“Is Cesare delivering them personally?”

Clarissa was in this tent as well, talking with this man.

“He is bringing them to us, yes. We’re getting ready for a big play.”

“I don’t think weapons will make this cell ready for–”

Clarissa replied, but Sylvano had to breathe, and lost some of the meaning.

“We’re not in charge of operations. We’re stockpiling. Cesare wants–”

“I know that’s what he wants. And I trust him. But will the villagers fight if armed?”

“We’ve got a match we’re going to light. They’ll see their time has come–”

“How will you make contact?”

“We’re not cavemen anymore. The — helped us set up radio and taught us how to communicate safely with it to avoid decryption and–. We’re ready, Clara.”

Sylvano cursed his anxious heart and weak lungs. He was having trouble understanding.

“For all our sake’s I hope you are. So how do you take the Armory?”

“First our cells are going to make targeted attacks on barracks all around– This will be a diversion to force the Legion to deploy to Ikrea. Then the cells in — will rise up, and attack the Royal Armory, freeing weapons for the people. From there, we will march, rallying the villages around the Palace to assault castle and kill the Queen. It’s only a matter of–”

Clarissa seemed to snort. “How do you breach the walls?”

“Those walls are made of rock. We have anti-tank guns. We’ll tow them to the wall.”

“It is rather thick rock, but you know weapons better than I do.”

Next to Sylvano, Byanca finally reacted to the conversation by shaking her head.

“This is a suicide mission. It will never succeed.” Byanca whispered.

Syvalno took another deep breath and held it strongly in his chest.

“What happens after?” Clarissa then asked.

“We’ll bring the people’s war out from Pallas to the rest of the country. Our comrades in Borelia will also rise up. Our comrades in Iontano will also rise up. It’s time, Clara.”

“I am absolutely ready to stand behind you. But can you defeat the Regulars? Even if you stifle the Legion, mother still has an army that will still fight against rising proles.”

“Most of the Regulars are gone. You’ve been cut off from news, Clara. The 9th Army, 10th Army and 11th Army have been deployed to Ayvarta. They’ve long since passed the naval point of no return and are– Between Borelia, Iontano and Lubon, the remaining armies are overstretched to the point that several Divisions have but two Regiments in them.”

“You speak a lot of gibberish to me, but I believe in you.”

“Believe, comrade Clara. You have seen our power, and you know the decline of your mother’s own. Our time is now. All we need is our weapons, and the signal, which–”

Sylvano felt his heart pounding. Lubon was throwing its mightiest forces into the war in Ayvarta on Nocht’s behalf, and they would not be able to come back in time to stop a general rising of the anarchists, if such a thing was successfully accomplished. And with the Blackshirt Legion having lowered the alarm in Palladi as a result of the Queen’s mercurial whims toward Salvatrice, the anarchists had enjoyed free reign to carry out these plans. Not only that, but they were engaging with Clarissa Vittoria as if she was a friend or equal to them. They were sharing their plans with her, they were treating her well. She was not clapped in irons and beheaded. Clarissa really was one of them.

At the eruption of this civil war, Clarissa would be safe among her comrades but Salvatrice would be hated and endangered by every side of the battle. Treated as a thing by the royals and legions; treated as a monster in need of purging by the rising peasants. She would have even less of a place to live her meager life. Everything would crumble around her.

Carmela, too, would be ruined in this madness. Byanca would not be spared either.

As he listened to the anarchists deliberate, as he listened to Clarissa ask her questions as ‘Clara’, their comrade and equal, Sylvano could not help but sympathize with them and their ideals. They just wanted to be free to lead their lives, like he wanted. They too, were under the heel of the Queen, exploited to feed her armies and fuel her wars and conquests, and decimated when they expressed disagreement or voiced criticism. They were nothing but things to the Queen, like Salvatrice herself. Lubon could better if they succeeded.

But Salvatrice, and Sylvano, and everything they loved, would be in jeopardy.

“Byanca, can we stop them?” Sylvano asked in a low, careful voice.

“Depends on how many of them are delivering these weapons. We can probably light up the camp as it is right now with Giuseppa’s help but we can’t handle any reinforcements.” Byanca whispered. She palmed her face and sighed. “Don’t know if that will stop them.”

“He said there will be a signal. Do you think the signal is in this camp? Did you hear–”

Byanca sighed. “I know as much as you. We may have to wait for the delivery to be sure.”

Sylvano bowed his head and put a hand to his chest. He felt his constitution waning. He had never been in such a stressful situation in his life. Salvatrice confronting her mother was one thing. The Queen could do nothing so terrible to her as what these men might do if they caught her, a royal, in their midst. She was face to face with death in this wood.

“Salv– Sylvano, up.”

Byanca pointed up at the crown of the tree and cupped her hands.

“Excuse me?” Sylvano asked.

“You can climb it.” Byanca said.

Just overhead there was a thick bough that served as an adequate first step onto the procession of branches forming the crown of the tree. Thick and bushy green and very dark, it was unlikely the anarchist patrols would think to look for spies in there. Sylvano, however, was displeased at the idea of having to climb up on it, and was initially quite reluctant, despite Byanca holding out her cupped hand for what seemed like a minute.

He then heard a rustling noise, and more footsteps, and that gave him the push he needed.

Nearly stepping all over Byanca in the process, Sylvano used her boost and climbed up onto that first bough, and from there began to climb the rest. Byanca helped Torvald up, and Torvald reached out a hand and helped her climb — a service Sylvano was far too panicked to provide for his loyal bodyguard. Within moments they had safely sequestered themselves high above the camp. Clarissa was nowhere to be seen from this vantage. She was directly below them. They could keep a good eye on the patrols, however.

As they waited Sylvano was astonished with how quiet and sleepy the camp seemed. Were they not preparing for a historical moment? Though they talked about slaying the Queen, the anarchists were barely lifting a finger. It was more like a pleasant camping site than a military installation. Sylvano wondered if this was the way every major event was preceded. Not with an understanding of its significance, with a buzz of anxiety toward what was to come, but with resignation and peace and even a casual lack of concern.

Either the anarchists were sure of their victory or they were ignorant of the gravity.

For what seemed like hours, Sylvano and his supporters waited atop that tree, watching the anarchists trace the same routes along the camp by rote, periodically going to one of the fires to set up a teapot on metal bars, or getting a pack of some nondescript food item out of one of the crates in the center of the camp and munching on it. They could hear no more of the conversation with Clarissa, but judging by some of the patrols Sylvano had been watching, they would be in grave danger on the ground even hiding behind the tree.


Sylvano had been meaning to ask her to be careful starting her attack. He had wanted to confirm with her again that Clarissa would be safe, that they could rescue her from here.

Then he saw the lights shining in the woods.

And he heard the turning of loud tracks, and the grunting of an engine.

Though in a panic he envisioned a tank, it was something much more mundane.

From the edge of camp, a large tractor with a covered top trundled through the bush, towing a container on a tracked carriage. Several of the patrolling anarchists turned to face it but nobody seemed alarmed. It was a white tractor with a big cab and tight, tall tracks, of the kind any industrial farm would have used for a variety of purposes. Procuring such a vehicle would not have been hard for anyone, and it could navigate the wood fairly well.

Inching forward at barely above a human walking speed, the tractor dragged its cargo near the center of the camp and stopped. From below the tree, Sylvano spotted Clarissa and a man in what seemed like hiking gear, with thick gloves, long sleeves and leather overalls. Both walked toward the tractor and gathered near the cab, waiting on the driver.

“Hey, about time you got here! Where’s Cesare?” asked the man beside Clarissa.

When the door into the interior of the tractor opened, a corpse fell right out.

A gunshot flashed in the cabin and rang out. Beside Clarissa, the anarchist fell dead.

Sylvano felt a silence that seemed to last an eternity, between the thud of the falling corpse, and the gunshot, and then the gurgling death of the stricken anarchist.

Clarissa screamed and fled past the tractor in terror.

Far too quickly, the camp descended into chaos.

Panels on the sides of the weapon crate slid open, and weapon barrels peeked from inside.

Automatic fire began to spray in every compass direction.

Muzzle flashes lit from the surrounding forest, putting lead on the anarchist patrols.

It was an ambush.

Men in dark clothing and masks rushed into the camp from the exterior.

Anarchists all over the camp began to shoot wildly in every direction to combat them.

From a foxhole, a glass petrol bomb was lit and thrown toward the center of camp.

In an instant the tractor was up in flames, and the fires quickly spread over the cabin and the burning engine and into the crate. The mysterious attackers inside it had their ruse turned into a horrifying slaughter. With the camp fully engaged, however, the silence of the machine guns only allowed every other rifle and pistol to sound all the louder and drown out the screams of the burning, dying men trapped inside their trojan horse.

Despite the loss of their treacherous support weapon, the men invading the camp moved almost unopposed, trampling over the outer line of foxholes on the side of the camp opposite Sylvano’s group. Swords and bayonet flashed in the dark. Anarchists in the interior of the camp, many wounded from the machine gun crate, took up positions where they could and fired back with their own rifles, forcing the invaders to take cover in the foxholes they had invaded, huddling with the corpses of the men they had freshly killed.

Then, from behind the foxholes, a second rank of invaders opened fire with submachine guns. Every anarchist position lit up from dense volleys of blue tracers from the wood.

It was clear which side was the winning one.

None of this mattered anymore, none of it had consequence; only one thing did.


Sylvano leaped down from the tree in an action quite unlike him.

It was not him anymore.

“Salvatrice, no!”

Byanca shouted after, but the Princess was running after her sister.

The Legionnaire’s voice was barely a whisper beneath the gunfire and Salva’s own mind.

