2.1: Mischievous Student

Magic: A learned ability to manipulate ambient arcane energies. Human minds can be triggered to agitate aura through various mnemonics, gestures and recitations. Once the aura is stirred from its ambient form it can cause various perceivable effects on the world.


There was a knock on the door and Minerva’s head snapped up from a stack of quizzes.

“Come in!” She shouted. Finally, she’d gotten Niko to come in for office hours!

There was nearly imperceptible shimmering as the door opened.

Cocking a big grin, Lyudmilla Kholodova took long steps into the room, her head held up high. Her hair was arranged in two purple-streaked tails, and each seemed to float for just a second as she stepped through the door. Similarly but more subtly, there was a mild tug on her uniform while she crossed through. She dropped her bookbag beside Minerva’s desk and dropped herself on a chair to examine her well-kept hair.

“Hey, what’s going on over there?” She asked. “My hair’s all tingly.”

Minerva sighed.

Lyudmilla frowned in response. “Wow. Nice to see you too, boss.”

“No, no, it’s not you.” Minerva reached out and patted Lyudmilla condescendingly on the head. “I had an appointment with a student set a half hour ago but he’s not shown up.”

Rather than complain Lyudmilla leaned into the petting in an unsettling way.

This had its perhaps intended effect of getting Minerva to stop.

“Anyway– afternoon, Master.” Lyudmilla grinned again. “Why did you decide to enchant your door? What did you do to it? Am I rigged to explode now if I act against your will?”

“What? Of course not. Who do you take me for?”

“Well, I don’t really know that yet.” She replied.

There was a bad feeling in Minerva’s stomach but she willed it away.

Instead she urged Lyudmilla to look behind herself for a moment.

Minerva swiped her wand at the doorway and lifted up a little basin that had been slotted just under the door threshold. Lyudmilla’s eyes drew wide as she spotted it.

“Oh, I think I get it.” She said, a delighted smile on her face.

She was easy to please (or distract) at least.

Minerva proudly explained her trick. “I put a weak Forbidding Lattice on the doorway. It is calibrated to forbid very very small things with very specific qualities. So in effect, it pushes the dirt and bugs right off anyone that comes in and collects it in the basin.”

“Huh. That’s the laziest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Lyudmilla grinned.

“I have a tight schedule! I have to save time where I can.”

Her office was always very clean, and magical shortcuts were certainly a part of it.

She stared back at the door. Niko was not coming, was he? Minerva started to worry.

But she couldn’t be consumed by the student who would not come when she had a student, and especially her apprentice, right in front of her. She put it out of her mind.

In fact she remembered she had something prepared for Lyudmilla anyway.

“Oh right. One second, Milla.”

Barely speaking, she swept her wand and Lyudmilla’s bag floated up onto the desk.

“No weed in there, I promise.” Lyudmilla said, raising her hands defensively.

“I’m not– oh nevermind. Here, I got you a present.”

Minerva opened a drawer in her desk and produced a plastic wrapped stack of books.

She had the books fly over to Lyudmilla’s bag, but she intercepted them in the air.

“Oh what are these? This is heavy.”

Lyudmilla ripped open the plastic with her fingers and picked a book out of the stack.

Minerva could not tell what the cover said. It was all in Rusean Cyrillic text.

That very fact immediately delighted Lyudmilla.

“Oh my god! This is incredible. You got me all my textbooks in Cyrillic?”

Lyudmilla flipped through the books with a massive, childish smile on her face.

It had taken calling in a few favors, but it was satisfying to see her pupil so happy.

“I figured some of the problem with your grades might have been a language barrier. You can read and write Otrarian, I know that much, but every little bit helps, right?”

Minerva crossed her arms and smiled as wide and brightly at her amazed pupil.

“Hell, one of the reasons I learned silent and shorthand casting was to avoid Otrarian.”

“How did you learn that, by the way?” Lyudmilla asked, still flipping the pages of the book and seemingly marveling at what they said to her now. “You still have not told me where all your superpowers come from, and I feel like I’ve asked every day since then.”

Then.

Minerva averted her eyes. “It’s not easy to talk about. I promise I’ll tell you eventually, but just give me a minute right now, okay? As for the shorthand casting, it’s weird.”

Lyudmilla flipped through one of her cyrillic textbooks. “You just said literally nothing.”

“I’m sorry, okay? Just trust me for right now.” Minerva sighed.

“Sure thing, Master.”

“Ugh.”

Minerva stared at the door briefly and then turned her gaze back on Lyudmilla.

“Okay, well, Niko isn’t coming, so I’ll just tutor you.” She said.

Lyudmilla looked at her over the book. “Tutor me in what? I don’t have homework.”

“You do now.”

She passed her a handwritten set of discussion questions that she had intended to go over with Niko Klein, covering several things in the current and former unit that had given him trouble. Most of them had also given Lyudmilla trouble, judging by her quiz answers and generally mediocre grades, so she figured it was a good way to make use of the work she had already done. It might also keep Lyudmilla shut for a bit, god willing.

Of course, it was immediately obvious the latter would not happen.

“I can’t believe this– this betrayal! I trusted you! I thought your office would be a safe space for me! You even have the stupid ‘safe space’ sign on your door!” Lyudmilla cried.

She put on a cartoonishly distraught expression as she manhandled the question sheet.

“My office will never be a safe space from schoolwork.” Minerva said.

“I’m never coming here again!” Lyudmilla shouted in even more cartoonish distress.

“You will come here and you will turn all your 60s into 90s.” Minerva replied firmly.

Lyudmilla stared at her, mouth agape for a second. “Master, I don’t know whether to be in shock that you think I can score 90s, or distressed that you think I can’t score 100s.”

“We’ll make you a 100s student next year. That’s my goal.” Minerva said.

She put her hand on her chest and closed her eyes solemnly as if swearing an oath.

Lyudmilla hung her head in surrender.

Soon they were deep into the sheet, engaging in a deadly duel of questions and answers.

Lyudmilla had put down all her books and was working from memory.

Minerva was reading from the sheet and tried not to be too merciless.

She quickly reckoned that she had failed to soften herself.

“Name and explain three different kinds of spells.”

“Enchantments last as long as they’re fed aura, Blessings and Curses last until dispelled, and Hexes are short lived spells exclusively targeting someone else. Did I get that right?”

“That is right. Date the first recorded Diyah scripture and explain what they believed.”

“Um, the Diyah, that’s 73 D.C.E right? And they believed in a divine life-giving light.”

“Come on, you can do better. That’s a 60 point answer.”

“Well, 65 points is a pass, so I’m pretty close.”

“I don’t want you to just pass.”

“Fine. Let me think. Uh. They believed in the obfuscation–”

“Occultation. The Occultation of the Mahdi.”

“Right. That’s like, there’s this guy, like, a super sweet dude, and he’s hidden himself as a test to see if people are worthy of him, and he’ll come back someday when the followers prove that they deserve to be saved or something like that. Did I get that right?”

“Well, we’re up to 75 point answers, once we correct for grammar.”

Lyudmilla put her head down on the desk. “You’re a Tyrant, a literal Tyrant.”

Minerva winced at the suggestion. Some of it was maybe, technically, sort of, correct.

On accident, hopefully. Though, certainly, depending on how much Lyudmilla recalled of the events of the past few weeks, she had all the clues she needed to put it all together.

At least she was still just calling her Master and not, say, Lord Wyrm.

She tapped her wand on Lyudmilla’s head, not to do any magic, just to annoy her.

“You’re doing your reading, so that’s good. I’m proud of you.”

Lyudmilla turned her head sideways on the table, so she had one eye staring at Minerva’s hand. She had on a pensive expression and Minerva did not know what to make of it. It was as if she wanted to say something, so Minerva retracted her hand and gave her space to think. In a few moments, she raised herself back up and crossed her arms. She stared directly at Minerva, put on a little smile and tossed her twintailed hair.

“I figured out what that spell you used in the demesne does.” She finally said.

The demesne. Again with the thing that happened that Minerva did not want to discuss.

