The 3rd Superweapon (69.3)

This scene contains violence and death, and an experience of dysphoria.


Loose stones began to shake and rattle atop the ruin, trembling with the ground.

“Gulab, the Vishap is approaching. Good luck. I love you.”

She almost muttered the last sentence.

“No luck, just skill! I love you too, Charvi!”

Gulab was loud about it as usual.

She switched the radio frequency on the portable talkie and put it in her pouch.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to steel herself for what was to come.

It was just like hunting the rock bears, she told herself.

But even that gone poorly for her in the past.

Atop the mound of rubble that was once the first gate of the Conqueror’s Way, the approaching Vishap was like a boulder rolling down from the mountains, like an avalanche of metal. Sergeant Gulab Kajari tried to find more homely metaphors to describe what she was seeing, but without embellishment, it was a gigantic tank with a big gun pointed directly at them. Its dauntless trundling kicked up clouds of sand, and the infantry at its sides looked minuscule in comparison. It was easy to forget them.

She was surrounded by people who could not afford for her to overlook anything.

She sighed internally, smiled outwardly, and pointed at the incoming Vishap.

“Troops, I’ve got nothing here to say but: we gotta kill that thing.” Gulab said.

Loubna and Aditha and the rest of the rookies in the squadron cast eyes at the floor. They were huddled atop the mound, half their bodies on the steep end away from the approaching Vishap, looking over the makeshift hill. They were hidden from the enemy, hoping to ambush them as they neared. In their hands they had submachine guns and rifles, useless against armor, and one their belts they had anti-tank grenades. Though small, these could at least fare better than a rifle round against the heavy tank.

There was more to it than that, but Gulab didn’t have the time to catch everybody up on everything the General hurriedly told her over the field telephone. Even Gulab herself thought she had not caught all of it. But she had to somehow make all of it work out.

“Trust me, I’ve hunted bigger!” Gulab said. “We just have to know when to run away.”

She pounded her fist against her chest and put on a proud expression.

Morale did not improve upon hearing such a thing with the Vishap in the background.

“Why isn’t it shooting?” Loubna asked. Everyone was watching the machine breathlessly.

Gulab cast her eyes at the approaching tank. She remembered some of the things she had learned from Adesh Gurunath about cannons, in the various times they had cooperated during the war. Longer cannons could shoot farther, and their shots flew faster; the larger the hole of the cannon, from which it ejected shells, the stronger and larger the ammunition was. The Vishap’s cannon was very short and stubby, though the bore was wider than most of the guns Gulab had seen on tanks. It was mounted on the front face of the tank and seemed unable to swivel or turn, since it had no turret to move with.

“I don’t think it can shoot this high, and I don’t think it’s in range yet.” Gulab said.

There were a few sighs of relief among the assembled soldiers, but the trundling of the machine nearing them seemed to put into doubt whether it had any weakness at all.

As the Vishap approached the bridge, the machine noise that accompanied it grew louder, but it strangely enough began to slow down a tick, as it neared closer to 1000 meters from the Conqueror’s Way. Then from around the Vishap’s flanks rushed enemy riflemen, charging across the open desert. Gulab raised her hand at the sight and silently ordered her squadron to huddle closer to the ground and to hide themselves.

Within minutes the enemy riflemen were jumping over the rubble and onto the bridge itself ahead of the machine. A squadron of foot Cissean soldiers was in the lead, and several more followed them. They were armed with rifles and bayonets and quickly left the cover of the rocks. Boldly, they started across the open space to the first gate ruin.

This was good fortune for Gulab’s team; they had to pose a credible threat to the enemy.

And while Gulab doubted she could even dent the Vishap, she knew she could kill men.

“Fire on mark; Loubna, sweep the left flank, everyone else aim at the right.” Gulab said.

“Are these guys related to the men before? Don’t they know we’re here?” Aditha asked.

“I don’t think so. I think they’ve been lost in the desert for longer.” Gulab replied.

“So it’s an ambush?”

“That’s the plan.”

In truth, it was General Nakar who thought that, but Gulab nonetheless took the credit.

It was important for the kids to look up to her!

Aditha did not seem impressed, but she did focus back on the enemy with steeled eyes.

Loubna prepared her partially concealed light machine gun, facing the approach she was to cover; Gulab checked her Rasha submachine gun for one final time before cocking it and setting it on a stone for stability. Squadron members with basic Bundu rifles set them on the rocks, partially hidden, taking impromptu sniping positions across the ruin.

Gulab drew in a breath and aimed for the men running toward the mound.

“Mark!”

Gulab briefly raised her fist, and then laid it down, finger on the trigger, and fired.

Her squadron quickly followed suit.

Tracer fire sailed from atop the rubble of the first gate and showered the advancing enemy infantry. It was almost a moment of deja vu as Gulab watched the men struck down mid-run as if they weren’t expecting to be shot, and their compatriots clinging to the nearest piece of rubble for cover, or running back to the Vishap. Automatic fire from the submachine guns and Loubna’s Danava viciously covered the approach, and a dozen men were killed almost simultaneously before the rest took the hint and scattered.

As the waves of enemy infantry grew timid they began to concentrate around the Vishap.

There was only one way Gulab could account for this behavior among enemy soldiers.

They had caught them by surprise! It was just as General Nakar had predicted; they had not been in contact with the Republic of Ayvarta troops that had attacked this position previously. These new arrivals with the Vishap group likely expected an ambush but could not have known its ferocity or character, because they were acting independently of the main body of RoA troops deployed to take the Conqueror’s Way. As such, like the RoA troops defeated before them, these Cisseans and Nochtish were taken by surprise.

“Hah! Trekking through the desert melted their brains! Pick them off!” Gulab shouted.

Loubna reloaded, and she began to fire on the enemy’s cover selectively. Gulab praised her discipline and began to fire upon a sited spot herself. A few men tried to contort themselves with their rifles around the chunks of rock and from out the pits and trenches that scarred the Conqueror’s Way, but to no avail. Every time a rifle came out, a stream of bullets from atop the remains of the first gate silenced it. More and more of the enemy appeared and consolidated in thick formations behind cover, but without any cover down the middle Way they could not approach the mound. They were pinned.

For a moment, it seemed almost like they had turned back the tide. The enemy had advanced, lost men, retreated a step, and become bogged down in relentless gunfire.

This was all part of the General’s plan! It was all working as she had said.

In any other situation such a stalemate could be exploited. Gulab had seen it before.

However, there was nothing the bullets could do to stop the Vishap, ever closing-in.

It was this detail that made this battle different, and rendered this triumph so null.

Soon as its tracks hit the stone of the Conqueror’s Way, the Vishap changed the tide of the battle. It ground rocks beneath its bulk, and shoved rubble away with the bulldozer on its face, and its own men leaped out of its way as it charged forward. But once it moved past their positions, the Cisseans took up its back and began to advance again. Though the mound continued to brutalize the Conqueror’s Way with submachine gun, rifle and machine gun fire, there was nothing they could do. All manner and caliber of small arms fire was bouncing harmlessly off the Vishap’s blades and its wounded front plate armor.

“It’s not doing anything!” Aditha shouted, rapping the trigger of her rifle uselessly.

“Keep shooting! Wait for my signal before doing anything more!” Gulab shouted back.

Trundling to within a stark 500 meters of the first gate, the Vishap’s cannon glowed.

Smoke and fire belched from the aperture, and with a terrifying growl the Vishap loosed a heavy shell that flew in a belabored, shallow arc into the bottom of the mound. There was a monumental flash. Fire and metal and chunks of rock flew straight into the air in front of the defender’s very eyes. Everything shook under them. It felt like the mound would collapse. The Vishap moved once more, and it loomed larger and larger as it did.

Atop the machine, two of the shoulder cupolas turned to face the mound, and the dark slits cut across the sides of the structures flashed a bright green. Hundreds of rounds of machine gun fire struck the rubble at the peak of the mound, and a cacophonous sawing noise sounded above the shifting of the stones and the sound of loading and firing of rifles. Hundreds of bright green tracers bounced skyward or overflew the peak. Even the rookies could identify the sound as that of the deadly Norgler machine gun, and they scrambled back from the rubble, putting the slope between them and the Vishap.

The Vishap’s top-mounted machine guns blazed as the machine crawled toward the mound. It was like a demon, belching fire from its snout-like cannon, its cupolas like eyes firing searing, chaotic beams of green tracer ammunition. It was a terrifying sight that cowed the defenders like nothing else. Not another shot flew out from atop the mound; Gulab swallowed hard and shrank back with the rest of her squadron, pinned.

“Comrades, get ready to retreat! Grab your weapon and start moving toward–”

Beneath the infernal noise of the machine guns the Vishap’s cannon cried out once more.

One more shell impacted the rubble of the first gate, and this time the force of the blast wound itself inside the rubble, and rocks and concrete belched out the other side of the mound, collapsing some of the rookies’ own footholds on the rear of the slope. Several squadron members were blown back with the rock, and they dropped from the mound and hit the ground. Disoriented, but alive, they fled in a panic back to the second gate.

There was no time to hold the Vishap there. They had to sacrifice the first gate and fast.

“Comrades, over the side barriers, right now!” Gulab shouted. “Come with me!”

Everyone looked at her with surprise. They clung on to the rubble and rock as if they were suspended over a precipice, and their guns were almost an afterthought, hanging by belt loops or pressed between them and the slope. Nobody was moving at all.

“Come on!”

Gulab grabbed hold of rookie Loubna with one hand, who was paralyzed with her Danava embraced in her arms, and the sweating, panting Aditha with the other. Finding purchase on a solid slab of concrete beneath her, Gulab could afford to let go of the mound for this maneuver, and with all her strength, she dragged the two rookies, and leaped from the mound and atop the side-barrier. She pushed Loubna and Aditha off, and it looked to everyone as if she was throwing them in the river. There was no splashing or screaming, however, if any such thing could even be audible under all the machine gun fire; and witnessing Gulab herself disappearing behind the barriers, the remainder of the squadron gasped with collective fear and charged toward the water.

Jumping around the meter-and-a-half tall concrete barriers on the side of the bridge, Gulab found herself in a drainage segment off the side of the bridge. There was maybe a meter in which to stand or sit, and the rushing waters of the Qural below. Loubna and Aditha clung to the barrier, terrified by the rushing water. Gulab urged them to move; in a moment, five additional squadron members would jump the barrier and land messily one after the other, some nearly falling into the river. Gulab got everyone organized.

She huddled the group and addressed them. “Alright, see, nobody fell, nobody got–”

Behind them, there was a much louder blast and an even more violent rumbling and rattling as the Vishap finally destroyed the mound of the first gate. Then, the grinding of its tracks and the roaring of its engine resumed, and they could all feel it moving past them, like a dragon stomping its way past their village as they hid from the destruction.

Gulab had no intention to remain hidden. This was all another chance to attack.

“Comrades, any hunter can kill any beast by stopping it from moving! If that thing gets past the second gate, it will have a clear shot at the wall. We can’t let it get any further.”

