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

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a flash the Majini made the first move.

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

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

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

I will borrow this flesh.

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

Madiha found herself paralyzed with fear at the sight.

Von Drachen stopped shooting and stared, mouth agape.

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

Through the transformation his voice distorted and eventually muted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hit the dirt!” Madiha shouted.

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

There was no other choice.

Madiha set her feet and drew in a deep breath.

Both the monster and its master recognized the danger.

Madiha was an instant quicker than them.

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

Unthinking, the new Majini reared back for a charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its grotesque snouts and teeth reformed into a mask.

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

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

And it would abandon Chakrani to an unimaginable fate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It became suddenly hard to breathe.

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

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

“I thought you said–”

“Forget it! Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” cried Von Drachen.

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

Her worry was short-lived. Brass Face understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It isn’t even moving closer.”

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

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

“Do you?”

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

Von Drachen cracked a nervous grin without looking at her.

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

Meanwhile their enemy waited, clicking its claws together.

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

Incarnation of Ayvarta.” It mumbled soundlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps even linked to the ancient tyrant by blood.

Incarnation of Ayvarta.

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

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

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

“I’m thinking.”

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

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

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

Her mind quickly refocused.

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

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

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

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

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

She started to visualize a way forward.

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

“Are you ready?” She whispered.

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

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

“And then what?”

“That’s classified information.”

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

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Fallibilis (48.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ

For reasons unknown to the troops a high alert alarm and a quick deployment order were issued to the 1st Motor Rifles, and deep into the night the soldiers found themselves suiting and dressing up, gathering their rifles, machine guns and explosives. They stood in attention at their barracks, at the training field, and across the road to the depots. Rangda’s official gate guards for the base were disarmed and detained for security reasons, and replaced with reliable Gendarmes attached to the Regiment.

Hobgoblin tanks began to patrol the base. Anti-aircraft guns and spotlights were trained skyward against possible bombardment. Chimeras, Giants and the Regiment’s organic towed artillery prepared themselves for the possibility of enemy indirect fires that would need to be spotted, tracked and countered. Trucks lined up in case a strike was ordered — or an evacuation. Thousands of troops undertook the deployment they had been training for days now to swiftly perform, under the circumstances they feared the most.

And though they had expected to hear the voice of the Colonel delivering this fateful order and perhaps offering words of encouragement, it was instead a hasty command from Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani, whose voice nearly cracked during the address.

Little did they know the stress she was going through and the dire reasons behind it.

“She hasn’t reported back at all!”

Unlike the rising troops, the 1st Regiment Headquarters was wracked by a lack of doctrine and planning. They knew what to do in any situation but the one they were currently experiencing. Padmaja and Bhishma sleepily monitored the radio and looked out the window for any signs of friendly troops come to deliver messages — or arriving undesirables bringing ordnance. There was no paucity of movement. Minardo paced the room behind Parinita, who was stomping back and forth in circles so often she seemed to be cutting a line on the floor. Her face and eyes were turning redder by the second.

It was well past midnight. Madiha had not yet returned.

Were they to engage in hostilities the 1st Regiment would do so effectively leaderless.

Parinita spent most of her words on self-flagellation and few to give orders.

“I knew this was a bad idea!” Parinita shouted. She twirled a lock of her hair around her index finger and bit into the tip of another finger. “I should have never agreed to it. I should have told her to send a letter to that monstrous trollop telling her off! I should have been pushy and jealous, I shouldn’t have been so quick to be the good one here–”

Minardo reached out a hand to Parinita’s shoulder and stopped her.

Parinita looked over her shoulder, nearly weeping.

“You’ll be ill-positioned to help her if you panic now.” Minardo said.

Her hand was shaking on Parinita’s shoulder. She was worried too. They all were.

“Madiha swore Chakrani wasn’t up to anything. But look at all this!” Parinita said.

She pointed out the window. Minardo did not seem to know what to look at.

“The Colonel can take care of herself. I doubt she will have gone down easily.” Minardo replied, trying to calm the situation. “I’d wager if anyone tried to catch her she would run into the city. She has the most strategic mind I’ve ever known. Trust her, Maharani.”

“With the city coming under lock-down how can we even find out?” Parinita shouted.

Minardo shook her head.

