This chapter contains scenes of violence, death, social abuse, drug-induced coercion, psychological torment, and references to and displays of acute mental illness including disassociation and suicidal ideation, and graphic monstrouous/horror imagery.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ
For reasons unknown to the troops a high alert alarm and a quick deployment order were issued to the 1st Motor Rifles, and deep into the night the soldiers found themselves suiting and dressing up, gathering their rifles, machine guns and explosives. They stood in attention at their barracks, at the training field, and across the road to the depots. Rangda’s official gate guards for the base were disarmed and detained for security reasons, and replaced with reliable Gendarmes attached to the Regiment.
Hobgoblin tanks began to patrol the base. Anti-aircraft guns and spotlights were trained skyward against possible bombardment. Chimeras, Giants and the Regiment’s organic towed artillery prepared themselves for the possibility of enemy indirect fires that would need to be spotted, tracked and countered. Trucks lined up in case a strike was ordered — or an evacuation. Thousands of troops undertook the deployment they had been training for days now to swiftly perform, under the circumstances they feared the most.
And though they had expected to hear the voice of the Colonel delivering this fateful order and perhaps offering words of encouragement, it was instead a hasty command from Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani, whose voice nearly cracked during the address.
Little did they know the stress she was going through and the dire reasons behind it.
“She hasn’t reported back at all!”
Unlike the rising troops, the 1st Regiment Headquarters was wracked by a lack of doctrine and planning. They knew what to do in any situation but the one they were currently experiencing. Padmaja and Bhishma sleepily monitored the radio and looked out the window for any signs of friendly troops come to deliver messages — or arriving undesirables bringing ordnance. There was no paucity of movement. Minardo paced the room behind Parinita, who was stomping back and forth in circles so often she seemed to be cutting a line on the floor. Her face and eyes were turning redder by the second.
It was well past midnight. Madiha had not yet returned.
Were they to engage in hostilities the 1st Regiment would do so effectively leaderless.
Parinita spent most of her words on self-flagellation and few to give orders.
“I knew this was a bad idea!” Parinita shouted. She twirled a lock of her hair around her index finger and bit into the tip of another finger. “I should have never agreed to it. I should have told her to send a letter to that monstrous trollop telling her off! I should have been pushy and jealous, I shouldn’t have been so quick to be the good one here–”
Minardo reached out a hand to Parinita’s shoulder and stopped her.
Parinita looked over her shoulder, nearly weeping.
“You’ll be ill-positioned to help her if you panic now.” Minardo said.
Her hand was shaking on Parinita’s shoulder. She was worried too. They all were.
“Madiha swore Chakrani wasn’t up to anything. But look at all this!” Parinita said.
She pointed out the window. Minardo did not seem to know what to look at.
“The Colonel can take care of herself. I doubt she will have gone down easily.” Minardo replied, trying to calm the situation. “I’d wager if anyone tried to catch her she would run into the city. She has the most strategic mind I’ve ever known. Trust her, Maharani.”
“With the city coming under lock-down how can we even find out?” Parinita shouted.
Minardo shook her head.
Parinita thrust her fists up into the air and resumed her feverish pacing.
There was a noise at the door.
Every pair of eyes turned immediately to face it.
Padmaja rushed out from behind her table and threw open the front.
From behind the door, Kali pranced into the room with her head held up high.
In her mouth, she had a rat.
Once the momentary suspense faded, everyone resumed their rising panic.
Kali glanced across the room.
She dropped the rat on the floor and pushed on it with her head.
Nobody seemed to pay her any attention. Everyone was too busy fretting.
Recognition dawned upon her eyes. She seemed to realize who was missing.
In the next instant Kali leaped onto Padmaja’s table and charged toward the window.
She thrust through the frame like a rocket, smashing the glass and tearing apart the wood and concrete and flying out into the night sky. In seconds she had become a distant blur that no human eye could track. Under the moonless sky she disappeared.
Parinita and Minardo stood at the smashed window, perplexed.
“We just had this repaired!” Padmaja cried out.
Nobody quite knew what to do but to pray. The 1st Regiment was in many ways an extension of its commander. Only she could decide how they would fight right now. They were like an infant without a parent. Perhaps with the skill to walk; but no direction to go.
???? of the Aster’s Gloom?, 2030? D.C.E?
???? — ????
Mansa’s voice sounded almost mad with triumph. It was a sudden, sickening change.
“Oh how I have waited for this! I have wanted to snatch you from Daksha Kansal for so long, my innocent, beautiful Empress. The Zaidi barbarians ill deserve your grandeur.”
Around her eyes, the cloth was porous enough to see hints of light like stars within the darkness that otherwise blinded her. She could not see shadows or outlines of people, try as she might. However she could tell by his speech that Arthur Mansa was in front of her somewhere and that he was close. When he spoke, however, Madiha quickly lost her composure and sense of place. She reacted with unthinking, visceral disgust to him.
“You abducted me for this nonsense?” She shouted in defiance.
Madiha struggled, moving her arms, legs and torso and trying to force herself to stand; but her body was bound tight. She had her hands affixed to the wooden arms of a chair, as if condemned to electrocution, and her legs were similarly restrained. She pushed on her bonds to no avail, stressing her wrists and ankles as she attempted to escape.
Unable to physically extricate herself, Madiha mentally cried out for the flame.
She felt her own voice echo painfully within the recesses of her mind.
These exertions bore no fruit.
She felt a hollow place in her brain where she should have felt the power.
Her abilities had become a blurry memory.
As one who knew well the agony of memory loss she felt a jolt of panic.
Her anxiety shook through her body and she tried to force her bonds again to no effect.
“You will not escape from here, my Empress.” Mansa said. His voice had a mock sweetness to it. “I have sealed your inconvenient quirks. Please, do calm down.”
“Stop calling me that!”
