The Battle of Rangda II (54.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda

Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.

“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.

Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.

Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.

All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.

Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.

Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.

There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.

“How many do you see?”

“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”

“Okay. Estimate.”

Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.

“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”

“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.

Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.

Why were they fighting her?

What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?

She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.

Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?

She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.

She could not afford to have that happen.

She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.

But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.

Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”

Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”

Again there was a pause on the radio.

“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.

“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.

“It could be a trap.”

“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.

This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.

Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.

Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.

There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.

Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.

From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.

Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.

“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”

Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”

“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.

Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.

Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”

“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”

“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.

“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”

Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.

She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.

Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.

On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.

“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.

Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.

“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”

“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.

“It was all on the turret front.”

Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.

“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”

She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.

Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”

“One second.”

At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.

“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.

“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.

Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.

Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.

“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.

“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”

“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.

It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.

And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.

That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.

Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.

There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.

Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.

“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”

Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.

Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.

“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.

She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.

Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”

“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.

Gulab held on much more tightly.


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The Battle of Rangda I (53.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

After the Colonel’s speech on the loudspeakers it was clear that the 1st Motor Rifles Regiment was going to battle, and it was clear against whom it was. What was not immediately clear was how they would go about the endeavor; there had never been, in all of their training in Rangda, any focus on strategy. It had all been about real time tactics.

Tactical units and officers thus stood in quiet contemplation, waiting for the Majors.

Once the speech concluded, the Colonel summoned her battalion commanders for an emergency meeting. It was the first time they would see the Colonel since the current events. They convened in an unusual location: a curtained-off corner of the base infirmary, around Madiha Nakar’s bed. She sat against several pillows stacked in front of the raised backrest of her bed, the lower half of her body covered in a medical blanket. On her lap, a small, heavily bandaged pet drake lay, curled up and asleep, purring softly.

Before her, the recently promoted Majors arrived together. Marion Burundi stood in the middle like an obsidian pillar, dark, strong, with his face lit by a bemused grin. He positioned himself front and center. At his sides were Shayma El-Amin, a sharp-featured woman maybe a year Madiha’s junior with short cropped hair under her peaked cap and sandy skin; and Nizar Jakan, a lanky, blunt-faced man with a sleepy expression.

“Ma’am, it is good to see you back. Consider me fully at your disposal.” Burundi said first.

“All tank crews are at full combat readiness, Colonel. Just say the word.” El-Amin added.

Jakan contributed nothing to the greetings. He seemed almost to want to hide in the back.

Despite her many visibly bandaged wounds, the Colonel had a fire in her eyes and spoke with a candor unhindered by exhaustion or medication. At her side, Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani had pinned a map of the city on a board. Already there were several different markings on it. Neater ones could be attributed to C.W.O Maharani’s careful writing, while the more chaotic lines and scribblings in black were likely the Colonel’s.

“I am pleased with how you have handled yourselves in my absence. It was prescient to put the base on high alert and to build up combat readiness. You have vindicated my faith in your abilities a hundredfold. But the real battle begins now.” Colonel Nakar said.

Clearly her will to fight had not been diminished by her experiences. Nobody in the room knew what thoughts were swirling in the Colonel’s head, but all of them knew, quite clearly now, that her health was deteriorated. Some among them could ignore it or brush it aside, especially hearing her speak with such force. But one among them had concerns.

“Colonel, if it’s not much to ask, I’d like to inquire as to your condition.” Burundi said.

El-Amin glared sharply at him. Jakan again made no move. Across from them, Parinita averted her eyes from the group. Burundi was friendly, outgoing — perhaps too much. Whether he was being comradely or intrusive didn’t matter to the room. It was just taboo.

His inquiry did not appear to offend the Colonel, however, and she responded neutrally.

“To call what I suffered the past night anything but torture would be putting it too lightly. I do not wish to say any more than that, Major. Despite the torment I went through, I acquired useful information. With your aid, I am ready to exploit it.” She calmly said.

“Very well. I am glad you’ve got eyes forward, Colonel.” Burundi said with a soft smile.

El-Amin spoke so quickly and with such a strong voice she almost cut off Burundi.

“Colonel, my forces stand ready to shove aside the Federation sympathizers.” She said. “Merely say the word, and the cannons of the 3rd Tank Battalion will crush them!”

Where Burundi was easygoing, El-Amin was serious and intense. She had proven herself in the forest fighting of the Kalu, where she whipped into shape meager Goblin-armed tank companies into vicious and brave ambush groups that devastated the vaunted Panzer forces of the Federation. Her spirit and focus were unmatched among their peers, and she had a particular single-minded loyalty to the Colonel that was visible and indisputable.

Madiha smiled at her and treated her like a friend.

“Your zeal is always appreciated, Shayma.” She said.

El-Amin’s cheeks turned a touch redder but her stony expression was unchanged.

The Colonel then turned her eyes toward her even more faithful, ever-present aide.

“Parinita, explain the situation on the board.”

“Yes ma’am!” Parinita said. She turned to everyone else. “As you well know, we’re going to launch offensive operations against the 8th Ram Rifle Division. Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the division, and the capitulation of Rangda’s government.”

Burundi’s eyes drew wide. El-Amin grinned with delight. Jakan nodded off a little.

“Complete destruction sounds like a bit much with our numbers.” Burundi said.

“Well I’ve crunched the numbers, and the disparity is not as great as you may believe.” Parinita said sharply. “Please allow me to explain, and have faith in the Colonel.”

Burundi frowned and shrugged but maintained his calm.

The Chief Warrant Officer picked up the corkboard map from the wall and set it on a tripod easel that was closer to the bed. Producing a telescopic pointer from her jacket, Parinita pointed at three separate locations marked with blue circles — Rangda University in the north, Ocean Road in the center, and Forest Park in the eastern city limits.

“Elements of the 8th Division in the city of Rangda number an estimated four to six thousand personnel, with the remaining quantities of their men and matériel expected to arrive between today and tomorrow. There are three key areas for the 8th Division in the city. Their strongest forces, the Lion Battalion, are located in Rangda University, and would likely make up the vanguard of any encirclement assault on our positions. Forest Park is a necessary entry point into the city for arriving forces, and Ocean Road is a necessary transportation route that bisects the city and connects all points.”

Parinita spoke clearly and concisely, with a warm, excitable smile on her face she pointed to the three locations and to three chits stationed in their base on the map. She stretched her arm and took one from the corkboard and stuck it on Forest Park, a second on Ocean Road and a third on Rangda University. Once she had the chits in their proper places, she addressed the room again as a whole, with her pointer swiping at the chits in turns.

