Stoking Hell’s Fire (8.1)


20th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning

Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso Region, Foot Of The Kalu

Madiha found herself suspended in a void.

A dim and invisible light source allowed her to tell her own body from the infinite darkness. She sat, alone, in a soundless, mostly sightless place, holding her legs against her chest. An enclosure around her forced her head bowed, her legs squeezed in, and her arms locked tight. Her enclosure seemed to turn around her, and sometimes a corner would scrape her head, or an edge would brush against her legs. She was trapped in an invisible, moving cage. It was only big enough to hold her body, and not even her actual body.

She was a child inside the moving walls.

She was the androgynously-dressed little girl who passed beneath the notice of the guards in the city of Bada Aso to deliver key letters between the ideologues who would eventually overthrow the Empire; the child who would eventually be taken to the capital to see the start of the Revolution. To take part in it. Perhaps even to cause it.

Her heart was gone. In its place there was a candle. Her only light.

She felt it burning in her child-like chest. She was a child of the Revolution.

A child who was exploited; they used you until your flame was dead.

Her body started to grow. And the flame blew out. She was entirely in the dark. She felt her legs growing longer, her arms, her back, stressed against the gyrating walls. She was being crushed. Who exploited her? She didn’t remember anything about a flame, anything about being used. Her memories of the Revolution were vague. She was so young; she didn’t truly understand the death she saw. Skin brushed against the enclosure, pounded against it, stressed, ripped, bled; her body was her adult body, and it compacted.

She felt bone breaking and flesh splitting.

All of that death; she had forgotten it. She forgot that she caused it.

You had a spark of the World Flame. Your spark burnt so powerfully that the shine was seen through your eyes. But Warlord, your eyes don’t shine over the battlefield anymore, not like they used to. They used your spark to start their revolution; they burnt through all of you. That was not the conflict you were born for.

Now you are a shade of your true self. You will lose your destined battle.

Madiha started to choke. She could see a figure outside the box, watching.

There was a figure outlined in the darkness, featureless, sexless; all at once naked and in leopard bands and in in uniform, brandishing a club, a shield and a throwing spear, a rifle. When the all-being spoke it did so in a hundred voices at once.

You would not be the first. Many of us failed. All of us died. History went on.

As Madiha choked to death in her little box, the figure looked at her without pity.

At least, you are remembering a little now. Maybe you will die fighting.

Screaming, she woke, but only halfway.

Everything was rattling and moving and dark.

She was in the half-track, laying in a hammock tied up to the tentpoles holding the roof tarp, but she had no way of knowing this. She was trapped in a terrified haze.

She shouted, and cried, and flailed her arms, trying to pry apart that box which had held her. Memory of the box and the man dissipated, but the physical sensation of her prison seemed fatally real now. Suddenly she felt a multitude of hands reaching out and touching her, holding her, and she heard words, but whatever was being said her ears did not pick up. All sound was drowned out in a sharp whistling, and all sight was a blur.

“Madiha!”

Parinita’s light brown face appeared before her like the moon on a clear night.

Her gentle features and her strawberry-colored hair came into focus, and her voice rose above everything else, annihilating that horrible world from which Madiha had somehow escaped. She was like a spirit in the flesh, glowing in the dark, her innocent face and soft hands seeming to reach into Madiha’s very being.

Whatever rotten thing had latched onto Madiha, those hands had ripped it from her. Her touch registered in Madiha’s senses, and she stopped struggling.

She was not trapped in a box anymore, she was not choking; she was in the radio half-track, driving to Bada Aso for that fateful battle that she had ordered everyone to prepare for. All around her were the impassive faces of KVW rifle troops. Though they wore very deadpan expressions, she could tell they were worried by the intensity with which they stared at her, and the hesitation in their normally decisive and confident movement.

Having served with the KVW for so long, she was used to the way they behaved by now. They were even easier for her to read than Parinita, and “ordinary” people. Parinita’s proximity, the softness of her expression, Madiha found it hard to understand anymore.

“Are you alright now? Were you having a bad dream?”

