This chapter contains violence, graphic violence, graphic descriptions of injury, death, body horror and disfigurement. Reader discretion is advised.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building
“You employed the foul timbre. I do not understand.”
Standing before Madiha and Von Drachen, the Brass Mask turned its four gore-strewn snouts toward the hole left on the ground by Mansa’s trinket. Madiha’s mind was slowed by the weight of the creature’s presence. She tried to think of where this creature could have come from and what its relation was to the Majini that she knew. Those beings were just bodies with masks and cloaks, or so she had thought. Were they all like this?
She felt the monster’s every move like a throb within her head.
“We did nothing. Mansa unearthed you.” Madiha said.
At her side, Von Drachen glanced at her with a startled look.
“Are you talking to it? What on Aer do you hope to accomplish with that?”
“To escape with my life, perhaps?” