Warning: this scene contains violence and death, and depictions of burning and fire, disturbing imagery, and a depiction of severe mental distress.
City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
By the dimming light of an electric desk lamp, and viewed through increasingly heavy lids, Generalplan Suden took on an entirely different character. From a murderous omen its pages instead became a bizarre, almost humorous design. Its intricate maps became modern art, playing host to undifferentiated blotches of varying shades. Long lists of names and dates and shortform orders blended together so that the rough language of Nocht seemed like utter gibberish, amusing guttural sounds without civilized meaning.
Madiha found herself cracking a tired smile, a sign she was truly losing her faculties.
She did not notice the lights, dimming like lit candlewicks struggling against a breeze.
Instead her mind wavered from the document to her beloved companion, across the desk from her. She had collapsed entirely over her work, her head invisible beneath wavy locks of strawberry hair. Her back rose and fell with her heaving breaths, which started as raspy noises and then turned into cute whining sounds as she expelled them. Parinita had worked the hardest out of anyone in the office once Madiha explained the documents.
They had spent all day copying as much of Generalplan Suden as they could, trying to preserve its information should anything happen to the original. Padmaja and Bhishma had been dismissed for the day, for reasons of information security. With Minardo at the station, the two lovers spent the afternoon, evening, and up until midnight feverishly copying the most important facts from hundreds upon hundreds of pages. They had brought a drum mimeograph machine in from the staff office and copied with it until they ran out of ink and wore out their stencils. From there they hand-copied. For the maps, they drew all the lines on their own operational maps and on a hastily procured Atlas.
Despite all their efforts, they had perhaps only copied about half the total information, and that was ignoring all of the information on their own forces, as collected by the enemy, that they chose to outright ignore for the moment. They were thoroughly exhausted. Parinita had fallen asleep and Madiha could hardly keep her head up. Her vision swam, and her pen hand was starting to sway and scribble nonsense on the paper. She was trying to copy over a table of organization for the 8th Panzer Division.
Even dazed as she was, she was beginning to see that she would not complete her work today. Her fingers loosened from around the pen and allowed it to drop, and her eyes flitted open and closed, remaining shut for longer and longer periods as her head dipped, and her shoulders slackened. Slowly she bent over the desk and laid her head down.
She reached out a sluggish, shaking hand to Parinita and took her fingers for a moment.
Around them the lights pulsed rapidly and then the room went completely dark.
Before she was fully at rest, Madiha heard a scratching sound in the room.
Mustering her strength, she raised her head and found the sound coming from the direction of the radio. Slowly she pushed herself up by her hands, and blearily she ambled toward the radio on the other side of the room, and she picked up the receiver. There was at first only loud static on the line and intermittent snatches of crackling and whining noise.
She blinked, staring dumbly at the box. Finally, words started to come out of it.
“Colonel, the station has been sabotaged! Raise the alert level immediately!”
At first Madiha could not make heads or tails of what she was hearing.
It was as if the words were in another language. They made less sense than the blurry Nochtish she saw through half-closed eyes back at her desk. Minardo repeated her pleas with greater and greater vehemence, and suddenly Madiha felt something snap into place, a puzzle piece filling a gap in her brain. Her eyes drew open, and her back straightened.
“Sabotaged how?” She shouted, her senses slowly returning, her body shivering.
She noticed then that the entire headquarters was cast in a gloom, and that aside from errant beams of moonlight filtering through curtains there was no light anywhere. Not even the lamp posts out in the field seemed to be working. Everything had been knocked out.
“All of the power is out!” Minardo shouted. “It must have been deliberate, because–”
An airless chill blew through the room and sunk deep into her skin.
Madiha gasped for breath as if the air had suddenly been struck out of her.
Behind her the window burst, and she felt like a blizzard had swept over her.
Reflexively she seized herself, and her knees shook, and she bowed.
Over her shoulder she saw a figure come from the oldest recesses of her mind.
Standing over the desk, the robed creature looked down at her, a small smile glinting at her from the mask within its mask. Two tattered stumps hung from the front of its body, while a long arm ending in a burnt, cracked, stiff-looking hand curled over its shoulder like a scorpion’s tail. Much of its cloak was burnt, but what wasn’t was red, flapping in the winds, and the rest of it was covered in a twisting roll of fabric that trailed behind it like a tail.
In one swift move it lashed its longest arm out, and Madiha flinched.
Nothing struck her; instead the creature smashed through another window and fled.
When she opened her eyes it was gone.
Minardo’s voice was still coming out of the radio in panic.
Parinita bolted upright, startled, and began to hold herself from the cold.
“What was that?” She asked, turning her head every which way.
She looked down at the desk and gasped.
“Madiha, the plans! Generalplan Suden is gone!” She cried out.
Majini. It had taken the documents. That was its objective all along.
Without word, Madiha thrust upright and leaped through the window herself.
She hit the dirt and grass outside and charged after the monster.
In the rush of adrenaline she shed the evil chills; her inner fire had awoken once more.
