1.5: Pretenders

This chapter contains strong and suggestive language, violence and  xenophobia.


Aside from buses there weren’t that many cars around the National. Few people owned their own car anymore. There were a few students in scooters and motorbikes; but Phillip’s sports car was the only one on the road. By herself in the backseat, with the window rolled down and the wind tunneling through, Milla felt herself drifting. On the front seats, Cheryl and Phillip flirted and laughed and got handsy with each other.

Milla leaned against the side of the car, staring out the open window, her eyes heavy.

Didn’t VIPs ride in the backs of fancy cars? She couldn’t even muster a little fantasy.

Outside the streetlights and the lights from the fronts of buildings melded together, a mess of color sweeping past her eyes. Her eyes would close, and the lights would dance inside her eyelids, and briefly she would open them again and see the world nearly unchanged. She felt the night as the combined weight of the day, bearing down on her.

Even here, just sitting, just being driven somewhere, she wasn’t relaxed. She felt like the whole world wanted her in chains. All she had were obligations and uncertainties. Her thoughts were all fragmented. Ever since– why couldn’t she– maybe if I had just died–

“Milla, you know anything about Minerva Orizaga?” Phillip asked.

Milla looked up from the backseat at the rearview mirror and saw Phillip’s eyes.

“Not to sound pessimistic but you probably aren’t getting out of that apprenticeship.”

“I don’t know shit.” Milla replied in a grumpy tone of voice. Phillip paid it no mind.

“She came here recently, kinda like you.” Phillip said. “Right Cheryl?”

“She wasn’t here last year, yeah.” Cheryl said. “I dunno, I think she’s cool.”

“My old man hates her guts.” Phillip said. “Thinks its a bad look for the school.”

“Why would he think that?” Milla said.

“Because he’s a fucking asshole.” Cheryl replied, before Phillip could answer.

Phillip didn’t seem to mind his girlfriend trashing his dad, though he also didn’t overtly agree. Instead he answered as if nothing else had been said. “Minerva’s an Alwi, Milla. Maybe you don’t have ’em up in Moroz but down here it’s kind of a big deal she’s here.”

“I know they’re a group of people, we’re not so insular in the north, you know.” Milla said. “I just don’t know why it would make anyone upset that she’s a Magician.”

“Lot of Otrarians don’t think they should be.” Phillip said. “See, a lot of them came in from the South illegally. They came from the Theocracy of Uttara and from Harazad. None of them ever did magic. Over decades they practically made their own city in Otraria, called Alwaz; it was basically a huge ghetto on the edge of the capital.”

“What does any of this matter?” Milla said.

Cheryl looked between Milla and Phillip as if she didn’t get why they were talking at all.

“It burnt down.” Phillip said. “Like 20 years ago. They say the Alwi picked up on magic little by little, but they destroyed most of Alwaz. They caused some kind of disaster.”

“Did that have anything to do with your government collapsing?” Milla said.

She was supposed to be a history major, after all. Milla wasn’t the most well-versed in ancient history, but she knew enough about current events. Everyone would have heard about it, growing up anywhere in the world. Otraria’s powerful government, all mages of great skill, were overthrown and killed in 1980. Since then instead of the Greater Otrarian Republic it had been known as the Democratic Union of Otraria.

“It played a part.” Phillip said, a little more brusquely than before.

“Why are you two so intense all of a sudden? Who cares? That’s all ancient history.”

“Well, I’m just telling Milla, she ought to be careful around Minerva Orizaga.”

“Why? Ms. Orizaga’s fine.” Cheryl insisted.

“Even if she’s totally harmless babe,” Phillip said, “she’s drawn a lot of attention.”

“It’ll be fine, because I’m not going to be anyone’s apprentice.” Milla said forcefully.

What was his problem all of a sudden? Cheryl was right. Minerva was fine.

Whatever; it wasn’t her problem. It wouldn’t be.

A landscape dominated by LED light and concrete shadow melted away around them. A dirt road led them on their abrupt transition from the Academy’s cityscape to the surrounding wilderness. Trees replaced building, their jagged shadows creeping up their flanks and slowly forming a net overhead. Through the gaps Milla could see the lake, the moonlight glistening off the surface of the water. Though the car’s headlights were on, the beams of light seemed unable to part the thick empty darkness ahead of them.

“Almost there,” Phillip said. “We’ll get out and walk to the site.”

Phillip pulled over on the side of the dirt road. He shut off the car and with it the headlights; the forest felt like a pitch black room to Milla, unable to tell its dimensions or where she was in it anymore. She reached for her wrist, pulling off the screen from her homunculus unit and using it as a flashlight. She exited the car herself.

“Come on Milla, don’t get left behind! The faeries will take you!”

Cheryl laughed.

She walked hand in hand with Phillip and Milla followed a car-length behind, playing with her hair bobbles. She spun one set of them around the associated twintail, sighing.

Everything was quiet. Milla couldn’t even hear animals crying. One would think a frog or a cicada might have said something, but even they seemed to fear to speak on that night.

The environment was disgusting, lukewarm and moist. Every step Milla took, she felt as if she was standing on dung, the soft earth giving away under her feet. She was back on the farm in spirit, and she hated it at all. She could not imagine how anyone would want to make out or push boundaries in this kind of atmosphere. It even smelled disgusting.

They left the road behind and climbed over a little hill into the woods.

Coming down the hill they came upon a clearing of broken earth and overturned trees.

It was as if the statue in the center of had exploded out from under the terrain.

Or as if it had been exploded out, like in dynamite mining.

Milla knew Baphomet was a horned, cow-headed creature, and this statue was similar. However it did not sport the large, bare breasts Milla had also seen in many drawings of the idol; it was instead big bellied, and it had its arms raised. The creature’s bottom half was not very detailed at all in the statue. It was essentially a pillar with a large opening.

“Yes! There it is!” Cheryl laughed, delivering a couple light smacks on Phillip’s back.

Everyone walked down from the hill and onto the clearing, ducking under roots and climbing over splintered trunks from fallen trees. There were beer bottles and bags of potato chips and other snacks strewn about. Milla thought she saw condom wrappers, and maybe even the genuine article. Certainly the place had seen a party or three.

There was no one else around when they arrived, however.

“I thought it’d be livelier.” Milla said, looking upon the statue from afar.

“Yeah, where’s everyone at? I thought Amber and Jenn had gotten ahead of us.”

“I dunno.” Phillip said. “Trent and Arnes were supposed to be with them too.”

“They better not be fuckin’ around here somewhere. Gross.”

A sharp crack reverberated across the forest, metal on metal, as if in answer.

In front of them the opening to the statue burst into flame.

Cheryl screamed and jumped back, and Milla felt a shock run through her body.

Two slender shadows began to move in from the forest.

“You fucking bitches!” Cheryl shouted. “I hate you! I hate you!”

Cheryl assumed it was Amber and Jenn, and she was right.

They weren’t playing a prank.

Her two friends stepped out into the light of the fire, their hands clapped in irons.

Their mouths were gagged, and they were chained together around the legs.

Tears ran down their eyes.

“What the–”

Amber and Jenn seemed to plead to them to run.

From the darkness a chain flew out and wrapped around Cheryl’s leg like a snake.

She lurched forward, scrabbling at the earth.

Phillip started to move, but he was mouth agape, dumbfounded, and shifting in his spot.

Milla reacted; from her jacket she withdrew a small book and swiped it in front of her.

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

Her homunculus responded with noises and lights, and a wave of force blasted out of the swept-open pages of her grimoire and tore the chains from around Cheryl, freeing her.

Cheryl scrambled back to her feet and ran behind Phillip.

“What the hell is going on!” She screamed.

Milla thought to cast the same spell to free Amber and Jenn, but she saw more shadows.

She raised her grimoire in front of her, holding it half-open by the spine.

She held her hand over the pages, ready to swipe it across and cast.

From behind the statue two men appeared. They were wearing black coats and what seemed like sports helmets, with visors and mouth grilles. They had metal bars attached to chains on their hands, whether clubs or as casting tools Milla didn’t know. Tellingly, they possessed homunculi on their wrists. They walked slowly out, tentatively, as if they feared too. Milla could tell by the light of the fire that they were shaken up. They didn’t seem to know where to put their hands and they seemed to try to hide their gazes.

There was another presence alongside theirs.

He came down from the forest too; he appeared to leap down from somewhere high.

He landed atop the statue, standing on its raised arms. He was dressed in what seemed like a suit of armor, less improvised than the thick coats on the two other men, and his helmet was much less improvised as well. It bore the head of a dragon, and its horns. Instead of a short metal club, he had a long bar across his back like a staff or spear.

His homunculus looked much more ornate than those of the other men. Bigger too.

Cheryl cowered behind Phillip, while Milla tried to keep everyone in her sights. Her heart was pounding and her lungs working themselves raw. She smelled the smoke from inside the statue. That was not an illusion; that was a real fire in the clearing now.

“What the fuck is going on?” Cheryl cried in a shrill voice.

Phillip didn’t seem to move to console her. Instead he stared up at the man on the statue. He was standing as if he was ready to dive back at any moment, to twist around and run for his life, but something kept him anchored to the scene. He was pale, quivering.

“What the hell is going on?” He shouted. “This wasn’t– this isn’t what we agreed!”

Milla turned her head sharply toward Phillip. “Agreed? Agreed to fucking what?”

She thought she saw one of the men make a move and turned back to him.

He took a sudden step back, as if he expected to be shot at.

He was staring at her grimoire with fear.

Complete fucking coward, Milla thought. She could at least take one down.

To find herself in this situation again, in the supposedly safe and civilized Otraria–

It was infuriating, as much as it was horrifying.

She had never dealt with ghosts or monsters but she had certainly dealt with men.

At least you could kill those.

Whenever the man in the horned helmet spoke, his voice was concealed, distorted.

“Yes, Phillip, it wasn’t what we agreed. But you were the one who broke our compact.”

His voice was affable. This all sounded casual, just another day for him.

“Shit.” Phillip turned sharply, pleadingly toward Cheryl.

Cheryl looked at Phillip with horror and pushed him away.

Her own strength pushed her back closer to Milla, and she stumbled, on shaking knees, and fell near the other girl. She crawled back, staring at Phillip with tears in her eyes.

“What the fuck is he talking about Phillip? What is he talking about?” She shouted.

Milla took a step forward to stand in defense of Cheryl.

“So much money and so little sense.” remarked the helmeted man. “I don’t know what compelled you to bring that girl, or these, when I asked for only you and the girl. Had it not been for the fact that your boys report to me, it might’ve become a real mess.”

