This scene contains mild sexual content.
49th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Red Banner Apartments
Slowly the light of the dawn crept over the tops of Rangda’s buildings and washed over the facades, casting brilliant lances through every crack and cranny, into every hole in a curtain and through every gap in a shutter. It was no different for the windows of the Red Banner Apartments. Facing the dawn, they slowly took the full brunt of the morning light.
Accompanied by a misty morning breeze, the sunlight illuminated all of Madiha’s room, starting with a beam of light the size of a wooden plank that cut across the bed and shone almost directly into her eyes. Groggy, grumbling, Madiha’s stretched under the blankets, extending her legs, thrusting her arms, exhaling a drawn-out yawn.
She felt something pleasantly warm and soft behind her as she arched her back.
Arms wound around her belly, and she felt a woman’s breasts press against her.
Reflexively she thrust upright, sitting against the backrest.
Parinita lay beside her in bed, stripped of clothing and still sound asleep.
Madiha slowly recalled the events of the past night.
They had felt almost dream-like.
Prior to this, it had been quite a long time since she last experienced sex.
She felt her lips upturn into a small smile. Parinita had made her very happy.
In turn Madiha knew she had reciprocated those sentiments well.
Watching her lay in bed, Madiha recalled all of the times in Bada Aso that she had seen Parinita laying on the floor, atop a desk, against a wall, bent over documents — catching sleep wherever she could get it and in whatever position she happened to be. No matter where she lay, she always looked so peaceful, as if in meditation. In this bed, however, she looked overjoyed in sleep. Her eyes were gentle, and she wore a pleasant smile.
Madiha pulled the blanket up over her lover’s shoulders and over her own.
Bundled in the blankets, she delivered a little kiss to her forehead and inched closer.
She retracted her legs, bent her back and bowed her head to make eye contact.
Face to face, she touched her forehead to Parinita’s and embraced her.
She found herself soon staring right into her lover’s bright green eyes.
“Hujambo, Madiha.” Parinita said, staring blearily forward with a fond little smile.
“Hujambo,” Madiha said. She smiled back, her own eyes half-closed, sleepy.
Parinita tipped her head up and clumsily closed her lips around Madiha’s own.
Madiha reciprocated so strongly she bumped her forehead on Parinita’s.
When they separated, they rubbed their heads and laughed.
Slowly this exciting moment passed and they settled into a happy silence.
Under the blankets their nude bodies lay close enough to draw sweat out.
Madiha felt her lover’s warm breathing on her face. It was almost dizzying.
Their hands locked together between their legs, fingers tightly entwined.
“Is it fair to say I’m your girlfriend now?” Parinita asked.
She rubbed her cheek on the pillow, her body shuddering with a yawn.
Madiha chuckled. “That’s fair to say. But I think it’s against the regulations.”
“To hell with those! The army’s a proletarian institution isn’t it? We’re all comrades. And if you can’t kiss your comrades all over who can you kiss? We’re girlfriends now.”
“Fair to say, but beside the point.” Madiha said, in mock seriousness.
“Alright, hear me out, Colonel. Consider a state of total war, where the entire machinery of civil life must support a massive military effort; in such a state, isn’t it fair to say we’re all part of the army? If so, must all emotional engagement cease? I’m saying, we’re all comrades, we’re all fighting for nation and party. So we’re girlfriends.” Parinita said.
“You’re determined to have this come hell or high water I see.”
“All I’m saying is everyone’s doing it! Even the commissars are messin’ around.”
“True. I’m fairly sure Daksha Kansal always has been.” Madiha replied.
“If she can, why not us?”
“That is a strong point.”
“So you agree, we should be girlfriends.”
Madiha raised one of her hands to Parinita’s cheek.
“I made my thoughts clear last night, didn’t I?” She said.
“Well; it certainly felt like it down here.” Parinita said, throwing a lusty wink at her.
Madiha chuckled again, this time turning a little red.
Parinita reached out a hand herself, stroking Madiha’s cheek and hair.
“Can you say that you love me again?” She asked.
Her voice took on a different tone from the girlish levity of seconds ago.
“I love you, Parinita.” Madiha said. She drew out the syllables, tasting every word.
“I love you, Madiha. We’re girlfriends now.” Parinita replied, her silliness renewed.
Madiha sighed fondly. “I’m more partial to lovers; you can have lovers in the army.”
“‘Lovers’ sounds so cold.” Parinita said, puffing up her cheeks in childish indignation.
Having settled that matter, the two left the bed. They stumbled into the bathroom together, pausing for a kiss every now and then as if they needed to restart a battery every so often. Madiha’s bathroom shower was a stall with a water faucet two meters up, and as such was too tight for them, so they took turns washing up. Parinita grumbled.
