Dominoes (64.1)

This scene contains violence.


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.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XX

Solstice War Book 1: Generalplan Suden is now on sale! Check it out!

This chapter contains violence, graphic violence, death and slurs.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope

At the gate barring the way into the old stones of Saint Orrea’s Hope a pair of guards spotted an unmarked civilian truck approaching. Though they shouted warnings and drew weapons the truck climbed the hill with steady purpose. Soon as the truck crested the hill, it accelerated, and the guards began to shoot, but it was too late. Both doors swung open, men leaped from the cab, and the runaway vehicle overran the guards and struck the gate.

As the nose of the car crumpled against the iron-supported wooden gates, a cache of explosives in the back detonated with a resounding thunder and a bright red flash. Sheer crushing pressure blew the wooden gate apart and left smoldering chunks of wood and a twisted hulk in the path. Around this bonfire charged the men of the legion, and at their head, Byanca Geta shouted directions, and put her plan into motion. It was now or never.

“Minimus, take your group around the side of the monastery and climb to the peak, they’ve got to have their radios there! We can’t jam them forever. Crowley, your group will swing around the southern rise and take the hill! I’ll plunge right into the front!”

No man could argue against a plan that put the lead officer in the most dangerous position and her subordinates in relative advantage. Their flames kindled by Byanca’s bravery and passion, the Legionnaires took up their weapons and charged. As a unified column they stormed past the gate, charged to the front gardens of the temple. Saint Orrea was nestled into the mountainside on a complex territory. Beyond the trees and the greenhouses and the great rosehedge-lined plaza was the temple, on raised ground, a massive compound with a great central courtyard, two long wings of dormitories and prayer spaces, and the tower, deep in its heart, where Salvatrice had to reside. To the south, a steep climb overlooked the entire battlefield, and in the north, was the path directly to the peak.

“Charge, men! For Princess and country!” Byanca shouted, raising a fist into the air.

Byanca charged with the men, at the head of the column. She controlled her speed so that they could keep up with them. Halfway to the gardens, on the open stretch of mountainous dirt path, the column broke up into the three groups. Minimus reluctantly took his men north, Crowley south; dead ahead, Byanca saw the dark, masked figures of the illuminati, appearing from behind the concrete balustrades atop the great and many stone steps bridging the dozen meter climb from garden up to the level of the temple.

One masked man swung his arm, beckoning, and a machine gun bipod slammed atop the balustrades with a clank that felt ominously audible even amid the tramping of boots.

“Keep moving!” Byanca shouted. Several of her men were hesitating.

Mid-run, Byanca withdrew a flare gun, and popped a quick, unaimed shot into the air.

Roughly over the machine gunner as he began to shoot.

A wild spray of gunfire flew over the charging men as the gunner swept his weapon to try to cover the breadth of the column. Byanca felt shots graze past her, and heard men fall behind her, but she urged everyone to move to the gardens only dozens of meters ahead. More of the Illuminati soldiers began to join the machine gunner, using smaller arms to try to pick off more of Byanca’s men as the charge neared the cover of the gardens.

Byanca heard the first shell go whistling past and she smiled to herself.

“Take cover in the gardens, hunker down and wait for my signal!”

Ahead of her, the first mortar strike nearly drowned out her commands.

Her first shell exploded just short of the balustrade protecting the machine gunner, kicking up a cloud of smoke and fragments into the air from the steps below. Immediately the Illuminati’s suppressing gunfire halted; that first shell was followed quickly by a dozen more, falling randomly and suddenly at haphazard intervals. Columns of smoke and ripped concrete and fleeting fireballs rose and fell across the steps and atop them and along the front of the temple. Balustrade rails blew forward and with them Illuminati soldiers went flying from their positions. A direct shell hit crushed the machine gunner like a hammer blow fallen from the sky. Overhead, tracer trails lined the heavens.

Under the cover of her artillery, the forward assault group made it to the gardens and took cover behind the hedges, among the trees, and around the greenhouses. They waited, heads down, while mortar attacks rocked the enemy line, inaccurate but persistent.

Though Byanca’s centuriae could not drag heavy artillery out to the mountains, they brought plenty of pack mortars, easily assembled from portable parts, as well as a few towable heavy mortars. In all she deployed nine pieces and significant amounts of ammunition, all safely firing from positions outside the gates and along the path.

However, her men lacked the training to make coordinated attacks. They would likely respond poorly and without coordination to requests via radio against anything but the pre-sited and pre-calculated positions along the temple’s face and the step balustrades. All they could do was open up a surge of shellfire and hope to kill by sheer volume.

It was enough for Byanca. She just needed an opening, a way in, and now she had it.

As the balustrades overlooking the garden endured the shelling, Byanca crept closer, moving from cover to cover. At her flanks, a few dozen soldiers followed her example. She counted down the minutes as the shells fell and the gunfire paused, and she wove from bush to tree to rose hedge to greenhouse, creeping closer to the steps and the raised area of the temple grounds. When the shelling paused, and the smoke started to billow away with the mountain winds, Byanca was at the foot of the fateful steps where she met Salva.

“Bayonets ready! Charge into them while they’re dazed! Conserve ammunition!”

Byanca shouted, waved over her own head, and charged with her rifle drawn.

There was a great clamor as her men shouted with her, and they charged the steps, and climbed up the walls and clambered over the mounds of debris and the remains of the balustrades. Making it onto the raised temple grounds from the lower garden, Byanca found herself faced with the great gilded and stained glass face of Saint Orrea’s Hope, and the dazed, wounded and struggling Illuminatus that stood guarding the structure.

At once, her own men descended upon the fallen Illuminati, their tormentors and oppressors in the weeks past, and there was a brutal slaughter that Byanca would not dare to try to step. Kicking and trampling and stabbing, dozens of her soldiers brutalized the fallen illuminati, and took their heavy weapons and grenades and began to roam the temple exterior like an angry mob, while she made with whoever was still rational to the doors of the church. Everything was happening fast. She heard gunfire nearby, but saw no shots flying toward her. She had to make for the center of the compound with haste.

She stuck a bundle of grenades against the iron-barred door, and hid behind the pillars.

Seconds later the bundle blew a hole between the halves of the door and they slid open.

Byanca placed her feathered bersaglieri cap atop her bayonet and stuck it out of cover.

Automatic gunfire flew out from between the half-open doors and perforated the cap.

“Grenades out! Down the entry hall of the church!” Byanca called out.

Six men remained at her side, and they nodded and complied. One by one they threw their grenades. Byanca could not see into the church, hiding behind the pillars beside the door, but she heard the blasts go off one after another, and she raised her rifle and leaned out to peer quickly into the church. Through the dissipating smoke she found a few more of the Illuminati, battered and broken against the decorated pillars of the entry hallway.

Had she any faith in God left she might have felt remorse for killing in his house.

Now all she wondered, briefly, was why the Illuminati were putting up such a disorganized fight. She had caught them by surprise, sure; but why were they this badly out of sorts? She heard the gunfire flying all around the outside, near and distant, and she was almost sure that her men were meeting the challenge of the dug-in cultists without desperation. Was this why they needed the anarchists? Because their own ranks were so poor in battle?

She recalled the brief battle in the forest, and the fighting in the makeshift prison.

Were the Illuminati losing their faculties? In both instances they had exhibited very basic tactics, such as the deployment of heavy weaponry and use of cover. But their maneuver was poor. Did they lack the will to fight beyond simple entrenchment and charge attacks? Surely if they were legion soldiers before, they should still have their training in mind.

So what was in their minds then? What had happened to them?

Was their command that weak? Perhaps Tarkus wasn’t meant to give orders then.

As she walked into the church, and crossed the blood-stained red carpet, past the entry hallway, past the pews, around the altar, and out the back, to the inner courtyard, Byanca faced no resistance. She ordered her men to fall in behind her and to cover her, and she left the primary temple building, and ran out into the pearl-tiled courtyard, surrounded by hedge walls, encompassing four fountains, a few great big trees, and amid it all, the tower.

Salvatrice had to be there. She could not be in the middle of all this carnage.

The Illuminati– no, Tarkus Marcel, would have brought her there.

Because it was pragmatic, but also because there was a significance to it; Byanca felt it in her gut. Seeing the gleaming white tower that was once part of the old dormitory, and that now stood alone on the new courtyard, Byanca remembered that fateful time of her life that she spent with the princess, and knew in her heart that she would now set her free.

Beyond the hedges on either side of her, hundreds of meters, she saw gunfire, and plumes of smoke, and heard men shouting and raging. She ran as fast as her legs could take her through the open center of the courtyard, making for the door to the tower steps.

She waved her hand mid-run and beckoned her men to run with her from the church.

As she turned to meet their eyes, she felt something fast and dense rush past her.

Her men exited the church in single file, but something struck over their heads.

In an instant the columns and the awning of the white rear portico came crashing down.

All of her men disappeared beneath a mound of rubble that blocked the rear of the church.

Byanca stopped cold, and faced the tower again.

Her enemy left the shadow of the steps.

Standing across from her was Legatus Tarkus Marcel. She could not see his eyes, or the expression on his face. He was clad in silver-white segmented armor, and a covering, snout-like helmet, and gauntlets bedecked in black crystal with strange devices affixed to the cuffs. He had a cape that billowed behind him, and affixed to his arm and braced at his hip was a boyes anti-tank rifle with its distinctive top-loading magazine against his elbow.

Byanca raised her rifle and took aim.

The Legatus raised his arm.

She felt something then, a noise like the space around her crying, budging, ripping.

There was a droning noise that seemed to issue from the Legatus.

And the glass and steel jewelry on his cuffs lit a bright green.

Before Byanca could react, or discern what was happening, she felt a gust carry her off.

Flung from her feet, Byanca rolled along the ground like a kickball.

She came to a stop near the bloody rubble pile that was once her loyal squadron.

All of the world was spinning, and that infernal noise recurred in her brain.

Tarkus Marcel, almost mournfully, addressed her.

“Centurion Byanca Geta. You should not have come here.”


Salvatrice sat on the tower’s grandiose couch, cradling Carmela in her arms and staring grimly at the doorway and the stained glass windows. She heard the rumble of artillery explosions in the distance, and the ceaseless cracking of rifles and machine guns closer to the courtyard. Something had come to Saint Orrea’s, and it was not moving slowly.

Canelle sat at the table, hiding a broken wine bottle below the table. Salvatrice had twice warned her not to pursue some foolish act of bravery, but she knew if this situation went on longer her maid would snap and charge into an Illuminati’s gun. Whether for her own sake or for Salvatrice’s; at this point Canelle looked hopeless enough just to do it.

“Are you feeling better?” Salvatrice asked.

Against her chest, Carmela nestled her head closer, and raised her arms to the princess’ shoulders. Tears were building in her eyes, but she forced them down with a sniffle.

“We can’t stay here Salva.” She said. “We’re leverage as long as we’re in this tower.”

Salvatrice bowed her head to tighten herself around Carmela, embracing her warmly.

She wished she could have had more moments like this with here, when they counted.

“I don’t want to risk you getting hurt.” Salvatrice said.

“We will all be hurt if we stay here. You know it’s true.” Carmela said.

She looked up at Salvatrice’s eyes and clutched the princely garb her lover had been given.

“Salvatrice, if your love for me kills you, I could never forgive myself. And if it kills all of us, I cannot see that as anything but a mocking tragedy. I want to live — with you.”

Salvatrice knew she would eventually say something like that.

Knowing also what her lover would say next, Salvatrice interrupted her.

“I’ll go. I have an idea.”

Carmela seemed to have predicted what would happen as well.

She looked resigned, and pulled herself away from Salvatrice.

Eventually a small smile crept its way on her expression.

“You’re always so quick to defend me. I wish you were that quick to defend yourself.”

“I think this time I’m doing both.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela nodded. She held Salvatrice’s hands in her own.

Salvatrice leaned forward and kissed her.

It was brief, but heartbreakingly sweet. Salvatrice would be satisfied with it as a final kiss.

She stood from the couch, and made her way past the table and toward the door.

“Canelle, guard Carmela with your life, for me; okay?” She said.

Truly she did not want Canelle to do any such thing.

However, upon receiving such a dire order, Canelle stayed in place like a good guard dog.

Had she been told nothing she would have tried to stop Salvatrice from leaving.

“Yes ma’am. Please be careful.” She said.

Salvatrice nodded and made for the door.

It was unlocked.

She pushed open the double wooden doors. Directly outside was a landing hall with the steps down the tower lying frustratingly close by; but they were guarded by two armed guards, wearing the Illuminati uniform and mask. Soon as she opened the door they turned to face her, but they did not approach and did not raise their weapons to her.

Salvatrice felt a lump in her throat, and her heart was thrashing with anxiety.

She stood her ground in front of the guards, and tried to project a sense of majesty.

Arms crossed, chin up, with a sneer of royal disdain copied from her mother.

“Is your revered Caesar not standing before you?” She said.

In response the guards quickly saluted with their weapons.

Ave Caesar!” they shouted.

Though sickened by the behavior she had to exhibit, and the sources that taught her to behave in such a way, Salvatrice continued to posture. She had nurtured a hope that the Illuminati’s reverence of her was not just an act, but something that was deeply ingrained in them. She had hoped beyond hope that by acknowledging the Caesar they all saw, she could manipulate them. It appeared to be working. But there might still be grave limits.

“That’s better.” She said. “I desire to survey my troops in this fateful time. Escort me.”

Both Illuminati turned to face each other briefly, exchanging a silent understanding.

“Caesar, with all due respect, it is simply too dangerous out there. Armed men have assaulted the compound. The Legatus wishes for you to remain here where you are safe.”