He waved his hands in front of him, as if pointing to Amber and Jenn below.

Phillip’s hands were shaking, even curled into fists. He grit his teeth.

“I knew you were going to do something awful to Cheryl.” He said, weeping, his voice breaking. “I thought, if I brought other girls then, you would leave her alone.”

Atop the statue the helmeted man slammed his foot on the horned head.

“No, that’s not how it works. You want our power, you follow our instructions. Just like your friends did before you. How could you ask them to sacrifice when you do not?”

Both of the men, presumably Trent and Arnes, kept quiet and anxiously still.

Phillip looked defeated. “Fuck, man, I didn’t know you guys were–”

At once the helmeted man raised his voice, sharply, horribly. “That was your mistake.”

Milla saw something move rapidly; but she just as quickly realized it was not for her.

She made no move to defend Phillip as the helmeted man’s staff whipped out at him like it was suddenly made of flexible leather and not stiff steel. It struck Phillip across the face, an iron slap to the jaw that smashed his nose like a bubble of blood. It retracted, and was almost instantly back in the man’s hands as if it had never been altered.

This was metal-element magic. Much like the chains that tried to catch Cheryl.

“Do not worry. I can fix your pretty face up. I need it. I also needed you to learn respect. We are all around you Phillip. You thought I would approach you without insurance? You are surrounded by my men because I sought you out. Because I want you in my ranks.”

Cheryl redoubled her screaming, horrified at what had happened to Phillip.

She clung to Milla’s leg, and Milla had to stifle her instinct to kick her off.

In a street fight, bawling and stupid shit like that got you killed. But Cheryl was a friend.

“Hey, shut the fuck up and let us go!” Milla shouted up at the helmeted man.

He turned from Phillip to her.

“Girl,”

Milla saw a glint of a red eye through the sleek, sharp, dragon-like mask.

He stomped his feet once more on the head of the statue.

Immediately after he started to bloviate in a high-and-mighty tone of voice.

“You’ve no business here. Neither do these two. I feel gracious tonight. Take them and leave. I only need that one.” He pointed idly toward Cheryl. “And the boy with no face. You can leave with your life, and you can even tell anyone your story of this night; I don’t care at all. I cannot be touched by you. I just don’t want anymore interference here.”

Amber and Jenn started to scream and jump in place, begging Milla.

“Fuck you.” Milla replied. “I’m taking ’em all, except that shithead. You can have him.”

Atop the statue the dragon helmet shook from side to side.

“Big-hearted of you. Kill her.”

Beneath him, the two henchmen approached. They had their clubs and chains ready.

Their legs, however, were visibly shaking. And she knew they were focused on her book.

“Hey, Amber and Jenn, those two were your boyfriends right?”

She winked at the girls to try to convey her intent.

Both girls shut their eyes and leaped aside, taking the hint.

Milla threw her grimoire gently overhead.

She reached into her coat, withdrew two of her hidden knives and launched them.

“That’s some shit taste you both got!”

She caught the boys clearly unprepared to defend against a physical attack.

One knife went into one’s shoulder and the other into a knee.

Both men shouted and grit their teeth and stumbled.

Milla caught her grimoire coming back down.

“Pherkhan’s Magnetism!”

Milla swept across her grimoire and the pages whirled with power.

In an instant the knives pulled both men screaming into one another.

They bashed into each other.

Milla then swept her hand across the other way, turning the pages back and forth.

“Pherkhan’s Shock!”

Neither man seemed able to tell where the bolt was aimed, and even though only stuck together by a relatively weak magnetic force neither of them seemed able to escape.

In reality, it struck the trailing chain held by one henchman and trod upon by the other.

Striking the metal, the bolt trailed up like a snake and shocked the two of them at once.

It was something on the order of twenty milliamps, and it hurt.

Both men fell screaming and choking, holding their own bodies, twitching.

It was grotesque and Milla was undisturbed by it.

She had her eyes up to the helmeted man and ready to cast another spell.

He clapped, unperturbed, and stomped his feet on this statue’s head once more.

“I am Centurion Ajax, of the organization Iron Flag.” He said.

She thought she had heard of that. It certainly sounded familiar.

Milla showed him no emotion. “Lyudmilla Kholodova. I’m not afraid of you punks.”

She thought she saw the helmet contort into a smile.

“Of course.” He said.

He raised a hand to the helmet, stroking its chin.

“Of course. Kholodova? I should’ve realized. Of course. Pherkhan, the great late Rus archmagus.” He said. “You do have the eyes of a Moroz savage. How disgusting. You northerners have always been the same. Brute force, all numbers and no finesse.”

He turned from her to Phillip.

She gazed out the corner of her eye as Phillip lunged at her.

“Good man.” He said.

Milla ducked.

Phillip, his broken face contorted in horrified desperation, swung over her.

She could’ve drawn a knife and stabbed him.

Instead, she closed her book, swung her arms around and struck him in the face.

Fresh blood drew from the gaping wound where his nose had been.

He tumbled backwards, and squirmed in pain on the muddy soil.

Centurion Ajax stomped his feet on the statue again, and laughed.

“Pitiful. I thought you wanted to escape your father’s shadow.” the Centurion said. He taunted them. “You don’t deserve it. If you didn’t have a sizable inheritance I would leave you here without a nose. Now If only I could feed that Moroz mongrel to the hearth; but it only accepts children, and that Kholodova is simply too old. Only little Cheryl will do.”

Milla grit her teeth. She was 21 years old; that must’ve been what he meant, if he knew.

She also knew that Cheryl was only 19. But what then did he mean by a hearth?

She realized then, all that time. Baphomet’s statue, the flaming gap in it.

“Amber, Jenn, get away from that statue!” Milla shouted.

She wished she knew a good water spell; but Pherkhan only traded in metal and fire!

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

She was still at the level where shouting names and making casting gestures was her only personal mnemonic. She wished dearly she could have cast faster and quieter.

Milla swept the pages back once more, and Amber and Jenn’s bonds burst apart.

She had the space to cast one spell and she had cast it to save the girls.

Unperturbed, her enemy made his move.

Centurion Ajax reached down from his perch and snatched something from the statue.

There was a gap in its head from where he ripped a chunk of its stonework out.

It was the thing he had been stomping on this entire time.

He crushed it in his hands, and the earth slipped from his fingers to reveal a red orb.

“You could’ve struck me down, Moroz, but you fell for taunts and wasted your chance.”

At once the fire in the statue’s stomach erupted. Amber and Jenn scrambled away.

“In a battle between mages every word, every step, has meaning! You’re still green.”

But the fire seemed to suck in, like a giant drawing in huge breaths.

Centurion Ajax reveled in it all. “Awaken for your feast, Lord Moloch!”


Minerva felt something hot and quivering. She was awoken in the middle of the night as Vorra tore suddenly away from her arms, rushing so quickly to the window that she sent the blanket they were sharing flying into the air. Minerva, bleary-eyed, stared from bed at her girlfriend’s naked human form clawing bestially at the window, bathed in moonlight. She shimmered, red lines tracing lean muscle as her aura became agitated.

Recognizing how exposed they both were, Minerva grabbed the blanket and ran to the window, and quickly threw it over both of them. She looked out upon the lake, confused.

“Livorra, what is the matter with you?” She said, briefly compelled to use her full name.

Her partner raised her hand to the window. Her eyes were bloodshot and dilated.

“Milord, I sense the foulness of a pretender God in those woods. I smell the kindling.”

Minerva blinked and stared past the lake at the dark, distant, nondescript woods.

Her own eyes started to warm up, and she thought she could smell something burn.


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1.4: Restless Girl

This chapter contains repeatedly vulgar and sexually suggestive language.


Tyrant: Spells made real; the wrath of nature; manifestations of faith, power, the elements. Gods. In short, Tyrants are entities that within certain parameters can perform magic beyond the bounds of human performance. The limits of their existence are not understood. Most Tyrants spread a territory known as ‘demesne’ that represents them and their claim on the world. Tyrants who have lost their demesne possess humans or objects instead.


All around her the streetlights went on as if acknowledging her presence, a tunnel of light that bisected the park. It was a white carpet spreading out before her, and for an instant, she reminisced like a child, about the feeling of eyes, about the wonderment that others might have had at the sight of her. She felt almost as special as she wanted to.

However, they were only streetlights. This was not a runway. Nobody was watching.

In this case, that was good and fine. She went to the meeting place and made the exchange. Money left one hand and a brown paper bag filled the other. She grinned.

Night fell quickly after, but Lyudmilla Kholodova paid the gloom no mind.

As she departed the park and made for the dorms on foot, she sparked her own light.

She withdrew a rolled paper cigarette from the bag and a pristine silver lighter from the pocket of her uniform blazer. She took a long drag from the cigarette; the taste was grassy, and the pull a little harsh and spicy on the tongue. It was of poor quality.

“At least it was cheap,” Milla said to herself. She laughed a little through the taste.

She put it out before approaching the dorms, but she’d light another up when she could.

Though she referred to her residence as “the dorms,” the National had all kinds of housing. There were inns and hotels with small rooms up for cheap. Whole apartments and flats were up for sale in town if you applied and the landlord thought you could keep the place together. Private places were the best, or so Milla had heard. There were fancy ultramodern flats going for thousands of thal that had hot tubs and parties going 24/7; Milla couldn’t have hoped to get something like that, given she was practically living on the National’s charity at the moment. Instead she was in the dorms; specifically in what was known as The Estate, a three-winged complex near the center of town. This was not a plebeian state of being by any means. The Estate was well located and rather fancy.

It was just not hot tub sex party fancy; not that Milla really wanted such a thing anyway.

Everything was clean and smooth and well-lit. These weren’t like the school dorms she’d slummed in at various points in her life. Seeing into open rooms there were computers and big bunks and mini-fridges and microwaves for the beer and noodles. There were students everywhere in the halls, chatting, grabbing stuff from the vending machines, making out; each floor had a bulletin board and there were posters and notices on the walls, messages left for people. Every hall was like its own little village, Milla thought.

When she made it to her room, the sixth door on the ninth floor hall, Milla found the door open and her roommate waiting on a desk chair, sitting with the backrest forward and leaning on it. She had been looking out the door with gloomy, expectant eyes.

“Hey Milla. Glad I got to see another human face before the end times.” She joked.

“Okay.” Milla replied. She looked over her shoulder at the door. “Waiting for someone?”

“Yeah, my dirtbag boyfriend and my shitty friends.” She replied, sighing.

“How late are they?”

“Ugh, they were supposed to be here an hour ago, and he should’ve been here all along.”

“Oh well. You’ve got the rest of the night ahead of you Cheryl, lighten up.”