Behind her she felt the Majini drawing an eldritch breath.
Every pull of its lungs seemed to steal air from her own. Her body was in distress and she was losing grip on her mind as well. She felt an urgent need to move that she could never satisfy; and she felt as though her mind were stretching beyond its reach to try to seize upon her power, but she was still unable to. It was as if one of her limbs had been cut. Whereas before she could move the power like a finger, she had none now.
Shortness of breath, dizziness, and a cold sweat that crept down her chest and back.
Her whole body was shaking and she could not help it at all.
She was just then starting to worry about her own safety.
As the illusion of burning out of this predicament dissipated, it dawned on her that she was trapped. She was in danger. She could be tortured or killed. Her heart squirmed.
In the darkness before her eyes, she heard Mansa’s voice again.
“I regret that it had to come to this, Madiha. I had truly hoped to take you under my wing and to slowly unveil the truth. Rangda could have been a second home to you under my careful watch. After you rejected me I tried to force you to return to the negotiating table, to swallow your pride or at least to react in a fashion that could lead us to a dialog. Unfortunately, the rot of Daksha Kansal’s ideology has wound its way too deep into your soul. Speech will not help. In order to begin to heal you, I will have to drain the abscess.”
She felt something sharp going through the nape of her neck.
“It will be shocking, painful, and sudden. It may not make sense to you. But it is right.”
Around the pinprick her sinews grew hot and tight. She started to cough.
“What are you doing to me?” She shouted.
“Opening your mind to the truth.” He replied. He sounded frighteningly elated.
Madiha quickly started to feel more disoriented than she once was. Though she once knew her feet to be touching the ground and her back to be upright, she no longer felt herself anchored by gravity. As the drug coursed through her body, she thought herself suspended in a void. What little light lay before her eyes danced and twisted in the dark. Sounds felt louder and harder to focus on. She felt as though her mind had been ripped from her body, and the world outside her was only disembodied voices speaking cruelly.
“Allow me to be frank, for everyone with us in this room. I know I will sound mad, but every genius who has seen truth in this world sounds mad. Madiha Nakar is the eldest child of Emperor Kanawe Ayvarta II and therefore first in line for the Imperial throne. Sarahastra Ayvarta is a pretender whose very birth was a grave crime against history.”
Between his words, Madiha thought she heard a woman-like voice protest, but she was soon muffled and inaudible, likely rendered so by whoever was assisting Mansa in this scheme. In her place, another participant rose to challenge Mansa’s reign over the room.
“Have you any evidence of these laughable claims, Councilman? Our alliance already supposes Ayvarta has a true Empress, and our operations are predicated on this fact.”
She recalled the voice that spoke the thoughts she wanted to vocalize, but could not in her growing stupor. It was Gaul Von Drachen, the elusive Cissean General among the Federation invasion force. He and Madiha had clashed in Bada Aso, and she had almost forgotten his existence since. She had last seen him beneath the flood rains. What was he doing here?
“Drachen, I am a sagacious man, I would not be potentially throwing my life away without proof. I have proof in forms short and long. Which do you desire first?”
“Well, first, I desire you refer to me as Von Drachen. Then you may continue your spiel however you wish. Though I warn you that your words are sounding rather dangerous.”
“Where you see danger, I see only opportunity, Von Drachen.”
Madiha heard footsteps that reverberated, maybe in the room, maybe only in her head.
The Councilman began to speak with an uncannily boisterous inflection.
“Since my youth, the fall of the Empire has been a subject of obsession for me. Such a powerful institution, so quickly destroyed; I have labored for decades to understand. In that time I have picked up a plethora of curious facts about our mutual acquaintance here. To begin with, I know the date of Madiha’s birth to be the 41st of the Postill’s Dew of 1999. It took place mere days after the death of Aubake Solstice IV, whose son you know well as the Ayvartan Emperor relevant to your lifespans: Kanawe Ayvarta II.”
Mansa’s voice rose high and grandiose as if preaching to a church audience.
“On this day Kanawe’s pregnant first wife, the stunning Genat of Tars, grew horribly ill and went suddenly into labor. She passed after a painful, premature birth. Alongside her died Kanawe’s firstborn child and future heir to the throne. On the eve of his coronation he was given the ashes of two bodies too many. For decades the instrument of Genat’s death was known to be poison. It was blamed on the growing political Left.”
Madiha’s head churned. She knew nothing of this history. She scarcely knew anything about the Emperor himself save for the cruelty he visited upon the people she loved.
She knew too that she had ended his life. She killed him; she killed her supposed father.
Yet she could almost make it out in the darkness. She saw the forms swelling and shrinking like images in smoke. She saw a woman, tall and beautiful and heavily pregnant, sick to death on a cushioned table, legs spread, her body covered in bloody silk. Several attendants in varying states of panic surrounded her. Her fine brown skin had gone pale and clammy. Her eyes rolled into her sockets. She convulsed sickeningly.
Around her the attendants broke into sobs. They extracted a child; but it was too late.
And yet, Madiha heard the cries in the room. Why would there be cries?
“Owing to the traumatic shock of losing his father, wife and child, the Emperor took a dark turn after his coronation.” Mansa continued. “He fell into mysticism, reviving an ancient imperial title — the once revered and forbidden name of the first Emperor, Ayvarta. Naming himself Ayvarta II, he styled himself a Warlord also, a folk hero, a fairy tale. He vowed to awaken a power that would crush his leftist opponents and create another mythical thousand-year reign; he spent his life on this meaningless errand.”
Kanawe Ayvarta II. His name was like nails in her skull. She could see him too.
She did not want to. She felt in her mind the desire to run though her body could not.
