25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
The World was always burning. Whenever steel cut the air and ripped souls from their bodies, the Flame surged in the heart of the World. There was a time when everybody could see the fire. There were Things That Ruled this world, and they thought they knew best the fickle appetites of the flame. But there were also the People, and in a time forgotten they made war on the Things That Ruled and fed them all to the Flame.
In that instant, it was brighter than it was ever meant to be.
Never again would it grow so bright.
That was the divine time, a long forgotten minute in the lifespan of the universe.
The divine time is long past. Steel flies, souls scatter, but the Flame dwindles.
In the heart of the old continent however, the People traded scraps of that lost history, and they thought, like the Things That Ruled once did, that they knew the Flame best.
“There is a way yet, to gather the flame. Our divinity is not all gone.”
They erected a throne, and there they sat the one who would lead them.
Madiha sat in the throne. She stared down at her subjects with a grim and stately face. Monoliths rose around her, blocking out the sun. They were each as tall as mountains. She was hot, and sweating, and she felt the banging of drums right in the center of her breast, and it was thrilling. There were fire dancers in heated rhythm at the edge of her vision. For a time she was alone in the center of things. Then her subjects finally appeared in flesh, wearing nothing but masks, and they approached her, and they knelt, and they made offerings to her, as though she were a God. She grinned viciously toward them.
“Remember your virtues, old Warlord,” said a person with a fish mask.
“Cunning,” said a person in a bird mask offering hawk’s eye’s earrings.
“Command,” intoned a person in a cat mask offering a lion’s mane.
“Fearlessness,” lulled a person wearing a hyena’s snout offering a necklace of teeth.
Then entered a creature with a man’s mask, in iron, a pitiless face banged into shape over coals. Madiha could not understand its body – was it a Thing That Ruled?
It offered her only a rusty, bloody spear and it hissed: “Ferocity.“
Madiha saw the flames in their eyes vanish, and all of them sink into her own, and the fires trailed from her face forming her own half-mask, and she screamed, in a horrible, all-consuming pain, down the center of her skull, across her spine, to where the tail once was, and down the arms and legs that ended in claws. They were always the Things That Ruled?
25-AG-30: Ox HQ, Madiha’s House
It was close to midnight when Madiha awoke with a start, scattering a stack of maps and documents that had accumulated on her desk over the course of the day’s fighting.
All of the lights had been snuffed out as a passive defense against retaliatory bombing; even her oil lamp was out. She woke in the dark. Slivers of silver moonlight struggled to penetrate the dark drizzling clouds outside. There was a figure softly sleeping on a nearby table whom she assumed to be Parinita, hugging a pack radio they had set up on a chair – this box was the comrade most in touch with what was happening south of the HQ.
“Parinita?” Madiha called out, her lips trembling.
She struggled to move, frozen, as though there was something that would reach out and seize her at any moment if she was not careful. Her lungs worked themselves raw, her breathing choppy. Her eyes stung with tears and cold, dripping sweat.
It was a struggle to keep herself from falling fetal on the ground.
Her secretary woke slowly, peeking her head up from over the radio.
She flicked a switch on its side by accident and a series of tiny globes on the radio pack lit brihglty up and cast Parinita’s face in an eerie green glow. Her secretary stretched out her arms, yawned and rubbed the waking tears from her blurry eyes.
“Good morning Madiha.” She said drowsily. “Are you alright?”
“It’s not morning.” Madiha replied. Her voice was choked and desperate.
“Something wrong?” Parinita asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”
Parinita’s kind words came like a slap to the back of the head.
Madiha felt childish now – yes, she had experienced a nightmare.
She was awake enough now to understand it was not real. But it had seemed so urgent, so horrible, just a few seconds ago. It had made her tongue feel stuck against the floor of her mouth. It had driven the power to move from her. She had felt terror of a sort that nothing yet had caused her. She did not understand the images – the dire figures approached and spoke but she did not remember their contours or the content of their words.
These distorted things invoked a primal horror in her that still took her breath.
Communicating all of that felt foolish now. She turned away her gaze.
“I’m fine. It’s fine.” She said.
“If you say so.” Parinita replied, a little sadly.
“I’ll go back to sleep. Sorry for waking you.”
“It is fine.” Parinita said. “I pray that the Spirits might help still your thoughts.”
Madiha rested her head against her desk, and curled her arms around her face.
Her eyes remained wide open for the rest of the night.
She tried to recall those terrible images, but they faded more with each passing moment. That toxic thing that resided in her breast was growing closer and stronger, and yet her strange power grew no more accessible than before. Perhaps they were not linked at all.
Perhaps one was the gift and the other just the curse, never intertwined.