Parinita thrust her fists up into the air and resumed her feverish pacing.

Scratch scratch.

There was a noise at the door.

Every pair of eyes turned immediately to face it.

Padmaja rushed out from behind her table and threw open the front.

From behind the door, Kali pranced into the room with her head held up high.

In her mouth, she had a rat.

Once the momentary suspense faded, everyone resumed their rising panic.

Kali glanced across the room.

She dropped the rat on the floor and pushed on it with her head.

Nobody seemed to pay her any attention. Everyone was too busy fretting.

Recognition dawned upon her eyes. She seemed to realize who was missing.

In the next instant Kali leaped onto Padmaja’s table and charged toward the window.

She thrust through the frame like a rocket, smashing the glass and tearing apart the wood and concrete and flying out into the night sky. In seconds she had become a distant blur that no human eye could track. Under the moonless sky she disappeared.

Parinita and Minardo stood at the smashed window, perplexed.

“We just had this repaired!” Padmaja cried out.

Nobody quite knew what to do but to pray. The 1st Regiment was in many ways an extension of its commander. Only she could decide how they would fight right now. They were like an infant without a parent. Perhaps with the skill to walk; but no direction to go.

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Coup De Cœur (47.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.

51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.


Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.

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The Solstice War’s 2nd Anniversary!

On October 7th, 2013, almost on a whim, I published the first, mostly unedited full-length version of Operation Monsoon on the site. Because the response was better than expected I continued to work on it, and have been delivering two chapters a month plus side-content, without fail, for the past two years. While writing the prologue chapter, I thought I would never get a single person outside my immediate friend group to look at my writing — it was too niche and too weird, and yet, perhaps too traditional for the kind of niche, weird people who might otherwise gravitate to it. For “queer art” or “indie fiction” it was just too square; and yet for “mainstream art” or “genre fiction” it was just too unconventional.

Or so I thought. And yet, I was pushed by people I know to give it a swing, so I did.

Over the past two years I’ve done much more than I ever dreamed of doing as I typed out an outline of that fateful first chapter. I’ve got 20 people on my Patreon paying money to support the story, a feat I never thought I would accomplish in my wildest dreams. I’ve got a core group of regular readers who love the story and talk to me about it and talk to others about it. I’ve got a logo and art and even a book cover contributed by some great folks.

I did not even really know what serial fiction was at the time! Now I’m doing it.

It’s been an incredible journey, these past two years. My life has gone through some huge ups and downs. Sometimes I’ve been too depressed to work; but at other times the words have cascaded out of me so powerfully that I almost buckle and cry at the force of it. I have delivered my chapters every month without fail. I’ve met some awesome fans of the story, done a lot of neat research and cooked up some great chapters and arcs with characters I thoroughly enjoy writing and hitting on themes I’ve always been interested in. Now whenever someone asks me what kind of writing I want to do, what I want to see in the world, I have something huge to point toward. I have a weird little body of work here.

Thank you all so much for sticking with me through these years. Thank you for enjoying the story; thank you for criticizing the story; thank you for your support, be it on social media or the patreon; and thank you to the superfans who make life a joy for me everyday.

Here’s to another year of grand strategic adventure in The Solstice War! If you want to celebrate with me, post a comment below, and share your thoughts on the past two years! What brought you into the story? What moments struck a chord with you? What do you want to see more of? I’d love to hear from you today, on this momentous occasion!

Conspiracy City (46.1)

50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ

“Let them in.”

At the Colonel’s exasperated command, the machine gunners guarding entry into the headquarters stood aside. Kajari and Chadgura stepped away from the interior doorway and held their rifles with their bayonets and barrels staring at the ceiling. Outside, the guards inspected the arriving car while its occupants cross the threshold into the HQ.

Parinita Maharani recognized the escort, but she was more surprised at the woman.

“Please identify yourselves.” Madiha said. It was a formality. She knew both of them too.

Haughtily, the woman with the ringlets and skirt suit crossed her arms and grumbled.

“Chakrani Walters, representative of the Adjar Civil Council.” She said.

Madiha nodded her head. “Padmaja, have her sign in, please.”

“Yes ma’am.”