At this point however it was impossible to sidestep.

“What do you mean?” Minerva asked. She had cast a lot of magic in Moloch’s demesne.

Lyudmilla meant her statement to be provocative and she was delighted by the response.

“That Sudes spell. Magic gets buffed by the butt of the stake and weakened by the tip.”

“You saw me cast that, huh?” Minerva said, staring at Lyudmilla.

Sudes, “The Messiah’s Seven Castigating Stakes,” was not a spell one just found in the 5000 mark school packet bought from the library shop. The battle against Moloch had been desperate, and Minerva had not taken care to only use magic that would be safe and normal for a student to see and learn about. Had she done so, she could have died, even with Moloch’s weakened state. She was surprised that Lyudmilla had been sober enough and paying enough attention to have retained that detail from the encounter.

Minerva had figured (perhaps naively desired was more accurate) that Lyudmilla’s brain would buckle under the shock and terror of a Tyrant encounter and block out most of the details. Inside the demesne she had looked like her eyes were glazed over. Was she that resilient, or did Minerva just really underestimate kids these days? Either way, with her mischievous personality, Minerva had wanted to avoid disclosing anything to her.

After all, a lot of it was information she would have loved to avoid disclosing to herself.

That was probably unfair of her to do. Even if it involved trauma, even if it meant revealing ugly things. Minerva was her master and Lyudmilla was her apprentice. They were supposed to have a bond in magic and life that was different than the normal student-teacher relationship — closer to family. They were both outsiders also.

Lyudmilla seemed to have something of a past too. She was probably safe to talk to.

“It’s a difficult spell to cast. I could show you when I think you’re ready.” Minerva said.

“I cast it already. It’s how I broke up the demesne.” Lyudmilla replied bluntly.

Broke up the demesne?

Gods defend, it was Minerva’s memory of the encounter with Moloch that had buckled under the trauma. It hit her then like a brick that she had recklessly thrown herself at Moloch (using wyrm’s power?) and ordered Lyudmilla to infiltrate deeper into the demesne and attack its weakness. She had treated her like a soldier, made her execute a flank; she felt mortified at how much of that day was just scrambled in her memory.

Sighing deeply, Minerva replied, “It’s called Sudes, the Seven Castigating Stakes of the Messiah. And it is an extremely dangerous spell to just use willy-nilly Lyudmilla.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She sighed a little herself.

“Well, yeah, I kinda fucked it up I guess. It really gave me a beating, you could throw out so many of those stakes but I could only make one or two. I only knew it from your lips. You mouthed an incantation and I picked it up. I filled in the rest myself best as I could.”

Minerva blinked hard. To cast even one Sudes without training in such a dangerous and stressful environment was impressive. Certainly, anyone could cast any sort of spell if they knew the mnemonic and the basic principles of magic (and had an unlocked Homunculus, like Lyudmilla now did thanks to the card Minerva gave her and which she had not thought to ask for back). However, most people who cast something like Sudes would not “take a beating” and would instead keel over dead, bereft of their vitae.

“Don’t just copy spells at random, even if you technically can. Your arcanometry is advanced but unpracticed, and you’ll just hurt yourself. Please promise me.” She said.

Lyudmilla glanced askance and mumbled grumpily in response, “I promise.”

Minerva put down her wand, and concentrated for an instant.

Magic was a lot of factors working at once. It was a herculean effort that seemed effortless because it was carried out in an instant. It was trial in the space of error.

Human minds did not move like muscles did. To think was the most instantaneous action one could imagine, encompassing universes within instants in between any amount of perceivable time. Because humans thought, and were surrounded by auras and vitae, and because humans possessed a connection to the elements that gave off these auras and energies, they could perform magic. To think, therefore, to cast, one could say.

Communities shaped their environments through action; at a global scale, the human organism composed of billions of bodies, shaped the entire world. On the most quantum microscopic scale imaginable, a human thought was a world-shaping action too. Magic was the result of thought, and thought was influenced by input, like the light entering the eyes that became visual imagery, the vibrations that were interpreted as sound; and it was given shape too, by the muscle actions that created speech, breath and movement.

Magic was profoundly difficult to explain. It was easier in the time of Otar the Great, who claimed that God had given him the power. And yet what was academically known as Divine magic now was very different than the Otarian wizardry practiced in Otraria. Minerva cast magic like people took footsteps. On some level, she barely recognized that she was doing it. Nobody had to think to take a footstep. Similarly, most wizards who did not have a great being of fire embedded in them and an archmage for a childhood mentor cast magic like a musician played an instrument. On some level, it became rote, and in the way one knew to control one’s breathing, to hit a key or a string just so

All of that was Magic.

And if the act of playing was the rote, then the incantation was the sheet music to learn.

All of Magic was an effect caused by thought, but to perform specific, controlled effects, required the brain to think in specific ways and the body to act it out in specific ways.

Wizards employed a mnemonic of some kind to trick their brains into casting spells.

The homunculus used barely perceptible light patterns, special audio waveforms and even direct injection of pulses into the flesh to help fulfill what were once long incantations, smoke tricks, prayer music and other mnemonics, gestures and autosuggestions, reducing the act to second’s worth of sensory and physical activity. Because they lived in a fallen time long since Otar’s death after all; people did not have the time or patience for the long form when they could just say the name of the spell.

And even the latter concession was more of a requirement for sanity’s sake.

To Minerva, casting Sudes meant intending to cast Sudes, grasping with her hand like the stake was already in it, and then calling out Sudes. Under particular stress or if she needed to concentrate the magic more she could call them the Seven Castigating Stakes, taking more time to develop stronger mnemonics. To her brain, Sudes meant images of the Messiah, the stakes in his body; the specific waveform of his cries and prayers; the smell of the sand in the holy land; and the feeling of remorse for humanity’s cruelty. Feelings, senses, information — understanding shaped the magic. Sudes meant a weapon intended half to deliver one from magic and half to deliver one to magic as Lyudmilla pointed out. One end “buffs,” one end breaks. One end was in the open air of the land of Al-Zujaj, and the other end soaked in blood from the flesh of the avatar as he died–

She couldn’t help but twirl it after it manifested, and almost hit Lyudmilla. The Sudes was a wooden stake about the thickness of a cheerleading baton and the length of a throwing javelin. One end was blunt and just ever so vaguely rounded compared to the rest, while the other end was smoothly tapered off and mildly sharp. All of it looked worn, ancient.

All of it swept right in front of Lyudmilla like a swung sword.

“Ah! Sorry!” Minerva said. She dispelled the stake after the demonstration.

Lyudmilla had immediately backed up, defending herself with raised arms.

“Whoa, be careful with that.” Lyudmilla said. “Hey, are you ok?”

Minerva noticed that her face was sweaty, and she was breathing heavily.

It felt like all the air had left her lungs. Her stomach felt hollow suddenly.

She felt like she could tell apart all the nerves in her brain as pinpricks of pain.

This was not Moloch’s demesne after all. This was the material world.

Casting magic in the material world was much harder.

A Tyrant’s demesne draws magic out; the material world pushes magic in.

“I’m fine.” Minerva said. “This is a really tricky spell. It’s very powerful. Conjurations in general require tons of magic y’know? Creating an independent physical body and all.”

“Then that’s not the real stake you got there.” Lyudmilla said. “Conjurations are all fakes.”

She was learning! That was indeed a property of conjurations, a type of magic.

“Correct, they’re not real. Those real stakes got thrown out or burnt or buried. What matters is the image of the stake; the metaphorical stake. That’s what Sudes is. Copies of the seven stakes that killed the Messiah. Artifacts like that, with history that sticks in people’s minds, often inspire spellcraft.” She realized how much she sounded like an encyclopedia text to speech bot and paused for a moment to gauge Lyudmilla’s reaction. The girl seemed captivated by it, rather than bored or confused, so Minerva supposed she was doing something right. “You were right about their properties. One end will amplify magic that strikes it and the other end will weaken it. So I buried the weakening end into the Tyrant and kept the strengthening end open to the air for my purposes.”