All of her squadron was clearly shaken. In a span of minutes they had lost a position, lost comrades, and witnessed head-on a massive tank bearing down on them. Their eyes were watering, their faces sweating and turning pale, their bodies shaking. But they were focused: Gulab saw it in their faces that they understood the urgency. That was good; a soldier could be afraid, but they had to channel that fear into their survival.

“On my mark,” Gulab continued, and laid a hand on Aditha’s shoulder, and quickly explained as the Vishap neared them, “Aditha and Seer will throw frag grenades at the road to distract the riflemen, and then, me, Loubna, Fareeha and Jaffar will rise up and throw anti-tank grenades at the tank’s side and tracks. We only have one shot at this!”

Aditha looked frightened at first, but Loubna put a hand on her shoulder too, and her face turned red. She averted her eyes, turned her cheek on Loubna and withdrew a pair of grenades from her pouch. Looking sour in expression, she nodded silently to the team, most of whom seemed perplexed by her behavior. Meanwhile Fareeha, a tall, dark, athletic woman, and Jaffar, a rugged-looking boy, both gave Gulab intense looks that suggested to her their eagerness to fight. Both were rookies. Everyone here was now.

Gulab didn’t look at Loubna, she felt she didn’t need to. Loubna was ready. Gulab felt it. Loubna was big and tough, and she had a soft heart that yearned to defend the weak.

She saw her own face in Loubna’s, like staring into her reflection on the mountain ice.

She hoped she could count on at least her.

Behind them, the Vishap chewed up the remaining rubble of the first gate, and the ground beneath them and the barrier in front of them and seemingly even the water at their backs, all of it shook and shuddered with the weight and power of the beast. It fired a round at the ruined second gate, resulting in a massive explosion, and its machine guns screamed as it engaged the blocking position set up around the second gate’s remains

Gulab’s stomach vibrated, and she felt the presence of the machine in her neck when she tried to speak, like constant jolt to the adam’s apple. Her words came out shaken.

The Vishap was within zero of the squadron; they had to attack now or never.

Its frontal machine guns were occupied, and its gun was unable to target them.

It was time.

“Aditha, Seer, now!”

Aditha and Seer pulled the pins on their grenades, waited a second, and threw.

Four grenades, one in each hand, landed in the road and exploded in various directions.

Gulab stood and launched her AT grenade in as straight a throw as she could muster.

Only on a direct hit from the head would the grenade be primed and detonated.

She caught sight of something that made her throat seize up.

The Vishap had an armored skirt protecting its wheels and track.

Would the attack even be effective?

She watched the grenade strike the top of the skirt at an angle and burn a visible hole.

The Vishap trundled on.

On the road were dead and wounded riflemen, caught out by the grenades.

Their own comrades were coming in for them.

Just then, behind Gulab, in a sluggish sequence, came Loubna, Jaffar and Fareeha.

Their own throws were haphazard, with Jaffar throwing from the grenade’s head and Loubna lobbing hers. Both grenades exploded over the armor skirt and left minor cosmetic wounds on the tank. Fareeha seemed to have had the best throw. Her grenade hit the Vishap in the side of the skirt and burnt through the armor, exposing a wheel. Some smoke and fire spat out of the wound, but the Vishap continued to advance.

“Everyone down!” Gulab shouted. They had stood out too long, threw too late–

Atop the Vishap, the leftmost rear cupola turned to the edge barriers and opened fire.

Alarming green norgler fire sprayed over the concrete.

Gulab shoved herself into Loubna and Jaffar, the two closest, and brought them down.

Seemingly hundreds of rounds struck the concrete, chipping away bits and pieces that fell over the squadron and casting concrete dust into the air. So many rounds were fired at the barrier that the chipped concrete dust formed a small cloud over the edge of the bridge. Disdainfully the Vishap pressed on, fully leaving behind Gulab and her team.

On the floor, Gulab pressed her hands over herself and found no wounds.

She grabbed hold of Loubna, who was staring at something mouth agape.

She was unwounded too; Jaffar was also alright from the looks him, and then–

Just a few steps away from them, sitting with her back to a black-red smear on the barrier, was Fareeha. Her chest and neck had bled out heavily in moments, judging by the red stain all around her, like an aura burnt into the ground and wall. Her feet dangled from the bridge, and her eyes were open, staring endlessly out into the water.

She was dead.

Gulab hadn’t been able to knock her down too.

From behind Gulab sounded a heart-rending cry.

“Fareeha! No! No!”

Aditha, crouched on the floor, held back a thrashing, screaming Seer, whose black face was turning pale and flushed, her eyes red and strained, weeping. She tried to claw over Gulab to make it to Fareeha’s corpse, and Aditha and Loubna both tried to hold her back. She was screaming for Fareeha, screaming that she could not be left behind, that she could not stay here, that she would be fine if they could get her out of this place.

Gulab looked back at the corpse as if, mindlessly, trying to assess whether it could be ok.

It could not.

She pored over, in that eternal instant where anxiety reigns over the mind, whether she had seen anyone die before. She had seen people die, but had they died? There was an importance difference there that she felt but could not grasp. Certainly, nobody had died under her command before. Because she had not really done that much commanding.

Now, she was in command. And a young woman of merely eighteen had died under her.

In the background to all this, was Solstice city, and Gulab stared at the wall.

She felt the Vishap, attacking the second gate. She felt its motion through the ground.

Gulab turned toward Seer and grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her roughly.

“An entire city of millions of defenseless people will join Fareeha if we don’t do something, Private Dbouji! Wait to mourn until we’re inside some safe walls!”