“What kind of pitiful king,” Salvatrice nearly choked upon saying that last, dreadful word, but through a brief struggle she continued almost naturally. “Waits in the rear while the loyal men of the guard die in battle? I must fight alongside them. Do you not desire to achieve glory alongside your revered king? You will be highly decorated, made heroes!”

Salvatrice raised her voice, and tried to evoke the deep tone she associated with a king.

It almost hurt to put on this show. It was not at all what she wanted to be.

And it was grotesque how easily it came to her.

Upon hearing her renewed demands, the two guards’ rigid stances seemed to falter. She saw a quiver winding its way through their shaking hands. Their jaws set. It was if they were struggling against invisible bonds that forced them tight. Salvatrice pushed more.

She asked them the most fateful question of all.

“Do your loyalties lie with the Legatus or your king?” She asked.

This line of attack, the Illuminati could not ignore. At once, it was as if she had sliced through the chains the Legatus had used to bind them, and they raised their weapons, but not to her. They pointed them down the steps, and took a maneuver stance. Beckoning with their hands, they made ready to escort her down the steps and out to the battlefield.

Salvatrice, quiet and nearly shaking herself from the tension of the moment, followed behind them, still carrying herself as she believed a king would. Her proud steps and stone expression hid a conflict inside her, an energy and emotion both incredibly nervous and eerily intoxicated. Was this the power of a King? Did she really have a power inside her?

Tarkus Marcel would know. She had to ask him so much.

Why did he bring her to this desolate place?

Why did he make her this army?

Why did he make her a King?


Byanca rolled behind a piece of debris, hoping to avoid a shot that never sounded.

She did not feel the strangeness around her that came with Tarkus’ previous efforts, nor did she hear the more corporeal effect of his anti-tank rifle firing. She did hear his greaves, the metal sliding as he took slow, deliberate steps forward from the door of the tower. Byanca, reeling from the attack, and partly disoriented, withdrew her pistol from its holster and with shaking hands pulled out her magazine, counted the rounds, and pushed it back into place. Cocking back the hammer, putting her back to the rubble, she waited.

Amid the dust and the chunks of concrete and stone she heard a low, buzzing noise.

She saw, embedded in the rubble, a radio box, and the grizzly arm of one of her soldiers.

Covering her mouth and nose, she crouched forward, and stealthily procured the handset.

She heard a broadcast going out among her radio troops, steeped with the sound of battle.

“We’re facing fierce resistance here! We need some forces diverted, post-haste!”

It was Minimus, with the assault team tasked with taking the Illuminati radio down.

“These Illuminati are dug-in hard! They’ve got control of the peak and they’re bringing in more equipment to overpower our signal jamming. We can’t press them much longer–”

Byanca heard a sharp noise and a gushing, horrific sound and dropped the handset.

She scurried back to cover, and realized that time was running shorter than she thought.

Her lofty plans would have to be redrawn. She might not stop the Illuminati at all.

But at least she could save the Princess. She could do this one selfish thing. She had to.

“Tarkus Marcel, release Princess Salvatrice at once!” Byanca shouted.

Her skin bristled, every fine, invisible hair on her neck, her back, her legs, all standing.

Something was building in strength and coming toward her.

She leaped, almost instinctively, out of cover and behind an chunk of collapsed pillar.

Behind her, something struck the rubble she had been using for cover.

Chunks of rock flew everywhere. Byanca cowered in her new hiding place.

Her whole body was shaking incessantly and uncontrollably, from her heart to her muscles, a nervous, manic spasm, mixed courage and terror. She had no clue what Tarkus had done in his previous assault. That force that she felt was not anything she had ever felt. It was not a turbine, certainly wind had nothing to do with it. There had been no fire or fragments or metal, so it was not a projectile. It was as if the world had shifted around her and flung her from its surface. It was a force of some kind. That was all she understood.

For a child who grew up in Saint Orrea, as part of a project to return Magic to the world, Magic was the last thing on her mind. Even when confronted with such an eerie sight, such an unplaceable object; she had seen the failure of Magic! She knew Magic was dead.

So what was that power if not magic? She could not understand it.

All she could do was to fight back to the best of her ability. She had made it this far.

Byanca stood suddenly from behind the rubble and fired off several shots from her pistol.

Tarkus recoiled as the bullets struck his breastplate and helmet.

He drew a step back, fell down to one knee, but he took a deep, audible breath.

Byanca thought she could see the pebbles on the ground around him shaking suddenly.

She took off from behind the collapsed pillar and made for one of the fountains.

Tarkus extended his hand, and the strange devices on his cuff emitted droning noises.

Behind her, an inaudible explosion blew apart the pillar moments after she left it.

There was no sense of power, no explosion, no sound, no rush of air pressure.

This was not a conventional weapon, not a shell or a bullet, or anything she knew.

It was perhaps even not something of Aer. It felt too alien, eerie, too lacking in presence.

Byanca rolled behind the raised wall of the fountain basin and crouched for cover.

“Tarkus, why are you working with the anarchists? Where do your loyalties lie?”

She found herself shouting this, secretly hoping Tarkus would answer.

Any answer would have him made seem more vulnerable and human.

In a moment the clanking of the greaves stopped, and the droning ceased.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the King who will restore our Empire.”

“Stop calling her that! Salvatrice is a princess of Lubon!” Byanca shouted.

She had to stop herself from saying ‘my princess of Lubon’.

“Caesar is whatever they decide to be. Caesar is a special child.” Tarkus said.

Byanca peered over the fountain, very briefly, and found Tarkus facing her.

It was almost like staring down a tank. His anti-tank rifle was up, attached to his left arm and connected to what must have been an ammunition feed system on his back.

However, Byanca knew the most dangerous thing about him were those cuff devices.

“Tarkus, I’m leaving with the Princess. I don’t– I don’t even care what happens to the Queen or the monarchy. But I cannot let you have her. You– you want to change her.”

Byanca found it difficult to speak. She stuttered; it was a struggle to admit even this.

Even this tiny sliver of what she truly felt about Salvatrice.

“I want Caesar to take their rightful place. It can only be He.” Tarkus said.

She heard the clanks of his armor once more. He was approaching.

“You fear these dying machines of a world forgotten, Centurion, but this is a fraction of the power boiling within Caesar’s blood. They will soon vanish. Caesar will be eternal.”

Byanca heard the droning noise again, and once more she leapt to her feet and ran.

Behind her, the fountain spontaneously, silently, eerily exploded.

She saw bits of the whimsical mermaid on the fountain go flying past, a severed stone head, flakes of crystalline scale from the finishing work. Water rose into the air and came drizzling down through the courtyard. Byanca turned her pistol aside and fired blindly on Tarkus as she made for the next nearest object, a concrete planter with a dead tree.

“Centurion, all I have done, I have done to grant Caesar the power of a King. I made him an army. I will awaken his voice. And I will now grant him the throne.” Tarkus shouted.

He was speaking as if in a dangerous passion. Byanca felt a sudden terror at his words.

“We are at a crossroads of history. There is no time for half measures. In a thousand years time, the Earth, the Air, the Water, and the Flame, will all be dead, as Magic now is. To survive, we need a leader almost divine, someone who can make us rally, force us to change. We need a unifying, singular purpose to grow, to strengthen ourselves, and save our star.”

Byanca heard the devices spinning up their infernal noise and knew she could not run.

“You do not understand it, but it has to be Caesar. It cannot be anyone else.”

She stood up from cover, raised her pistol, and took aim.

Tarkus thrust his fists forward and Byanca felt their power crackling over her skin.

She pressed the trigger, three times in quick succession, before the force flung her back.

Tarkus jerked back his arm in pain, and blood dribbled from under the armor.

From his cuffs, the droning noise grew out of control.

Byanca hit the ground hard and flat like a dropped brick, but she had succeeded.

On the Legatus’ left arm, there was both blood, and sparks, and fire.

He ripped the cuff device from his gauntlet as if peeling off a wristwatch and hurled it.

It landed on the floor between them like a ball of tin foil.

Byanca could hardly believe that tiny machine had produced such power.

Looking at its remains on the floor it seemed almost a false thing.

“Centurion, you’ve interfered enough!”

Clanking and crunching, quick and sudden; Byanca struggled to stand, but in an instant it seemed, Tarkus was upon her, and he seized her effortlessly from the ground, and took her up by the neck and squeezed. He lifted her, and she hung. He seemed impossibly tall, like a colossus, daunting in his armor. She could not see into the helmet. He moved so quickly for his frame that she thought perhaps there was nothing in the armor, but a phantom.

His free, unwounded arm raised her higher, and squeezed tighter. Byanca felt dizzy.

“I had dreamed of a world where you could have been the King’s right hand, Geta. That is why I gave you this assignment. You were a step above the rest, in your skill, in your loyalty, in your determination. But you took all the wrong turns. I wish you would have stayed in your prison cell. After the fact, I’m sure the King would have loved to have you.”

Byanca delivered a kick to Tarkus’ breastplate that did nothing but clang.

Tarkus squeezed harder, and she kicked, and kicked, and kicked.

Her steel-toed and -taloned boots delivered deadly kicks, but not armor-piercing ones.

“Those legs were made for running, not fighting, bersaglieri.”

Her body started to demand air; she could hold her breath over a minute, while running, while swimming or diving. She could run the whole Legion training course without breathing. But she was human, and her allotted time had run out. Her world wavered.

She looked down at Tarkus, hateful, angry, and she kicked again.

On his chest, she spotted a ding, where the armor had been dented.

Dented?

No, it was not her kicks alone. She had shot the breastplate before.

The bullet hole?

Her kicking must have further collapsed the hole made in the breastplate.

She had shot the gauntlets too; and she had shot his helmet.

Tarkus shook her, trying to her remaining life from her.

Her quivering hand reached for her knife.

With the last of her strength she drove the blade through a bullet-hole on Tarkus’ helmet.

Like his cuffs, like the breastplate, the armor gave way like tin foil, as if it had lost its resistance like a balloon loses air once punctured in any way. Whether it was magic or metal that had given this armor and Tarkus his strength, all of it seemed to wane.

His fingers unwound, and he stumbled back.

Byanca fell to the floor, gasping for air.

“Only,” she struggled to stand, shaking, angry, “only one person is allowed to choke me!”

She swung forward and delivered a clumsy kick, full of resurgent passion.

Her steel-toed boot struck his neck, and Tarkus fell on his back.

Stepping over his fallen body, Byanca ran toward the tower.

In the distance she saw smoke rising from beyond the hedges. She craned her head up, and saw along the distant path to the mountain’s peak, lengths of it higher up the temple grounds. There were brief flashes of tracer fire and perhaps grenade detonations. Not once during her skirmish with the Legatus had the gunfire let up, not for even a second.

Byanca made it almost to the tower, when she saw a figure emerging from the doorway.

Expecting more Illuminati, she raised her pistol.

Then the face she saw made her drop her weapon, and nearly drew tears from her.

Dressed in a regal coat and pants, with a cold expression on her face, flanked by two Illuminati guards, was Salvatrice herself. She looked every bit the King that Tarkus had said she would become. Had she not had the same pale red rosey hair, and the same eyes and features on her face, and that lithe and unassuming figure, Byanca would have said, this could not have been Salvatrice, but truly it was Caesar. And that terrified her.

“Princess?” Byanca asked. She prayed that there would be an answer.

In response, Salvatrice, not Caesar, sighed, and put a hand to her hip, and shook her head.

“Of course it was you, doing all of this. No one else is so eager to get killed for me.”

She glanced askance at the eerily obedient Illuminati men at her side.

“Except perhaps these two. Byanca, are you alright?” Salvatrice said.

Byanca hugged herself, and started to sob, and to cry.

“Are you hurt? I’m going to need you to be able to control all of this, you know.”

Salvatrice smiled a small, wry little smile, and Byanca only cried all the harder.

Her princess was still there, still alive, still unchanged. Still the same difficult girl.

“Listen, I’m sorry. I was just. I was being cheeky. I appreciate you–”

From behind them all sounded a great roar, and there was a rumbling in the air.

Tarkus could hardly lift his gun anymore, and collapsed back down to one knee.

Byanca turned in time for the anti-tank shell to fly past her.

Salvatrice stood frozen in time for a second, smiling, unknowing, beautiful, perfect.

Somewhere, too close, so distant, in a horrifying liminal space, there was a blast.

When Byanca whipped around again, the damage had already been done. The Boyes shell soared past her and sailed toward Salvatrice. One of the Illuminati, standing in defense, had his head demolished, and the shell detonated as it would having passed the armor plating of a tank, and the fragments and fire, flew out, and Salvatrice was struck.

Her right eye vanished with a splash of blood and flesh, and she collapsed.


Aer was a shadow-shrouded world enkindled by a dying flame.

Fuel and fire; it was an infinite cycle. People died and the flame burnt brighter for those who lived. But the natural order was distorted. Too much death, too much desolation, and the fire grew bountiful, and then waned, and only the shadow would ultimately remain. Great cycles of violence followed by the whisper-quiet peace of the dead. Periods of bright flames that cast scorching hot light on the evolution of humankind; followed by dark eras of stagnation where the world, burnt to red-hot ash, did nothing but rest and rebuild.

There was a great war, yes, but a scant few embers left to kindle a good burn.

Soon the fire would go out, and the shadow would prevail.

And yet, she saw differently.

She saw the world flame go out, and she saw the death of Magic.

She was illuminated.

The waning of the Flame and the end of the cycle and the death of Magic and the World brought out not darkness, but a great, flashing, warm, beautiful light. For what did Fire truly bring? It was not shadow that it cast, but smoke. Without fire, without smoke, there would again be Light! She saw, with great elation, that none were tethered to these ancient precepts any more. There was a great power awakening within humanity, a beautiful light.