“Uh huh.”

Milla walked past her and dropped onto the bed, and pulled off the screen unit from the homunculus on her wrist. While pretending to toy with the unit, she surreptitiously photographed Cheryl with it while she was still looking out the door and distracted.

It was a good photo.

Cheryl was rather pretty and flashy. Her luxuriantly long blond hair was studded with glittery pink stars, and her eyes had a magical glamour on them that superimposed a star in each. She had her uniform mostly on. Her shirt seemed like it had been tugged until the buttons burst open halfway down her chest, but the tie was still on and done up right. It had a striped pattern of lush pastel colors. Her skirt was a bit loose. She wore a pair of open-toed shoes with short heels and had her blazer tied around her waist.

Her homunculus lay discarded on the desk behind her. Its straps were pink, and there were a dozen little things hanging from it, like peace symbols, a tag that read sexy bitch and keychain cats and little figures of cute characters from animated shows.

“Can I borrow one of your ties sometime?” Milla asked.

She clipped the Homunculus screen unit back to her wrist.

Cheryl seemed to awaken from her previously single-minded focus on the open doorway.

“Yeah, sure. Go for it. Just don’t take the one I put out for tomorrow.” She said.

“Can I grab a bra too?” Milla said cheekily, spying one of Cheryl’s red straps and grinning.

“You wouldn’t be able to fill it.” Cheryl said. She fixed her shirt, tying a button up.

She was quickly back staring glumly at the door.

Milla burst out laughing. “I was trying to have a good time and I feel so attacked now.”

Cheryl sighed.

“Ugh, fucking, Amber and Jenn, I’m so mad!” She said. “How are they this late?”

“Maybe they got kidnapped. Maybe they’re getting bled for a dark ritual right now.”

“Eww, you’re so gross Milla!” Cheryl said, but she said it while laughing uproariously.

She reached a hand to the bunk and delivered a friendly smack to Milla’s stomach.

“Amber’s real mad at you, you know.” She said, wearing a little grin on her face.

“What did I do?” Milla asked, her tone dispassionate and largely unconcerned.

“You popped that bubble in front of her in class. She looked dumb.” Cheryl said.

“Tell her to stop being such a baby.”

“You can tell her when she shows up. I’ll have your back.”

“I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

“Aww, come on. We’re pals. You wear my clothes. Don’t be like that.”

“It’s true. I’m wearing your clothes right now.”

Milla patted the sides of her skirt, her lips curled in a demonic smirk.

“You’re gross.” Cheryl said.

“I’m kidding.”

“You were pretty cool today, y’know?”

Milla thought that came kind of out of nowhere, and she raised an eyebrow.

“You summoned a ghost out of that wand.”

“I didn’t summon anything.”

“I bet you did. I bet it wasn’t there before.”

“I’m not some kind of witch. I’m not even that good with magic.”

“You’re better than me.”

“It’s not hard.”

“You probably know some like, real fucked up dark arts stuff, don’t you?”

Cheryl giggled, clearly pleased with the glum look on Milla’s face. She loved to tease.

“I wish.” Milla said.

From her bag, Milla withdrew another cigarette.

Cheryl noticed her lighting it up, her eyes darting to it as if tracking it by GPS.

“Hey, open a window or something, I hate that smell.” She said.

“I guess you don’t want a taste then?” Milla asked.

“I extremely do not want a taste, Milla.”

“Pity, it’d take your mind off this nonsense.”

“Yeah it’s a real tragedy that I’m not high right now. But I’ll live through it somehow.”

Cheryl hugged the backrest of the chair tight against her chest.

She blinked for a moment and then raised her head.

“Oh, hey, right– you got a letter this afternoon. Sorry, I forgot all about it.”

Cheryl reached behind herself and picked up an envelope from the desk.

“It’s from the school. Can’t be about your grades this early, so I dunno what’s up.”

She handed Milla the envelope. Milla looked it over: it had the seal and everything.

From her pocket, Milla withdrew a knife, hidden as a pen, and cut the envelope open.

Cheryl gaped at the sight. “Oh my god, put that thing away. I’ll pretend I didn’t see it.”

Milla sighed internally, the cigarette still in her mouth. She pocketed her knife again.

Cheryl was mostly cool but she could also be dreadfully boring about certain things.

Inside the envelope was an average-seeming, very ordinary letter from the college.

Milla read it carefully, and stared at Cheryl as if she had any answer for the contents.

Cheryl stared back at her and lifted one hand up for a half-shrug, blinking rapidly.

Looking back down at the letter Milla felt her heart exploding in her chest.

“What is this crap?” Milla shouted. “I can’t– I don’t understand any of it!”

“Do you want me to read it? Is this a language barrier thing?” Cheryl asked.

“I read Otrarian just fine!” Milla replied. “It says I’m going to be apprenticed!”

“Huh. I thought that’s usually a thing you like, consent to.” Cheryl said.

“I know! I’m being apprenticed to Minerva Orizaga, effective immediately! There’s not even any explanation for it, it just says owing to my performance and conduct!”

“Oh, well, Ms. Orizaga’s pretty cool. She’s got that kinda ponytail butch look to her.”

“I don’t care! This is crap! I’m not going to be some teacher’s slave for no reason!”

“I mean, that’s not how it works, it’s 1998. We got like, laws. Your grades are probably not good and you weren’t showing up to office hours either so they probably wanna help.”

“I don’t need help with my grades! Or office hours! I am doing just fine!”

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” Cheryl said, wincing. “If you’re that mad, go talk to Ms. Orizaga.”

At that moment they heard a knock on the open door.

Cheryl’s face lit up as a young man let himself into the room.

“Hey baby, sorry I’m so late. My dad showed up to be a hardass at me.” He said coolly.

“Aww that sucks sweetie, I hope it’s all chill now.” Cheryl replied, all sugary sweet.

Her boy grinned at her. “I’m recovering. Maybe a kiss will make it better.”

Cheryl threw herself on him and practically started to rub up and purr like a cat. She was completely doting on him, and Milla watched with a detached humor. She almost wanted to say something about ‘dirtbags’ at that point but she figured that was the easiest way to make Cheryl turn from reasonably friendly to complete and utter enemy. Milla knew too well the kind of reactions one got from these girls where their boys were concerned.

Milla raised a finger. Quietly and magically she spun one of her hair bobbles around one of her partly-dyed twintails, bored of the romantic display happening in front of her.

After a long kiss, the couple paid her mind again.

“You look like you got the goods as usual, Milla.” Phillip said.

He looked at the brown bag at Milla’s with a knowing smile.

“Stay on my good side and I could share, Phillip.” Milla said, playing it cool.

Phillip looked like all the guys in the school looked. Blond hair, lots of gel. Cheekbones. Leggy, kinda big, but not too big. Button-down, jacket. Some kind of shoes. It was whatever. Cheryl saw something in him, Milla could not have imagined what it was.

Maybe it was football or something. At any rate, Cheryl was revitalized in his presence.

“I saw Amber and Jennifer with the guys.” Phillip said. “We should get going too.”

Cheryl’s eyes lit up and she smiled euphorically. She turned around with a hop.

“Milla, you should come with us!” She said. “We’re meeting a few friends to get a couple drinks and check something out. We’re going somewhere real cool, right Phillip?”

“Real cool?” Milla asked.

“Few nights ago a quake shook up a hillside in the wood. They say a shrine to Baphomet popped right out. We’ve been meaning to go hang out there.” Phillip said, grinning.

“They say if you offer blood to the shrine it’ll bring passion to your life.” Cheryl said.

That’s so gross.” Milla said, in a mock-Cheryl kind of voice.

Cheryl stuck her tongue out at her.

“What honest Magician doesn’t like a little devil worship, am I right?” Phillip laughed.

“Come on, this is so your scene, Milla. You love this weird shit.” Cheryl said.

Milla tried to cultivate something of an alt girl kind of aesthetic, this was true.

But she had other things on her mind than partying at some creepy sex god statue.

“I gotta talk to this teacher about this letter.” Milla said. “I gotta get out of this shit.”

Cheryl looked disappointed, while Phillip tried to play it off like he had no investment.

“Fine, I guess. Do you know where Ms. Orizaga could even be at this hour?” Cheryl asked.

She had that tone of voice like she was trying to dissuade Milla from being uncool.

Phillip looked at Cheryl for a moment and then back at Milla with a smile. “Minerva Orizaga right? She lives out near the lake. We’re going that way; you could hitch a ride.”

Milla had heard that Minerva Orizaga was big news around here before, being the first Alwi teacher and all of that, but she didn’t think people were on a ‘know where her house was’ basis like this. Still, it was good that this information got to her; she really wanted to get this situation sorted out. Minerva was a cool teacher, but not cool enough to become subordinate to. Above anything else, Milla valued her privacy and freedom.

However Milla also didn’t want to end up at Cheryl’s weird woods party if she could help it. Not that it wasn’t intriguing to see a demon statue, but, she knew there’d be a bunch of weird auras all over that place and she was not in the mood to be there all by herself. No gaggle of college girls and their boyfriends ever went somewhere for chaste reasons.

“That’d be convenient, but I’m not getting roped into bringing you weed.”

She had to register her discomfort, but she still had to be cool about it.

“Hey, relax,” Phillip said, “We’ll drive there, but you can leave whenever you want. It’s just a quick walk from the woods to the inn by the lake. Nobody’ll mess with you.”

“I’ll make sure they don’t.” Cheryl said.

He sounded almost insistent. Cheryl made eyes at Milla as if begging her to be cool.

Milla had no idea why anyone was interested in her company, but she finally relented.

“Fine, I’ll tag along. But I’m leaving real quick. So don’t get too attached.”

“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit.” Cheryl said. She grabbed hold of her boyfriend’s arm and looked up at him, giggling. “Milla’s real cool, Phillip. Cooler than Amber and Jenn.”

“Hey, I can tell just by looking at her.” Phillip said. “Glad you’re joining us.”

Milla averted her eyes. “I said it was only for a little while, you know.”


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1.3: Domestic Dragon

This chapter contains some slightly sexually suggestive content.


The National was drowning, and it drowned those who lived and labored within its halls.

A Magician alone with her thoughts could sense the despairingly cold, despairingly thick aura of Water magic that permeated the surroundings. Water was colorless, faceless, it was dark, it was concealing. Water was secrets, water was an agenda that moved with an unfathomable purpose, rolling waves and building storms that swept, swallowed and destroyed. Water was natural, was it not? Water existed and moved unchallenged.

There was no aura more fitting for the National. Otrarian Magicians lead their lives around this institution, and it was natural that they rolled, natural that they swept and natural that they destroyed. Magic itself was the moon that turned their tides. Discovery.