“Yeah, I kinda thought so. I did that trick too.” Lyudmilla said. She was being pretty casual about what should have been an utterly horrifying experience. Perhaps it was the distance to it; or maybe Lyudmilla had been conditioned in some way to accept such things. She continued, looking smug. “I knew I couldn’t break apart all the machines in the demesne by myself, because I don’t really know any big explosive magic like you probably do. So I buried the weakening end of a stake into the machines to bring down their resistance and then used the buffing bit to amplify my magnetic spell.”

“I’m sorry that I made you fight like that, Lyudmilla.” Minerva said. Even if Lyudmilla was alright and seemingly satisfied with herself, that whole situation was a massive failure on Minerva’s fault to protect her charge. She had thrown in to defend her students but ended up using a student as a tool. “Even if you were clever enough for it.”

“It’s not a problem. Aren’t apprentices basically just an arch-wizard’s troops anyway?” Lyudmilla leaned back on her chair and waved her hand in the air as if the tension in the room was smoke and she was trying to dispel it. “Anyway, you said there were Seven stakes or something, but you made more than seven of those though, I’m pretty sure.”

Minerva blinked, still a little shocked by the composure of her new apprentice.

And her apparent enthusiasm at becoming “an arch-wizard’s troops.”

Nevertheless she continued to explain. After all, an engaged student was a rare delight, and even if it was not course material, Minerva loved to teach things to a willing mind.

“Depending on my intentions, I can conjure copies of the copies that are even weaker but satisfy my needs. In the demesne, I used Sudes to spread Bariq, desert lightning, across Moloch’s body to intensify the effect. He had so much mass that he would have barely felt one stake or one bolt striking his body, no matter how powerful the bolt was. He was mostly made of metal though, so with enough contacts, I could shock all of his body.”

“Huh. So being that big had its upsides.” Lyudmilla said. “He seemed really weak compared to you. Looking back on it, you kinda made a clown of a Tyrant there.”

Minerva shook her head. She did not want Lyudmilla to think she was some invincible juggernaut. There was a ready explanation. “I think because of the circumstances of the summoning, Moloch was forced to express his element of Fire through the medium of the metal idol that Ajax guy lured you to. Metal and Fire are opposed though, so Moloch was dramatically weaker than he should have been. Moloch seemed to think Wyrm had permanently removed his Fire element in antiquity; but I think if summoned right, Moloch could probably have crushed me in the Fire department nonetheless.”

She was trying to be careful of what she said still; some part of her approached the eagerness of her student, and the deeply troubling things she had seen, with great trepidation. Lyudmilla, however, had a simple response to everything and seemed thoroughly untroubled. She was not conspiring over anything that Minerva said.

Instead, she diverted the subject once again to another linked curiosity of hers.

“I guess I can understand that. Wait though, aren’t humans made of fire and metal?”

“Most of them, magically, yes.” Minerva said. She let out a little giggle at the concept of humans being made of fire and metal. Certainly their auras tended to be that way.

“Is that why we suck at magic more than Tyrants do? Opposing elements or whatever.”

“Well. It’s one of many reasons. I’d like to think we don’t suck too bad.” Minerva replied.

“Well, you don’t, I guess. You’re some kind of genius hero.” Lyudmilla said.

She laid her head down on her arms and kicked her legs, looking mildly frustrated.

Maybe she really did not think Minerva was dangerous or monstrous and was, honestly, casually and simply, jealous of her abilities and greedy for a similar kind of power.

“Hey, I had resources others did not. I owe this to a lot of people and a lot of study.”

Lyudmilla glanced up at her with a foul expression on her face.

“Yeah, and you’ll tell me all about it someday.” She said sarcastically.

Minerva frowned right back at her. Even if she wasn’t malicious, she was a handful.

“I’ll teach you all of it. But not now. Right now, we should get back to your homework.”

“Yeah, the homework you made up to give me a hard time.”

There was almost some tension in the room now and Minerva did not like it one bit.

“Come on now, you’re doing really well. Lets build up some momentum! From 75 to 80!”

Minerva smiled and cheered and tried to be perky and nice to her in response.

Lyudmilla turned her head away and narrowed her eyes.

Picking the sheet back up, Minerva asked, “Explain the first formalized spellcasting method divised by Hama, and explain why it is so difficult to reconstruct today.”

She tried to sound bright and sunny, but that was actually a rather difficult question.

“Oh man, are you for real?” Lyudmilla protested. “Am I a PhD student or a freshman?”

Just as Minerva was about to comfort her, there was a vigorous knock on the door.

She snapped her head up from the sheet and stared in surprise.

“Come in!” She shouted, thinking that it must have been Niko who was just very late to office hours, and happy that she would not have to reschedule him to a later day again.

However almost as soon as the door opened, her homunculus vibrated on her wrist.

Looking down at it she found a message from Niko Klein.

Looking up from it she saw the door swing open and an unfamiliar woman walk through the threshold. She looked Minerva’s or Lyudmilla’s age and carried herself with confidence, stopping short of the desk with her hands behind her back and a big grin.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Orizaga. I apologize if I’m interrupting something, but I was told you could help me with my investigation, and I wanted to meet you right away.”

She was quite a dazzling character, slender, athletic. Her hair was long, shiny, a golden blond, adorned with a dark purple, reflective headband. A sharp streak of red eyeliner and a careful dab of ice-blue lipstick made her face stand out. Her attire was professional and more than likely symbolic of something: a blue-striped white uniform jacket with long sleeves and red shoulders and cuffs, buttoned up, with a similarly tri-color skirt.

On her hip was a tote-bag sized belted pack with a cable, connected to a holstered object clipped to her opposite hip. The cable stretched behind her back. Was it some kind of gun? She had no homunculus on her wrist; but there was an orb floating around her, gunmetal and purple with a recessed pink eye amid a pattern of concentric neon veins. About the size of a football and moving around as if of its own volition. What was it?

Lyudmilla stared at them half-turned on her seat, seemingly also confused.

“Good afternoon.” Minerva said. Since this woman had skipped introductions and just called her out by surname, Minerva would skip any formalities as well. “May I inquire as to the nature of this investigation? As you can see I am currently with a student.”

Her guest grinned ear to ear, crossing her arms.

At her side the orb’s eye and the veins around it blinked on and off.

“Pardon my rudeness. My name is Silica Von Drachen. I am here on behalf of a global task force of the Noct Republic, operation Panopticon, to investigate a summoning.”

Minerva blinked hard. That was a lot of words she was not prepared ever to hear.

Silica seemed to immediately pick up on her discomfort and genuinely enjoy it.

“Ever heard of the Etherian ‘Moloch’? I should hope not. Humans should not consort with such beings of course, especially humans bound by international agreements not to.”


Story 2, Lord Of The Tempest, BEGIN.


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E.S.P. (72.1)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way

Wordlessly, the battle began.

Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.

Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.

Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.

Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.

E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.

It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.

Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.

It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.

Something frighteningly like an instinct.

“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.

Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”

She needled her.

Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.

Water started to rise once more.

She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.

Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.

She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.

Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.

“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”

Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.

“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.

“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I do.”

She had some kind of armor on her body.

Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.

Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–

As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.

“You’re not the only one with tricks!”

Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.

In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.

Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.

Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.

Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways.  When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.

Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.

Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.

Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.

It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.

Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.

“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”

At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.

She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.

Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.

Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.

Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.

“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”

She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.

Or she was an idiot who talked too much.

Madiha pushed again — on herself.

She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.

Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.

For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.

Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.

Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.

She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.

“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”

Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.

She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.

“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”

Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.

Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.

Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.

Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.

She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.

She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.

“Use your inside voice–!”

Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.

She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.

Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.

Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.

Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.

For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.

Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.

Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.

She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.

Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.

She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.

Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.

Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”

She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.

That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.

“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”

Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?

Or was it just low-key misogyny?

Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.

It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.

Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.

There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.

Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.

Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.

All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.

Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.

There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.

But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.

She realized that she could take something else.

“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”

Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.

Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.

She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.

Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.

Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.

“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”

Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.

Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.

“No, no, no, no, no–”

Aatto grit her teeth.