From a corner, Feng Padmaja quietly and meekly procured a ring-bound book and presented a page and a pen to Chakrani. Normally the junior staffer was chirpy and energetic, but the gravity in the room seemed to have tripled for her, and she moved very slowly and deliberately. Chakrani stared at her with disdain as she approached, and begrudgingly signed the book before shoving the pen brusquely back into Padmaja’s hands. Stunned by the outburst, Padmaja stowed the pen between the locks of hair at the edge of one of her covered double buns, and walked sadly and stiffly back to her table.

“Can we talk now?” Chakrani asked. Her tone was turning downright bratty.

Madiha quietly nodded her head toward the man at Chakrani’s side.

“Identify yourself.” She demanded.

“I don’t feel like it.” He said.

“I will not ask again.”

Parinita averted her gaze. She felt the tension in the room constricting her chest.

Despite their previous liaison, Chakrani did not seem touched in any way by Madiha’s visible injuries. She seemed quite ready to treat Madiha as just somebody that had to be spoken to. Her posture was intimidating — Parinita thought Chakrani looked like a cat poised to lunge. Her crossed arms shook very slightly with pent-up energy. Her tapping feet hit the ground sharply and with a quick rhythm. Her gaze was cutting as her eyes slowly looked over the room, settling on every face she found. Her smoldering stare shook Bhishma and Padmaja.

She was such a contrast to Madiha; opposites truly did attract sometimes.

Madiha’s face was void of emotion. Parinita met her eyes from across the room, trying her best to silently communicate her support in this obviously painful situation. In response the Colonel’s expression and stance were neutral. Her voice, when she first spoke, sounded tired and vulnerable. But when she questioned the arrivals, she took a sterner tone. While Chakrani had come before them with fire in her chest, Madiha just seemed hollow.

“Just do it already.” Chakrani said, elbowing her escort.

At her side, the young curly-haired man in the disheveled uniform stared at the wall.

“Private Jota, mobility support.” He said. His tone was dismissive.

“I need your full name and unit. You can sign it in.” Madiha calmly ordered.

Padmaja stood up from the floor and approached cautiously with the ring-bound book.

Jota spat on the floor in front of her. “Nah. Find it out yourself, Colonel.”

Padmaja shrank away.

“Kajari, remove him.” Madiha said.

From the doorway, Corporal Kajari approached with her rifle in her hands.

Jota, visibly taller than her, half-turned and raised his hands.

“You don’t want to do that.” He said dangerously.

Kajari turned the bayonet on his neck and left a scratch.

“You can leave by yourself or in a bag, your choice.” Kajari said.

Chadgura stepped forward as well.

Jota sighed deeply. He turned carefully and left the room, rubbing his neck.

All throughout Chakrani stared with a mix of horror and rage.

“You’re on a power trip, Colonel! He is my official escort!” She shouted.

Madiha was unmoved.

“Anyone who enters this building and shows even a shred of antagonism,” She said, her tone suddenly dangerous and deliberate, “is a threat to myself, to my staff, and to the security of highly sensitive materials in this base. I am not playing a game here.”

Parinita shuddered a little at the response, but she knew Madiha was right.

Especially in the condition she was in, and after recent events.

One’s outlook on security changes when one is nearly beaten to death in a “safe place.”

“I’m absolutely sick to death of you! Your actions from the moment you received a command have been nothing short of savage!” Chakrani shouted. “I’m filing a complaint!”

“Is this the Adjar Government-In-Exile talking still, or just you?” Madiha asked.

At the sound of the Colonel’s words, Chakrani stood suddenly quiet and still, and seemed cowed with shame. Chakrani then quickly composed herself, standing straight and to full height, taking a deep breath and clearly making an effort to calm her voice. Her hands were still shaking and Parinita thought she could see some moistness in her eyes.

“Colonel Nakar, let us cut the acrimony short — I’ll talk, and you’ll listen. Alright?”

“That is amenable. You have the floor, Councilor.”

Parinita wondered what was going in Madiha’s mind and heart at the moment too. She knew Madiha was skilled in compartmentalizing her emotions and pushing through difficult situations. She had already been put on this spot with Chakrani before in Bada Aso, and she was under greater pressure then and did not buckle. But she must have felt something, to be seeing Chakrani again, and in this kind of position and situation.