Humanity was fire and metal. Towns and cities full of life and full of passion, pleasure and despair, an air thick with dreams and labors and discoveries. Metal was what humanity made and surrounded itself with and coveted; Fire was what dwelled within their hearts and minds. Minerva could with some effort render her own aura visible and she would see it, burning red with the faintest streaks of grey-black. Fire and Metal.

Where Humanity ceded space to the wild, one would feel the element of Earth, the fading ruler of the primordial Tierra, at peace in its remaining domains. In the mountains and up in the sky, the element of Air dominated, wild and free, a vagrant magic unrestrained by the logic of the world. In the places humans could easily touch, Water was a secret and sequestered magic, existing in small pockets cut into the land. Its domain was the ocean, the last frontier of land-bound humanity, and it guarded it violently, jealously.

That the National reeked of Water so thoroughly and awfully was very deliberate.

Nobody ever felt ‘ok’ at the National. Living there, working there, was a great effort in itself, a draining labor that never seemed to ease. That was the existence of humans in a web of water that drained their air and squelched their fire. That was the sacrifice. This discomfort was the price of power. Those who couldn’t stand it weren’t worthy of it.

It was an ancient law that carried itself out well beyond anyone who supported it.

Minerva shut her eyes, her head dipping against the window of the bus. She could feel it.

That was the esoteric world of the National, the metaphysical atmosphere of it.

Physically, the Otrarian National Academy For The Esoteric Arts was a vast, sprawling entity, a city onto itself. Deep in the center was the Old Campus, where Anthropology and its quietly irrelevant ilk had their old, red-brick buildings that were square and stoic, with grim facades and faded stone streets. There was a splash of living color offered by Turrington plaza and its park, on all sides flanked by vast rainbow beds of flowers.

North of the Old Campus the vast Main Street of the National dominated the new campus, with its dynamic architecture, glass facades and modern flair. Rather than a square plan, the new campus seemed to sprawl off the main street in long veins, buildings sprouting everywhere they could. Classroom facilities, housing complexes, businesses of all kinds of sizes, hospitals, service plazas, fitness centers, laboratories, everything one could think of could be found somewhere in the city’s sinews.

There were buildings like modern art pieces, with domes and planispheres and pyramids coexisting with utilitarian structures. Square buses shared the road with sleek prototype cars that ran on agartheum and other esoteric matter. Holographic and alternate reality billboards appeared along the road beside overbearing state propaganda and a variety of pinned-up flyers and signs advertising political meetings on both ends of the spectrum. On the street Minerva saw high fashion, casual dress, the business-like uniforms of the students, and the austere garb of wizened old magicians all in the same places.

Minerva watched the crowds around the Main Street, trying not to doze off in the bus. She, too, was a citizen of this odd city. She wondered how many were students, how many did magic; there were tons of people here to support the students and teachers and each other and not to do magic. Not every nurse or policeman or food worker did magic.

Maybe they cast a spell or two, but they didn’t do magic. You didn’t really need it.

Outside the National and a few other little oasis, Magic was starting to fall by the wayside. Humanity was a species defined by Metal: technology now rendered the service of physical transportation, digital communication and even the transformation and improvement of the human body. War was waged with effective, rational weapons. Human ingenuity and technology built the cities, the skyscrapers. All without the fickle whims of the esoteric and the years of commitment and unique psychology and physiology required to truly master it. Similar magical abilities to the car, the plane, the telephone, the scalpel and bandage, and even the firearm, were growing rarer and rarer.

Magic had to innovate as technology had in order to reassert itself. And it simply hadn’t.

Like the precious Water that shielded their elite, the magical societies and their arts were consigned to small, exclusive places, dotting the landscape but no longer owning it.

There was one place where Magicians were still very strongly represented, however.

It wasn’t like it was before the Upheaval, over a decade ago. Nothing was like that.

But Magicians still largely governed Otraria, just as they did during that scarring time.

Minerva’s bus took her out of this organ of conspiracy and into the green hills skirting the edge of the Whispering Woods. Here there was green country, thick with trees, and the great Lake Bratten, a blue slice taken out of the earth that seemed to shimmer distantly behind every pine. It was a popular destination for Academy-goers looking to get away from the tension. Here the Water aura quietly receded. Even at the lake, the magic was overwhelmingly of Earth — this suited Minerva fine, and so, she made it home.

Among the final stops for this particular bus was a three-story wooden building on a small wooded hill with a breath-taking view of the lake. This was Wurmbacht Rent House, a housing complex about 45 minutes from Anthropology and Turrington plaza. Tacking on nearly an hour commute both ways wasn’t a problem for Minerva when the rent was manageable, with perks. She could go to the lake whenever she wanted, she had a private and comfortable third-floor apartment, and she could breathe easily here.

They even had Wi-Fi, and the connection was basically fine. Not much more to ask!

At the top of a small set of stone steps, Minerva withdrew her resident’s card and slid it through the card reader on the front door to open it. She slipped quickly inside and closed the door behind her. She was always a little on edge opening card reader doors.

From the door there was a short hallway that branched, leading to the kitchen, to the staircase up to the second floor, and to the back of the first floor where the landlord and his daughter lived. There were some vending machines installed along the hall and a carpet. Just off off the door was a glass panel with a slot, a window into a little office that mostly went unused. When Minerva walked past it this time, however, she found a young girl sitting on the chair, playing with a computer tablet on the front desk.

“Do I need to check in, Laksha?” Minerva asked sweetly.

Laksha looked up from her tablet and smiled. She was swinging her legs under the desk.

“Hi Minnie!” She said. “I’m at the desk today!”

“You are! Here’s my card.”

“No! You don’t need to! I know you live here!”

“Ah, well, thank you!”

Minerva turned around and walked over to the vending machine. She slid a bill into the cash slot and input the number for a candy bar. She brought the bar back to the desk, and with a sweet smile she offered it to Laksha through the slot in the glass panel.

Laksha looked up again from her tablet and beamed brighter than the sun.

“Thank you!” She said, unwrapping the candy bar. “You’re the best, Minnie!”

“I know I am.” Minerva said. “How was school today?”

“It was fun! I learned to do this!”

With her free hand, Laksha withdrew a little silver-lined safety wand from the pocket of her jeans and raised it to the glass. On her wrist, a small provisional homunculus began to whirr and make a little noise. She whirled her wand about, and then dropped it, and it started to float around by itself. Wordlessly, Laksha moved the wand around her head like a toy plane, and at one point slipped it through the neck of her turtleneck sweater. It came out again from one of her sleeves, all the while she casually munched on her bar.

“Isn’t it great? Teacher said it was an example of ‘Applied Energetics’.”

“It’s impressive!” Minerva replied, clapping her hands.

Minerva was a grouch most of the day because she had to save up all her kindness to spend on Laksha. She was a terrifically sweet child, and as a fellow Alwi Minerva felt a sense of protectiveness toward her. She reminded Minerva of herself, and it was more than just skin color and hair color that bound them, but a sense of hope. Laksha was being raised in a world where she was breaking a boundary without knowing it.

“Oh, your girlfriend got a lot of packages today Minnie.” Laksha pointed out.

“My girlfriend did what.” Minerva replied. Her heart rate must have tripled then.

“She got a few deliveries. I was home most of today and saw it. She looked really happy!”

“Well, I, need to go to talk to her!” Minerva said hurriedly. “Keep practicing!”

“Someday I’ll be as good at it as you, Minnie!” Laksha said, waving her wand goodbye.

“You’ll be better.” Minerva said.

She then turned around and took off up the stairs to her floor.

Her apartment was on the third floor, facing the lake, so she had to go up the stairs and round two corners before finding her door. Her skin brimmed and her lungs struggled with the urgency of the situation. She imagined something awful must have happened! She withdrew her key so fast she nearly threw it at the roof, and she practically burst through her own door, into a small, square apartment with a big window, a single room that was bedroom, kitchen and living space all in one, and a small adjoining bathroom.

“Vorra, you had better not–!”

In the middle of the room on a futon set atop a small carpet, Minerva found her partner reclined atop a stack of magazines and biting down on what seemed to be raw steak. There were a few other meats lying around her little hoard: a few links of sausage, a pack of bacon, some more steak, what seemed to be a loaf of white pork fat, and more.

Her partner swallowed up the rest of the steak with disturbing haste and smiled.

“Ah, goodness! You return, milord!”

“Don’t call me that! What are you doing?”

“I am preparing my body to become one worthy of a ‘Wyrmqueen’.”

Minerva realized her room was exposed and quickly closed the door behind her.

It would’ve been quite a sight for anyone out in the hall. Not just the mess but the woman carelessly in the middle of it. Vorra was a looker, with a lithe, long-limbed body, ruddy brown skin, and bright green eyes. Her neck length hair was tidy, and her swept bangs gave her a more elegant appearance than she cultivated otherwise. She was dressed exclusively in one of Minerva’s shirts, barely-buttoned, barely covering her. Minerva was horrified to think that she had met a delivery man this afternoon dressed in this way.

Though she certainly looked like a comely human, Vorra had a few things off about her.

Most distressingly, a pair of horns curled back around her head from just over her ears.

She had a tail to match, thick, half as long as her legs, and covered in golden scales.

“Where did you get all this? I told you we don’t have the money for red meat every day!”

Vorra sat up on her hoard of magazines, all of which she acquired as free samples. Dragons needed to maintain a collection of some sort for proper psychological health. Minerva wished it could’ve been something like stamps or postcards, and not a pile of papers. Still, Minerva expressed her willingness to stand on equal terms with her partner by approaching the pile of magazines and sitting down on it along with a joyful Vorra.

“Milord, I am both aware and understanding of your currency situation, which is why I researched alternative avenues for acquiring meat, after you also forbid me to hunt.”

“I feel like you’re accusing me here! You were eating dogs.” Minerva said disdainfully.

“All lesser beasts are possessed of the same flesh and blood.”

“No they aren’t; some are possessed of pet flesh and pet blood.”

Vorra waved her hand dismissively. “Regardless I paid not one coin for this meat.”

“Okay, then how did you get it?” Minerva asked.

‘Paying not one coin’ seemed to rule out both using Minerva’s money and also stealing money from other people to pay for it, both things Vorra was quite capable of doing given her general disdain for law as applied to herself. It was only Minerva’s words and commands that she heeded or respected, but she found loopholes where she wanted.