“These will be our initial objectives. Our attacks will benefit from surprise, but not for long. And because of our current resources, we can only black out the communications of the Lion Battalion and the Council. So the rest of the 8th Division in Ocean Road and Forest Park will be able to talk with each other, but not with them. One greater advantage that we enjoy is numerical parity — you might be skeptical, but our ability to concentrate our forces means we will outnumber the 8th Division in critical areas at the start of the battle. They have to defend all of Rangda; we’re hitting three specific locations.”

Having taken her part in the briefing, Parinita ceded the floor to the Colonel with a smile.

Madiha took up the deliberations from there. “Jakan, 2nd Battalion will attack Forest Park, avoiding Ocean Road and carving a pathway through the urban center. This will be a diversionary attack disguised as our main thrust. You will attack ahead of all other units and at first without additional support, drawing in 8th Division units from other positions. The 8th Division knows that they require the rest of their forces to decisively defeat us, and that those forces are slowly arriving. By securing Forest Park, we have a stronghold from which we can fight their arriving units piecemeal at Rangda’s city limits, negating the advantage of their numbers. They will place a lot of importance in sealing up the city limits, so you should expect heavy resistance. Your goal is to tie them up.”

Jakan nodded his head silently. Shayma and Burundi glanced sidelong at him and sighed.

“El-Amin.” Madiha continued, setting her gaze on the tank battalion commander. “Once the attack in the center is underway and we know the enemy is recommitting their forces to defend or to take back Forest Park, your 3rd Battalion will form the right wing of our attack by moving on Ocean Road. Yours will be our most decisive thrust. I want you to hit the enemy with excessive force. Your goal will be to cut the 8th Division off from Council and to divide it into two pockets of resistance, stuck on either side of Ocean Road.”

“They’ll scream under the weight of our tracks, Commander.” El-Amin said. She had a wide, vicious beaming expression as she spoke. She must have been delighted to have had the Colonel’s trust and attention and to be tasked with delivering a decisive thrust.

Madiha then turned to Burundi, who saluted amicably in response, awaiting his orders.

“Burundi, your attack starts after Jakan’s breakout to the east. You will break through to the Lion Battalion’s stronghold in Rangda University and destroy it, preventing Lion from relieving Forest Park’s defenders. Lion is the only force available that could potentially disrupt Jakan’s takeover of the Park. They threaten his flank all throughout the urban center, and they are loyal veterans of the 2026 mutiny. Right now they are likely the unit in Rangda with the best equipment and largest numbers. You must break them.”

“I like the sound of that.” Burundi replied. “Matumaini is on it, Commander.”

Of all the newly-promoted personnel, Burundi was the least officer-like of the bunch. He had started the war a platoon sergeant on the border with Cissea, and exhibited great leadership qualities throughout the retreat. He practically acted as a Captain when several went AWOL during the organization phase of the battle of Bada Aso. After great personal bravery during the Matumaini defense, his battalion was granted the street as a moniker.

“Once Lion is routed, Ocean Road is ours, and Forest Park is held, we will decapitate the government by launching an attack on Council, and force the 8th to stand down.”

Parinita crouched by the corkboard and withdrew a pen, drawing lines connecting the circles and chits and various numbers and other markings on the map. As Madiha spoke, she drew. All of them swept east and north toward the exterior of the city, and then finally slammed back onto Council. Whether with overwhelming force or as a final desperate measure it remained to be seen. Judging by the excitable look on Col. Nakar’s face as she explained her plan, she seemed confident in what the outcome could be.

Once the drawing was done, the Chief Warrant Officer stood at the Colonel’s side with a confident smile that mimicked the Commander’s own, holding a clipboard to her chest.

“Any questions?” Parinita asked warmly.

At this, Jakan raised his hand stiffly into the air.

“Go ahead.” Madiha said.

Jakan cleared his throat roughly.

“Ma’am, may I humbly suggest that the Light Self-Propelled Gun Battalion and the Motorcycle Recon Company launch an attack between mine and Burundi’s thrusts? They can support a small push against displaced elements from both areas, while being available for artillery support for both of us. I would find that comforting.” He said.

His voice was nasally, froggish, and a little grim, but he made perfect sense.

Madiha smiled and nodded her head. “An excellent suggestion. I will consider it.”

Jakan bowed his head.

Unlike Shayma and Burundi, Jakan had already been a commissioned officer for a time.

He was the kind of officer who outlasted demilitarization, and he was one of the very few Captains of Battlegroup Ox who did not disappear when the going got tough. His forces held the Umaiha river with great bravery until the weather swept most of them away. His new battalion was named Umaiha in commemoration of their sacrifice. Though he was a bit of an eccentric, he had Madiha’s trust. And she had entrusted him the toughest task.

“Thank you, Commander. I will diligently seek the objective.” He said.

El-Amin gave him a look of begrudging respect. Burundi laughed.

Thus the strategy was set forth, and the seed for the battles to come planted.

“I can’t move from here right now, but I will keep an eye on your progress.” Madiha said.

One by one, the battalion commanders bowed in respect, and left the infirmary.

“With that kind of plan, they can definitely win.” Parinita said, almost as if to herself.

Madiha merely grinned, and settled back against the bed to rest.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIV

This chapter contains violence.


50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Convent of St. Anastasia

As the night’s shadow stretched thin in the face of the morning sun, black boots emerged to trample across the gardens of St. Anastasia. For much of its history the Convent had been a refuge for women seeking to escape the duties forced by the kingdom upon sisters and daughters and wives, by serving Lord instead of lord. Now men patrolled the periphery day by day, armed and uniformed and turning the refuge into a prison.

Amid the lush forests of Lubon’s verdant Ikrean valley, Saint Anastasia was an austere sight that called back to centuries past, a stately palace of ornate stonework and stained glass, spread into two great wings attached to a central temple with a great dome. Cosseted between the arms of this great horseshoe-shaped castle was a large inner garden and an old bell tower that rose high over the surrounding forest. Though it might have once seemed extravagant and vivacious, time had worn the convent down. Ivy crawled along the walls, and there were cracks in the graying white masonry. Half the rooms were empty, cobwebbed, left for history to keep. Visible and unsightly exterior supports kept the central dome in its place. Within the long outer halls lone, distant prayers echoed.

Surrounded by the wood and a spear-tipped fence, the convent was well isolated.

Though it could have easily borne a thousand women, Saint Anastasia was home to maybe a hundred across its vast and deep halls — and a fraction of watchful legionnaires.