She picked up her submachine gun from the floor, crawled past Loubna and Jaffar, and without turning back, motioned for everyone to follow. She hated all of this, and herself.

She hated how much it felt like something her father had done and said to her, long ago.

How much that voice sounded like his own.


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The 3rd Superweapon (69.2)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“All guns, site the enemy tank and open fire on approach!”

Ferried across the desert by four tank transporters, the massive steel crate dropped its front door open like a ramp onto the sand, and from the aperture escaped an enormous tank, easily larger than any tank Madiha Nakar had ever seen. It was wider and thicker than an Ogre or a Giant, with a track that must’ve reached twelve wheels in length.

Its front surface was sloped and seemed thick, and it carried an additional steel plate of bulldozer blades. in the middle of the glacis, a thick round mount surrounded a short-barreled howitzer or mortar that must have been at least 150mm bore. There were several structures on its flat, long upper surface that seemed like cupola, but only one was centralized and likely to be used for command. All of the others were located on the corners and it was possible to make out tiny barrels sticking out of them: machine guns.

Painted black all over, its designation was emblazoned on its side: the “Vishap.”

Cutting in between the hilly dunes that had kept it out of sight of the wall, the beast revealed itself in full to the defenders, and made clear its intentions. At the highest speed the gargantuan tank could muster with its weight on the treacherous sand, it was making  ponderously for the Conqueror’s Way. Men in Cissean and Nochtish uniforms charged alongside it, rifles in hand, barely keeping pace with the grinding march of the machine.

Atop the walls, the rampart gunners hurried back to their posts, and found the Vishap on their direct-fire optics. Madiha Nakar and Parinita Maharani surveyed the proceedings as the crews began turning wheels and pulling levers to get the guns moved. By adjusting the height of the gun mounting itself, they could make up for the lack of negative elevation on the 76mm all-purpose gun, and fire over the wall at targets far below.

At the General’s order, a dozen 76mm guns on the ramparts opened fire on the Vishap. Each impact was near invisibly distant and sounded dull and almost unreal, as if the artillery of a battle a world away. Smoke obscured the machine after the first red-hot tracer impacted the hull and exploded. Shells fell around it a dozen every few seconds, throwing sand into the air, billowing dust and fire; it was impossible to confirm any hits.

However, in the light of the rising afternoon sun it was possible to see the shadow, continuing to lumber, and once the last shell had exploded, the sound of the roaring, grinding engine was still perfectly audible. From the cloud of dust and sand, the Vishap crawled out, undaunted. Its front surface was pitted and pockmarked and in places cracked, and one of the bulldozer blades had been blasted off. Some of the front track guard and the armored skirt covering its wheels had been damaged, but not too badly.

“Madiha, take a closer a look at it, I think there’s something odd about its armor.”

Parinita handed Madiha the binoculars, and set down a radio unit, hidden behind the rampart stones. She took up a radio headset and began to make calls to Solstice for support, while the General honed in on the Vishap’s front and surveyed the damage.

Over, around and between the bulldozer blades, the armor plate was the thickest, and insignificant damage seemed to have been dealt to it. However, the form that damaged took was confounding. There were deep, uneven cracks, and dusty bruises, and no deformation from the heat whatsoever. Armor this dense could crack, but not in the way this material was cracking. It looked like a brick wall that had been suddenly hit with a sledgehammer, not a sheet of metal that had deformed under intense, prolonged heat.

“It’s concrete. It’s got to be. They put a layer of concrete armor over the tank.”

Madiha was perplexed, but it made sense. Anti-tank shells were designed specifically to defeat metal armor that would resist the pointed nose of the shell, and deform around the packed-in explosive charge, in very specific ways. It was meant to go through 50 to 70 millimeters of metal armor, not through a centimeter or more of concrete cement.

“Do we have anti-bunker or anti-concrete available for the 76mm?” Madiha asked.

Parinita shook her head despondently, waving to the city behind them.

“No, we’re not stocked with those. Those are special-assignment for assault troops.”

Madiha looked over her shoulder. She was so focused on the battle ahead, that she hardly had taken any time to look at what she was protecting. Always, behind her every shout, her every shot, Solstice waited at her back. It was a vast city, its few tall buildings visible in the distance, but mostly composed of small, flat-roofed brown buildings, either made of clay or textured to look like it. All kinds of colorful awnings hung over porches and balconies to help the inhabitants get some air while beating the oppressive heat. Winding roads and numerous labyrinthine alleyways characterized a city that grew, organically and haphazardly, for thousands of years. It was beautiful; and most of her troops were there. They awaited orders to counterattack a sizable divisional force.

“Focus artillery fire on the supporting infantry!” Madiha turned back around and shouted at her rampart gunners, and they began to coordinate among themselves and to lob shells at the encroaching enemy battalion. She then turned back to Parinita, and to the desert ahead. “Let the Vishap come. How’s our air support? That flat roof is the weakest part of the whole thing, it has to be. We can order a strike from Vulture.”

Parinita shook her head, pulling off her headset and hitting a switch on the radio. “That’s what I thought so too, but I just got off the airwaves with Air Command. Vulture and the other air units are split between supporting the western defenses, interdicting incoming raids on Solstice, and launching their own long-range air attacks. It’s mostly Elves who are trying to come after us at this point, with token Nochtish support, but if we can break through these attacks, we may be able to inflict some damage on the Elven navy.”

“So the air force gets to launch a counteroffensive, but the Army has to sit and wait.”

Madiha grumbled. Parinita shrugged and rationally replied, “There’s no Lines in the sky.”