Though she knew that Parinita meant well, the way that she offered her sympathy rattled Madiha. It made her feel like a child running from nightmares.

An Ayvartan officer, commanding an army group with tens of thousands of soldiers, crying in her sleep, weeping as she woke from a dream. As the content of her dream began to waver and become lost in the fog of her mind, Madiha felt more foolish receiving Parinita’s sympathy than she felt relieved. However she made no show of emotion.

She nodded cryptically and stood from the hammock.

“Did I say anything in my sleep?” She asked, wiping fibers from her uniform.

“You moaned a little at first. I went to sleep;; then I heard you groaning and begging.”

“Begging?”

“It’s what you sounded like to me. Like you were pleading.” Parinita said.

Madiha shook her head. “I see. I apologize for disturbing you.”

“It’s fine.” Parinita said. She smiled. “I will pray for sweeter dreams.”

“I will pray for gods to actually answer.” Madiha replied, grinning a little.

She looked across the blank expressions of the KVW rifle troops around her.

They nodded their heads and sat on their benches again, leaning on their rifles and against the walls, understanding immediately that they were not to relate this event to anyone. Battlegroup Ox was already confused and demoralized enough; if in addition their replacement commander, whom they had been essentially coerced into accepting, was already breaking down in her sleep from shell shock, their fighting spirit would plummet.

For better or worse, Madiha had to present a strong front from now on.

Until the sun came up, Madiha rested in her hammock, but she no longer slept.

She felt a strange burning sensation in the back of her eyes, and though she tried to remember the exact content of her nightmares, it was beyond her grasp.

Knowing nothing was a familiar situation to her; in a way she knew nothing about herself first-hand. There was a stranger living in this flesh, and she did not know whether that was her, or someone else. Yet despite living with this insecurity for so long, it was always newly disturbing to realize the gaps in her existence.

As soon as the dawn came, the half-track slowed to a stop off the side of the road, and one of the KVW soldiers traded places with the sleepy driver. Two other soldiers disembarked with a toolkit, and together they checked the tires and refilled the fuel.

Parinita started making calls on the radio again, and her staff continued the difficult work of imposing order and efficiency on the scurrying elements of Battlegroup Ox, and organizing them to effectively carry out Madiha’s sweeping defensive plans.

Their work for the moment largely went on without the merest hint of oversight from their new commander. Madiha stepped out for a moment, settling down beside a withered old tree by the side of the road and catching a breath of air untainted by exhaust. She felt a tingle across her body, as though still seated against the shaky walls of the half-track.

Though she scratched her skin and scraped against the tree, she could not relax.

It grew into a discomfort in her own flesh that was familiar and disgusting.

She shook a little, feeling overwhelmed by the touch of cloth against her body, feeling trapped and tight. But even if she shook off her clothes it wouldn’t be enough: she couldn’t shake off her entire flesh. Her breathing grew a little labored and she remembered her mantras and her meditation therapy, and distracted herself from the anxiety by taking in the landscape. There was a strange comfort in the vastness and openness around her.

Between Dori Dobo and Bada Aso the terrain was flat and broad, covered in wispy grassland and a few sparsely wooded stretches. Strong winds began to blow from the north, and the skies were cloudy and foreboding. Despite the dismal weather, Madiha was easily captivated by the surroundings. There was a monumental green landscape stretching before her, with the edge of the Kalu Hilltops on the northeast, gently rising, and Bada Aso in the distance to the northwest, a long cluster of buildings rising to block her view of the coast.

She had spent the most significant years of her life in Bada Aso, and she had seen the terrain from so many angles. She had arrived to the city, starting from the rural southwest at Dori Dobo; she had come from inside the city and headed northeast to Solstice, across Tambwe straddling the foreboding mountains, and past the desert; and she had returned to Bada Aso, moving southwest again. She had left it and then returned to it from the Bakor isles. From every compass direction, it seemed, she had seen her city and its surroundings.

Familiarity never bred boredom; Bada Aso seemed new with every visit.

She cast eyes behind herself now, trying to focus on the movement of people.