It had become routine now. Every morning when the first bell tolled, the men would take up their arms, avoid the women as they were instructed, and patrol the gardens, the exterior green, the cobblestone paths, and the nearby woods for signs of trouble.

The Ikrean bread basket was guarded by the 34th Blackshirt Legion, and owing to an important, permanent guest, St. Anastasia had become a routine post for a half-dozen men of its 78th Signals Battalion. Though originally trained radio operators and intelligence desk paper pushers, they had been drafted into the Convent guard in order to keep the circle of trust surrounding “Priorita: Rosa” as small and tight as possible.

What more was necessary to make a man a guard, than a gun and a ward?

For over a month the men had walked their well-practiced routes through the convent without issue. They had never needed their guns. They had never needed their cumbersome backpack radios to communicate with one another. Over time they became more concerned with finding some way to bond with the beautiful girls in the convent than with their patrols.

And so the guns were left behind so as not to scare the saintly women.

And so the backpack radios remained hung on racks for personal comfort.

And so when Byanca Geta spied her first target, he was quite outmatched.

Tall and thin with shining, slick hair and a cheerful grin, he carried himself more like a ballroom dandy than a soldier, despite legionary uniform. He patrolled the rear of the convent, behind the back of the church bell tower. From atop the branches of a tall oak, high enough to cast a shadow over the fence spears, Byanca watched him as she had watched the past two days. None of the women took their strolls this far away from the convent proper. This man had another vice in mind.

Against the old cracked stone of the tower the man leaned his back, spread open his coat and withdrew a pipe and a bushel of ragged-looking herb.

As he partook of his ganja, and his attention left him, Byanca pounced.

She threw a pack over the walls and took a deep breath.

Leaping from her branch and clear over the spears and fence, she hit the ground and tumbled forward. Her shoulder and side took the brunt; startled, the guard was slow to react. In one fluid movement Byanca was back on her feet, and she battered the guard against the stone tower.

Disoriented, he threw a wild swing, striking her in the shoulder.

Byanca reared back through the pain and butted him between the eyes.

He fell aback, and through a fleeting daze she drove him to the floor.

Struggling to a dominant position, his arms pinned under her, Byanca beat the guard’s face black, blue and red before he could utter any plea for help.

He was bruised and bloody and unconscious, but not dead.

She did not want to kill them; there was only one man she wanted dead.

Standing from over the body, she ran back to the wall and seized her pack where it fell. She pulled out the state of the art Nochtish portable radio, shaped like the thin and long box a jewel necklace might have come in, but thicker, made of green metal. It was cushioned within a wad of newspapers inside the bag. She tested it, praying that it survived. There was a tone, and she could change the frequencies and hear sounds. It was alive.

She put it in her bandoleer and searched the bag again.

From underneath the newspapers, she withdrew a weapon, metal grey and seemingly made of a pipe with a metal loop for a stock. To casual observers it might have seemed some kind of odd tool were it not for the long, thin magazine that stuck out from the side and the thin trigger guard beneath it.

Thus armed, Byanca handcuffed the unconscious man and hurled him into a nearby berry bush. He only needed to be concealed for less than an hour.

Once he was taken care of, she raised the radio to her ear.

“Tower’s clear.” She said.

There were only two people she could communicate with this kind of radio.

And all of them had to be relatively close, owing to its range.

Replies came quickly.

“West wall is clear, infiltrating now.” She heard a masculine voice say.

“Still waiting on an opportunity on the east wall.” Added a feminine voice. “There’s two too many congregating here. But they’re not mobile. We may be able to get by them.”

“Worse comes to worse, use the blister gas.” Byanca replied.

“Yes ma’am!”

Her recruits were doing better than she expected.

She was trained to work in units of eight or ten, but in Borelia there were never enough soldiers to go around. So a three-man unit suited her fine for this. She had two others waiting just off of the forest road with a getaway vehicle. All that was left now was to execute and hope for the best. They had planned as much as their resources allowed.

“Torvald, don’t be seen.” Byanca said.

“Yes ma’am.” Replied the man with the masculine radio voice.

Satisfied, Byanca started on her way.

Sneaking around the bell tower she stole into the central garden. On all sides it was surrounded by the rising convent buildings. Pristine tiled paths cut through raised plots of black earth fenced-in by off-white stone. Each plot was bursting with lily bushes and hedge plants. It was like a maze, and the open-air hallways on the buildings stood overwatch on the veiled and robed women traveling hand-in-hand through the paths.

Byanca crouched low and made use of the garden to avoid detection. She walked against the bushes and hedges, and kept an ear out for footsteps. It was a quiet morning, and she could hear anyone coming from far. She could see people walking on the second stories of each of the surrounding buildings, casually ambling down the halls, but they did not seem interested in the garden below. Byanca was dressed all in green, and wore a cap and a half-face mask with thick glasses to conceal her identity. She was as concealed as she could be.

“–Visions 6:17, have you given it any more thought?”

“Nay sister, I’ve been so exhausted lately.”

“I found it very inspirational. I think the Messiah would approve of–”

Upon hearing the girls Byanca threw herself into a nearby bush.

Hiding among the branches, still as she could be, she spotted the pair coming around the corner. There were two spindly elven girls coming, in modest blue and white robes, long-sleeved, with covering shawls and long hems and rustic boots, their veils bearing gold-lined holes for their long, sharp ears. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and barely into adulthood, they walked the garden paths, holding hands and sharing their thoughts on scripture.

Byanca held her breath.

Along the left-side bushes, across the tile path from her hiding place, they stopped.

One girl looked around with a wary expression.

“Is something the matter, sister?”

Her companion tugged gently on her sleeve.

Byanca gulped. She gripped her submachine gun tightly.

Turning around, the wary girl faced her.

Unprompted, she advanced toward Byanca’s bush.

The Centurion felt panic stealing her breath and tensing her muscles.

Her mind raced with possible solutions. Shooting was out of the question, how could she ever live with herself if she murdered a pair of teenage nuns; she could perhaps club the girls unconscious if they started raising hell. Carefully enough and she could subdue them without causing injury beyond repair. She could chase them down and force submission–

Around her the leaves on the bush shook.

So close did the wary girl come to her bush, that she cast a shadow over Byanca.

Looming over, the girl stared over Byanca’s head and examined the bush quizzically.

Byanca readied to pounce in an instant.

Suddenly the girl extended her hand and plucked a flower.

Turning on her heel, she cheerfully returned to her companion and arranged the lily in her hair and veil. Both girls laughed and held hands and shared quick glances before flouncing away as cheerful and obliviously as they had come. Sweating, out of breath, shaking from the tension, Byanca waited for their footsteps to grow farther, before moving on again.

