Inglory (65.4)

This scene contains violence.


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Overhead, a livid sun bore down on a white, rocky beach beset by a turbulent ocean.

Gaul Von Drachen sat up, and spat out sea water.

His entire being hurt. Everything hurt. Being himself simply hurt.

His whole existence was hurt. But it was fine enough. He was alive.

Recovering some sense of what had transpired, he stood up.

Farther down the shallows on the shore, he saw another, familiar body.

Absentmindedly, he picked up a crab from the sand and threw it at the man.

Puñeta!

Gutierrez cried out and struggled monumentally with the crab on the wet shore.

Von Drachen walked past him, reassured knowing that he was still alive in some form.

He started to walk.

Time had lost most of its meaning to him. Owing to the heat, and maybe thirst and now perhaps malnutrition, depending on how long he had been out, Von Drachen’s world was a blurring, shifting mess, and the seamless, endless landscape of the Ayvartan beach seemed to play endless tricks on his mind. For example, in the distance, he thought he saw a pair of beautiful young girls, in shining silver outfits, waiting on the beach.

They were not waiting for him; he figured they would know right away he was just not interested. Nymphs must have had some way to parse which men were worth eating.

As he walked past, however, he tripped on a stone, and nearly fell.

However, the taller of the nymphs seized him, and they laid him down on the beach.

“Is it an enemy soldier?” asked one.

“Without a gun he’s not an enemy anything. He’s just a victim.”

“You’re far too kind Gwen. Jeez. He could be dangerous.”

“He looks like you could snap him in half. Come on.”

One of the girls loomed over Von Drachen. She had a shining face and golden hair.

“I am known Gwendolyn.” She said, in tormented, slow Ayvartan. “Are you forsaken–”

“Good god, the word you want is lostLostPotea.” He shouted in elvish.

Gwendolyn drew back and kicked sand in his face.

She stormed off.

“Now, now.” said the other girl, darker-haired, more severe-looking. “Things just got interesting here. So you speak Lubonin, huh? Where did you wash up from, stranger?”

Von Drachen spat out the salt on his tongue, and delivered a surprisingly swift reply.

“I’m General Gaul Von Drachen of the Cissean-Nochtish combined Allied forces–”

“Forget that Drachen jerk Lydia; Lydia, look!”

On the beach, that awful Gwendolyn girl suddenly pointed out to sea.

Lydia looked over the ocean and smiled.

Von Drachen struggled to crane his head to his side.

When he did, he saw in the distance the massive figure of a Vittoria-class battleship.

He grinned. He laughed.

He laughed with such cadence Gwendolyn and Lydia were disturbed.

Both of them seemed ready to kick sand in his face again.

And yet, lying on the sand, injured and dehydrated and defeated, Von Drachen laughed.

“You won this time, Madiha Nakar! But there will be such a splendid infinitude of battles! So much chaos! Is it the sun, or does it look like a glorious future is ahead of us?”

It was not the most rational thing to do, but he reveled in it.


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Inglory (65.3)

This scene contains violence and humiliation.


Rangda City — Ocean Station

“I can’t believe he escaped. I let him escape. After all of this.”

“Escape? Madiha, he jumped into a roaring river in a storm. He’s dead.”

“I wish I could believe you, but I’m almost positive he escaped.”

“Calm down. Move on to the next plan, okay?”

“Right.Right. Yes. We have to get moving. We can’t stay here.”

Everything felt completely wasted. Victory here was very hollow.

Despite everyone’s efforts it was clear that Rangda had fallen as a defensive position and as a livable city. Farther south the front line with Nocht was moving, Lubon was coming from the Ocean, that much was confirmed, and the defense of the city was in disarray. Coastal defenses had been compromised, and the rout of the airlanded Elven force only delayed the inevitable. No one wanted a naval confrontation with Lubon at this vulnerable juncture. On the eve of victory an evacuation was called. Tambwe would be abandoned.

Fighting in the city had all but died down. Though many Lubonin knights and air troops had fled and hidden in the city ruins, or even fled the city altogether, the bulk of Lubon’s remaining airlanded forces surrendered to the Ayvartans and their materiel was destroyed. Officers were taken prisoner, soldiers disarmed and left bound at the remains of the demolished port, to be rescued by their own navy whenever they arrived at the city.

Some food was furnished for them, but that was the only courtesy they would get.

Meanwhile citizens were freed from Mansa’s so-called “curfew.” From the airport, the University and other places, refugees from their own home were walked out by Ayvartan soldiers, briefed on what had transpired, and escorted to train stations and bus terminals. All land-based transportation in the city was slowly summoned, in a herculean effort of coordination, to begin a three-day evacuation of the city and its surrounding villages.

No one was happy with the arrangement, but there were no riots or upheavals. Time was given for things that could be carried to be collected, for old homes to be picked clean of anything that could find use in a new home. Exhausted soldiers traded places guarding civilians, keeping traffic going, keeping people moving. This effort started on the very night after the Battle of Rangda, as soon as the first civilians demanded the privilege.

No one was happy, but everybody worked, and everybody moved on with living.

“Colonel! Congratulations! It’s so good to see you here!”

“It’s good to be here, Private.”

“We’ve really only just started, but the evacuation is moving swiftly, I feel.”

“That’s good. It is thanks to your tireless effort. Keep up the good work.”

“Always ma’am! I’m proud to serve under you! Glory to the socialist peoples!”

Across the street, a private looking after some old folks smiled, called out, saluted.

She was full of vigor, but the people at her side were glancing askance at the Colonel.

They were picking through the rubble of what was once their home.

In light of that, the fabled Colonel, the savior of Bada Aso, was no hero to them.

But they said nothing. They were moving on.

For Madiha Nakar, it was hard to move on from being the hero. As she watched tragedy after tragedy transpire under the rain and the intermittent glow of the streetlights, she felt no sense of triumph. She had absolutely failed. This was not Bada Aso; this was not Adjar Dominance. Her soldiers still viewed her with respect and glowing eyes, and all of them veterans of Bada Aso, they knew hard fighting, and though exhausted, and hurt, and driven to extremes, they were thrilled now to have achieved another battle. But this was not a depopulated city used for a setpiece battle. This was a home. And she had ruined it.

When she blew up Bada Aso, everyone had left it. They had left in an orderly fashion. Those who remained, wanted to. They remained to fight with her, and to help her fight.

These civilians were not those civilians.

“You’re being real hard on yourself. I can tell.” Parinita said.

She wrapped an arm around one of Madiha’s own and curled up near her.

On her other hand she was holding open a muddy, slightly ripped umbrella.

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

“I always have to worry with you. It’s right on your face. You’re hurting yourself.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Parinita looked out over the street. They were walking to Ocean Station, having hitched a ride on a Hobgoblin tank back from the riverside, where their secret mission had failed to achieve its intended results. Both of them were a little gloomy; Madiha knew that for all she tried to play it off, Parinita was affected by everything too. She glanced over the ruins around them, and the people sifting through them for any remains of their old lives.

It was not so much valuables; nobody really had much need for them. It was memories that were important. People searched for records, and keepsakes, and family heirlooms. From houses, crumbled by shells or burned down by flamethrowers, they dug for old gifts, for priceless art, for their baby’s first boots, for the ashes of a venerable elder.

“If this was a scene in a color film, it would still be shot in grayscale.” Parinita said.

She turned her head from it and did not look at it again as they approached the station.

There were trains coming and going at an accelerated schedule. Rolling stock from all over Tambwe had been ordered to move to Rangda. Trains full of grain taken from collective farms near the front lines passed through, picked up as many passengers as could be stuffed with the food and around it, and took off overloaded as fast as it was safe to. Empty cars on obsolete engines were brought hastily back on duty, filled, and sent off again.

Everything was moving to the desert, to the eternal city of Solstice, the next battleground.

“There will be color again, Madiha!” Parinita said with a sudden energy.

Madiha nodded. She was downcast, but not defeated. Her heart was gripped with a great misery, but there was a fire inside that was burning up every depressing thought, and nursing a deep anger, a fiery hatred that was ready to burn bright, to lash out, to consume.

“I’ll make sure of it.” Madiha said.

“We will! Together. Alright?”

Parinita gripped her on the shoulder. They did not want to kiss in public.

Both of them knew it was a moment for a kiss, and they would have one when they could.

For now, they held hands on the way into the station.

Parked along the platform was a peculiar train that had come screaming into Rangda shortly after the battle was over. It was a KVW-marked armored train, bristling with guns and troop compartments, carrying a compliment of KVW rifle infantry, a super-heavy Vajra howitzer, and an amusing holiday car for the caboose. It was a quaint wooden car painted with warm colors and boasting a line of clear glass windows, much unlike the thick, enclosed, workmanlike armored sections of the train. There were lights shining brightly from within, and a sound like a gramophone record playing from inside.

“That looks like our stop.” Parinita said, laughing a little to herself.

“I would love for it to not be our stop.” Madiha replied.

“It’s the most picturesque thing here, it’s gotta be.”

Madiha sighed. She looked behind her.

Around one of the columns holding the platform roof, Kali was hiding.

She could see the little creature’s tail and wings peeking from the column.

It had been following them awkwardly ever since they left the riverside.

Perhaps the lightning and Madiha’s temper had made it nervous.

“Kali, stay there. We’ll come get you before we leave, okay?”

Kali’s head peeked out from around the platform. It blinked.

“Stay, okay? We’ll pick you up.”

Kali blinked again.

“I hope it doesn’t leave us. It’s so fun to have it around.” Parinita said.

“Kali’s also tactically useful.” Madiha replied.

Kali grunted.

It made no move to leave them, however.

Satisfied their pet was obeying, Parinita and Madiha walked around the back of the train.

They found the caboose door open. Inside was a colorfully decorated room with a table, furnished with a beautiful tea set. There were cakes, and tea, and coffee, and a pungent-smelling milk or cream, Madiha could not tell. On one end of the table, chained up, her wounds only slightly patched from when Madiha had first found her, was Paladin Varus, the highest value among the Elven captives. Across from her, seated on a cushioned chair, was a KVW officer, in the full red and gold regalia. Her dark hair was collected into a pair of long ponytails, and her skin contrasted with the bright color of her heterochromic eyes.

“Good evening, Colonel! You’re just in time.”

Standing up from the chair, KVW Commissar Halani Kuracha introduced herself.

She was a young woman, energetic, with a lithe figure and a strange ease of motion.

“Good evening, Commissar.”

“One moment!”

Kuracha promptly took a cup of cream from the table, and poured it over Varus’ head.

“I’ve been trying to have a conversation with our guest here, but she’s so stubborn!”

Kuracha started twirling Varus’ cream-covered hair in one of her fingers.

She was laughing gently all the while, a tittering coo-hoo, like a bird.

Under this humiliating treatment, Varus bowed her head with a miserable expression.

“You should tell her, Colonel, maybe she’ll listen to you, after all, you did best her in glorious battle,” with a vicious grin, Kuracha pulled Varus’ head up and stared into her eyes, as she spoke, “tell her that were it not for Helvetia’s opening of diplomatic talks with us on this crucial evening, her rudeness would be strongly corrected by my presence.”

“You should stop making playtime of this interrogation.” Madiha said.

Everything about Kuracha was far too twee, childish and deliberately affected and Madiha was immediately growing to hate it. From what she knew of the woman, thought they had seldom met before this night, Kuracha gained repute as an administrator, prisoner processor, labor camp taskmasker, and some dabbling in military command. She was trustworthy, loyal, if eccentric. Her methods, though, could certainly be rebuked.

Once called out, Kuracha let go of Varus’ hair.

“Don’t worry, that cream was cold. It was sitting out for a while.” She said.

Kuracha walked around the room, and came to a stop with a little twirl in front of Madiha.

“Burning someone would be against the accords.”

Madiha was over a head taller, so Kuracha had to crane up to look her in the eye.

She looked like she had something vicious to say; but it was swallowed by a sweet smile.

“But there are forms of duress which have fallen through the cracks.”

“Why was I summoned here?” Madiha asked.

Kuracha blinked, and clapped her hands together with a sweet expression.

“I had been monitoring your progress in Rangda, Colonel. My unit did what we could to preempt 8th Division reinforcements coming in by train. We could’ve never predicted the Elven attack, however. We believe the Royal Navy to be a ways out; our air force will be scouting in the coming days. So that is why I called you in. I will be taking command of the evacuation here. You are required at Solstice: you will fly out there post-haste.”

Kuracha, having delivered her message, twirled back around and walked back to the table.

Madiha watched her go quietly, and spoke up again as the Commissar sat down.

“I would like to put in a request.”

Kuracha did not even turn around to meet her eyes again.

“I would like you to leave my car now.” she dismissively replied.

Her tone was still dripping sweet, but it was just harsher enough than before.

Madiha started to feel a pressure in her temples.

“I want my troops to be evacuated first. They fought hard. They deserve it.”

“Hmm? Excuse me?”

“i see no reason to repeat myself.”

“I’m afraid I’ll need a refresher.”

“My troops will be evacuated first.” Madiha said again, more sharply. “They have spent far too long already in this hole; I want them on the first train to Solstice. They earned it.

Kuracha started speaking in a machine-like, procedural sort of voice.

“Unfortunately priority is materiel first, then units, but don’t worry, there will be–”

“Why are you making this a problem?” Madiha said.

Kuracha turned back around and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Madiha did not budge from the doorway. Parinita looked uncomfortable beside her.

But she was seeing too red to move now. Kuracha blinked hard and shook her head.

“You are the one becoming over-emotional here, Colonel. Though the distance will be only a few hours, no, they will not be first, I’m afraid. This has been left under my authority.”

“Commissar, there is precedent for this–”

“Not under my command.” Kuracha cut in.

Madiha closed her hand into a fist.

“It would vastly recover the morale of this nation’s finest soldiers if–”

“You are dismissed, Colonel. Your troops will be safe and home, in an orderly fashion.”

Kuracha continued to act as if she had gotten the final word, and turned back to Varus.

“So, my dear, who was this Gwendolyn you kept mumbling about, hmm?”

Varus flinched.

Madiha walked up to the table.

Parinita gasped, but was not quick enough to stop her.

In a flash, Madiha raised a leg and kicked Kuracha’s backrest, knocking her down.

For an instant it seemed as though she would kick the dainty woman in the chest.

Such a blow would have broken bones. Knocking down the chair was merely surprising.

Nevertheless Kuracha hit the floor hard.

She scurried onto her back with great quickness and stared up at Madiha.

Her hands were shaking slightly, and it seemed like she wanted to reach for a gun.

Something, however, stayed her hand, and she recollected herself.

“You forget your place, Colonel.” She hissed from the floor.

“No, you’re confused as to your own.”

Madiha took a knee and stared down, as if to say, ‘I’m still bigger even doing this.’

She loomed over Kuracha, making herself a dangerous physical presence.

“This is not your personal playground anymore, Commissar. This is not a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells for you to boss around. This is not a KVW political office for you vault ranks through parroting a party line. While you were hunting stray trains my troops were in this city steeped in its death and treachery. They will be evacuated first. I’m very short tonight, Commissar. And I know for a fact, right now, I am more valuable than you.”

Kuracha stared at her defiantly. She was not threatened, not in the least.

In fact, she looked just as flighty as ever. Her words dripped with sarcasm and skepticism.

“Colonel, has anyone ever taught you the power of please? It is a magic word.” She said. “I am a person of respect, and this frankly. It is beneath you; beneath your legend.”

She practically spat out the last word like venom.

Madiha remembered a pair of ruffians some time ago who told her, while withholding information she needed, that if she made friends and asked nicely, instead of demanding, she would have gotten what she wanted. That was back before she knew these people would betray, kidnap and torture her, and that she would ultimately murder them all.

Kuracha was someone she would come to blows with. She knew this already.

There were all kinds of communists. Even those who agreed politically may not personally.

Madiha had hated many of her own people. But Kuracha was something else altogether.

She felt it, as if it was being carried in the air around her. Kuracha was dangerous.

She radiated something unseemly, something vitriolic to people.

Was this part of her power too? She had felt Varus’ weakness, felt the blows that the Paladin had taken, felt her defeat enough to almost see it. Now from Kuracha, she smelled the wantonness, and felt the frustration, and the casual application of power, the lust for dominance over others. Kuracha was cloyingly, sickeningly sweet, and she turned sweet like the sugars in a plantain: activated by fire, by violence, by the application of force.

Kuracha loved to have others under her power. That love was sweet as death was dark.

And perhaps some part of her loved to be captive and to be forced and driven down.

It confirmed to her the power she still had, even towered over by someone stronger.

Madiha shook her head. All of these things had flooded her mind in an instant.

She was almost reeling from the shock of it. Like a lightning bolt outside had stricken her.

A bolt of insight, of empathy, all of it unwanted.

“I will evacuate your troops first. But only because this isn’t worth fighting over.”

Kuracha acquiesced, and perhaps in her mind, it was all a sign of her strength.

Madiha had lost control.

She stood, turned her back, and made for the door.

“Colonel, I can be an angel or a devil. It’s entirely your choice.” Kuracha said.

“I’ll consider it, Commissar.”

Madiha did not look at Kuracha’s face as she pushed through the doorway.

Parinita bowed her head respectfully at the door and followed right after.

Walking aimlessly, in a random direction, Madiha was stomping her feet. She went out under the rain, slowly soaking. She felt the shame sinking in with the water, and started moving faster. Everything about Rangda, everything that had happened, she realized it was all characterized by a lack of control. Madiha’s impulses had driven her through all of it. She felt suddenly as if at no point had she truly mastered herself, and been a willing pilot in her own life. She projected that anger, that frustration, that recklessness, to everything that had transpired. From the Mansas, to the Elves, it was all wanton id.

