Cold; everything was cold.
Long had the sky iced over, long had the waters frozen.
Long had the animals fled the holy land.
Long had the ice spread. There was nowhere now to go.
But the holy land was anything but deserted.
There were things; people? There were figures, standing around a fire, sheltered from the endless blizzard in a cave that shone ominously with a dark purple sheen. These figures spoke, stone-faced, solemn. All had cloaks, all had crude weapons. All of them had shapes like men.
In 2030 their voices could have only been understood by a select few.
In a time before history, they spoke words that would recur.
They spoke among themselves about war.
“All of the windborne will bear their strength upon us. I hear them whisper in the blizzard. They remember this place. They know what it means. They know the old fire is here. They want to use the old fire.”
“Let them come.”
“Heretics! They left this land faithless and now return to loot it?”
“It is they who raised the endless ice. Their foul excesses sapped the land! And now they believe they can clear the sky and see again the sun? When we who keep old fire bright are ourselves trapped under the ice shroud?”
“They believe we keep a secret strength from them. They believe if they have the old fire they can employ it to further their vicious powers.”
“So be it.”
“Do they mean to slaughter us?”
“Perhaps they can be parlayed with. When they see the holy land–”
“They know the ice is here too. They do not care.”
From among the group, one then stood, flanked by supporters.
“Let them come, yes. But they will not touch the old fire.” It said.
“Then do we accept war?”
“Not war; we use the stones. We invoke the foul timbre.” It said.
“Use the stone? Are you mad?”
Around the fire those convened grew incredulous, but the lone figure stood its ground and demanded they listen, demanded they agree.
“We will feed them all to the old flame. You know what the stone can do. We will draw them to this place, and we will strike the stone and cause the foul timbre! Feasting on them the old flame will burn brighter than ever!”
Many left the site of the fire in disgust. Many did not listen.
But enough did. Enough joined the defiant figure to fight the windborne.
And so the stones were gathered. And around the site of the old fire, came the windborne who had fled, descending upon the holy land from the four corners of the world, desperate for relief from the ice of the millenium.
There was a monumental battle. Both sides committed their most horrible powers against their enemy and left the land scarred. The windborne outnumbered the old keepers. They strode into the holy land to claim the fire and extend the age of the magic that they had come to depend upon.
Then the radicalized among the keepers employed the foul timbre.
A spreading curtain of the dark that consumed everything.
It was too high a cost for what it accomplished.
“I, who stood as a wall to the potential of man. How could I fall like this?”
Madiha awoke, cast out of Brass Face’s mind, the images she saw fading even as she tried her best to retain a hold on the information. She saw an age of ice, and she saw people (were they people?) and she saw great destruction– but it was all slipping from her fingers, all of the details. Had she known names? Had she known their intentions? Was everything just a blur of speech? She struggled to retain the context, to retain clues.
Blood trickled down her nose and over her lips.
Much of the vision was gone. Minds were not like books. Exposed to the sheer desire of Brass Face to hide history, her mind was coaxed to follow suit. Perhaps Brass Face had ESP too; perhaps it was just the nature of things. For an instant, she thought she could see the fullness of his form.
It was a flash of something terrible and inhuman. It hurt to think of it.
“I fear! I fear your steel! I fear your will! I fear what you will attain!”
Soon as the last of the black and purple jelly turned to smoke, Madiha heard another shrill psychic screech. She felt it travel down her brain stem, into her neck and spine and down her limbs. She felt the noise as if rending through reality itself. She felt a wave that traveled the world.
In the next instant, Brass Face was truly gone.
Madiha felt her body aching again. Her arms were worn down. Her legs were unsteady. She tasted the blood on her lips. She felt the blood coming from her nose, her eyes, from her ears. She could not tell whether it was the fighting or the poison or the drugs or her powers that had done it all. She had suffered so much that she wondered how she could stand at all.
Stumbling through her first few steps, Madiha regained enough of her wits fast enough to cross over the mound of rubble left in the wake of Brass Face’s exit from the meeting room, and from her own blast. She rushed back into the meeting room and found Chakrani in the corner. Descending upon the unconscious woman, Madiha took her pulse, felt her breath, raised a hand to her coldly sweating brow. Chakrani was alive.
Madiha raised a hand over her own eyes, rubbing on her own forehead. Thank the spirits; Chakrani was safe and unharmed. She had survived the madness untouched. Now she had to think of how to take her from here.
“I’m afraid you’ll be leaving her, Nakar!”
Madiha whirled around; she found Von Drachen standing in opposition.
Both of them drew their pistols at once and aimed at one another.
“Now, I am certain our truce is over!” He said.
“You’ve recovered quickly from the shock.” Madiha replied.
“I could say the same for you!” He said.
She grit her teeth. He grinned through his own. Her weapon was empty, but he did not know that — she hoped he did not. For a few seconds she expected he would shoot. She expected her breast or gut to blossom red with that final gunshot. No amount of fire would stop that at close range.
But he did not shoot. He did believe her bluff and thought her gun loaded.
Both sides kept their irons trained on the other.
“I’m not as vulnerable as I seemed in that chair.” Madiha replied.
“I do not doubt that! Of course, magic probably plays a role.”
He knew now; but that was the least of her concerns.
He was one man and Nocht would probably laugh him off.
There was no need to hide anything. She spit out what was on her mind.
“It’s not magic!” Madiha said. “It’s ESP!”
Von Drachen stared at her, blinking his eyes incredulously.
“Extra-Sensory Perception. There is science behind it!”
“Well. I see. If you say so.”
Madiha felt ridiculous. It was an incredibly surreal scene.