Slowly she wound her way through the garden, giving a wide berth to the rare few nuns traveling the gardens at this hour. She made her way to the western wing of the convent, avoiding the steps into the exterior hall. Instead she made her way through the hedges and bushes as near as she could to the wall, and climbed through an arch-shaped window.

Inside the building, she quickly made her way to the second floor, and deeper into the interior halls. It was lonesome place, the convent interior. Images of the Messiah, a nondescript younger man, almost faceless and inexpressive, stared pleadingly at her around whatever corner she turned. When the Messiah bore an expression, it was one of torment, bleeding and dying at the site of his execution by some ancient heathens. Apart from his image the convent was all bare hall, dusty walls, worn-away floor tiles. There were endless doors — this was once a dormitory wing. But there were no occupants. It was like a palace shared only with ghosts and cobwebs. No nuns came here. No nuns could.

Though they were allowed to walk the exterior, this wing was a prison not for them.

Having had access to Priorita: Rosa files, Byanca knew more or less where the target was located. A second floor interior room, windowless, abandoned; she was a pearl in the rough, buried within the last place anyone would look. Hall after endless hall, any pursuer would have given the place up as a site forgotten by time. But Byanca knew where to look.

She knew that the labyrinth was repurposed both to protect and punish her target.

Clarissa Vittoria would be trapped in the dead center.

Where she could not see the sun or smell the outside air.

“Situation report?” Byanca called, while sneaking through the halls.

“Radio room neutralized.” Torvald replied. “All guards silently subdued.”

“Good, get out of there. Giuseppa?”

“Still staring down a bunch of clowns congregating by the wall.”

“Throw the blister gas and get out of there. I’m almost out.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Byanca shut off the radio and raised her firearm.

Rounding a final corner, she found herself at a dead end leading to a pair of palatial double doors now stuck with a rod through their handles. In front of the door, a man in a legion outfit sat, staring at the ground. He looked up unconcernedly at first, as if he expected to see another nun or maybe one of his own peers relieving him. His eyes drew slowly wider.

He reached for a gun set on a table in front of him alongside a deck of cards.

Byanca fired a quick spray on the table, perforating it and knocking the gun off.

Outmatched the guard raised his hands.

Though the gunfire resounded across the halls, she was so deep into such an empty place she did not fear discovery. At any rate, she was at her destination. Objective complete.

Byanca pointed her gun on the door.

Alarmed, the guard nearly jumped. He only spoke once he was sure she would not shoot.

“No keys!” He shouted. “Just the rod. It was never meant to lock.”

Nodding, Byanca tossed him a pair of handcuffs.

“Behind your back.”

She grunted the words in a deep, fake voice she hoped was unlike her own.

Compliant, the guard handcuffed his hands behind his back.

“Kick away the gun and stand back.”

Once more the guard did as instructed.

Byanca approached the door and withdrew the rod from the handles.

Briefly she turned around and swiped the rod across the guard’s expectant face.

He fell to the ground, instantly out. Byanca opened the door.

As the halves of the grand door swung open toward her, Byanca found herself with a nun’s veil right at her feet. It had been hurled across the room, perhaps. Clearly it was discarded.

On a plain bed in a plain room, staring at a plain wall, was Clarissa Vittoria.

She must have heard the gunshots, but her face bore no expression.

All around her there were markings on the floor showing where a much larger, grander set of furniture had once stood. There was nothing left of them but one plain armoire.

Framed in these outlines, the exiled princess stood out all the more.

Byanca was taken in by her beauty and by its obvious source. She was almost a perfect image of Passionale Vittoria. Perfect olive skin, strong green eyes, high cheekbones, slim, elegant features, long locks of luxuriant, subtly waving golden hair. She had the slender but rounded figure of a noblewoman. Clearly she had not been left wanting for the finer things in life. But her body had also been manipulated into its shape, sculpted by hardship into the perfection of a Vittoria. Salvatrice had some of that air as well, in different ways.

Despite wearing the plain habit of a nun, Clarissa still glided over the floor as if in a silk dress. She turned on her heel to face the door, and performed a modest curtsy.

Standing before her, the Centurion was momentarily smitten speechless.

She, who had dreamed forever of a beautiful princess worth fighting for, was given pause at the gentle expression of the captive Clarissa, upon whom the situation dawned quickly.

“You’re here for me.” She said, covering her delicate lips with subtle delight.

But Byanca was not a knight; she was a baleful dragon who was here to trick the Princess.

“Do you know where he is?” Byanca said. She hoped she would have to say no more.

Clarissa gasped slightly. After briefly hesitating, she replied, “I have some idea.”

“Good. I can’t take you all the way.” Byanca said.

“I know.” Clarissa said, a small, sad smile playing across her face.

In her conspiratorial heart, Byanca felt incredible relief.

Had Clarissa been any less certain of her lover’s dedication to her, had she not thought it fact that he would one day rescue her, the entire plan might have crumbled immediately.

It could very well still crumble.

“Follow me. Pretend to be my hostage.” Byanca said.

She raised the gun on Clarissa.

Such a thing, even from a supposed ally, would startle anyone; but not Clarissa Vittoria. With an impish grin on her face, she play acted raising her hands and put on a bereaved expression, in part genuine, in part obviously play-acted, as if delighting in the falsity. She was so sure, so fearless. Was this all her; or was it the power of Cesare Regal?

“How far are we going?” She casually asked.

“We’ll take you out of the vicinity here. You’ll have to do the rest.”

Clarissa smiled. “I see. So you’re the local cell.”

Byanca said nothing. To say anything might invite skepticism.

“You are bold, to take on the Legion here. I will see you greatly rewarded.”

Did she still think she would become Queen? After all of this?

Again, however, Byanca said nothing.

Breaking in here, leading her out; all of this was the easy part.

Cesare Regale still lay in waiting somewhere.


 

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First Blood (52.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks

“G-1 this is Thunder actual, report.”

Behind the sandbag wall guarding the approach to the base gate, a soldier of the 8th Division’s “Lion Battalion” answered the radio. His response was swift: there had been no activity from the 1st Motor Rifles all night. He had at times seen flickers of movement, shades in the dark, but for all he knew it was his eyes tricking him. His enemy was invisible to him.