She landed harshly on her feet, nearly hurting herself, but she took off into wood, passing by the enormous bonfire that had become of the weapons crate and the tractor towing it, running past the positions of dead anarchists struck first and too quickly by the hidden weapon, ignoring the pitched battle unfolding between the shadowy soldiers and the anarchists across the camp. She rushed into the wood, into the dark. She ran on instinct.

Clarissa, whom she had never got to know, whom she had so easily abandoned.

Who was this woman who joined the anarchists like this? Who wanted to kill their mother, to betray her royal heritage? Salvatrice needed to know and Sylvano simply could not. She would look upon Sylvano as a stranger, but Salvatrice– would she see Salvatrice as her blood, as her sister? Would she pity her and free her the way she wanted to free herself? Wracked with confusion and questions and regrets, that screamed in her brain louder and brighter than the incessant gunfire she left behind, Salvatrice was running and running.

She heard the sound of the river, and she followed it. Everything else was thick bush and treacherous undergrowth and slippery soil. She ran with abandon, striking with her hands the branches and bushes and clinging vines that were in her way and rushing with all her strength toward the sound of the river, and the voices she soon heard over the battle.

“–Lubon has no more need of you.”

Salvatrice rushed out of the wood and into the river clearing in time to watch a bullet go through one end of her sister’s beautiful head and exit out the other. In the darkness of the forest night she saw the flash and she saw the blood and she felt a pain greater than the fleeting instant Clarissa must have felt as she defiantly stood before the gun, and accepted the bullet, and fell, like an angel freed from burden, backward into the river.

Clarissa Vittoria washed away with the foam of the rushing water.

Though she wanted to scream, to cry, to gnash her teeth, Salvatrice could only stare.

Her eyes welled up with silent tears, and her legs gave away.

She sat on the floor, her fists on her knees, weeping.

She was not alone.

Across from where Clarissa had stood, attached to the gun that had killed her, was a man in a black uniform, tall, strong and well-built, with a peaked cap and an unsmiling face. Around her were three other men, masked, wielding assault weapons, staring solemnly.

This man approached Salvatrice, and kneeled in front of her.

Gently, he lifted her chin. He bowed his own head, closing his eyes, and saluted.

“Legatus Tarkus Aurelius Marcel, 67th Signals Battalion, at your service, milady.”

Behind him, the three men bowed, kneeled, and saluted.

At her sides, from ambush, more legionnaires bowed, kneeled, and saluted with them.

Tarkus, that distant memory from her childhood, lay before her, contriving his stance to be lower than hers despite her collapsed state. He looked up at her from his genuflection and he smiled, and he addressed her with a warm, alien cordiality, almost a reverence.

“We dedicate this night to you, Princess. You will be in your rightful place, soon.”

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter




Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIII

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Town of Palladi

Though the town of Palladi had grown dramatically in the shadow of the nearby Academy, the crying of roosters still heralded the morning, just as it had done when farmland dominated the landscape. Moments before the sun began to rise over the old province, dozens of stout birds presiding over several family coops kept on the town’s outlying lands stood under the clearing sky and competed in voice to bring in the dawn. Regardless of the electric lights in the town square or even the old mechanical clock tower in the northern urbanization, the roosters would cry across town.

It was with the roosters that the old townies woke. No more than six kilometers from the ultramodern home where Salvatrice and Carmela partook of each other, a small cafe opened its doors, admitting the single customer that the shop owner had always come to expect. However, they soon found, together, that the man was not alone. He had been followed.

Byanca Geta approached from behind the older man and the cafe owner just as the door opened. She slipped in with them, ignoring the icy glare from the owner, a woman older than her but younger than him. Though she gave Byanca a long, wary and appraising glare, she would not dare close her establishment to a legionnaire who had yet to speak. Meanwhile the old man, a certain Giovanni, merely glanced at her without a word.

Inside, the cafe was small and homely. There were potted plants near every table and corner, and the tables were small and circular with high chairs. There were eight tables, and a few seats on the counter, behind which the owner stood and took to staring at Byanca some more. Byanca paid her no mind. She waited a moment for the old man to take his seat, and then promptly moved to the end of the front row of tables, set behind the long front window of the cafe, and sat right across from him.

“Giovanni Martino?” Byanca said.

“Doubtless you already know.” He replied.

From the center of the table he picked up a rolled-up newspaper, freed it from a paper ribbon around its center, and unfurled it. He started to read, and his view of Byanca was completely blocked. She was unfazed by this. She expected he would try to shut her out. Cooperation with the Legion had always been low among the civilians, and it was an all-time low now.

“I bear you no ill will, nor do I come to detain or question you on behalf of the Blackshirt Legion. I’m here as a private person.”  Byanca said.

“Your uniform says otherwise.” Giovanni casually said.

“I have nothing else decent to wear.”

“No. You could get clothes. I got clothes when I came back. But the uniform is convenient, isn’t it? It starts to feel like your good skin.”

He turned the page as if he had said nothing much at all.

Byanca blanked for a moment on how to reply.

There was nobody outside the window, nobody walking the streets. Aside from the owner there was nobody there but them. She felt that coaxing Giovanni into the subject would not work. Byanca still had to be careful, but she could partake in a mild indiscretion to bring him out of hiding.

“I’m here because of Salvatrice Vittoria.” Byanca said in a low, calm voice.

It was a name both of them knew; one with many portents attached.

Giovanni promptly laid the newspaper down on the table.

He adjusted his hat and turned on Byanca a sharp glare.

“I’m not keen to threaten neither women nor kids; but little girl, if you intend to march upon the young Vittoria, we are going to have problems.”

His own tone of voice matched hers, save for the threat.

While he spoke, his fingers snatched the fork and spoon on the table and began to toy with them, twirling them around. It was perhaps a nervous tic, though it could also be a display. She got the impression that were he to reach for a knife or gun he would be even more dexterous than with the utensils. Certainly if it came down to a draw she thought he could draw much faster than her. Giovanni’s every movement spoke of an intensity often unseen in his age. He was very deliberate in every turn of the hand.

And yet his face betrayed no emotion in its hewn and worn features.

Byanca raised a hand in her own defense. It contained her identification.

“I intend no such thing. I am her new bodyguard. Centurion Byanca Geta.”

Giovanni’s expression was unchanged. He still regarded her coldly.

“I see. I was informed about your presence, though were never introduced formally. In fact I put it out of my mind; I never thought that we would have cause to meet. Your business and mine ought to remain separate.”

“Salvatrice cannot afford that. Not with the danger she faces.”

“It is precisely because of the danger that you should be away from me, and alongside her instead. I work for that child from afar. She trusts me with her correspondence and I deliver it. No more.” Giovanni said.

Byanca smiled. “How did you chance upon such a golden opportunity?”

Giovanni shook his head, seeming more disappointed than offended.

“You mistake me and the Princess both if you think this role is lucrative.”

Byanca did not need much convincing of that. After all, she had served the Princess for some time now and all she had come away with was injury. It did not pay to serve Salvatrice Vittoria. It could only be done out of love.

“I need to know how you met and why you serve her.” Byanca said.

“Nothing in your reports about that?” Giovanni asked.

“No.” Byanca replied. She felt for a moment like she had come under attack from him. It was the same disdain Salvatrice had shown her before. Both were justified in their anger. She had too much information at her disposal and too much reason to employ it — none of it was right.

But like her attitude in this conversation, she found it necessary.

“Salvatrice has told me about you, much like she has told you about me.” She said. “But I still have no reason to trust you. I would like to dispel my doubts. Please enlighten me as to how you came to serve Salvatrice.”

“All I will say is I traveled with her for a time and grew attached”

Giovanni pulled open his coat and withdrew a cigarette and lighter.

“Care for one?” He asked.

It was the almost instinctual courtesy of an old gentleman, nothing more.

Byanca was well aware that he still kept her at arm’s length.

This was perhaps even a ploy to quiet her for a time.

“I don’t smoke.” Byanca said.

Shrugging, Giovanni lit his own cigarette and took a drag.

Behind the counter the owner watched the two of them talk. She did not come to take their orders or otherwise make any overtures. It was clear they had this time to themselves. Byanca was simultaneously glad for a touch of privacy, but also annoyed at how little the legionnaire badge and shirt was worth. It was that annoyance in part that brought her here.

After blowing a cloud of smoke, Giovanni turned to Byanca once more.

“I will not answer any more questions, Ms. Geta, until you state your intentions clearly. Have some respect for an old man’s fading time.”

“I was planning to come clean now anyway.”

Byanca leaned forward.

“I am looking for recruits.”

Giovanni raised an eyebrow. “For the blackshirt legion?”

“No!” Byanca said, shaking her head. “To serve the princess as we do.”

For a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to soften on her.

“I’m listening.” He said.

“The Princess is in grave danger every single day.” Byanca said. “Both the Legion and the anarchists have become her antagonists. There is no side that she can join. Salvatrice has to become her player in this game. I want to create a group that answers only to her and that does only her bidding.”

“You mean you wish to raise mercenaries to protect the Princess?”

Giovanni seemed at once intrigued and outraged by the proposal.

“Plenty of nobles have bought extra bodyguards. It is only fair Salvatrice do so as well. I’m not ambitious; even one man would suffice right now.”

She put an obvious inflection on her last few words.

“So that is why you’ve come to me then? I’m your man?” He said.

She had his attention now. She could tell; he was emoting more now.

Byanca turned a smile on him and tried to engage him with more charm. “You served in Borelia, didn’t you, Giovanni? You were a soldier. You left the colonial forces due to your principles. And the Princess trusts you.”

Giovanni crossed his arms. He looked her over with a wary gaze.