It was an alien sight sometimes, to see others moving under their own power, existing apart from her. In a way though, this made them their own landscape in Madiha’s mind. She could watch them and keep herself calm. She could track them, the soldiers changing tires, the soldiers hauling fuel, the ones eating rations, the ones cleaning their rifles. Seeing them carry out their business without being under her power was strangely calming.

Soon Madiha’s suffocating anxieties had dissipated completely – for now.

Far as human landscapes were concerned, the one about to arrive at Bada Aso dwarfed anything Madiha had ever witnessed. Behind her was a convoy of thirty vehicles, many of them civilian trucks borrowed from local unions. Several such convoys, each with their own dozens of vehicles, traveled on different roads and paths, evading potential pursuit and aerial reconnaissance, ferrying the tens of thousands of soldiers that they would need.

Those soldiers who had been in a position to do so took the trains in their cities or towns and rushed ahead to Bada Aso and established themselves outside the city.

It was a massive undertaking, and even these measures did not cover all the men and women and their equipment. Many soldiers rode on tanks, bikes or even on horses.

Fuel was plentiful, though it far outstripped the supply of vehicles. Being able to run their fuel supply ragged was the one advantage that Ayvarta definitively had over Nocht, who received most of their fuel from Lubon or the Higwe dominions. Ayvartan trains could run nigh-on endlessly, and the trucks could drink heartily, in a way that their pursuers could not afford. They could run and run; but Madiha only ran as far as Bada Aso.

Her beautiful city; she had finally returned to it.

Sadly it was to witness its destruction.

All of the vehicle crews went through their own paces, and many found a few things to fix. Their stop dragged on a little. As new tires were rolled out, engines oiled, tarps adjusted, Parinita walked out to Madiha, having completed her radio calls.

Since they had met two days ago, Parinita seemed to be tackling everything with a lot more energy than Madiha expected. Her skirt had gotten a little bit dusty in the truck, and she had tied her long, wavy, and increasingly messy hair up into a high, charmingly arched ponytail. In her hands she had a piece of paper, shaking in the wind.

Madiha could see furious scribbling all over it, including the margins.

For a secretary, Parinita took some incredibly untidy notes.

“I’ve got good news, and bad news! But I think the good news outweighs the bad!” Parinita jovially said. She withdrew a pair of glasses, lightly cracked from the battle they survived at the border, and perched them on her little nose.

Madiha sat up from leaning against the tree. “Bad news first.”

“Glass half-empty kind of woman, I see?” She said, cocking a grin.

“That doesn’t even make sense.” Madiha replied. “Tell me the news.”

Parinita waved her hands. “Just trying to be personable! Anyway here goes; the Regional Council at Bada Aso is displeased that the KVW has taken command of Ox, and they would like to have a word about it with you once you get to the city.”

“Ring them up again and tell them I will meet them soon, but I have other plans first.”

“Besides that, I have a lot of good news.” Parinita said. She sat down beside Madiha on the tree, legs up to her chest, and with her head resting on atop of her legs. Looking up at Madiha, she continued.  “Okay! Evacuations are going well in north Adjar. Despite objecting to your command, the Civil Council followed your evacuation orders completely. I wager because Inspector Kimani also called Solstice yesterday and they yelled about it. So the retreat to Bada Aso is going about as well as it can at the moment.”

“I notice you didn’t mention the Center and South.” Madiha said.

Pulling her legs in even closer, Parinata shook from side to side in childish distress. “Hmm. I guess I undersold the bad news. But in a way, this is good news too. Nocht’s forces are advancing slower than expected because they’re moving to capture and consolidate the resources we have been abandoning pell-mell as we retreated. We received messages in secret from the police in Dori Dobo and Hajal that Nocht was moving in slowly. Yesterday they hardly even tried to catch up with us. Instead they went for whatever industry and agriculture didn’t make it out, and they swept around it quickly.”

Madiha sighed. “I thought they would prioritize differently. Since they aren’t chasing us, this means they want to capture the port cities to use as bases for the war effort.”

