This scene contains violence, graphic violence, graphic descriptions of injury, death, body horror and disfigurement. Reader discretion is advised.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building
“You employed the foul timbre. I do not understand.”
Standing before Madiha and Von Drachen, the Brass Mask turned its four gore-strewn snouts toward the hole left on the ground by Mansa’s trinket. Madiha’s mind was slowed by the weight of the creature’s presence. She tried to think of where this creature could have come from and what its relation was to the Majini that she knew. Those beings were just bodies with masks and cloaks, or so she had thought. Were they all like this?
She felt the monster’s every move like a throb within her head.
“We did nothing. Mansa unearthed you.” Madiha said.
At her side, Von Drachen glanced at her with a startled look.
“Are you talking to it? What on Aer do you hope to accomplish with that?”
“To escape with my life, perhaps?” Madiha snapped back.
“I can assure you that thing is unlikely to respond diplomatically!”
Judging by his attitude, Madiha intimated that Von Drachen could not understand the Majini. It was either speaking only to her or she was the only one present who could hear. Perhaps only those with “ESP” could hear it. Madiha would operate with this idea in mind; she did not desire to ask Von Drachen whether he could or not. He was still her enemy and any information she could withhold from him might have a later use.
In the moment this discovery provided no succor or advantage. Madiha, in fact, felt ever more alone and trapped. Though she had Von Drachen’s tenuous support during this standoff, in reality it was only she and the Majini who could affect the ultimate outcome. Her exhausted mind and weary body shook with indecision. Nobody dared move and possibly prompt an attack. The Majini continued to ramble to the air, unvoiced, unheard.
“Ayvarta enslaved me. Did he use me to rekindle the human flame– no! He already had power! Even as I stood, a wall casting shadow o’er man, man created sparks. Four sparks on the four corners. And yet you employ the timbre too?”
She saw the eyes within the Majini’s slimy, fleshy face spinning every which way. Its black and purple, slimy gums and teeth seemed to expand and contract, as if taking in breaths of air without any visible nostrils.
Madiha glanced over her shoulder very briefly. Chakrani was still dormant in the far corner of the room. She had thankfully survived the shooting and the strange detonation that killed Mansa, and though unconscious she was unharmed. She was at least presently removed from the standoff.
It was imperative to keep Brass Face occupied and away from her.
“I do not understand. Too much time has passed. But my purpose remains.”
In a flash the Majini made the first move.
Madiha saw an inkling of its movement, like a glint in the air and a shuddering in her spine that warned her of danger, but her body could never react as fast as her mind. In the next instant the Majini had shifted its entire bulk behind them and with one massive hand seized Von Drachen’s companion and lifted him by his head. Frost-covered claws clamped down over the man’s face and neck. He kicked his legs and screamed and pulled on the digits but could not get free of the beast.
Von Drachen calmly raised his pistol and opened fire on the monster, squeezing rounds into its abdomen and legs and face, at every bit of its figure not blocked by the body of his own flailing man. Madiha’s reflex was to join him, but she lowered her pistol right after first raising it. Every shot seemed to go through the Majini without any effect except raising wisps of vapor that dissipated into the air after a second or two.
Unflinching amid gunfire, the creature tightened its grip on the man.
“I will borrow this flesh.”
Trails of white vapor blew from the man’s skin as the claw bit into him.
Madiha found herself paralyzed with fear at the sight.
Von Drachen stopped shooting and stared, mouth agape.
The Cazador screamed and wailed in desperate agony as his flesh sloughed.
Through the transformation his voice distorted and eventually muted.
They were spared much of the sight, but between digits of the gruesome claw Madiha could see an eye moving wildly within its socket, turning a copper color and becoming slitted as the lids fused together save for a thin line in the middle. Around the socket the skin discolored, liquefied, shed, bubbled and then set anew, bleached white, smooth, and solid. The man’s limbs turned black, indistinct and gelatinous. The Army uniform over his body began to sink in places as his muscles rapidly emaciated. He became too thin, too long, unrecognizable as human. Rags of slimy skin over bone.
From behind the Majini’s back its second arm reached for the window and ripped a curtain from its bars. In an unnatural flurry of movement, it draped the cloth over the man and wrapped him in it before the changes to his body had fully set, and then it released the corpse on the floor.
It should have hit the floor, limp and dead from the horrors done to it.
Defying all natural logic, it fell onto unseen feet and stood solid.
Hard all-white faceless head, like a mask, and a thin, tall cylindrical body in drapes. Long limbs that seemed to protrude and retract when needed.
The Brass Face had made something that frighteningly resembled a Majini.
And somewhere beneath all of that was the tormented remains of a man.