“I’m sure the Princess would love to have you as part of her defense.” Byanca continued. “We will no longer rely on the Legion. After this affair I’m turning in my black shirt for a red coat. Would you help me, Giovanni?”

There was no longer anything to hide. Byanca spoke earnestly and honestly. She could only throw herself on his mercy and hope that he saw beyond the shirt at the desperate fallen knight who longed for her princess. Or at the very least, hope that he saw a dragon who loved her.

In return, Giovanni snorted. He looked out to the street, away from her.

“A reference to the uniform of the old imperial guard does not sway me. I do not romanticize it. That being said, I know a few soldiers younger than me who could use the work. I will send them to you. You’d best have the coin for them, however. Mercenaries do not hold your pretty ideals.”

Perhaps he had seen neither knight nor dragon, but a desperate girl.

Despite this, he had given her some hope.

Byanca smiled. “We have more dinari than we know what to do with.”

At the moment it was not necessarily true, but it soon would be.

“Hmm. Redcoats, huh? What will the Queen think of this, I wonder.”

Giovanni grew pensive. Byanca gave a fiery retort. “To hell with her.”

To her surprise, it was well-received. For the first time, Giovanni grinned.

43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Town of Palladi — Sabbadin Homestead

Atop the brick wall surrounding the rear portion of the Sabbadin estate, a questing rooster paused momentarily to peer at the dawning sun and give its characteristic cry. Through the upper hallway, and into the heiress’ bedroom the cry wound its way, until it reached a pair of blunt elven ears.

Salvatrice Vittoria slowly awoke, sitting up against the bedrest.

There were all kinds of scents and sights in the room around her.

She found herself giddily immersed in the sensations.

At her side she found Carmela asleep, snoring softly, pushed against her. Her chest rose and fell splendidly, and she glistened with a layer of sweat. Salvatrice felt a delectable shiver in her skin as her hip touched Carmela’s back. Her lover groaned slightly in protest, smiled and shifted her weight.

As she did so, Carmela pulled the blank off both of them.

Finding her breasts suddenly bared, Salvatrice pulled the blanket back.

She could not pull it over her chest and soon gave up the tug of war.

Carmela remained asleep, arms spread, her naked body fully in view.

Her lipstick was smeared, her pigments running, her hair frayed. Her voluminous dress was in parts all over the bed, her skirt and leggings hanging over a column, bodice thrown at their feet, her lingerie dangling off her ankle. Her warm olive skin was still red in the places that had been sucked or smacked or squeezed or otherwise performed upon in love.

Salvatrice glanced askance at one of the mirrors in the room and smiled.

She also looked as if she had a wild night. Her hair was tossed around, her nice dress was wrinkled and discarded like a rag, and she was still feeling stiff between the legs. All of her once brownish skin was an off-red color from the heat in her blood. Most notably her makeup was a fine mess.

From the first seizing of lips she shared with Carmela she had become smeared in lipstick. As her lover aggressively explored more of her body the red marks spread like a haphazard tattoo. She had bright red marks on her small breasts, on her buttocks and thighs, and in places between. Her own lipstick had smeared as well when her turn came to kiss and tongue where she desired, but the color was subtler than Carmela’s bright red.

In the mirror, Salvatrice resembled a horny clown. She started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” Carmela said, her voice a luscious little purr.

Her eyes half-opened. She had a naughty look on her face.

“We’re completely disheveled.” Salvatrice said.

“We don’t have to clean up for anyone, do we?”

Carmela sat up in bed and tossed her wavy golden hair with a coquettish grin. She did not care to cover herself with the blanket, and her breasts seemed to rumble right before Salvatrice’s eyes. She exuded a confidence in her own body that sent another jolt right between Salvatrice’s legs.

“Well, not right now. But I must soon be going.” Salvatrice said.

“Will you at least stay for breakfast?” Carmela asked.

“Yes, I promised that much.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s impish grin returned. “It is a two-course meal.”

After that cryptic whisper she pounced on Salvatrice.

Salvatrice barely had time to moan in pleasure.

Perhaps an hour later, disheveled ever more, the two finally left the bed.

Laughing, Carmela pushed Salvatrice out of the room and down the halls, barely wrapped in sheets pilfered from the bed. Thankfully there were no servants there to witness the two naked, giggling young women cavorting sensually down the hall and into the bathroom. There was a grand and dire bath tub in the center, like an obsidian coffin. Soon it filled from the hot water faucet, and Carmela and Salvatrice lay down side by side within.

All of their pigments and oils washed into the water and danced on the surface, coloring and obscuring the shapes of their bodies below.

Carmela leaned her head on Salvatrice’s shoulder.

“How are you finding the accommodations so far?” She asked.

“Quite stimulating.” Salvatrice replied.

Carmela looked up at Salvatrice, craned her head and kissed her.

“Salva, I love you.” She said.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

Turning her head again, the heiress gazed into their obscure reflections on the water. She smiled, swirling her finger over her own face in the surface.

“I am incredibly happy that we could meet and touch and delight one another. But I want you to know if I could only love you through letters and at a distance for the rest of my life, I would be happy.” Carmela said.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Salvatrice replied. She was a little taken aback.

She had never thought of it in that way before. Certainly she had imagined she would lose Carmella, on that fateful day when the responsibilities of the kingdom finally snatched her free life from her. But she never thought their romance could potentially continue even if from afar. To Salvatrice, the exchange of letters had simply staunched a wound until she could have a fleeting glimpse of her beloved, as a stitch to stop the bleeding.

“I love everything about you, Salva. What I first fell in love with was that sharp tongue you turned on unsavory guests at the few parties where we could arrange to meet; what I next fell in love with was that sharp intellect and the kindness and vulnerability behind it. When I learned about your body I loved that as well. But I will always love you; it might be a different love than what the commonfolk share, but it will be love, at any distance.”

Salvatrice herself felt compelled to lay her own head on Carmella then.

“I’m so happy to hear it.” She said. She felt the warmth of those words in her chest and across her cheeks. She knew it was not the bath that did it.

Carmela bowed her head, smiling with eyes averted like a shy schoolgirl.

“Whenever I craft a letter to you, and receive one back, I feel so relieved. Because I know my feelings reached you and perhaps brought you a smile. I send you my strength and my love in each stroke of that pen, Salvatrice. It’s the one place in the world just for us. We can do anything there.”

Guilty thoughts started to bubble under the warm and happy surface of her mind. She never realized how powerful were the feelings contained in those letters. For stretches of time she neglected them, thinking that Carmela would worry but ultimately understand. Now that she thought of it, those letters were a hand stretched from across a lonely darkness. Carmela had nothing to truly love in between each letter. She had said it before: Salvatrice was the first and only person she had ever really loved.

To Salvatrice they had been letters, a bridge to communicate and keep in touch with Carmela and plot until they could truly love again; but to Carmela each of those letters was an act of love and devotion the same as holding in hands in public or kissing or maybe even sharing a bed.

No matter the distance; even if they never saw each other’s faces.

Carmela could still love her.

In a way, it heartened Salvatrice. She could love her back too, then.

No matter the distance. So long as there was pen, paper and ink.

“I will write more. I can also call on the telephone.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s eyes drew wide. “Are you sure? It won’t be dangerous?”

“I’ll insure that it isn’t. Even if we can’t trade kisses in ink, you will hear my voice. We will never be apart. I promise you.” Salvatrice said.

No matter the distance; it was still love. It could still be shared.

Once their skin started to wrinkle with water, the pair rose from the bath, and scarcely dried, returned to the bedroom and donned their disguises. Carmela was once more the lovely, curvy young maid; Salvatrice was the slender, angular young courier or paper boy in a cap, shirt and pants.

There was one part of their promised meal they had not yet eaten.

This one they would not have as a breakfast in bed.

Down in the kitchen, the two of them set together to the task. Carmela withdrew various items from cabinets and drawers and boxes. She cut cheeses and tomatoes, while Salvatrice assembled plates of pre-cut hard breads, and skinned tangerines with her fingers. They set a pot of tea on the stove and waited for it to whistle. Many a time they bumped into each other in the kitchen with a giggle as they set about their work.

From the back garden they plucked plump grapes and gathered flowers, and soon they sat together on a brown wooden table under the mid-morning sun and picked at their spread while basking in the glow of this delightful domesticity. To the outside world they would be commoners: it was not unheard of for a salacious maid to invite a local boy for a tryst while the mistress was nowhere to be seen. Salvatrice enjoyed the fantasy.

They were not commonfolk; love for them was more difficult than the archetypes of bawdy romances. Last night was a dream world that had taken time and planning to construct. They would be unlikely to see each other again, let alone have sex, for quite some time. Love was a struggle.

But not impossible. Over the wires, over the surface of stationary.

Just as she dropped a grape into Carmela’s mouth over the table.

Just as they traded sweet little kisses between bites of glazed ham.

They would have that love no matter where they went.

With this in mind, Salvatrice was heartened for what she had to do.

“Carmela, I will confide in you what I am planning.” She said at last.

Those words would set everything into motion. She was ready now.

To her own raging battlefield she could now depart without regrets.

Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter






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

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a flash the Majini made the first move.

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

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

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

I will borrow this flesh.

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

Madiha found herself paralyzed with fear at the sight.

Von Drachen stopped shooting and stared, mouth agape.

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

Through the transformation his voice distorted and eventually muted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hit the dirt!” Madiha shouted.

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

There was no other choice.

Madiha set her feet and drew in a deep breath.

Both the monster and its master recognized the danger.

Madiha was an instant quicker than them.

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

Unthinking, the new Majini reared back for a charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its grotesque snouts and teeth reformed into a mask.

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

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

And it would abandon Chakrani to an unimaginable fate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It became suddenly hard to breathe.