Parinita nodded. “Yes. Unfortunately, we were unable to destroy or evacuate as much as we wanted to before they grabbed it. Thankfully none of it is fuel production. All of that is farther out, past Solstice and down the Horn of Ayvarta and all of that.”

“Agriculture helps them though. We could’ve stretched their food supply.”

“We did what we could.” Parinita lifted a hand from off her leg and patted Madiha in the shoulder. “It’s a miracle we managed to evacuate anything at all with just a few hours notice. For the circumstances, we’re as well off as we can be. Now we have time to plan.”

“I’ll take your word for it. You’re good with organization, aren’t you?”

“Gowon seemed to think so. As quick as he was to make me the idiot and toss me under the cattle to the Inspector, the old fool never spent a second organizing supply schedules, drafting response plans, or considering emergency policy. That was all the staff, under my direction. Not to brag or anything.” Parinita fidgeted with one of the temples of her reading glasses. “I always worked diligently. Gowon was hardly ever around. He would just tell us to research and write reports and organize fact sheets and maps. We developed the rhetorical and factual backbone of his ideas. I never thought he could be doing anything bad. I never analyzed it. I just wrote reports and edited plans and military papers.”

“It’s not your fault.” Madiha said.

Major Gowon, the previous commander of Battlegroup Ox, had been complicit in a lot of dirty deeds. Parinita’s staff had likely helped him, unknowingly, to realize a lot of projects that would have been unfeasible without the data and planning resources available to a military branch. He was suspected of smuggling arms out, likely for Nocht to study and take apart; of helping to hoard away silver and pushing iron and lead across the border into Cissea through his family’s old mining company, with which he had devious pull.

Now he was dead.

They would never know the true extent of his crimes.

She hoped Parinita would not have to bear the weight of that sin now that Gowon’s head was sprayed across a white wall in an old warehouse on the now occupied border.

Madiha gave her a weary smile. “Parinita, I appreciate your help. I’ll have to rely on you a lot from now. This is my first big command. But hopefully I can give you better direction where it counts. I would like to work closely with a good staff.”

Parinita smiled back. “I’m already feeling more confident, Captain!”

“I’m glad. And I have a curiosity, if you have a moment to spare.”

“Alright.” Parinita said.

She appeared puzzled by the request, but she innocently accepted.

Together they stood off the roots of the decayed tree and walked a few paces around the trunk. Madiha pointed Parinita towards a cluster of trees in the distance, some twenty or thirty meters away, taller and greener than the one nearby.

In other countries, the Aster’s Gloom was the first of the ravages of cold: but in Adjar there were always plants in bloom. Fruit grew prominently from the branches of this little grove, and it was plentiful and large, and its yellow and red gradation of colors helped it to stand out from the green leaves and gray bark of the trees.

Carefully, so as not to cause Parinita any fright, Madiha withdrew her sidearm, a fairly small revolver chambered for the 7.62mm x 38 caliber. Parinita looked even more confused at first, but Madiha just wanted to give her a little demonstration. She gently drew her attention to the grove again and asked her to to cover her ears with her hands.

Holding the weapon with both hands, Madiha aimed and pulled the trigger. Parinita watched the grove in the distance. In an instant, a lone piece of fruit, severed from its branch, fell from one of the trees and into the patchy grass below it.

“Now I want you to try it.”

Madiha took Parinita’s hand and deposited the weapon on her palm.

“Back at the border, you were shooting that BKV rifle; your stance was not very good, but I could see some potential. I’m wondering how accurate you could be in a more relaxed setting. Nobody is going to interfere, so take your time and line up the shot.”

Madiha closed Parinita’s fingers around the weapon.

Parinita began to stutter. “I c-c-certainly can’t land a hit like yours!”

“I never miss what I am aiming; but I’m telling you, I think you can do it.”

There were ulterior motives, but Madiha certainly did feel she would be able to do it.

Standing behind Parinita, Madiha instructed her on a better posture for target shooting.