“After this tragedy, Kanawe’s third wife, conveniently pregnant at the time, bore her own fruit. Kanawe’s new heir was named Sarahastra Ayvarta, to the applause of the conspiracy that brought her into the world. Now the stage was set for the early 2000s D.C.E. There was a new royal line, a new royal name, and a chaotic future ahead for the Empire. I needn’t explain what happens next. You lived through it, after all, Madiha. The Zaidi rose, the Empire fell, and the White and Red armies fought for the scraps. The White Army was defeated and fled. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice were born.”
She could not escape the distorted images of her past no matter how much she fled.
Emperor Kanawe standing before his throne, surrounded by shadows he thought under his control. They lurked and waited and watched. Did they ever protect him? She struggled with the man. She was a child, and he was in the depths of some grandiose delusion; it could not rightly have been called a battle. And yet after the aimless violence of their clash he was dead. She had killed him. She saw his body crash into the earth.
There were eerie cheers and laughs as the light left the man. Was it the Majini?
Surrounded by the evil gloating shadows freed from his control, she summoned the fire in the most brutal, visceral way. Great consuming flames burst out of her body and reached, snake-like, for every Majini in attendance, seeking them wherever they fled. Thousands of these false lives she crushed in her unrestrained fury. Great snake-like heads of fire spread through the palace and burst through the windows and roofs and out the doors. She made the sky rain fire over the palace. She put Solstice to the torch.
Mansa’s voice disrupted the visions. He made the shapes change with his tongue.
He was laughing mad, speaking as if possessed by a spirit.
“And all of this history could have easily been misread as written by the Imperial losers and the Communist victors, each with their own embellishment! Can you believe the injustice of it all? Can you believe the frailty of our works?” He continued, his cadence giving the illusion that every syllable had a calculated melody. “History was almost snuffed out, but the truth was still out there, flying on the wind-blown ash of the burning Solstice city. Only a person in the right place at the right time could piece it all together.”
“How can you be so sure?” Madiha said. She struggled to speak, and she felt Mansa’s words battering at her weakened mind. He was dragging her mind across the echoes of time and it hurt. She grew more afraid and cold and her senses swam all the more.
“I am sure because I am a man born of the confluence of the world’s four winds, Madiha. It is only here in Rangda that it becomes possible to make sense of your history. Listen: after the Zaidi revolution remnants of the lower Imperial Authority fled away from Solstice. Rangda was the most convenient place to escape. Low along the northern Ayvartan curve, and away from Solstice. Rangda was a gateway to the world and stalwartly remained so.”
Von Drachen was mysteriously silent as Mansa returned to his tale.
Madiha cursed the blindfold over her eyes. She needed to see the man speak. She needed to see his face making a disingenuous smirk. She wanted to see the lie in him.
Judging by his voice alone, he strongly believed everything he said.
“In the panic of the civil war, many treasures of the Empire traveled safely out of Rangda’s ports and out into the wider world. No monetary value can ever be placed on what was lost. Even with my influence, I managed to seize only an inkling for myself.”
Suddenly, through the blindfold, Madiha thought she saw an eerie glow.
“What is that? What exactly is happening here, Councilman?”
Von Drachen sounded more perplexed than fearful.
Mansa seemed to ignore Von Drachen and instead approached Madiha.
She knew he was coming closer because the glow was moving nearer to her eyes.
Von Drachen’s reaction told her that the glow and Mansa were somehow one.
And as the glow moved closer the Majini moved farther away.
She felt its distinct, unrestrained cold growing farther.
“Ultimately the communists would come. They made an example of Rangda. In the midst of the attack on Rangda, Madiha, I was almost killed. Almost — I was destined to discover the truth. You owe your present situation twice over to the woman whom I met there. A Messianic nun who refused to flee Rangda. She cared for the sick and the war-wounded to repent for her many sins before the Messiah. As I lay dying, she, sick of fleeing her past, tearfully confessed her crimes to a mind she thought would vanish.”
She could see it, floating in front of her with the light. She felt the heat of the burning city and saw into a half-collapsed building. A younger Mansa, lean and strong, black as the night from soot and burns, laying at death’s door on an improvised bed. Over him loomed the tearful young woman, hair a golden blonde, skin pale as a ghost, eyes blue as the sky the smoke prevented them from seeing. She was a woman who had seen too much death, entirely too much death; a woman who had perpetrated death herself.
“Messiah, am I doomed to be wicked? Is this why I cannot save anyone?”
Her knees buckled and she collapsed, her robes collecting the blood from Mansa’s wounds. Swallowed by sorrow she poured her heart out. She cried about the mother that she killed, swayed both by fear and temptation provided by the exotic luxury of the imperial court; she screamed about the child she stole and abandoned as she fled south into the unknown lands beyond Solstice. Her body quivered as she confessed the taint of her sin and how it prevented her still from achieving any meaningful redemption.
“I have erred, Messiah, oh I have erred! But I repent! I repent for the mother! I repent for the child! Please spare me the old flames, Messiah! Please let my hands heal just once!”
Rangda burned and the nun cried and Mansa, alive, listened.
One fateful meeting that would create the millionth turning point in their history.
“She had her wish. Despite all the death her hands had caused, she brought me to life. In her final act of faith, the woman ignited a curiosity I would hold for decades.”
Mansa’s words felt distant, as if spoken by a many-mouthed thing and not by a man. Madiha could not tell reality and fancy any longer. Her stomach turned and gurgled in her belly as if screaming to come out. Her feet felt like leaden, pendulous weights suspended in the air, dangling, seeking to stretch toward ground and rip her apart. She could not tell whether she was suspended in the air or standing on the ground or seated.
