This chapter contains violence and death and mild misogyny.
??nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon, ???? Province of — ????
Byanca Geta awakened in a thick darkness reminiscent of sleep.
She could feel the movement of her body. She was sure of her own weight in space.
Everything was so dark, however, that she felt like a mind floating in the ether. Had she been blinded? What had even happened? She felt a sharp pain in the back of her head as she tried to move, and it confirmed to her that she was awake and alive somewhere.
A cold terror swept across her body. She did not know her condition or space.
Byanca patted herself down. She felt her uniform. Her arms, her chest, her belly, her hips and legs and feet; everything was in its place and as clothed as it was before. Her pockets were empty, and she had no holsters or weapons. Her belt was still there. She was sitting, and she felt the hard, stone-like perch upon which she sat. She raised her arms, and she stretched them. She stretched her legs. She touched walls, cold walls, on all sides.
When she tried to stand, she found that she could, but she felt her ponytail brush against the ceiling when fully upright. She was in a box, a cold stone box, unmoving, with a perch to sit on and enough room that she could stand, and that her arms could just barely not outstretch, and her legs could just barely fail to draw out to their full length.
Touching the walls she found nothing that suggested a doorway or even a slot for food.
She drew in a deep breath. This was not a cement burial; there was too much room.
Trying not to panic, she told herself this was probably a solitary confinement and sensory deprivation box in a prison complex somewhere. If they wanted to starve her to death they would have just buried her alive. And if they wanted to kill her they would have shot her. She reasoned that they wanted her alive and just needed to keep her isolated until she cracked. It was torture, not torture to death. She had to believe that for her own sake.
For Salvatrice’s sake. The Princess was in the hands of the Legatus and his deranged conspirators and who knew what they would have her do; or what they would do to her?
Byanca breathed in deep. She did not feel light-headed, so there was enough air coming in from somewhere that it could sustain her breathing. So there had to be a gap somewhere.
She could still be blind, and that was a frightening thought. She looked around the box, trying to get a feel that she was facing where her arms were touching, and trying to find a gap anywhere that could filter in even the smallest of lights. But there was nothing. Every surface was perfectly smooth and seemed to fit perfectly well. She pulled off her gloves and started to touch, where corners met, where a lid or a door might be placed.
Overhead, she found she could slip a fingernail and a bit of the flesh of her index finger through a gap. So it was not a perfect crate. It had a lid that could come off the top.
So if there was no light coming in, then it was still night, or the lid was further covered, with a tarp or a second lid or something that blocked the outside world but not air tight.
Byanca sat back on the perch and heaved a heavy sigh.
Her head hurt. Sharply at first, but the pain dulled over an unknown length of time.
She was cold and sweating colder still.
At this point, Byanca was almost positive that she was not buried alive in cement, a torture that she greatly feared, and as such had temporarily calmed a bubbling panic in her heart. However, she was also sure she could not extricate herself from her predicament and might still in some other fashion die or be killed, either in this box or its proximity.
And any more time wasted could be horrific for Salvatrice, and for Lubon.
Knowing no other solution Byanca maneuvered her body such that she could kneel with her hands on her sitting perch. She bowed her head and entwined her fingers in prayer.
As a child she had lived in Saint Orrea’s Hope, a monastery dedicated to the Messiah, as they all were, but also to the restoration of magic. She was a choir girl, and a servant, and in her teens she had been something of a nun. During those days, she prayed; she prayed almost on reflex, in the morning, before every meal, at night. When she left St. Orrea, she stopped praying eventually. It was hard to pray while homeless on the street. It was hard to pray while fighting in the Borelian brush. It was hard to pray even here in Lubon.
Saint Orrea’s Hope was that miracles were real and the faith could be materially rewarded.
It was hard to imagine such a thing in the kind of world they inhabited now. It was hard to believe in Gods and Miracles when there was discontent, poverty, homelessness; war and death and devastation; when every authority and order that professed to give security and solace to the people preyed on and destroyed them instead. Byanca would not have called herself an atheist, but she couldn’t understand a God who would allow a world like this.
But having nothing else, knowing nothing else, Byanca prostrated herself and prayed.