Across the street from his position there was a brick wall about five meters tall topped with metal spears. Barbed wire wound between each spear and barred entry to prospective climbers. These walls fully encircled the base save for a pair of gates: the one before him, and one facing north. They were strong steel-barred gates topped with barbed wire. Past the gate stood a pair of concrete structures for the gate guards, and then a road that wound down in the base proper. Quite distantly, if he squinted, the radio officer could see nondescript buildings, bereft of people.

“G-1, maintain a high alert. We’re reinforcing your position soon.”

With those words, the platoon commander became silent anew.

This was only the second set of orders G-1 had been given.

The radio-man felt like they were all being sacrificed to give an early warning of 1st Regiment activity. He looked around himself for support.

At his side, a young woman grabbed hold of the padded handles on the sides of a Khroda water-cooled machine gun, keeping the gun raised on the gate barring them from their old barracks. She was tense; her grip on the handles was stiff and rigid. Crouching behind the sandbags were eight riflemen, armed with a single grenade and a Bundu rifle with 100 rounds. In the middle of the night two men and two women had run in from around the corner carrying a light mortar in three pieces. It had been assembled just behind the bus bench, and they crouched around it.

“We may be getting reinforcements soon.” said the radio man.

“Thank the ancestors for that!” replied the machine gunner, exasperated.

“No matter how many reinforcements we get there’s still thousands of people in there.” one of the mortar crew said, pointing into the base.

“It’s fine, they haven’t moved.” said the radio man. “Once the governor gives the go-ahead we’ll surround them and that’ll be the end of it. They had their chance to attack and they didn’t all night. We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, these folk ain’t Nocht.” said one of the riflemen.

Everyone went silent then. The rifleman’s clumsy implication was that the 1st Regiment was full of weak Ayvartans like themselves who had been bested by Nocht before. But that was not entirely true. For one, the 1st Regiment had defeated Nocht before. And most importantly, the 8th Division was, in a way, affiliated with Nocht. They were like Nocht, now.

Like them in allegiance, in whom they fought against; not in experience or equipment or in numbers, but in the dark deeds they committed.

But the fact was that there was nowhere for them to go but that sandbag wall overlooking the gate. It was either that or a stay in a prison camp, Nochtish or Ayvartan. Or worse. They had thrown their lot in with their own comrades over comrades in the broader sense. Without the mutual support of their dire pact they were nothing, and so, they remained.

So thought the radio man, until the machine gunner stomped her boot.

“Something’s happening!” She called out, holding her gun steady.

Across the road and behind the gate, a thin white mist had begun to spread. At first it the haze was barely noticeable, as thin as a cloud of smoke coming from the tip of a cigarette, blowing away in a gentle wind. Within minutes it had thickened into fog as thick as in a lowland swamp. Behind the bars there was no longer a road or gatehouses, only smoke.

“What do we do? What do we do?” shouted the machine gunner.

Forming a firing line to both sides of her, the riflemen aimed for the gate. Behind them the mortar crew scrambled to rip open the crates for their rounds, which they had not thought to unpack and lay out for use earlier. The radio officer thought his heart would climb out of his throat, so hard was it beating and thrashing in his chest. He mustered the will to speak.

“I’ll call it in.” He shouted back. “Calm down and don’t shoot.”

He lifted the handset to his mouth and switched on broadcasting–

From the speaker in his ear he heard a sharp, horrendous thrashing noise.

Wincing, he put down the handset and grabbed his head in pain.

But the noise was still there, distant, boring in his head. Was it a tinnitus?

He strained to raise eyes toward the gate, and found a black shape moving toward them within the smoke, tall as an elephant and just as broad.

In a split second’s glance the radio man noticed the gate had opened.

Everyone around him was paralyzed with fear.

At the edge of the cloud the black figure paused and shifted its weight.

There was a great thunderous cry and a bright flash that parted smoke.

From the edge of the street a 152mm round cut the distance to the sandbag wall in an instant. Detonating just over the sandbag wall it sent men and sandbags alike flying every which way. Metal sprayed in the faces of the riflemen, blinding and killing them; the machine gunner was flung back from her gun and died from the shock before hitting the floor again.

Surviving the first shot with only deafness and disorientation to account for it, the mortar crew rose from the ground and abandoned the position and their weapon, holding their heads low while hurtling down the street.

Lying on the ground, his stomach speared by an enormous chunk of shell casing, the radio man watched them go. He prayed for their escape with his last breaths; but in his final moments, he saw as a massive vehicle, with a turret like a destroyer’s mounting an absolutely enormous gun.

He did not see the vehicle shoot again.

Instead, seemingly a dozen men and women clinging to the tank’s rear and turret opened fire on the retreating mortar crew and picked them off before they could escape. In his final moments the radio man witnessed the birth of a new kind of Ayvartan warfare, and realized that nobody would know of his death, and that Nakar had dealt first blood.

She was throwing her iron fist right into the gut of the Lion battalion.

On the ground, at his side, the radio was still emitting alien noise.


 

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Alea Iacta Est (51.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, 8th Division Barracks

In the middle of the cross-hairs appeared a shadowy, helmeted head.

Under the gloom that had settled around a knocked-out street light, the figure moved with confidence, as though sure that it was not watched.

Muttering under her breath, Gulab Kajari held as steady as she could.

She kept her scope trained on the peak of the faceless human shape.

Watching from far across the street, behind the gates of the base, she followed the figure as it wandered around the corner, holding a rifle to its chest, turning its head down both directions on the opposing street. It signaled with its arms, waving a pair of allies out from their own cover and onto the street. They crouched behind a bus stop bench. Gulab heard the springing of a handset cord, and a minute of unintelligible whispering.

They were using the radio. Calling in whatever it was they had found.

Then the figures stood from cover and began to retreat back to the corner.

“I’ve got you, you snow weasel!” she whispered to herself.

Once more the cross-hairs expertly followed the figures, swaying from one figure’s head to its torso, keeping just far enough head to lead a shot.

Gulab held her breath again.

She steadied her aim; but the figures disappeared from her sight.

Her scope had gone entirely black.

“We have orders not to shoot, Gulab.”

Charvi Chadgura lifted her hand from Gulab’s scope, and she could see again. However the men in her sights had gone. Somewhere around the street corner toward Ocean Road they had vanished, but they were all still out there. Through the stillness of the night she had heard trucks moving in the distance, and even at times what sounded like a tank or a tractor.

The 8th Division was moving closer, but the false war dragged on.

“I was not going to shoot!” Gulab said, slightly irritated.

“I’m sorry. I trust you, but we can’t take any chances.” Chadgura said.

Then you don’t trust me!, Gulab’s mind screamed at her superior and friend.