“Madiha, you are the true child of Kanawe Ayvarta II. You did not die on that day. You were saved by the conviction of Genat of Tars’ midwife, a Nochtish, Messianic woman who knew that condemning a child to death, no matter the bribe, would damn her soul to hell. She poisoned your mother, induced your birth; but she saved you. A premature child unsure to grow, but she could not bear to kill you with your mother. Using the gold she was given she fled from the eyes of the courtiers. Thus Sarahastra was poised to ascend to the throne, and her family with her. To escape their rising power and influence she took you to the only place she would go after fleeing the politics of Solstice: a convent in the opposite side of the continent from the internal warfare of the palace.”
“Did the woman mention a name by any chance?” Von Drachen solemnly interjected.
In front of her eyes the burning city was swallowed by darkness. There was only the little light that danced in front of her eyes and the voices that came from everywhere near.
“Of course not. At that point there was no name. But do you think it mere coincidence that Madiha was a mysterious child without parentage who spent her childhood confined to a convent, escaped into the street and grew to greatness in Bada Aso and Solstice, and went on to be protected and coddled by the communist party for years? Just luck that she became Kansal’s favored, invited to the battle for the throne itself? Nothing but circumstance that she bore witness to the death of the Empire with her own eyes? Can you follow the chain of events set off by the death of Solstice IV, and ignore it all? I have seen the vastness of the Archives in Solstice! I have spoken to the last of the historical characters left in this drama, Von Drachen! I have studied this past more than anyone!”
He was growing irate. He was raving now. His words started to lose all meaning.
And yet Madiha felt the dread of belief stabbing repeatedly at her sense of self.
She was but a doll hung up for the knives of a horrible truth to be thrown.
“Your proof is birth dates on Imperial ledgers, the grandiose sob story of a fallen nun, and that Nakar allegedly grew up in a convent? You are killing me.” Von Drachen said.
He ignored Von Drachen entirely now. He spoke only to her and only in terms she knew.
“I admit it seems like mere coincidence until now, Madiha. But there is one last thing.”
Mansa did something to the dim the light. Again the Majini moved closer.
“I needed to know who could be the first-born of Ayvarta II. What characteristic would such a child have to hint at its genealogy? I knew a few details. She was an Arjun girl. She would likely grow to have dark eyes and hair and medium-brown skin. Fair enough for the royalty but dark enough yet to be an Ayvartan. She would be tall as an adult, like both her mother and father. But that was too broad a spectrum still. For years since meeting that nun and years more since burying her I was fascinated by this question.”
She saw the eerie glow rise and fall, perhaps as Mansa waved the object around.
“I buried the question until the Akjer Treason. During this time I was finally pushed to clamp down hard on the smuggling and black markets in Rangda and Adjar. I must thank Daksha Kansal; her brazen foolishness has many times proven so convenient to me. I received the twin prizes of proportional representation and demilitarization for her naivety and procedural ignorance. And I received another gift as well. I confiscated several pieces I coveted in Rangda. One in particular was life-changing. It was like a mummy, wrapped in parchment, with a mask. I thought it was the remains of Ayvarta I. I was excited to have it. I wanted to have every piece of the Empire that I could find. I needed it; and I got it. Then it awakened, and I saw it. I saw the truth I hungered for.”
Long, slow hissing punctuated his every word. The Majini practically exuded malice.
Madiha saw Mansa, rippling like water in front of her eyes. Under the shadows of a Rangda night he had the treasure brought to him. Rangda, loyal to a fault, worshipful, rewarded their old hero and patron with his final prize. A smuggler was shot, a crate broken open. Nobody could understand the magnitude of what had returned to Ayvarta.
Before them stood a great slumbering brass mask surrounded by blood-red parchment.
Wrapped tight in chains of obsidian. It did something to those who bore witness.
Mansa, however, saw the root of his obsessions. Mansa, eyes wide as if taken by a sudden madness, had a vision. He told himself then that he knew then the source of the Zaidi’s power and the truth about the fall of the Empire. He knew where the real power lay. He released the being and as if on instinct, showed the creature a black fragment.
He spoke, commanded, and the creature begrudgingly woke and responded.
From his quivering lips she heard the older Mansa’s voice and the younger disappeared.
“Majini. You might not be able to hear its voice, Madiha, but it has much to say to me! I learned the plight of its people; the final clue that I had been long seeking. I saw the indivisible truth of this world and how it connected everything we know. Yet I knew could speak of this to no one. So I maneuvered, and maneuvered, scraping blindly in Solstice for any advantage, so that, perhaps, one day, I might be able to set right our tragedy.”
She heard the voices echoing in her mind until they faded. Her breath caught in her throat and her heartbeat slowed and she felt her brain twist. At the corners of her vision there was a different kind of darkness, one that started in her eyes rather than in front of them. Mansa continued to rave but Madiha lapsed out of whatever world she was once in.
She was hurled back to that dark place she never thought she would see.
It was not the blindfold, not this time. She was frozen in true darkness.
Her uniform was gone; her side-arm was gone.
Her height, her strength, her experience, was all gone.
Suspended in a void that was soundless save for her labored breathing.
She was a child again. Her little vest, her little shorts, her cabbie hat, all there.
Her wandering eyes were soon transfixed on the region before her.
It seemed like a mirror fashioned out of the dark.
She saw her reflection; it was the child cursing her when she was last stranded here.
Her appearance had changed. She was not merely a girl dressed as a courier. That was Madiha’s role now. Her antagonist was clothed now in an extravagant dress, with a sari that was lined with gold and jewels. Each of her fingers was encircled by a golden band, and gold, jewel-encrusted bracelets adorned her wrists. Her neck was adorned by a golden choker, and set into each of her ears were small black diamonds. She was suddenly incredibly beautiful, her clean, shining face done up with luxurious cosmetics.
Empress Nakar? Empress Ayvarta III? What was the real name? What did it mean?
When the other Madiha opened her face was briefly contemptuous.
Her eyes burned with the ancient fire.
“Do you understand now?”
Her voice resounded with crushing power.