Bathed in the light, she reached out to the ancient boundaries, and she pushed them away.


Byanca stared, dumb-struck, at the corpse of Salvatrice Vittoria.

She could not fathom this being the end, but something in her own physicality knew, and it mourned before her intellect did. Her knees buckled, and her eyes teared up, her nose burnt, her throat caught, and her whole body was shaking. But she could not comprehend the image of Salvatrice, lying on the ground in a pool of blood forming from her head.

That was an impossible image. It simply could not be.

At Salvatrice’s side the remaining Illuminati guard was breaking down. He collapsed to his knees, and he ripped his mask from his face, and he raised his hands over his eyes. To Byanca’s confusion, she saw him digging his fingers into his own eyes and did not understand for a good, long time the extent of the damage he was inflicting then. He, too, passed, out of her sight, out of her understanding, ripped from the world. She blinked.

“Salva.” Byanca said. Her voice was quivering.

Why wasn’t the Princess answering anymore? Could an adult please explain?

Byanca’s slow march to mourning was quickly, brutally interrupted.

She heard an unearthly roar coming from behind her.

Undergoing what seemed like a gargantuan effort, Tarkus Marcel lifted himself, up on one foot, up on the other, up from his knees. He detached his anti-tank gun, and bleeding from the head, from the chest, from the arm, breathing hoarse and heavy, he began to take pulverizing steps toward Byanca. Slow and deliberate, each one seemed to build on the rest, and Tarkus began to pick up speed, and as he ran, his helmet wept blood.

He let out an anguished cry as his charge took him within meters of Byanca.

Still in shock from the events that had transpired, Byanca did not move.

In the next instant, the massive bulk of Tarkus and his armor collided with Byanca.

She was thrown bodily, and stricken with a fist. Tarkus descended upon her.

His arms tightened around her throat, and he slammed her into the ground.

“You worthless bitch! Look at what you’ve done! What you’ve done to me!”

He slammed her head against the ground. She reeled, unarmed, helpless.

She had dropped her pistol and her knife and could not use them against him.

Blood frothed and bubbled from the edges of the closed mouthpiece on the helmet.

From the knife, still protruding from Tarkus’ head, came a trickle of blood.

“Everything we spent years conspiring towards, everything we sacrificed lives for, you have undone! You have destroyed this nation! You have destroyed this world!”

He lifted Byanca and slammed her again into the ground. Her consciousness wavered.

“You killed him! You killed him! You made me kill him!” Tarkus shouted in madness. “We will never escape our fates on this cursed rock because you killed our glorious Caesar!

Caesar was what he called Salvatrice, was it not? Did he mean– she killed– Salvatrice–?

Tarkus’ entire form began to swim in and out of focus, as if distorted by a curtain of water.

Byanca suddenly, and too clearly, understood what had happened.

Her whole body grew limp save for one arm, which carried out her dreadful purpose.

From her ammunition pouch, Byanca withdrew a grenade. One last piece of kit.

She lifted it — pin off, ready to blow — to Tarkus’ face, as if handing it like a gift.

Tarkus froze in the middle of his fury. In less than seconds, it would detonate.

Byanca wept, keeping a cold, resigned, inexpressive face on Tarkus’ eyeholes.

She had nothing left anymore but to take him with her.

She felt the dreadful device in her hands ready itself, and awaited her final moment.

Like a golf ball, the grenade suddenly pitched away into the air.

From off Byanca’s hand, the bomb soared away and detonated in the sky.

Pushed away by some kind of power.

Tarkus drew back from Byanca, dropping the injured woman on the floor.

“Tarkus, stop.”

He craned his head, and shook, and froze up.

Byanca tried to turn to see what he was seeing, but her whole body was giving up.

She had suffered so much abuse, that it was pure agony moving even a centimeter.

She struggled for several seconds to turn herself, and finally dropped onto her side.

She came to stare at the tower, at the foot of which she saw Salvatrice, standing.

Her face was caked in blood. She stood on unsteady legs. Her hand was out.

Her eyes seemed to glow; bright, emerald green, and flickering as if with flame.

“Tarkus. You will stop.”

Salvatrice spoke in a ragged voice. She outstretched her hand.

Tarkus was forced down to the ground instantly, his knees audibly snapping.

“Tarkus, you will stop. You will stop.”

The Legatus raised a shaking arm, fighting as if against gravity itself.

His remaining gauntlet cuff made its last, weak droning racket, crying out.

Byanca thought she saw the force, the rippling effect of Tarkus’ strange attack.

Something flew out at Salvatrice, soundless and relentless, but like a wave upon a rock, it split, and slammed uselessly into the tower. Salvatrice pushed her hand out once more.

Held up before him in defense, Tarkus’ gauntlet cracked, and split, and shattered.

His entire arm seemed to detonate as if its own grenade. Blood, bone and gore flew out.

“You will stop, forever, Tarkus. Forever.” Salvatrice gasped.

On the messy remains of the gauntlet, the black-purple crystals adorning it cracked.

Through the cracks, something rippled out, like bolts of visible electricity.

“Your King orders you to cease, Tarkus. To cease. Now.” Salvatrice cried out.

Tarkus looked up at Salvatrice, and his helmet cracked and split from her power.

Beneath the metal, Tarkus was smiling, reverent, overjoyed. He wept in pitiful cheer.

Ave Caesar!” He cried out.

There was a flash of unlight, of pure blackness that consumed the air itself.

From the gauntlets, from those foul black crystals, something immense was unleashed.

Legatus Tarkus Marcel suddenly disappeared beneath a black orb, trapped inside an effect akin to a void on the world, a place that was simply bereft matter. When the eerie, alien energy had consumed itself, it vanished as if it had never been, and left behind a perfect circle of consumed earth on the ground next to Byanca. A bare crater, perfectly smooth.

There was no smoke, no heat, nothing. Everything in the orb was just gone.

Tarkus was gone, perfectly removed, forever.

Salvatrice fell down to one knee, and raised her hand to her own face.

“All of you will stop!” She cried out. “All of this has got to stop! Now! Right now!”

She bowed her head, blood dribbling down the hand covering her gouged eye.

Along the ground, something even more immense than the gargantuan powers previously flung coursed its way through the world. Byanca felt the heat wash over her suddenly, and she burnt for an instant, enough to know she had hurt but with no lasting agony. She flinched, and she squirmed on the ground, and then there was eerie silence all around.

Not one more gunshot, not one more mortar round. All of the fighting had ceased.

Salvatrice, holding her bloody face in her hand, became wreathed in fire.

Emerald green fire burned beneath the blood pouring from the wound on her face.

The Princess silently dropped onto the ground.

Byanca summoned the last of her strength and darted from the ground.

She ran as she never had before.

Throwing herself in the final stretch of her arduous journey, Byanca caught Salvatrice.

It was not romantic, it was not gallant or graceful.

Awkwardly, the two wounded women became entangled and fell together and collapsed.

Neither was conscious, neither understood then what one had done for the other.

Amid mingling blood from many wounds, the two lay on the ground of Saint Orrea, where their journey had begun so long ago, and now, where it ended anew, or anew began.


13th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Pallas — Royal Palace Grounds

On the execution grounds, the condemned were paraded out in rags, covered in visible wounds from the torments delivered to them for their crimes. A dozen legionnaires in royal purple and red uniforms, gaudy, ceremonial, forced prisoners toward the courtyard wall with bayonets and swords. Beneath this raised inner rampart they were arrayed; upon that wall, the royal spectators and their esteemed guests would watch them die. The VIPs were seated atop the very wall against which the traitors would be thrown up. It was a true royal privilege. Nobody but the Queen and her esteemed entourage was allowed to see this.

“There are at least fifty people here. Goodness. However will this mess unfold now?”

Maid Lillith Mariel chuckled heartily, seated next to the Queen herself as if in the position of a wife to a King. She was dressed like a maid still, cap and all, but her apron had some filligree to it, and her sleeves and skirt were longer, more regal. Passionale Vittoria was herself, dressed at the height of Queenly fashion, in a bold emerald gown with the neck and much of the shoulder cut out and bare. She coldly regarded the traitors, offering not even a smirk of amusement for their plight. She looked upon them with as much interest and pity as she would look upon a wall, or the ground. She sipped wine, and she waited.

“Are they really going to shoot them one by one?” asked Byanca Geta. She felt her stomach turning at this grizzly thought, and the scars of her now weeks-old wounds, felt strangely itchy with discomfort under the heat of the noon sun, high in the sky. She was uncomfortable in her legion dress uniform, a bevy of medals gleaming in the light.

“Of course not. That would be madness. They must have prepared special arrangements.”

Salvatrice Vittoria replied with an expression as cold and uncaring as her mother’s own.

Despite everything that had transpired, the Princess looked more regal than she ever had. She was dressed in a most astounding gown, rose-gold like her own hair, form-fitting, hugging her breast, with a tight, high neck, long sleeves. It fit over her like a glittering glove, and it was tantalizingly filmy in places, revealing something of the skin beneath. High fashion, ultra-modern, chic. She wore her hair to the shoulder, and Cannelle had seen to her cosmetics, lending her a mature air. Her red eyepatch was adorned with a rose.

Her wheelchair had been lifted up to the rampart for this special occasion.

“Is it just the Illuminati among them? Or were the anarchist officers finally found?”

At Salvatrice’s side, mirroring the position of the Maid relative to the Queen, was Carmela Sabbadin. This one time, Salvatrice had outdone her in regal femininity. Perhaps she had allowed this course of events to transpire, as her outfit seemed very deliberate. Carmela was dressed almost as if for business, in a pencil skirt and a coat, with leggings and high heels. She was all black and white and gold, and her wavy hair was luxuriantly long.

She was Salvatrice’s choice for a guest to invite to this festivity. When she gave Salvatrice a longing look, and touched her hand, she seemed overjoyed. However, when regarding the prisoners, she was just as cold as everyone else in attendance. This was all catharsis.

“Tarkus Marcel had maintained detailed records of the anarchist contacts he duped and exploited, and many of the bases he had uncovered. Through these leads, we found many of these traitors.” Vittoria said. “Almost all of the men before you are anarchists. Tarkus’ cult is buried in a mass unmarked grave in the mountains. They are beneath even this.”

Byanca suppressed a sigh. She could have gotten behind shooting the Illuminati.

This, however, was just petty and pointless.

“Are we ready?” Vittoria called out.

On the execution grounds, one of the legionnaire officers saluted.

Out from behind him, two men produced a crate, and set it on a table.

Taking out the contents, they slowly and deliberately pieced together before the chained-up anarchists a Nochtish model Norgler machine gun. They set it on the table, bipod out, and again, with overdramatic care and attention, they loaded the weapon. Once the ammo belt was affixed, and the gun properly ranged, the two men stepped aside, and the officer, given the Honor of the Shot, took his place behind the machine gun and signaled.

Lillith Mariel produced a small, golden treasure box, and opened it for her Queen.

From inside it, Vittoria produced a flare gun wrapped in a silken handkerchief.

She withdrew the weapon, and popped off the shot. It detonated in mid-air like fireworks.

At once, the officer casually knelt close to the gun and held down the trigger.

Suddenly the quiet execution grounds were filled with screams muffled by sawing noise.

As the officer swept the execution ground with streams of gunfire, catching every man in the mass before him, many of Lillith’s subordinate maids appeared with delicate plates of snacks in hand. There was cheese, olives, wine, and all kinds of delectable things. Salvatrice and Carmela nibbled and chatted. Lillith seized one of the plates for herself, and she cheerfully hand-fed Vittoria her favorite bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and oil.

Byanca watched the execution with wide eyes and could not bear to eat through it.


After the last droplet of blood hit the dirt, and masked corpse detail legionnaires arrived, Byanca stood, and made to take Salvatrice’s wheelchair to lead her back to her room. She immediately found that her hand reached for the handle at the same time as the Queen’s had, and she very nearly touched Her Majesty. She recoiled, as if shocked with electricity.

Vittoria’s face had no expression. She regarded Byanca with seemingly little emotion.

“I will take my daughter for a moment, Centurion. Despite my age I am most capable of pushing a chair. Please escort Ms. Sabbadin to the Princess’ quarters, and wait.”

Vittoria took hold of Salvatrice’s wheelchair. The Princess gave Byanca a weary glance.

“I’ll see you later.” She said. She put up a small smile for her Centurion and a much more lively one for her lover, and she waved as her mother wheeled her around off the ramparts.

Soon as they were out of sight, she dropped the facade, and breathed a deep sigh.

Salvatrice was exhausted. Her whole body was in constant pain. She had lost an eye, and what was under the eyepatch was a quite unseemly wound. Canelle had made her a pretty eyepatch that hid it and accented her beauty, but it was frustrating. Her depth perception was shot, making daily tasks more difficult to do. And not only had that eye spilled out of her head, it seemed as if some of her brains had as well. She had only recently regained any sort of motor function, and thus she had only just started physical rehabilitation.

During her first therapy she exhibited the miraculous ability to stand, and to move her arms and legs, and proved that she was not paralyzed. However it was inadvisable that she stand often or for long periods, according to her doctors. They said, maybe in a year, she would be able to walk painlessly for a few hours at a time. Her wheelchair had become a new companion, and people she loved took turns wheeling her around the palace grounds.

This was the first time her mother had decided to be the one to do so.

She took Salvatrice around the back of the Palace, and to the inner courtyard garden.

There, they walked under the shade of the massive Father-Tree, or, in reality, its close kin.

“You knew about Tarkus and the anarchists. You used me as bait.” Salvatrice said.

She had no reason to be pleasant to her mother, not when removed from polite company.

She had no desire to make familial small talk. She had issues to bring up.