She felt half indignant and half foolish. She felt as if she was blowing everything out of proportion, but also slightly offended. Gulab knew her orders. Nevertheless she felt she had to keep a close eye on the enemy.

And it was a fact she had to confront, that she had half a mind to shoot; Chadgura was not entirely wrong in intervening. It still annoyed Gulab.

“They are likely scouting the area for a checkpoint.”

At their side, Sergeant Nikayla Illynichna laid on her belly with the scope of her silenced carbine only a centimeter removed from her eye. She spoke in a monotone that rivaled Chadgura’s, but she could become much more heated if necessary. She was small, her eye level reaching only to Gulab’s chest, and pale as a ghost, with icy-blue Svechthan hair; add the dark of night and Illynichna was practically invisible in their ambush position.

Gulab and Chadgura crouched near her. All of them were hiding in a ditch on the side of the base road that ran through the front gate. Orders from high were to detain the gate guards, who might possess some allegiance to the 8th Division, and to shut off the gate searchlights. Under the cover of darkness they would lay near the gate and watch the road. All along the gate road there were several ambush positions. Gulad and comrades had been given the foremost position and watched the road most closely.

Through the iron gate bars they silently preyed on anyone who appeared.

Any 8th Division troops that barged into the base would be shot by snipers and machine gunners in a hellish crossfire. However, if they walked in with their guns down and unloaded, it was a wonder what anyone would do. They had been told not to shoot unless shot first. Operating under those rules of engagement was quite stressful. It meant anyone had a chance to die before an effective defense could potentially be mounted.

“More vermin incoming.”

Illynichna urged everyone to crouch, and they settled against the ditch.

From around the corner they heard the sound of marching boots and then the drowning-out of that sound by the wheels and exhaust of a truck. A dozen men and an old rompo turned into their street and stopped a mere thirty meters away. Briefly the truck’s headlights shone through the gate, their beams illuminating a few fighting positions by accident. When the truck completed its turn onto the street everything was dark again.

Adjusting her magnification Gulab spied on the arrivals with her scope.

She watched helplessly as 8th Division soldiers approached the truck and began to unload sandbags and set down a foundation for a fighting position near that old bus stop across from the gate. From the back of the truck a heavy machine gun was unhitched and rolled until it was protected behind the sandbags. Bag by bag the wall went up, waist to chest high.

“This is more than just a checkpoint, Chadgura.” Illynichna said.

“I’ll report it to command.” Chadgura said. They had a radio nearby.

Gulab drummed her finger on the side of her gun, near the trigger.

“I’m getting mad. Are the 8th Division our enemies or not?” She asked.

“It doesn’t matter to our rules of engagement.” Chadgura replied.

Illynichna cracked a little grin, lying next to her gun.

“Would you shoot your own people whenever someone declared them your enemies, Kajari?” She casually asked. She did not even turn away from her scope to make eye contact; she simply dropped the bombshell.

“Would you?” Gulab shot back, stammering slightly.

Illynichna grunted.

“The Elves and their Colonial Authority all but enslaved my people and destroyed their culture and killed scores of us for hundreds of years. Any countryman of mine siding with forces like them deserves death.”

Gulab’s own thoughts were more elusive and much less forceful. Some part of her that she deemed reasonable did not believe the 8th Division was some force for evil; things were more complicated than that. Just like she believed in the Colonel and followed her orders, she was sure the 8th Division was following their own heroes in this time of confusion. Surely they owed their lives to whoever extracted them from the Nochtish lines.

They thought they were doing right to come here, and that it was the 1st Motor Rifles who were putting the city at risk. Something happened along the way that twisted everyone. Ordinary rifle soldiers were not to blame.

The 8th were not here to steal land like Nocht. Rangda was their home and they believed they could protect it through these dubious actions of theirs.

Or at least that is what she wanted to think of fellow Ayvartans.

And yet– if they did anything that would put Gulab’s precious comrades at risk, like the kids; or the staff; or Charvi; she would definitely kill them.

And if Colonel Nakar gave her a good reason to shoot she would just shoot.

“It doesn’t matter to my rules of engagement.” Gulab finally replied.

Again Illynichna cracked a little grin. “My, my, what a sly answer.”

Gulab focused her attention on the road. It was practically bustling.

When the enemy’s sandbag wall was finally constructed, the truck backed away around the corner and out of sight, and the soldiers remained. They crouched behind their sandbag wall, next to their machine gun, and they faced the gate, opposite Gulab’s own fighting position in the ditch. It was like a scene from decades past. Rival trenches across no-man’s-land. She was sure the 8th Division knew she was there now, or at least suspected it.

It raised the tension. Now she had an enemy in sight who could shoot first.

“Can I at least give them a scare?” Illynichna asked, finger on the trigger.

“No.” Chadgura said sternly.

Illynichna sighed and slumped over her carbine. “Bozhe moi…

Minutes and hours passed, staring at the enemy in the eye. Gulab called on all of her resolve. She would shoot them if they shot her. She had to.


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EL DRAGÓN (50.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, Council District

From the steps into the Council building a fresh unit of soldiers charged down the front green, avoiding the six dead men strewn about the lawn and rushing toward the corner of Council Street and its central block. Scouting the area, their weapons up as they ran, they joined a pair of men hiding on the edge of the green, huddled behind a pair of benches.

Though the sky was black, several powerful searchlights shone from the roof and from several windows in the council building, providing targeting capability to the infantry. Every street lamp along Council Street was set again to full power, having been previously dimmed to support the curfew.

Carefully the men behind the benches and bushes on the edge of the Council lawn peered down the street, perhaps expecting gunfire. There was no retaliation against them. They assembled and prepared quietly.

“How many?” asked the squad leader, leaning out toward the road.

One man answered in a panic. “Just one sir! But she’s strong–‘

With a grin the squadron leader cut the man off.

He stood from behind the bench and held out his arm.

“You coward! Just one shooter has forced you back? Move out and–”

From farther down the street a rifle round struck the squadron sergeant’s adam’s apple as he berated his men. His head nearly came off as he fell.

There was immediate panic. Even with a tracer, it should have been nearly impossible for a shooter in the dark to kill this accurately with one shot.

An entire squadron dove and scrambled for cover around the corpse of their officer but found little they could use. In front of the large, square, u-shaped Council Building the green was wide open. There was nothing but small manicured bushes, stray benches made of widely spaced boards and a pair of flagpoles to hide behind on the lawn, and all of these were many meters apart. There were the torches on the street, but in the dark these posts immediately marked the men they covered as obvious targets.