To think they had slain a real-live monster of legend; and yet humanity was nowhere near united even in this minor cause. They were enemies.
Behind her, Chakrani slowly seemed to wake.
She was too weak to struggle against her bonds or make any racket.
Madiha glanced briefly at her before returning to Von Drachen.
“It’s alright Chakrani.” She said. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“You’d best focus on keeping yourself safe, Colonel Nakar!”
Von Drachen raised his other hand. There was a handheld radio on it.
He flicked a switch. Madiha did not shoot; if she shot him he would shoot back immediately. They were scarcely 10 meters apart and she was very exhausted. She did not know whether she would be able to escape harm.
Even ESP did not solve everything.
“Gutierrez! Deploy with the gebirgsjager to the– Gutierrez?”
Von Drachen withdrew the radio from his ear.
Over the speaker Madiha could hear loud snoring.
There was no other response.
Von Drachen dropped the radio and sighed.
Now neither of them had any advantage or known hope of rescue.
Madiha continued to aim her weapon. Von Drachen seemed ill at ease.
“I despise standoffs, you know.” He said.
“Right. When you fall into disadvantage, anyway.” Madiha said.
“You understand that if we shoot here we will kill each other for no gain, Colonel? I’d much rather not die. How about you?” Von Drachen said.
Madiha growled. “You’re pathetic! You’re the one who instigated this!”
“I own up to that. But,” he sighed again, “this was not what I wanted!”
Madiha did not respond. She kept a stone-faced stare on Von Drachen.
“Here is what I propose.” He said. “We put away our weapons, and walk away to our respective sides. You get as far as you can in, lets say, ten minutes. I will chase after you once I have reconvened with my forces. Then we will engage in a less suicidal form of combat. What say you?”
“I have no reason to believe you’ll uphold any of that.” Madiha said.
Von Drachen shrugged with his unarmed hand.
“Colonel, I just saw you perform magic. I’m not exactly thrilled at my chances in this particular confrontation. I am quite ready to walk away.”
“Magic does not exist.” Madiha cheerlessly replied.
“It’s ESP!” Madiha shouted angrily back.
Von Drachen blinked. “Well. Sure. About my proposal–?”
“I’m considering it. You were quite enthusiastic about killing me before.”
“I was, but what is the point of killing you if I cannot live through the moment? It is a waste. We shoot each other right here and nothing will be accomplished. I desire to live Colonel Nakar! I have military goals and political goals and romantic goals for my life! Killing you is necessary to accomplish my goals, but I cannot accomplish them while dead!”
He was smiling and speaking with an excitable cadence.
She felt almost compelled to believe him.
“On that final point at least, I can relate.” Madiha said.
Von Drachen nodded his head, smiling brightly.
“Now, I understand that you might be tempted by the strategic value of killing your most deadly rival in this war; believe me, I am the same–”
Madiha interrupted him. “That has never entered my mind.”
“Excuse me, Colonel?”
Madiha sighed deeply.
“I do not hold you in any high regard.”
Madiha stared at him and took a step back. He did not shoot.
Satisfied, she held out a hand in defense.
“I accept your proposal; my life is indeed more valuable than this.”
Von Drachen stared blankly.
“Hold one second: surely you realize I am your deadliest–?”
“To me you are just another imperialist general.” She said bluntly.
There was an awkward silence.
Von Drachen suddenly threw his weapon at a wall.
He turned and walked away in a huff.
“You have ten minutes!” He shouted.
Madiha blinked. She could have shot him in the back then.
That is, if her pistol was not completely empty.
He rounded the corner out of the room and vanished.
Madiha crept forward and took his pistol.
She sighed. It, too, was empty.
Running back to the corner, Madiha withdrew a knife and a fresh gun from Jota’s corpse and cut Chakrani’s bonds. She was a little dazed; her first action with her freed hands was to rub her face and she curled up in her chair, yawning and moaning. Her head must have been swimming.
“Madiha, I’m so dizzy. Everything’s floating.”
“Calm down. We have to go.”
“Chakrani, it’s dangerous.”
Madiha could not get herself to say we’re in danger.
She did not know whether Chakrani would be worse off here or running into potential gunfire on Rangda’s streets with her. She had to get back to base; back to a world Chakrani had long since rejected along with her. Perhaps Chakrani would be better off here, in this corrupt world that had suddenly sprang around them. Perhaps she should be spared Madiha’s presence.
Madiha had to fight.
She would fight her own people.
She would do everything that Chakrani hated about her.
“Madiha, what– what happened?”
Chakrani looked around.
She spotted Jota’s corpse and covered her mouth.
“Ancestors defend!” She cried. Her eyes filled with tears.
Madiha shook her head. She could not spare a tear for that man.
“Mansa captured us. I managed to fight free of him and release you.”
“Where is he? Where is Mansa?”
“Gone. He was killed– in the collapse.”
Madiha despised lying like this, but the truth was too much to say.
“Chakrani, we need to leave.” She said, her voice quivering.
Chakrani looked about to vomit. She could hardly speak.
She struggled to form words.
“I can’t. I can’t follow you.”
She bowed her head, covering her mouth.
She avoided eye contact. Madiha could barely see her bowed face.
Madiha nodded her head silently. “I’m sorry.” She said.
She could not wait a second longer.
Armed with Jota’s gun, Madiha charged out of the meeting room, over the mound of rubble, over the inky outline on the floor that had once been Brass Face, and down the hallway. She ran as fast as her weary legs could carry her. Once more she abandoned Chakrani. She had to keep fighting.
She could not save or help or heal everyone. She was not a god-emperor.
She was just Madiha Nakar.
Even ESP had numerous limitations.