“We’ll have to make do then. Release the vanguard rifle battalion onto the bridge to fight. I’ll come up with a battle plan as we go.” Madiha said. “Get the drawbridge gate open.”

“Roger. Contacting the drawbridge engineers and the 7th Battalion now.” Parinita said.

Minutes later, the Eastern gate of Solstice began to drop, accompanied by the chunky sound of a motor. It was a drawbridge door that no longer presided over a gap in the bridge, perhaps thirty meters tall and a little less wide, now powered by diesel motors and held by heavy anchor chains and gears. Behind the door waited nearly a thousand ready soldiers of the 7th Battalion, who had deployed all along the road inside the city as a rapid response force. Slowly the door began to angle, and a crack developed at the top where the light of the desert peered into the structure of the Solstice gate threshold.

There was an abrupt crash, and the slackening chains went rigid and tense.

Smoke began to spread from the gatehouse out into the threshold tunnel.

Between the booming of the rampart guns, Madiha heard the gears grind down below.

She peered carefully over the rampart and found the gate at a steep angle.

“Parinita, what is happening?” Madiha asked.

Parinita turned from the radio box and faced Madiha, alarmed.

“Something’s happened to the gate mechanism. It’s stuck part of the way.” She said.

Madiha blinked hard and covered her face with her hands.

It was always something!

“Sergeant Agni is asking permission to blow off the chains and–”

“Absolutely not.” Madiha said. “Should that gate fall Nocht will not give us a respite to properly repair it. We can’t afford for any of the gates to stay open unnecessarily.”

“Then what do we do?” Parinita asked, pulling off the radio headset.

Madiha looked down over the ramparts as the Vishap’s tracks hit stone for the first time.

“I’m calling the bridge by field telephone. Tell Agni to get the engineers and some of the Svecthans with Mountain training ready to go over the wall. As soon as possible!”

Parinita nodded her head and returned to the radio box.

Meanwhile, the General produced the field telephone from behind one of the ramparts. Cable had been laid down to the bridge long ago, and much of it had survived the bombings. She picked up the handset, hit a switch, and immediately called down.

“Sergeant Kajari, listen closely to me.”


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen watched the Vishap go with a sense of minor, quiet amusement. After the machine trundled out of its carriage, he ordered a company of his lead men to chase after it. Rifles in hand, sweating profusely, the riflemen followed his orders and charged after the machine. They had been following it for what seemed like weeks, out in the brutal heat of the Solstice desert, and now they trampled over the sand and made to move ahead of it. There were no words of protest or complaint from them.

“You don’t want to hear it, but I’m taking full credit for this delivery.” Von Drachen said.

At his side, Major General Rodrick Von Fennec scoffed and stamped past him. He was a square-shaped man, with a brick of a head, beefy limbs, but an older, stiffer, and bowing stature than that of the younger, more limber Von Drachen. His remaining eye glanced at Von Drachen with disdain; the other was patched up but likely sported similar scorn. Somewhere under his thick white beard, Fennec’s lips were probably turned up as well. For a louplander, his tail was very stubby and short, and it barely wagged; his ears, poking out from under his desert helmet, were also blunt, and just barely fuzzy.

Von Drachen thought they could commiserate over using fake names, but Von Fennec was instantly hostile to him, even though he went along with Von Drachen’s genius plan.

“Yes, yes, to be frank, only you could have been crazy enough to suggest such a course of action. I will give you full credit for the penetration of the enemy line through the unguarded desert sector; also responsibility for the 100 men who died along the way.”

Von Fennec snorted and put on a confident grin as though he had crushed Von Drachen.

Von Drachen, in turn, shrugged his shoulders. “They knew what they signed up for. I care about the living and I will achieve victory for the dead. All of my men know about this.”

At this callousness, or perhaps more at Von Drachen’s lack of reaction to what should have been a harsh indictment, Von Fennec turned his cheek and grumbled inaudibly.

As the Generals amicably conversed, all of the unit’s strength rallied around the Vishap. All that could be taken along the Vishap on the desert trek, was a light rifle battalion and some stray elements of tank and motor units. Behind Von Drachen, the camouflaged tank transporters, unburdened of the tank’s weight, retreated back behind the dunes, tugging behind them the massive crate-like object that once housed the Vishap inside it.

A few token escort tanks, “Rick Hunter” pattern with 76mm guns, drove past, crawling their way out of the hilly dunes separating them from the battlespace, using the last of their fuel and the last endurance of their tracks and suspensions to make it within visual range of the wall and bridge. Divided into platoons of 50 men, the Vishap’s infantry escort formed an arrowhead with the machine and a few men at the head of the pack.

“So Von Fennec, what’s preventing this operation from being bombed to pieces?”

Von Drachen glanced at Von Fennec from the corner of his eyes.

Von Fennec snorted and laughed.

“Take a gander at that sand dune over there, and feast your eyes.”

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder, half-interested. Atop a nearby boulder, to which the sand dunes formed a neat little ramp, a trio of tanks with extensive modications raised twin anti-aircraft guns into the air from open-top turrets. All of them were likely based on the new Rick Hunter light tank types, which were just barely nudging the “medium” category in armor and weight, but had great speed. Open-top turrets allowed the the new M3A3s to mount much larger weapons than the old M3s and M5s, and despite lessened survivability they grew to replace the little sluggers in large numbers.

“We call it the M8 R-K Peacekeeper. Any Ayvartan ground attack craft that closes in to the Vishap will be shredded by 18 rounds a second of high-explosive anti-aircraft fire.”

“I see.” Von Drachen said. “So what prevents those things from being bombed?”