In the ancient tongue of the elves, as she had been taught, she beseeched the God Of Many Names and his earth-bound martyred form, The Messiah, for succor, for strength. She extolled his virtues. Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. For he was a God who demanded acknowledgment before considering mercy. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam aelfia, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. For her was a God of many powers, and whose powers had to be respected and feared before they could ever be called upon by the humble.
Having humiliated herself as a lowly human before his great power, she could now beg.
“Please grant me the power to save her. I would die if that’s what it took.”
She craned her head skyward, at the great yawning dark she felt just overhead.
“Please. I love her; I loved her as a child, and I love her still. I know it’s stupid. She doesn’t remember me. She doesn’t remember that she promised me a pony and that I’d be a knight and that she would have big tea parties with me in the castle. But she was the light that shone on my soul in Saint Orrea; stranded in a place where I was nothing, no family, no ambitions, no future. I don’t even need to be something to her anymore; I just need her to be okay. I just want her to live and find happiness. Please, if I can do that, I will–”
Dust sifted from overhead, and a thin beam of light shone into the enclosure.
It was the dim, eerie light of a part-dawning sun as earth shifted above and unveiled a sky.
In place of an angel, however, was a short, sturdy fellow in a black uniform.
He had lifted the ceiling of the enclosure and revealed its true position in the ground.
“Geta, take my hand!” He whispered, leaning down into the cell.
Much to her surprise, Byanca found herself raising her arms to take Legionnaire Minimus’ hand, and furthermore found herself being pulled up from her prison by this man. Minimus, whom she had so often wronged before. He was the last person she had ever thought she would see. Especially not standing over her concrete grave plot.
“We have to be quick. Here, I brought you a stovepipe.” He said.
From a bag in his hands, he produced a small submachine gun and a magazine.
She took the weapon, loaded it quickly, and found it to be startlingly real.
This was not some kind of trick; Minimus was really here to help her.
“We don’t have time to be surprised. We have to move.” He said sternly.
He had not changed at all since they first met several years ago. He was a stocky and a round lad with a shaved head and big hands. He wore a white armband over his black uniform that marked him as a medic. She found herself looking for signs of the bruise she left him in their scuffle years ago, but of course, it would have long since healed by then.
Byanca shook her head and took a step back in defense.
“I need answers Minimus. What happened here and why are you helping me?”
Minimus shook his head and waved his hands.
“Listen, I need answers too, but we’ll talk while we move. It’s crucial we go now.”
Byanca cast a quick glance around herself. It just as quickly became more deliberate.
They were in the middle of a stretch of green grass out by a pair of power generating stations. There were several other concrete-lidded plots nearby. Near each of the plots there lay a grass camouflaged tarp that had been pulled aside. A line of decorative trees blocked the view of the unsightly power station from what was clearly a Legionnaire garrison’s administrative building. It was a familiar one — the headquarters of the 17th Blackshirt Legion. Byanca’s legion; Legatus Tarkus’ legion; the traitorous legion.
“What about those cells? Did a man and a woman with me get thrown in those?”
Minimus sighed. “Yes, they did. Are they as good as you? We need to travel light.”
Byanca was almost shocked to hear the casual compliment.
“They’re competent. Help me get them out. They were very expensive.”
“Mercenaries? Good lord.”
Despite his reticence, Minimus helped Byanca to slowly undo the catches holding the concrete lids in place, and lift them from two of the tombs. Inside, she found Torvald praying and Giuseppa sleeping. Both of them had been roughed about as much as she had been, and neither had trouble accepting her hand and climbing out of the enclosures.
“How are you holding up?” Byanca asked.
Giuseppa shook her head. “You did not pay me enough to be buried alive.”
“You weren’t, quit being a baby.”
Torvald crossed his arms. “I’m with her. We’re gonna unionize against this kind of shit.”
Byanca grinned. Her redcoats grinned back at her.
Minimus snorted. “We can catch up while we run away from here. Soon the next shift of guards will be headed this way, and I don’t want to start a firefight this quickly.”
“But you do want to start one.” Byanca said.
“We’ve got to. I’ll explain as we go. Follow me to the detainment building.”