Queen Vittoria answered, in her typical way. “I knew there were plans in motion.”

“You used me.”

“Tarkus was the one responsible for lowering security at the College and for the fake arrests and the broadcast and all of that nonsense. He was tasked only with helping you accomplish the task I had given you. I hoped he would be discrete enough to make you confident in your own power and ability. I am not displeased with the results, ultimately.”

“I’m crippled. Clarissa is dead. People died. And there’s no 17th Legion now.”

“Immaterial. You carried yourself wonderfully and that is what matters.” Vittoria said.

Salvatrice raised her hand in a fury and pushed on a nearby pedestal.

There was a bust of an elven king, and in the next instant there was not.

An invisible force battered away the object, sending it flying like a bullet into the Tree.

Upon striking the sacred, ancient bark, it burst into a hundred pieces.

“That could be your head.” Salvatrice said coldly.

Vittoria was unfazed. “I already gave you permission to kill me if you want to.”

Fuck you.”

Vittoria ignored that outburst. “Besides–”

The Queen bent down over the wheelchair, her head beside Salvatrice’s.

She extended her own arm.

Salvatrice felt the push.

It was weaker than her own, and yet, somehow, it felt more efficient. Practiced.

Vittoria pushed on another bust of another Elven King, and flung it toward the tree.

Its trajectory was much more stable, even if far less brutal and fast.

In the instant before striking the tree, the bust stopped in mid-air, and gently descended.

“I’m familiar with that trick.” Vittoria said. “I am happy to finally see your rendition.”

Salvatrice was momentarily speechless. Vittoria walked around the wheelchair.

She stood in front of her daughter, and she knelt down, and looked her in the eyes.

In Vittoria’s face, this close, Salvatrice saw so much of her own. Too much of it.

“I knew someday, that the child of that man and myself, would exhibit a power greater than both of ours combined. Others knew, but those men are all dead. I killed them, little by little, while keeping you safe, and secluded, and unaware. Tarkus was the last of those snakes because he was my snake. Now that he’s dead, I beg you not to show off too much.”

Salvatrice could have crushed her mother’s head like a watermelon.

She knew she had the ability to do that now. It would hurt. It would hurt tremendously.

She might not be able to stand for days after doing such a thing.

But she could do it.

She did not, because she was not ready for the consequences.

But she told herself she could do it. At any time. This woman was powerless.

That made it much easier to smile warmly and laugh at her mother’s display.

Like a good child.

“I will take care with it, dear Mother.”


Byanca waited outside the hall. At her side was Terry the dog, the only official survivor of the ill-fated Redcoats other than herself. All the troops brought to the mountain to fight the Illuminati had perished. After Salvatrice went out of control, everyone who had been shooting simply, stopped. They stopped forever. Salvatrice did not know everything that had happened, and in fact, Byanca herself was unsure if this was all fanciful dreaming.

So to say that Salvatrice killed hundreds of people in the blink of an eye was a bit much.

She knew Salvatrice could do things now, things that felt different than the things Tarkus did that Byanca, also, did not understand. Salvatrice knew too. They tried to keep it quiet.

For better or worse, it seemed as if the Illuminati, Tarkus, and all of those conspiracies and secrets, would just die on that mountain, or in this palace. There would be no parting of the curtain that would make everything neat and tidy. Life simply did not work that way. There was too much wound up in it. Each of those people was a universe of contradictions, of strings tying them to a hundred others. To unearth it all would take a lifetime.

At least Byanca was alive and Salvatrice was alive. That was a good base to work from.

They had a lifetime at all now, and for that, Byanca was grateful.

Byanca waited, pacing the halls. Soon she had a companion in her pacing. Peeling off from a group of maids that included the cheeky Lillith Mariel, who had been teaching her a thing or three, was Canelle, Salvatrice’s maid. She was dressed like a palace maid herself, owing to the Princess’ relocation to Pallas proper. She seemed ecstatic to live the Palace life now.

Full of energy, Canelle was constantly in maid-mode, and would inspect every gilded surface on the Palace halls for imperfections that she would cheerfully rectify there.

This time, it was a spot on a table next to Byanca. She wiped it gleefully clean.

“Good afternoon Centurion!” She said, while working on the spot.

“Hello.” Byanca replied. “Feeling peppy?”

“Most certainly! Tell me, what did you think of the Princess’ attire?”

“It was amazing.” Byanca said.

“I could scream! I’m so happy! I have access to so many materials and facilities here. You may not believe me, but I designed and made that dress myself. It was my dream!”

Canelle hugged herself and jumped up and down with joy.

It was good that a least one person was unequivocally satisfied with all of this.

“I never knew you had it in you. You should leave Pallas and start a couture place.”

“No! Never!” Canelle said, suddenly serious. “Only the Princess shall wear my treasures!”

Byanca laughed.

“Ahem,”

Behind the two of them, a pair of exquisitely-dressed visitors had arrived.

Byanca and Canelle both turned to find Vittoria and Salvatrice waiting for them to notice.

Canelle was immediately distraught, and fumbled to take Salvatrice’s chair from Vittoria.

She seemed driven both mad with anxiety about being in the presence of the Queen, and then also mad with anxiety at the honor of wheeling the Princess around once more.

“Please calm down.” Vittoria said.

“Yes, your majesty!” Canelle said, quite extremely uncalm.

Vittoria silently stared at her, and then at Byanca in turn.

Byanca blinked.

“Take care of my daughter.” Vittoria said tersely.

The Queen then turned and promptly left their side. Byanca blinked again, confused.

“Ignore her.” Salvatrice said.

Inside the Princess’ grand suite, Carmela Sabbadin waited beside the bed, staring out the window. When Salvatrice wheeled in through the door, she stood up immediately, and took the wheelchair from Canelle, who was not entirely eager to give up, but deferred when the Princess insisted. Byanca watched the whole thing unfold, as it had unfolded a dozen times already since Salvatrice began recovering, and she shook her head.

In due time, the Princess was dressed in more casual, comfortable clothing, and finally installed in her bed. Canelle bounced away to make tea and cakes, and Carmela sat beside the bed, and held hands with Salvatrice. Byanca stood guard, saying nothing much.

“Salvatrice, I spoke with the Queen’s maid, and she has agreed I can come visit any time.”

Carmela seemed so relieved to be able to say those words. Salvatrice smirked lightly.

“Maid? She’s more like her girlfriend. Anyway, it was never a problem, you know.”

“Do I? I honestly felt like your mother hated me.” Carmela said.

“She hates everyone but Lillith. It’s fine. I’m glad you can visit, at any rate.”

Carmela held Salvatrice’s hand in both of her own, rubbing her fingers and palm.

“I bought a chic new apartment in Pallas. I’ll never be apart from you.”

Salvatrice looked at her with wide eyes. “Carmela, you shouldn’t have–”

“Money is no object when it comes to my beloved. I can transplant my life anywhere that you are. And who knows? There’s no greater land of opportunity than Pallas. Under the shadow of the Palace, maybe I can make a fortune through my cunning and skill.”

Carmela grinned devilishly and Salvatrice seemed rather worried about all of this.

“Just watch Salvatrice. I’ve already appeared before your mother as your esteemed friend, and I’m now aware of your mother’s own predilections. We can make this work out!”

Byanca felt rather awkward, listening to Carmela gossip with such a glint in her eyes.

“You’re putting the cart cities ahead of the horse.” Salvatrice said weakly.

There was no dimming Carmela’s enthusiasm however. She was brimming with energy.

“Nonetheless– I should leave you to rest. You’ll need your strength for a date out on the town soon! I’m going to make all sorts of wonderful arrangements. There’s so much happening in Pallas, you know? It’s nothing like sleepy Palladi. I’ll be in touch.”

Carmela leaned forward, and she and the Princess kissed for what seemed like minutes.

Byanca modestly averted her eyes.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

“I love you too.”

Once their little exchange was done, Carmela turned and strode confidently past Byanca.

She paused for a moment, and smacked Byanca on the shoulder cheerfully.

“Keep up the good work!”

Byanca saluted.

Carmela saluted back with a grin on her face, and finally left the room.

“She’s so excited. This city has its claws sunk deep into her. She’s truly a big city girl.” Salvatrice said, sounding exhausted. “I’m so ill, I just can’t party like she does.”

“Help, I’ve partied and I can’t get up.” Byanca said mockingly.

Salvatrice shot her the patented look of princessly disdain she had cultivated for so long.

“A little familiar, aren’t you, Centurion?”

Byanca stood stiffer, and saluted.

Salvatrice laid back in bed with a huff. “Oh stop that already.”

“How are you feeling?” Byanca asked.

“I’m constantly in pain and this room is too stuffy and fake-smelling.”

Salvatrice casually swiped her hand at a window, and the glass slid suddenly open by itself.

Byanca shivered. She always shivered when Salvatrice used her trick.

Especially because she thought she saw a fiery aura overtake the Princess when she did it.

Whenever she drew close, it disappeared. She did not understand why.

Because it came and went, it was not a problem. But it was still strange to get used to.

Byanca shook her head.

“I mean, how are you actually feeling Salvatrice? A lot has transpired, hasn’t it?”

Salvatrice shook her head. “Too much to process.”

She looked out the window. Outside, the sun was setting over the Father-Tree.

“We’ll have to process it at some point.”

“You’re right, unfortunately.”

“Well then. What do you intend to do next?” Byanca asked.

“That’s such an exhausting question.” Salvatrice sighed.

“I’m just nervous.” Byanca replied.

Salvatrice looked at her, a small, tired smile on her lips.

“Right now, I’m going to enjoy a life on the town with my social butterfly girlfriend, and spend a year trying to walk again, and maybe cross-dress in my spare time. Is that ok?”

Byanca nodded. “It’s fine. I was just thinking. In case anything else happens, perhaps I should be back on the street, trying to recruit a new independent guard corps for you.”

Salvatrice turned her face to the window again. “Carmela would probably approve.”

“She was rather fond of bankrolling the last bunch of mercenaries we fielded.”

“She is too adventurous for her own good.” Salvatrice sighed again.

“Would you approve?” Byanca asked.

“I think I can find some use for you and more of your armed thugs.” Salvatrice said.

Byanca smiled. At least, despite everything that happened, the Princess was still the Princess, complicated moods and bad personality and all. It was familiar, even if their surroundings were too new, and their circumstances and challenges far too new. She had been nervous that her presence was unnecessary, that the Princess would have no new ambitions, and no need of her. Now Byanca knew that, as much as Carmela and Canelle, she was a part of the Princess’ vision as well. She still had a place in this strange world.

She would take armed thug for now. It was a base they could work things out from.

“I was thinking we could call it a proper Princess Guard. Inspire some professionalism.”

In fact, Byanca had many ideas for a new organization. She was a soldier, after all.

Given the failure of the Blackshirt Legion, she was hungry for a legitimate alternative, as much as she was hungry for a chance to serve the Princess and continue to prove herself.

Salvatrice, however, seemed to have her own ideas as well. She gave Byanca a little laugh.

Her face turned into a cold, self-assured smirk that Byanca thought she had seen before.

“These days, Centurion, I think I’m drawn more toward calling them the Illuminati.

There was a little green glint in Salvatrice’s eyes that betrayed something different.


Last Chapter |~| Il Fine?

HEADHUNTERS (63.1)

this scene contains violence and death


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda

Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.

The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.

“Lydia, watch out!”

Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.

Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.

Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.

The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.

Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.

She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.

She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.

“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”

Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.

She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.

Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.

Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.

There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.

“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.

Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.

Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.

“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.

“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.

“Orders are orders.”

Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.

Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.

Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.

She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.

Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.

“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.

“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.

They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.

Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.

“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.

“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”

Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.

In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.

It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.

Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.

Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.

“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”

“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.

Lydia laughed.

She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“How are you holding up?” She whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said.

“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”

Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.

“I apologize.”

“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”

“I know. But appearances are important.”

“Gwen–”

“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”

She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.

“Gwen–”

Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.

“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”

Lydia felt a sense of alarm.

“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”

“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”

Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.

“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.

Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.

She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.

“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.

Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.

Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.

“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.

Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.

“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”

There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.

Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.

They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.

“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”

After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.

She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.

Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.

Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.

Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.

She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.

Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.

When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.

Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.

Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.

This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.

“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.

Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.

A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.

She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.

A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.

Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.

They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.

Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.

Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.

There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.

Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.

From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.

Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.

“Silica, no!”

Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”

“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.

Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!

Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.

Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.

As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.

Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.

Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.

Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.

But the world did not stop for anyone else.

From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–

Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.

Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.

Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.

“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.

She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.

Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.

Crack!

Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.

Her myrta was jammed.

She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.

Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?

Arsenica had led them to this fate.

Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.

Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?

“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”

Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.

In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.

At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.

Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.

Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.

Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.

She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.

Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.

All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.

“Gwendolyn!”

She breathed in smoke, coughed.

Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.

A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.

It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.

Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.

Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.

Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.

Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.

Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.

“Lydia!”

She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.

She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.

There was blood on her forehead.

“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”

“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”

“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.

She glanced back at the road.

Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.

“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”

She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.

Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.

“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”

Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.

Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.

Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.

She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.

“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”

Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.

There was an explosion in the near distance.

Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.

Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.

Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.

They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.

“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”

Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.

Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.

“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.


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“V”: The Loss Of Innocence

This chapter contains violence and death.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Southern Dbagbo

Guns sounded from the treeline, and flashes pierced the gloom cast by the wood.

From the edge of the forest sailed dozens of shells that soared over the open fields and crashed all along the defensive line. Huddled against the earthworks, infantry of the 3rd Rhino Rifle Division cringed back as columns of earth and shattered wood and splintered stone went up into the air in front of their faces. They hid farther back in their trenches, the defenses stacked three deep, each several dozen meters long in an arrowhead shape.