“Do you realize now? Why we should have gone with the last cycle of violence?”
Madiha shook from head to toe. She stepped back, but there was nowhere to escape to.
She could not turn away from the sight.
A cruel grin spread the other Madiha’s face ear to ear in a sickening expression.
“Do you realize that we have no place in this world now?”
She felt taller and grander than ever before. Invincible. Fire swirled around her arms.
“Do you understand? So many times, we should have died. We should have gone. We are removed from this world a dozen times over. Our existence is a travesty of fate. We ought to die Madiha. We are a poison that everyone seeks to drink. We are as the undead who cling to the world their lives will only ruin. We, too, are the Majini.”
Madiha’s voice was trembling but she found her footing and stood solidly again.
She felt her physicality exerting herself again. She was growing taller and stronger.
Her uniform was returning to her body a garment at a time, replacing the courier clothes.
“No, you are still fake! You’re still not me!” shouted Madiha.
“Are you still living in denial? Pathetically clinging to unlife?” mocked The Other Madiha.
“I’ll live in denial so long as I’ve reason to distrust intruders like you!”
She stared straight on at The Other Madiha, at her eyes.
She found not the fire that she knew within them, but a viscous, green fluid.
The Other Madiha’s features twisted into a monstrous scowl.
Under her bountiful royal garb the skin started to turn green.
There was a scorpion’s tail rising from under the back of her skirt.
“Be quiet! You are nothing without me! Accept the truth!”
Like lightning the tail struck in a flashing instant.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building
Gaul Von Drachen had found himself listening to the rantings of a very ill man.
There was no other way he could put it. Mansa was troubled. He needed help.
No help was being offered. Nobody in the room made any kind of response.
He had the floor entirely to himself. Mansa stood triumphant, farcically sure of himself.
Gone was the reserved gentleman he had seen before. Had it all been an act?
Given one shred of a larger victory, Mansa confidently allotted himself the whole war.
And then-some; he alloted himself several other vast metaphysical concepts.
“Empress, I know of your abilities and I intend for you to use them. It is high time that Magic revive in this world and rejoin the powers of humanity. No longer shall it hide–”
The Councilman continued to goad the girl in this bizarre fashion.
She did not respond to his provocations.
She was not responding to anything. In fact her mouth seemed to hang.
“Hold on one moment.”
Von Drachen raised his hand as if in a classroom.
Mansa seemed irritated to have to respond to him.
“Yes, General Drachen?”
At this barbarity, Von Drachen found he had to postpone his questioning momentarily.
He wanted to ask him if Ayvarta’s magical scholars had any headway on this issue.
He knew well, however that none of the world’s universities had.
So he tackled the bigger issue instead.
“My good man, I believe I have said, many a time, that it is Von Drachen. We are not animals, Councilman! We have civilization and technology! And yet, what holds us above the beasts are the simple acts of courtesy embedded in our shared language for communication–”
“General Von Drachen, can you not see we have an honored guest?”
Mansa gestured toward the unresponsive body of Madiha Nakar, who to Von Drachen’s knowledge had not made an independent movement in what seemed like a half hour now. She was more of a verbal pummeling dummy than a person, much less an Empress.
Suddenly Mansa turned his ravings from Colonel Nakar and onto him.
“When I reached out to you I thought you were a disciplined military commander who had led the war machine of Nocht to countless victories! And yet, you appear as a child who cannot control his mouth and mannerisms! Would you at least defer to the adults?”
Von Drachen frowned pointedly. It was not an expression he made often in company.
“Well Councilman, I thought you a serious man of politics, and that is why against all counsel I agreed to the offer your infiltrators made to me. I could have shot all of your men and left the undecideds to rot in cages under the rain, but instead I came all this way to participate in what has, so far, been nothing but pointless theater. And now you have punctuated this sorry display of conspiracy with a stream of complete nonsense fairy tales.”
Their voices reverberated. Von Drachen was in the Council Building still — there was even a window here. It was not a place he would have chosen for an interrogation. He wasn’t even in a basement: it was Meeting Room #3, he had heard. Much of this wing of the Council Building had been cleared out for their purposes. They had a long window in the middle of the room, carpets, banners. They removed the tables, save for one, behind which Mansa had calmly sat before Nakar was delivered to be taunted and jeered at.
Though he had ridden in with the collaborating Ayvartan forces, Von Drachen had staunchly refused to throw himself solely on their mercy. Infiltrating with him was a Cazadores company, and of those men he brought two into this meeting. Mansa had with him a young man and a woman, both tall and rough-looking sorts, like gangsters. They stood unmoved by the presence of Mansa’s unannounced third man, a tall, thin kind of person who wore a humorous, shiny yellow mask, perhaps made of brass, and was wrapped in frayed black cloth parchments like a man out of an ancient coffin.
Von Drachen questioned his sense of style, but said nothing.
He did not want to seem culturally insensitive.
Then there were the captives with them. He knew Colonel Nakar, but there was another girl brought in and set aside in a corner. She was rather pretty, with ringlets in her hair and an office uniform. Before Mansa began his theater in earnest, she had been knocked out by the beefy woman in the room and had remained unconscious since then.
All of this was mostly as it should be, he supposed.
It was the room’s discussion that currently troubled him the most.
Over the course of his military career Von Drachen had heard many bizarre statements. Military organization bred a certain distance from reality. For example, whenever Von Sturm invented dates and projections for when his campaigns would see success — Von Drachen tended to file those into a mental bin labeled ‘nonsense.’ In his short time among the traitorous Ayvartans, however, he had heard more scandal out of mouths than ever before.
Unable to sort out what was going on, Von Drachen casually addressed the room.
“How many of you are in on this nonsense? Do you all believe this fool?”
He pointed at Mansa, who scowled back at him.
Nobody but the two Cazadores he brought to the meeting seemed to care.