Soon she was running through the rain, as if trying to outrun her thoughts.

“Madiha, are you okay? Talk to me!”

Someone came running in from behind, struggling with an umbrella.

Catching up, Parinita laid hand on Madiha’s shoulder and tried to slow her down.

“This isn’t the way to the airport.”

“I apologize. I made a fool of myself, of you; of us.”

Madiha stopped dead under the storm. She felt tears starting to gather in her eyes.

Parinita ran around her and stood in front, holding her hands.

“That was reckless back then, but you were doing it for deserving people.” She said. “Please don’t hold yourself in contempt for it, Madiha! You had good intentions, and that woman was definitely trying to get under your skin. I don’t hold any of it against you.”

Madiha could not bear to look at her. She felt like a monster.

“No. It was all my own self-righteousness and stubbornness. It’s always been.”

It seemed totalizing; she projected this event throughout all of her life.

She felt like she was realizing how wrong she had always been.

It was not liberating. It was like falling in a pit. It was like dying.

“Madiha, please–”

“First Mansa’s subordinates got a rise out of me; then Chakrani made me lose my composure; Von Drachen put me off balance; and now this. This is all such a mess.”

“Those were all infuriating things. You’re human. It happens. You’re not perfect!”

Madiha sighed, and it came out as a heavy sob, and shook the tears out of her.

Parinita looked around to see if anyone was there.

She seemed satisfied; they appeared to be deep in the station, amid empty, waiting trains.

With the coast clear she raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks, parted her hair, and tiptoed.

Madiha did not resist the kiss.

She did not reciprocate with much energy, but did not resist.

“Madiha, please calm down. You’ve been through a lot. Give yourself some space. Please.”

Madiha sighed again, feeling frustrated with herself for this weakness.

“I fear I am devolving back into the impulsiveness of my youth.” She whimpered.

She locked eyes with her lover, and found an unruly sort of stare meeting hers.

Parinita grinned coquettishly, one hand over her lips. “Oh~ really~? Well, I for one am excited at the prospect of a more passionate and hot-blooded Madiha Nakar.”

She moved her hands in a cute little flourish.

Madiha burst into an involuntary chuckle.

“I can’t believe you’d tease me when I’m this vulnerable.” She said.

“Aww. I’m sorry. I was trying to make you smile.”

Madiha turned her head awkwardly, her face flushed from crying and from kissing.

“You nearly got me.” She said. Her mind was slowly clearing, just a touch.

Perhaps it was Parinita’s influence over the flame of Madiha’s power, like magic.

Like telepathy.

Or perhaps, Parinita was just that sweet and that good.

Madiha’s distress started to turn into embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got us both soaking wet. I’ve been acting like a child.”

Parinita backed away a step, still holding Madiha’s hands, and smiled.

“Forget it. At any rate, you said in Bada Aso you reconnected with lost memories, right? It’s only natural you’d change after that; and after everything else that’s happened too. You’ve been hurt and exhausted and you’ve never once thought of yourself in all of it.”

Parinita sighed and looked out over the trains.

“I’m so worried, and I just, don’t know what to do sometimes. But I’m here for you.”

Madiha squeezed her hands. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to worry you.”

“Just let me take care of you every once in a while. Okay? If you can’t do it for yourself.”

They started to walk again, this time the right away to the airport. Parinita held up the umbrella, but they were both dripping wet, and cold, shivering, and the storm was making them struggle to keep the thing over their heads. Once more they had to pick up their space and start running, until they returned to the platform. Making sure to remain out of sight from Kuracha’s car, the two of them sought shelter at the station. Dripping all over a bench, they waited for a car to come that could be hailed and pick them up.

It was a pathetic scene, but not every battle ended gloriously.

Probably most events in history simply transitioned to inglorious peace without warning.

Madiha sighed deeply.

“Hey, don’t. Just cuddle up to me for warmth and stop thinking about it.”

Parinita seemed to readily preempt Madiha’s dark thoughts.

Wrapping themselves up in a towel provided by a nearby soldier, they clung close.

“I meant what I said, by the way. You’re taking some time off to recover.”

Madiha tried to work up a little smile. “I will readily acquiesce.”

“I’ll schedule a relaxing film just for us. And a warm bed right after.”

Parinita whispered in a sultry voice.

Madiha felt a momentary titillation at the thought.

“I’d like that.” She said awkwardly, remembering their last time.

Parinita, meanwhile, had a face like a fox poised to devour.

“Please calm down about it though.” Madiha added.

Together they waited, for the car, for the plane, for a change of clothes.

And in the sky, and off in the distance, and with time, they saw the edge of the desert.

One more inglorious transition in history.


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Inglory (65.2)

53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Shining Port

“Keep moving! The faster your feet go, the sooner you’ll be warm again!”

A line of guards led the captives down to the port like a funeral procession.

Whenever the line slowed, the Ayvartan guards shouted, and the prisoners moved again.

Nobody wanted to march under this storm. Nobody except maybe Gulab Kajari, who had volunteered for the job and was visible all around the line, shouting and making a racket.

Maybe she, like everybody else, wanted to shout down something other than prisoners.

Nevertheless they all moved, under the driving rain, as one depressing mass.

Little was done to protect the prisoners from the storm, and for the guards there were only cloaks and rain tarps tied with rope to their shirts or bodysuit belts. Tied together by the hands, elven soldiers from the various airlanded units marched down Ocean Road, Council, and the other battlefields from which they had been taken or where they had surrendered.

Disarmed, partially disrobed, the prisoners were cold and downcast, their heads down, the long locks of gold hair characteristic of most elves now dripping wet and hanging over their faces. They walked as fast as their remaining strength allowed. At their side, under threat from Chimera and Hobgoblin escorts, their remaining vehicles marched with them, stripped of ammunition and with their gun blocks sealed up with glue. Guards rode with the drivers to insure compliance. This mixed parade made it was way to the coast.

Riding near the front, with its gun trained on a “Patriarch” tank ahead of them, was the Chimera belonging to Adesh Gurunath and company. He waved to Corporal Kajari whenever she neared and she waved back as she moved up and down the line. There was a tarp on tentpoles over his Chimera, but some water still go in. It was a dreary scene.

“Move.”

“Be gentle! I’m wounded and you take up so much space.”

“You’re spreading your legs.”

“It hurts when I close them!”

“Liar.”

Behind Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe were having one of their petty rows about the one seemingly dry corner of the Chimera’s fighting compartment, and the limited space there for two young adults sitting side by side. They pushed up against each other, and even when quite would passive-aggressively shift their weight to annoy the other. Adesh could hardly stand to look at them, they were so frustrating. Rahani was gone; he was with the driver of the tank in front of them, pointing a gun at them. So Eshe nominally had command, but in reality Adesh was giving most of the directions to Kufu out in front.

As always Kufu had little to nothing to say and Adesh welcomed the lack of personality.

Soon the procession had made its way to port. Their arrival was heralded by a series of explosions out by the military berths. All around the port facilities, trucks and half-tracks full of engineers and their equipment drove up and down. Out by the waterside the port was a smoldering ruin. Adesh could see the smoke from his vantage, and when they drove along the coast he could see the piers in pieces, floating in the water. Rangda’s flotilla of fishing boats had been released out to sea to clog up the harbor. The Port’s cranes had their foundations blown up, and they were pushed into the sea as well. Coastal defense turrets opened fire on the lighthouse on the other end of the city and knocked it down.

All the while this sabotage and destruction was happening, the captives were marched to a series of depots, while their vehicles were set to run into the ocean at various points. There was so much junk floating along the port now that it seemed impossible for any ship to use it. They could not dock at the berths, could not get near the piers. Rangda’s shining port was now a rubble port. It would be the home of their captives for the next while.

Sergeant Chadgura and Corporal Kajari addressed the prisoners through an interpreter.

“You’ll stay in here until you get rescued by your side. You should be lucky we’re socialists and value life here in Ayvarta. There’s rations in this crate. If you’re seen in the street from now until our evacuation you will be shot. Stay here, until next we meet in battle.”

With that, the captives were locked, hands and feet still bound, in the shipping depots.

This task complete, the guards and escort crews took a moment to breathe and wait out the worst of the rain in their own little depots just off the main road of the port. It was warmer there. With more real estate to work with, Eshe and Nnenia gave each other a wider berth. The Chimera was parked outside, nearly out of fuel, to be towed by a tank transporter to the train station. Everyone would ride back to Ocean in trucks, trucks which command promised would drive out to meet them as soon as possible. Adesh waited.

He found it strangely difficult to leave the Chimera behind. Its smart green paint job was pitted and scratched and filthy with smoke and dirt and mud and rain, its side rails were broken, its track links battered and fraying, the muzzle brake was splitting, and the suspension could hardly cope with any kind of bump anymore. Over the span of a day it had been battered continuously, and was no noble beast anymore. But he felt attached.

This machine had saved him and his friends. It had won battles. It had claimed lives.

He had done all of those things too. And yet he felt like the machine would understand better than his fellows what that was like. Maybe he was something like a machine too.

Finding his own little corner of the depot to exist in, Adesh sat down on a small stack of empty shipping boxes. They reminded him of the sort that were filled with explosive shells for the Chimera. He sat there, apart from his friends, apart from the other soldiers.

Everything was quiet. Everyone was tired, wet and shaking from residual stress.

He did not feel great. His stomach was quite upset. He felt nervous tingling under his skin.

“Hey, we’re evacuating, kid! We won! Why are you so gloomy all of a sudden?”

Gulab Kajari’s gentle face suggested a weariness like Adesh’s own, despite her loud cheer.

She appeared and sat down beside Adesh, and threw an arm around him with a smile. She was the same woman as always, slight and fit, with black hair in a long braid that was coming apart from the rain, and honey-colored skin dripping with rainwater, sweat, and slick in places with the grime of battle. She had a face that was pretty in the way his own was said to be pretty, in its smoothness and softness, perhaps more sharply featured.

He could not help but smile in her presence, but it was a smile as sad as her own seemed.

“You’re tired? Aren’t we all! Just do some work to get it off your mind. It’s what I do!”

“With all due respect Corporal, I think that’s the opposite of what you should do.”

“I’ve always done the opposite of what I should’ve done!” Gulab replied.

Adesh wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. He looked down at the floor and saw his own reflection in a puddle of water that had dripped and dripped down from the roof.

“What’s on your mind?” Gulab asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t see anything, to be honest. I feel like I’m not thinking.”

“Huh. Think of it this way, if your cousin could see what was in your head–”

Adesh cut her off gently. “I don’t know what you could see in the head of a boy so lost he doesn’t even know who he is anymore, or what being is, or what, I don’t know, he is.”

“God, I’d be so envious of someone who doesn’t know what he means.” Gulab said.

Adesh blinked at her quizzically.

“I’ve felt similarly to you before, I think. I might’ve been that boy.”

Adesh thought he understood, on some general level.

“My head is full of fog. I used to think of myself one way, but lately, it feels like I’m becoming someone terrible.” Adesh said. “And I’m in a situation where I can’t stop.”

“What terrible things have you done? You’ve saved my life so many times today.”

Adesh sighed deeply.

“I’m not– I shouldn’t be a soldier.” He said. “Listen, Corporal: I joined the army when it was just a joke. It was just another labor union. We had soldiers and police who didn’t have to fight; it was communism, right? I thought I could use it as an escape. But it’s changed me. I know I’m capable of killing. I’m good at it. That– that really hurts, you know?”

Adesh looked out over the depot. He could see Nnenia dozing off in a corner; Nnenia who had said in the middle of a besieged church, that she had seen worse than a room full of injured men and women moaning for help. He could see Eshe, talking with the bubbly and flowery Sergeant Rahani. Eshe, who had picked up a flamethrower and killed a score of men who were coming to kill them all, burned them horribly alive while they screamed.

Eshe and Nnenia were properly horrified, stressed, injured, by what they experienced.

All of them had done horrible things. But none of them with as much comfort as Adesh.

“I’m really dangerous, Corporal Kajari. I can protect them; but I can also get them killed. Today I’ve been reckless, and I’ve been eager, and it’s scary, all of the things I’ve done.”

Adesh had been so angry. Every time the enemy threatened. He was full of anger, and he yelled, and he fought, and he begged for the chance to kill and kill and kill them again. He told himself he was protecting his friends. But he thought there was a monster in him, and it was so strong. He felt like all of his senses were awakening solely to be used for killing. Nnenia and Eshe had taken to soldiery with a hidden strength that was admirable, but neither seemed to possess the unflinching talent with murder than Adesh had found.

“You keep looking at your friends.” Gulab said. “With, I dunno, it looks like a kind of pity? Distance? I’m not sure what’s going through your head, but do you see me the same way?”

Adesh was not sure how to respond. He sighed. Gulab took him into an embrace.

“Have you asked them how they feel about that? About themselves? Have you shared what you think is happening to you? I wager they feel the same way. I think we all gotta do.”

“How do you feel about it?” Adesh weakly asked.

Gulab took in a deep breath as if she was about say something she rehearsed.

“I feel that I was living an impostor life, and for the last little while I’ve been trying to be true to myself and who I want to be, and I don’t know if other people see me as I want to be seen, or if there even is a legitimate person who can be seen that way at all. It hurts a bit. I want people to see a brave and feisty mountain girl who is reliable and lovable. I don’t know what they see, and it scares me. But the fact is, Adesh, fighting to defend yourself, and your friends, and things you believe is, doesn’t rob you of the guts of that person. Struggling to survive, wanting things to be better, and fighting for it, that’s noble!”

Adesh was surprised. He felt an eerie familiarity with everything she was saying.

He also had to wonder whether it really had been rehearsed or not!

Gulab seemed to notice his change in demeanor.

She took him by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes with a big smile.

And with tears in her eyes. She looked as if she had discovered something miraculous.

“I can be a girl and you can be a girl if you want to! Us fighting like this doesn’t preclude it and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. We’re struggling for something beautiful!”

Adesh blinked. He felt his face turning hot. “Um.”

“Um!” Gulab looked suddenly nervous. “I mean, you can be anything you want to be.”

Adesh nervously played a little with his hair.

“Sorry, I get carried away! But um. What I meant to say is that being a soldier doesn’t mean you’re a monster. Whatever your original intention, you’re in this army now, you’re staying here, and you’re becoming stronger, yes at killing, but also, because you care about your people and your home, and your friends, and the civilians who depend on you now.”

It was a strange word to hear. Depend. People depended on him?

“I’m not some hero, Ms. Kajari.”

“Yeah you are! Like I said, you saved me a lot today. And maybe that person, the way they save others, maybe that scares you. Because you might think you’re not worthy of the things you’re fighting for anymore. And I think it’s fine to be scared. It means you care so much, it means you’re really, truly, good. But give yourself some time and space, y’know?”

She patted him in the back, with an awkward little laugh.

Clearly Corporal Kajari was losing the plot on her own advice at the moment.

Adesh felt a little relieved to have talked to her, however.

He would still have to sit down and consider many things for himself.

But he felt a sense of relief knowing he wasn’t alone. He didn’t have to be alone.

“Thanks Ms. Kajari.” He said. He meant it. He felt the fog in his mind clearing a little.

Enough that he could, at least, create a facade of calm that could fool even himself.

“No problem, kiddo! And call me Gulab! Enough of the ‘miss this’ and ‘rank that’ stuff.”

Gulab jumped up from the crates they were sitting on, and walked proudly away.

Adesh watched her return to her partner, the gloomy silver-haired Sergeant Chadgura, and start hollering about something or other in a distressingly loud fashion. He smiled.

Soon a covered truck arrived, and the driver ushered everyone into the back.

Gulab, Chadgura, Nnenia, Eshe and Rahani, along with Adesh, crowded into the bed.

There were already two people there. A pair of young women, one curly-haired, tomboyish, the other long-haired and a bit fairer, holding hands, wrapped in a little blanket. They were sleeping soundly and occupying a corner of the truck with their legs outstretched, taking up an unfortunate amount of room for all the people coming in.

“Don’t disturb them.” Gulab ordered. “Those two lovebirds earned this.”

She sat down with her legs under her, and Chadgura did the same, conserving some space.

Adesh was respectful, and did the same.

Nnenia and Eshe continued to quarrel for space.

Rahani gave everyone a dangerous look; they settled down immediately.

“Ahem,”

He leaned forward. He had replaced the flower on his head with a poppy taken from an elf.

“I wanted to tell all of you how proud I am. Thanks to your efforts today, we won this battle. There are many shapes to victory, but the sweetest one, is to live on. Remember it.”

He smiled, spread his arms, pulled Nnenia, Eshe and Adesh close and kissed their heads.

Everyone chuckled, quietly, so as not to wake Caelia Suessen and Danielle Santos.

Rahani sat back against the wall of the truck bed.

“No matter what anyone tells you of this inglorious day, my precious crew. You won.”

He sighed deeply, and soon seemed to fall asleep himself.

Adesh, having found some small enough measure of peace, was soon sleeping too.


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Inglory (65.1)

This scene contains violence, death and fleeting ableism.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Rangda Riverside

As darkness descended over Rangda, the skies slowly grew thick with black stormclouds. Bolts of violet light crackled and whipped in the distance, lighting up the night with their violence. From somewhere out north a seething weather swept down on the tortured city.