“Without a couple’s bath, it’s not much of a romantic morning-after.” She said.
Madiha turned up the water pressure in the shower, splashing Parinita.
She felt so flighty and elated, like there were butterflies fluttering in her chest.
She wanted to do anything to make Parinita laugh and smile and make little sounds.
After washing up, they settled into bed again, their hair wet and sloppy, dressed in Madiha’s shirts. On Parinita the sleeves were a bit long, and the end of the shirt reached below her thigh almost, and was pleasantly covering. She looked quite amused to be wearing it. They lay side by side, holding hands, staring at the roof, listening to the sounds of footsteps on the street outside, the occasional passing car, a few birds.
“Is Minardo coming today?” Madiha asked.
“She better not be!” Parinita replied.
They shared a gentle laugh.
It was strange how different this felt from just being around Parinita, like before.
Madiha had felt elevated by her lover’s presence even before this day.
But in the afterglow, holding hands, having been as honest as they could be about their feelings, their relationship took on an entirely different character. There was no more baggage, no more masks. No more hesitation or anxious waiting between them. Having aired their desire for one another they could open their hearts more fully than before.
Madiha tightened her grip on Parinita’s hand, squeezing her palm.
“Are you alright with talking about it now?”
“Yes, of course. We must.”
Together, they turned on their sides, facing each other. They held hands between each other and gazed into each other’s eyes, both ready to dismantle one remaining barrier.
“Do you want to go first, or should I?” Madiha said.
“I should go first.” Parinita said. “My part of this mess is the least coherent. First I’ll tell you a story my grandmother told me ad-nauseum. It concerns your powers, a little bit.”
She sat up on the bed, took a deep breath, and began to tell the tale.
Long ago, the world called Aer was shaped by the shadows of an everburning flame.
It was not the flame that brought life, but the shadow, hiding within its cold darkness all of the world’s creatures and sparing them the brunt of the flame. However, the children of the shadows were quarrelsome, and as they went their separate ways, they discovered a terrifying world around them. Ancient things that had withstood the flame without aid lived beyond the borders of the shadowed lands and preyed upon the children.
Divided from one another, the children could only scurry away from nature’s wrath.
An enterprising few, however, found their panicked way back to their beginning.
When these children returned to the bonfire they reached through the shadows.
Betraying their ancient mother they stole embers to stoke their own fires. Their light cast out the primordial shadow and they now lived facing the Flame. Soon they ceased to hide, and wielded Power against their enemies. The creatures that would come to be called People would exterminate all that was strong and vicious, taming the world in the process. But the farther afield they explored, and the more they conquered, the weaker became the flame they left behind. Soon, even the embers they had taken went out.
Once the flames dimmed, they brought a new dark age over the world of Aer.
The People became lost without the Ember and huddled in the shadows once more.
Across the world, the People desperately clung to the tiniest ashes of that flame, and in their struggle they found the means to imbue some of their own with the knowledge they had lost. In the South a Warlord was promoted to power through great sacrifice; in the North upon a Sage’s skull the remnants of the old ways were agonizingly etched; in the East a Sooth-Sayer was cursed with eyes that saw history in sleep; in the West a horrible Champion was given the strength to shake the world, and was hurled into the dark.
Through great campaigns these indomitable Powers, tied forever to the wheel of life, cast blood and flesh into oblivion to fan the World’s Flame, and averted the great Dark.
Forevermore, until the flame dies out, their actions reverberated across History.
Parinita told her story, and then paused to take a breather, coughing gently.
“It’s an interesting mess of disparate lines.” Madiha said.
“I told you it wasn’t coherent.” Parinita said.
“You weren’t kidding.”
“Every culture has something like this. The World Flame, monsters, shadows, Embers; I told you the animist version, but every religion has shades of this tale somewhere.”
“Then is all this true?” Madiha asked, rubbing her chin at the conclusion of the story.
“It’s a big batch of vague nothing.” Parinita said. “All of it is religious gibberish, and I can tell you a dozen sects right now that quibble about specific lines in that story. Historians and theologians argue about it to this day. We think of these things as metaphoric, since they mean nothing if taken literally. But then, say, what do you make of the Embers?”
“I think it’s obviously Magic. I can do Magic. You’ve seen it.” Madiha said.