Recalling the streets of Bada Aso as she walked them in her childhood, recalling the fearful nights spent fighting or evading these hideous fiends, Madiha drew upon every power and tactic that she had developed. It all came rushing back to her at once.
Find it, catch it, trick it, burn it.
Fighting a sharp, cutting sensation in her brain, she focused her mind on the field.
Her vision left her eyes, and she was looking from on high at a world of inverted color.
Several hundred meters ahead she spotted the Majini gliding through the air.
Haste was the beast’s forte; it wriggled above the ground like a worm in water, flying as fast as a downhill bicycle, its arms and ribbons spinning like the propellers on an aircraft.
Mid-run, Madiha drew back from her ghostly perception and returned to her body.
Blood trickled from her nose and ears as she pushed on herself.
As a child she had little control of this ability. It would destroy whatever she manipulated.
But she quickly became aware that it would not destroy herself.
Using the power she hurled herself forward after the Majini like a tank shell.
In an instant she left the blurry surroundings and smashed into the monster at mid-field.
Madiha and the creature both hit ground in a bonecrushing roll.
Only by subtly pushing and pulling on herself did Madiha avert the worst of it.
She skidded to a stand, the muscles on her right foot twisting painfully under her weight.
Ahead of her the Majini rolled like a tumbleweed, smashing its arms and its face and its cylindrical, raggedy sock-like body against the dirt. It righted itself slowly by the stumps on its maimed arms and by spindly legs that peeked briefly from under its cloak. Turning around, it sniffed loudly from its mask as if hissing at her.
Hoping to end the battle quickly, Madiha drew upon the fire, extending her fingers.
Sending danger, the creature stood up as if on tip-toes and swung its body side to side.
Madiha released a brilliant, fiery dart that flew right past the Majini’s head.
She missed; she never missed. Except where Majini were concerned.
Taunting her, the Majini continued to move erratically.
It swung its only complete arm as if in a dismissive gesture.
Entwined in its remaining fingers was Generalplan Suden.
That was its prize of the night.
Madiha closed her hands, unable to risk shooting fire at the moment.
She shouted out, raising closed fists. “You do not frighten me anymore! All you can do is creep in the dark! Try preying on a woman instead of a girl, you pathetic animal!”
She heard the sounds of teeth gnashing behind the blank face on the mask.
Curling its head forward while rearing up its shoulders, the beast lunged for her.
Madiha grinned — it fell for the provocation. Perhaps its fallen limbs stung in her presence.
Entering her space in a second’s rush, the creature swung its stumps like clubs. Madiha avoided the left arm and brought her own fists up to block the right. She felt the strike on her forearms and shoulder like a wooden baton, like the beating stick of the sister rectors in the orphanage. She nearly fell from the force, and she could feel the bruise already. But the creature had put all its strength in its bony arms, and swung itself off-balance.
Stepping past it, Madiha seized the monster’s flailing third arm and bent it double.
Like a twig the arm snapped, with a crunch that drew bone out of leathery skin and rags.
An airless, eerie wail escaped the monster’s mask and it retched and thrashed.
From its fingers, Generalplan Suden fell to the ground.
Madiha stepped on the folder to prevent its contents from flying away in the air.
She knew this would seal her own movement and grit her teeth in preparation.
Turning immediately, the Majini seemed as if standing on air instead of ground.
It charged into Madiha, and she brought her arms up and pushed against the weight.
Both of the monster’s fists struck her like hammers, but recoiled from her skin.
She felt all of the impact against her guard, and thought her bones would break, but what remained of the creature’s hand-less arms shattered into pieces, fragments of bone and parchment-like pieces of skin hitting the ground. Black dust escaped from the wounds in place of blood. She remained standing, shaken, her arms twin knots of agony.
Audibly panting, the Majini drew back, coiling like a snake.
Madiha brought down her arms and brought the thought of fire to the fore.
The Majini curled what was left of its three arms against its body.
Raising its head, the rags around it expanding as if following an impossibly long neck, the Majini hurled itself forward into Madiha, and its mask then met the side of her face.
She felt the cold, the infinite, ineffable cold from its body transfer into her own.
Again she felt all of the impact, but she also felt the malevolence, the sheer hatred.
Reeling from the blow, her vision swimming, Madiha’s concentration waned.
Instead of a dart, as she had wanted, Madiha summoned a wave.
Like the jet from the end of a flamethrower, an endless spout of fire escaped her hands.
As soon as her flames touched it the Majini lit up like a rag soaked in gasoline.
Madiha fell back, and closed her fists, drawing back the power in her hands.
Before her the Majini became a pillar of swirling flames.
It had survived the fires of her youth, but it would not live through those of her maturity.
She felt the cold in it instantly vanish. She felt the hatred die away.
Everything bound up in those rags and behind that mask, burnt instantly.
Standing in place, writhing, screaming, the rags turned to ash. Beneath them, a body, a maimed, stretched, unnaturally warped body that she could not place as anything alive.
She realized that the rags and the mask had been generating the cold, the sound.
Beneath the mask she saw something that should have been a face and perhaps wasn’t.