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

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

“I thought you said–”

“Forget it! Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” cried Von Drachen.

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

Her worry was short-lived. Brass Face understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It isn’t even moving closer.”

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

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

“Do you?”

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

Von Drachen cracked a nervous grin without looking at her.

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

Meanwhile their enemy waited, clicking its claws together.

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

Incarnation of Ayvarta.” It mumbled soundlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps even linked to the ancient tyrant by blood.

Incarnation of Ayvarta.

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

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

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

“I’m thinking.”

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

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

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

Her mind quickly refocused.

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

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

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

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

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

She started to visualize a way forward.

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

“Are you ready?” She whispered.

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

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

“And then what?”

“That’s classified information.”

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

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The Queen Crowned In Tukino (26.4)


This story segment contains scenes of violence.


46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Afternoon

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.

A column of 15 or so Goblin tanks advanced in a large, amorphous clump down the middle of a hard plain ringed by light hills to the east and the edge of the Silba wood to the west. Their small hulls with flat glacis plates, obvious, pedestal-like turret ring, slanted tracks and over-large turrets with 45mm guns and sizable rear counterweights easily gave the model away — in addition to the fact of their ubiquity in Ayvartan tank divisions. These models particular models on a collision course to Silb had a curious addition: extraneous bolted plate armor along the front and around the gun mantlet, a sloppy up-armoring scheme.

They had likely plotted this route because it avoided the soft terrain and thus the mud as much as possible, but it left their flanks seriously exposed on both sides.

This group had advanced 5 kilometers south from the Sandari, likely after crossing a hidden bridge, regrouping, and then setting off in their thick, loose formation for defense, like a herd of gnus. Every so often a tank, somewhere random in the formation, would turn its turret around, but for the most part there was seemingly no thought being given to an active defense. Despite their initiative and subversion they were vulnerable.

“See that one tank with the ring antennae atop? Commander. Hit that one first.”

Noel watched the tanks from the wide-angle periscope of his M5A2 hidden in the wood. Seated alone on the turret, in the gunner’s position just beside the commander’s cupola, he had a lot of space to himself, though this was mostly because of his build — the turret was somewhat cramped. Below and further front, Ivan sat behind the sticks, awaiting the order to charge down the gentle slope at the edge of the wood.

“Wait for my signal, and aim for the commander with APCB rounds. Then rush in and keep shooting, even if you miss. Volume beats accuracy.” He said, using his throat mic. “I’ll use my M5A2’s gyrostabilizer and snipe at anyone troublesome while on the run.”

For their size, the Ayvartan Goblin-type tanks were not very quick. Noel believed they probably managed a measly 15 or so km/h off-road — half as much as that of his M5A2, without supercharging. He watched them patiently from around a kilometer away as they neared the dead center of the plain. He had a 1.5 kg APCB round in hand, sleek and light in its bronze case, its sharp black head cap hungry for armor.

“Ready guns.” Noel said. “Ivan get that supercharger ready.”

At their speed the Goblins covered about 200 meters a minute. Within thirty seconds the formation was well within the center of the plain with ample room on all sides.

Noel was sure he could cut the distance to them in about a minute.

He pulled the lever to open the breech, loaded the round and watched as it closed and shoved the shell in by mechanical action. Then he reached his feet down to the foot pads and felt them out. One press shifted the turret about thirty degrees right or left depending on the pad. Good enough for a start. Noel then reached his hand down and used the turret control lever to make minor, granular corrections to the turret direction as the tanks continued moving. He counted the meters–

In an instant everything aligned perfectly and Noel called out, “Attack!”

Three muzzles flashed in the wood, launching high-velocity, solid armor-piercing rounds downhill toward the Goblin formation. One shell went wide over the formation and crashed into the eastern hillsides; the remaining two, including Noel’s pierced the turret and track of a Goblin with a prominent radio antenna, leaving large holes. He had hit right through the side of the turret. There were no explosions — these shells were not explosive in nature. But no crew left the stricken tank, sitting immobile amid its allies.

It was likely that the spray of metal resulting from the penetrations had killed them.

“Ivan, we’ll rush in front of the formation! Bartosz, circle behind them and dash toward the eastern hills while Dolph rushes through the center! Keep shooting!” Noel ordered.

“Roger!” Ivan replied through the platoon intercomm. Despite the noise inside the tank, Noel heard him clearly through the radio headset on his commander’s helmet.

“Yessir!” Bartosz and Dolph replied. Noel heard a bit of whooping and cheering.

Engine whirring with life, the M5A2 charged out of the cover of the woods and down the hill at a low gear to control speed. On its flanks, ordinary M5s belonging to Dolph and Bartosz rushed toward the formation as well. Once they hit flatter ground the tanks sped up. Dolph and Bartosz broke toward their attack lanes; Ivan initiated the engine supercharge. Noel could look down and barely see the driver’s gauges from his position, the needles rising.

Noel’s M5A2 roared suddenly as the experimental engine booster solution took effect. At Ivan’s expert direction, the M5A2 bobbed and weaved toward the south to hook around the front of the column, rapidly picking up speed and cutting the distance. His driving was excellent, and Noel could concentrate on his forte, shooting and command.

Most of the enemy formation stopped dead to aim, turrets turning west toward the wood, but several others were moving in front of and around each other to get into position. There was little coordination without their commander. One at a time in belabored succession half of the Goblin formation’s 45mm guns started to answer, but the M5s swept away from the armor-piercing shots, each tank traveling down its sweeping, encircling arc. Noel briefly saw dirt and smoke rise in front and around him as shells fell short of his sprint. He saw trails in the air as shells flew aside and over him and around his men, making no contact.

He looked out to the battlefield, switching between his wide-angle periscope over the top of the turret and his gunnery close-in sights positioned just off the left of his 37mm gun. Thanks to the gyrostabilizers even in motion his aim down the gunnery sights was corrected for and kept reasonably steady. He watched, like an eye hovering beside his gun, as shells were traded between the sides, and left a webwork of smoke in the air.

The Goblins swung their turrets around like the heads of panicked animals trying to spot their predators; those with presence enough to fight shot wildly every which way.

Dolph and Bartosz turned their turrets to face along their tank’s sides and launched as many shots as fast as they could muster in reply. Solid shells smashed into the dirt, soared between tanks, and as the distance closed started to score hits, leaving ugly dents and scars on contact with bulging gun mantlets and rigid, slanted fronts. Much of the column had turned west. Noel’s subordinates were shooting at tough stacks of riveted plates.

As Dolph approached the center three distinct groupings of three or four tanks had formed with a few strays along the edges. All of the grouped tanks were clumping so close together that their guns fired over each other’s engine compartments and beside each other’s gun mantlets. Meanwhile the strays seemed to want to pursue their own agendas but did not fully break from the pack. Within the confused fighting, the result was that the Ayvartan column was without discernible shape and every tank was acting on its own.

Reaching into the ammo rack, Noel seized a flat-headed High-Explosive shell, 1.5 kg and packed with 40 grams of TNT. He easily loaded the shell and set his sights.

As the M5A2 skirted the Goblin formation within 500 meters, he used the lever to keep his turret trained on one of the few tanks fighting seemingly effectively.

The M5A2 finally hooked around the front, and Noel hit the cannon trigger.

A 37mm HE shell soared between two Goblins and hit one on its side in the interior of the formation. There was a sharp, smoking blast, and two vehicles were pockmarked by dozens of hot shell fragments blowing right into the engine compartment. Smoke and then fire burst among the tanks. Hatches opened, and men and women rushed out.

Even the men and women inside reasonably unharmed vehicles abandoned them.

Noel grinned. With one well-placed shell he had taken out four tanks.

While Königin circled around the formation’s lower shoulder, Dolph burst down the center and Bartosz swooped in behind them, cannons crying as they tore through vulnerable track sides and engine compartments and turret flanks, setting many of the tanks helplessly alight. Noel’s obvious attack and charge down from the western wood had caused most of the column to face west initially and few of the Goblins had corrected the facing of their glacis plates as the M5s closed in. Those front plates, packed with bolted-on armor upgrades, were no good now. The M5s had passed them by and bit them in their flanks.

When Dolph came out of the center he passed by Noel who circled around the back, meeting Bartosz as he came around — thus they had fully cleared the vulnerable column and began to circle back around to kettle the remaining tanks, like sharks around a bloodied corpse. Tank-less crews fled the scene on foot, seemingly unarmed, having left any equipment when abandoning their tanks. One of the remaining tanks regained some level of initiative and took off from the scene as fast as its tracks could go, helping shield the fleeing crews.

“Don’t shoot the fleeing crews! We can capture them or follow them and either way find those underwater bridges. We’re here to stop their attack! Keep that in mind!” Noel shouted into the radio. Their machine guns could have ripped apart the soldiers filing out as they circled, but that would’ve been nothing but pointless wasting of ammo.

Dolph and Bartosz replied in the affirmative, without question.

“Anyway, it’s over now. Let’s wrap this up.”

Noel’s Jagdpanzerzug had done its job and scattered the Ayvartan column, sending the remnants running. They had blunted the attack on Silb, despite a numerical inferiority of 5 to 1 — in the middle of battle he had hardly even considered the odds.

Together with Dolph and Bartosz, Noel regrouped atop one of the eastern hills, called in their kills and watched the retreating enemies, ready to follow them further north. In all they had taken out 9 tanks through damage, captured 5 almost intact and forced one to flee — all within the span of a few minutes since the battle began to when it ended.

Noel expected the remnants of this force would be in the bag shortly.

46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Early Evening

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.

