This scene contains violence, burning and death.
City of Rangda, Council and 2nd Block
Portable torch in hand, Madiha hurtled through the alleyways and into a tight concrete path a block up from Council that linked a few small shops and a canteen. She was flanked on all sides by two-story buildings. Cars would have been cramped in the one-lane byway serving as both road and street; most tanks would not fit between the buildings into the alleys.
Madiha soon found herself with a dead end ahead, represented by a tall brick wall and an enormous stack of crates blocking her way. She could have tried to climb, but she had lost her sense of where Ocean Road was in her rush to escape — and she feared snipers. Keeping low was for the best.
She turned around and headed up between a shoe shop and the canteen.
She had expected to see men hot on her heels by now but there were none.
As she ran she raised her head to the rooftops around her, to the windows; she peered into adjacent alleys, through half-open doors. There was not a soul around. Either people did not live in these shops, only manned them during work hours; or everyone had been taken somewhere. She supposed it would have been easy to round people up with the curfew and the police and military presence. They could not have used the air raid alarms — Madiha would have heard those and been alerted to the evacuations.
Hopefully those people were safe and would remain so through what was to come. At least Madiha could rest easy knowing that. But the question then remained: where were the police and soldiers who were chasing her?
She heard her answer in the form of a dire song whistling overhead.
That she heard the shell at all usually meant it had overshot her.
Those destined to die heard nothing. They were simply crushed.
Those in the vicinity would have heard an instant of sharp, eerie rushing noise before the deep rumble of the shellfall. It was the signal of a low-velocity, high-arc weapon like a mortar or howitzer. Ordinarily it was safe.
Madiha’s gaze immediately shot skyward.
Amid the dark clouds she saw the dim trail from the shell.
It would not merely overfly her.
In a split-second it burst into hundreds of trails of falling fire.
She was reminded of the fireworks during the festival.
Except the trails of color were all hurtling earthward.
She dropped her torch.
Madiha ducked under an awning as hundreds of fragments of burning metal struck the rooftops and the ground in the alley. She found herself surrounded by knife-point sharp chunks of steel casing, embedded into the ground at high velocity like throwing daggers hurled by an invisible hand. One of the closest struck just off of her foot, millimeters from her.
At once the dark alley had lit up. Wisps of fire started to spread across the ground, along the brick walls and over the concrete floor. Discarded crates and trash-filled drums caught by the fragments burst into wild flames. It was as if someone had poured gasoline around every fragment of metal.
Madiha felt an instant of sharp pain and raised her boot from the ground.
She found a trail of fire dancing over a drop of gelatinous substance on her boot. It melted the plastic and heated up the steel insert protecting her toes. Immediately she pulled off her shoe and hurled it away. Gritting her teeth, she pulled off her worn-out sock and found a boil had formed on her toe from the heat. Struggling not to weep from the pain, she sidled on one foot along the wall of the alley, trying to escape from the raging fires.
Spreading over the floor in long, golden lines of crawling death was more of the same gelatinous chemical, rolling off the red-hot fragments that bore it to the ground. Thick white smoke trailed from the fires it caused.
An acrid reek accompanied the rising fumes. Madiha started to feel dizzy. Her stomach was turning. She felt bile rise to her throat from the smell.
Her eyes and nose watered. Madiha concentrated on her escape. Should she tumble forward into the fires she would have certainly, horribly died. Even now her boot was still burning on its own just from that drop of jelly.
That substance could not be put out easily — perhaps not at all.
Step by step along the wall she crawled, setting down her foot only on its heel to regain balance. She stood as if on the edge of a precipice, hardly able to open her eyes, her back ramrod straight. Everything inside her hurt and protested. She held in her breath as much as she could.
Step by step; she opened her eyes briefly again. She was close.
Her side stung; her foot throbbed with agony. Her senses swam.
Step by step–
A sudden noise forced her eyes open.
Madiha was almost out of the burning alley when she heard rifles crack.
She saw the bullets impact the opposite wall and the floor around her.
Desperate to escape she set down her injured foot and staggered out of the alley and behind a corner, scarcely avoiding the last thick concentration of burning jelly. She quickly checked her whole body to make sure nothing was burning. Peering back through the smoke and the dancing red light from the incendiaries, she could just make out men on a distant rooftoop.
Behind the corner, she took a knee and quickly bandaged her toe.
Just beside her the rifle bullets continued to fly past and against the wall.
Standing up again, and setting down her foot, she withdrew her machine gun. She had only a pair of 45-round drum pans, top-fed into the Danava.
This fact made her no less conservative about her ammunition.
Peering around the corner and into the smoke, she aimed high and opened up on the rooftops with a long automatic spray from the DNV. Where the bullets went, she did not know; the white smoke had risen high enough to block any possible view of her enemy. Red tracers flew off into a void.
From within the smoke a short series of rifle shots responded.
Louder than the rifles and the crackling fires was the whining of a shell.
Far greater than the whining was the inevitable detonation.
Madiha experienced a flash much closer to the ground than before.
She reflexively turned her back and shielded her face from the source.
Behind her the hot fragments struck the earth and caught fire.
She felt the wind, crawling through the alleys, bringing the heat to her.
There was no new pain; she had avoided the fragments.
When she turned quickly back around she found the alley ahead blocked off by a wall of golden yellow fire. Flames clung to brick, to stucco, even to windows. A massive conflagration raged in the middle of the alley and barred any access past it. Stray boxes in the vicinity seemed to vaporize of their own accord; copper pipes running along the wall glowed white-hot.
Her whole body was soaked in sweat, and the fumes irritated her skin.
Madiha had no time to marvel at the terrifying flames.