“Milord,” she began again, despite Minerva’s distaste for it, “I became aware, through perusing the World Wide Web, of various Web Sites that specialized in delivering boxes of assorted food and goods to the houses of their customers. I felt that these services were my most convenient avenue to acquire the meat I needed, but I lacked the currency to make use of them. So defeated, I decided to recline and listen to some ‘Pod Casts’.”

Minerva used to be puzzled by Vorra’s vernacular but was by now used to it. This was the normal tone of their conversations. Clearly she was into buying junk online now. Minerva had gotten her a tablet so she could listen to music and play around on the internet and convinced her to stay in the apartment as much as possible. While Vorra could disguise her draconic features easily, she was very socially conspicuous.

“I’m with you so far. So how did you get all this stuff for free then?” Minerva said.

Before continuing her story, Vorra’s lips curled up into a grin that was full of pride.

“I thought I would soothe my disappointment with the buffoonery of the brothers three, but instead I was made aware of a powerful passphrase that I could deploy to my purpose. It came to light that a way to bend the will of the online meat automatons was available, and thus upon wielding the words ‘My Brother’ against them, they were forced to bequeath to me a box of their delicious meats absolutely free.” Vorra said.

She clapped her hands and broke into a delicate laugh, clearly feeling herself superior.

Minerva covered her own face with her hands. “You got a free sample from a podcast.”

“Not merely one free sample milord. For I circumvented the limit of one delivery of goods per person by requesting the aid of the human child, and thus received–”

“You took advantage of Laksha for your scheme!” Minerva shouted.

Vorra shrugged. “She does not consume meat and so I saw no harm in her giving me the box that is her unwanted birthright. It meant I would have twice as much meat.”

“Okay, whatever.” Minerva said. “It’s fine. I’m fine with it. I was just worried.”

“Milord’s concern for me makes my heart flutter like a growing flame.”

“Why are you so adamant on eating red meat anyway?”

Vorra’s face flushed a little red and she looked fondly at Minerva.

She reached out a hand and scratched across Minerva’s palm, kind of like a cat.

“I require substantial protein to transform my body, you know?”

Vorra spread her arms (and with them her shirt) as if to show Minerva her progress.

She had indeed changed a little bit since Minerva had come upon her. Vorra was a young dragon, and so her forms both human-like and not had a lot of elasticity. She had been just a little bulkier, just a little harder; she was now softer, lighter. Her hips and chest had begun to change as well. Her hair was a little longer than before too. Her voice was still as rich as ever, however. And surely her lizard-like dragon form would have changed since Minerva last saw, too.

“Do Dragons really do this sort of thing for– umm, their mates, I guess?”

Vorra could easily tell Minerva’s discomfort; they had talked like this before.

“Nothing I’m doing is irreversible if I don’t like the end result. I am very pleased with everything and as I stated in our covenant, your role in it is not coercive whatsoever. This is simply how partnerships between Dragons work. One of us must manage this responsibility.”

Minerva was not entirely well versed on dragon customs, and she had been hesitant to research it for fear of finding some terrible thing about Vorra and her kind and the ‘covenant’ they made. Talking about the fact that Vorra was trying to become Minerva’s “Queen” was a little awkward and a little unsettling, but also sweet in a strange way.

“Beside which, I’m not doing it just for you! I merely had no reason to change prior.”

“Does it hurt?” Minerva asked sheepishly. “Changing your body like that, I mean.”

There was something about the concept of a dragon having to eat a lot of meat to reconfigure her fat and bones and organs little by little that felt just a bit, extreme.

Vorra smiled and rubbed her head against Minerva’s. “Did it hurt for you?”

Minerva sighed. She felt talked down to. “I mean– some stuff hurts.”

“Like what?”

“Well, if you can call them that, my tits can definitely hurt.”

“Then you’ve experienced this before, you shouldn’t worry.” Vorra said, laughing gently.

“I’m experiencing it right now.” Minerva mumbled, patting down her chest.

For Minerva, perhaps this discussion shouldn’t have been so strange and uncomfortable. She certainly had experience in changing her body, but her changes felt much more controlled and gradual and natural (despite the medical source for them). In a way, she feared that she had tricked or forced Vorra into mutating herself out of shape through the use of magic. It was perhaps a grievous misunderstanding, borne of the magical origin separating them. Vorra kept saying she wanted it; so maybe it was all fine.

Minerva thought, perhaps she should endeavor to trust Vorra more about this.

“I’m humbled to receive your concern, milord. But it is misplaced.” Vorra said. “I am a being of great and ancient power and I was born to become a majestic wyrmqueen.”

In a way, just as she helped Vorra become something, Vorra had helped Minerva to accept in a healthy way a very dark and dangerous thing that she was becoming too.

Minerva smiled, and dropped back onto the pile of magazines, looking up at her ‘mate’.

“I suppose when a Dragon gets to be that age, the urgency to make nest starts to–”

Vorra blew a little smoke from her human nostrils in response to Minerva’s teasing.

“I’ll have you know, Milord, I’m within several decades of my prime, thank you.”

Minerva supposed there were worse things for the school to find out about her than that she was the possessor of the Tyrant Wyrm and that she was shacking up with a Dragon.

They could discover that she was a communist spy instead.

“Now then, with the misunderstandings sorted, how about a steak, milord?”

Vorra lifted a floppy piece of meat from the edge of the magazine pile, took a deep breath, and blew a puff of fire and smoke at it that seemed to instantly char it black.

“I’ll pass.” Minerva replied. “By the way, I need you to deliver something.”

“I shall endeavor to treat milord’s mission as my own.” Vorra replied.

Minerva grimaced for a moment, thinking of potential fallout.

“Don’t eat any dogs along the way.” She said.

Vorra smiled and pushed the charred steak into her human mouth, to swallow whole.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.2)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“All guns, site the enemy tank and open fire on approach!”

Ferried across the desert by four tank transporters, the massive steel crate dropped its front door open like a ramp onto the sand, and from the aperture escaped an enormous tank, easily larger than any tank Madiha Nakar had ever seen. It was wider and thicker than an Ogre or a Giant, with a track that must’ve reached twelve wheels in length.

Its front surface was sloped and seemed thick, and it carried an additional steel plate of bulldozer blades. in the middle of the glacis, a thick round mount surrounded a short-barreled howitzer or mortar that must have been at least 150mm bore. There were several structures on its flat, long upper surface that seemed like cupola, but only one was centralized and likely to be used for command. All of the others were located on the corners and it was possible to make out tiny barrels sticking out of them: machine guns.

Painted black all over, its designation was emblazoned on its side: the “Vishap.”

Cutting in between the hilly dunes that had kept it out of sight of the wall, the beast revealed itself in full to the defenders, and made clear its intentions. At the highest speed the gargantuan tank could muster with its weight on the treacherous sand, it was making  ponderously for the Conqueror’s Way. Men in Cissean and Nochtish uniforms charged alongside it, rifles in hand, barely keeping pace with the grinding march of the machine.

Atop the walls, the rampart gunners hurried back to their posts, and found the Vishap on their direct-fire optics. Madiha Nakar and Parinita Maharani surveyed the proceedings as the crews began turning wheels and pulling levers to get the guns moved. By adjusting the height of the gun mounting itself, they could make up for the lack of negative elevation on the 76mm all-purpose gun, and fire over the wall at targets far below.

At the General’s order, a dozen 76mm guns on the ramparts opened fire on the Vishap. Each impact was near invisibly distant and sounded dull and almost unreal, as if the artillery of a battle a world away. Smoke obscured the machine after the first red-hot tracer impacted the hull and exploded. Shells fell around it a dozen every few seconds, throwing sand into the air, billowing dust and fire; it was impossible to confirm any hits.

However, in the light of the rising afternoon sun it was possible to see the shadow, continuing to lumber, and once the last shell had exploded, the sound of the roaring, grinding engine was still perfectly audible. From the cloud of dust and sand, the Vishap crawled out, undaunted. Its front surface was pitted and pockmarked and in places cracked, and one of the bulldozer blades had been blasted off. Some of the front track guard and the armored skirt covering its wheels had been damaged, but not too badly.

“Madiha, take a closer a look at it, I think there’s something odd about its armor.”

Parinita handed Madiha the binoculars, and set down a radio unit, hidden behind the rampart stones. She took up a radio headset and began to make calls to Solstice for support, while the General honed in on the Vishap’s front and surveyed the damage.

Over, around and between the bulldozer blades, the armor plate was the thickest, and insignificant damage seemed to have been dealt to it. However, the form that damaged took was confounding. There were deep, uneven cracks, and dusty bruises, and no deformation from the heat whatsoever. Armor this dense could crack, but not in the way this material was cracking. It looked like a brick wall that had been suddenly hit with a sledgehammer, not a sheet of metal that had deformed under intense, prolonged heat.

“It’s concrete. It’s got to be. They put a layer of concrete armor over the tank.”

Madiha was perplexed, but it made sense. Anti-tank shells were designed specifically to defeat metal armor that would resist the pointed nose of the shell, and deform around the packed-in explosive charge, in very specific ways. It was meant to go through 50 to 70 millimeters of metal armor, not through a centimeter or more of concrete cement.

“Do we have anti-bunker or anti-concrete available for the 76mm?” Madiha asked.

Parinita shook her head despondently, waving to the city behind them.

“No, we’re not stocked with those. Those are special-assignment for assault troops.”

Madiha looked over her shoulder. She was so focused on the battle ahead, that she hardly had taken any time to look at what she was protecting. Always, behind her every shout, her every shot, Solstice waited at her back. It was a vast city, its few tall buildings visible in the distance, but mostly composed of small, flat-roofed brown buildings, either made of clay or textured to look like it. All kinds of colorful awnings hung over porches and balconies to help the inhabitants get some air while beating the oppressive heat. Winding roads and numerous labyrinthine alleyways characterized a city that grew, organically and haphazardly, for thousands of years. It was beautiful; and most of her troops were there. They awaited orders to counterattack a sizable divisional force.

“Focus artillery fire on the supporting infantry!” Madiha turned back around and shouted at her rampart gunners, and they began to coordinate among themselves and to lob shells at the encroaching enemy battalion. She then turned back to Parinita, and to the desert ahead. “Let the Vishap come. How’s our air support? That flat roof is the weakest part of the whole thing, it has to be. We can order a strike from Vulture.”

Parinita shook her head, pulling off her headset and hitting a switch on the radio. “That’s what I thought so too, but I just got off the airwaves with Air Command. Vulture and the other air units are split between supporting the western defenses, interdicting incoming raids on Solstice, and launching their own long-range air attacks. It’s mostly Elves who are trying to come after us at this point, with token Nochtish support, but if we can break through these attacks, we may be able to inflict some damage on the Elven navy.”