Warlock close-air support craft soared overhead in groups of three and vanished north. Minutes after leaving the sights of the tank commanders sitting half-out of their turrets, the planes dove and dropped their deadly payloads. In the distance the booming 250 kilograms of TNT could be heard. Sometimes the tank commanders saw the smoke trailing up against the setting sun from their cupolas. Many watched the sights as they advanced, running up and down the Sandari to support the bridgehead operations as best as they could.

Noel called for Ivan to stop the tank, and he ordered him up to the turret. It was cramped, but they were slender enough to fit side by side out of the cupola atop the turret. They watched the sunset together, smoke and all, and saw the planes coming and going. Between the bombs and the artillery shells they heard the rhythmic snapping of machine guns and autocannons, so far in the distance they felt like the sounds of the forest.

They were alone — Dolph and Bartosz had gone ahead at Noel’s behest, while the Königin waited for a physical contact from 8th PzD Headquarters.

Together they soaked up the moment, the relative peace and solitude.

“Another day, another 12 rounds of APCB for das vaterland.” Noel said with a grin.

He leaned back onto the turret, hands behind his head, looking up at the darkening sky.

Ivan leaned back beside him. Noel turned over and ran a finger down his chest.

“We were really amazing Noel. Completely incredible.” Ivan said out of the blue.

A coquettish little smile appeared on Noel’s face. “Oh ho?”

“You should’ve seen those pressure gauges going. That supercharger is amazing.” Ivan said. “We were doing over forty! And consistently, even as the pressure went up!”

Noel burst out laughing. “Not a good judge of the moment are you? I’m sitting here doing my best pinup girl impression and you’re talking about the tank.”

He smiled his fondest smile a this companion, who looked away with a shy grin.

“Well, it looks like we won’t have time to do anything funny anyway.”

Ivan stared behind their tank. Noel turned his head over his shoulder.

A vehicle had arrived to join them — an M4 Sentinel with a fake gun.

As its headlight shone on them, they sat up on the turret sides. Noel flashed a v-sign with his fingers, rocking his legs back and forth as General Dreschner and Karla Schicksal climbed out of the turret hatch and ambled over to the Königin.

“Congratulations are in order, Captain Skoniec.” General Dreschner said.

“Thanks to you we have just secured a third bridgehead!” Schicksal said.

“Ah, so you found that pontoon bridge? Was it where I told ya?” Noel asked.

“Only a little bit off,” Schicksal replied, checking a clipboard, “in essence you had the right idea. Reiniger and Spoor managed to find it in the northwest, following your leads. The Ayvartans had a clever idea — the bridge was submerged, just under the surface. Once we found the enemy’s crossing, Reiniger and Spoor’s men fought their way across with some Warlock assistance and hunkered down on the hillsides on the other side, so we’re in a stronger position to resist the Ayvartan offensive. All thanks to you.”

“Yeah, see, sometimes it pays to scare the enemy off rather than kill ’em.”

“Perhaps it does.” General Dreschner said. “Captain Skoniec: your men have joined Reiniger across the river to defend the new bridgehead, but I came here personally to fetch you, because I desire for you to stay back until Wa Prüf 6 arrives to perform maintenance on the M5A2 prototype. Until then, we’d like you to go over doctrine with some of our reserve tankers, in Reiniger’s stead. They are excited to learn from a Panzer ace.”

Dreschner reached out and held aloft a paper folder that ostensibly had his new orders packed in it. Perhaps crew dossiers for the new training unit or something similar.

Noel yawned, swinging his legs like a child seated at the edge of a playground tower.

“Fine with me. I will mold them into wonderful little fire flowers.”

Dreschner had no comment, while Schicksal crooked her eyebrows.

Noel reached down and snatch the folder with a flick of his wrist. He pretended to look it over while the bosses were still around, flipping pages and glancing at pictures.

“Shall we escort you back to Silb then?” Schicksal said.

Noel briefly looked over his shoulder at Ivan, who met his eyes for a moment and smiled. Smiling back, the Captain waved his hand dismissively at his superiors.

“Nah. I know the way back.” Noel said innocently.

48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, Outskirts

Calm rains fell from morning to noon and seemed poised to persist, making up for the time nature lost the previous day. Damp ground again turned muddy, and Schicksal wore a rubber raincoat with a hood over her uniform from the moment she woke. After lunch, she joined General Dreschner on the outskirts of the village. Silb’s main road wound out from between the trees and descended down a gentle slope to an ample grassy meadow, one of many shallow dips in the terrain that became long uninterrupted puddles whenever it rained. Together the General and Radio Officer tramped through mud and grass to the edge of the woods and pulled up their binoculars, watching for traffic on the submerged road.

In the distance they spotted the convoy, cordially on time, an eight-wheeled armored car and a pair of motorcycles leading several trucks, some covered, many not, carrying crates of precious, coveted food, fuel and parts — and men. Water displaced at their sides as they struggled through the knee-deep puddle. A vast column of vehicles headed north along the road, most bypassing Silb, but every so often a few split from the convoy and turned onto the grass. These struggled through water very slightly deeper than on the road and then took the muddy slope up into Silb. Panzergrenadier guards ushered them in.

“Those motorcycle troops are part of the 14th Jager. They made it all the way here. I guess Baumgartener’s doing us a favor again.” Schicksal said, putting down her binoculars.

“He ill deserved the treatment he received from me.” Dreschner solemnly said.

Several battalions of men were finally trickling up from Shaila, fully rested and reequipped to continue the fight. Among them were elements of the Grenadier divisions Spoor had his eyes on a few days ago. Though it had been spontaneous and sloppy, the new Ayvartan offensive gave the higher-ups the impetus to send whatever was ready to push out from the static bridgeheads along the Sandari. Though they did not yet have their whole Divisions available, these various battalions that now traveled up the road, in the tens and twenties of men on the backs of several-ton trucks, made up more than a Regiment.

For almost an hour under the rain they watched the string of vehicles headed north. Then they spotted the tail end of the convoy — a heavy-duty tank transporter escorted by some light tanks. The transporter was like a convoy onto itself, composed of a six-wheeled truck in front towing several connected beds in between, and followed by another truck in the back, helping push the weight. It was an arrangement known as a road train. Under the tarps covering each of the beds, Schicksal supposed that the road train carried crates of parts, covered benches full of necessary personnel, tied-up prototype hulls and weapons.

Everything was marked in big, clear letters, visible with the binoculars: Wa Prüf 6.

“Well, here they are!” Schicksal said. She felt a surge of excitement. Who knew what strange wonder-weapons they would get to field? Maybe even a ray gun like in the pulps?

Perhaps she was being simple, but the Wa Prüf 6 was a welcome injection of new complexity into the stolid routine Silb was settling on; much like its antecedent Captain Skoniec.

General Dreschner, however, was not so excited to see them swerving in.

“Let us pray we are worthy of pulling the sword from their stone.” He said.

Schicksal looked at the General in his sullen face and tried to smile.

“Are you feeling ill sir? Is the dampness getting you down again?” She said.

Dreschner shook his head. He dropped his binoculars, leaving them to hang from their leather strap, and got down to one knee, staring down the meadow with his own eyes. Schicksal knelt and drew closer to him, watching as the road grew silent again.

“I’ve been thinking about my conduct recently, Schicksal, and none too fondly. I have made mistakes and I am not sure if I have the right attitude to correct them.”

“I’m sorry to hear that sir. If it helps, I think you’ve got what it takes to fix anything.”

He smiled suddenly, and he even chuckled a little to himself at her words.

“It was you who prompted me to think this way, Mäuschen. Your way of being.”

“Me, sir?” Schicksal was taken aback. In her mind, she had always thought the General considered himself somewhat above her. Sure, he recognized her usefulness as an assistant and communications officer, and he liked to have her gather information in his stead for convenience. She knew that he liked to talk to her — he probably found it refreshing to hear easy words from someone uncomplicated and rustic like her.

“As much as I pay attention to the men, I have not been ignoring you.” He replied.

Her heart went into high gear; surely he wasn’t really evaluating her? He can’t have been looking to her in any way; he was a General! She was just a radio girl to him, she thought! She certainly didn’t have any expertise that could compliment his own. She knew how many vacuum tubes the FFA3 radio possessed but that was all rote memory from booklets. It was useless. What else did she know? She didn’t know anything but frivolities.

Dreschner let her stew in silence for a while. When next he spoke up, he looked directly at her first, and caught her glass-eyed in a fit of paralyzing self-reflection. She barely heard him at first, she was so out of it. “I value your humility; your level-headedness. You have a grounded perspective that a man in command too easily loses. When I first met you I thought you were aloof, but you are pragmatic — excuse me if I assume too much.”

It was strange for Schicksal to hear someone talking about her, from the outside-in. Someone who wasn’t her, appraising her, appreciating her. She couldn’t even tell whether she thought his words were true. She considered her own evaluations of herself suddenly unreliable. Her boss noticed her! He was talking so frankly to her!

“Thank you sir. I will try my best to keep being pragmatic for you.” She said.

Try my best to keep pragmatic? Agh, she sounded like such a crumb!

But Dreschner was staring down the meadow now, off in his own world.

“I have forgotten the humility, the curiosity, that I had as an enlisted man.”

He sighed deeply again and segued into a helpless, frustrated grunt.

“I’m sorry, it is my nerves, and probably this cold. I am rambling.”

“I’m always ready to listen to your rambling nerves, sir.” Schicksal said.

Dreschner nodded his head once. He stood from the mud and grass and extended a hand to Schicksal. She took it, and he pulled her up to her feet with a hearty tug.

“Keep learning, MäuschenI want to call on that learning some day.”

He doubled back to the village. It took Schicksal a few moments, rolling that statement around in her mind, before she realized she was being left behind. She rushed behind the General, wondering what he could mean by that.