She patted Parinita’s legs gently, coaxing her legs closer together, and bending her knees just a little; she pulled Parinita’s arms, which she had fully extended with the weapon, to a more relaxed position, so she could retract and extend more easily; and she taught her how to hold the revolver with both of her hands. Three fingers and thumb around the grip, index finger along the frame, and her off-hand over the main hand with the thumbs together on the side of the weapon opposite her shooting finger. Parinita’s hands were a little shaky, and when she fired her first shot, she hit the trunk of the tree.

“Don’t be discouraged.” Madiha said. “Try again.”

Madiha stood close by her and helped Parinita to align the gun’s iron sights and to properly aim at her target. All the while, however, her mind was on other matters entirely. Back at the border, Madiha knew that she had seen through the eyes of a soldier, and that she had subconsciously improved the aim of a gun team firing on the Nochtish assault guns.

This was no dream, she remembered it perfectly.

She had not passed out or had a shell shock episode; odd as it sounded, she knew that she had left her body behind entirely and occupied another mind. Though the sensation was all but gone from her memory, Madiha knew that she could do it again.

She had to coax out this strange ability.

Ever since she was little, Madiha had never missed a shot she took.

That much she remembered.

If somehow, she could make the aim of her own soldiers that good, it would be a coup.

Once again, Parinita aimed and fired.

She hit a branch this time and shook the fruits upon it, but nothing fell. No direct hit on the target. Parinita slumped a little and breathed quickly. “I’m just no good at this. Guns make me a little scared. I had a bad score with weapons in basic training. I’m thankful for the instruction; I just don’t see the point of it. I’ll never be able to hit the fruit like you can.”

“Simply relax and focus.” Madiha said, as gently as she could.

She said this just as much to herself as to Parinita. Dealing with something fully unknown, Madiha turned, begrudgingly, to Dhyana. It was part of the prescription for her anxiety and shell shock. Meditation was the only thing she felt applicable to this situation, and she felt comfortable tapping into it, so she controlled her breathing, relaxed her body as much as she could, and tried to separate her thoughts from her self.

Standing eye to eye with Parinita, her hands loosely holding the woman’s waist and arm, Madiha tried to clear her mind of thought, to try to rip herself from her body again.

Of course, the objective was not the same.

Her meditation focused on overcoming her anxiety and the stress she suffered. She had projected herself outward and tried to find some measure of peace around her to quiet the palpitations of shell shock. Meditation helped her extend her conscience. She felt Parinita’s pulse through their close contact, felt the warmth of the woman’s cheek against her own. She felt the outside. But she could not just waver off into the landscape now, vanishing among the grasses; she needed to slip into another person’s consciousness.

Parinita fired again. Madiha thought she felt as though one shaking flesh with her.

“No good, I missed again.” She said. Her words had grown hazy.

Madiha did not even see what she had hit this time. She closed her eyes.

“Parinita, I know you were a head secretary, but what was your rank before?”

“I was non-comish.” She stammered gently. “Chief Warrant Officer.”

“C.W.O Parinita Maharani; I believe in you. Try it one more time.”

It was the rank. Rank and name; that is how Madiha understood the people around her; that was how she related to them, how her consciousness sought out their own. That was how she entered their minds. It was a hierarchy; that was how she controlled them.

This alien realization, this almost inhuman thought, was what propelled Madiha’s power. She was suddenly out of her own body and staring over Parinita’s shoulder, and she was staring over her own shoulder as well but with ghostly, detached eyes.

Somehow she was inside Parinita and out of her, while also inside and out of herself.

Was this how those false spirits and ancestors and gods were supposed to act and feel?

She viewed the world perfectly as though through any ordinary lens, and she felt as free to move about the landscape as she ever had. But she felt veins, tendrils, appendages of some sort that seemed to connect her to everything around her, so that her touch could reach far beyond her body. Subconsciously those strands of thought with which she touched the world took Parinita’s arms and steadied them, took her eyes and guided them.

Parinita aimed and fired once more with confidence. A second fruit fell from the tree.

Madiha, both Madihas, however many Madiha; all of her distributed consciousness heard the gunshot. She felt a burning pain the back of her eyes and a rushing sensation, as though blood was about to burst through her sockets. Madiha’s projection raised her hand to her eyes, and found them covered in blood, hot blood as though freshly boiled in a kettle, burning her avatar’s hands, gushing through her avatar’s brain, causing an alien agony.