Minimus bowed himself and snuck out along the row of trees.
Byanca nodded her head to her subordinates, and they followed after.
She caught up and moved with Minimus, as close and quietly as possible.
Judging by the way he moved, he had been practicing for this kind of moment.
He knew his route. He knew where to hide and from what vantages. He had a plan.
Together they stole from behind the administrative building and around a trimmed, tree-studded green grounds toward a place Byanca remembered not as a detainment facility but as the warehouses where trucks brought food and fuel and ammunition and stockpiled everything the Legion’s Headquarters staff along with its training and security garrisons would need. The Legion Headquarters was not a base for combat troops, but a logistics and training center first and foremost. They had a small brig for troublemakers but nothing worthy of being called a “detainment facility” had ever been part of the base.
Much had changed under the mysterious new administration, it seemed.
“I’m doing this because it’s right.”
As they inched toward the warehouse facilities, Minimus answered very suddenly.
“You asked why I was helping you; because it’s right. I’ve only been saving my own skin until now and I can’t live like that. I can’t keep ignoring what’s happening here. I told myself the first opportunity I get, I’m going to put a hole in their dam. And there’s no bigger hole than the one you’re capable of making, Centurion, if I sprung you out.”
“Did you know that they would be capturing me?”
“Not specifically, but they threw damn near everyone else into containment, so.”
“You sound more confident in me than even I am.”
“You throw a mean punch.”
Byanca felt a little grin forming on her lips.
“Okay. Great. So what is happening here Minimus? Who are the Illuminati?”
She remembered them all too clearly from the forest; and from her wounds.
Minimus seemed to feel a chill then in mid-run.
They paused behind a brick enclosure around an outdoor water pump. Enough distance had been put between them and the administrative building that they could make the gamble of facing its vantage to hide from their new destination. It was now in their sights.
Beyond their hiding place, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated the old warehouses from the rest of the 17th Legion’s grounds. There was a gate, guarded; several rows of tall buildings with locked shutter doors made up the fenced-in facilities. Judging by the flashlight beams in the distance there were several guards. From a distance, she spotted a literal ammunition dump. There were stacked-up crates, maybe of howitzer shells, out in the open. Likely emptied from the warehouse when it became a prison.
Minimus shook his head and sighed again.
“Hearing you say the word is a little startling, even though you had to have seen them. It’s still hard to believe this is all real. The Illuminati are a bunch of traitors. I don’t really get it; and I’m technically with them. The Legatus has some kind of influence over them.”
Byanca blinked. “You’re with them? Are they from the 17th Legion then?” She asked.
“Almost all of them. Some outside guys, but it’s mostly legionnaires that the Legatus convinced to join his coup movement. Listen: I’d suspected there was something going on but I figured the Legatus and his croneys just had a secret privileged boy’s club with a first pick of the secretaries to fuck.” His crass behavior had already earned him a strike from Byanca before, but Minimus would be Minimus regardless. Byanca contained herself as the Legionnaire continued his tale, and figured she would save the punching for peace time.
“Then a while back,” Minimus continued, with a look of dread on his face, “when they announced we’d gotten all the anarchists, which we very much did not, people started being transferred from the active Maniples to the 4th Reserve Maniple. At first this was just standard demobilization paperwork that you do when a years-long operation is ending. But then the people they targeted started being recalled here to train as part of that Reserve Maniple, which we have never done before. And then they started not being allowed back out. Those are the guys in the warehouses. Then the guys in the masks started showing up at night. And if thought they could use you, you got sent on an isolating errand, so those guys could get to you, and then you got read the ultimatum.”
“Join us or die?”
“Pledge yourself to elven supremacy under the future Caesar, or stagnation in a pit.”
“Amazing. They’re quite full of themselves. But what are they exactly, Minimus?”
“Well, I don’t know everything. I joined them because I was scared, but Tarkus is a 25-karat paranoid and he and his goons won’t tell you anything going on in their heads. But if you listen for it you can learn a lot. Especially if you’re a medic who is writing their prescriptions. What I know: they’re planning a coup; and they have a puppet ruler lined up that they call The Caesar. They think this Caesar is something real special, and I can’t imagine why. All of the inner circle are from the Legatus’ signals battalion. He thinks they can control people’s minds over the radio or something. It’s insane. It’s like a cult, Geta.”