Several minutes and seemingly a hundred shells later, the tanks began to advance from the forest. M4 Sentinel medium tanks led the charge, over two dozen of them, followed by small concentrations of lighter M5 Rangers and a scant few M3 Hunter assault guns with their distinctive hull-mounted cannons. They rolled over the broad green prairie like a storm of steel, rushing the defenses at full steam. Machine guns blared from the front hulls of the M4s and M5s, fired by the assistant drivers, and every few seconds one or more or the tanks fired a cannon volley, putting shells closer and closer into the interior trenches. Creeping and creeping, the tanks and their ordnance broke the defenders.

Unable to suffer the advance of the enemy, the men in the trenches scrambled out of their positions. As they ran the machine guns never ceased firing, and many were cut down where they stood. Anti-tank guns lay abandoned behind the trenches, having never attempted to fire a shot — the old short-barreled 45mm gun was too ineffective beyond 500 meters to matter in this engagement. Well before the first tracks hit the trench walls, the defenses were deserted, and there lay corpses everywhere, hidden beneath the yellow and red flowers and the dew-licked green grasses that stretched behind the trench line.

A kilometer removed from this carnage, the second defensive line began to break from the sights captured in their binoculars and scopes. Men and women dropped their rifles and tore their uniforms and fled into the woods and hills. Without their commanding officer around to shout at them or shoot them discipline was breaking. Aside from being a kilometer farther than the first line, the second line was not much different. Three columns of trenches, each quite long and deep, fortified with wooden logs and sandbags and rocks and whatever could be sourced in a pinch. Dilapidated old anti-tank guns provided meager support for the defense. Once more, not a shot was fired by them.

Several hundred meters away from this scene, Cadao Chakma did not even attempt to rally the defenders of the second line. Doing such a thing would have compromised her plan, wasted her time, irreparably damaged the winning solution that she had drafted.

As much as she desired to save the infantry, doing so was not her job, for she was not an officer, and in fact should not even have been a combatant. These were desperate times, for a chief warrant officer to be fighting out her own plans. From a wooded hill halfway between the lines and offset farther south, cleverly concealed with netting and fake bush, she watched the lines break and the tanks begin to cross the flower field between the two sets of earthworks. It was on this soft ground that she desired her enemy, and she waited.

It was painful to watch the infantry struggle so much, but she had found the winning solution. Cadao was a solver of problems and she had solved this problem in this way. She hated herself for it, and she felt her heart hurt, but this was the only way, she knew.

All she could do was watch and to pray that her solution was truly the winning one.

“On my signal, all guns will fire until ammunition is exhausted, or the enemy retreats.”

In response, every crew started to load explosive shells and to stack replacements.

There was no need for detailed instructions. Her crews were not trained enough to perform any complicated fire orders. Everything they were going to shoot was pre-sited and pre-calculated. All they had to do was load the “150’s” as they called them, and pull to shoot.

Cadao raised her binoculars to her eyes and followed the tanks on their journey to the second defensive line, which was growing more barren of troops by the passing second.

It happened quickly; a plume of smoke rose suddenly somewhere within the tank formations, burning under a few flowers, its origin point invisible amid the moving mass of armor. One tank, an inconsequential M5 Ranger, stalled. Around it, every other tank continued a dauntless advance. Another tank stopped. Its front sank into the ground. And a third, a valuable M4 this time, stopped abruptly, its hatch thrown open by fire.

One by one the tanks started to stall. Some hit pre-dug pits, others drove too close to the ponds and mud puddles caused by the Dbagdo rain and hidden under the prairie flora, and became mired. Still more struck mines, causing them to de-track. Roughly a quarter of the fifty or sixty tanks in motion became trapped, and caused problems for the bulk of the formation that followed behind them. They slowed and turned in place and started to inch around the stalled tanks, trying to negotiate the obstacle presented by their trapped comrades as well as avoiding the traps that immobilized them in the first place.

As the ranks of the panzer battalion became disorganized, Cadao raised her fist to signal.

Her own treeline lit up as brilliantly as the opposing treeline had before.

Dozens of 152mm shells hurtled out from the wooded hill and directly into the prairie.

Where they struck the earth, great geysers of mud and upturned flowers and chewed-up turf went flying into the air. After the first few volleys the artillery crews scored their first grazes on moving and immobilized tanks. Detonations within a meter or two of a tank caused the tracks of the medium tanks to scatter in every direction, and the sides to collapse inward from the explosive pressure. Light tanks failed to survive even the lightest grazes, and any shell that struck anywhere near them left hundreds of shrapnel holes in their thin armor, and set the engines ablaze, and caused hatches to collapse inward.

There were few direct hits, but each was remarkably brutal. An M4, stricken directly in the neck of its turret, was beheaded, and gunner, loader and commander were sent flying in pieces along with their gun and equipment, leaving behind a hull akin to a squashed can. M5 Lights practically disintegrated when struck, their side walls and half the turrets and chunks of the engine compartment disappearing entirely, leaving behind gaping wounds that billowed thick black smoke and tongues of red fire and no sign of survivors within.

Nobody was counting the volleys, nobody was counting the kills. Cadao watched in silence as barrage after barrage went out. On the wooded hill the crews did nothing but load and shoot as fast as possible, collectively launching hundreds of shells for every minute passed. Maybe a dozen minutes and a thousand shells later the supply was utterly cooked off, hundreds of crates emptied and discarded behind her, and the beautiful prairie was reduced to a cratered hellscape, not a meter of grass or a single flower left amid the sea of craters, amid the chewed-up ground and dozens of burning, mutilated metal coffins.

Not a single tank would make it to the second defensive line. All of the lead formation was crippled or destroyed; Cadao took a moment to finally count, and found 24 tanks of various types destroyed. She spotted at least thirty more tanks, most in states of injury, others perfectly intact, all turning and speeding back over the first trench and into the forest.

She sighed deeply. Despite the loss of her C.O., the cowardice and ill preparedness of the infantry, and the inexperience of her own artillery, she had somehow turned back an overwhelming assault. She had perhaps bought the rear echelon of Battlegroup Rhino a day or two worth of respite to reorganize the line and plug the gap here. Whether they could manage to do so was another matter. Dbagbo was slowly but surely falling.

After sighing, letting out all the bad air, she smiled, not for herself, but for the others.

“Good job! Abandon the guns and let us run east to the HQ. If we are lucky, we may be able to return at night and hitch these guns back with some trucks or horses. Move out!”

Cadao was no leader, she thought. She was just someone who liked to come up with solutions, almost like a hobby, at first. But now everyone seemed to defer to her, and to give her the opportunity to solve the problems she saw. And so without question, without the honor of marking their barrels or even celebrating this victory, the artillery crews abandoned their guns, taking only food and water, and followed her out to the field.

Seeing the state of her troops, Cadao wondered whether any amount of planning could turn around the battered wills of her people — and her own flagging hope as well.

Watching the remnants of the infantry flee, she thought that perhaps her people were too gentle now for this war. Perhaps they could not cope anymore with carnage, after peace.


47th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Eastern Dbagbo

After being relieved of duty for abandoning her artillery post, and being confined to camp in the far rear echelon, Cadao thought she would at least have some peace and privacy and time for herself in a state of “tent arrest.” However, one odd morning, the military police practically fled from around her tent, and were soon replaced by one surprising guest.

“Chief Warrant Officer Cadao Chakma, your presence is requested at the motor pool.”

Cadao was startled by the messenger suddenly barging into her tent. She was quite a mess; jotting down imaginary mobilization plans for the nation on a little notebook, her honey-brown skin was slick with sweat, and she was dressed in little more than an immodest tanktop and short pants. Her hair was disheveled. She had zipped up her tent, to prevent just such an intrusion, but the intruder had simply ripped it open to deliver the missive.

“Don’t just barge in!”

She threw her standard issue booklet of socialist wisdom at the messenger’s face, and found the stoic-faced most unconcerned by the attack. After being struck between the eyes, hardly even flinching, the messenger backed away, and waited outside instead. Judging by her behavior, she must have been with the KVW. Cadao blinked, and scrambled to dress herself, finding pieces of her uniform here and there, tying her hair into a ponytail, and gathering up her notes and proposals into a satchel to take with her.

Once ready, she stepped outside the tent, and nervously saluted the messenger.

“No hard feelings.” responded the messenger.

Cadao sighed. At least she was being let out of her tent now.

The messenger led her from her prison tent, which was large and cozy and strung up under a decorative tree planted just off the Gulguru train station platform, and onto the platform itself, and past several rows of track to a train that was recently arrived amid the hustle and bustle of the unannounced but practically unavoidable evacuation from Dbagbo.

Cadao certainly had no knowledge of its presence prior to seeing it there, but then again, she had little special knowledge of who came and went since her punishment. The train was armored, and heavily armed, but it dragged behind itself one car that was red and gilded and fancifully decorated, the kind of car that once upon a time brought holiday-makers on a tour through the wonders of Ayvarta. It was to this car that she was led.

Inside the train car, there was practically a tea party set up. On a table with a frilly cloth and rose-pattern embroidery, lay a set of a porcelain tea cups and plates. There were cakes, halva, and what smelled like fresh coffee, and black tea, and funky yak’s milk. Sugary syrup and honey were plentiful. Behind this table, a woman poured herself a cup, and with a hand gesture invited Cadao to sit down and partake of the sweet little spread.

Behind Cadao, the messenger left the car, and walked around the side of the train.

“Hujambo! I am Commissar-General Halani Kuracha. Please sit!”

She gestured once more for Cadao to sit, and so, Cadao sat.

When she heard the word ‘Commissar’ Cadao always thought of a taciturn older man, but before her there was a young, slender woman, brown-skinned, black-haired, with gentle features. Her hair was arranged in a cutesy, charmingly messy pair of twin tails. Her most striking feature was her eyes, each a different color behind a pair of round spectacles. As she busied herself stirring honey into a cup of coffee and yak’s milk, Cadao stared.

“I am stricken by your expression; you have lovely eyes, C.W.O.” Kuracha said.

Cadao, alarmed, sat up straighter, feeling a jolt along her back.

“I suppose so! They’re my mother’s eyes.” She said nervously.

Kuracha tapped her spoon on her cup, dripping off coffee from it.

She pointed the instrument at Cadao with a foxy grin on her face.

“Such a beautiful combination of features. If I could hazard a guess, Kitanese?”

Cadao averted her eyes momentarily, rubbing one hand on the opposite forearm.

“Um, well, I consider myself– just Ayvartan.” Cadao replied, suddenly self-conscious.

“Oh, I know. But you understand where I’m coming from, right? Certainly your blood runs many colors, it must have, to have assembled such a pleasant tapestry of features.”

Cadao blinked and shivered. Was she being flirted with? Was this flirting?

Kuracha had certainly developed an almost lascivious grin. It could be flirting.

Still, Cadao did not have to indulge it, if it was. “My mother was Kitanese. I’m Ayvartan.”

She said this in a voice that was low and reserved, and Kuracha took notice.

“Ah, comrade, you needn’t continue to assert such things. I do not come at this from a position of prejudice. I myself come from the stock of a north solstice desert tribe, the Budii. My people were barbarian raiders in antiquity. Now they farm along the Marduk.”

She waved her hands as if to blow away the anxiety in the air.

“There a lot of those tribes, aren’t there?” Cadao said, trying to make conversation.

She had never seen a tribeswoman quite like Kuracha. But then again there were few Kitanese that looked quite like Cadao did. Circumstances easily overcame one’s blood.

“Hundreds. Some are still out there, living their lives the ancient way.” Kuracha said.

“I see.”

“It’s a harsh life. I prefer the gentle glow of civilization.” Kuracha replied.

Cadao would not ask whether she thought the use of the word civilization implied her people’s ways to be savagery or barbarism still. She was not good at conversations or interrogations and she was starting to buckle under Kuracha’s boisterous presence. Whatever Kuracha’s ideas on cultures and ethnicities, it did not matter right then.

“Um, for what reason was I summoned, Commissar.” Cadao asked.

“Punctual! I like that.” Kuracha said, pointing an index finger at her like a gun.

Cadao started to sweat again. Was this how people flirted? She just did not know!

Kuracha looked her in the eyes, and her voice took on a less casual tone. “I was dispatched here to quickly retrieve you; your presence is wanted in Solstice, as part of a potential new military high command, likely to be approved soon by the Council and the KVW.”

“My presence?” Cadao blinked. “Military High Command?” Her mind started to spiral away, and her heart rushed. She found it hard to process anything. “How? What?”

“Cadao Chakma. You submitted a thesis to officer school for a potential mobilization plan in case of a southern invasion, four years ago.” Kuracha calmly explained, taking a sip of her coffee between sentences. “Your proposal was rejected and you were barred entry. It was completely politically motivated — you arrived, unfortunately, in time for demilitarization to enter the lexicon. But Solstice recognizes your worth now.”

Her worth. She felt her heart swell and her eyes drew wide open.

It was as if a bright light had exploded in the darkened recesses of her mind.

Something warm and satisfying and powerful welled up within her.

They had read her plans, seen the work of her imagination.

And they thought she was right enough to support. She felt herself glowing.

“All of that is true,” Cadao began, her speech excited, quick, “but that plan was for a potential war against a resurgent Mamlakha and Cissea, not against the Nocht Federation! To draft an effective mobilization plan I would need new data, both on us and on them.”

Kuracha grinned. “Excitable now, are we?”

Cadao caught herself, and drew back into her own shell once more.

Kuracha laughed. “You can have anything you want.”

She gestured behind herself and clapped her hands.

Behind her a door opened, and the next car over had one its rear door pulled open too.

Inside Cadao saw a veritable library.

“Are those–?”

“Copies of records from the Solstice archive.”

Cadao was speechless. It was wall to wall in that massive train car.