Soon after the assault of the elves and traitors finally ended, the assault of the rain began. Driven by strong winds, the storm seemed to come from out of nowhere, and the rain fell in torrents that swept across the ground like the fire of a machine gun, putting out blazes, seeping into the husks of tanks and ruined buildings. Spent casings rolled down ankle deep flood streams that began to accumulate on Ocean Road. Every drainage ditch was stuffed with the debris of the war, and the water seemed to suddenly have nowhere to go.

Off in the distance, there was a twofold thunder. Some of it came bellowing out of the wrathful skies, but in between the flashing and booming, there were explosions. Chunks of the legendary shining port blew apart and were swept up into the rising seas. Ayvartan engineers worked quickly to destroy the berths, sabotage port equipment, and render Rangda unusable to the Royal Navy or the Nochtish one. A stock of naval mines was emptied off port, and floated amid the debris in the harbor. Those fishing ships not already smashed by the weather were unanchored and left to float away from the ruins.

All of this transpired over open radio frequencies. Von Drachen listened from the cab of his stolen Ayvartan 4-ton truck. Colonel Gutierrez drove patiently through southeastern Rangda, ducking civilians come out of hiding and patrols from their victorious enemies. They were trapped now behind enemy lines, and there was nothing that could be done about it until they escaped the city. Von Drachen had escaped that lunatic elf and he and some of his loyal men were bound for the bridge across Rangda’s eastern riverside.

Listening intently, he found the Ayvartans had become conveniently chatty in the glow of their victory. He had largely avoided capture by being in the same wavelength as his pursuers. Over the radio Von Drachen heard sectors being cleared, supplies being moved. He avoided flashpoints and scurried away like a mouse.

No amount of running would avoid an actual wall however. Even the smallest mouse needed a hole. Walls had to be broken.

“Mijo, I don’t think they’re just gonna let us through.” Colonel Gutierrez said.

“We’ll ask them politely.” Von Drachen replied.

“Politely?”

Idly at the Colonel’s side, Von Drachen started to load a Norgler machine gun.

“Politely.” He said amicably.

“That’s an even worse idea than what I thought you would do.”

“What did you think I would do?”

“Drive the truck pell-mell through the checkpoint. You’d say it’s unexpected or–”

“That’s actually a fantastic idea.”

Von Drachen turned the lever on the truck window and tossed the Norgler out of it.

“Drive through the checkpoint ahead, pell-mell.”

Colonel Gutierrez banged his head on the steering wheel. “Dios libera me…”

“Be careful with your head, old man.”

Von Drachen, smiling, put his feet up and leaned back on his seat.

Ahead of them, after one final twist around an urbanization, the road muddied up, and there was a grass and dirt and plentiful water pooling over the earth. A mechanical bridge connected the rural edge of South-Eastern Rangda to the near-literal jungle across the way, and it was the only thing standing between the Cissean troops and freedom.

There was a checkpoint indeed, with a hasty barrier of sandbags and a pair of guards.

“Floor it, Gutierrez!”

“Flooring!”

Heaving a deep sigh, the old Colonel slammed his foot on the pedal, and the wheels of the truck screeched, and water and mud flew everywhere as the truck accelerated toward the barrier. Von Drachen grabbed on to his seat, and behind him he could hear his men screaming in the bed of the truck, unaware of the plan. As the truck’s headlight flashed over them the guards at the checkpoint exhibited curious determination and held firm.

Behind them, the bridge’s motors began to whir, and it began to lift on hydraulic power.

“Unfloor it Gutierrez!” Von Drachen cried out.

“Unflooring!”

Gutierrez took his foot off the accelerator pedal and forced back the brake lever.

Once more the truck screeched and protested, and it ground into the mud.

Its wheels mired in the muddy road, and it came to a halt meters away from the checkpoint.

From behind the sandbags, the Ayvartan guards stood tall once more, rifles ready.

Von Drachen, reeling inside the truck, withdrew his pistol and ducked.

Just as quickly and haphazardly he pushed Colonel Gutierrez down with him.

Over the two of them, a pair of rifle bullets pierced the glass on the truck.

In after the shattered glass came the storm rain, descending into the cab.

It was biting cold, sharper than the glass.

“Gutierrez, you take the left one, I take the right.” Von Drachen said.

Without warning, he kicked the door open, and rolled out of the truck.

Falling into the mud, Von Drachen aimed and fired his pistol over the sandbags.

He struck one guard in the chest, and she keeled over backward.

At her side, the remaining guard was mysteriously, and unfortunately, un-shot.

On the other side of the truck, Colonel Gutierrez fell like a lump into the mud.

Though the General heard him fall, he did not hear him respond nor even move.

Von Drachen was speechless. He stared at the guard, and the sky, and the truck.

Scrambling for cover, he rolled under the truck as more rifle shots struck near him.

Drinking up water and mud as he crawled through the muck in which the truck was partially embedded and submerged, Von Drachen crawled agonizingly to the other side of the vehicle. There was a flash of lightning and a loud, booming thunder. Von Drachen grabbed hold of Gutierrez, stood him up, and with one arm opened fire on the guard checkpoint. He hit the sandbags, and the remaining guard hid behind cover.

There was another flash and more thunder; but this came from behind him.

Von Drachen felt something rumbling and leaped forward even before feeling the blast.

An earsplitting detonation smashed the bed of the truck.

On the force of the blast, Von Drachen and Gutierrez were thrown to the river’s edge.

Face-first in the muck once more, Von Drachen struggled to push himself up.

He looked over his shoulder. His truck was burning, a decimated husk.

Where his men could possibly be in that heap of scrap wood and slag, burning off its own fuel, Von Drachen did not know. He immediately wrote them all off as a loss. Poor boys.

Much more pressing was the tank making its way from ambush through nearby shrubbery.

Its main gun, a long, big bored weapon (76mm possibly?), trained on him.

From around the tank came a familiar woman, tall and fit, brown-skinned, with mid-length, messy dark hair and a face that was soft and pretty and contorted in the ways it could least be those things. She had the familiar Ayvartan uniform, coat and pants and all, one Von Drachen was wearing himself. At her side, a pleasingly figured woman, lighter in complexion, with colorful strawberry hair, carried an umbrella to shield them from rain.

“Give up this vain struggle, I outmaneuvered you.” said Madiha Nakar.

She snapped her fingers.

Behind her, the Ayvartan tank, of a type Von Drachen had never seen, unleashed a shot.

A shell soared across the river and exploded with such force Von Drachen felt it from afar.

Von Drachen drew his pistol.

In the next instant he felt something hard strike his hand, and the weapon flew from it.

It rolled over the edge behind him and into the river.

From the stormy sky, a scaly little creature with scintillating wings descended.

It perched on Madiha’s shoulder and growled.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Madiha said. “Traitor to the anarchists in Valle Rojo, after selling out your side you caught the eye of Nochtish Grand Marshal Braun, who lobbied for you to be trained in Nochtish officer schools and to have a Nochtish command in the reformed Cissean allied military. Now a Cissean General. You were fast-tracked through to your current position out of need for Cissean strategic officers. You participated in the border battles, in Bada Aso. Now you are here. And you are conveniently at my mercy.”

“Did you read my book?” Von Drachen said, smiling. “How kind of you.”

Madiha ignored him. “Under the Helvetian accords I am taking you captive.”

“Ah, you want to make it official because the Helvetians are your allies now?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You will glean no insight from me.”

“I already have, Commander.”

“You talk too much.” Madiha rolled her eyes.

“I’ve barely talked at all.”

“There’s just something about your voice that makes me hate you.”

“I get that a lot. How come you understand me, by the way? I’m speaking Nochtish.”

“I speak Nochtish too.”

“You’re replying in Ayvartan.”

“Shut up Von Drachen.” She looked flustered. “This is a surrender negotiation, you fool.”

At her side the other woman frowned and shook her head.

“Is this something to do with the fireballs? Is it like science fiction telepathy?”

“I said, be quiet.”

There was something special about Madiha Nakar. She was strong and smart and gallant, a very princely sort of woman that one just did not see often at all. But it was not just that, not just the regal beauty and physicality of her as a specimen, but also, well, the magic, and the battling monsters, and those sorts of other things. Von Drachen had some idea now of what Madiha Nakar could do. She could shoot fire out of her hands. And she could understand any language, as if possessed of some supernatural mental abilities.

She was no ordinary soldier, and every part of her he could pick at was priceless.

Every little bit that he learned was a piece of the puzzle that would be helpful later.

And every contact he had with her seemed to teach him more and more of her secrets.

She was not very clever when it came to people. Perhaps some kind of autism?

No, that was uncharitable. He tried not to speculate too much. Speculation could run away with the mind, and in this crucial moment he needed rationality and focus. But– perhaps.

“Commander Nakar, I want you to know, I admire you. You strike me as a great woman. I believe, when Nocht wins this war, you may, properly medicated, have a place with us.”

Madiha averted her eyes. “I’m centimeters away from killing you.”

At her side, the woman with the bouncy hair and light makeup elbowed her gently.

Von Drachen did not fail to notice that gesture.

“If I may be so vain, as to ask what you think of me, your defeated enemy? You know I had this idea of us, of our cat and mouse game, our great chess match. Have I been worthy?”

Madiha frowned. On her shoulder, her little dragon pet made the same face.

“You’re an overrated little twerp.”

She was good at hurting people. Sometimes with guns; but also with words.

Von Drachen was genuinely hurt.

For a moment, he let his expertly choreographed conversation degrade to insult her.

“Well, you’re not very feminine.”

He turned his cheek to her. She frowned, as did the woman next to her.

“You owe your current state of health to the negotiation clauses of the Helvetian accords regarding enemy officers. Were it for me, I would have shot you already.”

She was rough, she constructed her sentences oddly, and was very on-edge.

That had not been the case in Bada Aso; but she had quite a terrible day today, after all.

And she had recovered somehow. That was also interesting.

At any rate, he could excuse her hitherto unknown bad personality on the torture.

Though he forgave her, that did not mean he would stop provoking her.

Von Drachen shrugged. “We’ve all been known to discard the Accords for expediency.”

“That is true. I expediently desire your surrender. I will tolerate no more nonsense.”

Von Drachen made a face of mock distress.

“Well, while we’re being dutiful, I would like to lodge a complaint, a violation of my rights. I cannot willingly consent to surrender in the ambiguity of my captor being a magic witch.”

“Shut up, Von Drachen!”

“You could take over my mind and force me to surrender. How is that balanced at all?”

Madiha was starting to sound more heated, and the woman behind her patted her on the shoulder and seemed to be reminding her of calm. Madiha sighed, and the woman smiled.

“You understand Ayvartan, right? I’m Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani. We guarantee you’ll be treated justly under the Helvetian accords.” said the young woman beside Nakar. “Please stop being so silly and surrender, so we can go somewhere warm. No matter where you run there’s only death around you. You might as well not die, right?”

She was addressing him because the two of them could not actually kill him.

At least, not without greater provocation than just words.

He was so much more valuable alive than dead. An informational coup in the making.

They knew he was a traitor once, after all. Maybe they wanted to turn him again?

Or maybe it really was the Helvetians? Who knew? Idle speculation was such a bad habit.

At any rate, it was an opportunity.

“Ah, the good cop.” Von Drachen said, amicably.

Parinita smiled a little. “It’s not like we practiced it.”

Madiha rolled her eyes again. “Don’t bother with him.”

On her shoulder the dragon also rolled its eyes.

Von Drachen held up his hand and tittered. “Oh, my. Are you two ladies familiar?”

“I’m going to kill him.” Madiha snapped.

“Please don’t, it’ll get the film banned overseas.” Parinita joked.

Von Drachen continued talking with a smile on his face and a hand around Gutierrez.

He had found another thing he could use.

He continued to address Parinita, while his hand slid gently about.

“Are you technical staff? Is that sort of thing allowed? You have impeccable taste in military commanders, my girl, but as far as a romantic partner, I’m not so sure. Correct me, for I am most certainly wrong; but I had this imagining that homosexual women preferred partners with whom they could dress up together, and be feminine with? That seems like the thrust with women in my country, especially the feminist anarchists?”

Madiha stomped her foot.

“SHUT UP VON DRACHEN.”

Behind her, a lightning bolt flashed in the sky.

It struck so loudly it startled the dragon, and it flew away in distress.

Von Drachen, hand under the mud, pried loose from Gutierrez a grenade.

It went rolling out in the mud, visible, audible, dangerous.

“Parinita!”

Madiha immediately dove for her lvoer and pushed her to the ground for safety.

But there was no explosion, because Von Drachen never pulled the pin.

Adios!

With every last ounce of strength, in one great herculean burst, Von Drachen seized Gutierrez and leaped amid sporadic fire into the river below. He crashed into the water as if striking a cement sheet, and the stormy current whisked him away in an instant. He couldn’t even see the look on Nakar’s face as he did it! What a waste to drown like this!

Somewhere between the water around and the water above, everything went dark.


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Inglory — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains violence, death, fleeting ableism and humiliation.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Rangda Riverside

As darkness descended over Rangda, the skies slowly grew thick with black stormclouds. Bolts of violet light crackled and whipped in the distance, lighting up the night with their violence. From somewhere out north a seething weather swept down on the tortured city.

Soon after the assault of the elves and traitors finally ended, the assault of the rain began. Driven by strong winds, the storm seemed to come from out of nowhere, and the rain fell in torrents that swept across the ground like the fire of a machine gun, putting out blazes, seeping into the husks of tanks and ruined buildings. Spent casings rolled down ankle deep flood streams that began to accumulate on Ocean Road. Every drainage ditch was stuffed with the debris of the war, and the water seemed to suddenly have nowhere to go.

Off in the distance, there was a twofold thunder. Some of it came bellowing out of the wrathful skies, but in between the flashing and booming, there were explosions. Chunks of the legendary shining port blew apart and were swept up into the rising seas. Ayvartan engineers worked quickly to destroy the berths, sabotage port equipment, and render Rangda unusable to the Royal Navy or the Nochtish one. A stock of naval mines was emptied off port, and floated amid the debris in the harbor. Those fishing ships not already smashed by the weather were unanchored and left to float away from the ruins.

All of this transpired over open radio frequencies. Von Drachen listened from the cab of his stolen Ayvartan 4-ton truck. Colonel Gutierrez drove patiently through southeastern Rangda, ducking civilians come out of hiding and patrols from their victorious enemies. They were trapped now behind enemy lines, and there was nothing that could be done about it until they escaped the city. Von Drachen had escaped that lunatic elf and he and some of his loyal men were bound for the bridge across Rangda’s eastern riverside.

Listening intently, he found the Ayvartans had become conveniently chatty in the glow of their victory. He had largely avoided capture by being in the same wavelength as his pursuers. Over the radio Von Drachen heard sectors being cleared, supplies being moved. He avoided flashpoints and scurried away like a mouse.

No amount of running would avoid an actual wall however. Even the smallest mouse needed a hole. Walls had to be broken.

“Mijo, I don’t think they’re just gonna let us through.” Colonel Gutierrez said.

“We’ll ask them politely.” Von Drachen replied.

“Politely?”

Idly at the Colonel’s side, Von Drachen started to load a Norgler machine gun.

“Politely.” He said amicably.

“That’s an even worse idea than what I thought you would do.”

“What did you think I would do?”

“Drive the truck pell-mell through the checkpoint. You’d say it’s unexpected or–”

“That’s actually a fantastic idea.”

Von Drachen turned the lever on the truck window and tossed the Norgler out of it.

“Drive through the checkpoint ahead, pell-mell.”

Colonel Gutierrez banged his head on the steering wheel. “Dios libera me…”

“Be careful with your head, old man.”

Von Drachen, smiling, put his feet up and leaned back on his seat.

Ahead of them, after one final twist around an urbanization, the road muddied up, and there was a grass and dirt and plentiful water pooling over the earth. A mechanical bridge connected the rural edge of South-Eastern Rangda to the near-literal jungle across the way, and it was the only thing standing between the Cissean troops and freedom.

There was a checkpoint indeed, with a hasty barrier of sandbags and a pair of guards.

“Floor it, Gutierrez!”

“Flooring!”

Heaving a deep sigh, the old Colonel slammed his foot on the pedal, and the wheels of the truck screeched, and water and mud flew everywhere as the truck accelerated toward the barrier. Von Drachen grabbed on to his seat, and behind him he could hear his men screaming in the bed of the truck, unaware of the plan. As the truck’s headlight flashed over them the guards at the checkpoint exhibited curious determination and held firm.

Behind them, the bridge’s motors began to whir, and it began to lift on hydraulic power.

“Unfloor it Gutierrez!” Von Drachen cried out.

“Unflooring!”

Gutierrez took his foot off the accelerator pedal and forced back the brake lever.

Once more the truck screeched and protested, and it ground into the mud.

Its wheels mired in the muddy road, and it came to a halt meters away from the checkpoint.

From behind the sandbags, the Ayvartan guards stood tall once more, rifles ready.

Von Drachen, reeling inside the truck, withdrew his pistol and ducked.

Just as quickly and haphazardly he pushed Colonel Gutierrez down with him.

Over the two of them, a pair of rifle bullets pierced the glass on the truck.

In after the shattered glass came the storm rain, descending into the cab.

It was biting cold, sharper than the glass.

“Gutierrez, you take the left one, I take the right.” Von Drachen said.

Without warning, he kicked the door open, and rolled out of the truck.

Falling into the mud, Von Drachen aimed and fired his pistol over the sandbags.

He struck one guard in the chest, and she keeled over backward.

At her side, the remaining guard was mysteriously, and unfortunately, un-shot.