“So the air force gets to launch a counteroffensive, but the Army has to sit and wait.”

Madiha grumbled. Parinita shrugged and rationally replied, “There’s no Lines in the sky.”

“We’ll have to make do then. Release the vanguard rifle battalion onto the bridge to fight. I’ll come up with a battle plan as we go.” Madiha said. “Get the drawbridge gate open.”

“Roger. Contacting the drawbridge engineers and the 7th Battalion now.” Parinita said.

Minutes later, the Eastern gate of Solstice began to drop, accompanied by the chunky sound of a motor. It was a drawbridge door that no longer presided over a gap in the bridge, perhaps thirty meters tall and a little less wide, now powered by diesel motors and held by heavy anchor chains and gears. Behind the door waited nearly a thousand ready soldiers of the 7th Battalion, who had deployed all along the road inside the city as a rapid response force. Slowly the door began to angle, and a crack developed at the top where the light of the desert peered into the structure of the Solstice gate threshold.

There was an abrupt crash, and the slackening chains went rigid and tense.

Smoke began to spread from the gatehouse out into the threshold tunnel.

Between the booming of the rampart guns, Madiha heard the gears grind down below.

She peered carefully over the rampart and found the gate at a steep angle.

“Parinita, what is happening?” Madiha asked.

Parinita turned from the radio box and faced Madiha, alarmed.

“Something’s happened to the gate mechanism. It’s stuck part of the way.” She said.

Madiha blinked hard and covered her face with her hands.

It was always something!

“Sergeant Agni is asking permission to blow off the chains and–”

“Absolutely not.” Madiha said. “Should that gate fall Nocht will not give us a respite to properly repair it. We can’t afford for any of the gates to stay open unnecessarily.”

“Then what do we do?” Parinita asked, pulling off the radio headset.

Madiha looked down over the ramparts as the Vishap’s tracks hit stone for the first time.

“I’m calling the bridge by field telephone. Tell Agni to get the engineers and some of the Svecthans with Mountain training ready to go over the wall. As soon as possible!”

Parinita nodded her head and returned to the radio box.

Meanwhile, the General produced the field telephone from behind one of the ramparts. Cable had been laid down to the bridge long ago, and much of it had survived the bombings. She picked up the handset, hit a switch, and immediately called down.

“Sergeant Kajari, listen closely to me.”


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen watched the Vishap go with a sense of minor, quiet amusement. After the machine trundled out of its carriage, he ordered a company of his lead men to chase after it. Rifles in hand, sweating profusely, the riflemen followed his orders and charged after the machine. They had been following it for what seemed like weeks, out in the brutal heat of the Solstice desert, and now they trampled over the sand and made to move ahead of it. There were no words of protest or complaint from them.

“You don’t want to hear it, but I’m taking full credit for this delivery.” Von Drachen said.

At his side, Major General Rodrick Von Fennec scoffed and stamped past him. He was a square-shaped man, with a brick of a head, beefy limbs, but an older, stiffer, and bowing stature than that of the younger, more limber Von Drachen. His remaining eye glanced at Von Drachen with disdain; the other was patched up but likely sported similar scorn. Somewhere under his thick white beard, Fennec’s lips were probably turned up as well. For a louplander, his tail was very stubby and short, and it barely wagged; his ears, poking out from under his desert helmet, were also blunt, and just barely fuzzy.

Von Drachen thought they could commiserate over using fake names, but Von Fennec was instantly hostile to him, even though he went along with Von Drachen’s genius plan.

“Yes, yes, to be frank, only you could have been crazy enough to suggest such a course of action. I will give you full credit for the penetration of the enemy line through the unguarded desert sector; also responsibility for the 100 men who died along the way.”

Von Fennec snorted and put on a confident grin as though he had crushed Von Drachen.

Von Drachen, in turn, shrugged his shoulders. “They knew what they signed up for. I care about the living and I will achieve victory for the dead. All of my men know about this.”

At this callousness, or perhaps more at Von Drachen’s lack of reaction to what should have been a harsh indictment, Von Fennec turned his cheek and grumbled inaudibly.

As the Generals amicably conversed, all of the unit’s strength rallied around the Vishap. All that could be taken along the Vishap on the desert trek, was a light rifle battalion and some stray elements of tank and motor units. Behind Von Drachen, the camouflaged tank transporters, unburdened of the tank’s weight, retreated back behind the dunes, tugging behind them the massive crate-like object that once housed the Vishap inside it.

A few token escort tanks, “Rick Hunter” pattern with 76mm guns, drove past, crawling their way out of the hilly dunes separating them from the battlespace, using the last of their fuel and the last endurance of their tracks and suspensions to make it within visual range of the wall and bridge. Divided into platoons of 50 men, the Vishap’s infantry escort formed an arrowhead with the machine and a few men at the head of the pack.

“So Von Fennec, what’s preventing this operation from being bombed to pieces?”

Von Drachen glanced at Von Fennec from the corner of his eyes.

Von Fennec snorted and laughed.

“Take a gander at that sand dune over there, and feast your eyes.”

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder, half-interested. Atop a nearby boulder, to which the sand dunes formed a neat little ramp, a trio of tanks with extensive modications raised twin anti-aircraft guns into the air from open-top turrets. All of them were likely based on the new Rick Hunter light tank types, which were just barely nudging the “medium” category in armor and weight, but had great speed. Open-top turrets allowed the the new M3A3s to mount much larger weapons than the old M3s and M5s, and despite lessened survivability they grew to replace the little sluggers in large numbers.

“We call it the M8 R-K Peacekeeper. Any Ayvartan ground attack craft that closes in to the Vishap will be shredded by 18 rounds a second of high-explosive anti-aircraft fire.”

“I see.” Von Drachen said. “So what prevents those things from being bombed?”

“Shut up, Von Drachen. Do something with yourself. Go talk to Aatto or something.”

“Oh, I plan to. Not talk to Aatto; she’s nice, but I have business with a lady at the front.”

“Excuse me?”

At this point, as if on cue, a utility car pulled up behind them. It was driven by the old Cissean colonel, Gutierrez, who looked exhausted behind the wheel, and on its bed, was carrying air tanks and flexible suits, rope and hooks, and other seemingly random pieces of equipment for some nondescript purpose. A squadron of fifteen men sat around on the back of the truck, squeezed between the equipment and looking most unhappy.

“You’re about to fall for Nakar’s trap and I’m about to get you out of it.” Von Drachen said.

Von Fennec looked livid. “What do you mean? There is nothing Madiha Nakar can do now! Our only difficulty was getting the Vishap here. It is going to walk right through the Conqueror’s Way, and cut a path for us! Reinforcements can follow the desert behind us; once the gate is breached, the battle in the northeast can be ignored for this purpose.”

Von Drachen shook his head. He could see where all this was going. He had been there before. “Here is what will happen. Madiha Nakar will put up a stiff resistance that will endanger the Vishap and cause you to commit more forces to push the Vishap forward. This will force you to consolidate your troops into a large, dense formation. She will retreat, and you will think you’ve won, and you’ll charge your big, dense attack group deeper into the bridge. Then, she will surround it and find some way to destroy it, inflicting disproportionate casualties on you because of the density of your unit.”

“Absolutely not! There’s no way to surround anything on that bridge!” Von Fennec said. His face was red and his tail was standing on end. His nose was starting to wet with anger. “It’s a completely narrow path with nowhere to hide except behind rubble. The Vishap will clear all the rubble, mortar through every fallen gate, and mortar the main gate. You think you know better than me, child? I’m a veteran of countless battles! That is why I was entrusted with a superweapon, and you’re just relegated to recon! Shut up!”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I’m going to the front where it’s friendlier. We’ll meet there.”

Nonchalantly, he began to walk away, knowing full well that Von Fennec was not going anywhere near the front. Von Fennec, meanwhile, stood dumbfounded, his old cavalry brain grinding to a halt at the bizarre idea that a General would go join his men to fight.

“How the hell you intend to get there anyway? You’re gonna walk?” Von Fennec shouted.

Still walking away from the Major General, Von Drachen stretched out his arms in glory.

“I’ve evolved since last me and Nakar fought. I’ve finally overcome my one weakness on the battlefield, Von Fennec!” He sounded triumphant. “I have emerged, like a beautiful butterfly from my cocoon! Molted into a force of nature! I have learned how to swim!”

He continued to laugh as he followed the utility truck out into the open desert.


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Declaration (66.1)

This scene briefly contains sexual content.


42nd of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Nocht — Rhinea

“Ugh.”

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

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

“Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a friend?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

But in the end even the difficult things remained simple.

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

Achim never made her feel that way.

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

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

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

“I’m still here, you know.”

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

She was nearly face to face with Gretchen.

Gretchen was complicated too, but in a simple way.

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

Cecilia smiled.

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

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

“I’ll see you later. Alone.”

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

Gretchen made no argument.


Nocht Federation — Windsbach, Haupt Radar Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of food can I get?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming in from the east were dozens of bombers.

Hundreds of them.

Helmut stared until the green glow burned in his retinas.

He reached for the telephone at his side.

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

Procedure dictated he describe the problem in detail–

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

And then they hung up on him.

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

Those blips were moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmut was speechless.

Aluminum. He wanted to say that word.

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

Why was aluminum falling from the sky?


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Rumbling Hearts (42.1)


47th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ

As the sun rose to keep its noon-time appointments, the door to the temporary Regimental Headquarters slammed suddenly open. Logia Minardo wandered nonchalantly inside, singing a little tune to herself. Despite her visible pregnancy, she was as sprightly as a teenage girl, swinging her hips, tossing her shoulder-length hair, taking little dancing steps into the building. From her fingers swung a cloth bag that she used as a prop in her act.

Her feet thudded on the floor as she neared her desk, adding percussion to her voice.

Coming out of a quick spin, she set down her bag and snapped her fingers with a flourish.

Behind the main desk, Colonel Madiha Nakar and her pet dragon glared the Staff Sergeant’s way, both taking the same guarded posture and wearing exactly the same sour expression toward her. Neither of them seemed amused with Minardo’s antics. Kali was even growling. Fully uniformed, even wearing her officer’s cap, Madiha looked likewise unapproachable.

Minardo smiled and waved her hand at the pair. She spoke in a flighty tone of voice.

“Oh my, I don’t know if it’s pet influencing owner or owner influencing pet anymore.”

Madiha’s sour expression grew concertedly sour. Kali then mimicked her.

In the Colonel’s mind, a reservoir of good will toward Minardo was rapidly emptying.

“I am wondering why you failed to pick me up this morning, and why you are here so late in the day with that nonchalant expression on your face. Furthermore, I’m curious to see if you know the answers to those questions with regards to my assistant.” Madiha said.