Though the thought felt childish and self-centered, Parinita wondered if Madiha felt strengthened by their affection, by their moonlit and dawnlit oaths. She wondered if the image of Parinita at her side helped to support her and drown away Chakrani’s voice.

Chakrani’s inner war was visible and plain. Madiha’s seemed completely suppressed.

Nevertheless, Chakrani took the role of Councilwoman Walters and delivered a speech so thorough that it seemed as though read out of paper on an invisible podium. Judging by her own expressions before, this dry, official language did not seem to be her words.

“Colonel Nakar, the Council of the occupied Adjar Dominance is deeply concerned about your continued independent usage of arms, armor and personnel taken from the Adjar Battlegroup Ox without any attempt at communication or information-sharing with either the Tambwe Civil Council or the Adjar Government-In-Exile here in Rangda.”

Madiha interrupted briefly. “My isolation was not wholly of my own design.”

“Information given to the Adjar Government-In-Exile says otherwise.”

Her continued insistence on referring to this “Adjar Government-In-Exile” was confusing. Parinita had not once heard of such an entity existing within Rangda, and she did her best to keep up with the political goings-on despite their limited resources. She knew the Adjar Council had evacuated to Tambwe; Madiha had ordered the move and executed it just hours after first meeting with them in Bada Aso. It made sense that they would end up in Rangda, as it was Tambwe’s most important city that was also relatively farthest from the fighting at the time. However, the concept of a continuing Adjar government baffled her.

“Let me guess: Mansa put you people up to this today.” Madiha calmly said.

“Councilman Mansa helped us organize here and informed us that you have been acting independently, including recently detaining prisoners and withholding information.”

Chakrani was starting to verge on anger again. She had a frustrated expression.

Madiha drummed her good fingers on her desk throughout Chakrani’s explanations. She spoke up in a stronger tone of voice afterward. “I am acting independently because the Adjar Dominance does not exist, and you have no authority over anything anymore.”

“I beg to differ.” Chakrani replied. “Currently we are working with local authorities to help relocate 50,000 refugees from the Adjar Dominance. We are getting them houses and food and union jobs instead of sending them to the desert. What have you done lately?”

That was it then, Parinita knew; Chakrani’s loyalty came in exchange for Mansa’s help in integrating some of her people back into normal lives. There were millions of Adjar refugees, but any number of people resettled and happy was a good number. However, most refugees were heading farther out to Solstice because Dbagbo and Tambwe were already embroiled in combat themselves. Parinita did not dare say it out loud, but in her rush to accept Tambwe’s help for these people, Chakrani was likely only endangering them.

Madiha stared at her without expression and then delivered her own quick speech.

“What we have done is destroy multiple elite corps of the invading army, delay their assault on Tambwe and their march into North Solstice by weeks instead of days, so that you can come here and berate us in the stead of your nonexistent government instead of being dragged into a camp and shot by Nocht as a ‘terrorist leader.'” She said.

On the receiving end, Chakrani grew more furious with every word spoken.

“You can be as dismissive as you like once you’re back under the stead of the government to which you belong! Listen to me before you open your trap again Colonel: rehousing refugees is not our only project. We’re aware that this country is tenuous too. So we have plans to raise a force of people from Adjar to help protect our new home in Tambwe and rebuild Ox’s strength. We need you to cooperate for everyone’s good.” Chakrani said.

“Ox has been disbanded and I do not need it to return. It is useless to everyone.”

Chakrani charged headlong into her next point, ignoring Madiha’s response.

“We’re talking past each other then so I’ll get to my main point. We’ve given to believe you have a prisoner from Nocht in your hands and are restricting access to them. You can ignore our other requests if you like; but we demand to be able to speak to them. They are not under your jurisdiction. We wish to see what information they can give us about the occupation, so we might adequately prepare for our resistance. Can you spare at least that?”

“No.” Madiha said immediately. “I have already gotten as much relevant information as can be expected from the foreigners. They are under the protection of the KVW now.”

“You can easily correct your wide overreach of your authority by simply letting us talk to the prisoner, or by sharing any information you got from them.” Chakrani said. Her tone of voice and the construction of her words sounded threatening, as if she was ready to indict them.

Parinita turned her head from the scene, and stepped closer to the desk with the original Generalplan Suden files. She should have realized that was their objective all along.