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The Queen Crowned In Tukino (26.3)



46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, 8th PzD Rallying Area

Though the dawn was hidden behind clouds and a cold drizzle, come mid-morning conditions were good enough for landsers to line up in front of the kitchen wagon. They found the offerings meager — they were out of fresh meat and eggs for the moment. Everyone’s energy would have to come from jerky, chicken stock, coffee, sugar cubes and bread. An aide lined up with a big tray, and soon brought the former Civil Canteen some food for Schicksal, Dreschner and Noel. She set the sparse breakfast on the war room table.

On the wall behind them hung the map. Positions had barely moved.

Noel thanked the staffer who brought them their coffee and biscuits. He took a dozen sugar packets from a nearby basket and a bag of cream and as if in his own world he meticulously fixed his coffee, ripping packets, tipping the sugar, stirring it in with the cream. He dipped a little bread square, tasted it, and smiled to himself. He nibbled on it while Dreschner and Schicksal stared sullenly past him, both looking worse for wear. Dreschner sneezed into an iron-cross emblazoned kerchief; Schicksal yawned into her gloved hand.

Even fresh out of his bed (the back of a half-track), Noel looked vibrant. Only his hair was a little noticeably messy; his uniform was pristine, he appeared full of energy and he handled his food with a certain air of grace and elegance that she rarely encountered. Schicksal wondered whether someone had misplaced a “Von” somewhere when naming him.

Dreschner cleared his throat. He looked solemn. “Captain Skonieczny–”

“You can shorten it to Skoniec if you desire.” Noel happily interrupted.

“Captain Skoniec,” Dreschner nonchalantly corrected, and cleared his throat again, “I must apologize to you for the disgraceful scene that you witnessed last night. I am ashamed of my conduct — as a General of this army I should not have lost restraint. Though it does not excuse my behavior, our Division is going through a difficult time. Emotions ran high; we recently held an honors ceremony for a deceased officer. We are near the front lines with limited supplies, and mired in bad weather. I assure you that the 8th Panzer Division is a professional force. Should you desire to file a report, I will fully cooperate.”

Schicksal nodded approvingly throughout the speech, trying to appear professional and supportive. She sat right at Dreschner’s side in the meeting, and nobody else was around. After days of being on her own, she felt like she was part of the process again.

“S’ok! I’m not one to get between a General and the discipline of his unit.” Noel said. “But please, please, avoid striking people’s faces in the future. It irks me.”

He pointed at his own face with that smug grin of his. “Faces are very important~”

Dreschner nodded. “Indeed. Faces are important. We’re sorry you had no proper reception as well. Everyone was busy and we were not expecting your unit so soon.”

Busy was selling the situation short. Dreschner had only just arrived back from Dori Dobo a day ago; Schicksal had hardly any time to talk to him yet. It seemed as if right out the doors of the liaison car he was already at work. Setting up Kunze’s ceremony; changing the line order of the 8th Division’s Panzer regiments; establishing contacts with the 10th and 15th PzD; reallocating their current supplies to make them last longer. He had segued sharply back into war. Schicksal followed him around with a radio backpack and tried to keep up.

But judging by the look of him, even he could not keep up with his renewed ambitions. His face was pale and the lines on his cheeks, around his mouth and under his eyesockets accented by fatigue. His hands shook a little on the table. Every so often his strong nose dripped, and the kerchief would come up to it, and almost as often catch a sneeze.

Gesundheit.” Noel said, wishing the Brigadier General good health.

“Thank you. It appears you were transferred from the Weiss Abteilung to my command on the orders of Colonel General Ferdinand, correct?” Dreschner asked.

“Yup! Y’right! Old man Ferdinand took a liking to me, and he took me out of that dead end battalion right before it exhausted itself completely in Tukino.”

Schicksal had briefly heard of Weiss before the invasion — it was a battalion composed entirely of Lachy recruits, for tough missions. Lachy in the homeland were often seen as roguish and tough and thus capable of handling intense combat, such as pocket suppression and line penetrations. It seemed incongruous for Noel to have been assigned there.

But then, there was much that was incongruous about him. His uniform was the most obvious and visible difference. Dreschner noticed it; one couldn’t avoid the sight. It was similar to their own, but all black, from the jacket down to the trousers. His sleek black leather boots and gloves had a luxuriant sheen. There was no damage to it, not even light scuffing from day to day trials. It must have been new, maybe even right out of the bag.

“So you have spoken to the Colonel General directly?” Dreschner said.

“He gave me my awards and new mission personally.” Noel replied.

Dreschner rubbed his chin, looking over the uniform from across the table.

“I assume then that your out-of-the-ordinary garb has something to do with that. I have never seen its like before, I must admit. What does it symbolize?”

“Colonel General Ferdinand wishes for this Schwarzmantel to clothe new, stand-out units of panzer aces who have scored over fifteen confirmed tank kills.” Noel replied. He spoke as if reciting a poem, at times bringing his hand up to his breast like a singer.

Schicksal’s eyes lingered on the Captain; she found Dreschner goggling him too.

“How many men has the Colonel General gathered?” Schicksal quickly asked.

Noel made his v-sign with his index and middle fingers, and then extended his thumb. Three. “Me and my subordinate tankers, Corporals Dolph and Bartosz. We’re your first bit of reinforcements from the south. You can call us the 1. Jagdpanzerzug.”

The 1st Tank Hunter Platoon — an apt name for a trio with over 40 confirmed kills in total. Schicksal wondered whether Noel had even more than that, given his medals. He had three awards on his breast for tank kills. That must have signified more than 15 kills.

“I assume that Wa Prüf 6 is not far behind you then.” Dreschner said.

Noel replied, wagging his finger. “They should be here soon. I took the liberty of having my own tank brought in by transporter — my subordinates will drive anything but prefer M5 Rangers. By the way, I have my own driver already, and I’d prefer if it was just us inside the tank. So no crew assignments to me without my permission.”

Dreschner quirked an eyebrow, wearing a sullen, skeptical face.

Noel said this very casually, but two-man tanks were unheard of.

Dreschner relented quickly, however. “You know best, I suppose.”

Schicksal looked quietly between the two as they spoke. There appeared to be some unspoken understanding between them, one that she was not privy to.

“Well, Captain, it was swell meeting you; unless there is anything else I should know, I think you ought to meet with your men, and ready your vehicles.” Dreschner said.

Dreschner stopped from his seat and extended his hand over the table.

Noel stood and took the General’s hand with both of his own, holding the fingertips.

“I’m just the friendly, neighboring fairy.” He said with a little smile.

He gave Dreschner’s hand a few gentle, flicking shakes. Just as tenderly he let his hand go, as though setting down a little animal back on the table. He then turned with a flourish and strutted out of the building through the tarp hung over the front.

Dreschner turned toward Schicksal, and Schicksal stared back, both puzzled.

“An eccentric, I suppose.” Dreschner said. He looked at his hand.

“He likes to play tricks.” Schicksal said. She remembered the night before.

Dreschner nodded. Schicksal thought their business concluded, but the General did not follow Noel out the building. Instead he walked around the table and took Noel’s seat, directly across from where Schicksal still sat. He made himself comfortable.

Mäuschen, let us talk.” He said. “I owe you an apology as well. Though I appointed you to assist me, I’ve been unfair and haven’t made any time to share information with you. I can’t expect you to do your job in the dark; I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Schicksal smiled and gathered a folder of papers from her lap. “I received the summaries of the strategic meeting, sir. They were sent via the encryption machine a day ago and I disseminated them to Spoor, Hedwig and Gloster’s HQs.”

“Splendid. Were you able to read and process them?”

“Yes sir. I looked over everything as keenly as I could.”

“Then have you formed any opinion on them?”

Schicksal scratched her mousy, wavy hair nervously. She looked down.

“Well, nothing informed, sir. Nothing useful.”

Dreschner crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes.

“Come now, Schicksal. You’ve had ample misgivings before. I would like to hear your opinion on our situation, from one analyst to the other.”

“All due respect sir, I’m just a radio girl.” She said, feeling suddenly bashful. She faked an air-headed little giggle to try to deflect from his examinations.

“Very well.” He replied, turning his head to the map on the wall.

She thought she heard him sigh, but perhaps she was imagining it.

When he turned his eyes back on her he resumed speaking, in a softer tone of voice. “I met with Colonel General Ferdinand in Dori Dobo; it was off the record and unexpected. He practically ambushed me on the day I was expecting to speak to the Field Marshal. That, I believe, was not in your summaries.”

“There was no mention of that meeting, so rest assured, it was off the records.” Schicksal said. This secrecy was a bit disconcerting. “Captain Skoniec mentioned the Colonel General too. Do you think he was also ‘ambushed’ as you say?”

“Those two definitely met, and I have some idea how that meeting went, judging from what the Colonel General shared with me. He has his eyes set on the 8th Panzer Division. The 10th and 15th too. He is looking to form a 2nd Vorkampfer Panzerkorps.”

Schicksal immediately saw where this was going. “So men like Noel will form the backbone of the force, a corps full of elite tankers with high kill counts.”

Dreschner snorted. “Perhaps. But right now all we have is a platoon of them. You can’t make a fighting force out of three men and their crews — but Ferdinand will expect me to make do with that until he finds more men. More men and more machines; new, untried machines that he thinks will become first-line vehicles. He is concentrating all that unproven power in my hands; banking personally on my skill to support his investment.”