“Shut up, Von Drachen. Do something with yourself. Go talk to Aatto or something.”

“Oh, I plan to. Not talk to Aatto; she’s nice, but I have business with a lady at the front.”

“Excuse me?”

At this point, as if on cue, a utility car pulled up behind them. It was driven by the old Cissean colonel, Gutierrez, who looked exhausted behind the wheel, and on its bed, was carrying air tanks and flexible suits, rope and hooks, and other seemingly random pieces of equipment for some nondescript purpose. A squadron of fifteen men sat around on the back of the truck, squeezed between the equipment and looking most unhappy.

“You’re about to fall for Nakar’s trap and I’m about to get you out of it.” Von Drachen said.

Von Fennec looked livid. “What do you mean? There is nothing Madiha Nakar can do now! Our only difficulty was getting the Vishap here. It is going to walk right through the Conqueror’s Way, and cut a path for us! Reinforcements can follow the desert behind us; once the gate is breached, the battle in the northeast can be ignored for this purpose.”

Von Drachen shook his head. He could see where all this was going. He had been there before. “Here is what will happen. Madiha Nakar will put up a stiff resistance that will endanger the Vishap and cause you to commit more forces to push the Vishap forward. This will force you to consolidate your troops into a large, dense formation. She will retreat, and you will think you’ve won, and you’ll charge your big, dense attack group deeper into the bridge. Then, she will surround it and find some way to destroy it, inflicting disproportionate casualties on you because of the density of your unit.”

“Absolutely not! There’s no way to surround anything on that bridge!” Von Fennec said. His face was red and his tail was standing on end. His nose was starting to wet with anger. “It’s a completely narrow path with nowhere to hide except behind rubble. The Vishap will clear all the rubble, mortar through every fallen gate, and mortar the main gate. You think you know better than me, child? I’m a veteran of countless battles! That is why I was entrusted with a superweapon, and you’re just relegated to recon! Shut up!”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I’m going to the front where it’s friendlier. We’ll meet there.”

Nonchalantly, he began to walk away, knowing full well that Von Fennec was not going anywhere near the front. Von Fennec, meanwhile, stood dumbfounded, his old cavalry brain grinding to a halt at the bizarre idea that a General would go join his men to fight.

“How the hell you intend to get there anyway? You’re gonna walk?” Von Fennec shouted.

Still walking away from the Major General, Von Drachen stretched out his arms in glory.

“I’ve evolved since last me and Nakar fought. I’ve finally overcome my one weakness on the battlefield, Von Fennec!” He sounded triumphant. “I have emerged, like a beautiful butterfly from my cocoon! Molted into a force of nature! I have learned how to swim!”

He continued to laugh as he followed the utility truck out into the open desert.


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Storm The Castle (68.3)

Solstice, Eastern Wall Defensive Line

“Yuck. It reminds me of the final scene in The Last Dragoon. I can’t stand to look.”

Parinita Maharani, Chief Warrant Officer for the 1st Guards Mechanized Division, put down the binoculars and averted her eyes from over the ramparts with disgust.

At her side, Brigadier General Madiha Nakar of the selfsame unit gently touched the woman’s shoulder, comforting her with her presence as best as she could just then.

Madiha held out her hand and her lover gave her the binoculars, and she looked herself at the battlefield. From the ramparts they could see the entire desert unfold before them, a desolate expanse of swirling ruddy sand. But it was hard to see anything around what remained of the First Gate of the Conqueror’s Way, kilometers away. There was so much rubble piled so high and the ramparts viewed the bridge at such an angle that it blocked the vantage. However, though they could not see the death directly around the bridge, on the edge of the desert they saw enough corpses and blood to confirm the slaughter.

“I have never seen that film, but I guess I can imagine what it must be like.” Madiha said.

Parinita got excitable and started to gesticulate wildly as she spoke. “They packed hunks of pork and tomatoes bound in gelatin into uniforms to resemble gore, for the aftermath of the fated charge into the machine guns. It was really gross! I think it just didn’t look like what you think a human being should, even in death, so it was really shocking!”

“I see. Well, death isn’t very pretty, you know? Not in any form, not even in action film.”

Madiha put down the binoculars. Her eyes felt a little heavy from what she had seen in the battlefield, even those little hints from that far way. It never got any easier to see bodies. One learned to not see them, to avoid acknowledging them after a fight. When forced to see the butchery for what it was, Madiha found her stomach unsettled by it all.

Parinita raised a hand to her hair and wrapped long, wavy strawberry locks around a finger. She looked a little embarassed and ashamed of her previous enthusiasm.

“Hey, I’m sorry Madiha. I was being glib, but seriously. I needed to do that to process it.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’m always happy to hear you talk film, remember?” Madiha replied.

She smiled at Parinita, her lover, confidante, and primary support personnel.

It was a hard smile to hold up, but it was worth it for her. Anything was.

“Right. I get carried away sometimes, though. But, anyway! It looks like the coast is clear.”

Parinita waved a hand over the desert. Madiha smiled and nodded at her lover.

They were dozens of meters above the ground, standing a few meters removed from the edge barriers of the Eastern Wall ramparts. Solstice’s heat bore down on them, it was past midday. Madiha could vaguely hear, even off in a great distance, the firing of the rampart guns on the Southern Wall of the city, which also under attack. Nocht had finally pushed far enough ahead, and slashed through enough of the defenses (or in this case at least, bolted past them), to besiege Solstice directly. Madiha had been put in charge of the defense of the Conqueror’s Way, though she had her own intentions for it.