“I should get to work.” She said, still stunned by this turn of events.

Kuracha clapped her hands cheerfully. “You should.”


55th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, South Gate

Council had fallen bloodlessly, and Daksha Kansal was elevated to Premier.

After a short confrontation, Cadao managed to hold her own against the Premier well enough to receive her post, and she quickly set about to work. Her people, her gentle, peace-loving Ayvartan people, her farmers, her factory workers; she had, as was her custom, identified their problem, and come up with a solution. It was a dire solution.

Under Kansal, Cadao Chakma was now the civilian head of the armed forces. Battle plans were not her responsibility; as she sat, in a small restaurant just off Solstice’s south gate, her head swam with production numbers, potential efficiencies, procurements, R&D, and other engineering and logistical topics. The Wall outside dwarfed everything around it ten times over, and the gate, too, was massive, and very visible even inside the restaurant, even in an aisle seat. Despite this, she paid it little attention. She had become accustomed to the wall and no longer marveled at it. It was big. There were bigger edifices in the world.

Her people, this war, and the structure of communism.

Those were far bigger than the Walls.

She had turned over these problems and her own solutions in her head, over and over.

Always she attacked her own answers. She had to be completely certain.

There was too much now riding on her decisions.

She thought she would be ready for her new position. But it was one thing to solve small problems. From the heights she had attained, she saw a world an infinitude larger than before, and she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem before her.

And she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the solutions.

Everything hung in the balance.

Not only flesh and blood, but now the soul, too.

“Hujambo, here’s your lentils.”

“Thank you.”

A gentle serving girl with frizzy hair beneath a scarf laid down a bowl of lentils and a spread of flatbreads, and accompaniments like mint yogurt and mango-chili puree. Cadao poured the mango-chili mix into the lentil soup and mixed it up. She did this almost absentmindedly, while looking over a thick folder of documents she had prepared.

“Um, excuse me. You’re with the army, right?”

At her side, the service girl looked at her with meek eyes.

Cadao was in uniform and clearly looking at military-stamped documents.

But she was gentle; she was a part of a gentle people and she was gentle herself.

“Indeed, I am.” She said. She smiled. “Is there anything I can do for you, comrade?”

“Yes. Um. I know this is silly but. Have you heard or served with a lad my age, name of Kambaru Chafulu? He,” she paused for a moment, “He means a lot to me, and I–”

“I’m afraid I haven’t.” Cadao replied.

“Thank you. I am sorry to trouble to you.”

There were tears in the girl’s eyes as she bowed down, and turned swiftly away.

A soft and soft-hearted girl, victim of this war.

There would be more if her answers were not the correct ones.

Cadao sighed deeply.

She returned to work, reading over the same lines, doing the math in her head.

Over and over and over, attacking every line from every angle.

There was a war in her head, and it was this war, and it was its own.

Should those two meet, there would be great success.

And if she could not force them together, reality would crush her gentle people.

“Hujambo.”

It was a deeper voice this time. Cadao looked up.

Appearing at the side of the table was Premier Daksha Kansal. Tall, serious in expression, almost regal, with mixed black and grey hair in a big bun, dark skin and eyes, and a face that was only mildly weathered by age and suffering. She looked mature, but perhaps not entirely her own age. Her uniform was unchanged since becoming Premier. She wore the KVW black, red and gold, without visible honors. Her demeanor, attitude, the way she held her head high and her gaze hard, made it obvious that she was a person of authority.

She was a vibrant character who gave off a fiery aura.

Cadao, at first, buckled completely in her presence. Now, she felt more uncomfortable with her own thoughts than with anything Daksha Kansal could say or do.

“Have a seat, comrade Premier.” Cadao said.

Kansal nodded, and sat opposite her.

Soon, the girl appeared again, her eyes and cheeks clearly marked with dried tears.

“What will you have, comrade?” She asked.

“Hello, Yanna.” Kansal said.

She waved gently. Opposite her, the girl stared for a moment and then gasped.

“You’re the one who helped get me to a doctor, weren’t you?” Yanna said.

Cadao looked between Daksha and the girl with a quizzical expression.

“I only made a few phone calls.” Kansal said.

Yanna bowed deeply.

“I apologize ma’am. My brother should not have asked such a thing of you.”

“He was a child concerned for his family. We should all be so caring toward each other.”

“Thank you ma’am.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the doctor for your speedy recovery. I will have what Cadao had.”

Yanna bowed again, and skipped and hopped away to the kitchen, giggling.

How quickly the whims of her people turned! Cadao thought, they were truly soft souls.

It hurt her heart, how kind everyone was.

“So, talk to me about this plan of yours.” Kansal said.

“That was why you chose this restaurant?” Cadao asked, smiling.

“No, I just like the food. Tell me about your plan, Cadao.”

Cadao sighed, losing her energy instantly. She had thought it over and over again.

No matter how many times she played out the moves in the chessboard of her mind, no matter what data she read or what facts she tried to plug into the formula for a different result, all she could come up with was the dire series of orders written in the terrible little folder she had laid on the table. She spread it open, and pushed it toward the Premier.

She had sealed the fate of Ayvarta with that move, she thought.

For better or for worse. She didn’t know. Perhaps both. She couldn’t know!

That was the solution and she was committing to it even though it hurt.

That was her custom.

“Premier, to accompany the mobilization plan of troops, it is absolutely necessary we mobilize the civilian sector as well, to the fullest capacity. Right now, we can easily raise 500,000 troops to defend Solstice by the Hazel’s Frost, and one million by early next year. But they will all be equipped with the subpar old weapons of the demilitarization regime.”

“So this is a procurement plan?” Kansal said.

“No. It is something bigger.”

“An ambitious procurement plan?”

“It is a change in our very way of life.”

Kansal raised an eyebrow.

“All I’m seeing in this document are R&D profiles of weapons I already know about, and a lot of mathematics that it is too early, and that I am too hungry, to parse. Please explain.”

Cadao nodded. She took in a deep breath and prepared to deliver the dire news.

“That project is called War Plan ‘V’; it is the fifth War Plan ever drafted by the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and coincidentally, that five can easily stand for Victory. To achieve victory, I have created a plan that assumes the unconquered half of Ayvarta, with Solstice and its five remaining Dominances of Chunar, Govam, Ayanta, Jomba and Karnata, will operate at a hundred percent of its capacity. Everyone who can work, will work. Every factory, every input, very asset, will produce, for the war. Just for the war.”

Kansal blinked. Whether or not she understood the implications immediately, was unclear. Yanna came by with her food, and set it down on the table, and for a moment there were pleasantries exchanged that interrupted the discussion. Kansal took a few bites, drank some cold, spiced milk, and then turned her gaze back to Cadao again.

“Just for the war?”

“Just for the war.”

“You realize you are in a communist country?”

“To each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

“Right. You know that, so–”

“Right now, we have a great need of things for a war, ma’am.”

Cadao was straining to continue this discussion. It weighed so heavily on her.

She like a villain; truly, she must have been. She must have been the villain.

Kansal seemed a touch irritated by everything.

“We are already producing at a high capacity. And industry from the south is being evacuated to Chunar and will be running again in a few months.” Kansal said.

Cadao sighed. “Ma’am, if I told you I could turn a toy factory into a gun factory what would you say? Would you really say that the toy factory producing toys, is being efficient here?”

Kansal narrowed her eyes. “I’d wonder what your opinion of our children is.”

It hurt to hear that, truly. It hurt to hear it said in that way. It really cast Cadao as a villain.

She took a deep breath and prepared to lean into villainhood fully.

Cadao shook her head. “If I turn every toy factory into a gun factory in just Solstice, I can equip a Division with Rifles and Grenades every week, and with enough ammunition to fight for a month, at the cost of a few unhappy kids who can learn to play pretend.”

Kansal hesitated to speak again. That was the kind of math that she truly understood.

“What else are you thinking?” Kansal asked. “What else is in War Plan V?”

Her heart was buckling, and her speech started to stir a bit. Cadao spoke quickly.

“Textile factories can make uniforms for infantry, bodysuits for tankers, camouflage nets, ammunition sacks, straps of various kinds that we need; tractor factories can make tanks, including the Hobgoblin. Automobile clubs can be pressed into patriotic service in making and repairing combat craft, including Aircraft like the Garuda II, which we sorely need. Women and men and children can construct earthworks and man air defenses. We could double the Solstice Air Defense Network, and have round the clock gun shifts, in a week.”

“And when the first teenage girl you allowed behind a gun is blown up by a bomber?”

Cadao almost wanted to weep hearing that. Her composure was starting to shake, but she held herself together as best as she could, shaking, and a little weeping, and yet firm.

“We’ll be secure in the knowledge that we have reserves.” Cadao replied.

She hated herself so much; she hated herself for having said that. Hated!

Even Kansal seemed shocked by Cadao’s response.

There was no more holding it back. Cadao was starting to break.

War Plan “V” was the solution and she had to have it approved.

“Ma’am, I understand what I am saying and proposing. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice was founded and built upon the promise that the state serves and protects its people and takes care of their needs first. To fully embroil them in this war, to use them in this way as a resource, to totalize this war into their everyday lives, is to break the great Ayvartan peace that we were enjoying, to break that gentleness we so valued. But ma’am, the state needs the people’s help. We cannot fight the Federation’s forces alone.”

Cadao broke out into tears over her own words. She felt she was becoming a monster.

But there was a problem, and she had the solution. She had the horrible solution and she could not let it go because that was her nature. She had won over this problem now and she had to declare it. No matter what was destroyed in the process. This was the only way.

“Right now we are producing 300 Hobgoblin tanks a month. I can make 1000 in a week, if I can have men and women currently painting sports cars for a dwindling export market, or building surplus wheelchairs, or putting together children’s bicycles; if I can have those people building tanks every day, on a fair schedule, for fair compensation. I can do that.”

“So,” Cadao’s voice started to crack. “So, ma’am, we may cause harm to Ayvarta. But we may save it too. Do you desire to save Ayvarta, even if it is not the exact same after?”

It was perhaps the polar opposite of demilitarization. Everyone had prayed and hoped for a society that could be at peace with the world and free of war. Cadao was proposing to make a society that was steeped in war, and functioned only to prosecute it at its most total, most consuming and brutal, in order to survive. What kind of Ayvarta could survive such a thing, she did not know. That was not the problem right now. She had the solution for the problem that they had. 1000 Hobgoblins a month in two months; after that, tens of thousands if the southern industry could come online in Chunar fast enough. Similar numbers of Garudas and Wyverns in the skies. Qote class aircraft carriers and Megalodon submarines. Millions of Salamander rockets. Untold billions of rifles and grenades.

And, ultimately, an army of several million, whole populations living to fight.

And even greater still a civilian army of billions who lived to support that fight.

Cadao’s horrible, inescapable, haunting vision of total war for the survival of Ayvarta.

“I will think about it.” Kansal said.

Her expression betrayed nothing of what she could be thinking.

She stood, saluted Cadao, and left the scene, stone-faced.

With her superior gone, Cadao finally allowed herself to break down completely.

She screamed, and thrashed, and cried, and nobody around her understood why.

People came up to her and tried to console her. Yanna told her everything would be fine.

All of those gentle souls, who might, in a year, or in two years, see that gentleness gone.

It made Cadao weep and scream all the more. She did not deserve that kindness.


1st of the Hazel’s Frost

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, SIVIRA

Cadao Chakma appeared before Daksha Kansal one cold evening in Solstice.

She had spent the past few days on forced leave, to recuperate from “an illness.”

It was cold and getting colder, so she had some kind of excuse. Shifting weather.

That the desert was starting to become so unbearably cold at night meant winter was here.

Weather wasn’t it however; weather did not bother her.

Not the physical weather. It was more the philosophical weather bothering her.

There was a storm in her heart, pouring rain in her mind.

To think, Kansal had put so much trust in her, and she was already buckling.

What a joke; for a monster, she was very week.

“Cadao,”

She did not sit. She was not invited to sit, nor would she.

Cadao knew why she was there.

Under her arms, she had brought it. That hated thing, that fateful thing.

Kansal stretched out a hand and beckoned.

“Give it to me. I have decided to disseminate this.” She said.

Cadao nodded grimly. Her eyes almost welled up in tears again.

“Are you afraid, Cadao?”

“Yes.”

Cadao was deathly afraid. Of what she was doing, of the role she would play in it.

“Can you continue your work even so?”

“I can. I have medications.”

Kansal nodded. She pushed back her chair.

“Cadao, I believe that the goodness of the Ayvartan people can survive anything. It blossomed even under the brutality of the Empire. We are not perverting it.”

Kansal stood, and she approached Cadao, in time for the young officer to break down.

Her knees grew weak, and she sank into Kansal’s breast.

Kansal took her in her arms and gave her a strong, reassuring embrace.

“We are saving it, Cadao, you are saving it. That you’re crying right now about all of this, despite being such a genius, with such a strong will to set this into motion. You are not excluded from the beauty and nobility of the Ayvartan people. You are the noblest of us.”

Cadao could hardly think anymore.

From under her arms, War Plan “V” spilled into the floor.

She cried and shouted terribly into Kansal’s chest.

This was an evil thing, it was not a good thing, not a communist thing.

It could not be anything but evil and she was doing it. She was the architect.

“Cadao, if it turns out that what we’re doing is evil and monstrous, I will be the monster. History will judge me, and never you. I will protect you. I promise.” Kansal said.

Cadao withdrew from Kansal and looked her in the eyes, shaking.

“Ma’am–”

Kansal smiled a motherly smile and looked her in the eyes too.

“I will be the monster. Never you.”

Moved by this display, Cadao cried once again, the loudest she ever had.