She loaded her final canister into her flare gun and shot it just over the alley. Almost instantly, she saw the body of a man swept off the roof fall and smash back-first into a barrel, horribly contorted. His neck broke.
Overhead, she heard shots and growls and the sounds of invisible combat.
Kali was taking care of the men on on the roof. She had to trust her.
Madiha heard footsteps from around the corner, and more gunfire struck the wall past her and the wall at her side. There were men coming at least as close as the fires she had left behind; the rooftop runners were not her only pursuers. More incendiaries were likely on their way as well.
Reaching into her pack, Madiha withdrew two stick grenades.
Quickly she tied them by their handles with a bandage.
She primed both, threw behind her and ran.
There was a detonation but no way to tell its effects.
Avoiding the wall of fire in front of her, Madiha turned toward a back door into a squat building. It was made of some kind of metal; judging from a quick knock from her fist it was thin. There was no padlock she could see, but the door definitely had at least a simple interior lock on its knob.
Thankfully, nobody in Ayvarta focused on defending against break-ins.
One padlock and she would have probably died here.
Backing off a few steps, she stood on her good foot and kicked the door as hard as she could with her injured foot. She aimed near the knob and lock, as she had been taught. Instantly she felt pain shoot through all of the sinews in her foot and her ankle. She felt the knob and lock give. Rearing back, she bit down hard to endure the pain and delivered a second kick.
Under the strain of this second kick the door finally burst open.
Madiha put her injured foot on the ground and felt the pain once more.
Nearly limping, she made her way into the building.
Through the door-frame she could see the fire spreading outside.
She was in a restaurant kitchen. There was an old brick oven, wood-fired, and some more modern conveniences alongside it. She scanned for chemicals she might have used to improvise an explosive. Nothing stuck out to her. She would have to make do with the last of her stolen supplies.
As she struggled out the kitchen door into the dining area, she seized a delicate prize from her ammunition bag. She stowed her last magazines inside her coat and on her belt, before discarding the bag in the trash.
In front of the kitchen door was a small, charming cloth carpet with the words Hujambo! sewn in colorful letters. She left the kitchen door open, lifted the little mat and gingerly slid an anti-personnel mine under it.
Hefting only her machine gun now, she shot the glass front door open and ran outside. She came out into a wider-open one-lane road that could support cars and perhaps even a tank. Directly in front of her there was seemingly no open connection to Ocean Road. To her right there were nondescript buildings. To her left, she saw a small park in the distance.
Moments later she heard a detonation at her back.
Madiha took off running as well as her foot could support.
She had nowhere else to go but that park.
She fixed her eyes on the green that she could see ahead through the distant illumination of street lamps. Her whole body was protesting her every move. She was exhausted; she had been poisoned and drugged and she felt the effects on her brain and in her sinews, a burning, prickling feeling. Her hands were shaking, her knees shaking, her foot was burnt. She felt the fragment dug in her flank. All of her was crying but her eyes.
A dozen meters from the restaurant, there was a sudden new pain.
It was accompanied by the sound of a rifle.
Glancing over her shoulder, barely cognizant that she had been shot right through it, Madiha spotted the men — mountain climbers, Gebirgsjager. They were on the rooftops. They had easily climbed the urban terrain.
Had they gotten Kali? She could not see her anywhere around.
Fearing the worst, Madiha swung around her Danava to retaliate. She flinched violently. When the butt-stock hit her shoulder, blood spurted out. Her whole body was shaking from the pain. She could not aim.
She heard a cartridge discard, and a bolt pull from the rooftop.
Then she heard the singing of an artillery shell.
There was no other choice.
Madiha dropped her machine gun and raised her good hand.
Spotting the shell in the sky she pushed on the detonation.
Instead of tumbling toward her the shell detonated backwards from the tip of its nose and spewed all of its fragments and flaming jelly over the Gebirgsjagers on the rooftop. Soaked in the incendiary chemicals, the men screamed with a haunting agony that shook Madiha to her core.
She stood and watched, dumbstruck.
Doused in liquid flames the men rolled off the rooftop and onto the street, still burning. They ripped at their clothes, stamped, scratched, and could not stop burning. Their uniforms melted; the incendiary coated their skin.
Those men still trapped on the roof in the middle of the dire gold flames seemed to disappear into white smoke themselves, vaporized slowly.
Madiha ripped herself away from the sight and shambled toward the park.
That was a malevolent power her own flames could not match. No matter what magic did, the ingenuity of men and technology was always worse.
She clutched at her gunshot wound and focused on breathing and walking.
There was no singular experience of “being shot.” Every gunshot was unique. Madiha had been stricken by bullets both stray and malicious. She had been grazed in the side in a training accident; she had been shot in the hip by a fleeing spy. As a child she had been shot in the chest and almost killed. Sometimes the bullet felt like a fist blow followed by burning and cutting sensation in the wound. Sometimes it seemed like the metal melted in the flesh and slashed its way through every strand of sinew.
Madiha felt almost nothing of this bullet now. When struck she had felt a shallow stab. Her body was shaking, and she was bleeding. She could not move her arm, partially out of unconscious fear, partially due to injury. There was a slight stinging. But she was not wracked with agony. It was as if the experience of the gunshot had stabilized the rest of her pains.
Any agony she felt now was purely in her own mind, she thought.
All of the images that wracked her as she escaped.
For all the horrors she had seen tonight, those burning men left a scar.
Much like the transformed man in the Council Building; too cruel a fate.
Those were powers stronger and more terrible than any of her own.
She had to live; she had to see Parinita again. She had to return to her soldiers. They could not face that kind of fate. She would not allow it.
Trying to keep a clear head, she staggered slowly away. Step by step.
Stepping to live, stepping to breathe, stepping to step.