“No! Stop it!”

She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.

Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.

Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.

Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.

Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.

Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.

Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.

She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.

She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.

Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.

Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.

Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.

Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.

She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.

“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”

She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.

Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.

She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.

Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.

“What the hell–?”

Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.

Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her.  She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.

Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.

“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — North Solstice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adesh stood, speechless.

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

He wished he knew where they were.

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

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

He sighed deeply, and turned to Adesh again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a kind, wonderful gesture.

But Adesh knew what he would do.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

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

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

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

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

“Casualty estimates, right now.” He demanded.

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

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

“What about the Vishap?”

“It appears unharmed sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that was progress he could agree with.

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

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

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

He shuddered, and turned once more toward the city.

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

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

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

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

Von Fennec sighed deeply with great relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Von Fennec stopped and abruptly turned sharply over his shoulder.

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

Von Fennec blinked.

To retreat would mean–

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

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

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

Von Fennec was losing his sun-addled mind entirely.

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


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.4)

This scene contains violence and death.


On the road leading to the eastern gate sixteen trucks and tractors assembled, each of them supporting via metal scaffolds a bed of 132mm rockets. They assembled in a formation that took up much of the clay road between a pair of evacuated shops and restaurants at the edge of the city. Each driver, accompanied by a small gunnery team, exited the vehicles. Together the teams began to adjust the angle of the rocket launchers. There were at least twelve rockets per truck, and around eight rockets to a tractor.

Madiha Nakar watched the so-called “Guards Heavy Mortar” teams setting up Ayvarta’s secret weapons. She helped them adjust the elevation of the launchers via short-range hand-radio, feeding them the distance and coordinates to the approaching Vishap.

Once all the trucks and tractors were situated and their rockets ready, Madiha left them.

She turned around and ran to the opposite end of the ramparts, fixing her gaze back to the Conqueror’s Way, whenever she heard the Vishap fire its main gun. She guessed the weapon must have been at least 150mm caliber for all the damage it was doing, and loaded with anti-concrete explosives. From her high vantage, directly in line with the bridge, it was hard to see, but she knew the massive vehicle, surrounded by infantrymen, had punched neatly through the first gate. She saw the smoke and some of the rubble go flying into the water in pieces. Now the ruins of the Second Gate obstructed her view.

“Parinita, stay here on the main radio, I’m running farther up the wall!” Madiha shouted.

Parinita nodded her acknolwedgment, and the General took off running. She kept her eyes on the bridge, and as she got an angle on it from the wall, she could see around the rubble of the gates, and spotted the Vishap trundling toward the second gate. Its machine guns were firing at all sides, and the main gun fired an explosive shell the second she caught a glimpse of it. A horrid green fireball launched from the front of the tank and struck the rubble of the second gate and instantly reduced to dust a substantial amount.

Her troops around that ruined gate had taken blocking positions. Small caliber anti-tank guns, the only sort that could be hidden around the rubble, shot little red shells of 45mm caliber at the Vishap that ricocheted off its armor and exploded harmlessly on its bulldozer blades. There were six or seven shots Madiha saw flying out, but the Vishap hardly slowed, charging into the blasts confidently. Its frontal machine guns swept over her troops’ firing positions, covering the ruins of the second gate in automatic fire.

Under this assault, and all too aware of the approaching hulk, her troops retreated.

Madiha raised the hand radio to her lips. “Ready a creeping barrage, fifty across.”

Below the walls, in the city at her back, the rocket teams prepared their payloads.

“We’re golden, General!” replied the men on the radio.

“Acknowledged! Salamander 132mm rocket barrage, fire!” Madiha shouted back.

Organized in their staggered ranks, rows of trucks and tractors unleashed their rockets.

Dozens flew at a time with an unearthly sound, a haunting, howling noise. Arcing over the wall, they left trails of fire in the sky. Even the Ayvartan troops turned their heads up to watch the explosives cut across the firmament. Neat lines of bright orange flame drew overhead, past the second gate, and fell directly into the bridge. In quick succession the rockets crashed and violently exploded, setting off a series of deafeningly loud blasts. One after another, great fires bloomed from the earth around the advancing Vishap, churning up the top of the bridge, casting geysers of smoke and stone into the air.

Madiha watched the carnage unfold below, and she licked her lips absentmindedly.

Most of the rockets smashed into the bridge in front of or around the Vishap. One rocket struck the Vishap directly in its bulldozer blades and blew off a section in the top-left; two rockets struck the top center of the Vishap and left fleeting fires burning atop the locked-down cupola. When the fire cleared the thick cupola was deformed and stuck.

But the machine relentlessly ground forward through the smoke. Its top armor was thicker than Madiha had thought. Then again, the rockets weren’t armor-piercing.

No, she had a different target. Her lips curled into a fleeting but wicked smile as she heard the wailing and howling behind her. She thought she felt the heat as the rockets ascended the heavens from behind her back, soaring just over the wall and descending sharply into the bridge once more. This time the payload landed right behind the Vishap.

The Cissean and Nochtish infantry on the bridge had halted their charge after the first rocket barrage. They shrank back from the Vishap, afraid of the fire and shrapnel, and stood paralyzed, a dense mass concentrated around using the remaining rubble for cover, with the Vishap pulling farther ahead of them. They stared, dumbfounded, as the second rocket barrage overshot the Vishap entirely and came down upon them instead.

“You’ll enter this city as ash on the wind, imperialist scum.” Madiha whispered solemnly.

She raised her binoculars and watched with morbid curiosity and a strange sense of duty as the rockets started coming down. Every line of rockets crept deeper and deeper into the enemy formation. Each descent resulted in a torrent of fire spreading and rising, and a column of smoke and rubble following in its wake. Men were thrown about like stones skipped over water, flying whole or in pieces or aflame in every direction. When the fiery explosions didn’t dismember their bodies, or failed to set their equipment and uniforms aflame and condemn them to a slow death, the concussive forces felt even at the far edge of the blast jerked the soldiers in awful directions. Men struck the stones, and flew against the concrete barrier, and tripped and tumbled brutally over rubble.

There was chaos and panic all behind the Vishap, and every man condemned to stand on the bridge was on fire or crushed to a pulp or both. Then came the final series of rockets, that reached as far as the desert, and even the rearmost ranks of the enemy felt some punishment. The farther the rockets reached, the more the lines spread, and several rockets were landing off the bridge, in the water, on the concrete barriers. Behind the Vishap, a long, awful line of butchered men and ephemeral fires, perhaps numbering a low hundreds dead, stretched out to the desert. There were more men coming, but they were paused at the edge of the bridge with fear, and when they moved they did so tremulously, inching their way and watching the skies in anxiety and disbelief.

This was the Salamander, Ayvarta’s howling demon of flames. It was a weapon of fear.

Madiha had succeeded. The Vishap was isolated. There was no man alive to aid it.

She turned from the horror at the bridge and ran back to Parinita and the gunners.

There was a familiar face waiting there alongside her secretary. Long, silky dark hair, dark eyes, an impassive face. A young woman of unremarkable stature, wearing a big pair of goggles and the padded suit and thick gloves of an engineer. Sergeant Agni.

She raised a hand without an expression on her face, and said, “Hujambo, General.”

“I’m glad to see you Agni. How soon until the drawbridge descends?” Madiha asked.

The bridge part itself was no longer needed. Conqueror’s Way had for at least a hundred years now become a fully stone and steel bridge connecting both ends of the river. However, the drawbridge was kept as a gate. There was even space for it atop the bridge so horses and trucks could move seamlessly over it. And so the troublesome raising and lowering was still necessary: and currently, a major issue, owing to its malfunction.

Sergeant Agni shook her head, while fidgeting a little with her goggles.

“It will not be down in time. We need to source a very specific motor in low production.”

Madiha sighed. “Are the climbing troops prepared for action?”

“We have a dearth of climbing gear, but we’re almost there.” Agni said.

“We need to make greater haste.” Madiha said, a hint of frustration creeping in.

“Madiha,” Parinita called out from the floor.