On the other side of the truck, Colonel Gutierrez fell like a lump into the mud.

Though the General heard him fall, he did not hear him respond nor even move.

Von Drachen was speechless. He stared at the guard, and the sky, and the truck.

Scrambling for cover, he rolled under the truck as more rifle shots struck near him.

Drinking up water and mud as he crawled through the muck in which the truck was partially embedded and submerged, Von Drachen crawled agonizingly to the other side of the vehicle. There was a flash of lightning and a loud, booming thunder. Von Drachen grabbed hold of Gutierrez, stood him up, and with one arm opened fire on the guard checkpoint. He hit the sandbags, and the remaining guard hid behind cover.

There was another flash and more thunder; but this came from behind him.

Von Drachen felt something rumbling and leaped forward even before feeling the blast.

An earsplitting detonation smashed the bed of the truck.

On the force of the blast, Von Drachen and Gutierrez were thrown to the river’s edge.

Face-first in the muck once more, Von Drachen struggled to push himself up.

He looked over his shoulder. His truck was burning, a decimated husk.

Where his men could possibly be in that heap of scrap wood and slag, burning off its own fuel, Von Drachen did not know. He immediately wrote them all off as a loss. Poor boys.

Much more pressing was the tank making its way from ambush through nearby shrubbery.

Its main gun, a long, big bored weapon (76mm possibly?), trained on him.

From around the tank came a familiar woman, tall and fit, brown-skinned, with mid-length, messy dark hair and a face that was soft and pretty and contorted in the ways it could least be those things. She had the familiar Ayvartan uniform, coat and pants and all, one Von Drachen was wearing himself. At her side, a pleasingly figured woman, lighter in complexion, with colorful strawberry hair, carried an umbrella to shield them from rain.

“Give up this vain struggle, I outmaneuvered you.” said Madiha Nakar.

She snapped her fingers.

Behind her, the Ayvartan tank, of a type Von Drachen had never seen, unleashed a shot.

A shell soared across the river and exploded with such force Von Drachen felt it from afar.

Von Drachen drew his pistol.

In the next instant he felt something hard strike his hand, and the weapon flew from it.

It rolled over the edge behind him and into the river.

From the stormy sky, a scaly little creature with scintillating wings descended.

It perched on Madiha’s shoulder and growled.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Madiha said. “Traitor to the anarchists in Valle Rojo, after selling out your side you caught the eye of Nochtish Grand Marshal Braun, who lobbied for you to be trained in Nochtish officer schools and to have a Nochtish command in the reformed Cissean allied military. Now a Cissean General. You were fast-tracked through to your current position out of need for Cissean strategic officers. You participated in the border battles, in Bada Aso. Now you are here. And you are conveniently at my mercy.”

“Did you read my book?” Von Drachen said, smiling. “How kind of you.”

Madiha ignored him. “Under the Helvetian accords I am taking you captive.”

“Ah, you want to make it official because the Helvetians are your allies now?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You will glean no insight from me.”

“I already have, Commander.”

“You talk too much.” Madiha rolled her eyes.

“I’ve barely talked at all.”

“There’s just something about your voice that makes me hate you.”

“I get that a lot. How come you understand me, by the way? I’m speaking Nochtish.”

“I speak Nochtish too.”

“You’re replying in Ayvartan.”

“Shut up Von Drachen.” She looked flustered. “This is a surrender negotiation, you fool.”

At her side the other woman frowned and shook her head.

“Is this something to do with the fireballs? Is it like science fiction telepathy?”

“I said, be quiet.”

There was something special about Madiha Nakar. She was strong and smart and gallant, a very princely sort of woman that one just did not see often at all. But it was not just that, not just the regal beauty and physicality of her as a specimen, but also, well, the magic, and the battling monsters, and those sorts of other things. Von Drachen had some idea now of what Madiha Nakar could do. She could shoot fire out of her hands. And she could understand any language, as if possessed of some supernatural mental abilities.

She was no ordinary soldier, and every part of her he could pick at was priceless.

Every little bit that he learned was a piece of the puzzle that would be helpful later.

And every contact he had with her seemed to teach him more and more of her secrets.

She was not very clever when it came to people. Perhaps some kind of autism?

No, that was uncharitable. He tried not to speculate too much. Speculation could run away with the mind, and in this crucial moment he needed rationality and focus. But– perhaps.

“Commander Nakar, I want you to know, I admire you. You strike me as a great woman. I believe, when Nocht wins this war, you may, properly medicated, have a place with us.”

Madiha averted her eyes. “I’m centimeters away from killing you.”

At her side, the woman with the bouncy hair and light makeup elbowed her gently.

Von Drachen did not fail to notice that gesture.

“If I may be so vain, as to ask what you think of me, your defeated enemy? You know I had this idea of us, of our cat and mouse game, our great chess match. Have I been worthy?”

Madiha frowned. On her shoulder, her little dragon pet made the same face.

“You’re an overrated little twerp.”

She was good at hurting people. Sometimes with guns; but also with words.

Von Drachen was genuinely hurt.

For a moment, he let his expertly choreographed conversation degrade to insult her.

“Well, you’re not very feminine.”

He turned his cheek to her. She frowned, as did the woman next to her.

“You owe your current state of health to the negotiation clauses of the Helvetian accords regarding enemy officers. Were it for me, I would have shot you already.”

She was rough, she constructed her sentences oddly, and was very on-edge.

That had not been the case in Bada Aso; but she had quite a terrible day today, after all.

And she had recovered somehow. That was also interesting.

At any rate, he could excuse her hitherto unknown bad personality on the torture.

Though he forgave her, that did not mean he would stop provoking her.

Von Drachen shrugged. “We’ve all been known to discard the Accords for expediency.”

“That is true. I expediently desire your surrender. I will tolerate no more nonsense.”

Von Drachen made a face of mock distress.

“Well, while we’re being dutiful, I would like to lodge a complaint, a violation of my rights. I cannot willingly consent to surrender in the ambiguity of my captor being a magic witch.”

“Shut up, Von Drachen!”

“You could take over my mind and force me to surrender. How is that balanced at all?”

Madiha was starting to sound more heated, and the woman behind her patted her on the shoulder and seemed to be reminding her of calm. Madiha sighed, and the woman smiled.

“You understand Ayvartan, right? I’m Chief Warrant Officer Parinita Maharani. We guarantee you’ll be treated justly under the Helvetian accords.” said the young woman beside Nakar. “Please stop being so silly and surrender, so we can go somewhere warm. No matter where you run there’s only death around you. You might as well not die, right?”

She was addressing him because the two of them could not actually kill him.

At least, not without greater provocation than just words.

He was so much more valuable alive than dead. An informational coup in the making.

They knew he was a traitor once, after all. Maybe they wanted to turn him again?

Or maybe it really was the Helvetians? Who knew? Idle speculation was such a bad habit.

At any rate, it was an opportunity.

“Ah, the good cop.” Von Drachen said, amicably.

Parinita smiled a little. “It’s not like we practiced it.”

Madiha rolled her eyes again. “Don’t bother with him.”

On her shoulder the dragon also rolled its eyes.

Von Drachen held up his hand and tittered. “Oh, my. Are you two ladies familiar?”

“I’m going to kill him.” Madiha snapped.

“Please don’t, it’ll get the film banned overseas.” Parinita joked.

Von Drachen continued talking with a smile on his face and a hand around Gutierrez.

He had found another thing he could use.

He continued to address Parinita, while his hand slid gently about.

“Are you technical staff? Is that sort of thing allowed? You have impeccable taste in military commanders, my girl, but as far as a romantic partner, I’m not so sure. Correct me, for I am most certainly wrong; but I had this imagining that homosexual women preferred partners with whom they could dress up together, and be feminine with? That seems like the thrust with women in my country, especially the feminist anarchists?”

Madiha stomped her foot.

“SHUT UP VON DRACHEN.”

Behind her, a lightning bolt flashed in the sky.

It struck so loudly it startled the dragon, and it flew away in distress.

Von Drachen, hand under the mud, pried loose from Gutierrez a grenade.

It went rolling out in the mud, visible, audible, dangerous.

“Parinita!”

Madiha immediately dove for her lvoer and pushed her to the ground for safety.

But there was no explosion, because Von Drachen never pulled the pin.

Adios!

With every last ounce of strength, in one great herculean burst, Von Drachen seized Gutierrez and leaped amid sporadic fire into the river below. He crashed into the water as if striking a cement sheet, and the stormy current whisked him away in an instant. He couldn’t even see the look on Nakar’s face as he did it! What a waste to drown like this!

Somewhere between the water around and the water above, everything went dark.


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Shining Port

“Keep moving! The faster your feet go, the sooner you’ll be warm again!”

A line of guards led the captives down to the port like a funeral procession.

Whenever the line slowed, the Ayvartan guards shouted, and the prisoners moved again.

Nobody wanted to march under this storm. Nobody except maybe Gulab Kajari, who had volunteered for the job and was visible all around the line, shouting and making a racket.

Maybe she, like everybody else, wanted to shout down something other than prisoners.

Nevertheless they all moved, under the driving rain, as one depressing mass.

Little was done to protect the prisoners from the storm, and for the guards there were only cloaks and rain tarps tied with rope to their shirts or bodysuit belts. Tied together by the hands, elven soldiers from the various airlanded units marched down Ocean Road, Council, and the other battlefields from which they had been taken or where they had surrendered.

Disarmed, partially disrobed, the prisoners were cold and downcast, their heads down, the long locks of gold hair characteristic of most elves now dripping wet and hanging over their faces. They walked as fast as their remaining strength allowed. At their side, under threat from Chimera and Hobgoblin escorts, their remaining vehicles marched with them, stripped of ammunition and with their gun blocks sealed up with glue. Guards rode with the drivers to insure compliance. This mixed parade made it was way to the coast.

Riding near the front, with its gun trained on a “Patriarch” tank ahead of them, was the Chimera belonging to Adesh Gurunath and company. He waved to Corporal Kajari whenever she neared and she waved back as she moved up and down the line. There was a tarp on tentpoles over his Chimera, but some water still go in. It was a dreary scene.

“Move.”

“Be gentle! I’m wounded and you take up so much space.”

“You’re spreading your legs.”

“It hurts when I close them!”

“Liar.”

Behind Adesh, Nnenia and Eshe were having one of their petty rows about the one seemingly dry corner of the Chimera’s fighting compartment, and the limited space there for two young adults sitting side by side. They pushed up against each other, and even when quite would passive-aggressively shift their weight to annoy the other. Adesh could hardly stand to look at them, they were so frustrating. Rahani was gone; he was with the driver of the tank in front of them, pointing a gun at them. So Eshe nominally had command, but in reality Adesh was giving most of the directions to Kufu out in front.

As always Kufu had little to nothing to say and Adesh welcomed the lack of personality.

Soon the procession had made its way to port. Their arrival was heralded by a series of explosions out by the military berths. All around the port facilities, trucks and half-tracks full of engineers and their equipment drove up and down. Out by the waterside the port was a smoldering ruin. Adesh could see the smoke from his vantage, and when they drove along the coast he could see the piers in pieces, floating in the water. Rangda’s flotilla of fishing boats had been released out to sea to clog up the harbor. The Port’s cranes had their foundations blown up, and they were pushed into the sea as well. Coastal defense turrets opened fire on the lighthouse on the other end of the city and knocked it down.

All the while this sabotage and destruction was happening, the captives were marched to a series of depots, while their vehicles were set to run into the ocean at various points. There was so much junk floating along the port now that it seemed impossible for any ship to use it. They could not dock at the berths, could not get near the piers. Rangda’s shining port was now a rubble port. It would be the home of their captives for the next while.

Sergeant Chadgura and Corporal Kajari addressed the prisoners through an interpreter.

“You’ll stay in here until you get rescued by your side. You should be lucky we’re socialists and value life here in Ayvarta. There’s rations in this crate. If you’re seen in the street from now until our evacuation you will be shot. Stay here, until next we meet in battle.”

With that, the captives were locked, hands and feet still bound, in the shipping depots.

This task complete, the guards and escort crews took a moment to breathe and wait out the worst of the rain in their own little depots just off the main road of the port. It was warmer there. With more real estate to work with, Eshe and Nnenia gave each other a wider berth. The Chimera was parked outside, nearly out of fuel, to be towed by a tank transporter to the train station. Everyone would ride back to Ocean in trucks, trucks which command promised would drive out to meet them as soon as possible. Adesh waited.

 

He found it strangely difficult to leave the Chimera behind. Its smart green paint job was pitted and scratched and filthy with smoke and dirt and mud and rain, its side rails were broken, its track links battered and fraying, the muzzle brake was splitting, and the suspension could hardly cope with any kind of bump anymore. Over the span of a day it had been battered continuously, and was no noble beast anymore. But he felt attached.

This machine had saved him and his friends. It had won battles. It had claimed lives.

He had done all of those things too. And yet he felt like the machine would understand better than his fellows what that was like. Maybe he was something like a machine too.

Finding his own little corner of the depot to exist in, Adesh sat down on a small stack of empty shipping boxes. They reminded him of the sort that were filled with explosive shells for the Chimera. He sat there, apart from his friends, apart from the other soldiers.

Everything was quiet. Everyone was tired, wet and shaking from residual stress.

 

He did not feel great. His stomach was quite upset. He felt nervous tingling under his skin.

“Hey, we’re evacuating, kid! We won! Why are you so gloomy all of a sudden?”

Gulab Kajari’s gentle face suggested a weariness like Adesh’s own, despite her loud cheer.

She appeared and sat down beside Adesh, and threw an arm around him with a smile. She was the same woman as always, slight and fit, with black hair in a long braid that was coming apart from the rain, and honey-colored skin dripping with rainwater, sweat, and slick in places with the grime of battle. She had a face that was pretty in the way his own was said to be pretty, in its smoothness and softness, perhaps more sharply featured.

He could not help but smile in her presence, but it was a smile as sad as her own seemed.

“You’re tired? Aren’t we all! Just do some work to get it off your mind. It’s what I do!”

“With all due respect Corporal, I think that’s the opposite of what you should do.”

“I’ve always done the opposite of what I should’ve done!” Gulab replied.

Adesh wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. He looked down at the floor and saw his own reflection in a puddle of water that had dripped and dripped down from the roof.

“What’s on your mind?” Gulab asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t see anything, to be honest. I feel like I’m not thinking.”

“Huh. Think of it this way, if your cousin could see what was in your head–”

Adesh cut her off gently. “I don’t know what you could see in the head of a boy so lost he doesn’t even know who he is anymore, or what being is, or what, I don’t know, he is.”

“God, I’d be so envious of someone who doesn’t know what he means.” Gulab said.

Adesh blinked at her quizzically.

“I’ve felt similarly to you before, I think. I might’ve been that boy.”

Adesh thought he understood, on some general level.

“My head is full of fog. I used to think of myself one way, but lately, it feels like I’m becoming someone terrible.” Adesh said. “And I’m in a situation where I can’t stop.”

“What terrible things have you done? You’ve saved my life so many times today.”

 

Adesh sighed deeply.

“I’m not– I shouldn’t be a soldier.” He said. “Listen, Corporal: I joined the army when it was just a joke. It was just another labor union. We had soldiers and police who didn’t have to fight; it was communism, right? I thought I could use it as an escape. But it’s changed me. I know I’m capable of killing. I’m good at it. That– that really hurts, you know?”

Adesh looked out over the depot. He could see Nnenia dozing off in a corner; Nnenia who had said in the middle of a besieged church, that she had seen worse than a room full of injured men and women moaning for help. He could see Eshe, talking with the bubbly and flowery Sergeant Rahani. Eshe, who had picked up a flamethrower and killed a score of men who were coming to kill them all, burned them horribly alive while they screamed.

Eshe and Nnenia were properly horrified, stressed, injured, by what they experienced.

All of them had done horrible things. But none of them with as much comfort as Adesh.

“I’m really dangerous, Corporal Kajari. I can protect them; but I can also get them killed. Today I’ve been reckless, and I’ve been eager, and it’s scary, all of the things I’ve done.”

Adesh had been so angry. Every time the enemy threatened. He was full of anger, and he yelled, and he fought, and he begged for the chance to kill and kill and kill them again. He told himself he was protecting his friends. But he thought there was a monster in him, and it was so strong. He felt like all of his senses were awakening solely to be used for killing. Nnenia and Eshe had taken to soldiery with a hidden strength that was admirable, but neither seemed to possess the unflinching talent with murder than Adesh had found.

“You keep looking at your friends.” Gulab said. “With, I dunno, it looks like a kind of pity? Distance? I’m not sure what’s going through your head, but do you see me the same way?”

Adesh was not sure how to respond. He sighed. Gulab took him into an embrace.

“Have you asked them how they feel about that? About themselves? Have you shared what you think is happening to you? I wager they feel the same way. I think we all gotta do.”

“How do you feel about it?” Adesh weakly asked.

Gulab took in a deep breath as if she was about say something she rehearsed.

“I feel that I was living an impostor life, and for the last little while I’ve been trying to be true to myself and who I want to be, and I don’t know if other people see me as I want to be seen, or if there even is a legitimate person who can be seen that way at all. It hurts a bit. I want people to see a brave and feisty mountain girl who is reliable and lovable. I don’t know what they see, and it scares me. But the fact is, Adesh, fighting to defend yourself, and your friends, and things you believe is, doesn’t rob you of the guts of that person. Struggling to survive, wanting things to be better, and fighting for it, that’s noble!”

Adesh was surprised. He felt an eerie familiarity with everything she was saying.