Conqueror’s Way was so named because it was the route taken into Solstice by several conquering kings in antiquity. It used to be a rocky wasteland. It was said that whoever crossed the Conqueror’s Way, and then left the city victorious and paraded down the Way once more, and survived both journeys, would bless their rule to last a lifetime.

In modernity, it was a massive bridge, its length in the thousands of meters of stone and concrete and steel, suspended just shy of the rushing waters of the great Qural river. Once upon a time it boasted many fortifications; all of which had been pounded to rubble by repeated high-altitude bombardment during the preceding months.

Conqueror’s Way was as close as bombers could get to Solstice before the defenses got them, and as such presented the safest place to bomb where Solstice could heard it.

For a few weeks it had been a topic of great terror how Conqueror’s Way was destroyed.

Madiha intended to ride out through this bridge, or what was left of it, a hero herself.

But not yet; now was not the right time.

For now, she trusted the defenders on the remaining walls, and focused on her own.

“I have to wonder why they thought they could cross Conqueror’s Way with a company.”

Parinita turned to face Madiha with a quizzical expression. Madiha crossed her arms.

“I wager we have succeeded in hiding our numbers from aerial reconnaissance. They must have thought we left the bridge undefended after overflying and bombing it so much and seeing nobody there. Without troops on the bridge, they could walk to the very gate. Likely they intended to absorb the casualties inflicted by the rampart gunners, using those sacrifices as a means to attack the gate itself and ultimately breach the wall.”

“I guess after all that bombing they did, they must have been ready to believe it paid off.”

“That’s precisely why I allowed them the chance. It wound up helping us.” Madiha said.

In truth, there would’ve been a remote possibility of defending the bridge against air attacks. Madiha had calculated that scenario as well. Solstice’s anti-air defenses were strongest at the walls and within the city, and they were focused almost singularly on preventing overflight of the walls. It was possible, like with any artillery, to extend its cover beyond its typical range, to reorganize and retrain the shooters, and thereby extend a thin cover from the Eastern Wall’s dedicated Anti-Air to cover the Way.

It would’ve been bloody.

Conqueror’s Way was far more exposed than any part of Solstice.

Therefore, sacrificing expert anti-air gunners for the task did not sit right with Madiha, especially when the bridge could be so much more useful as a pile of rubble. Nobody understood it except her. The symbolic Conqueror’s Way, bombed out, empty. It was an enticing target, and the enemy took the bait. She had rebuffed a Company-sized attack and destroyed likely the entire enemy unit without casualties using only her recon troops. All because of deception and concealment. She found herself feeling oddly clever and elated, thinking to herself now that her deception had saved lives and killed foes.

“You got the first after-action reports in, right? What do you think?” Madiha asked.

“Gulab and Charvi were just a touch more reckless than they should’ve been.” Parinita said. “It feels like every time you give them an inch they want to fight it all themselves.”

“I will have words with them later.” Madiha replied gently.

“You should, they’re officers, and officers need to mind the back more in this army.”

Madiha nodded. “Well, right now, Chief Warrant Officer, our Kajari and Chadgura–”

Parinita grinned and laid her hands on her hips. “–Jeez, Madiha, you’re so formal–”

“–managed to produce a result,” Madiha continued, unimpeded by her lover’s teasing.

“I know!” Parinita said. “They have it harder than us. Still, it pays to be careful.”

Madiha nodded again. Sometimes she wondered how they did it.

Madiha had been an officer almost all of her career. She had fought on the front several times, and endangered her life plenty; but she could count the number of times she had been in danger at the head of an attack. For a grunt, it was every day, until the days were indeterminate. People like Gulab and Chadgura had volunteered to face death every day. Madiha was always called back to her headquarters. She was far safer than any of them.

She had to play disciplinarian, but a certain guilt tempered her response to recklessness.

“I’ll reacquaint them with the value of their lives.” Madiha said, half-jokingly.

As the desert wind blew away the scent of war, the two of them continued to watch the desert. Defense was not glamorous, and wars of defense even less so. All tales of great wars told of massive offenses and glorious charges and sweeping encirclements. Cunning was sang of when paired with initiative, and forgotten if not. So far, the Golden Army had strengthened itself and proven a tenacious defender, but Nocht kept coming, and they were driven to their last wall. All they could do was wait for an enemy to show up to fight. There was no means for them to launch effective attacks right now.

Sitting idle like this, awaiting battle on the enemy’s initiative, took a toll. On the soldiers, absolutely. But also on Madiha, who felt keenly the weight of her decisions every day.

Every defense had a cost. Today’s defenses, so far, had been free. This would change.

Madiha felt exhausted.

She could hardly believe she was still moving fluidly and standing tall.

Parinita hid it well, behind that pretty face and charming smile. But she was hurting too.

It had been a hellish, evil year, 2031.

“I think in Psychology they call it The Uncanny. You know?” Parinita said suddenly.

She had a finger on her cherry-red painted lips, and was staring off in thought.

“What are you talking about?” Madiha asked.

“Oh, um, sorry, I mean the thing from before. About how unsettling the fake corpses were in The Last Dragoon. I remember some papers on film psychology I read about that. It’s because of the unreality of it, you know? We expect things to be a certain way, but war just feels unreal to experience. At least, that’s what I believe. This violence, and all.”

Parinita shifted a little nervously on her feet. Her tongue was starting to slip from her.

Madiha nodded her head. She had understood; and she especially understood having a thought and having it turned to molten cheese in your brain by your own neuroses.

“I agree. We have an idea of what death should look like. And none of this feels right.”

“I feel it’s more that we don’t know how to think about any of it, even now.”