Madiha crouched down behind the rampart stones to confer with her lover.

“Status?” She asked. She tried to put on a gentle face for Parinita.

Parinita was tougher than anyone gave her credit for; she didn’t need it.

“Everything’s a mess, but listen,” Parinita started, her face dripping sweat, and her breathing clearly affected, but with a resolute look in her eyes, “Regiment has just scrounged up a 152mm gun from the battery that got destroyed a few days ago at Sadr. It’s been repaired enough to work again, the shocks and carriage aren’t great, but it’ll shoot if it’s assembled. They’re coming in with a truck, ETA two or three minutes.”

Any additional heavy gun was useful in this situation, but it was a long shot.

“The Vishap’s roof might be too strong.” Madiha said. “And we’d need to immobilize it.”

“I have an idea.” Parinita said. “Madiha, what’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted?”

Madiha looked at her own arm and flexed it a little with a quizzical expression.

“Lifted? I’m reasonably fit, Parinita, you know this, but I don’t think–”

Lifted,” Parinita said again, with a wink this time.

Madiha blinked, and she understood immediately what Parinita was thinking.

She turned to Sergeant Agni and looked at her with haste and intensity in her eyes.

Sergeant Agni, inexpressive as always, seemed to understand the urgency.

“It’ll take a miracle to get a shot over the wall without it killing you.” Agni said.

“I’ll show you a miracle.” Madiha said.

“Please, trust her, Agni.” Parinita added.

Sergeant Agni nodded. She replied in a dispassionate voice, but with a hint of curiosity.

“Then if the General shows me a miracle, it is only fair I show a miracle in kind. I can assemble it enough to shoot in a few minutes if you can bring it up here for me.”

Madiha embraced Parinita, kissed her on the cheek, and bolted back onto her feet.

She rushed to the wall, and spotted a truck cutting in between the rocket launchers.

On the back, tied up under a tarp, were the pieces of the refurbished heavy gun.

Madiha reached out with her hand, focused on one of the recoil tubes sticking out.

She felt a tiny pinprick of hurt in her brain as she pulled on the object.

In the next instant, the recoil tube went flying out of the bundle as if kicked away.

It soared like a Nochtish football over the ramparts, twisting and turning.

Parinita and Agni both gasped all at once as the object came flying at them.

“I can catch it!”

Madiha quickly pushed on the object, and in a blink, countered its spin and stopped it dead in the air, preventing it from smashing her fingers off as she caught it in hand.

It was very heavy, and nearly pulled her arm to the ground in a second.

But she brought it up the wall, and she caught it.

The General shouted with girlish excitement, reminiscent of her childhood days.

Agni stared at the tube, at Madiha’s arm, and then at Madiha.

Parinita sighed. “Remind me to never ask you to do things again.”

Madiha smiled. “Oh, don’t worry, you won’t have to. This will be my idea from now on if you don’t.” She said, deftly twirling a bullet in the empty air with nothing but her mind.

Far below her, the ground crew was stupefied with the disappearance of the recoil tube.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.3)

This scene contains violence and death, and an experience of dysphoria.


Loose stones began to shake and rattle atop the ruin, trembling with the ground.

“Gulab, the Vishap is approaching. Good luck. I love you.”

She almost muttered the last sentence.

“No luck, just skill! I love you too, Charvi!”

Gulab was loud about it as usual.

She switched the radio frequency on the portable talkie and put it in her pouch.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to steel herself for what was to come.

It was just like hunting the rock bears, she told herself.

But even that gone poorly for her in the past.

Atop the mound of rubble that was once the first gate of the Conqueror’s Way, the approaching Vishap was like a boulder rolling down from the mountains, like an avalanche of metal. Sergeant Gulab Kajari tried to find more homely metaphors to describe what she was seeing, but without embellishment, it was a gigantic tank with a big gun pointed directly at them. Its dauntless trundling kicked up clouds of sand, and the infantry at its sides looked minuscule in comparison. It was easy to forget them.

She was surrounded by people who could not afford for her to overlook anything.

She sighed internally, smiled outwardly, and pointed at the incoming Vishap.

“Troops, I’ve got nothing here to say but: we gotta kill that thing.” Gulab said.

Loubna and Aditha and the rest of the rookies in the squadron cast eyes at the floor. They were huddled atop the mound, half their bodies on the steep end away from the approaching Vishap, looking over the makeshift hill. They were hidden from the enemy, hoping to ambush them as they neared. In their hands they had submachine guns and rifles, useless against armor, and one their belts they had anti-tank grenades. Though small, these could at least fare better than a rifle round against the heavy tank.

There was more to it than that, but Gulab didn’t have the time to catch everybody up on everything the General hurriedly told her over the field telephone. Even Gulab herself thought she had not caught all of it. But she had to somehow make all of it work out.

“Trust me, I’ve hunted bigger!” Gulab said. “We just have to know when to run away.”

She pounded her fist against her chest and put on a proud expression.

Morale did not improve upon hearing such a thing with the Vishap in the background.

“Why isn’t it shooting?” Loubna asked. Everyone was watching the machine breathlessly.

Gulab cast her eyes at the approaching tank. She remembered some of the things she had learned from Adesh Gurunath about cannons, in the various times they had cooperated during the war. Longer cannons could shoot farther, and their shots flew faster; the larger the hole of the cannon, from which it ejected shells, the stronger and larger the ammunition was. The Vishap’s cannon was very short and stubby, though the bore was wider than most of the guns Gulab had seen on tanks. It was mounted on the front face of the tank and seemed unable to swivel or turn, since it had no turret to move with.

“I don’t think it can shoot this high, and I don’t think it’s in range yet.” Gulab said.

There were a few sighs of relief among the assembled soldiers, but the trundling of the machine nearing them seemed to put into doubt whether it had any weakness at all.

As the Vishap approached the bridge, the machine noise that accompanied it grew louder, but it strangely enough began to slow down a tick, as it neared closer to 1000 meters from the Conqueror’s Way. Then from around the Vishap’s flanks rushed enemy riflemen, charging across the open desert. Gulab raised her hand at the sight and silently ordered her squadron to huddle closer to the ground and to hide themselves.

Within minutes the enemy riflemen were jumping over the rubble and onto the bridge itself ahead of the machine. A squadron of foot Cissean soldiers was in the lead, and several more followed them. They were armed with rifles and bayonets and quickly left the cover of the rocks. Boldly, they started across the open space to the first gate ruin.

This was good fortune for Gulab’s team; they had to pose a credible threat to the enemy.

And while Gulab doubted she could even dent the Vishap, she knew she could kill men.

“Fire on mark; Loubna, sweep the left flank, everyone else aim at the right.” Gulab said.

“Are these guys related to the men before? Don’t they know we’re here?” Aditha asked.

“I don’t think so. I think they’ve been lost in the desert for longer.” Gulab replied.

“So it’s an ambush?”

“That’s the plan.”

In truth, it was General Nakar who thought that, but Gulab nonetheless took the credit.

It was important for the kids to look up to her!

Aditha did not seem impressed, but she did focus back on the enemy with steeled eyes.

Loubna prepared her partially concealed light machine gun, facing the approach she was to cover; Gulab checked her Rasha submachine gun for one final time before cocking it and setting it on a stone for stability. Squadron members with basic Bundu rifles set them on the rocks, partially hidden, taking impromptu sniping positions across the ruin.

Gulab drew in a breath and aimed for the men running toward the mound.

“Mark!”

Gulab briefly raised her fist, and then laid it down, finger on the trigger, and fired.

Her squadron quickly followed suit.

Tracer fire sailed from atop the rubble of the first gate and showered the advancing enemy infantry. It was almost a moment of deja vu as Gulab watched the men struck down mid-run as if they weren’t expecting to be shot, and their compatriots clinging to the nearest piece of rubble for cover, or running back to the Vishap. Automatic fire from the submachine guns and Loubna’s Danava viciously covered the approach, and a dozen men were killed almost simultaneously before the rest took the hint and scattered.

As the waves of enemy infantry grew timid they began to concentrate around the Vishap.