He also had to wonder whether it really had been rehearsed or not!

Gulab seemed to notice his change in demeanor.

She took him by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes with a big smile.

And with tears in her eyes. She looked as if she had discovered something miraculous.

“I can be a girl and you can be a girl if you want to! Us fighting like this doesn’t preclude it and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. We’re struggling for something beautiful!”

Adesh blinked. He felt his face turning hot. “Um.”

“Um!” Gulab looked suddenly nervous. “I mean, you can be anything you want to be.”

Adesh nervously played a little with his hair.

“Sorry, I get carried away! But um. What I meant to say is that being a soldier doesn’t mean you’re a monster. Whatever your original intention, you’re in this army now, you’re staying here, and you’re becoming stronger, yes at killing, but also, because you care about your people and your home, and your friends, and the civilians who depend on you now.”

It was a strange word to hear. Depend. People depended on him?

“I’m not some hero, Ms. Kajari.”

“Yeah you are! Like I said, you saved me a lot today. And maybe that person, the way they save others, maybe that scares you. Because you might think you’re not worthy of the things you’re fighting for anymore. And I think it’s fine to be scared. It means you care so much, it means you’re really, truly, good. But give yourself some time and space, y’know?”

She patted him in the back, with an awkward little laugh.

Clearly Corporal Kajari was losing the plot on her own advice at the moment.

Adesh felt a little relieved to have talked to her, however.

He would still have to sit down and consider many things for himself.

But he felt a sense of relief knowing he wasn’t alone. He didn’t have to be alone.

“Thanks Ms. Kajari.” He said. He meant it. He felt the fog in his mind clearing a little.

Enough that he could, at least, create a facade of calm that could fool even himself.

“No problem, kiddo! And call me Gulab! Enough of the ‘miss this’ and ‘rank that’ stuff.”

Gulab jumped up from the crates they were sitting on, and walked proudly away.

Adesh watched her return to her partner, the gloomy silver-haired Sergeant Chadgura, and start hollering about something or other in a distressingly loud fashion. He smiled.

Soon a covered truck arrived, and the driver ushered everyone into the back.

Gulab, Chadgura, Nnenia, Eshe and Rahani, along with Adesh, crowded into the bed.

There were already two people there. A pair of young women, one curly-haired, tomboyish, the other long-haired and a bit fairer, holding hands, wrapped in a little blanket. They were sleeping soundly and occupying a corner of the truck with their legs outstretched, taking up an unfortunate amount of room for all the people coming in.

“Don’t disturb them.” Gulab ordered. “Those two lovebirds earned this.”

She sat down with her legs under her, and Chadgura did the same, conserving some space.

Adesh was respectful, and did the same.

Nnenia and Eshe continued to quarrel for space.

Rahani gave everyone a dangerous look; they settled down immediately.

“Ahem,”

He leaned forward. He had replaced the flower on his head with a poppy taken from an elf.

“I wanted to tell all of you how proud I am. Thanks to your efforts today, we won this battle. There are many shapes to victory, but the sweetest one, is to live on. Remember it.”

He smiled, spread his arms, pulled Nnenia, Eshe and Adesh close and kissed their heads.

Everyone chuckled, quietly, so as not to wake Caelia Suessen and Danielle Santos.

Rahani sat back against the wall of the truck bed.

“No matter what anyone tells you of this inglorious day, my precious crew. You won.”

He sighed deeply, and soon seemed to fall asleep himself.

Adesh, having found some small enough measure of peace, was soon sleeping too.


Rangda City — Ocean Station

“I can’t believe he escaped. I let him escape. After all of this.”

“Escape? Madiha, he jumped into a roaring river in a storm. He’s dead.”

“I wish I could believe you, but I’m almost positive he escaped.”

“Calm down. Move on to the next plan, okay?”

“Right.Right. Yes. We have to get moving. We can’t stay here.”

Everything felt completely wasted. Victory here was very hollow.

Despite everyone’s efforts it was clear that Rangda had fallen as a defensive position and as a livable city. Farther south the front line with Nocht was moving, Lubon was coming from the Ocean, that much was confirmed, and the defense of the city was in disarray. Coastal defenses had been compromised, and the rout of the airlanded Elven force only delayed the inevitable. No one wanted a naval confrontation with Lubon at this vulnerable juncture. On the eve of victory an evacuation was called. Tambwe would be abandoned.

Fighting in the city had all but died down. Though many Lubonin knights and air troops had fled and hidden in the city ruins, or even fled the city altogether, the bulk of Lubon’s remaining airlanded forces surrendered to the Ayvartans and their materiel was destroyed. Officers were taken prisoner, soldiers disarmed and left bound at the remains of the demolished port, to be rescued by their own navy whenever they arrived at the city.

Some food was furnished for them, but that was the only courtesy they would get.

Meanwhile citizens were freed from Mansa’s so-called “curfew.” From the airport, the University and other places, refugees from their own home were walked out by Ayvartan soldiers, briefed on what had transpired, and escorted to train stations and bus terminals. All land-based transportation in the city was slowly summoned, in a herculean effort of coordination, to begin a three-day evacuation of the city and its surrounding villages.

No one was happy with the arrangement, but there were no riots or upheavals. Time was given for things that could be carried to be collected, for old homes to be picked clean of anything that could find use in a new home. Exhausted soldiers traded places guarding civilians, keeping traffic going, keeping people moving. This effort started on the very night after the Battle of Rangda, as soon as the first civilians demanded the privilege.

No one was happy, but everybody worked, and everybody moved on with living.

“Colonel! Congratulations! It’s so good to see you here!”

“It’s good to be here, Private.”

“We’ve really only just started, but the evacuation is moving swiftly, I feel.”

“That’s good. It is thanks to your tireless effort. Keep up the good work.”

“Always ma’am! I’m proud to serve under you! Glory to the socialist peoples!”

Across the street, a private looking after some old folks smiled, called out, saluted.

She was full of vigor, but the people at her side were glancing askance at the Colonel.

They were picking through the rubble of what was once their home.

In light of that, the fabled Colonel, the savior of Bada Aso, was no hero to them.

But they said nothing. They were moving on.

For Madiha Nakar, it was hard to move on from being the hero. As she watched tragedy after tragedy transpire under the rain and the intermittent glow of the streetlights, she felt no sense of triumph. She had absolutely failed. This was not Bada Aso; this was not Adjar Dominance. Her soldiers still viewed her with respect and glowing eyes, and all of them veterans of Bada Aso, they knew hard fighting, and though exhausted, and hurt, and driven to extremes, they were thrilled now to have achieved another battle. But this was not a depopulated city used for a setpiece battle. This was a home. And she had ruined it.

When she blew up Bada Aso, everyone had left it. They had left in an orderly fashion. Those who remained, wanted to. They remained to fight with her, and to help her fight.

These civilians were not those civilians.

“You’re being real hard on yourself. I can tell.” Parinita said.

She wrapped an arm around one of Madiha’s own and curled up near her.

On her other hand she was holding open a muddy, slightly ripped umbrella.

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

“I always have to worry with you. It’s right on your face. You’re hurting yourself.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Parinita looked out over the street. They were walking to Ocean Station, having hitched a ride on a Hobgoblin tank back from the riverside, where their secret mission had failed to achieve its intended results. Both of them were a little gloomy; Madiha knew that for all she tried to play it off, Parinita was affected by everything too. She glanced over the ruins around them, and the people sifting through them for any remains of their old lives.

It was not so much valuables; nobody really had much need for them. It was memories that were important. People searched for records, and keepsakes, and family heirlooms. From houses, crumbled by shells or burned down by flamethrowers, they dug for old gifts, for priceless art, for their baby’s first boots, for the ashes of a venerable elder.

“If this was a scene in a color film, it would still be shot in grayscale.” Parinita said.

She turned her head from it and did not look at it again as they approached the station.

There were trains coming and going at an accelerated schedule. Rolling stock from all over Tambwe had been ordered to move to Rangda. Trains full of grain taken from collective farms near the front lines passed through, picked up as many passengers as could be stuffed with the food and around it, and took off overloaded as fast as it was safe to. Empty cars on obsolete engines were brought hastily back on duty, filled, and sent off again.

Everything was moving to the desert, to the eternal city of Solstice, the next battleground.

“There will be color again, Madiha!” Parinita said with a sudden energy.

Madiha nodded. She was downcast, but not defeated. Her heart was gripped with a great misery, but there was a fire inside that was burning up every depressing thought, and nursing a deep anger, a fiery hatred that was ready to burn bright, to lash out, to consume.

“I’ll make sure of it.” Madiha said.

“We will! Together. Alright?”

Parinita gripped her on the shoulder. They did not want to kiss in public.

Both of them knew it was a moment for a kiss, and they would have one when they could.

For now, they held hands on the way into the station.

Parked along the platform was a peculiar train that had come screaming into Rangda shortly after the battle was over. It was a KVW-marked armored train, bristling with guns and troop compartments, carrying a compliment of KVW rifle infantry, a super-heavy Vajra howitzer, and an amusing holiday car for the caboose. It was a quaint wooden car painted with warm colors and boasting a line of clear glass windows, much unlike the thick, enclosed, workmanlike armored sections of the train. There were lights shining brightly from within, and a sound like a gramophone record playing from inside.

“That looks like our stop.” Parinita said, laughing a little to herself.

“I would love for it to not be our stop.” Madiha replied.

“It’s the most picturesque thing here, it’s gotta be.”

Madiha sighed. She looked behind her.

Around one of the columns holding the platform roof, Kali was hiding.

She could see the little creature’s tail and wings peeking from the column.

It had been following them awkwardly ever since they left the riverside.

Perhaps the lightning and Madiha’s temper had made it nervous.

“Kali, stay there. We’ll come get you before we leave, okay?”

Kali’s head peeked out from around the platform. It blinked.

“Stay, okay? We’ll pick you up.”

Kali blinked again.

“I hope it doesn’t leave us. It’s so fun to have it around.” Parinita said.

“Kali’s also tactically useful.” Madiha replied.

Kali grunted.

It made no move to leave them, however.

Satisfied their pet was obeying, Parinita and Madiha walked around the back of the train.

They found the caboose door open. Inside was a colorfully decorated room with a table, furnished with a beautiful tea set. There were cakes, and tea, and coffee, and a pungent-smelling milk or cream, Madiha could not tell. On one end of the table, chained up, her wounds only slightly patched from when Madiha had first found her, was Paladin Varus, the highest value among the Elven captives. Across from her, seated on a cushioned chair, was a KVW officer, in the full red and gold regalia. Her dark hair was collected into a pair of long ponytails, and her skin contrasted with the bright color of her heterochromic eyes.

“Good evening, Colonel! You’re just in time.”

Standing up from the chair, KVW Commissar Halani Kuracha introduced herself.

She was a young woman, energetic, with a lithe figure and a strange ease of motion.

“Good evening, Commissar.”

“One moment!”

Kuracha promptly took a cup of cream from the table, and poured it over Varus’ head.

“I’ve been trying to have a conversation with our guest here, but she’s so stubborn!”

Kuracha started twirling Varus’ cream-covered hair in one of her fingers.

She was laughing gently all the while, a tittering coo-hoo, like a bird.

Under this humiliating treatment, Varus bowed her head with a miserable expression.

“You should tell her, Colonel, maybe she’ll listen to you, after all, you did best her in glorious battle,” with a vicious grin, Kuracha pulled Varus’ head up and stared into her eyes, as she spoke, “tell her that were it not for Helvetia’s opening of diplomatic talks with us on this crucial evening, her rudeness would be strongly corrected by my presence.”

“You should stop making playtime of this interrogation.” Madiha said.

Everything about Kuracha was far too twee, childish and deliberately affected and Madiha was immediately growing to hate it. From what she knew of the woman, thought they had seldom met before this night, Kuracha gained repute as an administrator, prisoner processor, labor camp taskmasker, and some dabbling in military command. She was trustworthy, loyal, if eccentric. Her methods, though, could certainly be rebuked.

Once called out, Kuracha let go of Varus’ hair.

“Don’t worry, that cream was cold. It was sitting out for a while.” She said.

Kuracha walked around the room, and came to a stop with a little twirl in front of Madiha.

“Burning someone would be against the accords.”

Madiha was over a head taller, so Kuracha had to crane up to look her in the eye.

She looked like she had something vicious to say; but it was swallowed by a sweet smile.

“But there are forms of duress which have fallen through the cracks.”

“Why was I summoned here?” Madiha asked.

Kuracha blinked, and clapped her hands together with a sweet expression.

“I had been monitoring your progress in Rangda, Colonel. My unit did what we could to preempt 8th Division reinforcements coming in by train. We could’ve never predicted the Elven attack, however. We believe the Royal Navy to be a ways out; our air force will be scouting in the coming days. So that is why I called you in. I will be taking command of the evacuation here. You are required at Solstice: you will fly out there post-haste.”

Kuracha, having delivered her message, twirled back around and walked back to the table.

Madiha watched her go quietly, and spoke up again as the Commissar sat down.

“I would like to put in a request.”

Kuracha did not even turn around to meet her eyes again.

“I would like you to leave my car now.” she dismissively replied.

Her tone was still dripping sweet, but it was just harsher enough than before.

Madiha started to feel a pressure in her temples.

“I want my troops to be evacuated first. They fought hard. They deserve it.”

“Hmm? Excuse me?”

“i see no reason to repeat myself.”

“I’m afraid I’ll need a refresher.”

“My troops will be evacuated first.” Madiha said again, more sharply. “They have spent far too long already in this hole; I want them on the first train to Solstice. They earned it.

Kuracha started speaking in a machine-like, procedural sort of voice.

“Unfortunately priority is materiel first, then units, but don’t worry, there will be–”

“Why are you making this a problem?” Madiha said.

Kuracha turned back around and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Madiha did not budge from the doorway. Parinita looked uncomfortable beside her.

But she was seeing too red to move now. Kuracha blinked hard and shook her head.

“You are the one becoming over-emotional here, Colonel. Though the distance will be only a few hours, no, they will not be first, I’m afraid. This has been left under my authority.”

“Commissar, there is precedent for this–”

“Not under my command.” Kuracha cut in.

Madiha closed her hand into a fist.

“It would vastly recover the morale of this nation’s finest soldiers if–”

“You are dismissed, Colonel. Your troops will be safe and home, in an orderly fashion.”

Kuracha continued to act as if she had gotten the final word, and turned back to Varus.

“So, my dear, who was this Gwendolyn you kept mumbling about, hmm?”

Varus flinched.

Madiha walked up to the table.

Parinita gasped, but was not quick enough to stop her.

In a flash, Madiha raised a leg and kicked Kuracha’s backrest, knocking her down.

For an instant it seemed as though she would kick the dainty woman in the chest.

Such a blow would have broken bones. Knocking down the chair was merely surprising.

Nevertheless Kuracha hit the floor hard.

She scurried onto her back with great quickness and stared up at Madiha.

Her hands were shaking slightly, and it seemed like she wanted to reach for a gun.

Something, however, stayed her hand, and she recollected herself.

“You forget your place, Colonel.” She hissed from the floor.

“No, you’re confused as to your own.”

Madiha took a knee and stared down, as if to say, ‘I’m still bigger even doing this.’

She loomed over Kuracha, making herself a dangerous physical presence.

“This is not your personal playground anymore, Commissar. This is not a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells for you to boss around. This is not a KVW political office for you vault ranks through parroting a party line. While you were hunting stray trains my troops were in this city steeped in its death and treachery. They will be evacuated first. I’m very short tonight, Commissar. And I know for a fact, right now, I am more valuable than you.”

Kuracha stared at her defiantly. She was not threatened, not in the least.

In fact, she looked just as flighty as ever. Her words dripped with sarcasm and skepticism.

“Colonel, has anyone ever taught you the power of please? It is a magic word.” She said. “I am a person of respect, and this frankly. It is beneath you; beneath your legend.”

She practically spat out the last word like venom.

Madiha remembered a pair of ruffians some time ago who told her, while withholding information she needed, that if she made friends and asked nicely, instead of demanding, she would have gotten what she wanted. That was back before she knew these people would betray, kidnap and torture her, and that she would ultimately murder them all.

Kuracha was someone she would come to blows with. She knew this already.

There were all kinds of communists. Even those who agreed politically may not personally.

Madiha had hated many of her own people. But Kuracha was something else altogether.

She felt it, as if it was being carried in the air around her. Kuracha was dangerous.

She radiated something unseemly, something vitriolic to people.

Was this part of her power too? She had felt Varus’ weakness, felt the blows that the Paladin had taken, felt her defeat enough to almost see it. Now from Kuracha, she smelled the wantonness, and felt the frustration, and the casual application of power, the lust for dominance over others. Kuracha was cloyingly, sickeningly sweet, and she turned sweet like the sugars in a plantain: activated by fire, by violence, by the application of force.

Kuracha loved to have others under her power. That love was sweet as death was dark.

And perhaps some part of her loved to be captive and to be forced and driven down.

It confirmed to her the power she still had, even towered over by someone stronger.

Madiha shook her head. All of these things had flooded her mind in an instant.

She was almost reeling from the shock of it. Like a lightning bolt outside had stricken her.

A bolt of insight, of empathy, all of it unwanted.

“I will evacuate your troops first. But only because this isn’t worth fighting over.”

Kuracha acquiesced, and perhaps in her mind, it was all a sign of her strength.

Madiha had lost control.

She stood, turned her back, and made for the door.

“Colonel, I can be an angel or a devil. It’s entirely your choice.” Kuracha said.