Byanca remembered how they saluted and shouted in unison in the forest.
It was indeed like a cult. But when had its dogma been laid down?
Judging by the situation, even a week ago, the Legatus already had plans for Salvatrice.
How long ago had he started to plot? Had he really groomed Salvatrice all of this time?
That was not possible; Byanca knew that was just arrogant bluster from Tarkus Marcel.
He would say anything to render Salvatrice vulnerable to his demands.
He needed to cultivate that sense of inevitability and omnipotence. All of this time he had more control over Salvatrice’s life and environment than any other person in the world. He didn’t just need her to acquiesce to being his puppet. He wanted, he needed, for her to accept the strings as a part of her. To use her as a ruler, nothing short of that would do.
Maybe that was the magic of the radio, the magic of surveillance. To scare people into believing it controlled the world around them. To make them acknowledge it as a God.
Byanca grit her teeth. Salvatrice did not deserve this abuse. It was abominable.
And to stop it she would have to depend on every ally she could immediately attain.
“Legatus Tarkus ambushed myself and the princess. He has her captive now.”
Byanca said it abruptly. Minimus suddenly looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide.
“Well, fuck. I figured it had to be something like that, but good lord.”
He then put on a little grin just as suddenly. Perhaps it was his idea of being reassuring.
“Luckily, I happen to know where the Legatus is keeping himself these days.”
Byanca gave him a critical look. “Do you know, or are you guessing?”
“I’ll tell you my evidence once we’ve got the army you’ll need to get through him.”
When Giuseppa and Torvald stacked up with them behind the brick walls, Minimus led them down a little hill into a ditch running alongside one stretch of the wall. There was loose earth beneath parts of the fence, and he pulled up a sizable chunk, creating enough space for them to crawl under. Ahead of them were the backs of several of the lower warehouse buildings and no guards in the vicinity. They rushed to the warehouse walls.
“There’s shutter doors on the other side.” Minimus said.
He opened his bag once again and withdrew a second submachine gun, for himself.
“Do you have a knife?” Byanca asked.
Minimus searched his pockets and found a scalpel and shrugged.
“I’m a doctor!” He whispered.
Byanca took the scalpel. It would do.
She handed her submachine gun to Giuseppa and crept around the corner.
Listening for footsteps, watching for the beam of light.
Moving along the side of the building and between the two rows of warehouses, she caught a glimpse of a guard, masked, with the familiar uniform from the forest. Byanca rushed him, seized him and pulled him around the corner in a lighting-quick ambush. She forced the scalpel into his throat and covered his mouth as she dragged him away, butchering his neck until his hands ceased to thrash against her own and his body went slowly limp.
Blood cascaded from the wound, staining her hands slick and dark.
She felt momentarily a little sick.
Were these the hands of a knight who rescued princesses?
In that instant the guard’s flashlight rolled off his fingers.
Byanca felt a moment of panic.
But from behind her a hand seized the flashlight. It was Legionnaire Minimus.
“Be more careful!” He whispered, his own voice growing strained with worry.
Byanca sighed deeply and nodded her head. She pulled the corpse back around the corner.
With the guard gone, there was at least one row of warehouses that could be accessed.
Everyone quickly reconvened before the series of shutter doors.
Minimus drew a lock cutter from his bag and started snapping the prisons open.
Byanca pushed open one of the shutters.
Dozens of eyes seemed to turn her direction at once.
Behind the shutter the warehouse had been emptied of goods and crammed with men, who huddled together making use of any available amount of space. They were weary, sitting back to back and side to side without even room to stretch their legs. It almost seemed like they would fall out in a cascade into the space created by opening the door. There were maybe fifty men all crammed into a storage space meant for a few crates.
“Stand up slowly, and come out.” Byanca urged them.
Incredulous at first, not one man allowed himself even to flinch in their presence.
“We’re not with the black masks. We’re here to fight them. To free you.” She added.