27th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Adjar Dominance – City of Bada Aso, South District
6th Day of the Battle of Bada Aso
Matumaini was a ghost street, and the southern district was starkly quiet.
Fighting that had been terribly fierce the past days had all but burnt itself out.
No snapping of distant rifles, no rumbling of artillery, no belabored scratching of tracks and treads. Where once columns a thousand rifles in strength challenged one another, now only the corpses, rubble, spent casings, and the lingering dust and smoke remained. It was a calm in the eye of the storm, and there was little shelter left to endure the weather.
Much of the southern district had been ruined, by artillery, by the tank attacks; and by the engineering battalion of the 3rd KVW Motor Rifles Division, diligently at work since the end of the 22nd’s air raids. Many of the ruins had been planned by them.
Those that weren’t were carefully considered and made part of the rest of the plan. They had funneled Nocht right where they wanted them to go, and many of their comrades paid dearly as the unknowingly caged dogs charged into prepared defenses.
Then, things became complex. By necessity, their plans became fluid.
A small column of vehicles moved under the cover of rain and stormclouds.
Two half-tracks and one of the Hobgoblin medium tanks departed Madiha’s house and made it quickly down Sese Street and into Matumaini Street. They passed vacant positions, destroyed guns, the hulks of vehicles friendly and enemy alike. The Hobgoblin pushed them quickly aside, opening a path for the wheeled vehicles. They drove past bodies and they drove past ruins. Some ruins were marked on the tactical maps.
Some were fresh, and would have to be inspected if time allowed.
One half-track carried two squadrons of KVW soldiers, and another a squadron of soldiers along with Madiha and a cadre – Parinita, Agni, and a few staff and engineers.
They stopped on the edge of Matumaini and 3rd. Madiha climbed the ladder up to the shooting platform of the half-track. Parinita stood hip to hip with her on the platform, holding up a parasol to cover her commander from the rain. The Major produced a pair of binoculars and inspected the intersection from afar. She traded with her secretary, holding the umbrella for a moment so she could see. Parinita whistled, impressed by the damage.
“I think the enemy will be content enough to leave this place alone.”
Parinita seemed calm and certain, and it was easy for her to be. Despite being in the middle of a war, right now it felt eerily like the aftermath, like the last bullet had flown.
But Hellfire had not yet even started. They were still setting up.
Madiha was still burdened with disquiet.
Her mind still spoke out of turn, demanding things from her. Her hands shook. Large bags had formed under her eyes. And the sound of the bombs still rang in her ears.
Outside it was quiet, yes, but the war still maintained its rhythm in a vulnerable heart.
“Do you think any of the pipeline has been compromised?” She asked Parinita.
Parinita adjusted her reading glasses. “I think we’d be well aware if it was!”
Madiha looked down her binoculars again atop the half-track.
From her vantage she had a good look at the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd block.
Constant artillery barrages had caused the road to collapse into the sewer, a massive sinkhole forming between the roads and rendering them largely unusable without further construction. To hold each individual link in the intersection would be pointless – this was an area the enemy would certainly ignore now. That had not been the plan. Madiha had wanted Nocht to commit strength and then have a path north. She wanted them to keep bodies moving into the grinder. Now she would have balance yielding to Nocht while also maintaining her troop’s ability to defend and retreat in good order in order to bleed Nocht.
“Hellfire will have to recline into a small hiatus it seems. It appears to me that our counterattack scared Nocht too much. I was too disproportionate and ruthless.”
Beside her, Parinita shrugged amicably. “Kinda hard to pull punches on these fellows.”
“I want the engineers organized as soon as possible to carry out the inspection.”
Parinita nodded. “I still feel that you should not need to be on-hand for that.”
“I want to be involved. I’m done sitting around.” Madiha replied.
Parinita averted her gaze and sighed a little to herself.
They had talked about this before. It had been a tension and a subtext of all their conversations since the first drops of blood were spilled. But Madiha could not help but feel that this was an injustice. A thousand men and women could die in a single day because she put their formations on a map, and while they suffered she was a dozen kilometers away in relative safety. A gnawing poisonous voice in her mind had convinced her that this was not her place; that she should be out there; she should be suffering with them.
She was a coward not to dive toward death like them.
“You’re not a fireteam leader.” Parinita said sharply. “I wish you’d understand that.”
“It will be fine, Parinita. It’s just a surveying mission with the engineers. We will be planning routes, diving into old empty tunnels and demolishing buildings. I’m not leading an assault on Nocht’s HQ. I just want to do something other than sit in my office.”
Madiha smiled. It was difficult – more difficult than anything she had done that day.
But her keen secretary could always see through her. She was unimpressed, but she did not protest any further. Resigned, Parinita simply replied, “If you say so, Madiha.”