Everyone was suddenly aware of the one voice missing from this exchange.
Mansa silently ordered the man accompanying him to inspect the so-called Empress.
When Mansa’s man pulled the blindfold off Nakar, she was unresponsive.
Her eyes were spread wide open but her gaze was blank and glassy.
“Oh no. That looks undignified.”
Von Drachen approached her and waved his hand in front of her face. Her eyes did not track his movements at all. He snapped his fingers next to her ear, and her cold, sweating body did not react at all. Her face started to slump, but her eyes remained hauntingly open. He put a hand on her neck and felt an erratic pulse. She was not dead.
“Is it a psychotic episode?” Von Drachen asked. Though he found Nakar’s extermination to be unfortunately quite necessary, he could not help but feel a human compassion and worry toward someone who seemed to be in such incredible distress at the moment. Mansa had drugged her, normally an interrogation technique, though this was more an interrogation in reverse at the moment; and then he browbeat her with his fantasies.
Mansa was unfazed her condition. For someone who purported to be obsessed with the imperial royalty, he treated her not like a treasure but more like a living punching bag.
“It may be residual, from the toxin. Give her a stimulant.” He callously said.
At the back of the room, the woman of Mansa’s entourage procured a needle from the table and filled it with some transparent fluid. Indelicately, she stuck the implement in Nakar’s neck and injected her with the substance. This had an immediate effect. Her whole body shook and then straightened out in a grizzly fashion. Gasping for breath, Nakar’s head bobbed forward and back and she struggled with her bonds. She slowly settled down, and her gaze seemed more substantial and aware as the moment passed.
She cast eyes around the room, her breathing quickened sharply.
“Madiha, are you more aware now?” Mansa asked.
His voice was falsely sweet, and he spoke as if familiar with her.
Her eyes wearily tracked the man’s hand as he snapped his fingers at her.
Though she was clearly awake, she still did not respond to him. Judging by her face she was still disoriented, in a state of near-panic. Hearing Mansa’s story must have had a profound effect on her state of mind. Von Drachen knew nothing of her willpower, but such a revelation out of anyone’s mouth, and in such a crooked situation as this, would probably set even the most stout mind down a dark path. He felt a great pity for her.
And that injection could not have helped matters.
Mansa let the silence go on for a time before he stepped up to resume his speech.
“Listen well to me, Madiha. My political career has not been for naught here. You may think me mad but I do not act randomly. I have always gravitated to where the power is. Power creates stability. During the Empire the power lay not with the Emperor but in the wealth of the nation. In the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, power does not lie with the ideology of the state but with the system of its laws. Smart men go where the power is.”
He produced again the object he had been waving before. It was like a die, a cube, small enough to fit in his hand. Swirling within the cube was a spherical darkness around a tiny, flickering flame that produced much more light than its volume would suggest it should. Von Drachen had never seen its like. This was the kind of trinket that almost made one believe in the Magic that estranged scholars struggled to return to the world.
But it was not magic just like Madiha Nakar was not an Empress. Von Drachen knew that in this world there always a lie to be found within promises of grandeur and power.
“It was the power of Solstice that allowed me to carve out my little portion of the military to use here, and that gave me access to documents that shed some light on the events preceding the rise and fall of Kanawe Ayvarta. Now, I have seen that there is a new power, a greater power. You could even say it is a higher power. I knew since the fall of the Empire that there was a void that true, unimpeachable power could fill. That drove my curiosity. I knew there was a hidden history to our lives. You are that history.”
Whatever Mansa was seeing, he did not convey it convincingly enough for the General.
“You are confusing history for mythology, Councilman.” Von Drachen said.
Nevertheless, as he had all night, Mansa continued to talk with almost frothing fervor.
Again, Von Drachen found himself sidelined.
“Though I had an inkling of awareness of your power before, it was during Bada Aso that I realized I had to accelerate my plans with hundredfold speed. I must admit, I expected you to fail. I started to lose my younger, fanciful mind and lost my sense to stoic pragmatism. I saw the forces arrayed before you, and saw what you had at hand. I expected to use your failure to bolster my political position and perhaps even to seek my own premiership. Seeing the devastation you unleashed, I knew I had to move in on you, no matter the cost. It was confirmed to me; only Magic could have done this.”
Madiha raised her head and sat back against her chair. She breathed in and sighed.
Mansa smiled, and spoke more pointedly after seeing her more animated state.
“Knowing what you do now, Madiha, can you continue to struggle?” He asked. “Would you do to other cities what you did to Bada Aso in order to protect the doomed Solstice? Properly aided you can nurture a power that could end all of this. You can reign over this continent and bring the pax austri that the world is screaming out for. What do you say?”
“I’m going to kill you.” Madiha said, her voice cracking with rising emotion.
Von Drachen found himself smiling admiringly at her resolve.
“Cute.” Mansa replied. He scowled at her, despite his quick retort. “What do you really intend to do, Empress? You cannot possibly return to the Socialist Dominances of Solstice now. You are a walking contradiction! These people ignorantly see you as the hero of their propaganda! And yet, you undermine your system by merely existing, do you not? You are no proletarian lionheart. In your blood there are conquerors and kings! This system exists to purge you! Upon knowing the truth, would not the masses hate you? Anyone hearing this conversation, with a socialist strength of character, would hate you.”
“Stop asking me the same things. I already said what I would do to you.”
She was starting to sound as irate as Mansa sounded delirious.
“You cannot kill me. You cannot even move from that chair without my consent. Empress, I am promising you the power to bring peace to our people. Do you want to continue to witness a war you are likely to lose from its front lines? Or do you want to spare your people this suffering from the seat of power? With my aid you can unite our people and wipe all of your enemies from the very face of Aer. Please reconsider.”
He raised the cube again as if to thrust it against her face. As if it meant anything to her.