“None of it is easy or simple. Further harassment of our guests is not productive and could be downright dangerous. So no, you will not be allowed to speak with them.”

“Your unwillingness to submit to lawful authority is what’s dangerous here!”

“Lawful authority? You mean Mansa’s crooked council, and the eternally lame duck council that are using you as their puppet to retain some form of political relevance?”

“Whether you like it or not, Tambwe and Adjar have legitimate governments that–”

Madiha raised her good hand, and stood up from her desk, stopping the Councilwoman.

“I am not here for Tambwe or for Adjar, Chakrani. I am here for the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. I am here for the Ayvartan people. I am here for what will be a long war. It is disturbing to me how you stridently you fail to see the bigger picture here.”

Chakrani’s face turned chalk-white and her expression contorted with disgust.

She shouted back louder than any voice heard during the entire discussion.

“Don’t you fucking dare say my name again! I will not suffer you for a second longer you animal! Everything you do, everything you touch– You cannot save a single thing, you miserable wraith! Mark my words! hope I never see your despicable face again, Colonel, but you will hear from Adjar again. We will do whatever it takes to save our nation.”

She turned sharply around and stomped her way out of the building, pushing Kajari and Chadgura away from the door as she went. Everyone inside and outside the building seemed to have heard the outburst, and there were heads turning everywhere. Even the Hobgoblin turned its turret as if judging her. Chakrani Walters, as quickly and suddenly as she came, returned to the car with Jota and the pair sped off back out of the base.

Parinita breathed a loud sigh of relief. Everyone else was silent and still for a moment.

“She really does not like the Colonel.” Padmaja meekly said, cutting the silence.

“She has reason not to.” Madiha said, her head sinking against her desk.

Parinita shook her head. She supposed that was the answer to her previous fears.

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MAJINI (45.1)

Warning: this scene contains violence and death, including violence to a child, as well as depictions of fire and burning and disturbing imagery.

30th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2007 D.C.E

Ayvartan Empire, Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

Desperate panting and crying broke the silence of the midnight streets.

Hurtling through empty alleys and desolate roads, a small girl fled from phantoms.

All of her instincts screamed for her to run and hide.

Her every step was dogged by a creeping, malevolent cold and shadow.

In hurting, she had experience far beyond her years. She had a keen sense of danger.

She sought glimpses of the enemy over her shoulder, above her head, and in every clay brick wall surrounding her in the tight streets of Bada Aso’s old quarter. She could see nothing. There was almost no light. With the moon clouded over, the only illumination came from beams between cracks in old doors and dim candlelight from bedroom windows.

Despite what her eyes told her, she felt the creature’s evil presence everywhere.

Like eyes watching her, the burden of a gaze, the bearing of a hateful judgment.

Closer and closer it came and she felt the weight shaking her legs and bowing her back.

Through the nondescript streets Madiha Nakar dashed, her location and bearing unknown, clutching her satchel against her chest. Though she felt chills across her skin she knew the night to be warm and moist and without breeze. Her white beret would have flown from her head otherwise. It was the creature that made it cold. A lanky figure, all arms, covered in a tattered cloak, its face covered by an eerie mask. It wasn’t human — it wasn’t anything.

Taking a blind corner she found a trash bin in an alley leading to the old plaza. Mustering all of her strength, she seized it by one of its handles and pushed it, spilling the contents behind her in a crashing of bottles, a rustling of old paper. She resumed her flight; moments later she heard, briefly, the crunching of glass and the stirring of paper once more.

It was still there.

A spectre made half-substantial, or perhaps, flesh trapped between worlds.


Madiha charged out of the alley and ran toward the center of the old plaza. A wide, empty green field housing the skeletal remains of a stone temple, it was said the plaza had been the site of the first brick laid on the first building made by the ancient Adjar culture. Now it was utterly forgotten — there was not even a plaque to commemorate the deteriorating rock. Madiha rushed behind a crude waist-high rock wall and crouched.

She was surrounded by ranks of rocky pillars in varying states of decay.

More importantly, there was an old torch affixed to one of the stones.

Holding her breath and fighting back her tears, she laid down her satchel.

From it she withdrew the revolver Daksha had given her.