“I have seen you do amazing things, Madiha, but you have to understand, Magic is something very specific depending on who you ask. In Nocht, the Agharta Organization believes Magic is the ability to craft objects with unnatural properties. In Lubon, the Orrean Societies believe Magic is the ability to heal the sick with a touch like the Messiah was purported to do. In Hanwa and Kitan, Magic is seen as the ability to control the elements of nature. And here in Ayvarta, Magic is the ability to transmute mercury into other substances.”
“I think at least some of them would see some of what I do as Magic.”
Parinita shook her head. “Have you heard of ESP? It hasn’t been verified at the moment, but it’s the scientific idea that our brains are capable of affecting the world directly through a superhuman sixth sense. I’d say you have the power of ESP. You have exhibited very obvious clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychokinesis and pyrokinesis.”
Madiha smiled. “Are you just saying that so you don’t have to say it’s magic?”
“I’m saying it because it fits best what I have seen. You’re a psychic, not a wizard.”
Parinita was taking the subject rather seriously, but Madiha had to contain laughter. It felt completely ridiculous to call her a psychic or a wizard as if those were categorically distinct things, and furthermore, as if they were realistic things. Madiha did not believe any of those descriptions fit her, but she knew she had powers outside nature and that lacking any reasonable explanation, they might as well be called something like Magic.
However, Parinita felt these were important distinctions, so she tried to believe them.
“I expected you to be a bit more mystical, given those healing hands of yours.”
“That’s not really magic either. We have the concept of chakras and chi — ask an Ayvartan or Kitanese upaveda specialist. They consider it a science, not magic.”
“You consider it a science then?” Madiha asked.
“I consider it not magical, because magic is nonexistent or dead.” Parinita said.
Perhaps it was more productive now to move beyond this subject, Madiha thought.
“Explain to me what this ‘dark age’ represents.” Madiha said, crossing her arms over her breast. “I know the stories about the World Flame. Some clergy would say it’s very dim now, and will continue to dim across the kali yuga or age of strife until it gets put out completely. Others would say it is already out. So what is this ancient dark age then?”
“If I told you the year should actually be 1941 or 1942 would you believe me?”
“I think in general the idea of a calendar is a tenuous abstraction.” Madiha replied.
Parinita nodded. “Well, there is an entire era of our time that’s just gone. Between then and now, if you believe the stories, we lost the ability to do magic, the last of the mythical beasts were wiped out, and civilization crumbled enough that we basically started over from square one in several arenas. But we counted the years through the catastrophe, so it was say, around year 90 when we start having a clear record of nations recording events again. All records before the dark age are in so many pieces we have no clear picture of them. Even the language of the pre-dark age cultures is in utter tatters to us.”
“Ninety years seems too short a period to be really called a dark ‘age’.” Madiha said.
After all, she had seen a few people live to ninety. How could everyone forget?
Parinita raised an index finger responded in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice.
“Back then the average lifespan was thirty. Average age of childbearing was fourteen — I know it sounds gross, but it was true. And who knows what catastrophes ravaged the population at that time. Imagine a pandemic hit them? Cut that lifespan in half.”
“I see your point. We could have gone through a lot of generations in 90 years. But what was really lost then? If the story is a metaphor, what are the prevailing interpretations?”
“A lot of people think it represents scientific knowledge of past ages that we lost. Perhaps some ancient empires fell due to outside stress or catastrophe, and slightly overlapping periods of anarchy and retrogade social structures followed, and that’s our dark age. Or it could metaphorically mean something simpler. Perhaps it refers to the destruction of the libraries in ancient Solstice? And then, you know, in this context of loss and disaster, what are the ancient things then too? Some people think they were an advanced sister species, and our strain of human out-bred them. Perhaps the decay of this species led to a demographic collapse, and our dark age. Who really knows?”
Interesting and bewildering as this conversation had become, Madiha thought they were veering far from any usable information now. Clearly, Parinita had quite a history with mysticism and religion, and that history entwined with Madiha’s own. She was starting to believe that, if this was all merely an introduction to the real discussion, then she would likely never find clear answers about whatever followed. They had to move on from this.
“Regardless: the part about the Warlord agrees with my experiences.” Madiha said.
“Yes, that part of the story is relevant. You are the Warlord.” Parinita replied.
“I’m positive about it myself, but I’m wondering what makes you so confident about my status. Is it just that we live roughly in the ‘global south’ or is there more to it for you?”
“There are specific parts of Ayvartan history that refer to god-like individuals who have united peoples, formed kingdoms, and launched massive conquests. Interpreting those accounts leads me to believe that your powers appear to be drawn from theirs.”
Madiha shivered at the phrase ‘god-like being’. She detested being elevated to a hero, and only begrudgingly accepted admiration as a commander. To be seen as god-like would deeply disturb her. There should be no Gods among a community of equals.