“All who cannot be turned will be killed. Until the timbre is forgotten anew.”
Von Drachen stared at the monster, and then at the monster that had once been a man. He raised his hand to his mouth, his teeth chattering.
“Shooting that cube was a mistake.” He mumbled to himself.
Madiha swallowed and it felt like she was forcing a stone down her throat.
Though the “newborn” Majini presented a problem, it also gave her an idea. Her overwhelming fear did not completely smother her tactical mind. Indeed, only in the desperate rush of emotion did she find her way.
There was something bundled deep within that cloak that she could use.
“Hit the dirt!” Madiha shouted.
She had no time to confirm whether or not Von Drachen was following her order, and she could only pray that Chakrani would be spared the violence.
There was no other choice.
Madiha set her feet and drew in a deep breath.
Both the monster and its master recognized the danger.
Madiha was an instant quicker than them.
She thrust out her least injured arm and her mind flashed the image of an old Territorial Army stick grenade, hanging from the belt of the disfigured man. Thinking faster than the enemy could move she lit a spark within the high-explosive blasting cap and ignited the TNT inside.
Unthinking, the new Majini reared back for a charge.
It made it two running steps from Brass Face before detonating.
In a burst of violent light the Majini disappeared, and a wave of heat and pressure tore suddenly across the room. Madiha had less than seconds to act. Out of pure defensive reflex her mind pushed against the blast, deflecting the concussive force screaming toward her. Her arm flared with intense pain, and she fell onto her back, the wind knocked out of her instead of the viscera. Brass Face recoiled violently from the blast and struck the nearby wall, smashing through the cement and falling under a heap of rubble.
Madiha could not tell whether it had tried to flee or whether the blast flung it away. She struggled to force herself upright, both of her arms functional but sounding a painful alarm with every movement. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she made it up onto her knees to find the vicinity caked in wet black and purple viscera and ashen jelly. This filth had spread across the room, save for a clean halo around her where she had pushed the blast and its byproducts and blocked their effects.
With Brass Face’s bulk removed from her sight, Madiha could again see Chakrani tied to her chair against the corner of the room. She could run for her– but there was no telling whether she had the advantage yet.
As she stood from the floor she scanned the room for Von Drachen.
Near the collapsed wall, she found him lying under the corpse of the soldier Jota took from him. He looked scuffed but relatively unharmed for the events that transpired. Von Drachen had hidden under the corpse; mutilated and burnt, the body had shielded him from the brunt of the blast. Luckily for him, he had managed to take the man’s grenade and flung it across the room before the violence erupted around him.
Soon as Madiha made eye contact with Von Drachen, he pushed the body off himself and stood on unsteady legs, dusting some of the alien jelly from his shoulders and arms. An enthusiastic smile played about his lips.
“I commend you on surviving to the end of this madness, Colonel Nakar!” Von Drachen said. “Now, allow me a few words about the dissolution of our truce.”
Madiha felt a fresh jolt of stress in her chest. “No! You idiot, it’s not–”
“Now, now, madam, I’m talking.” He raised his pistol to her.
Before Madiha could shout, a soundless roar psychically drowned her out.
Behind them the rubble shifted, and Brass Face stood from the mound.
Dust and masonry sifted off its shoulders. It appeared almost unharmed.
Rotating as if independent of its neck, the creature’s head stared at them.
Its grotesque snouts and teeth reformed into a mask.
Along its clean brass center, the wave-form symbols furiously oscillated.
With its grotesque head hidden again, Madiha felt the weight of its presence lessen. A burden lifted from her mind. She could almost think straight again. Her breathing still quick with stress, she took a guarded stance and waited. Running away in a panic would only get her killed.
And it would abandon Chakrani to an unimaginable fate.
“Truce?” Von Drachen asked in a strained, sickened voice.
“Move only in reaction to it.” She warned. “It’ll take advantage of any mistake.”
Von Drachen frowned. “I suppose that precludes running away?”
Brass Face turned to face them, slow and deliberate. It did not pounce or charge or blink behind them as she had seen it do in the past. On its lower body she saw trails of chill air seeping through a frayed, burnt patch of cloak. There was a wound there but it was as if her eyes refused to recognize it. Blurry flesh seemed to roil and bubble and shift upon this surface.
Von Drachen’s lower lip quivered. He raised his hand to his mouth to gag.
Perhaps he had seen it; maybe even more of it than she.
Madiha said nothing, too transfixed by the monster to speak.
Once its head fully turned to meet them, the rest of its body began to twist to match, turning thin and long like a snake but with the suggestion of shoulders atop its upper section. From the midsection pieces of cloak rustled and separated. An arm lifted as the upper body twisted into the room; Brass Face suddenly raised its gnarled claw as if aiming for Madiha.