 

1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

War Plan “V” is approved. Beginning of War Communism and Ayvartan Total War.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

The Rangda Tank War (62.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council

Outside the Council Building the brutalized lawn, littered with spent cases, pitted by artillery fire and clouded in the smoke from mortars and guns, suffered a final indignity as an enormous gliding aircraft crashed onto its turf. Chunks of manicured green topsoil went flying as the craft dug into the earth and skidded to a stop just off the street.

Once it settled, the craft’s entire front section lifted, and from inside, a tank growled to life. It trundled gingerly off the glider and onto the Rangdan ground, and made its way toward the edge of Council street, anticipating some kind of defensive action. All around the city, in places near, far and disparate, several more gliders and their cargo would drop onto Rangda, and the crews emerging from them began their singular, vague mission to support the parachute troops. Tanks, tracked Universal Carriers, and scout cars, all landed inside the bellies of a hundred or so of the thousand aircraft cutting the skies over Rangda.

Most common among these were the 50 or so Patriarch tanks dropped in stray groups across the city, and the lone example now defending the occupied Council Building.

Owing to the strict take-off weight limits of the elven gliders, the Patriarch was a light tank weighing at just around 30 tons, boasting a compact form factor of flat, boxy surfaces. Four large road wheels turned the track, without need of a visible forward sprocket or a return roller. Mounted in front of a gently curved turret with thin, flat, slightly angled sides, was the ubiquitous 2-pounder anti-tank gun, along with a coaxial machine gun.

Von Drachen had never seen its like before, but he found it inferior to even the obsolete M5 Ranger of the Nochtish forces and as such he struck the thing from his mind.

All of this information he pieced together from both the blathering of “Lady” Arsenica but more importantly also from the radio reports frantically coming in from betrayed 8th Division forces across the city. With the capitol occupied, and several Council staff cooperating with the occupation, the invading Elven enemy had unfettered access to all 8th Division communications. The already hobbled Division was now fully and thoroughly compromised. It was only the Elves’ inability to cobble back together their distantly landed troops that gave the 8th Division any kind of lease on life. They were done for.

As he watched the tank land on the Council lawn, Von Drachen realized that the 8th Division was not the only force that was done for. There would be another casualty.

“Attention Elven forces across the target city of Rangda!”

Using the Ayvartan emergency voice-projection system, headquartered in the Council building, Knight Lady Arsenica hailed everyone in the city, though she specifically addressed only the Elves, as if she had a choice of whom to speak to. She gesticulated with sweeping motions and wore a haughty, manic grin on her face, luxuriating in her moment. Von Drachen watched her from across the communications center with a quizzical look.

“This is Paladin Arsenica Livia Varus, fourth in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Lubon!” This particular line she delivered with an almost orgasmic zeal. “I have captured the Ayvartan’s command center, and am placing myself in overall command of royal army ground operations, by virtue of my rank, noble blood and access to communications equipment! My orders to you are as follows. All Elven units are to regroup, forming battle groups around our armored vehicles, and then move westward, toward the port of Rangda, to capture its naval defenses and docking apparatus for the use of the Royal Navy!”

She then left the emergency communications system and sat down on a metal chair near a desk with a heavy-duty telephone terminus and radio system, which she could attempt to use contact those elves who had personal radios or who had stolen 8th Division radio. Von Drachen was mildly aware of such things happening. He had been listening attentively to unencrypted 8th Division communications for a while, as a personal project that he had convinced Paladin Varus was actually her own project and done for her own good.

“Drachen, I require your cooperation in contacting specific units with instructions.”

Von Drachen (though he would not labor this point again) nodded his head.

He sat down beside her, and donned a headset to assist her in radio operation.

She was not quick to broadcast any instructions. Instead, she looked at him for a moment.

“You seem a shrewd man, Drachen.” She said. “Your eyes betray hidden depths.”

Von Drachen smiled. “I am but a humble person who tries his best; mediocre of late.”

“Well, if you say so.” She frowned slightly. “This situation has been twisting and turning in inscrutable ways for the past few days, I take it. What do you think of everything?”

“You are doing everything you can to lose this battle, and it is admirable in an odd way.”

Arsenica grumbled. That was clearly not the answer she wanted. That this little dictator did not have him shot for such things spoke to the level at which she was drawn to him. Perhaps she was coming to believe he was more than he professed to be (on both occasions he professed to be something) or perhaps independently of such obvious high-minded analysis she had found him and his situation interesting. Nonethless, she was tolerating him like she tolerated nobody else. Von Drachen did not care; he treated her as he treated everybody. Few people in Von Drachen’s eyes deserved a ginger hand less than Arsenica.

“I’m not a fool Drachen. I know that this mission is incredibly risky; and that by themselves the airborne troops of the kingdom, quality as they are, may not be able to take this city outright. But the Kingdom of Lubon fights with the ancient Elven art of war. We may lose battles but we will win wars. Boldness and gallantry inevitably pay off.”

Von Drachen made no outward expression in response. He found her answer typical of the prideful Elven noble-warrior who achieved combat command through birthright.

“You can lose battles to win wars; if your logistics are much better, or if you have strong reinforcements waiting to re-engage quickly,or if an enemy’s strength could collapse from attrition, and so on. Yes, there are many scenarios where a certain loss is still the right course of action in an overall strategy, but you cannot do so here. Even if you met all of the other conditions, your strategy has a fundamental flaw. You see, there will be no battle.”

Arsenica raised her eyebrows, surprised but quickly skeptical. “What makes you say that?”

Von Drachen crossed his arms and fixed Arsenica with a suddenly serious look.

“You think because you have broken the enemy’s defenses and fomented disorganization in their ranks, that they will see it as a natural disadvantage and wish it seized from you. But Madiha Nakar will not respond to this situation by reforming her battle line for you to engage in classical pitched combat. You are probably hoping she attempts to restore her defense and regroup her forces, wasting time while you fight your losing battle against her, and therefore tying her up until your Navy wins your war. Ultimately, you are wrong.”

He raised his hands and made a cutting motion with one just in front of Arsenica.

“She will not duel you. She’ll behead you and then walk past the twitching corpse.”

Arsenica seemed taken aback, disgusted by the imagery. She embraced herself and shuddered as if the thought of her own headless body had intruded in her psyche.

“How could you know? What makes you speak so boldly and certainly?” She snapped.

Von Drachen grinned viciously. “Because it’s what I would do.”

Granted, Von Drachen was planning to do something very different at that moment.

But it wasn’t the same situation and though Madiha was almost as good as he was at this little game they called war, she was her own animal, and he could truly only speculate.

Still, Arsenica needed to know none of that.

“I believe I ordered you to take on a task, Von Drachen!” Arsenica cried out.

Nodding amicably, Von Drachen returned his attention to the radios.

“Actually, wait!”

Arsenica lashed out and seized the headset from Von Drachen, placing it on her own head.

“You and your unit will go reinforce our defense outside. I’ll take care of this personally.”

She gave Von Drachen a vulnerable, uncomfortable look. He returned a vicious grin.

“I longed for such an assignment, my liege.”

Von Drachen gave a mock bow. Arsenica seemed to feel a jolt down her body. She shook.

Before she had a chance to reconsider, if she was considering such a thing, Von Drachen stood from the chair and ambled out the door in good humor. He truly had wished to be assigned the role of cannon fodder for the Elves. He knew, if he made himself both useful and pestilent enough that they would think they were consigning him to death.

In reality, there was no bigger coffin than any Council building Arsenica hid herself in.


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The End Of A Chivalrous Era

This story contains violence, death, graphic violence and death, animal death, and quick mention and intimation of suicide. Reader discretion is advised.


18th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2008 D.C.E

Kingdom of Franz, City of Calvado — Von Krupp Salient, XIII Corps Line

22 Years Before The Solstice War.

It was his first time stepping outside the soil of the fatherland.

Though he was still on the continent, the young man had charged from the Federation of Northern States to the Kingdom of Franz. God help him; he was in another country. He was the invader; it really was a war. To think he was at war with the renowned gentlemen of Franz. With the men who had devised everything he knew about war. God help him.

Before all of this he had thought men could settle their differences through rhetoric and rationality, finding common cause and understanding. He was no longer so sure of that.

XIII Corps had a prolific season in central Franz. While Army Group A in the North and Army Group C in the South had floundered spectacularly (C’s mission to invade both Franz’s south and Lachy’s northern border, dividing its forces, was especially disastrous), Army Group B had managed to create a bulge in the line, extending half-into the city of Calvado. It was able to use all of its forces without obstruction or diversion and as such had managed to deploy considerable combat power against its enemies in the year’s final campaign season. Franz’s hard drive against the fledging Nochtish Republic halted.

Dreschner felt a sense of dread in the air around little Calvado. Here the bulge created against the royalist lines was called the Von Krupp Salient after the general whose troops had sweated and bled to push it forward. Now that very General, under orders from President Lehner, called for a cessation of movement and a strategic reassessment. Winter was coming, and the ravages of the war had taken too hard a toll on the Republican forces.

Every corps started preparing its defensive positions for the cold. Oberkommando was confident that the heroic men of the salient, who had fought so well, could hold anything.

But the summer was over; Army Group B was not the force it was in the Yarrow’s Sun.

Private 1st Class Einschel Dreschner could see the evidence of that all around him.

His line was almost empty — only his loader was with him, staring nervously out into the street ahead. His commander was sleeping inside a nearby house and three riflemen were pacing up and down the edge of two foxholes they dug into the soft street. Dreschner and the men had been ordered to form a fighting position on the intersection of Loum street just a few blocks up from the city center. It was a bad place to be fighting defensively. Most of their platoon had been wiped out in the last offensive. Support was long awaited.

Dreschner sat around, fantasizing about leaving the wretched infantry.

He had longed, before the start of the war, to be a cavalryman. To ride fast, to feel the wind at his face and the whipping of the air as he sliced his saber into the enemy. To take them down from the flanks with his bayonet and his dragoon pistol. Infantry were mired in mud and trapped behind trenchlines. Dreschner had seen so much of that. Infantry were just useless, nothing more than fodder for large artillery formations. But the cavalry, they were yet untried, yet unsent into the fray. As he waited in this hole he wondered what victories, what gallant triumphs, could the cavalry score, if they were finally committed to war.

But he was not a cavalryman. He was assigned infantry, the wretched, dirty line infantry.

And he was silently despondent. He showed no inkling of his cynicism, but he was spent.

Should he die, however, he and his fellows would never see home again, let alone a horse.

Regardless of their condition the enemy was still out there. And so, they labored. To block their captured road they built a little barricade from scrap wood, bricks and sandbags. It was haphazard, like a spiked pillar toppled over between the height of the intersection and the broad, open park; nevertheless they set their machine gun behind it and they waited.

It had been a long day, a lonely one, since they set up. Hours in the sun changed their priorities rapidly. They had gone from waiting for the enemy, to waiting for support, to waiting for the food carriers and finally, to waiting, longingly, for the sundown. It was a humble wish, for the cold of night to banish the too-hot fall sun. It was all they had.

“Dreschner!”

At first he thought it was a horse, and was elated for a second, but it wasn’t.

He heard the distinctive rattle of a bicycle gear, and saw a man coming in behind him.

Could it be a food carrier? No; they were never as well decorated as this man.

Dreschner turned around and stood at attention for Major Walter Weddel from Battalion Recon command, riding on his big-wheeled courier bike. The Major seemed to have no time for the pleasantries, and he set aside the bike, and charged to the barricade. He pulled up a pair of binoculars and peered with frantic energy into the city center, looking past the park and the roads and the blown-out, crumbling town hall. He gasped for breath.

“Major? You shouldn’t be at the front! It is dangerous!” Dreschner said.

“You’d know far better than I, but I still can’t just sit around!”

Dreschner knew Weddel tangentially, from some previous engagements.

The Major had never been to the front before. For him to have to move, meant that the Battalion was truly, utterly exhausted. There could have been no available underlings.

Fearing the worst, Dreschner cast eyes down the road along with the Major.

He kneeled next to Weddel and waited for orders or information. Every movement he made brought his skin tightly into contact with his gray coat, and he felt a fleeting cold from the sweat at his back and on his chest. Despite the onset of winter, fighting under the sun, without even the smallest tree for protection, caused him to sweat like a pig on a spit. Noon seemed to have brought the sun directly over them like the eye of the devil.

“Dreschner, reconnaissance planes picked up on a column of Frank horses incoming.”

“Horses? How many?”

“Too many. They must have spotted the gap here. Where is your commanding officer?”

“Sleeping. Over there.”

Dreschner pointed to an abandoned house nearby, an ornate little Frank house with a second floor, a gabled roof and a wide balcony on its face. Like every other building it had been defaced by shells and bombs but it was only mildly damaged and stood freely on its own strength. Since he first saw it, Dreschner’s commander had claimed the house and gave strict orders not to be disturbed while his men worked outside to defend it.

Major Weddel looked upon the house with frustration.

“Dreschner, this place is nothing but a hole in the lines. You’ve got barely a squadron here and we have fifty or sixty horses coming. Your commander must have an auxiliary machine gun somewhere. You need to wake that slob up and get it set up, now!”

“Yes sir!”

Peeling off the line with his heart thrashing in his chest, Dreschner rushed into the house nearby. It was a fine little house, like a gable-topped cake, creamy white with wine-brown trim in the form of glossy wooden frames and doors. There were decadent halls leading upstairs and into the heart of the home, but their treasures had been shaken off their pedestals and out of their cases by the quaking shellfire of the previous week’s fighting. All along the sides of the halls were crumpled paintings and smashed glass and pottery. It was a miracle a shell had not blown open the roof or collapsed the walls. Most of the damage to the exterior and to the supporting structures was barely superficial.