Parinita put her back to one of the rampart barriers and crossed her arms.

Next to her, a 76mm gun stood sentinel. It was unmanned, because the gunners were ready to rotate, and had gone on a little break. Solstice’s heat, especially on the walls, could easily reach 40 degrees or worse, and would cook one’s brain on a full shift. All essential personnel in Solstice’s defense had to be redundant, and consistently rotated.

“I go on my day to day treating it like a job, or like a favor that I’m doing for my girlfriend. When I’m alone, and I have time to myself, and there’s all the reports in front of me and all that. But looking at it like this, being confronted by it, its so eerie. I vacillate from thinking of it like a math problem. I think about stupid essay questions. ‘A train leaves the station carrying 100 tons of ammunition’ and so on.” Parinita continued, raising a finger into the air. “I am good at those. I also think of it like film sometimes. Prologue, act one, act two, climax; and the actors working tirelessly. But that’s not what it is. Just like tomatoes and pork set into jelly aren’t really a murdered human body.”

Madiha remembered what she said before. Parinita was trying to process it. She had to; to try to rationalize the unreality of everything. To try to find a way to live sanely with what they were all doing. That was Parinita. Madiha tried to shove things out of the way of her mind, the same way that same mind pushed physical things with its power.

Reaching out a hand idly, Madiha pushed on a stone on the wall and levitated it.

Parinita followed the stone around with her eyes, like a cat watching a toy.

It was odd that the most unreal thing among them was the easiest one to accept.

“Well. You’re more normal than I am I think. I think of war as a game.” Madiha said.

She was instantly ashamed of it, but she said it.

It helped at least that Parinita did not look disgusted or judging.

She smiled warmly at Madiha, catching the levitated stone out of the air in her fist.

“I learned to strategize via Academy war games. To me, its chess, except, I’m good at it.”

Madiha looked out over the desert and sighed.

It put her in a foul mood to think of it like that.

All those corpses on the desert.

Those misbegotten fools whom she hated; and yet they died because, she was better? Because she had outplayed them? Gambled and won? Any number of metaphors, they were all wrong. They all made the conflict out to be a game, or a film, or a story. There was no way to capture what had happened that wasn’t completely, utterly insane.

“Like I said before, we have to do it to process. We have to do something to understand and to carry on with the fight. We’re the victims here, after all.” Parinita replied. As soon as she said it, she seemed frustrated with herself. “I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this, to be honest. Maybe I am going insane now. It’d be inconvenient as hell.”

“You’re not insane. You’re tired. I’m tired.” Madiha said. “I haven’t slept in a week.”

“I’ve slept poorly. Maybe we need to get in bed together.” Parinita said, beaming cheekily.

“We’ve done plenty of that.” Madiha replied.

“Hah, look who’s lewd now? And you say I’m the minx here. I meant nothing erotic by it.”

Parinita put on a little grin and pretended to be innocent, circling her finger over head as if to suggest there was an angelic halo in the space over it, and not devilish little horns.

“I know you too well.” Madiha replied, grinning herself.

“Say I was being lewd, what would you do about it?”

Parinita took a few steps forward with hands behind her back and leaned into Madiha.

With a gloved finger, she pulled a little on the neck and collar of her shirt and winked.

“I’d sort you out and make you proper again.” Madiha replied.

She turned briefly toward Parinita and slipped her own finger down her coat and the neck of her shirt to grip on it and give it a teasing little tug. Parinita tittered happily.

Madiha was so glad for the shift in the conversation, even if it was a little out there.

“Let’s calm down for right now though. It’s too hot out and the gunners return soon.”

“Hey, I’m a paragon of self-control.” Parinita replied, pressing a hand against her breast.

“Right. Anyway, get the map, we’ll do one last check to make sure we report everything–”

Still feeling jovial, Madiha lifted the binoculars back up to her eyes.

There were the corpses, some of her own soldiers in parts of the bridge where she could see them, such as atop the mounds of rubble that once were gates. There was a sizeable amount of sand, and the Khamsin blowing in from the southeast was turning the air just a touch dusty and yellow, even over the Qural river. Satisfied, Madiha looked farther out.

Parinita returned and pressed herself close to the General.

“I got the map here, so what do you want to–”

Madiha spied something in the desert sand, something– uncanny.

Something large, something difficult to place. Something that shouldn’t have been there.

“Parinita, call back the rampart gunners, now. Right now!” Madiha shouted.


Observers on the eastern wall, such as General Nakar, and even those along the ground with the recon troops on Conqueror’s Way, finally spotted the enemy that now made itself known amid rising and falling dunes of the red desert. It had been carefully crawling in the distance, taking whatever path put the most geometry between itself and the walls. It had come close enough now; nothing could disguise its size, the smoke, the men around it, the vehicles that supported it. This was a battalion-sized formation.

But it was all concentrated around a single, monstrously large entity.

A massive series of camouflage nets shed from its bulk, and sand sifted off its surfaces as if it had risen from the desert like a whale from water. It had traversed the desert on the backs of several tracked tank transporters. Scopes and spyglasses could see letters on the side of the massive, metallic conveyance that held the weapon in its place for travel.

RKPX-003 VISHAP.

Around it, men in yellow and ash-gray uniforms unlocked the crate, and its lid came crashing down like a ramp. Inside, an engine roared to life, loud as a howling dragon.

Around the side of the great machine, two men watched the unfolding deployment.

“Well, General, I believe I have successfully infiltrated your weapon past enemy lines.”

One of the men sighed and patted down his own cap against his head.

“Oh, shut up, Von Drachen.”


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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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