Madiha felt the air in the room turning very cold and dense.
It became suddenly hard to breathe.
When she gasped for air her breath was visible, white as snow.
“Outside, now!” She shouted, her voice dwindling.
“I thought you said–”
“Forget it! Now!”
Von Drachen quickly turned and ran for the door to the meeting room.
Between the fingers of Brass Face’s claws, frost and ice started to form.
Crackling and crunching like falling glass, the frost swirling around its fingers compacted and lengthened into a long shaft in less than seconds.
Madiha tore herself from the sight and ran out behind Von Drachen.
She felt a force strong as a hurricane gust and cold as a blizzard sweep past.
Behind her the lance of ice shattered and thundered like an explosive.
Over her shoulder Madiha caught a glimpse of the wall turned mirror-like with ice.
She ran out into the broad, enclosed hallway connecting the meeting room and felt both trepidation and relief when she found it deserted, save for Von Drachen. Any more people around could have become new Majini. She put her back to the empty hall behind them and aimed her pistol at the hole in the wall. She saw some of Brass Face’s cloak trailing from it.
“Come out of there and fight us seriously, you animal!” She shouted.
“What are you doing?” cried Von Drachen.
She hoped the monster could understand her at all. It never seemed to reply to her; it only spoke at her. She had to taunt it away from Chakrani and out into the hall, where she had more room to avoid its projectiles.
Her worry was short-lived. Brass Face understood.
It slowly turned itself back around to face them anew in the hall.
“Incarnation of Ayvarta, without the prism you are vermin to me.”
It shambled farther out of the meeting room through the hole in the wall.
Von Drachen hurried from the middle of the hall to Madiha’s side.
He raised his pistol alongside hers and gulped hard, shaking.
“Why isn’t it charging anymore? It was awful quick a second ago!” He asked.
“I must have hurt its feet.” Madiha replied. Her breath was quick, her heart struggling and her lungs raw, but she managed to keep a strong front.
“It isn’t even moving closer.”
“It must be focused on defense now that it can’t charge us.”
“God. At least you’re still thinking. Do you have a plan of attack, Nakar?”
“Out of respect for your great intellect, I shall allow you to lead us.”
Von Drachen cracked a nervous grin without looking at her.
Madiha would have rolled her eyes in any other situation but this.
Meanwhile their enemy waited, clicking its claws together.
Brass Face’s mask waveforms gently rose and fell as it stared them down.
“Incarnation of Ayvarta.” It mumbled soundlessly.
Was it sizing her up? Comparing her to the old Emperor before striking?
Madiha felt a chill whenever it spoke those words. It treated her like an extension of the Warlord that it had encountered, and not as her own person. The First Emperor, Ayvarta I, who set out to conquer the four corners of Ayvarta and unite its disparate ethnicities and civilizations. He accomplished this task using the power that she had been cursed to hold.
Had Ayvarta been the first, the original? Or just the one Brass Face knew?
It was eerie. To Brass Face, she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.
Another in a long line of half-lives tainted by the man’s conquests.
Perhaps even linked to the ancient tyrant by blood.
Incarnation of Ayvarta.
There was power behind that statement, the unknowable intellect of something that was ancient to an extreme Madiha could not imagine. Was it right in the way that it thought of her? She felt as if all of her fears about herself, all of the existential suffering she felt, was confirmed in the words of this beast. Maybe she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.
Maybe Mansa was right and Madiha Nakar was nothing at all.
Von Drachen glanced at her nervously. “Colonel, are you–”
She could not dwell on that. Madiha might not exist; but she could die.
For Solstice’s sake she had to survive to make something of Madiha Nakar.
For Parinita’s sake the most. She wanted desperately to see her again.
Her mind quickly refocused.
In the monster’s own words, Ayvarta once had control over it.
Did Ayvarta capture Brass Face to use it; or because he couldn’t kill it?
Could she kill Brass Face in modernity, if Ayvarta failed in antiquity?
She had to believe he wanted to use it; and that the prism was a way to contain its powers without having to kill it. And therefore that it could be killed and that Ayvarta could have killed it. She had killed Majini using the flame before. Once lit on fire their parched bodies went up like torches.
From a distance, they could avoid the darts. But if she got close enough–
She started to visualize a way forward.
Hopefully she had inherited more from Ayvarta than just his powers.
“Are you ready?” She whispered.
“Of course not. Nonetheless: how do we stop it?” Von Drachen asked.
“I need to get close to it.” Madiha said.
“And then what?”
“That’s classified information.”
Von Drachen raised an eyebrow. Madiha made no expression whatsoever.