There was only one way Gulab could account for this behavior among enemy soldiers.

They had caught them by surprise! It was just as General Nakar had predicted; they had not been in contact with the Republic of Ayvarta troops that had attacked this position previously. These new arrivals with the Vishap group likely expected an ambush but could not have known its ferocity or character, because they were acting independently of the main body of RoA troops deployed to take the Conqueror’s Way. As such, like the RoA troops defeated before them, these Cisseans and Nochtish were taken by surprise.

“Hah! Trekking through the desert melted their brains! Pick them off!” Gulab shouted.

Loubna reloaded, and she began to fire on the enemy’s cover selectively. Gulab praised her discipline and began to fire upon a sited spot herself. A few men tried to contort themselves with their rifles around the chunks of rock and from out the pits and trenches that scarred the Conqueror’s Way, but to no avail. Every time a rifle came out, a stream of bullets from atop the remains of the first gate silenced it. More and more of the enemy appeared and consolidated in thick formations behind cover, but without any cover down the middle Way they could not approach the mound. They were pinned.

For a moment, it seemed almost like they had turned back the tide. The enemy had advanced, lost men, retreated a step, and become bogged down in relentless gunfire.

This was all part of the General’s plan! It was all working as she had said.

In any other situation such a stalemate could be exploited. Gulab had seen it before.

However, there was nothing the bullets could do to stop the Vishap, ever closing-in.

It was this detail that made this battle different, and rendered this triumph so null.

Soon as its tracks hit the stone of the Conqueror’s Way, the Vishap changed the tide of the battle. It ground rocks beneath its bulk, and shoved rubble away with the bulldozer on its face, and its own men leaped out of its way as it charged forward. But once it moved past their positions, the Cisseans took up its back and began to advance again. Though the mound continued to brutalize the Conqueror’s Way with submachine gun, rifle and machine gun fire, there was nothing they could do. All manner and caliber of small arms fire was bouncing harmlessly off the Vishap’s blades and its wounded front plate armor.

“It’s not doing anything!” Aditha shouted, rapping the trigger of her rifle uselessly.

“Keep shooting! Wait for my signal before doing anything more!” Gulab shouted back.

Trundling to within a stark 500 meters of the first gate, the Vishap’s cannon glowed.

Smoke and fire belched from the aperture, and with a terrifying growl the Vishap loosed a heavy shell that flew in a belabored, shallow arc into the bottom of the mound. There was a monumental flash. Fire and metal and chunks of rock flew straight into the air in front of the defender’s very eyes. Everything shook under them. It felt like the mound would collapse. The Vishap moved once more, and it loomed larger and larger as it did.

Atop the machine, two of the shoulder cupolas turned to face the mound, and the dark slits cut across the sides of the structures flashed a bright green. Hundreds of rounds of machine gun fire struck the rubble at the peak of the mound, and a cacophonous sawing noise sounded above the shifting of the stones and the sound of loading and firing of rifles. Hundreds of bright green tracers bounced skyward or overflew the peak. Even the rookies could identify the sound as that of the deadly Norgler machine gun, and they scrambled back from the rubble, putting the slope between them and the Vishap.

The Vishap’s top-mounted machine guns blazed as the machine crawled toward the mound. It was like a demon, belching fire from its snout-like cannon, its cupolas like eyes firing searing, chaotic beams of green tracer ammunition. It was a terrifying sight that cowed the defenders like nothing else. Not another shot flew out from atop the mound; Gulab swallowed hard and shrank back with the rest of her squadron, pinned.

“Comrades, get ready to retreat! Grab your weapon and start moving toward–”

Beneath the infernal noise of the machine guns the Vishap’s cannon cried out once more.

One more shell impacted the rubble of the first gate, and this time the force of the blast wound itself inside the rubble, and rocks and concrete belched out the other side of the mound, collapsing some of the rookies’ own footholds on the rear of the slope. Several squadron members were blown back with the rock, and they dropped from the mound and hit the ground. Disoriented, but alive, they fled in a panic back to the second gate.

There was no time to hold the Vishap there. They had to sacrifice the first gate and fast.

“Comrades, over the side barriers, right now!” Gulab shouted. “Come with me!”

Everyone looked at her with surprise. They clung on to the rubble and rock as if they were suspended over a precipice, and their guns were almost an afterthought, hanging by belt loops or pressed between them and the slope. Nobody was moving at all.

“Come on!”

Gulab grabbed hold of rookie Loubna with one hand, who was paralyzed with her Danava embraced in her arms, and the sweating, panting Aditha with the other. Finding purchase on a solid slab of concrete beneath her, Gulab could afford to let go of the mound for this maneuver, and with all her strength, she dragged the two rookies, and leaped from the mound and atop the side-barrier. She pushed Loubna and Aditha off, and it looked to everyone as if she was throwing them in the river. There was no splashing or screaming, however, if any such thing could even be audible under all the machine gun fire; and witnessing Gulab herself disappearing behind the barriers, the remainder of the squadron gasped with collective fear and charged toward the water.

Jumping around the meter-and-a-half tall concrete barriers on the side of the bridge, Gulab found herself in a drainage segment off the side of the bridge. There was maybe a meter in which to stand or sit, and the rushing waters of the Qural below. Loubna and Aditha clung to the barrier, terrified by the rushing water. Gulab urged them to move; in a moment, five additional squadron members would jump the barrier and land messily one after the other, some nearly falling into the river. Gulab got everyone organized.

She huddled the group and addressed them. “Alright, see, nobody fell, nobody got–”

Behind them, there was a much louder blast and an even more violent rumbling and rattling as the Vishap finally destroyed the mound of the first gate. Then, the grinding of its tracks and the roaring of its engine resumed, and they could all feel it moving past them, like a dragon stomping its way past their village as they hid from the destruction.

Gulab had no intention to remain hidden. This was all another chance to attack.

“Comrades, any hunter can kill any beast by stopping it from moving! If that thing gets past the second gate, it will have a clear shot at the wall. We can’t let it get any further.”

All of her squadron was clearly shaken. In a span of minutes they had lost a position, lost comrades, and witnessed head-on a massive tank bearing down on them. Their eyes were watering, their faces sweating and turning pale, their bodies shaking. But they were focused: Gulab saw it in their faces that they understood the urgency. That was good; a soldier could be afraid, but they had to channel that fear into their survival.

“On my mark,” Gulab continued, and laid a hand on Aditha’s shoulder, and quickly explained as the Vishap neared them, “Aditha and Seer will throw frag grenades at the road to distract the riflemen, and then, me, Loubna, Fareeha and Jaffar will rise up and throw anti-tank grenades at the tank’s side and tracks. We only have one shot at this!”

Aditha looked frightened at first, but Loubna put a hand on her shoulder too, and her face turned red. She averted her eyes, turned her cheek on Loubna and withdrew a pair of grenades from her pouch. Looking sour in expression, she nodded silently to the team, most of whom seemed perplexed by her behavior. Meanwhile Fareeha, a tall, dark, athletic woman, and Jaffar, a rugged-looking boy, both gave Gulab intense looks that suggested to her their eagerness to fight. Both were rookies. Everyone here was now.

Gulab didn’t look at Loubna, she felt she didn’t need to. Loubna was ready. Gulab felt it. Loubna was big and tough, and she had a soft heart that yearned to defend the weak.

She saw her own face in Loubna’s, like staring into her reflection on the mountain ice.

She hoped she could count on at least her.

Behind them, the Vishap chewed up the remaining rubble of the first gate, and the ground beneath them and the barrier in front of them and seemingly even the water at their backs, all of it shook and shuddered with the weight and power of the beast. It fired a round at the ruined second gate, resulting in a massive explosion, and its machine guns screamed as it engaged the blocking position set up around the second gate’s remains

Gulab’s stomach vibrated, and she felt the presence of the machine in her neck when she tried to speak, like constant jolt to the adam’s apple. Her words came out shaken.

The Vishap was within zero of the squadron; they had to attack now or never.