“I’ll consider it, Commissar.”

Madiha did not look at Kuracha’s face as she pushed through the doorway.

Parinita bowed her head respectfully at the door and followed right after.

Walking aimlessly, in a random direction, Madiha was stomping her feet. She went out under the rain, slowly soaking. She felt the shame sinking in with the water, and started moving faster. Everything about Rangda, everything that had happened, she realized it was all characterized by a lack of control. Madiha’s impulses had driven her through all of it. She felt suddenly as if at no point had she truly mastered herself, and been a willing pilot in her own life. She projected that anger, that frustration, that recklessness, to everything that had transpired. From the Mansas, to the Elves, it was all wanton id.

Soon she was running through the rain, as if trying to outrun her thoughts.

“Madiha, are you okay? Talk to me!”

Someone came running in from behind, struggling with an umbrella.

Catching up, Parinita laid hand on Madiha’s shoulder and tried to slow her down.

“This isn’t the way to the airport.”

“I apologize. I made a fool of myself, of you; of us.”

Madiha stopped dead under the storm. She felt tears starting to gather in her eyes.

Parinita ran around her and stood in front, holding her hands.

“That was reckless back then, but you were doing it for deserving people.” She said. “Please don’t hold yourself in contempt for it, Madiha! You had good intentions, and that woman was definitely trying to get under your skin. I don’t hold any of it against you.”

Madiha could not bear to look at her. She felt like a monster.

“No. It was all my own self-righteousness and stubbornness. It’s always been.”

It seemed totalizing; she projected this event throughout all of her life.

She felt like she was realizing how wrong she had always been.

It was not liberating. It was like falling in a pit. It was like dying.

“Madiha, please–”

“First Mansa’s subordinates got a rise out of me; then Chakrani made me lose my composure; Von Drachen put me off balance; and now this. This is all such a mess.”

“Those were all infuriating things. You’re human. It happens. You’re not perfect!”

Madiha sighed, and it came out as a heavy sob, and shook the tears out of her.

Parinita looked around to see if anyone was there.

She seemed satisfied; they appeared to be deep in the station, amid empty, waiting trains.

With the coast clear she raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks, parted her hair, and tiptoed.

Madiha did not resist the kiss.

She did not reciprocate with much energy, but did not resist.

“Madiha, please calm down. You’ve been through a lot. Give yourself some space. Please.”

Madiha sighed again, feeling frustrated with herself for this weakness.

“I fear I am devolving back into the impulsiveness of my youth.” She whimpered.

She locked eyes with her lover, and found an unruly sort of stare meeting hers.

Parinita grinned coquettishly, one hand over her lips. “Oh~ really~? Well, I for one am excited at the prospect of a more passionate and hot-blooded Madiha Nakar.”

She moved her hands in a cute little flourish.

Madiha burst into an involuntary chuckle.

“I can’t believe you’d tease me when I’m this vulnerable.” She said.

“Aww. I’m sorry. I was trying to make you smile.”

Madiha turned her head awkwardly, her face flushed from crying and from kissing.

“You nearly got me.” She said. Her mind was slowly clearing, just a touch.

Perhaps it was Parinita’s influence over the flame of Madiha’s power, like magic.

Like telepathy.

Or perhaps, Parinita was just that sweet and that good.

Madiha’s distress started to turn into embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. I’ve got us both soaking wet. I’ve been acting like a child.”

Parinita backed away a step, still holding Madiha’s hands, and smiled.

“Forget it. At any rate, you said in Bada Aso you reconnected with lost memories, right? It’s only natural you’d change after that; and after everything else that’s happened too. You’ve been hurt and exhausted and you’ve never once thought of yourself in all of it.”

Parinita sighed and looked out over the trains.

“I’m so worried, and I just, don’t know what to do sometimes. But I’m here for you.”

Madiha squeezed her hands. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to worry you.”

“Just let me take care of you every once in a while. Okay? If you can’t do it for yourself.”

They started to walk again, this time the right away to the airport. Parinita held up the umbrella, but they were both dripping wet, and cold, shivering, and the storm was making them struggle to keep the thing over their heads. Once more they had to pick up their space and start running, until they returned to the platform. Making sure to remain out of sight from Kuracha’s car, the two of them sought shelter at the station. Dripping all over a bench, they waited for a car to come that could be hailed and pick them up.

It was a pathetic scene, but not every battle ended gloriously.

Probably most events in history simply transitioned to inglorious peace without warning.

Madiha sighed deeply.

“Hey, don’t. Just cuddle up to me for warmth and stop thinking about it.”

Parinita seemed to readily preempt Madiha’s dark thoughts.

Wrapping themselves up in a towel provided by a nearby soldier, they clung close.

“I meant what I said, by the way. You’re taking some time off to recover.”

Madiha tried to work up a little smile. “I will readily acquiesce.”

“I’ll schedule a relaxing film just for us. And a warm bed right after.”

Parinita whispered in a sultry voice.

Madiha felt a momentary titillation at the thought.

“I’d like that.” She said awkwardly, remembering their last time.

Parinita, meanwhile, had a face like a fox poised to devour.

“Please calm down about it though.” Madiha added.

Together they waited, for the car, for the plane, for a change of clothes.

And in the sky, and off in the distance, and with time, they saw the edge of the desert.

One more inglorious transition in history.


????

Overhead, a livid sun bore down on a white, rocky beach beset by a turbulent ocean.

Gaul Von Drachen sat up, and spat out sea water.

His entire being hurt. Everything hurt. Being himself simply hurt.

His whole existence was hurt. But it was fine enough. He was alive.

Recovering some sense of what had transpired, he stood up.

Farther down the shallows on the shore, he saw another, familiar body.

Absentmindedly, he picked up a crab from the sand and threw it at the man.

Puñeta!

Gutierrez cried out and struggled monumentally with the crab on the wet shore.

Von Drachen walked past him, reassured knowing that he was still alive in some form.

He started to walk.

Time had lost most of its meaning to him. Owing to the heat, and maybe thirst and now perhaps malnutrition, depending on how long he had been out, Von Drachen’s world was a blurring, shifting mess, and the seamless, endless landscape of the Ayvartan beach seemed to play endless tricks on his mind. For example, in the distance, he thought he saw a pair of beautiful young girls, in shining silver outfits, waiting on the beach.

They were not waiting for him; he figured they would know right away he was just not interested. Nymphs must have had some way to parse which men were worth eating.

As he walked past, however, he tripped on a stone, and nearly fell.

However, the taller of the nymphs seized him, and they laid him down on the beach.

“Is it an enemy soldier?” asked one.

“Without a gun he’s not an enemy anything. He’s just a victim.”

“You’re far too kind Gwen. Jeez. He could be dangerous.”

“He looks like you could snap him in half. Come on.”

One of the girls loomed over Von Drachen. She had a shining face and golden hair.

“I am known Gwendolyn.” She said, in tormented, slow Ayvartan. “Are you forsaken–”

“Good god, the word you want is lostLostPotea.” He shouted in elvish.

Gwendolyn drew back and kicked sand in his face.

She stormed off.

“Now, now.” said the other girl, darker-haired, more severe-looking. “Things just got interesting here. So you speak Lubonin, huh? Where did you wash up from, stranger?”

Von Drachen spat out the salt on his tongue, and delivered a surprisingly swift reply.

“I’m General Gaul Von Drachen of the Cissean-Nochtish combined Allied forces–”

“Forget that Drachen jerk Lydia; Lydia, look!”

On the beach, that awful Gwendolyn girl suddenly pointed out to sea.

Lydia looked over the ocean and smiled.

Von Drachen struggled to crane his head to his side.

When he did, he saw in the distance the massive figure of a Vittoria-class battleship.

He grinned. He laughed.

He laughed with such cadence Gwendolyn and Lydia were disturbed.

Both of them seemed ready to kick sand in his face again.

And yet, lying on the sand, injured and dehydrated and defeated, Von Drachen laughed.

“You won this time, Madiha Nakar! But there will be such a splendid infinitude of battles! So much chaos! Is it the sun, or does it look like a glorious future is ahead of us?”

It was not the most rational thing to do, but he reveled in it.


 

Dominoes — Unternehmen Solstice

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council

Palladin Arsenica Livia Varus felt her brain trembling as she tried to process the sudden, deadly turn in her fortunes. She had hastily recalled all of her radio personnel back to her communications room upon discovering Von Drachen’s escape, and there she stood, pacing, rubbing her temples, eyes wide open, jaw hanging open enough to gasp.

“Order all units to fall back to Council and Ocean Road! Shut them down immediately!”

This nonspecific order belied her helplessness. On all sides the Ayvartan attack was slicing through her units. She was being pushed back from Rangda University, from the old 8th Division base, from Ocean Road itself. Madiha Nakar had come suddenly alive again and was sweeping her aside wherever she moved. Arsenica tried to raise her voice but her voice was not a gun, and all around the Lady Paladin, her guns were being silenced, one by one, shot by shot. Radio contact was sketchy at best, and she was short on field leadership.

It was almost enough to make her regret having sacrificed the Paladin combat team once led by her rival for the throne, Gwendolyn Vittoria. Almost, but not quite. She had her pride and still, and this pride was the rod set against her spine and keeping her upright. Throughout the battle, she waited, and she paced, and she hovered like a grim reaper over her radio personnel, over her tactical advisors, over the maps on the battlefield table.

“I want the Cheshires to dig in right on Ocean Road, do not allow anything through! I want barricades erected with whatever can be spared, and I want every gun we’ve got peering over or around cover and shooting until we’re out of ammunition! Use captured Ayvartan weapons, use anything! Throw rocks if you have to! We cannot let them through!”

Paladin Arsenica shouted as if it was a lack of effort and motivation that rendered a rock unable to pierce a tank. Her radio personnel relayed her orders with trembling voices and shaking hands, and they sat at the edge of their seats as if standing on tip-toe, nervously awaiting futile replies. There was nothing for them to hear back save incredulity and desperation, none of which was communicated back to the Paladin. But she was not as foolish as everyone around her assumed, not completely. She knew what was happening.

She was content, however, to remain uninformed. Ignorance allowed for some hope.

Then came the dreadful final blow in the place least expected. Northern Rangda, so stable, quiet, the bulwark sector that had been clinched by the elves at the start of the battle, began to call Arsenica’s headquarters. They called for help. Arsenica’s operators could hardly pass on the depth of the fear in their contact’s voices, and so Arsenica was coaxed into speaking and listening personally. She discovered then that horrific, final truth.

Amid sounds of heated gunfire, a woman’s voice pleaded, “Lady Paladin, we need support right away, the 8th Division is attacking every defensive line, and they’ve broken through to the east and south, heading into Ocean Road! We can’t contain them like this!”

Arsenica said nothing, and put the handset back onto the radio, and turned away.

The 8th Division, which had been several times humiliated, demoralized, broken, disarmed. Pushed into hiding in the darkest, deepest recesses of the city, cut off from supply and command, their communications compromised. Madiha Nakar had damaged them and the elven landings had broken them. So then, why? How? She thought she was hearing all their radio chatter: were they sending fake broadcasts and communicating personally among themselves? She could have sworn they were defeated, and yet here they were, using the last of their blood, bayonets and paltry ammunition to assault her.

And they were winning.

And they had won.

When this sudden surge of manpower met the lines of the Ayvartan motorized infantry under Nakar, they would become as floodwater uncontained. Surely that was their goal; any fool could see that Madiha Nakar had struck some kind of bargain with her former enemies against the threat of the elves, and this was the result. Arsenica had nothing that could stop such a press of bodies. She was barely hanging on as it was because Madiha Nakar had to stretch herself thin to cover the entirety of Arsenica’s line, as she desired to.

Had Von Drachen realized what was happening? She had taken an interest in him, but like all the toys of her girlhood, she had ignored him and was all but ready to discard him.

She could not indulge this fantasy for too long; gunfire erupted outside.

There was an explosion, one not distant enough, that alarmed the whole building.

The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.

Everyone in the room was looking at her.

Arsenica had a haunted appearance. Her skin had turned ghost-pale, her eyes shadowed.

She turned to the radio operators, then cast a sweeping glare at the knights out in the hall.

“What are you all waiting for? An order to retreat? You will receive none! You will remain here or lose your honor as cowards! Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?”

She drew her sword, and advanced out into the hall, red in the face.

There was a yelp of fear and a most surprising result.

As Arsenica raised her hand to strike down the first subordinate who looked to eager to run, she was struck in the face by an iron-gloved fist. She felt the cold of the gauntlet and the heat of rushing blood as the fist swiped across her face. Arsenica dropped to the ground, bloody, her nose broken, in excruciating pain. She looked through her hands, pressing on her own face and mouth as if trying to keep the blood in, and saw the face of a stoic, black-haired elven woman, who gave her a filthy look as she lay on the carpet.

“Gisella?” Arsenica cried, in disbelief and despondence.

Gisella turned her back and left the hall at a brisk pace.

From around the departing knight, some lesser subordinates became emboldened.

Three younger girls approached Arsenica, and with vengeance in their eyes, lifted their metal boots and kicked. They struck her breasts, her belly, her limbs. Arsenica cried out and pleaded, but they neither intended to sustain their assault nor stay it completely. Each girl delivered several quick, hit and run kicks, before running away, peeling back one by one as each had their seconds fill of thrashing their superior. Shaking, bleeding, hardly able to move, Arsenica curled up on the ground, and cried, her vision blurring with pain.

Passing beside her, the radio personnel then fled, thankfully without violence.

Within minutes, the hallway and the room and maybe the council building, were empty.

Empty, save for a blonde, classically-elven girl, shaking in her ill-fitting breastplate.

She looked barely an adult and her eyes were filled with tears.

When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.

The Paladin covered her body with her arms as best as she could, and curled up.

She was expecting to be struck, but instead, the girl touched her gently.

“Lady Paladin, I’m sorry, please, lets get you back up.”

Arsenica groaned, every inch of her body screaming with pain as the girl helped her to stand on one foot, and supported the woman over her shoulder. Huffing and puffing with the effort, the girl struggled to get Arsenica back into the communications room, where she laid her on the couch, and wiped the blood from her face, and brought her wine.

“It’s my ration ma’am. You can have it.”

She poured the drink between Arsenica’s broken, bloody lips.

It was hot. That wine had been in a tin pressed against this girl’s body for days.

And yet, that strange act of kindness gave the drink a strange potency.

Arsenica did not feel better. She could not. But she felt an odd inkling of relief.

Watching her drink, the girl started wiping her own tears, and looking down at her.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I couldn’t– I wouldn’t have been able to fight them all. I was scared if I pulled my gun they would all start shooting and everyone would die. I’m so sorry.”

She locked eyes with her battered superior, pulling back the tin once it was empty.

“You– you don’t deserve it ma’am. I admired you for a very long time ma’am. Those girls have no upbringing! How dare they do this. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I’m so sorry about everything. All of us, if we’d tried harder, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m sorry.”

That girl apologized more and more and the reasons why made less and less sense.

Arsenica wanted to ask her for her name, but she couldn’t find the strength to talk.

Instead, she curled up tighter, and wept, traumatized and uncomprehending.


Rangda City — Ocean Road Heights

When the car turned the corner onto Ocean Road, Gulab Kajari’s senses were finally able to put a presence on the storm of sound that had taken over Rangda. She saw the tracers flying with such frequency and intensity that the gunfire seemed continuous, like beams of light linking one position to another. Far downhill at the opposite end of the road, the Elves held the connection to Council with desperate ferocity, and it was here that the thickest gunfire flashed and raged. Hobgoblin tanks lobbed high-explosive shells against two-lengths thick sandbag walls, while hiding in alleyways to avoid the fire of a large anti-aircraft gun — the only weapon the Elves had secured that could harm them.

Along the center of the thoroughfare, Elven infantry clung for dear life to storefronts and offices, struggling to stave off the attack of the motorized infantry weaving in through the side roads and back alley streets. This part of the battlefield was cut in pieces, and each Elven position was an island of resistance amid a seemingly inexorable tide of Ayvartans. Methodically, Gulab’s comrades in the moto-infantry surrounded, suppressed, infiltrated and destroyed Elven positions, going building to building in brutal but effective fashion.

Near the top of the hill, the Elves had their strongest and most secure presence, linked to their northern strongholds in the parts of the city where resistance had evaporated out of fear of a strategic bombardment that never came. Having not had to fight for position, these Elves had all of their equipment mostly intact, their morale unbruised, and all the time in the world to fortify. While their tanks had left to challenge the Hobgoblins farther downhill, their infantry positions were mutually supporting, entrenched, and dangerous, and they seemed to have received no orders but to hold the hilltop at all costs. Probing attacks by the 1st Motor Rifles had been softly repulsed. This was the place least in flux.

As Gulab and company arrived, she was seated on the turret of the armored car and quickly spotted where the tide was turning. From the side connections to Ocean Road Heights, came pouring in groups of previously unallied Ayvartan riflemen. The hated 8th Division, the traitors, the loyalists to the imperialist cause, had woven through Elven territory and were launching attacks once more. Gulab watched the Elven rearguard’s hilltop machine gun positions, unaware of her car’s presence, light up, and they rained gunfire on the road they defended. A squadron of 8th Division riflemen fell a dozen meters out, having turned a corner to meet a wall of bullets. More of them came from behind like a human wave.

Men ran out, roared or cheered as if summoning power, charged the guns, and died.

There were barely shots fired against the machine guns. Men stacked up in corners, but hardly waited before rushing out piecemeal. It was as if bodies had become ammunition.