“I– I see, General.” Schicksal said. She looked down at the folder of meetings summaries and telegrams and communiques from the past few days that she had neatly arranged. There was not one mention of the Colonel General’s patronage recorded in her little folder. She understood why Dreschner was so zealous and sullen since he arrived. She started to feel some of the unseen pressure of the expectations placed on them — she could only imagine how much worse it must have been for the General, who bore the responsibility of realizing these fantasies. He had to adjust his ambitions to realize someone else’s own.

The 1st Vorkampfer had blasted itself apart in Bada Aso. Their Division now had to prepare to become the 2nd, knowing full well that fate could await them. The 1st Vorkampfer was meant to be the vanguard of its army, formed from veterans with real combat experience mixed with raw recruits learning from the best. Judging by what Dreschner told her, their own mandate was even more stringent, and the results desired of it more dramatic.

It was frightening. In some ways it was exciting to be forming part of that, to be on the ground floor of an elite panzerkorps, but nonetheless, it was frightening. Her skin tingled.

“I think there is no one better qualified to lead such a force than you, sir,” Schicksal said. She believe it to a point; it was only partially meant as saccharine flattery.

“Perhaps. But enough about that right now.” Dreschner stared at her, and his eyes lingered critically on her own. She almost felt like raising her hands defensively. “Mäuschen, I’ve done my end of the information sharing. Now I want your end. That is an order.”

He steepled his fingers and grinned. Schicksal smiled back nervously.

“Yes sir.” She said. She developed a very light stammer. She withdrew her papers from her folder, including a paper map of the local combat area at the Sandari, and got started. When Dreschner issued an order, one tended to forget any misgivings regarding the task.

* * *

Dbagbo was a sensual sort of land, he told himself — it was muggy and moist, and though the ground and sky were dull the surroundings were fresh and vibrant. Insects played about the green grasses, sunflowers stretched out of puddles of muck, and the trees were still verdant. Everything between the surface and the firmament was full of romance.

Though perhaps Noel Skonieczny just deeply appreciated any place where he could awaken to the sounds of the rain without finding himself on a street, sopping wet and ill. A natural thankfulness arose in his breast that set his whimsical imagination alight.

Up until the last few months such simple comforts had been ephemeral to him.

He smiled now because it was easy to smile — he’d smiled in harder times before.

Though the Ayvartans had not launched very many long-range bombing operations, there was always the fear that they could hit an HQ and send many precious supplies and vehicles up in smoke. To this end, the 8th Panzer Division HQ kept its reserve tanks and some of its precious reserve supplies past the village clearings and under the canopy. Tents were raised, mines and tripwires set beyond the supply area to prevent incursions, guards posted.

As Noel arrived at the site, he saw ten vehicles in as straight a line as could be arranged between the trees, along with dozens of crates and a few guards. None of them was his new Panzer Modell Fünf Ausf. Zwei “Strike Ranger” or M5A2 S-Ranger. He would have noticed it immediately. There was no mistaking this model for the rest.

Particularly because he painted royal purple stripes on it, and gave it a name.

Lieutenant Habsburg, one of Dreschner’s loyal men from the Panzer Regiments, was in charge of overseeing the supply dump. They had very briefly met the night before when Noel made his debut in Silb. He was big, mostly nondescript, inoffensive guy. Buzzed head, square chin, tall, pretty green eyes. Noel thought he had a nice smile, but he saw it only in passing, because it disappeared the moment he called out.

“Hey there big fella! How’s my tank doing eh?”

Lt. Habsburg turned his head over his shoulder. He hastily put down an assault helmet that he was lovingly examining back into a crate full of very similar helmets, boasting strapped goggles and gas masks, decorated with little spears atop. It was a charming little moment that was instantly obliterated. Habsburg immediately swung around, stood up painfully straight and saluted stiffly. “Captain, sir! I’m at your disposal, sir!”

“Oh no, no, don’t do that. I don’t want that. I want my tank.” Noel said.

Something about the way people behaved around rank irked him. Noel had always thought he hated pedestrian disdain above all other reactions — until he met the contrived adulation that one earned when one had a higher grade of pins.

Lt. Habsburg was not catching on, and continued to salute. He spoke in the rhythm of a boot camp trainee addressing the abusive Sergeant. Noel could practically hear the commas out loud as he paused; a few felt as long as semicolons.

“Yes, sir, Captain, sir! Your driver, sir, he took it for a warm-up, sir!”

Noel sighed. That was too many ‘sir”s in a row for his taste. This was the kind of man who didn’t get called on to do anything important very often, Noel supposed.

“How long ago did Ivan leave this place?” Noel asked.


“Good man, please stop ‘sir’ing me, it’s annoying.”

“Um, sorry.” Habsburg bowed his head. “He arrived early to tune up the engine, so he said, and left about thirty minutes ago to take it around the meadow. He got permission from Spoor’s grenadiers, he told me, so I let him come and go.”

“Thank you Habsburg.” Noel smiled and clapped his hands together. “Then I shall sit on this crate of helmets and wait for him.”

“Yes– Yes Captain.”

Noel picked the crate lid from the ground, set it back on the crate and sat on it, staring out at the road with his hands against his cheeks, rocking his legs. A damp, gentle breeze blew through the forest, stirring the canopy overhead and lightly blowing Noel’s hair. He absentmindedly arranged some behind his ear on the left side of his face, wondering how it looked. He imagined that he must have looked like one of those post cards with the cute girls in dresses sitting at the edges of bridges and piers.

His erstwhile companion stood beside him and looked on without expression.

“Lieutenant Habsburg, what’s something that you like?” Noel said airily.

Habsburg rubbed his chin. “Something that I like, s– Captain?”

“Something that you like, yes.” Noel repeated jovially.

“I like animals Captain. I had a pet drake back home.” Habsburg replied.

“Bless your soul, Habsburg.” Noel said, and avoided further conversation.

Around a half-hour later, Noel heard the distinctive whirring of the Ranger’s engine and the turning of its tracks. He saw it from afar, coming up the village roads, weaving behind a group of houses and then driving onto the brush and into the thick of the forest. It slowed, shifting to a low gear, and cruised toward the line of parked vehicles. Though the M5A2 was superficially like a standard M5, it had a more steeply sloped front plate and a broader, longer turret, along with a modified gun. Noel’s version had two purple stripes along the side and the name Königin written in sloppy hand-painted letters on the side.

As it approached, the front hatch opened, and a young man stood partially out of it and waved. Noel waved back, and Lieutenant Habsburg stood at attention.

When the M5A2 came to a full stop, Noel walked out to meet the driver, who climbed out of the front hatch and approached with his arms spread. They embraced chastely — from Habsburg’s perspective anyway. After a moment they stood apart and traded smiles.

“Sergeant! How’s she running?” Noel said, hands on his hips.

Ivan saluted. “She’s running as smoothly as her Commander!”

Noel held his hand up to his mouth and laughed a pleasant oh ho ho.

First Sergeant Ivan Tyszka was the Captain’s esteemed driver. Though around the same age, Ivan was taller than Noel by almost twenty centimeters, and he was built up a little bit more in the shoulders and chest than the softer, svelter Captain. Ivan had an endearing style to him, a bit casually unfashionable; messy black hair, an awkward smile, circular spectacles and a pockmarked complexion; arms hanging at his sides as if he didn’t know what to do with them, bad posture, slouching a little bit. He wore the regular army grey.

“Did you try the supercharger at all?” Noel asked, leaning slightly toward the driver’s hatch and checking the gauges and sticks. The interior was still a little on the crude side in terms of layout and comforts, but everything essential had been installed.

“Not yet. Sorry. I didn’t want to waste any of it in case we needed to go into combat before we had access to refills.” Ivan said. He held a hand out to Noel, holding him cautiously as though the Captain was in any danger of falling into the tank.

Noel stuck his head back out of the hatch. “S’alright. We do need to be a little conservative. Glad you’re hear to set me straight~.” He put on a mischievous smile and affect.

Ivan’s face flushed very slightly. He chuckled and ran his hand over his hair.

“Do you know where Dolph and Bartosz went? Haven’t seen them since last night.”

“Might be out joyriding, I’m not sure. They like to get the lay of the land.”

“Hmph, how troublesome.” Noel coiled a little of his hair around his index finger. “I’d have liked to have them back by now, but there’s no taming those two.”

He turned his head over his shoulder, tilting it back a little with a grin.

“Habs~burg~!” Noel called out as if singing the syllables of his name.

Behind them they heard the sound of a helmet falling back inside a crate of helmets. Habsburg turned quickly around and saluted, standing almost as if on tiptoe.

“Yes Captain!” He said, averting his eyes nervously.

“Could you bring us some fuel? You’d know where it is better than I.”

Habsburg nodded stiffly, and marched around his crate of helmets to a crate covered by a camouflage tarp. Underneath was a metal box emblazoned with many dozens of flame symbols. While the younger men watched, he procured two pairs of jugs from inside this crate and brought them around the back of the M5A2. He stored two in side compartments for travel, then lifted the engine hatch and poured the other two inside.

Once he was done he walked back around and saluted again.

As Noel prepared to tease him once more, a loud horn sounded in the village. It was sharp and sudden enough to shake Ivan up, and it echoed through the trees.

“That an alarm, Habsburg?” Noel asked during a lull.

Habsburg nodded rapidly. “Yes Captain! You might want to check the old Ayvartan canteen where the General has set up — I think that’s the attack siren, sir!”

* * *

Schicksal quickly set up the map and pinned small red flags on two locations along the Sandari river, marking them “3rd” and “4th” Abteilungen. A third flag was pinned nearby, marked with a bridge symbol for the Pionierie. Gathered around the map also were, Dreschner, Spoor, Noel and Reiniger, sporting a patch over his nose.