Five rounds; she hadn’t looked in some time, but she just knew.

A cold and airless breeze blew her way, stirring nothing but the fire inside her.

She felt the ghastly presence draw nearer, clutching at her heart.

Scratching on the grass; sifting dust as the creature stepped over the old rock.

Shuffling of fabric as beast shifted its hideous, emaciated form under its cloak.

Sucking noise as the monster sniffed into what long-decayed organ passed for its nostrils.

Closer, and closer, she felt the creature’s weight in the surroundings.

Her shivering worsened, the cold was stifling, she wanted to scream.

Madiha leaped to her feet and swiped her hand at the torch.

In an instant the fire inside her lit the dead fire in the wax and rags.

Amid the old temple the shadows retreated, leaving only one in their midst.

Stunned by the torch, the Majini retched, raising its arms and drawing back, its upper body bending away from the flame directly overhead while its lower body remained abominably rooted into place. Ashes from the sudden fire fell on the creature’s cloak and burned through it leaving tiny red rings that bled finger-width columns of black gas.

Unleashing a primal, soundless roar, the creature righted its ragged sock-like body and hurled itself toward Madiha, arms thrashing around it as if attached to a spinning wheel.

She felt the scream not by any perceivable noise but by a shuddering in her chest.

Reeling, Madiha retaliated with a shot that grazed the Majini’s barely extant shoulder.

She missed; she never missed.

Leaping over the wall it swiped, one of its arms grabbing her by the neck and scooping her off the floor with primal strength. Madiha thought her head would pop off her body, and she felt an intense pain; almost reflexively, within the next instant, she used what she knew of her abilities to push herself and remain balanced in the creature’s grip, preventing her body from swinging opposite her neck. Another hand then quickly seized her waist and belly.

Like the unhinging jaws of a snake, the creature’s black, emaciated hands extended and expanded and looped around her as if custom-fit to throttle her neck and body specifically.

From under the cloak one final arm extended behind the monster’s back.

It seized her satchel, and withdrew a letter.

Its neck snapped, and its face descended to her own.

In the middle of its mask was a smaller, fist-sized depiction of a silver face.

She saw the eyes on this tiny face moving. The larger eyes on the mask did not.

She saw its nostrils flare and felt a force pulling on her.

Her arms hung limp, still holding the gun. Did it understand the danger of it?

Did it just not fear?

It surveyed her, stretching its neck to look her up and down.

She felt colder than ever, a chill penetrating through her skin wherever it touched.

Her mind was growing hazy and numb.

Bending its limbs and head in unnatural ways, the Majini raised the letter over its shoulder.

Guttural noises issued from its neck as if it was trying to read the name.

Madiha remembered the address and directions.

She heard Daksha’s voice in her head. Deliver this to Lena. It is vital for us.

Would she ever make good on that promise?

She was just a child? What could she do?

As the Majini tightened its grip, she felt as if her soul was leaking from her mouth.

Cold and alone in this abandoned place; would she die here?

It simply could not be.

More than anything she didn’t want to fail; she wasn’t just some stupid kid.

She wanted to be a Zaidi. She wanted to be a socialist. She wanted them to win.

She felt the fire spark inside her.

Madiha unleashed her own soundless, primal cry.

Thinking fast she exerted her mind’s secrets and pushed on the Majini’s hands and both of them tore to pieces that flew in every direction, as if blown from within by a grenade. The Majini’s twisted form instantly righted itself and lifted its arms and its head to the heavens, screeching, now with sound, recognizing the agony that had been inflicted upon it.

Madiha landed clumsily on the floor and drew on the fire rather than the pushing.

Red lines flashed briefly from under her clothes, and sparks flew out of her fingertips.

From the palm of her hand a long red dart flew into the center of the Majini’s cloak.

Soon as it touched the monster its entire thrashing body caught fire.

From its remaining limb, Madiha snatched the letter, grabbed her satchel, and took off.

Behind her the burning creature wailed and screamed with mortal agony.

Madiha vanished into the night, running for her life without ever looking back.

She vanished into the concealing gloom of the underworld, but she knew deep inside her quivering little heart that her war with these living shadows was only beginning.

Throughout her quest to free the Ayvartans from tyranny, they would dog her every step.

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