The 8th Division was spent. They had no more tanks, no more fuel, no more artillery, and limited small ammunition. However, they also had no way out of it now but to fight.

And so with bayonet in hand like the soldiers of the old wars, they charged and fought.

Gulab was sure none of them rationalized it as “suicidal.” But it looked that way to her.

“This is senseless.” Gulab said, looking down from her scope. “I don’t care about those men, they killed friends of ours! But this is just stupid! They’re wasting their lives.”

From below her, Charvi Chadgura looked up from a radio console, inexpressive.

“They make a good distraction.” She said, a little too callously for Gulab’s taste.

“Smoke mortars make a good distraction too.” Gulab said.

“It’s not our call. It’s not even Colonel Nakar’s. We can’t really control them. We have our hands full coordinating our own maneuvers. The 8th has its own officers. Our bargain was that if they fight they will be disarmed and evacuated with the civilians peacefully. It was either that, or they remain traitors if we win and enemies to the Elves if we lose.”

Gulab sighed. She supposed all of that was true and no greater leniency merited.

After all they were traitors, and they had nearly killed her friend– well, her lover, now.

Gulab looked down at Charvi, who was looking up.

She smiled weakly, remembering the kiss they shared, and returned to her gun.

On the scope she saw the 8th Division men dying and she waited for her chance.

She had no pity for them, she did not want to make friends. They had made her comrades’ lives miserable, isolated them, scapegoated them, attacked them, killed them, all because of their loyalty to a man who was out for himself. They could’ve believed in their comrades and in the good things all of them had accomplished, but instead they believed in tearing it all down to satisfy their own greed. Even after all that had happened, none of them had the courage to renounce their actions until Elves fell from the sky and humiliated them.

No, Gulab had no pity. However, men dying at the feet of a machine gunner was useless. It was almost irritating. How dare they fight her so viscerally a few hours ago, to now surrender to their fates this easily? Gulab was not a real officer, or at least, she did not consider herself one. But without her knowing it, there was an inkling of officer-thought that was now bothering her. It was the feeling that in her hands there was a plan that made more sense than this. A burdensome ego that could become leadership; she had it.

“When do we attack?” Gulab asked.

Everything was set to go off. She had already loaded high-explosive into the 45mm gun on this Gbahali armored car. The top-side turret, taken from a Goblin tank, had enough explosive power to obliterate something like a machine gun nest. Married to a car with armor proof against machine guns, it made an excellent skirmisher. Gulab had worked the turret on an earlier, rougher model in Bada Aso. This one was pristine, with a clearer, farther-seeing scope, quicker electric controls and turret traverse, and a wet ammo rack.

She waited for a moment for Charvi Chadgura’s quick, unemotional orders. She was monitoring the radio, making false calls that the Elves could pick up over the 8th Division’s known frequencies. This was part of Colonel Nakar’s battle plan.

“When they manage to separate the positions, or when the Elves rush to reload.”

Gulab nodded down at Charvi and returned to the scope, and the grizzly sights.

Moments later she spotted her opportunity.

An 8th Division soldier threw a grenade far enough to land into the Elves’ position. Just as quickly, a monarchist soldier picked up the grenade and threw it back, but not quickly enough, and it detonated in mid-air over the machine gun nests, causing a moment of confusion. Gulab shouted that she was engaging the enemy position; having already trained her gun on the central machine gun nest, Gulab hit the electric pedal trigger.

Gulab’s 45mm HE shell went flying from the hilltop corner and down into the machine gun nest, exploding amid the Lubonin gunners. Their machine gun shot skyward, reduced to shards of metal, while their corpses hid within a red and black mist. At the flanks, the remaining machine guns lost the central pillar of their network, and the 8th Division soldiers started closing in much more effectively. Within moments, they had infiltrated.

“The 8th Division’s got an in! Are we moving with them?” Gulab shouted down.

“To a point.” Charvi shouted back. She turned over her shoulder to the driver, whom Gulab could not see from her vantage on the turret. “Take us down. I’ll signal the Svechthans.”

The armored car got moving. Charvi looked back up at Gulab and held up her hand.

“Our mission is to create a distraction so our special rifle squad can extract Major El-Amin safely. Please be careful with your fire; friendlies will be fighting among us in the street.”

Gulab grumbled. “Yeah, yeah, I know! I’m not stupid! You think I’d get them killed?”

“You know I trust you. But sometimes, you become too immersed in the battle.”

Gulab grumbled more because she knew it was true and did not like to be told as much.

“Fine, fine. Why don’t you get up here and direct my fire then.” Gulab said.

“Splendid idea.”

Before Gulab could protest, Charvi had already climbed the footholds up into the turret, stepped up past Gulab’s position at the front with the gun, and popped open the tank’s upper hatch. Cool air and the reddening light of the late sun flooded the turret, along with the unvarnished noise of the carnage unfolding outside. Gulab hardly knew how much the armor insulated her from the noise until Charvi invited all of it in. The Sergeant stayed half out of the turret, and began communicating through the tank’s intercomm.

“Target dead ahead, Gulab. Start putting HE on it right now!”

Through the scope, Gulab watched as the armored car drove through the middle of the road, past the machine gun nests, where the 8th Division fought hand to hand with the remaining gunners and their support personnel. She heard machine gun fire, and saw the tracers go flying from her own vehicle. There was a front gunner in the passenger seat, shooting across the front of the car’s path to keep the fleeing elves in flight. In the middle of the enemy camp, past the machine guns, the armored car came to a stop, and running out ahead of them came several Svechthans, who took positions behind crates and rear sandbag walls, and trained their anti-tank and sniper rifles downhill on the road.

“Chadguri, Gulachka! My scouts infiltrated the enemy line and have eyes on VIP.”

On the radio Gulab heard Sergeant Nikayla Illynichna of the venerated Svechthan snipers, and she trusted her assessment implicitly. She spotted the small, ice-blue-haired woman on the front, hiding behind a crate and looking out periodically with her binoculars. She was an expert in stealth, but was now burdened with a radio pack, coordinating a team.

Charvi responded. “Good work Sergeant. Tell your team to hide and keep eyes on.”

“Will do.” Sergeant Illynichna turned back to the road. Gulab watched as she then quickly got on the radio again with an urgent expression. “We’ve got a more immediate problem! More of those bastards are out to take back this position. They’ve got an armored carrier and a tank with them. You should be able to see them turning the corner now.”

Gulab focused the scope on the next corner downhill from the captured Elven defenses, and spotted brown-vested enemy soldiers with thick caps and padded elbows and knees, running out with rifles and light machine guns. Those were the parachute troops, the elite fighters of the enemy’s invasion force. Most of them had died in the landing, but those who survived put up the toughest fight out of all the Elven infantry, in Gulab’s experience.

However, the infantry was the least concern. Trailing behind them was an open-topped, square vehicle, tracked, one of those ‘universal carriers’, and trailing behind that was one of the elven light tanks, with its thick gun mantlet and small turret, and huge road wheels.

“Can our armored car withstand a shot from that?” Gulab asked over the radio.

“We’re not going to be shot by them.” Charvi quickly replied. “Sergeant, move ahead in cover and act as a spotter. I’ll link you to our artillery support. Act quickly.”

Sergeant Illynichna could hardly have heard this proclamation when she decided to run out of cover and to the steep part of the hill. She had her sniper rifle with her, but it was not an anti-tank rifle and certainly not meant to be fired at anything with armor. She crouched behind a mailbox, peered around it, and took aim down the hill.

She fired one tracer out into the air, and it sputtered uselessly against the tank.

In response, the enemy infantry took a knee and pelted the mailbox with bullets.

At their side, their tank began to turn its turret and take aim for the hilltop.

“Slow down the tank!” Illynichna shouted into the radio.

Gulab blinked, and quickly loaded another round into the gun and aimed downhill.

“Firing armor-piercing, high explosive!” She announced.

She took her shot and watched the tracer go flying into the front of the enemy tank’s turret. An explosion followed, and the tank rocked from the force of the attack, but was not penetrated. Realizing it was endangered, the elven light tank began to move forward again, and for the moment its shooting had been suppressed, though not permanently.

“I’ve got them.” Sergeant Illynichna said. She shouted coordinates into the radio.

Gulab was perplexed at the numbers and letters, but Charvi recalled them all perfectly.

She repeated the coordinates over the radio to an different entirely different team.

“This is Adesh Gurunath. We hear you Sergeant. 76mm artillery barrage, on the way.”

Gulab was pleased to hear from one of her favorite kids again, though she could not help but think he sounded very weary and distant, compared to how she remembered him.

In moments, Adesh’s voice was followed by trails in the sky and the whistling of shells overhead. Dozens of shells soared over the northern Ayvartan penetration in the Elven front and struck amid the arriving enemy forces. Across the next minute Gulab watched as a punishing cascade of explosives obscured the enemy, sending the Lubonin infantry scurrying for cover, lighting the universal carrier ablaze, and blunting their attempt to retake the heights. Shells that landed near the tank failed to penetrate the armor, but a fateful explosion split its track. Hatches went up, and the tankers fled with their support.

“Fire mission complete. Effect on target, Sergeant?” Adesh called again.

“Substantial!” Gulab butted in before Charvi could reply. “Good to hear from you kid!”

“Ah, Corporal Kajari. Thank you. It’s nice to hear from you too.” He said.

“You sound tired. Take a rest kid. You’ve done well! It’s all clear streets here.”

Adesh seemed to hesitate upon hearing that. He sighed a little bit.

“Thank you. Will do. Please be careful.” He replied, before signing off.

“Thank you.” Charvi said. She looked down from the turret hatch at Gulab. “Who?”

“Don’t you remember the nice gunner kids, from the church in Bada Aso?”

“Vaguely.”

“Jeez. You need to pay more attention.”

Soon as Gulab said that a bullet went whizzing by Charvi and forced her down.

“Get in now!” Gulab cried out in horror.

Charvi practically dropped off the footholds of the turret top. She landed roughly behind Gulab on the gunnery seat. They both heard and felt loud, continuous gunfire breaking against the turret’s front armor and the open, armored hatch overhead. Gulab breathed in deep once she had Charvi by her side again; who knew what could have happened?

“Driver, back us up–”

Though she tried calling on the radio, Charvi quickly realized there was no answer and in fact, nobody else on the intercomm. She could hear nothing from the front or below.

Gulab looked through the scope, just in time for a bullet to shatter it.

She had seen, however, a 20mm Nochtish Sturm autocannon shooting at them.

“One of those carriers is coming this way, armed with a 20mm!” Gulab said.

Charvi dropped farther below, and stared into the driver’s compartment silently.

She looked back up, and shook her head.

Gulab blindly loaded a shell into the gun and fired ahead.

Not knowing what she was aiming for or what she hit, she could not possibly fight back.

Up overhead, several more rounds visibly flew by the turret hatch.

In front, several more struck the gun mantlet.

Suddenly, a hole opened in the armor.

A 20mm AP round flew past Gulab, ricocheted, and fell down into the compartment below.

Charvi ducked. It clanked harmlessly below them.

Gulab was fixated on the tiny hole in the armor, through which a beam of light entered the gloomy turret interior, and from which, she felt, she could hear all of the chaos outside distilled into a single point. She saw the beam, touching her shoulder, as if to guide the next bullet in. She was speechless, and she never felt more vulnerable and exposed.

On the radio, Sergeant Illynichna shouted desperately amid blazing gunfire.

“Gulachka, I’m pinned down! An anti-tank carrier is moving on you! Retreat now!”

Below her, Charvi reached out a hand to signal her to stop.

But Gulab had already noticed the hatch overhead and stubbornly made for it.

“Stay where you are, armored car! We’re coming to help!”

There was a new voice on the radio, deep and affirming, and before Gulab could do something stupid and dangerous with her life, a shell sailed past the armored car.


Amid the haphazard wave of mixed 8th Division and 1st Motorized Infantry rode a small but inexplicably fierce-looking Kobold tank, barreling through its own ranks at top speed and coming to settle atop the Ocean heights as if issuing a challenge to the road defenders.

All Elven ammunition was immediately turned toward it, but as it trundled forward, it seemed impregnable and unstoppable for its size, as bad as the Hobgoblins farther afield.

Automatic gunfire from the anti-tank carrier turned from the stranded Gbahali, its nose and face and the drivers behind it perforated and chewed up completely, to the newcomer tank, and showered it in a volley. Again, the tank approached implacably and fired.

Across the road from the stranded armored car the universal carrier and its 20mm Sturm autocannon burst into flames, its ammunition stock detonated by the accurate 45mm gunshot. Roaring past the wreck went the Kobold tank, clearly battle-damaged but just as clearly patched up. Chunks of plate from disparate tanks had been bolted onto the frame at disparate angles to create shot traps and ricochet surfaces, and wheels pillaged from different frames had been stuck in the track in a meticulous, inventive fashion.

Ayvartan and Svechthan infantry watched it go, mouths agape, utterly bewildered.

Lubonin infantry stood bravely for enough time to shoot and to have no effect.

On the driver’s side, a machine gun blared incessantly, firing across the front of the tank without aiming and finally causing the newly emboldened Elves to flee despite the success of their lost Sturm cannon against the enemy. Though effective against the armored car, the small, sharp shells failed on this new beast. Meanwhile the 45mm gun on the one-man turret scanned the road ferociously for prey. Anti-tank rifle shots bounced off its mantlet, and failed to strike its deeply recessed optics. It could not be blinded as easily as Gulab’s car was, and it could not be stranded any easier. The driver’s-side hatch was reinforced, and the machine gun was welded into an armored, pivoting ball-mount.

Once more, the Ayvartans were advancing, Lubon retreating, and Ocean Road buckling.

“Identify yourself, Kobold tank. What is your designation and orders?”

Sergeant Charvi Chadgura was mostly inexpressive but still showed a muted concern.

Inside the tank, Danielle Santos and Caelia Suessen grinned to themselves, perhaps a little too satisfied with the job Danielle had performed on the tank, and with the nature of the mission they had, well, given themselves after some consideration. A few hours ago neither of them would have thought they would travel so far together just in Rangda’s streets.

Together on the radio, they declared, “Harmony ‘Perfect Fifth’, is on the assault ma’am!”

There was silence on the radio, and then a burst of laughter from Corporal Kajari.

“We’ve been briefed on the situation and we’re going to help rescue Major El-Amin.” Caelia finally said. “Please leave this place to us, ma’am. We’ll hold the road.”

“We’re uh, not much for safe extraction, but we can distract them.” Danielle added.

After some more silence, they heard a weak sigh on the radio.

“We will focus on the rescue then. Me, Corporal Kajari, and the Svecthan troops.”

“Roger!” Both Danielle and Caelia replied.

As their officers extricated themselves from their dead armored car and moved to secure the objective, the Kobold tank instead charged heedlessly forward toward the next Elven staging area farther downhill on the road, hoping to stem any chance of reinforcement, and any chance of escaping with the captives through Ocean. Elves and their last few vehicles had been coming in from around the corner a few blocks away. Caelia had eyes on the corner and the enemy’s hasty blocking position; Danielle drove them forward, one hand on the sticks, another on an improvised machine gun lever to let her shoot.

“Harmony ‘Perfect Fifth’…” Danielle said to herself off radio, mildly giggling.

“It sounds silly.” Caelia said, once they were off the radio. “It’s really not my aesthetic.”

“Oh, but love it so much. Thank you for playing along.” Danielle replied amiably.

“Hey, you decided to follow along with my unreasonable plan, so.” Caelia said.

Danielle paused for a moment, hands on the levers. “El-Amin’s important to you, so–”

“Shayma’s a friend.” Caelia said. She said it in a tone that implied correction.

“And our superior, so I know, it means a lot to you that–” Danielle did not seem to get it.

Caelia knew that tone of voice and cut in quickly but gently to direct her partner away.

“Hey, listen, if it was you who was captured I would throw everything down to my harmonica at them until they let you go.” She said. “God forbid, I’d drive the tank.”

“You’d drive the tank?”

“I’d drive the tank.”

“For me?”

“For you.”

Danielle sighed fondly. “Well, I guess that settles it.”

Caelia sighed herself. “You’re still nervous.”

“Well. Well, It’s not necessarily that but, it’s like–”

“Listen.” Caelia quickly added. “Danielle, you’re special to me. Okay? You’ve been there for me for so long. Nobody else has been this close. And I wouldn’t want anyone else.”

Danielle chuckled a little. “Alright.”

She sounded relieved. Caelia smiled to herself.

Danielle could be a little difficult, but it was always worth it when she was happy.

She bent down to look at her driver, and found her fiddling with something.

“I’ve got a plan for up ahead.” Danielle said. “Just get close and face the turret at them.”

“Oh. You did something to the smoke launchers you jammed on there, right?”

“I did something alright.” Danielle replied, chuckling.

Without questioning her partner’s logic for a second, Caelia faced the turret forward.

Danielle let got of the machine gun and pushed both levers into the next gear setting.

Harmony accelerated at full downhill speed toward the makeshift barricade. Though the extra weight was a factor, while moving downhill it did not impede the tank as much, and all of the added armor was worth it for a small loss of speed. Anti-tank rifles fired on the approaching tank, but the shots ricocheted harmlessly off the improvised frontal armor, and even the bulletproof glass on Danielle’s visor survived a direct shot. Danielle started calling out eyeballed meter distances as Harmony closed in on the enemy position.

“Use the coaxial but not the main gun!” Danielle cautioned. “I’m almost ready!”

Ahead of them a tank appeared out of the corner and began to take aim.