“From what I understand,” Schicksal began, “last night the pontoon bridges were completed in secret and under cover of darkness by the Pionierie in areas with the smallest concentration of Ayvartan defenses. At dawn the Panzergrenadier battalions with light Panzer support managed to cross the bridges and launch attacks, taking sizable bridgeheads across the Sandari, driving Ayvartans back and establishing positions.”

She took a deep breath and continued. “All seemed to be going well, until a few hours ago. We began receiving reports of shots fired on the bridgeheads, and we wrote it off as perfunctory Ayvartan delaying actions at the time. Unfortunately, we seem to have underestimated their intentions and their capabilities, and the extent of their positions.”

Schicksal quickly pinned three larger flags across the Sandari, and one smaller flag behind the Panzergrenadier positions and on their own side of the Sandari. These flags were red — Ayvartan positions. Of which there should be none south of the Sandari. Reiniger and Spoor were puzzled. Dreschner grunted. They were coming.

“It appears the Ayvartans had hidden pontoon bridges somewhere farther northwest, though I have no idea exactly where. According to surveillance, an Ayvartan tank force crossed the Sandari to our side just off the 3rd Battalion flank thirty minutes ago and completely bypassed our positions along the river. They’re headed for Silb.”

“We have next to nothing ready to intercept.” Dreschner said.

Schicksal responded with a morose nod of the head. “There’s more, sir. Panzergrenadier recon advanced from the bridgeheads, and claim to have discovered large mobilizations of Ayvartan troops along the meadows leading to Shebelle. They say they’ve got three to five Divisions incoming. This is a major Ayvartan counteroffensive.”

“We’ll pull another Tukino then,” Reiniger said, his voice a little off due to his injury, “we’ll counter-counterattack faster and encircle ’em with the Panzers.”

Dreschner grunted. “Unlike Tukino this is all happening on soft terrain, along a river, where we only have two pontoon bridges for movement. It won’t work.”

Reiniger frowned deeply but bit his tongue on the subject.

“We’ve been receiving calls for air patrols and interdiction.” Schicksal said. “But we don’t have any air bases in Dbagbo yet so I wasn’t sure where to forward them.”

“Pass them on to the wing near Knyskna, it’ll be fuel intensive but they’ve got the range and we will need them.” Dreschner said. He looked around the room and spoke authoritatively. “Right now everyone must hunker down until we’re sure where the hammer is falling, and if necessary be ready to give ground at the bridgeheads. But our first priority must be to intercept those Ayvartan tanks and secure those hidden bridges of theirs. We can’t organize a defense with a gaping hole in our river lines.”

Noel smiled and raised his hand. “My men and I can sortie.”

“He’ll get fucking murdered,” Reiniger scoffed. He looked to Dreschner. “I’ve got reserve guys I’ve been breaking in and some M4s, we’ll handle it.”

Dreschner shook his head and spoke at first in a scolding tone of voice.

“This is not a mutually exclusive choice, Lt. Reiniger. Captain Skoniec, your men’s tanks are lighter and faster and as far as I understand ready to go, so you can deploy right away. Reiniger will follow up and support you once his forces are ready.”

Reiniger was openly displeased but made no further remarks.

“Overjoyed that we can work together.” Noel said sweetly. He waved a v-sign with his fingers and left the room with a cheerful strut, thinking that it would definitely not be necessary for Reiniger and his boys to follow him at all.


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The Queen Crowned In Tukino (26.2)


This story segment contains graphic language and fleeting mild violence.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, 8th PzD Rallying Area

When the rainfall resurfaced it hardly registered in anyone’s minds anymore. Outside the workshop what began as a few droplets brewed into a storm within the minute. Lightning flashed in the distance; they scarcely heard the sound. Dbagbo’s pouring was just there.

“Are you too busy raging at the world to greet your star pupil? Why, I had just come to give you thanks, and look at the cold reception I get. Woe! Such sadness is life!”

Schicksal cocked her eyebrows, watching silently as if a one-man stage drama was unfolding before her. There was certainly quite a flourish to his every little movement.

Reiniger’s eyes wandered away from the tank in the workshop and finally settled on the flighty black-uniformed visitor newly arrived at the workshop. He stared at him, at first as if he had seen something nondescript and foul. Slowly his brows rose and his teeth grit.

“When the hell did you make Hauptmann?” He shouted. He sounded almost offended. Schicksal was quite curious about the growing petulance evident in his voice.

Flashing white, an ear-to-ear grin suddenly dominated the newcomer’s fetching face. He shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands in feigned witlessness.

“Oh, this? Dunno! Guess it just naturally happens when you get good.”

Reiniger stared directly at his pins as if he still couldn’t believe it at all. He was so fixated on them that the Hauptmann‘s snark found safe passage through both his ears.

Schicksal didn’t quite care about the newcomer’s pins. She was more interested in the medal worn casually on his breast, on the left-hand side, between a few common tank-killing honors and a purple heart. It was a sunburst held aloft by eagle’s wings — the Patriot’s Crown. The start of a four-stage honor for the elite among the elite in the military.

He abruptly broke from Reiniger’ gaze, and his grin softened to a pretty smile. He gave Schicksal a v-sign with his fingers. “Hey, I don’t think we’ve met before, ma’am. My name is Noel Skonieczny. Captain.” Judging by his surname, he must have been Lachy. He had a pleasant voice. “I just got transferred, so I thought I’d drop in on my old instructor!”

Noel reached out the hand that was not signing a big V. Schicksal shook it. He had a delicate shake. He seemed overall delicately-made. Soft cheeks, a slim nose and smooth brow, round shoulders, a slender build. His skin was impeccable, his eyes vibrant and his shoulder-length hair was long and wavy, full of volume and bounce, curling slightly at the ends. Its gold sheen was absolutely brilliant: Schicksal thought it looked far better kept than her own hair. He had a very comely appearance in general. She almost wanted to ask for tips.

It was only when he made that shark-like grin that he appeared less than rosy.

“Pleasure to meet you, I’m Karla Schicksal, Chief Signals.” She replied.

Apparently noticing her lingering gaze, he winked whimsically her way.

“Pleasure’s all mine! It’s nice to see at least one friendly face.” Noel said. He pouted pathetically and hovered a meter or two from Reiniger, arms crossed, head bowed. “After I came all this way. I feel so ignored and mistreated right now, to be honest.”

“Good!” Reiniger said. “Hope you feel that way to death, you shit roach!”

“Shit roach? Well, at least you’re refraining from outright slurs.”

“You ain’t worthy of ’em, but if you want ’em so much you–”

Schicksal sighed. “So, you know Reiniger from before, Captain Skon–?”

Noel turned suddenly from Reiniger and raised his hands to his own chest.

“Oh no, Captain Skonieczny is a dad’s name. Call me Noel, please.”

Schicksal blinked and tipped her head a little in confusion.

“Noel; you are acting pretty familiar for someone who just–”

He interrupted cheerfully again. “Of course I know him!”

“Barely.” Reiniger interjected, turning his back again on the two.

“God, he’s so grumpy!” Noel giggled. “Mister tough guy here trained me, just about a month ago even! But it appears that now the student surpassed the master!”

Reiniger threw his hands up in the air, already fed up with Noel.

“Shut the fuck up. I barely taught you how to handle the sticks you dumbass. It was part of a fucking Panzer 101 camp. Go gloat about your stupid pins to someone else!”

Noel raised his hand to shield his eyes from a nonexistent sun, pretending to look around the room for someone. He then beamed as if taken by surprise.

“I found someone to gloat to~!” He waved at Schicksal and smiled.

Schicksal smiled awkwardly and waved back, twitching her fingers. Clearly Noel was just here to bully Reiniger, and she did not know the exact reason. Perhaps their relationship was more sour than Noel let on; but she thought at the moment Reiniger quite deserved to be put in his place, and Noel was just being silly. There was no harm done, so she played along.

“So, gloat-buddy, did you hear that I made Captain, huh?” Noel said.

He made as if to hook his arm around Schicksal’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. But he kept a considerable distance, such that he had his arm several centimeters off her in the air.

Schicksal chuckled. Noel started to egg her on to give an answer, going ‘huh? huh?’

Then a clicking pair of boots and the sound of long rivulets soaking the driveway announced a new presence. Schicksal and Noel turned their heads and found General Dreschner outside the workshop garage door. He ambled inside, just a few steps out of the rain, his uniform sopping wet, water dribbling from his cap, from his shoulders. He had his greatcoat on, and it had soaked up most of the water, hopefully protecting the dress uniform beneath.

Schicksal sought his eyes in the shade of his cap — and found a vacant look to them.

Reiniger didn’t even turn around to meet his superior. He seemed oblivious to the danger.

“Gonna lecture me too, boss?” He said absentmindedly. Schicksal cringed.

Dreschner seized him by the collar, turned him partway around and socked him.

Noel averted his eyes and covered his mouth, shaking his head.

The General’s fist connected with Reiniger’s nose with an audible crack and knocked him to the floor. Reiniger covered his face with his hands and writhed on the ground, shaken into the fetal position, kicking his legs and rocking his body while groaning in pain.

“Words fail against you, Jorg!” Dreschner shouted. “So I’ll speak in a language a complete brute like you can understand. Let this be a lesson to you. Without respect and moderation a man is less than an animal. Remember this next time you throw one of your furies in front of me and your fellows — all of whom deserve better, alive or dead.”

Dreschner stormed back out of the workshop and into the rain, as if he had come and gone with the flashes of lightning. Schicksal watched the scene play out with her hands over her mouth in shock. Over her shoulder she followed the general’s fading silhouette.

Noel took a few steps forward and offered his hand, but Reiniger slapped it away. He helped himself up by the side of the tank, and slunk away inside it, entering through the driver’s forward hatch. There he would remain for the night, locked in.


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