Across the room, the staff sergeant quizzically panned her head around. Her gaze settled on each desk and table in the room, and it dawned on her what Madiha had known for hours now. Parinita had failed to show up for work; she hadn’t even taken a minute to tell Madiha where she was going, despite them living in the same building. It was the shock of a lonely morning and a lonely walk from her lodgings to the base, that had Madiha quite on edge.

That, and her building disdain for Minardo’s roguish sense of humor.

“Oh no! Perhaps she was kidnapped.” Minardo said, putting on a face of mock fright.

“Don’t joke about that.” Madiha said brusquely.

Minardo raised her hands defensively. “I’m sorry. I don’t think anything bad could have happened to her. She might have gone to the shops to get an outfit to wear to the festival.”

“She didn’t have any money. None of us do.” Madiha said.

“There are more ways to acquire goods than through money.” Minardo said.

She blew a little kiss at Madiha, who discovered then that what she hated more than Minardo’s roguish sense of humor was her coquettish sense of humor.

“Don’t joke about that, either!” Madiha snapped loudly, pushing herself to an irate stand, and Kali joined in with tinny growls, stretching up on the desk as if ready to pounce.

Minardo shrugged. “My, my, this is a tough crowd.” She then sighed heavily. “Anyway, I lent her some money, okay? I’m sure she is only out on the town. It is fine, Colonel.”

“And where did you get this money you lent her from? Are you suddenly a bank?”

“I just had it tucked away, and I decided to be kind. What do you want from me?”

Madiha grumbled. She irrationally bitter that Parinita had turned to Minardo for funds.

Even though she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to help at all in that arena.

“Fine. I’ll accept that. Go busy yourself for now.” Madiha ordered.

Minardo nodded her head and turned around to her desk.

Aside from Madiha and now Minardo, the room was empty. The Colonel dismissed Bhishma early; without Parinita around she had no idea what work she could even have Bhishma do. Padmaja had come fluttering in early in the morning, and took a few radio calls, and organized every desk. Then, having run out of things to do, Madiha had her go on errands.

For a few hours after, the Colonel was alone in the office.

Despite this, Minardo’s presence was not exactly welcomed.

Ever since they met, Madiha felt like her image of the Staff Sergeant was deteriorating.

She knew that she was on edge, and that her condition was heightening her low-key disdain for Minardo’s flighty but harmless antics. The Staff Sergeant was useful and could be more useful in the future; but in the present, Madiha wanted to be angry at her, and indulged that anger more openly than she had in the past. Her emotions bubbled beneath her skin.

If the Staff Sergeant sensed any danger, she hid that intuition well.

Minardo sat behind her desk, and for a moment she pretended to do some work. At a glance she seemed to busy herself, picking up papers, tapping them against the desktop, setting them down, and going over them. However, all of those papers were taken from a stack of blank requisition sheets, so there was nothing to read. And Minardo was constantly glancing over at Madiha’s desk. Despite meeting the Colonel’s disapproving gaze several times this way, Minardo did not cease her little facade until the Colonel called her out.

“What do you want, Minardo?” Madiha asked, exasperated.

“I am wondering if you have any hobbies, Colonel.”

Madiha frowned back, irritated and glum.

“I–”

Suddenly Minardo interrupted. “No military stuff!”

She felt like replying with ‘go to hell’ but restrained herself.

Madiha gave a throaway answer. “Kali.” She said.

At her side, the dragon’s eyes drew wide open and it kneaded its legs happily.

“I happen to have an affinity for puzzles.” Minardo replied.

“What’s your point? Do you want to show me a puzzle?”

Minardo smiled and stood up from her desk. “Since we have nothing better to do.”

She withdrew a box from her bag, and set it down on Madiha’s desk.

“I was thinking,” she continued, “we could take up a little challenge.”

It was a chess board from Solstice Toys & Games, updated to match the sensibilities of the time. Pawns were laborers, Knights were revolutionaries, bishops Commissars, and so on. At the very top of the hierarchy of pieces was the Premier, or Central Committee Head; in this edition the piece was a small, ivory Lena Ulyanova. It was a rather cute board all told.

“Chess?” Madiha asked. Her demeanor softened just a little.

“I prefer crossword puzzles to keep my mind sharp, but this works for two.”

Kali drew close to the chess set, sniffed the box, and recoiled, snarling.

“Does it smell like me?” Minardo asked, leaning close to the dragon.

Kali blew a puff of white smoke into Minardo’s face.

Drawing back again from the desk, Minardo sighed audibly.

“Anyway, would you like to have a match, Colonel?” Minardo asked.

Madiha knew that the excuse of ‘I have work to do’ had all dried up. She had hardly the capacity to work in this office, and other than yelling at various suppliers to hurry up with her orders, she had little administrative work to do. And what little she could do, she needed Parinita to record and organize. Doing anything without her secretary would have led to confusion later, as both wondered what parts of the work were done or not.

So in those circumstances, the idea of besting Minardo sounded palatable.

“I wanted to go over the table of organization, but fine. We can play one game.”

Nodding her head contentedly, Minardo pulled up the top of the game box, and set up the board atop Madiha’s empty desk, putting all the pieces in their places. “Black or white?”

“Black.” Madiha replied.

Minardo flipped the board, and put her hand on a pawn.

“That means I go first.” She said, winking.

Madiha acknolwedged, and watched as Minardo made a simple opening move.

Out of the front ranks, a white pawn moved.

Figuring there was no better move at the time, Madiha mirrored her opponent.

She thought she could already see a game unfolding here.

Pawns drew out, and then knights started moving. Madiha thought it would become a pitched battle, and her mind was racing to plot out the moves that she would make. She viewed the knights as tanks, able to move around obstacles. Pawns were small but vicious infantry who could hold key positions. And then there was the Queen, most powerful of all.

She viewed it as the war of mobility that had been swirling in her mind for days now.

Her imagination got the better of her.

Despite this exertion of brainpower, Minardo was soon laughing in Madiha’s face.

Though in her head many moves had been made, in reality, only pawns had set out.

Two moves worth of pawns from both sides. White, black, white, black–

Win.

A white Queen came creeping out of her phalanx for a surprise victory.

“I can’t believe this! You fell for the fool’s mate! Are you eight years old?”

Minardo continued to laugh while Madiha surveyed the board in confusion.

She could imagine all she wanted, but she had never actually played chess.

As such, her play was apparently incredibly weak.

“I feel so cruel to have won this way! But I couldn’t resist trying it.” Minardo boasted.

Madiha rubbed her chin, quietly staring at the board.

Her sour expression returned.

Kali swiped its tail at the board, scattering the pieces on the desktop.

“Hey!” Minardo said, frowning childishly. “Don’t break my set!”

Feeling rather sour, Madiha did notthing to restrain her rampant companion.

She turned her head away instead.

“You need to be a better sport than this, Colonel!” Minardo said, picking up her pieces.

Madiha grumbled.

“Were it not for the restrictions of this game I would’ve beaten you.” She said.

Minardo blinked. Now it was her turn to put on a sour face.

“It is quite ugly of you to act so petulantly!” She said. “Chess is a simulation of war, Colonel!”

Perhaps her actions had offended the Staff Sergeant, but Madiha found it hard to care at the time. She crossed her arms and averted her eyes, but continued to talk in a haughty tone, feeling somewhat empowered by her sudden ability to needle Minardo on this topic. In fact she resolved to push the issue further and see where her Staff Sergeant would snap again.

“You can gloat about your skills in a game all you want. Chess is nowhere near the reality of war. Combat does not move on grids or follow turns. Had we both been on a real battlefield I would have had you in ropes in a captive’s tent easily, Staff Sergeant.” Madiha said.

Again this attitude seemed to put her opponent quite off-balance.

“Those are loser’s words indeed!” Minardo said, raising her voice.

It was poor sport; Madiha was still disassatisfied with the game and with Minardo.

Even prodding her was not cathartic enough for the Colonel’s frustrations.

She would not dismiss or discipline Minardo. She felt that would hurt her too much.

Instead she resolved just to try to ignore her.

“Well, whatever; you’ve had your fun, now leave me be.” Madiha said.

Unfortunately her Staff Sergant never seemed to relent on any issue.

“Not so soon! I have a game you could try then, if you’re so high and mighty!”

Minardo stood up in a hurry, and withdrew a file folder from her bag.

She slapped it down onto the table.

It was a red folder with the insignia of the Solstice Officer’s School.

Madiha’s eyes darted down to the folder. It immediately captured her attention.

“Well, Colonel, if chess is too simple for you, how about a wargame? You’ve taken part in these exercises before, correct? Then, you should have no complaints in this arena.”

“What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Madiha asked.

Minardo smirked. That mischevious glint returned to her eyes.

“I am merely curious about the legend of this so-called ‘hero of the border’.”

Madiha bristled. She did not particularly like that epithet and the burden it carried when spoken. However, she also felt a building anger at how easily Minardo took the name in vain, at how conceited she was behaving. Though Madiha tried to present a friendly and approachable face, she was the Colonel, and Minardo was showing her too little respect.

Had she done such a thing to Kimani, she would have been slapped across the face.

Madiha stood up as quickly as Minardo had, a determined look on her face.

“Fine! You shall see that legend first-hand.” She said.

They sealed the challenge with a hand-shake, and cleared the desk.

Thankfully this was the compact version of the wargame, playable even in a barracks.

Atop the Colonel’s desktop they unfurled a long map, and began to deploy chits that represented various army units. It was a map of Vassaile, an area between the Frank Kingdom and the Nocht Federation, and the game was set in during the Unification War. It was a scenario that Madiha knew well; she knew every battle of these modern wars quite well, but this scenario was rather common in officer training across the world.

Played according to the rules of the Nochtish Kriegsspiel games, adapted for Ayvartan use, the scenario pitted the Frank 66th Army (Bluefor) against the Nochtish 11th Army (Redfor). In the battle of Vassaile, the 66th Army had crossed the border to Nocht in force, launching an offensive against Federation forces. Historically, the Nocht Federation retreated from Vassaile in disarray. It was the job of Bluefor to assail Nocht, and to achieve a victory better than history — the complete destruction of the 11th army. Meanwhile, Redfor had to attempt to keep the Nochtish lines straight while escaping from destruction. It was a scenario that helped prove the leadership qualities of the commanders on both sides.

Classically, it was a scenario that, when played well, had no victory for either side.

Redfor classically held on at the edges of Vassaile and prevented the Frank forces from entering too deep into Nocht; Bluefor classically took all of its objectives, but without destroying Redfor or managing to invade the Nochtish heartland past Vassaile.