Its frontal machine guns were occupied, and its gun was unable to target them.

It was time.

“Aditha, Seer, now!”

Aditha and Seer pulled the pins on their grenades, waited a second, and threw.

Four grenades, one in each hand, landed in the road and exploded in various directions.

Gulab stood and launched her AT grenade in as straight a throw as she could muster.

Only on a direct hit from the head would the grenade be primed and detonated.

She caught sight of something that made her throat seize up.

The Vishap had an armored skirt protecting its wheels and track.

Would the attack even be effective?

She watched the grenade strike the top of the skirt at an angle and burn a visible hole.

The Vishap trundled on.

On the road were dead and wounded riflemen, caught out by the grenades.

Their own comrades were coming in for them.

Just then, behind Gulab, in a sluggish sequence, came Loubna, Jaffar and Fareeha.

Their own throws were haphazard, with Jaffar throwing from the grenade’s head and Loubna lobbing hers. Both grenades exploded over the armor skirt and left minor cosmetic wounds on the tank. Fareeha seemed to have had the best throw. Her grenade hit the Vishap in the side of the skirt and burnt through the armor, exposing a wheel. Some smoke and fire spat out of the wound, but the Vishap continued to advance.

“Everyone down!” Gulab shouted. They had stood out too long, threw too late–

Atop the Vishap, the leftmost rear cupola turned to the edge barriers and opened fire.

Alarming green norgler fire sprayed over the concrete.

Gulab shoved herself into Loubna and Jaffar, the two closest, and brought them down.

Seemingly hundreds of rounds struck the concrete, chipping away bits and pieces that fell over the squadron and casting concrete dust into the air. So many rounds were fired at the barrier that the chipped concrete dust formed a small cloud over the edge of the bridge. Disdainfully the Vishap pressed on, fully leaving behind Gulab and her team.

On the floor, Gulab pressed her hands over herself and found no wounds.

She grabbed hold of Loubna, who was staring at something mouth agape.

She was unwounded too; Jaffar was also alright from the looks him, and then–

Just a few steps away from them, sitting with her back to a black-red smear on the barrier, was Fareeha. Her chest and neck had bled out heavily in moments, judging by the red stain all around her, like an aura burnt into the ground and wall. Her feet dangled from the bridge, and her eyes were open, staring endlessly out into the water.

She was dead.

Gulab hadn’t been able to knock her down too.

From behind Gulab sounded a heart-rending cry.

“Fareeha! No! No!”

Aditha, crouched on the floor, held back a thrashing, screaming Seer, whose black face was turning pale and flushed, her eyes red and strained, weeping. She tried to claw over Gulab to make it to Fareeha’s corpse, and Aditha and Loubna both tried to hold her back. She was screaming for Fareeha, screaming that she could not be left behind, that she could not stay here, that she would be fine if they could get her out of this place.

Gulab looked back at the corpse as if, mindlessly, trying to assess whether it could be ok.

It could not.

She pored over, in that eternal instant where anxiety reigns over the mind, whether she had seen anyone die before. She had seen people die, but had they died? There was an importance difference there that she felt but could not grasp. Certainly, nobody had died under her command before. Because she had not really done that much commanding.

Now, she was in command. And a young woman of merely eighteen had died under her.

In the background to all this, was Solstice city, and Gulab stared at the wall.

She felt the Vishap, attacking the second gate. She felt its motion through the ground.

Gulab turned toward Seer and grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her roughly.

“An entire city of millions of defenseless people will join Fareeha if we don’t do something, Private Dbouji! Wait to mourn until we’re inside some safe walls!”

She picked up her submachine gun from the floor, crawled past Loubna and Jaffar, and without turning back, motioned for everyone to follow. She hated all of this, and herself.

She hated how much it felt like something her father had done and said to her, long ago.

How much that voice sounded like his own.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.1)

This scene contains violence and objectionable bodily fluids.


56th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Undisclosed Location — Newly-Founded Republic of Ayvarta

Furnishing an underground conference room in Ayvarta on a short notice was an ardous task. Nochtish girls in support staff uniform crawled around the ruins of a nearby university, and procured the chairs, the tables, a projector. The Meeting would be held in the command bunker of a set of old coastal guns. During the Solstice War, the guns saw no use. There was no enemy navy in the Southeast Ayvartan Sea. There still wasn’t any; the communists had wrecked the ports and their submarines made long patrols deadly.

Allied flags, banners and symbols were furnished for the meeting room, lights were installed, carpeting, everything that could bring to mind the propriety and comfort of an actual military headquarters. There was an attempt made to sew a banner for the Republic of Ayvarta’s flag, an eagle superimposed over a sun and carrying a sword, the eagle black, the sun red, the backdrop gold. Nobody could get one made in time, and the Republic went unrepresented among the flags of Nocht, Hanwa and Lubon in the room.

At the appointed date and time, the meeting room filled with top generals from the three allied countries. There were Hanwans with their ceremonial swords and dark brown uniforms, and Lubonin officers in their green parade uniforms, never seen on the battlefield, and Nochtish generals all wearing the dour, utilitarian gray common to all soldiers in their army. At the head of the meeting, atop a stage and podium constructed for the purpose, stood Field Marshal Dietrich Haus, a man looking younger than he was, soft-faced, imposingly tall, strong-shouldered, with hair almost to the shoulder now.

He stood before everyone, and behind him, a projector displayed many aerial images of a city, surrounded by walls, vast, larger than any city on any of their continents, able perhaps to hold all of their capitals in one plot of land. On a blackboard, Haus began to write. Across the silent room reverberated the sound of chalk striking board. In a few moments he had several figures up on the board. Then, he turned back to the room.

“The City of the Solstice is the strongest defensive position on the planet, gentlemen. Its air defense network alone comprises 10,000 guns in the city, most of 76mm caliber, many on the wall ramparts. Several of these guns can be used to attack ground targets as well. In terms of raw ground fire artillery, we’re looking at over 30,000 additional barrels. Solstice alone contains the 100,000 strong Revolutionary Guards army, as well as 300,000 reservists. Over 2000 tanks are at their disposal, likely including many of these new types that have gotten the better of us. In the air, we’re looking at at least 1000 fighter aircraft alone, with many hundreds of ground attack planes in support. Judging by the pace at which the enemy has been reorganizing, these numbers will only grow the longer we wait. You can bet that by the time we arrive at the city walls, there will be at least a million frontline personnel, if not more, defending Solstice. Never has a military force of mere men faced such an obstacle. Solstice has never fallen from without; nevermind the name and legend of the Conqueror’s Way. This city has never been taken in a fight.”

“Well,”

There was a lone other voice, sounding above the crowd otherwise entranced by the Field Marshal. One hand rose into the air, as if in a school. Haus followed the hand, the length of the arm, and saw a youthful, grinning face, like a fox. Short dark-blond hair, combed and slicked, and severe, sharp cheekbones accentuated that face, which could not be mistaken, and that detestable voice. It was Gaul Von Drachen of Cissea.

“One person took the city in a fight.” Von Drachen said. “Well, a few really, but one–”

“You mean Madiha Nakar, the mediocre general whom you can’t seem to overcome.”

“You’d do well not to underestimate her.” Von Drachen said. “That girl has, a kind of secret factor, you could say. She will surprise you. Mark my words, friend Haus.”

“I am not your friend, Von Drachen. Shut up, and don’t interrupt me again.”

Several heads in the room turned to glare at Von Drachen, who seemed far too comfortable and satisfied with himself despite everything that transpired.

Haus raised his fist. At the back of the room, his beautiful and unflappable assistant Cathrin Habich switched the images in the projector, from a reel of photographs of Solstice, to a reel that began with a map of Ayvarta. As the reel progressed, more of Ayvarta turned from red to blue. There were dates accompanying each color shift.