Snipers could have hidden inside the western arm of the Council Building, but then they would not be able to see the fugitive. Even the men at the forefront of the gun battle could hardly see their target, only thirty meters away, save for a flash of movement in dim lamplight after her every kill.

Madiha Nakar had picked her position on the connecting Council Street to shield her from the sight of the Council Building. She was deep enough into the street that the arms of the building could not shine their lights on her, and she was distant enough from a torch post to hide in the gloom.

While her enemies had trouble targeting her, Madiha’s own field of view to the lawn was wide open, and she had reasonable cover from the old, thick steel mail bank box set on the side of the road. It was akin to a wall. Stray bullets bounced off the side and top of the box. Its exterior was made of fairly thick metal, and any bullets that penetrated would be slowed or diverted by the papers and boxes inside the bank. She had her pick of targets whenever she peered beyond the bank. Over the iron sights, she led her shots on the men even as they struggled to escape.

One shot through a mouth; clack went the bolt action; one shot through an eye; clack; one through a nose. Three men dropped to the ground in quick succession. Madiha retreated behind cover and felt the force of several shots transfer through the metal into vibrations against her back.

Taking a deep breath, she produced a new stripper clip from the pilfered ammunition bang slung over her shoulder and fed it into the rifle. Sensing a long delay between rifle shots at her back, she peered around the postal box. Selectively targeting the men in green uniforms she retaliated anew.

Through the space between the boards on the bench backrest she saw one of the panicked men that was shouting before. She shot him in the chest.

Tracers soared through the gloom like flaming arrows. Madiha took note of as many of the flashes and cracks as she saw and heard while shooting and before hiding, divining enemy positions and retaliating accurately.

As the exchange of gunfire continued, she saw less and less of the panicked blue-uniformed civil police in the vicinity. She had hoped they would finally break and flee after a show of force, and she had been thankfully correct. There was only a smattering of green uniforms on the Council Building front green and soon, not a single blue police uniform.

She hid behind the post box anew and worked the bolt. Mentally she prepared herself for the next volley of rifle shots launched her way.

In place of the cracking of Bundu rifles she heard a continuous noise.

Dozens of rounds struck the back of the box, many penetrating into the interior and striking against the metal directly at Madiha’s back. Chips of hot metal flew overhead like the shavings of an electric saw. Bright green tracers raked the street and the road at her sides. A spraying cone of lead showered the surroundings in hot metal, hungry for her flesh. It was an enemy Norgler. She could tell from the noise; she couldn’t risk peering out.

Soon as she heard a lull Madiha fled from cover, ducking stray rifle fire to run into an alley. She put her back to the bricks of a shop wall, and closed her eyes. Hundreds of flashing green fragments blew in toward her from the edge of the alley wall as the automatic tracer fire chipped at the bricks. Stowing her rifle she withdrew her pistol and stuck out her hand, shooting blindly back into the road and toward the green, unable to tell the effect.

Before she could even think to peek again the Norgler fire resumed.

She was trapped in an alleyway. Everything was dark owing to the distance from the street lights. There seemed to be no civilians around, not on the street, in the alley or in these buildings. Nobody there to be hit by the shots but her. It was the only comforting thought she had the entire night.

There was scarcely a pause between volleys. Automatic gunfire perfectly sited the street. Her muscles tensed and she grit her teeth, flinching from bits of brick and lead flying sharply off the corner and stinging her cheeks.

She crept farther into the alley and hid between a garbage can and a set of steps into a side door. Her original intention had been to fight until she thought she had a good chance to flee to safety. She had perhaps stuck around too long; the showers of tracers made her plans impossible.

Under the cover of the Norgler there were likely men moving in against her, combing the gloomy streets. They would find her quickly even in the dark. She would be hard-pressed to deal with a rifle squadron while cornered in an alley. All they had to do was throw grenades into the alley.

She had to take action first; she could not sit here and wait to die.

From her stolen pack she withdrew a flare gun and fired it into the sky.

A canister launched heavensward and exploded with a red flash.

Under the moonless sky the flash was enough to light the entire alley.

It was a signal for help. But it also exposed her location to the enemy.

On the street six men rushed past and stacked on both sides of the alley.

Madiha crouched behind the garbage can with her head almost in her legs.

As she feared she heard a shout. Grenades came flying into the alleyway.

Over the shouting of the men Madiha heard a high-pitched roaring.

As she hoped, the grenades flew right out as a stiff gust blew into the alleyway from above. Three grenades bounced back out into the street along the ground and detonated simultaneously on top of their owners.

Madiha felt the detonations and huddled in place until she heard the last of the spraying fragments settle. When she lifted her head again, she found Kali beside her, having descended from the heavens. Even in the dark her scales seemed to glint with their own dim luminescence.

Her little dragon looked worse for wear.

Bullets had become lodged in its scales in various locations, cracking “plates” of armor but seemingly not drawing blood. Where blood had been drawn was its underbelly and wings, where shards of glass had become embedded, and bruises and blood spots had formed wherever Brass Face had managed to strike in their combat. She was clearly quite wounded.

Kali did not seem disturbed by her wounds. It sat on all fours like a cat, with its head raised, staring blankly at Madiha in the same way as usual.

“Kali, you’re hurt!” Madiha said sadly.

No response from the little dragon. It stared expectantly.

Madiha reached out and petted it on the head as Parinita had taught her.

Kali purred and closed its eyes.

Madiha felt foolish; what she said before was obvious, but she felt strongly compelled to acknowledge it to herself. Kali had been hurt. Her actions and decisions had not just affected herself or the enemy. Her little friend had been badly beaten around. She did not even know how much Kali really understood things. Though it had the aptitude to fight, and some apparent knowledge of how its enemies were fighting her (what shooting was, and how to deflect big projectiles) she felt strange attributing that much agency to it. Madiha still thought of her as a pet that needed care.

And as far as caring for Kali went, Madiha had failed miserably.

She was about to punctuate her failure even further.

From her bag she withdrew a thick bundle of grenades.

“Kali, can you understand me?”

Kali stared at her, craning its head to one side.

Madiha reached out her hand to pet her head again.

She settled her palm over Kali’s head and projected an image.

“Can you see this man too?”

She tried to gently push into Kali’s mind the image of a male soldier with a Norgler. She focused on the size of the weapon, on the way a man would be holding it, on the noise and visual effect of the weapon. It was akin to drawing a sketch for a trainee to help them visualize an enemy target.

There was no protest to the psychic display.