“I’m calling Bluefor.” Minardo said, stamping her hand on a chit representing the 1st Chasseurs Division, light cavalry. Around her hand were dozens more Frank units. The Franks were noted for having the larger starting army, though Nocht had more reinforcements and reserves. Thus it was known Franz had an offensive advantage.

“Then I’m Redfor.” Madiha calmly replied.

It unsettled her slightly. In officer school she had played Bluefor and won the ahistorical victory, destroying the 11th Army completely through encirclement around Vassaile. She had not opted then to penetrate too deep into Nocht. Destroying the 11th Army was enough.

Likely, if Minardo brought this game here and called Bluefor, she intended to do the same.

“We’ve both played this game before, so let us settle things honorably.” Minardo said.

Madiha thought it certainly fit her roguish character to say such a thing.

She definitely intended to play Madiha’s game. That result was no secret among wargamers.

“I won’t kick up a storm; but you had best umpire it properly.” Madiha replied.

There was no use fighting it. Using good results from previous players was common.

Kali leaned over the map, flicking her tongue at the chits.

“No, settle down.” Madiha said. She wanted to see this game through.

Kali looked at her, and then curled in a corner of the table.

“This set is not my property, so let’s not ruin it.” Minardo said.

“Kali will behave.”

Madiha and Minardo shook hands over the table.

Thus the game began.

It was the 17th of the Lilac’s Bloom, and the Franks made the first move.

Minardo rattled off her orders.

“1st Division Chasseurs à cheval will move along the curve of Paix and Moltke on the Nochtish border, initiating hostilities against the 5th Grenadier Division. 5th Division Vernon Royal Hussars will ascend the Crux and Cateblanche line and attack the 10th Grenadier Division alongside the 1st Independent Scout Car battalion–”

Madiha acknowledged each move. These were standard openers. Madiha had performed all of them herself during her ahistorical winning game. 5th Grenadier and 10th Grenadier had historically arrived quite late, but early enough to be counted as standing units in the game. Unlike much of the Nochtish army at the time they lacked even minimal entrenchment along the border, and thus made prime targets for Franz’ few mobile units of the period.

As was standard, Nocht retreated both divisions, as they would be unable to stand and face the Chassuers and the Hussars in their early game condition. Even weak old horse cavalry was enough to burst these rushed Grenadier divisions. This created holes in the line that the standard Divisione D’Infanterie could then move through to attack Nocht entrenchments behind their lines. Madiha was forced into the standard early game retreat.

Beginning officers unused to the game would often muck about the border for several game periods, making for the impressive military fisticuffs that characterized the battle as it actually played out. But those with experience in the game always played it ahistorically, preserving their forces to try to game the system where they could do so later on.

Madiha began her retreat. Using a pointer, she pushed back her chits from the bulging Paix-Moltke curve at the Frank border, abandoning the Nochtish entrenchments and losing their defensive bonuses, but escaping what would have otherwise been an easy Frank trap and a sweeping early victory. This was all still standard; nobody had innovated at all yet.

She presumed that Minardo would not innovate; she waited for tell-tale signs of her own play, and soon found the first indication that Minardo was playing her old game to the letter. The 17th Royal Durst Pikers challenged the retreating Nochtish 19th Grenadier Division, an otherwise unassuming division that happened to hold Nocht’s only heavy mortars in the sector. Its destruction would greatly hamper defensive play for Redfor in the coming turns.

It was a move Madiha could not prevent, and she picked up the chit and discarded it.

All the while, Minardo laughed haughtily and grinned to herself.

“It’s interesting isn’t it?” She said, in a mock sweet voice.

Madiha could not disagree. She felt it was rather exhilirating to see this board again.

This was a bloodless battlefield where she had total control. Units could live or die only as necessary to achieve a victory. There was no complications, only pure strategy.

Madiha felt something close to elation, to entertainment, to purpose.

Her heart raced, and her skin brimmed with energy.

She felt the time had come for her first innovation.

“I will bypass the free entrenchment opportunity at the Lehner line. 11th Army will continue to retreat west. Let the umpire know I surrender the objective at Erfring.”

“Oh ho ho. So– You give up some points to me just like that?”

“Yes. You can have it.”

Minardo gleefully pushed her chits forward, and Madiha, though she kept a stony outward face was smiling inside. Someone who only read a list of Madiha’s winning moves or a summary of the scenario she played at the academy, would see this as a winning situation. In reality, it meant the entire nature of the scenario that Madiha played back then was fundamentally changed. Minardo’s memorized moves would no longer apply to the game.

Giving up the Lehner line forced Nocht dangerously close to a technical defeat.

After all, being kicked out of the battlefield almost entirely was a loss, in every sense.

Historically, Nocht had held on at the edge of Vassaile.

For Nocht to move too far past this line meant a total defeat regardless of objectives.

However, the way Madiha intended to play, this would not matter.

The 11th Army continued to retreat and finally took up its new positions in a strained, u-shaped curve straddling a forest and a large rural boom town called Schmelzdorf.

It lay behind the half-way point of a tactical map that began far on the right, near Franz.

Retreat beyond the forest would mean a loss for the 11th Army, opening Nocht to invasion.

It was the kind of bait no reckless player would let go.

Pressing her offensive advantage, Minardo launched several attacks with her 66th army.

She continued to move closer and closer on the map, bloodthirsty with victory after tactical victory. Madiha removed various chits, and shored up the line with reinforcements that had begun moving at the start of the game and only now reached the line, in time to plug it. Now Minardo was dubiously innovating. She was attacking much more than Madiha had been.

Perhaps she realized the game had changed; and this was her own original play now.

Regardless, Madiha had achieved her result, and now launched her coup.

“I’m calling for a rail movement.” She declared.

She indicated the length of the movement and the rail lines she would use.

Minardo nodded, and looked over the proposal.

Her eyes drew wide.

“You realize your rail point is behind my lines.”

Now it was Madiha’s turn to put on a fake sweet smile and a mock sweet voice.

“Did you cut the line? I did not seen any engineers moving.”

Minardo grumbled. “You’ll have to roll to move through enemy lines.”

So far, dice had not come into play, because most of the moves were easily agreeable.

Madiha picked up a pair of red arbitration dice, and cast them without looking.

Whatever the outcome did not matter to her.

She began to push chits through the rail line and behind Minardo’s group.

Then she repeated the movement, rolling the dice again.

And she repeated it again.

Finally, it dawned upon Minardo the shape that the battlefield was taking.

It was a cauldron.

Drawn into the sunken curve of the 11th Army’s long, tormented line, the 66th army fit inside the belly of the u-shape line as if it was always meant to go there. And now, 6 Divisions of Madiha’s Nochtish forces, having suffered some attrition from trying to rail through enemy lines but ultimately successful in doing so, were beginning to form a lid.

For the first time in the match, Madiha began to call her own attacks.

Attacks that hit by surprise from behind the battered, overstretched 66th Army, that had moved so quickly, so aggressively, against a constantly retreating army, that they were completely tired out. Madiha had baited them in, and now owned their strategic depth. Her “mobile” forces were cut off from supply behind the Frank lines, and their days were ultimately numbered in such a situation, but she did not care, because she was now winning.

Her play would end the game before the units engaged in deep battle ran out of supply.

Ignoring any strong units lagging behind Minardo’s advance, she struck her weak rear.

Seeing the events, Minardo started to stare at the board in the same way that Madiha had stared at the chess board before. Incredulous, rubbing her chin, twisting some of her hair around her index finger, she scanned every chit for some possibility. It was not only Madiha’s play that had stumped her. She had made some blunders too. For example, her cavalry and rudimentary early Unification War era cars were stuck in the center of the 66th Army, unable to move freely. Her front line was all Infantry, and her rear mostly artillery.

In several strokes, Madiha’s weak but cunning penetration units inflicted heavy damage. Minardo’s artillery blew up in her face. Her engineers division was slaughtered. Supply points were captured. To add insult to injury, a battered Grenadier Division parked itself on the Erfring objective, technically taking it back from the Franks. It was absolute mayhem.

Minardo picked up the folder and flipped through the rules.

“Oh good, you’ve got the manual out. If you have a second, Staff Sergeant: I don’t know the rules for capturing a Headquarters behind its own line. Please find them.” Madiha said.

Smiling as coyly as Minardo once did, Madiha brimmed with energy.

Minardo put down the folder, and sighing heavily she also put down her pointer stick.

She cast it atop the center of the map.

This was a sign of surrender.

“Alright, fine! Fine. It looks like I was wrong, Colonel. I apologize.”

Madiha stared at her, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“I’m being genuine!” Minardo whined. “I am sorry. I got carried away.”

Madiha stretched out a hand, still smiling, high on the adrenaline of her dream war.

They shook. Minardo’s lips curled up a little.

“My, my, Colonel; you have such a beautiful smile. I’d love to see it more often.”

“I would smile more if you didn’t mortify me so much.”

“I said I was sorry! I was just trying to be friendly.”

“Trying to be friendly by bullying me?” Madiha said.

“My professional curiosity got the best of me. I told you I’m an awful gossip.”

“I’d advise you to stop gathering information on me.” Madiha replied.

“Will do!” Minardo said. “What say we let bygones be bygones?”

She withdrew her hand and saluted Madiha.

“Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo, at your service, ma’am! Pleased to serve under you!”

“You even manage to make that tick me off a bit.” Madiha said, grinning a little.

“Oh no, is your opinion of me irrevocably damaged?”

“It will need time to recover.”

Minardo’s whole body seemed to wilt, comically glum.

Ignoring her, Madiha poked the end of the map, and it rolled a little bit closed.

“Did you really memorize all of my play in this game?” She idly asked.

Minardo rubbed her index fingers together, putting on a bashful face.

“Ah, well. Once upon a time, I was shooting for an officer’s commission, and this game came up as a way. I had it in mind to impress someone; but they saw through the ruse.”

“Did you think it would work now?” Madiha asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Truth be told, I was hoping to be humiliated again.” Minardo said.

Sensing the game was over, Kali reared up to claw at the map, and knock it off.

“No!” Madiha said, raising her index finger. “Bad.”

Kali stared bitterly at Minardo and curled into a ball at the far edge of the desk.

Shaking her head, Madiha turned back to her Staff Sergeant. “Anything else?”

Minardo crossed her arms. “Just remember, we’ve only hit a draw right now. Someday soon, Colonel, I’ll make it 2-1! I’d advise you to polish up your Mancala skills!”

As quickly as it went, her wry, foxy little smile reappeared.

Madiha heaved a long sigh.


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