“We began this war on the 18th of the Aster’s Gloom. Our primary goal was regime change. The communist Socialist Dominance of Solstice has for years been a sponsor of revolutionary territorism and a dealer in arms to foreign threats to democracy. We carefully built up forces in the two independent nations in the continental Ayvarta, Cissea and Mamlakha, both of whom were sympathetic to our cause. Striking with swift pincer movements, we overran and destroyed many Ayvartan defenses, starting in the states of Adjar and Shaila, and then moving to Dbagbo and Tambwe. Over the the past 100 days we have captured over half the territory of the Ayvartan union. I will not mince words: our losses have been great. Our logistics are in tatters, resupply is slow and ardous and expensive thanks to the lack of suitable port facilities and to deficiencies in our Navy and merchant marine. But we have set foot in the red sand, Gentlemen.”

Cathrin switched the reels once more. Now instead of maps of Ayvarta, there were images of Nochtish and Ayvartan equipment. Photographs, schematics, planning documents, shipping manifests, tables of organization. Cathrin scrolled the images at the slightest signal from Haus, as he addressed the room again with renewed fervor.

“Gentlemen, I want anyone daunted by what you’ve seen and heard to leave this room, and never speak to me again! If you are not energized by this challenge, you are unworthy! We will bring the light of God to the godless communists! Solstice’s walls, dozens of meters towards the heavens, will fall before our might! Even as we speak, the Nocht Federation is preparing 10 weapons known as the ‘Wall-Breaking Potentials’ that will grant us access to the invincible city, where we will end this war. Feast your eyes!”

Again the reel was switched; images of weapons scrolled one after the other, larger than anyone in the room save perhaps Haus himself. Technical specifications on a new explosive, C-10. An ultra-long-range cannon on a super heavy battleship dubbed “Jormungandr.” A massive bomber dubbed “Thor,” and its rockets, “Mjolnir.” A super heavy tank, “Vishap.” An eerie cube shaped material for many experimental uses, “Lehnerite.” Weapon after weapon, fully unveiled with schematics and top secret information. It was awe-inspiring. Everyone in attendance was agape at them.

It was quickly evident this meeting was not simply about unity against the communist scourge. It was about the power of Nocht, about their prestige, ingenuity, wealth.

Ayvarta was a stepping stone, an example.

These weapons could cover any territory. The power to destroy a wall of Solstice could easily become the power to destroy Palladi or Edo. That was the assumption all foreign generals in the room immediately made and Haus did nothing to reassure them.

“You are witnessing the twilight of communism, gentlemen. The end of Revolution. No more will chaos triumph over the order of the world. Nothing and nobody can stand against these powers. Protected by these swords, peace will finally reign on Aer!”

No one dared ask who’s peace, or what kind, or where it would reign, or for how long. Nobody dared say a word, or even allowed themselves a loud breath. Eyes cast cautiously about the room as if looking for commonality. At least Haus was careful not to mention Democracy too much. There were monarchists and imperial theocrats in the room who were uncomfortable enough at the upstart democracy and its boldness.

“In the next few days, we will chart out a path to this peace, together. For now–”

“Ah, wait up! One more thing!”

A familiar voice rose in the back of the room, and a most familiar man walked down the aisle that split up the seating arrangements for the various delegations. Slick blond hair, a sharp suit, boyish good looks and a winning smile: it was none other than Nochtish president Achim Lehner, making his first ever appearance in the Ayvartan continent. Everyone was aghast; even Haus was surprised. His eyes drew wide open, and a smile crept up. He charged off the stage and ran up to Lehner, and took him in arms.

“You should have told me you were coming!” Haus said excitedly.

Lehner did not return the embrace, but did smile at his friend. “It was short notice.”

“Short notice? It’s a week-long voyage. God in heaven.” Haus smiled, and laughed.

Lehner stood back a step from Haus, extricating himself, and the two, once separated once more by propriety, made their way down to the stage. Lehner took the podium. At the other end of the room Cathrin stood in calm, collected confusion, not having any reels prepared for this. Haus motioned for her to cut off the projector, and turn the lights on the stage. Properly shone upon, Lehner began to speak to the crowd himself.

“Hey there, listen, friends, colleagues. A hundred days ago we embarked upon this amazing project together, and it’s been quite an experience. We’ve experienced a hell of a lot. I wanted to be here to see off the next step in the journey to a freer, better, stronger world. Part and parcel of that, is, letting go of old attitudes, old beliefs. Embracing the new. We’ve got all kinds of new. Weapons, tactics. I wanted to be here, personally, to introduce something else new, that I would like all of you to know that we have.”

He gestured to the back of the room again, where the door once more opened up.

“This information doesn’t leave this room, by the way! None of it does, of course, we’ll discuss that, but this especially. This especially does not leave this room, okay?”

Heads turned toward the back, where, perhaps most surprising of all, it was a woman walking down the aisle now. A pair of women; one was tall, slender, fit, with skin the color of molasses and long, dark hair in a messy ponytail, beneath a cap emblazoned with a silver eagle. Her nose was sleek, slender, sharp, her cheekbones high, and her face had a condescending expression. Her uniform was all black, and it was patterned after frontline soldiers, unlike that of her companion, who clearly wore a secretary’s coat and skirt. One was clearly a soldier, or intended as one, while the other was shorter, meeker, blond-haired and blue-eyed and a little bit plump. She would have been fairly typically Nochtish had it not been that she wasn’t: because both women had furry ears and tails.

“Please allow me to introduce you to 2nd. Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather of the Vorkampfer Corps, our first woman combat soldier. Times are a-changing, gentlemen!”

There was no applause. As Aatto took the stage, she shot the crowd a disdainful look, while her companion followed behind her with her tail literally between her legs, and looked utterly terrified. Around the room there were faces, some curious, others perplexed, and several furious. Among the Hanwans in particular, who had some interesting cultural notions toward women, this move did not inspire confidence.

Near the front of the crowd, a man with an old-style Nochtish cavalry uniform and a very geometric mustache stood in consternation and singled out President Lehner. He spoke in a rabid voice, as if he had been ready to snap and this was what broke him.

“Mr. President, you have asked us to conduct this war without materiel, with green men, overseas, against unknown foes, for months, with nary drill nor preparation for jungle warfare, for river warfare, for desert warfare; that, we did honorably, and that, I did grudgingly, for my country. But this, I simply will not stand! I will not stand for this army, already on the brink, to be filled with every two-meter trollop you deem erotic enough–”

From the stage, Aatto glared his way, and the gentleman instantly seized up.

His last words choked up, and he gripped his own throat in confusion, and he stared at Aatto, and at Lehner, and at Haus, and his legs shook as his words continued to fail him, as breath failed to enter him. Lehner looked toward the 2nd Lieutenant: without confusion, as would be expected, but instead with open nervousness. As Aatto’s mouth curled upward in a sadistic grin, the General below seemed to choke more violently.

“Aatto, please.” said the girl beside her, tugging on her sleeve.

“Uh, Stormyweather, that’s good enough, I think this misogynist learned his lesson eh?”

Lehner tried to be affable, and Aatto shot him a glance.

Sighing, she turned her head away.

At once, the old General breathed again in a terrible, raspy gasp.

His knees buckled, and he fell to the ground, and openly expelled blood, and vomit.

It fell out of him like slush, like melting snow. He was coughing up bloody ice.

“As you wish, Mr. President.” Aatto said.

Lehner clapped his hands together. “Uh, thanks, doll. Appreciate you and all you do.”

Aatto rolled her eyes, her tail slowly swishing behind her.

“Whatever.”

Lehner turned back to the room.

Another man was standing.

Gaul Von Drachen was giving a standing ovation, clapping, staring at Aatto in awe.

He seemed entirely too emotional about what had transpired.

Lehner ignored him and addressed the room again.

“Gentlemen, we have a lot to discuss. You see, God has smiled a smile that is only smiled once in a millennia, and he has smiled it on the Federation of Northern States. And on its enemies, he has cast a bolt of lightning that the world hasn’t seen since ages gone by. If you thought Nocht was starting to run out of steam: well, you ain’t seen a damn thing.”

There was chatter, confusion, and a restrained fear, all around the room.

“Gentlemen, who here has heard of magic? None of this leaves the room, by the way.”


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