Everything started to spin, and all of the tendrils of thought retracted as though into a ball or a knot. Her extension cut off entirely. Though she once glided over the world like a god in the limited space occupied by Parinita, now she was shocked back to frailty.

No longer could she sustain the ghostly warlord.

A sudden pain forced her into retreat.

Once more, Madiha knew flesh. For a moment she was as dazed as when she woke in the morning, her arms letting go of Parinita, her feet shaking, her body taken from her own control. Beside her Parinita celebrated as though nothing happened.

“Did you see that? Wow! I did hit it!” Parinita said. She turned toward Madiha and threw her arms around the Captain in elation. “Incredible! I feel incredible, Madiha!” She held Madiha’s shoulders at arms length, and staring at her Captain’s confused, numbed, awkwardly expressionless face, she looked suddenly quite conscious of her impropriety.

She lifted her hands from Madiha’s shoulders as though they were poisonous, and stuffed them into her pockets. “I mean, umm, Captain! Thank you for instruction, Captain!” She saluted stiffly and averted her eyes, standing like a comical statue.

Once more, Madiha knew control. As though her spirit had fully filtered back into her, the pain subsided, and the fog clouding her mind was gone. Around her the world stopped spinning. Realizing her situation Madiha mustered a quick smile.

“I told that you could do it.” She said, a little slurred. Her voice recovered slowly.

Parinita held her salute stiffly. “Yes sir; I mean ma’am! Yes Captain ma’am!”

They heard someone approach from the other side of the tree, and turned their heads.

“Major, you mean. She is a Major now.” Inspector Kimani said.

The Inspector hung back from them, leaning against the trunk of the dead tree and lighting a cigarette after addressing them. She had her peaked cap in her hand, and the red and gold jacket of her KVW Officer uniform was half-unbuttoned.

Kimani evoked no exceptional feeling when delivering the news.

She spoke in a serious and factual voice that was hard to ascribe any emotion to. Everything she did seemed purposeful and planned. It was though Kimani moved through history with certainty. Madiha could hardly meet her eyes. She felt quite beneath her.

Kimani seemed comfortable enough leaving the news to hang in the air.

She continued to smoke casually in front of them.

“I was promoted?” Madiha asked, trying to draw further reaction.

“The Warden herself declared it and called me.” Kimani said simply.

“Is it so I can more appropriately replace Gowon?”

“Yes.” Kimani replied. “Among other things. You deserve it. Feel proud.”

Major Madiha Nakar, Commander of Battlegroup Ox.

It was a contested title, at the moment. But something about it still sunk hard into the pit of Madiha’s stomach, causing her to feel heavy and sick when she thought about it too much. And yet she had a plan for it, for Battlegroup Ox, for everybody in it. In the span of a few minutes she had begun to draft it, and over the past day she had fleshed it out.

Now it was official, it was on paper, and her staff knew all about it.

Everyone was preparing for it already.

Bada Aso, the city of her childhood, where she first learned of revolution, where she first found love, where the broken pieces of her heart and mind and soul had been painfully picked from the bloody earth and affixed again: she would turn it into Hell.

Three of them stood there, Inspector Kimani, Chief Warrant Officer Maharani, and Major Nakar, silently exchanging glances, waiting to get back into motion, with the city far away in the background. They would be the architects of this Hell.

Engines growled behind them, and exhausts coughed gray smoke into the air.

“Looks like the convoy’s ready.” Kimani said. “Let us depart then, Major.”

“Right.” Madiha said. “We’re taking a little detour. Have the rest of the convoy stand by outside Bada Aso, but do not enter the city yet. I don’t want any more potential panic or political friction. We’ll be going to the Svechthan barracks, instead.”

Kimani nodded. She took a final drag of her cigarette and then stepped on it.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She saluted her. Madiha found it a very bittersweet response. She was in power now, and Kimani could no longer protect her, neither from the scrutiny and ire of others, nor from the vacillating images of her forgotten past.


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