She was not trying to intrude on Kali’s mind like she did to Brass Face’s. Through the tenuous connection she conveyed her non-aggression as strongly as she could. She tried to evoke a one-way conversation, a giving of information, a telling of facts. Madiha took not even a trickle of Kali’s thoughts. In turn the dragon was calm and gentle, completely trusting.

In a few seconds she was satisfied with the picture she had projected.

Madiha removed her hand from Kali’s head and smiled at her pet.

“Kali, I need you to drop this on that man. Can you do that?”

Soon as she was done speaking the exterior alley lit up with green tracers.

Kali seized the bundle of grenades from Madiha’s hands and took off.

In the preceding days Madiha had only ever really see Kali float and glide, but today she was flying as though propelled by her own little engine. She flapped her wings once and generated enough wind to lift dust from the floor and to lift her whole body into the sky. She elevated without concern, flying directly up and down as if unburdened by the physics of aviation.

She disappeared from over the alley. Madiha crouched along the edge of the wall, hurrying toward the street. She pulled on the leg of a corpse, drawing the remains into the alley and pilfering ammunition. Just a meter overhead and scarcely a meter of brick from the street, the Norgler’s fire resumed slicing the pavement and the corner of the shop. Hundreds of bullet holes had scarred the street and the lips of the alleyway walls.

Madiha sat against the wall, pistol in hand, waiting for a sign.

There came another volley of Norgler fire, chipping at the walls anew.

Then a loud blast quieted the gun mid-spray.

Madiha charged out of the alleyway, firing her pistol up the street. She found a trio of men running from the lawn and attacked them, shooting two before ducking back behind the mail bank. She spotted several more men that had been assembling on the green, and were now stumbling around wounded and dazed from the explosion. Amid a circle of burnt grass and running blood were a pair of bodies lying on a mangled pile of metal tubing and cooked ammo that had once been an automatic weapon.

Overhead Kali circled like a vulture smelling carrion in the air.

With the Norgler suppressed and the men scattered, now was the time to flee. Madiha withdrew her flare gun, popped a new canister into the weapon and aimed further down the street. She unloaded a flare, set her sights on Ocean Road at the end of the block, perhaps a kilometer away, and took off under the red flash, hoping that Kali would see it and follow.

As she left cover and ran Madiha felt a closer, hotter flash behind her.

Chunks of metal flew past her as the box exploded a dozen meters back.

Eyes drawn wide with terror, Madiha looked over her shoulder mid-run.

She found herself suddenly turning gold under a pair of bright lights.

Blinded at first, she caught a glimpse of her aggressor when the lights moved from over her body and instead illuminated the road ahead.

Moving into the green from beyond Council Street was a Goblin light tank, the ubiquitous main tank of the Territorial Army. Characteristically angled tracks bore it forward, its three-section glacis with a flat front plate facing Madiha. Atop its thinly armored, riveted hull was an off-center turret with a thin gun and a linked machine gun, and atop that was a pintle-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun, rarely seen equipped.

One 45mm high-explosive shell was all it took to smash the mail bank.

Against other tanks it was lacking, but a Goblin was deadly to infantry.

Madiha saw the gun barrel light up as she glanced again over her shoulder.

In an instant a second shell flew past, infinitely faster than she could run.

Had it deviated a meter toward her it would have struck Madiha directly.

Instead thirty meters ahead it exploded on the road, scattering fragments.

Madiha shielded her face with her arms, turned on her heels and dove blindly into the nearest alleyway. She felt a sting on her flank; a fragment must have bitten into the back of her ribs somewhere. Flinching from the new pain, she found herself scarcely a few dozen meters from where she had started, stranded in a wide alley mostly adjacent to her last refuge.

Behind her she heard the loud whining of the tracks as the Goblin neared.

The Cisseans must have cried out for help to the rogue 8th Division.

Or perhaps they had just pressed a captured Goblin into their own service.

Regardless Madiha now had to contend with a tank.

She cast wild eyes around the alley and found a large dumpster belonging to the shops on this block. She put down the lid and climbed atop, and leaped up. Her hands barely seized a second-story windowsill, and she pulled herself up. Over the smaller building at her other side she could see the tank coming closer. It thankfully could not see her, not with its optics.

Pressed precariously against the shop window, Madiha withdrew her pistol and shot the glass, creating an opening. Using her knife she smashed off as much of the sharp glass as she could from the bottom half of the window and slid herself inside. She found herself in a dark storage room that seemed empty, dusty and cobwebbed. There were windows on the other end of the room, and she rushed toward them and crouched.

On the street below she heard the tracks and the engine come closer.

She heard the road wheels, characteristically slamming in protest as the Goblin tank tried to navigate the ten centimeter step up from the flat road to the alley street. Goblin road wheels were quite poorly arranged and any change in elevation caused them to lift violently and issue a harsh noise.

It was likely trying to turn into the alleyway below to corner her.

Giving chase in such a way was quite an amateurish mistake.

In such a tight melee the tank was under as much danger as its prey.

Madiha stood up against the corner of the room, between windows.

She peeked outside and confirmed her suspicions.

The Goblin had turned into the alley to search for her.

Madiha withdrew a lone anti-tank grenade from her ammunition bag.

She cracked open the window, primed the grenade and threw it.

Landing atop the engine compartment, the grenade’s cylindrical explosive head detonated violently. A cloud of smoke billowed from the back of the tank as the roof of the rear hull practically melted. Immediately the Goblin’s tracks ceased to whine and the engine ceased to rumble.

Fires burst from within the ruined grates once covering the engine.

There was no movement from within the tank. Had anyone survived they would have bolted out of the hatches. But judging by the detonation and the fires, and the slag that had become of the rear hull roof, it was likely that a shower of metal spall had killed everyone inside, if not the heat of the initial detonation. The Goblin tank was completely paralyzed.

Soon the fire would reach the ammunition and explode a final time.

Madiha pulled the window open the whole way. Enduring the stinging at her side, she gingerly leaped onto the Goblin’s turret. She misjudged the jump; she hit the turret roof hard, and nearly slid off with her momentum. Groaning, she sat up and began to pull free her prize. Madiha took the Danava machine gun from the simple mounting atop the turret.

Now she had a real weapon on her hands.

Faint and distant, she heard the trampling of boots over the hissing fires from the tank’s engine. Madiha cast a quick glance overhead, making sure that Kali was still airborne. Finding her dragon flying over the alleys, Madiha signaled to her, leaped down from the tank and ran further into the dark alleys and around the backs of the shops on Council Street.

She had a good weapon, a head start and the night.

She was sure she could get away now.


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