Something with holes and with teeth and with features in an alien configuration.
For the briefest instant, she saw something that met her eyes almost with emotion.
Lit by the pyre that consumed it, the Majini’s form revealed itself and vanished in a blink.
All of the fire blew away, and there was nothing but dust flying in the wind.
At once, the gloom parted as the electric lamps and street lights across the base turned on.
In the middle of the field, amid the dim light from far-away posts, Madiha was alone.
She tried to stand from the floor and found it impossible.
As the adrenaline left her, her knees buckled, and her arms locked up, shaking.
Her eyes were forced open from the incongruous thing she had been forced to witness.
Everything was blurry, and the images were burnt into her brain.
Constantly she pushed and pushed on her own mind to keep herself in order.
She was frozen in place, unable to right herself physically or mentally.
Parinita’s desperate screaming barely registered in her mind. Madiha hyperventilated, sure in the last rational recesses of her brain that she was in the throes of some kind of psychotic attack. Her nose and ears started to bleed and even her eyes filled with red.
She felt Parinita’s soft, warm hands against her body, felt her comforting embrace.
She heard her voice, cooing, soothing, perhaps singing a little rhyme.
There was an instant of relief before her consciousness entirely collapsed.
50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Noon
Tambwe, City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
After last night’s power outage and security breach, all of the 1st Regiment was on alert.
Training would continue, but reliable personnel were rotated in and out to guard the HQ.
As engineers replaced the windows on the front and side of the headquarters building, a labor squadron laid down sandbags to form two semi-circular walls in front of the building.
A pair of rotating tripod mounts had been procured for top-loading Danava light machine guns, which were to be manned at all hours of the day. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns of 45 and 37 mm calibers guarded the surroundings. Newly-arrived, a Hobgoblin EP/76 tank patrolled in a circle close to the little building, its crew “training” in it.
Inside the headquarters, an infantry squadron stood with rifles ready to defend the tiny Regimental command staff. Gulab Kajari and Charvi Chadgura were obvious mainstays of these missions, and were soon joined by some familiar faces — Nikka Illynichna and a pair of dour little Svechthans rounded out the crew. Though the trio clearly desired to chat, the atmosphere in the headquarters was too intense for that. Everyone was on edge, and there was no sound in the building but that of copy machines and scratching pens.
Word had gone out quickly about the attack. Everyone needed only to look at the Headquarters, and to find its windows shattered, and the frames hurled out of the apertures as if by an explosion, to realize that something serious had transpired.
No assailant had been caught, which was the worst part.
Though the High Value Assets had been recovered, this could happen again.
And the circumstances surrounding it were disturbingly mysterious.
Everyone at the base had experienced the outage the night before. Power had returned to the base (and police station) fairly quickly. Electrical disruption had been confined only to those two locations, and only for about twenty-five minutes each around midnight. There was no explanation from the power company as to why this would happen, and the rest of the city had experienced no anomalies. An official investigation was promised.
Nobody had much faith the Council would honor that promise.
Most of the Regiment knew that the attack’s target was a High Value Asset in the hands of the Headquarters staff. None of them had gotten a good look at it — none of them needed to. It was enough to know where it was, who had it, and where it should remain.
Nobody knew the character of the enemy after that, except Colonel Nakar.
She had fought off the assailant and recovered the Asset personally.
Since doing so, she had not left the Headquarters.
Those who hadn’t seen her, had their admiration for the Colonel swell considerably.
Those who did see her, worried about the caliber of the enemy.
Madiha sat behind her desk as always, overseeing Bhishma, Padmaja and Parinita as they hurried along, copying the mystery documents as fast and faithfully as they could. She looked quite worse for wear. She had her arm in a sling, and a thick bandage around her forehead and over one eye. Nothing was broken; but there was swelling and bleeding that needed to be controlled. She was coughing frequently, and nodding off at times.
“I will be fine in a few days.” She said, deflecting worry whenever asked.
Meanwhile the base continued its operations with increasing fervor.
In the distance, artillery guns fired training shots. Trainees stormed the fake stronghold for the first time and died to red-water guns by the dozens. Tanks arrived at the base by the dozen, courtesy of Solstice. They were shy of their peak strength of 100 Tanks, 200 Personnel Vehicles and 25 Self-Propelled Guns, as promised by Solstice, but steadily rising.
Tanks and trainees, however, were not the only arrivals.
Around noon, the guns behind the sandbags, and the turret on the Hobgoblin, all turned on an approaching light car that had not been authorized to appear before the Colonel. Everyone on guard exercised considerable restraint, and the occupants of the vehicle were allowed to dismount and approach and identify themselves as alleged friendlies.
Colonel Nakar bid them in with a sigh of annoyed resignation.
Through the door crossed a pretty young woman with skin a very light brown, dressed professionally, her wavy dark hair in ringlet curls, and familiar green eyes; at her side was a shabby, curly-haired man, his military uniform worn with an aesthetic of casual disorder.
“Colonel Nakar, the Adjar Government-In-Exile demands audience.” Chakrani Walters said.