“This is going to be tight if I can’t shoot this guy!” Caelia shouted.

“Shoot him a few seconds after we penetrate!”

“That’s even tighter!”

“You can do it! Just try really hard!”

“I always try really hard!”

“We’re there!”

Within a few dozen meters of the barricade, Danielle left the driver’s seat.

She clambered up into the turret, where she hardly fit, and crawling all over Caelia while doing so, she struck a series of triggers welded through the turret, for the triple-stacked smoke launchers she had mounted outside. Instead of the pop of slung smoke grenades, however, the two of them heard the sharp banging of pistols firing in succession.

Outside, puffs of smoke burst from the launchers as rifle grenades launched from the barrels like bottle rockets. Sixteen grenades flew from the sides of Harmony’s turret, flew over the barricade and exploded in a sequence of bursts and blasts over the Elven defenders, sending shrapnel into heads and faces, throwing back people behind sandbags, and spreading a short-lived cloud of smoke and fire over the haphazard defenses.

“Are you crazy? Get back down there and drive!” Caelia yelped.

“Shoot the tank now!” Danielle cried back.

Caelia peered briefly through her scope and held her breath; Danielle passed her an armor piercing shell. Everything rumbled as Harmony smashed through sandbags and over machine gun positions, punching a hole in the barricade. Now on the other side, Caelia loaded the gun. The Elven light tank opposing them began to retreat, having chickened before them; Caelia slammed her foot on the gun pedal and shot at the enemy turret.

Outside Harmony’s own turret the two felt an audible explosion.

Then the interior of the turret shook wildly.

Caelia and Danielle crashed into one another and struggled to remain upright.

Harmony came to a sudden stop.

Both women were tangled together, face to face against the gun.

“Um.”

“One sec!”

Caelia looked through the scope and sighed with a mixture of relief and consternation.

They had nearly run over an elven universal carrier, and become stuck.

But the enemy tank was ablaze; and the Elves were in the midst of fleeing.

Caelia turned back to her partner to find her backing up.

“Sorry. I’ll check outside.” She said.

Danielle recovered enough to climb out of the turret hatch.

Caelia squeezed out with her.

“Ah! It’s tight.”

“Not unpleasant though.” Danielle murmured.

Together they watched Ayvartan infantry come streaming through the road and streets, those with weapons firing at the retreating Lubonin infantry, or throwing grenades, or giving bestial chase with bayonets and machetes. Far downhill, the battle for the center of Ocean Road seemed decided, as the exchange of tracer fire had all but ceased.

Farther below, the enemy barricades had ceased to trade gunfire as well.

Hobgoblin tanks firing red tracers did the only visible fighting.

Caelia sighed. She felt as if someone had taken a sack of stones off her back.

“You’re ridiculous sometimes.” Caelia said.

“Ridiculously good.” Danielle said.

“Ugh. That too.”

There was a call then on the tank radio, to which Caelia and Danielle were still tethered.

“This is Sergeant Chadgura. Target secure and extracted. She is alive and safe.”

Both Danielle and Caelia sighed deeply, letting all the tension out of their bodies.

They slumped together over the turret ceiling. It seemed the fighting was done. Around them the infantry began to slow down and take stock of the situation. Vehicles started to come up, trucks and armored cars, ready to extract the wounded and to chase after enemy stragglers. Danielle and Caelia, bodies pressed together through the hatch opening, laid back against the metal lid, shoulders together, feeling warmth through their bodysuits.

Danielle’s face turned a little red. Caelia started to whistle absentmindedly.

“Hey, Caelia, I’ve got something I want to give you, if you’re okay with it,”

“Sure, anything–”

Caelia did a lethargic turn through the hatch opening to meet Danielle.

Before her eyes settled on her partner, their lips had settled together instead.

Danielle laid her hands on Caelia’s shoulders, and the two shared a clumsy kiss, the footholds on the Perfect Fifth’s turret unsteady, unable to support two people with enough space between them. The two of them found each other on different footing every moment it seemed, and their lips clumsily separated, their heads bobbing at different heights. They closed in anew; Caelia took the next kiss, even more fervently than Danielle initially had, surprising herself with her own passion. Nearly falling, they kissed until they had sucked the breath from each other, and parted, gasping, hands on the turret roof for support.

Caelia was speechless. She was surprised to have finally felt Danielle in this way.

“I love you.” Danielle said.

“Wow.” Caelia said awkwardly.

“Wow?”

“Feeling’s mutual.” Caelia replied.

Danielle laughed. “This is awkward, isn’t it?”

“It’s kind of hard to respond to, but I’m happy.”

“I’m happy too.” Danielle said. Her eyes started to tear up a little. “It’s hard to talk, you know, and we’re both kinda, reserved about things. But actions speak louder than words, you know? So even if we feel a little weird at first, if we can be together, I’m happy.”

“I’d like that.”

“I’m glad.”

Danielle was clearly nervous, even with her newfound boldness. It was– it was cute.

“It’ll be like in the books!” Danielle quickly added. “It’s like a lilly story, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Caelia replied, touching her own lips incredulously.

Danielle sighed, scratching her hair nervously.

“Was it ok? I stumbled around, and I think I might’ve bitten you.”

Caelia smiled. She awkardly broke eye contact, and said, “It was fine. I liked it.”

Danielle smiled as if she heard all of the romance in the world in place of what was said.


Rangda City — Council, Lubon Defensive Line

Minutes before the general collapse of the Elven line, at the fated focal point where the defenders first buckled, an anti-tank gunner drew back suddenly, surprised at the sight of several dozen very strong lights approaching from the Ocean Road connection. In the late sun they shone violently against him, creating something akin to a traveling heat mirage whenever he tried to discern them. Immediately he ordered his battery of three quick-firing two-pounder anti-tank guns to fire on the target. His crews scrambled to attack.

Though Paladin Varus had ordered a defensive line built outside the Council building, the effort had been poorly coordinated and ultimately sabotaged by the Paladin’s own easy trust in the defectors from the captured 8th Division HQ. Von Drachen and his men were gone, and no multilayered defense could be mustered at all. It was the vain final hope of the Paladin and her officers that nobody would break through the fighting on Ocean Road, and for this goal the Cheshire Highlanders and the Knights were fighting ferociously.

Anything that got through would face only a lone anti-tank gun and a few riflemen.

Clearly something had broken through. It was the darkest hour for Lubon’s finest, but what made it all the more vexing was the nature of the enemy; its impossible nature.

As the lights got closer, the gun commander and his men steeled themselves.

“Load armor-piercing rigid! Fire on mark!”

Struggling to aim, using the approaching sound of motors to very roughly gauge the distance, the gun commander and his crew fired three shells out to the road. Into the lights went their green tracers; and nothing seemed to follow the attack. Their two-pounder guns had no explosive shells, and required direct hits to defeat the enemy. Accurate as the cannon itself was, and intricate as its sighting equipment happened to be, their volley seemed to have no effect on the amorphous enemy fast approaching them.

And the closer the enemy came, the brighter the lights seemed to become.

“Fire again!”

Another round of shells hurtled out of the tubes, again to no discernible effect.

It was obvious that blinded and without explosives, there was little the gunners could do.

Moments after the last shot, as the gun crew reassessed their position as best they could, bullets came flying at them from within the light source in quick bursts. Submachine gun fire bounced off their shields and soared past their sandbags. This was the final straw for the beleaguered gunners, who were low on ammunition, working with a substandard gun and fighting a dangerous, mysterious, terrifying enemy. Rather than continue to struggle in vain, they fled amid sporadic gunfire and disappeared frantically into the urban maze.

Now, truly nothing lay between the mystery attackers and the Council building.

Past the abandoned anti-tank guns, a dozen motorbikes sped past.

Each motorbike towed behind it a contraption covered in mirrors, reflectors and torches set at careful angles. This device was the source of the strange mirages.

Banking on the fact that the Lubonin two-pounder gun boasted no explosive shell in its arsenal, and that it would be hard to aim solid shot at vehicles equipped with the experimental reflector defenses, the motorbikes had gambled on this attack. They managed to avoid losing any vehicles, suffering only damage to one reflector device.

“We did it Commander.”

“We did, I suppose.”

“You do not sound enthused.”

“Despite everything, I’ve ended up something of a failed Colonel.”

Madiha Nakar, on the lead motorbike, reloaded her submachine gun and sighed.

Staggered behind her in an arrow formation were the remaining five motorbikes.

“Why do you say that?”

Driving the Colonel’s motorbike, her long, black hair waving freely in the air, Engineer Sergeant Agni stared sidelong at her passenger, keeping to the center of the formation.

Madiha shook her head. She had enough time to think, and any time alone with her thoughts in a stressful situation made Madiha doubt. Her head was filled with darkness.

“I can talk strategy for hours, but whenever things have become desperate I’ve had to rely on myself as a weapon. Parinita has the right of it: a Commander should lead, not fight.”

Sergeant Agni seemed unmoved by these words.

“I’m not a strategic level officer, so forgive me, Colonel; but I believe you have saved far more lives by doing whatever it takes to win than by allowing yourself to lose by the book.”

“I suppose so.”

Madiha was dissatisfied.

She should have defeated the 8th Division and saved Rangda. That was the plan.

And that plan was supposed to work. She had accrued every advantage.

Instead the city was partially in ruins, somewhat ablaze; there were foreign invaders, even more than there were before, entering the war and driving her into a corner; and some of her own commanders had been captured or thrown into disarray, crippling her in the crucial hour and forcing her to struggle to take charge. Ultimately, she came up with the way to fix the situation: make peace with her old enemy, use them and her own forces as a distraction, and finish the job herself. She had identified the most glaring weakness of the Elven force: leadership. She would break that herself by pressuring their commander.

This was a desperate measure for a Colonel in command of the most experimental and high-tech ground combat formation in the new Ayvartan armed forces. She should have defeated the Mansas, the 8th and the Elves in raw maneuver; instead she had prodded and poked each of them into falling apart by themselves. Not a very glorious cause and effect!

“You are too self-critical. I’m sure the Chief Warrant Officer would agree.” Agni said.

“She might say that.” Madiha said. “But the fact is, Rangda has been a debacle.”

“Well. It is a debacle that you have navigated alive, and are poised to end.”

Madiha stared at the Council building, coming closer into view, and narrowed her eyes.

“Right. Let us bury this debacle once and for all.” She said.

On the lawn of the Council building the motorbikes skidded to a stop. Madiha leaped from her passenger side-car, submachine gun in hand, and signaled for her infantry backup to follow. With her submachine gun at the ready, Madiha charged through the lawn. At the top of the front steps to Council she spotted Elven defenders, and she opened fire. Even with minimal time to aim, her gunfire was deadly accurate. One burst of submachine gun fire struck a pair of enemy riflemen like a wrecking ball to the chest, and they stumbled and fell on their backs, dead. She trampled over them and into the main hall.

Close behind her, Agni, pistol in hand, pointed Madiha to the main staircase.

The Council Building was practically empty. There was nobody in the main hall, and though she could see people fleeing in the far distance, running through the damage left by her previous battle against the mysterious creature, they were not fighting and not worth attacking. As she closed toward the staircase, Madiha could hear panicky chatter from doors nearby, likely from technical staff in hiding. She ignored them and sped on.

“Three of you clear each wing. Be careful. Shoot to kill any armed targets, and on sight. Don’t open any barricaded doors, but if you’re shot from cover, feel free to destroy it.”

Madiha instructed her infantry to split up, and they charged in either direction through the separate ground level wings of the Council building, armed with submachine guns and a flamethrower per section. While the infantry took the ground floor, Madiha and Sergeant Agni climbed the stairs, nervously covering every angle they could as they ascended, their guns aimed skyward at the chandelier, the lamps and the balusters on the upper floors.

Soon as they set foot on upper story, they realized it was deserted as the lower one.

Madiha remembered her previous trip to the Council building, and knew exactly where Mansa’s command center would have been. The Elven leader was likely there too; she could not have airlanded with equipment to rival what was stocked in that room. At the sight of heavy radios ripe for the taking, any military commander would realize the logistical and informational coup in their fingertips. The so-called Paladin would be there.

“Fall in behind me and keep your eyes open. They’ll be desperate.” Madiha whispered. “We’ll sneak the long way around the building and go through Mansa’s office from the eastern side. They will probably be expecting us to charge in from the main hall.”

Agni nodded, and pistol in hand, she walked a step behind Madiha.

Together, they stole away through the empty halls of the Council building.

There was damage in every hall, it seemed. Broken windows, scratched and filthy trampled carpets, overturned artwork and decorative objects. There were signs of mild looting, but many more signs of improvised escape and defense. There were clearly curtains and tablecloths employed as rope, hanging out of windows, and tables and desks and drawers barricaded certain doorways. People had either fled out or fled deeper in. Whenever they passed a barricade Madiha felt herself go farther on edge, but nobody harassed them.

Every way they turned there seemed to be no resistance.

Had all the Elves fled this quickly? Were there only Council staff left behind?

But Madiha realized they hadn’t turned the appropriate corner.

When they did, she instinctively ducked back behind it, and pushed Agni away.

A lone round from a bolt-action rifle sailed past them.

Madiha heard the sound of the bolt and the spent casing hitting the floor.

Before they could make another move, there was a second shot.

“It’s an amateur.” Madiha said. “Wait for her to shoot again. We’ll trick her.”

Agni nodded, and hung back, pistol ready.

Madiha peered around the corner, and fired her submachine gun into the empty hall.

A quick three-round burst would do. All it had to do was establish a rhythm.

Madiha hid again. She heard the bolt, and the casing.

As if lured by the beat of a drum, the enemy was drawn from cover.

On time, as Madiha had predicted, the rifleman at the other end shot at them.

Again a bullet sailed harmlessly past. At the opposite end a flower vase shattered.

They waited for the bolt, and the casing–

“Now.”

Agni peered around, pistol ready, and when the rifleman peered again to shoot, the door was already in the engineer’s sight, as was the opposing shooter. She fired three quick shots, and a body fell through the threshold and into the hall. Madiha stomped out of cover, submachine gun raised, checking the windows, the opposing hall, slowly and meticulously making her way to the door. She stopped beside the open threshhold, crouched, and looked at the body while Agni covered her. It was a woman– no, a girl.

It was a girl in armor, just young enough to fight but clearly not old enough for war.

Madiha sighed. No one could take pleasure from this kind of triumph.

All it did was stoke a dormant anger at the cowardly enemy hiding beyond the door.

“Let me borrow your shovel, Agni.”

Agni withdrew her entrenching tool and passed it to Madiha.

Madiha put her garrison cap on the end of the shovel.

Holding it by the end of the handle, she shoved the blade into the room suddenly.

Any on-edge guard on the other side would have riddled it with bullets.

There was no response.

“I’m breaching, cover me.”

There was no door shut against them that they had to breach.

Nevertheless, Madiha stacked on the side of the open threshold, took a deep breath, and charged into the room submachine gun first. There was always a blur of motion and stress whenever she breached a room; glancing gun-first at anything that could be a threat, Madiha found the landing empty, the radios abandoned, the conference table upturned.

“Step out with your hands up!” She shouted.

She said it first in perfect Elvish, and then in Nochtish speech.

“Drop your weapons and surrender.” Madiha shouted again.

From behind the fallen conference table, a pistol slid out across the room.

Madiha nodded to Agni, who remained by the door with her pistol trained on the table.

Submachine gun in raised to the shoulder, partially crouched, Madiha slowly approached.

She stepped quickly around the table and aimed down.

Through the iron sights, she saw a wounded lubonin woman. She was not what Madiha expected to see. This woman was clad in armor that would have gleamed were it not for the blood crusting on its surface, and the buffs and dings it had suffered, as it had been repeatedly beaten with a hammer. Her curly dark hair covered her face, which was despondent, running with tears and blood. There were blood-flecked bruises on her face.

“You are a vivid image of mutiny.” Madiha said.

Everything she had seen in the Council building made much more sense now.

When had Lubon broken like this? Was it triggered by her crossing the final defensive line? Or was the fighting already won the instant she decided to counterattack on Ocean? She wondered what part of her plan had become superfluous, unnecessary. There was a mixture of relief at learning her enemy had broken, and shame that it had taken them giving up for her to be able to defeat them. Skirmishing in the city could have extended the lifespan of the Elven assault for days, enough for the Royal Navy to arrive in force.

But perhaps such tactics were never her purview. She was ousted by her troops after all.

Madiha felt a kind of strange insight upon seeing her, as if she could feel the distress this woman felt, and in feeling it, could piece together where each bruise had come from and where each wound on her armor had been dealt. There were footprints in the air, a remainder of something, and it told her, vaguely, whom she was dealing with.

She knew the name, anyway, from Elven broadcasts. But she felt she knew much more.

“Paladin Arsenica Varus. I don’t care how close you are to your people’s throne; you will come peacefully and cooperate, or I will kill you. I don’t have the time or the space to struggle with you and take you prisoner. You will either walk, or you fall eternal here.”

Madiha aimed the gun squarely at the Paladin’s temple.

Without a word, Arsenica raised her hands, and slowly made to stand.

She was very weak, and walking on a limp, but she started walking to the door.

Her eyes were blank, her broken lips shut, and she showed no sign of defiance.

On some level, Madiha knew this was how it would turn out.

The Paladin’s spirit was broken and so was the Elven attack on Rangda. Broken.

All it could do was limp somewhere into their hands, or lie in hiding.

Madiha breathed out as if she had been holding in air for weeks.

The Battle of Rangda was finally over.