Von Drachen turned to face Madiha, who looked past him with fiery determination.
“Swallow your trinket and shit it out, you pathetic coward!”
Her voice strained from the violent tone of her voice.
“I’m sick to death of these godsdamned fantasies! Everybody projects on me and defines who I am; it’s not fair! It’s not fair that this keeps happening! I’m sick of the Hero of the Border and the Right Hand of Death; I’m sick of the Warlord! I’m sick of people coming up with names for me that I never chose to have and I do not want to live up to! I’m sick of your delusions, Mansa! You should have focused your disgusting obsessions on unearthing child graves instead of day-dreaming about me!” Madiha shouted.
She started trying to jump in her seat, like a rabid dog raring to bite at the sight of flesh.
Her eyes flashed wildly with a great depth of hatred.
Even when they fought back in Bada Aso, Von Drachen had never seen her like this.
She was well and truly furious. He could believe she would kill this man on the spot.
“You are nothing without those things, Madiha Nakar! Your chosen name is a falsity invented by convent records; your ideology is the parroted words of Daksha Kansal! You are a fabrication; the only thing real is your blood and power!” Mansa shouted back.
“Then after walking over your corpse I will invent a real Madiha!” She shouted back.
Her eyes were filled with tears but her whole body was shaking with rage.
“I am not some myth! I am only Madiha Nakar and I swear on this earth I will make you suffer; your soul will continue to burn even after death, if you do not surrender to me!”
Mansa took a step back, perhaps in shock. He sighed deeply, rubbing his face.
Von Drachen chuckled. She was not a graceful speaker, but she was energetic.
Amid the shouting match, he finally found a space to interject.
“You understand the peril of your position, don’t you Councilman? The Nochtish invasion is predicated on the claim of Mary Trueday as the symbolic ruler of the Ayvartan people. The Lehner administration will not take kindly to a second claim; and acting as their representative, neither can I.” Von Drachen said. He was not very concerned for the non-military elements of this war, at the moment, but he had to uphold his sworn duty.
Mansa turned his scowl back on him from the champing and frothing Madiha.
“What are you insinuating, you ridiculous man? What can you do?”
“Magic or no, Empress or no, Nocht is not amenable to your position. You seem to be proposing the tolerable creation of a third faction. There will be no such thing. We will destroy you as we plan to destroy the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.” Von Drachen said. “I came here because you were joining our side. You cannot now make your own. Echoing the young lady, I am afraid I will have to put an end to you myself if she cannot.”
For his trouble, Von Drachen found himself suddenly face to face with the masked man.
It had appeared in front of him as if from out of a smokescreen, one second behind Nakar and the next in front of him. He had not even seen a blur. It was simply there.
Mansa spoke again with the calm, callous demeanor Von Drachen found more familiar.
“General Von Drachen, I must thank you for releasing my 8th Division back to me. Though it appears I have drastically erred, I still have more troops than either you or Colonel Nakar. I have plenty of time and plenty of different means to help to mold our dear Empress Nakar into the wise and useful ruler I know that she can be. But you, unfortunately, have proven quite redundant. It’s a pity. Know that I did not want this.”
He almost seemed to speak as if trying to convince and calm himself down about this.
Just another part of the theater? Von Drachen could no longer tell his motives or senses.
And from word one he knew not what to make of the brass mask.
He felt a chill coming from it that was disturbing to his very core.
“Big guy, aren’t you?” He said.
There was no response from the being.
In front of Von Drachen, the sleeves of the brass-faced man’s garments burst outward from the rest of the parchment, wrapping around flesh that seemed as if newly sprouted.
Cold blue claws flexed with anticipation. On his mask, the design of a sharp, rising and falling wave-line seemed to twist and warp with a hissing, barely audible laughter.
Sighing with exasperation, Von Drachen drew a pistol and his men loyally followed.
At once the masked man reared his arms back as if it were stretching them out.
“Kill him and then find the rest of his men and take them at your leisure–”
Mansa’s order to the creature was interrupted as the window burst into pieces.
Like a cannonball something shot through and slammed into the masked man.
Together the intruder and the masked man fell into a rolling melee. Something long and scaly and snarling bit and clawed and thrashed with Mansa’s enforcer smashing him into the far wall behind Nakar and tearing chunks out of his body. Visible white vapor like cold breaths burst from every wound in place of blood, and the masked man shrieked.
In that instant, Mansa and his supporters were exposed.
Pistols were going up on all sides; everyone was targeting everyone.
It would get bloody.
Von Drachen had only one chance and one shot to escape the likely result of this mess.
He had to take someone out before anyone else could shoot.
In less than a second his mind seemed to make the decision for him.
Though he was pained to let other opportunities go, he pulled the trigger on Mansa.
“Don’t kill me yet, Nakar.” Von Drachen shouted.
His shot struck the man’s hand. He flinched and screamed and waved broken fingers.
From his grip the rough-hewn black die slipped and dropped.
His subordinates struggled to escape its vicinity, but everything happened too fast.
Von Drachen heard the object shatter like a vast window meeting a pulverizing death.
He knew not what it would do, but the noise told him he had chosen correctly.
It made a sound too great and terrible for such a small trinket.
Then there was an unnatural, sudden shadow, like a flash of black inky darkness.
For a brief second he saw an expanding sphere around the feet of the enemy.
It consumed Mansa and the desk and the woman that was near him.
Von Drachen blinked, and the two disappeared from the world.
Beneath where their feet had been was a hole about a meter in diameter.
On a nearby wall there was a perfectly symmetrical crater the same size.
Had the shadow swallowed them whole? Had it vacuumed in part of the wall too?
Mansa’s remaining man stood speechless. His face contorted with grief.
Behind them the monstrous thing standing off against the dragon howled suddenly.