“In what form did you find these records?” She asked.
“Folklore; oral histories, songs, epic poetry, inscriptions. Some imperial records.”
“Sounds tenuous.” Madiha said.
“That’s our history.” Parinita replied, shrugging comically. She chuckled. “The Socialist Dominances of Solstice has spoiled you with its atheism and bureaucracy. Ayvarta’s history is deeply steeped in the mystical. We’re a long line of unreliable narrators.”
“I’ll choose to believe you.”
“I’m glad. I was worried I’d lose your trust with all this poppycock.”
“What kind of powers are attributed to the Warlord?” Madiha asked.
“It’s very vague. The Warlord is described as a being that appears in history to fight a great and terrible battle, and then vanishes again. While alive, the Warlord ‘unites men,’ and ‘holds sway over the flames of war.’ So, these are commanding figures, war heroes.”
“And ultimately, one of those figures started the Ayvartan Empire.” Madiha said.
“Yes, perhaps, but ultimately,” Parinita started, miming Madiha, “you ended it.”
Madiha sighed. “So then, what are you? Are you the Sage or something, Parinita?”
Parinita raised her hands defensively. “No, no! My family were upaveda practitioners. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the new Emperor put a lot of stock in faith healers and folk mysticism after the passing of his father. He launched an inquest to gather as much mystical knowledge to his court as he could. My mother and our clan was brought in from the countryside as exemplary practitioners of these trades.”
“So you’re a folk healer? When you touch my head, what do you do?”
“My grandmother would say I’m manipulating your conduits, opening your head chakra to allow a free flow of that fiery mental energy out of your body.” Parinita said.
“And yet I’ve seen that you don’t actually need to touch my head to do that.”
“I think I have ESP too.” Parinita replied, staring seriously at Madiha.
“So are we all just gonna have ESP someday?” Madiha asked.
“Perhaps we are seeing the dawn of a new type of human.” Parinita shrugged.
Madiha rubbed her forehead and eyes. Parinita did not actually know, she supposed.
A cool morning breeze blew in from the window. Madiha felt a chill on her half-naked body and it dawned on her again where and how they were having this discussion.
“We should not dwell too much on this while half-dressed in bed.” Madiha said.
“I love dwelling on your bed half-dressed.” Parinita said coquettishly.
Madiha pushed on. “So you say your family taught you these things?”
“My grandmother, again. She taught my mother too. When the Emperor brought my mother to court, he did so because he knew our village, and our family, had some connection to a previous iteration of the Warlord. He became obsessed with this notion, and his ego stroked our own. My grandmother took pride in this lineage of ours. After his death she expected that due to the chaos of the time, I would be the next in our family to meet the Warlord.”
“Take one step back: did Ayvarta II believe he was the Warlord?” Madiha asked.
Parinita nodded her head. “He sure did. Up until he was killed by the Zaidis he was convinced that he was the reincarnated Warlord who was destined to ‘reunite’ Ayvarta. However, all of his attempts to ignite the powers he thought he had failed, and many caused him injury. My mother became one of Ayvarta II’s court doctors, essentially.”
“So you lived in some opulence at the time?” Madiha asked.
“No. Never.” Parinita said. Her voice took on a bitter tone. “My mother wanted free reign in the palace. It was too hard for a young, sprightly woman to hobnob with the rich when she had a little brat with her, so she sent me away to a tutor on the other side of the city.”
“I’m sorry.” Madiha said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset with you. Let’s agree to blame it all on that horrid Emperor.”
“Emperor Kanawe Ayvarta II.” Madiha said, feeling a bitter taste in her own mouth.
Before the battle of Bada Aso that name was an empty word rolling around inside her skull without association, just another lost memory. Now she knew it all too well.
In her mind, she recalled the image of that man, tall, an ashen, pallid brown, sickly and yet muscular, strong, flowing with gold and silk, as if a statue clad in both the glory of life and terror of death. He was like a god upon the world, in who’s hands the fate of millions of people rested every day. She recalled how she, just a girl, stood before him as if an equal, challenging him before his throne and surrounded by the living shadows at his service.
She recalled the terror of realization on his face as she killed him.
It was her fire dart that took his life, and made his powerlessness definitive to all.
One streak of red through his chest, exposing the same flesh any human had.
That as the end of the Ayvartan Empire.
She was the Warlord; she ended what an older Warlord designed and started anew.
Zaidi guns would gain the credit, but it had been her who did the murderous deed.
Her little hands set the chaos of this age into motion.
“Ayvarta II was definitively not the Warlord. I killed him.” Madiha said.