Given that piece of information, they were quicker to move. One by one the haggard faces lit up, and the men helped themselves to stand and walked out of the warehouse as if they were being freed from prison after years instead of days. They looked worn, but freedom seemed to urge them on. Minimus went through the shutters, unlocking each prison. Meanwhile the freed men started immediately to arm themselves. Stray bricks, drainage pipes, chains and chunks of wood. Byanca handed Torvald the pistol from the dead guard.
“I am Centurion Byanca Geta.” She said aloud. “Those black masks are conspiring to–”
There were few among the crowd paying her any attention. Though they did not show her any outright hostility, it was clear that they were– they had to be– suspicious of anyone in the Legion, given their own former comrades had become their jailers. Most of the men were still disoriented. Those who were arming themselves seem to do so out of reflex. Nobody was organizing, nobody was speaking. Some part of them was spoiling for a fight, but imprisonment could beat the strategic mind out of any soldier. They were half-awake.
At this point, it struck Byanca that they were in no condition to be led except by example.
“Minimus, on me. We’re taking the remaining cells by storm.” She said.
“Well. Okay. Fine. Ugh. Geta, I expected a more measured approach.”
“Being measured right now is a half-measure. These men need to see carnage.”
Minimus raised a finger in protest but Byanca started moving, with or without him.
Minimus heaved a heavy, exasperated sigh, and he had an uneasy grip on his submachine gun as he ran, but he followed behind her nonetheless as she turned the corner around the back of the next row of warehouses. Surprisingly, a trickle of the prisoners, armed with whatever loose debris they could find, seemed to slowly follow behind her as well.
When the expected patrol rounded the corner ahead, Byanca aimed for the light.
With a strong pull of the trigger she loosed a hailstorm of automatic fire.
Through the warehouse rows there echoed the tinny rap-rap-rap-rap of the gun.
Wet gurgling and choked screams followed in its wake.
Flashlight beams that once pointed in her direction swung wildly and then rolled along the ground, falling with the crumpling, shredded bodies of the guards holding them. Their corpses made more promising sounds than simple thudding. Among their equipment was a new pair of submachine guns. Byanca handed one gun to Giuseppa, and she waved another toward the prisoners that had been aware enough to follow in her wake.
“I am Centurion Byanca Geta! Follow my lead and stamp out these traitors!”
She slid the submachine gun along the ground, and one man set out a boot to catch it.
He picked up the weapon, handed it to an empty-handed prisoner, and took up a pipe club.
“We of the Maniple swore to follow the Centuria to death!” He cried out. “Forward!”
At once, the rest of the prisoners revitalized and charged suddenly past Byanca.
As another disparate group of guards arrived to survey the disturbance, they were instantly mobbed. Their black masks were ripped from their faces and they were pummeled into the ground, kicked, clubbed, stabbed with glass. More guns were freed from them and passed around. Byanca ran ahead to the group; leaning around the corner, she opened fire down the warehouse row, and forced another pair of guards into hiding.
Covering her men in this way, she gave them opportunity to run to the warehouse shutters and cut and smash free more prisoners. Giuseppa and Torvald rushed past her to the corner across from her own, and covered a different approach. Minimus seemed to stand behind her in awe, as the flashing gunfire flew over the heads of an ever-enlarging mob of angry, haggard, rampaging men hungering to mutilate anyone wearing a black mask.
“He’s taken her to Saint Orrea.” Minimus said suddenly amid the carnage.
Byanca looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous.
“How do you know?” She asked.
From around the corner a string of fiery blue tracers hurtled past, forcing her to cover.
Minimus covered his ears momentarily, but kept speaking as loud as he could muster.
“He had his medicines sent there. Morphine. Pervitin. Cholesterol Testosterone.”
Byanca put her back to the wall and raised her submachine gun to her chest.
“We need to hurry then.” She said. She leaned out of the corner and opened fire.
Alarms and searchlights came alive. It was starting. Now it was a fight.
But she had a swelling mass of wrathful legionnaires, and a heart lit with holy fire.
She knew no matter the odds she overcame, she could never be a Knight. Not now.
But if she was doomed to be an evil dragon, then that fire would burn her enemies away.