In the drudgery of 2008 warfare, a house was a great prize. Being able to command from a house, or fight from a house. It was like heaven compared to a muddy trench-line.

No doubt, the commander was asleep on a fine bed somewhere. Dreschner hurried.

Upstairs, he called out for his commanding officer several times, hoping to wake him.

There was no response, and Dreschner ran from room to room seeking him out.

He turned around a corner and into a open door into a bedroom with a balcony.

He paused at the doorway; what he saw quenched all of his panicked energy.

Dreschner was forced to halt by the sight of his commanding officer, lying dead on a princely bed with a peaceful face, hands on his chest, eyes closed. At his side was a small girl, blond-haired, in a fur coat a size or two too large and little fur-trimmed boots and a dirty little dress. She had a pair of glasses on her face that were also a size too large.

Though he had seen terrible things in this war, this sight was incomprehensible. Not the dead soldier — soldiers died, even the officers did. It was the child that confounded him. How was she here? Why was she not taken? War was a place without children or animals or anything soft and vulnerable. It had to be. Dreschner had seen men drown in mudholes between trenches; he had seen artillery shells explode and vanish men from existence, taking even the dust of their bones so that nothing could be buried. He had heard the wails of gore-strewn soldiers caught in traps in the no-man’s-land, awaiting death.

Dreschner was a child himself, compared to the men around him.

But he was not this small. Something this small just couldn’t survive this carnage.

He was afraid for this girl, afraid for her mortality and afraid of how she reflected on him.

He was afraid of vulnerability and felt a drive to be strong for this girl.

And yet he did not quite know how to be tender or comforting or even whether to be. Could this child be an enemy? Could she have killed the C.O.? Those sounded like insane things. Things no man should dare indulge. But he had seen so much of this war that anything made sense now save for the existence of a simple innocent in these grand battlefields.

“Are you lost?” He asked.

It was the first sensible-sounding thing to land upon his tongue.

From the bed, the child raised her head and gave Dreschner a blank, tired stare.

“Je ne parle pas Noetais.” She said in Frank. Her voice was a little deeper than he expected, more of a woman’s voice than a child’s, but maybe that was all his shell-addled brain.

Dreschner knew a little Frank; possibly enough to speak to a child.

“What happened?” He asked. Que s’est-il passé?

“He drank. He drank from Mama and Papa’s special bottle.” She said in Frank.

Her Frank was easy to understand. Concentrating on it, he could hear in Nochtish.

She pointed to the bottle, lying on the ground amid a pile of other debris, books and clothes and other things, perhaps pulled out by soldiers hoping to find loot.

Dreschner raised his hands, hoping not to scare her by approaching.

She did not even look at him as he moved.

He picked up the bottle and raised it to his nose.

There was a strong scent of something dire and chemical.

In disgust he dropped the bottle and coughed. It was a fatal preparation.

Dreschner turned to the girl and was surprised to find her speaking again.

“On the radio the king said not to leave our houses. Mama and Papa were very scared of the bad people coming. They put something in that wine bottle to drink, in case the bad people came in. But then they heard shooting, and they ran away. They disobeyed the king and left all of their treasures behind, even me.” She said in a listless drone.

Dreschner blinked, stunned.

“I’m a good girl. I obeyed the king and stayed in the house. Like we should. But the stuff in the bottle smelled gross. So I didn’t drink it like Papa and Mama wanted, before they ran.”

“What is your name?” Dreschner asked, unable to bear the scene any longer.

She looked up at him, making direct eye contact for the first time.

“Cecilia Nouvelle.” She said.

Dreschner nodded. “Cecilia, please go to the basement and stay there. You’re right, for now, it is a good thing to stay in the house like the king said. But later, it may be time to leave. If I tell you it is time to leave, will you leave the house?” He asked, trembling.

Cecilia turned her head and stared at the ground, kicking her little feet softly.

“You’re one of the bad men. But I guess you won the big fight. So I’ll do what you say.”

Without another word, Cecilia dropped off the bed and tottered off to the basement.

Dreschner looked at the corpse of his commanding officer. She must have arranged him, closing his eyes, putting his arms on his chest. Maybe even even cleaning up his face.

He was astonished by this child, so much so he nearly forgot his own mission.

Rushing back down to the street, he called out to Weddel.

“No dice, we’ll have to hold with what we have!” He shouted.

“Are you serious?” Weddel shouted back.

Dreschner kneeled behind the machine gun, his bewildered loader mechanically putting another belt into the MG-99 while an additional rifleman supporter replaced the water jacket. Weddel pulled up his binoculars and stared out into the city before them.

“Dreschner, what happened?” Weddel asked.

His voice trembling, Dreschner replied, “You can go in and look if you want to.”

Walter Weddel seemed to have no desire to do that. Sighing, he resigned himself.

“May god have mercy on us.” He said.

“May god take our fucking side for once.” Dreschner added.

Dreschner took the handles of the machine gun and placed his fingers on the spade grip trigger behind them. He looked down the sights and breathed in, and waited, as he had been waiting. Without the artillery or the sound of shooting the air was still and the city too quiet, yet too noisy. Every pebble dropping from a mound of debris, every mechanical cry from his gun and its unlubricated components, every rustling of a man’s coat. Little sounds became incongruously large, too large, they made Dreschner very nervous. He tried to keep as still as possible hoping no one else would hear the sounds he was making.

He could hear the sounds of his spit going down his throat as he swallowed hard.

When the hoof-claps came it was a tidal wave of noise, ever approaching.

Then Dreschner saw the men in the distance, with their tall plumed helms, sabers, guns at their backs, gallantly clad in their glaringly patriotic red and blue uniforms, and riding on beastly brown horses that seemed like elephants as they rode en-masse. Dust blew in their wake, a dreadful cloud that seemed like it could rival the plumes of a shell-fall. They were a blunt arrowhead, charging without ceremony from an interior street and into the city center, charging the barricade. He had fought them before, but never like this.

They seemed so much more fearsome beyond the trench lines.

Dreschner had seen so much of this war and this sight stilled his heart nonetheless.

To close his eyes to the charge, however, would mean death.

“Engaging target! Free fire!” Dreschner shouted.

With three fingers he pulled the trigger and the bolt went wild.

His loader held up the belt of machine gun ammunition and the MG-99 sucked it up into its boxy shell and spat it out through the barrel. Dreschner heard the water in the barrel jacket bubble and sizzle and froth as a dozen rounds and then six dozen and then a hundred exploded out of the barrel. Steam and smoke blew from the tip of the gun.

It made a sound like a thousand hammers pounding nails in millisecond intervals.

It had an effect like a spear driven right into the heart of the horsemen.

From his fixed position, Dreschner’s gunfire struck the center of the enemy’s formation. In an instant the lead horse was crippled by fire and fell and was trampled. Several more horses tripped over the one falling before them, and the formation was forced to spread and to morph, with men at the flanks riding forward, men in the center halting their gallop to maneuver around corpses of horses and men, creating a generalized confusion.

Throughout all of this Dreschner did not stop shooting.

He traversed the gun from left to right, moving deliberately with steeled nerves, putting down hundreds of rounds that swept across the broad front imposed by his enemy. Long streaks of gunfire sliced the heads and shoulders and limbs off men and left them hanging dead from panicked horses; or struck horses in the center of their bulk like iron fists pounding a slab of ham, and causing the beasts to crumple as if on jelly legs; and in response the cavalry turned into an amorphous mass, groups of horses and men scrambling to avoid the eye of the MG-99, and many running into its fire in the attempt.

Major Walter Weddel stood up amid the cacophony of dying men and blazing fire.

“That’s over a dozen horses down already! We can do this men, stand and fight!”

Weddel produced his pistol and opened fire on the approaching cavalry.

At his sides, the spare riflemen picked up their rifles and joined him.

The Major and his men accounted for a pair of horses, while Dreschner’s gun clicked empty. Frantically his loader produced and fed in a new belt, while his third man replaced the red-hot water jacket, that was steaming and boiling and frothing madly. Beneath the jacket the gun barrel was red hot and smoking fiercely. Soon as the new water jacket was applied, it too began to bubble, the cold water inside cooking from the heat.

Within seconds Dreschner was pulling the trigger and resuming his intense barrage.

Those brilliant, gallant, galloping charges should have deflected the bullets, they were full of such glory that it seemed impossible they could be broken. Each burst of gunfire killed an impossible number, downing horse after horse. Cavalrymen reunited, amassed in new formations, and broke into charges toward the barricade, and died. Five-hundred meters; a group of three horses, their legs exploding and turning them to hanging hams rolling back over themselves. Three hundred meters; a column of horsemen, pistols out, shooting desperately past the barricade, over Dreschner’s own head, before being cut down.

Out a mere hundred meters; two horsemen jumped over a great hunk of concrete, and in mid-air the rifle and pistol and machine gun fire tore the blood and gore from them and sprayed it like fireworks in grizzly arcs and shapes. They fell, turned to meat, and stopped.

It was maddening. Dreschner almost wanted to lose this confrontation.

He imagined himself, a proud young lad on a beautiful stallion, riding to a great war.

And on the opposing end some filth-covered scoundrel in a hole with a machine gun.

He felt as if he was shooting down his dreams, shooting down the only beauty left in war.

Dreschner wept; he mumbled to himself to stop but his fingers felt otherwise.

His fingers, that had held seemingly nothing but guns the whole year.

They knew war, and they knew only to shoot. And so they shot, and they shot.

To say they died one by one is to understate the brutal carnage; men died in disparate groups and in glorious processions and in their lonesome and accompanied by such great burdens that even in death they could have never been alone. They died with horses and without them, they died with bodies whole or broken, they died among themselves and with their comrades and among the ghosts. Dreschner could not look out at what he had done. There was such a gruesome landscape before him that he could not take it.

He dried his tears, and he stood up, and he let his legs take him away.

“That’s the platoon! That’s the entire platoon!” Major Weddel celebrated. “Dreschner, you rabid dog, I am giving you a promotion, you will go places my boy, I guarantee–”

But he had no one to celebrate with, for Dreschner had abandoned the gun.

Everyone stared. Dreschner could feel the eyes like knives at his back.

He was abandoning his post, like a coward, filth among the filth of the infantry.

But they had already won. So what did it matter?

Perhaps understanding the situation back then, Major Weddel never charged him with any of the myriad penalties he could have faced for turning away from the battlefield.

Free from the shackles of the gun and the fight, Dreschner returned to the house, and behind the basement door, he found Cecilia, just where he hoped she would be.

She was seated on the stairs in the same way she had been seated on the bed.

She was holding her hands over her ears but seemed eerily calm despite this.

He tapped on her shoulder, and she turned around, and put her hands down.

“Can you leave the house?” He asked her.

“If you say so.” She replied. Her voice was listless, dead, inexpressive.

Dreschner took her hand, and they walked back out onto the street.

Her hand was so small, Dreschner thought, if he held it the way he held a gun, he would likely shatter it. He could not squeeze it. He could barely touch it. It was very eerie.

He dreaded what might happen when Cecilia saw the outside.

Nothing at all happened, however.

If Cecilia caught a glimpse of the field of corpses out in the park, she did not let anyone know. She made no sound, no protest, as Dreschner walked her away from the sight.

She was quiet, and followed along dutifully.

Dreschner led her somewhere, not even knowing where himself. His mind was adrift.

He thought, as he walked, of the cavalry, of the beautiful, ill-fated cavalry.

So that was why they did not fight before.

All of his notions, all of his dreams, had left him, and he was empty.

Empty of any optimism or hope but also empty of juvenile notions and illusions.

Perhaps, he thought, being empty was the better way.

Yet he found himself struck with an aberrant admiration of their bravery, their foolhardy resolve. They had been failed; they themselves had been victorious, but they were betrayed by their tools. Dreschner himself, no matter how gallant it would have been, would ever ride a horse into battle. That age was over. Had these men owned metal horses, perhaps the tide would have swung. Perhaps then, Dreschner would ride a horse into battle.

“What are your parent’s names?” Dreschner asked.

“I don’t think I have any now.” Cecilia said.

He marveled at how well she was taking becoming perhaps as empty as he.

Dreschner figured he must have cried more than Cecilia had this entire time.

Perhaps if he failed to win this war, her generation could do it.

Her generation would understand from the get-go that the chivalrous age was over.


General Einschel Dreschner awoke with a start.

He banged his head on the zeiss telescoping sight, and reared back, holding his face.

For a moment, everything hurt, but his breathing began to steady.

As he became aware of his surroundings he felt calm again.

He was not in a house or on a horse but inside the turret of his Sentinel command tank.

It was not 2008; it was 2030.

There was no Northern War; this was the Solstice War.

“Sir, are you alright? Are you hurt? I can get Eva–“

“It’s fine.”

At his side, Karla Schicksal stared at him with wide, almost child-like eyes.

“It’s fine, return to work.” Dreschner said.

Nodding her head innocently, she returned to the radio and put her headset back on.

Dreschner stared at the back of her head for a moment. He shook his own head.

He had been dreaming an anxious dream of a time annihilated from history.

There was no relevance to it now. Everything had completely changed. Hadn’t it?

“Schicksal, what are your thoughts on horse cavalry?” He asked.

Schicksal turned back to him from the radio, staring quizzically.

She opened and closed her mouth several times, ambushed by this strange question.

“Um, well, I’d guess they would be pretty useless when you have tanks and trucks.”

She sounded fairly certain of this fact when she finally spoke, despite her obvious anxiety.

Shrugging nervously, she then returned to the radio.

Not a shred of sentimentality for those bygone days of the war.

Of course not, she would not have known them.

Dreschner felt eerily satisfied with her generation. He laid back in his seat.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>