In the next instant, Madiha Nakar’s eyes flashed with fire.
She stood weakly from the chair she had been confined in, her bonds burnt off.
Her breathing was heavy and her voice was spent. But she did not strike the Cisseans.
“You’ve earned yourself a few minutes of my clemency, Drachen.” She murmured.
“It is Von Drachen! Von Drachen!” He shouted helplessly.
City of Rangda — Council Building, Meeting Room #3
He wouldn’t treat his precious Empress this way if he really believed.
It was just the expediency of a power-hungry schemer.
Somehow he found out about my power and he wanted to use me.
She held on to that thought for some comfort. She had nothing else.
She did not know what to believe, but she knew what she wanted her self to be.
Madiha felt like her head was about to explode. She felt sick and a little dizzy and the nape of her neck felt like a tight bundle of throbbing muscle. She did not even want to know what the wounds looked like. It would certainly bruise. There was even blood.
Her mind was still swimming with half-remembered images.
Whatever those needles contained it was strong.
It could truly have altered her mind in an irreparable fashion had any more been injected. Perhaps it could have even overcome the protection of her strange power.
She stood from the chair, her wrists and ankles feeling raw from her bonds.
Quickly she took stock of the chaos unfolding.
Mansa and that woman who had been with Jota at the depots, Moira; both were gone.
On the half of the room once occupied by the conspirators, only Jota remained.
He stood unsteadily, his firearm wildly shaking in his hands.
“The stone,” he murmured with horror, “the stone.”
On the right-hand wall near him, Chakrani was unconscious and bound.
Had she been any closer perhaps whatever took Mansa would have taken her too.
Near her, Von Drachen and his two Cissean fighters in Ayvartan uniform held their aim on Jota. They were perhaps unwilling to stare at the brawl unfolding behind them, where Kali had the Brass Mask in a melee. She climbed on its body, avoided its hands, floating and jumping and swinging off him almost more monkey than lizard, employing her tail, claws and wings to batter and slash the creature and covering it in vaporous wounds.
“Von Drachen, if you want to escape from here I need a weapon now.” Madiha said.
Immediately, the Cissean General plucked a pistol from a subordinate’s hip.
He handed it over, but not quickly enough.
“You fucking monster!”
Jota rapidly pulled the trigger on his gun with frantic abandon.
His shots flew over Madiha’s shoulder and around her side. Jota struck one of Von Drachen’s men. Immediately Von Drachen and his remaining man opened fire back. Six bloody wounds blossomed on Jota’s chest. He stumbled back over half of Mansa’s table which had been cleanly severed by the black burst from the trinket. Falling over, he lay twitching and choking for a few seconds and seemed to quickly die from his wounds.
Von Drachen kneeled beside his man, and found him struck in the neck and choking.
“No good. I’m sorry. Rest knowing, however, that we only lost one instead of all.”
He put his gun to the man’s forehead and shot through his brain.
Madiha turned her head away from the sight and rushed toward Chakrani’s chair.
“Nakar, we have bigger problems!” Von Drachen shouted.
Almost as soon as he called out to her, she turned and watched as the Majini finally seized Kali by the neck and hurled the little dragon out of the window like a stone.
“Kali!” Madiha cried out.
The Majini whirled around to meet them. Madiha raised the pistol she had been given, a common Nocht Zwitscherer. Her aim was unsteady; against a Majini she was not certain to hit. They had some kind of aura about them that made many of her powers falter.
Von Drachen and his remaining man followed suit, backing away toward Madiha with their firearms trained on the creature. The Brass Mask, in its neutral position, was like an old drape around a cylinder with a head. With its arms retracted, and its body so covered by voluminous parchment, it did not have anything resembling a human shape, if one knew how the limits of how thin and stretched a normal human body could become.
Normally the mask was static, made of metal, with a smaller head within the face.
Madiha could feel a difference in this one. And soon, she started to see the difference.
She bore witness as the mask gruesomely split in half and then across again in four.
Four brass plates on four snout-like chunks of a head between which there were teeth.
Amid the black gums on these fleshy pillars there were eyes and a lolling purple tongue.
That was not a brass mask it was wearing. That was its face, its brass face.
She almost could not fathom that such a thing could exist on Aer. She had heard of goblins and ghosts, of witches and fairies, of great races of a distant past that created long-gone monuments sunk into the seas. She knew of mythical things that on some level had a face, a human face that could speak and emote and that could be understood. To the consummate socialist atheist these were known as stories that explained human issues and troubles. That was why they had these human faces.
Nothing like that could explain what she was seeing before her.
There was a weight to the sight that made her eyes want to turn from it.
Again she felt herself pushing with her power on her own mind to try to keep together.
She mustered the strength to keep standing and to speak and move.
She could not collapse here. Parinita would not save her here.
She had to save Parinita now. From this; from what could potentially unfold.
Her conviction and survival instinct helped her overcome her fear momentarily.
“Von Drachen this thing is different than I thought! Keep your distance!” She whimpered.
“Rest assured, my dear, that your experience has no bearing on how much distance I keep from this monstrosity!” Von Drachen replied, talking fast as he stepped away.
She wondered how he could even stand to stare at it. His looked almost amused.
At Von Drachen’s side, the remaining soldier’s legs shook so strongly that he fell.
Even his eyes and jaw seemed to be shaking uncontrollably.
The Brass Face turned its gouged head this way and that, searching the room.
It spoke but its words were soundless.
“Ayvarta,” bellowed many voices at once, “He has gone.“
All across its “mouth,” the many “eyes” seemed to focus on Madiha.
“You reek of his will. Of the shackles he placed.“
Though the sounds she heard made no sense she could still understand them.
From its sides the arms sprouted anew. Ice began to collect on its palms and fingers.
“I sense the void. You cannot have this. I must take it from you.”