She vocalized it heavily, meaning to make a confession to her companion.
Parinita was unfazed. “Obviously he was not, because two Warlords don’t live contemporaneously. He was born long before you, so he couldn’t have been.”
Throughout the discussion, an idea had been swimming just under the surface of Madiha’s mind, and this line of dialogue caused it to surface suddenly. Madiha felt overwhelmed with an existential fear, triggered by this idea. Two Warlords don’t live contemporaneously. So, Madiha, as the Warlord, was a unique entity. But she also wasn’t; not completely.
Because she was still the Warlord. She inherited this power. His power.
Madiha gazed into her lover’s eyes. Her words felt heavy on her tongue, too heavy to speak. For her to talk, to vocalize the agonizing thoughts that began to burn in her skull, took a monumental effort. She felt tired after speaking. But she had to know for sure.
“I need you to be honest with me. Knowing all of this; do you not come to the conclusion that perhaps there is no Madiha Nakar? That I am nothing but the reincarnation of some ancient folkloric character? That I have no will and soul but what I share with history?”
“Of course not!” Parinita quickly replied.
She pushed closer and laid her hands suddenly on Madiha’s shoulders.
“You are Madiha Nakar! You can’t just be some ancient ghost. You’re not nothing. You laugh and you cry; you worry about others more than yourself, maybe even to a fault; you’re afraid of the opaque man! You’re enthralled by military maneuvers. You’re writing a book! All of that is you and nobody else, Madiha! You’re you, a complete person.”
Her vehemence and the fire in her eyes seemed to burn away Madiha’s fears.
Though always haunted by self-doubt, at least Madiha could tell herself that she would trust Parinita’s judgment and believe in herself. She might be the Warlord, but that was not the sum total of her self. There might not be much else to her — but perhaps she had the potential to build more, now that her life was piecing itself back together for her.
“Thank you.” Madiha said.
Parinita pushed herself up and gave her a quick peck of a kiss, on the forehead.
“Everything I said before this was conjecture. This is the only thing I know for sure. I love Madiha Nakar; a person; her own person. I know this where I know nothing else for fact.”
Madiha smiled. She never thought she could feel such monumental relief.
She raised her hands and held them over Parinita’s own.
“I think I should lead the conversation now. What do you want to know?” Madiha asked.
Parinita smiled. “I don’t know where to start; and yet, I don’t feel desperate to know.”
“Do you know the extent of my abilities?”
“I know some things, but no specifics. I don’t feel compelled to ask.”
Madiha felt blessed to hear that. She also felt rude about the amount of questions she leveled on Parinita. But Parinita did not seem to be offended by the interrogation. She had been earnest in wanting Madiha to know more about her. Now Madiha wanted to reciprocate that earnestness, though Parinita seemed to trust her enough not to want it.
There was one item, however, that was too concerning not to share.
“I should tell you.” Madiha said. “There is something that frightens me about them.”
Parinita nodded. “You can always confide your fears to me.”
Madiha breathed deep. “I can use my powers to confer to others the ability to fight better. They gain my knowledge of weapons. Their shots are truer. But I can only impart this power if I think of them as my tools. I command them to act in my stead. Do you remember when I was teaching you to shoot, outside Bada Aso? I commanded you to shoot the fruit for me. That was the only way. And it frightens me to think about that.”
“I know that the Warlord is supposed to be proficient with any weapon they touch.” Parinita replied. “I suppose the mental trigger is thinking of other people as weapons.”
“Back in ancient times we did not have the concept of regimentation.” Madiha said.
“But even back then, there are accounts of the Warlord affecting his armies, making them stronger. It might be metaphorical; but who knows? I think as long as your intentions are good then it does not matter in what way your powers work.”
Madiha nodded. Again, she felt a great relief that Parinita was accepting her so readily.
She had feared so much that all of these things marked her out as a monster.
That her actions and decisions and her past could never be understood by anyone.
Perhaps Parinita did not fully understand her; perhaps she did not fully understand Parinita either. Despite this they had accepted one another. They were ready to be gentle and loving whether the mystery could be solved or not. Across the gulf between them their hands had reached out and created light where there was once gloom.
Both were pieces to a puzzle, and it was wedging together as best as it could.
“Is there anything else at all you are curious about?” Madiha asked.
“Just one thing.”
Parinita looked into Madiha’s dark eyes with a gentle expression.
“What do you plan to do now?” She asked.
Madiha smiled back. “Win this war, and try to do right by you.”
Parinita leaned closer and kissed her, this time on her waiting lips.
“That is all I need to hear.” She said.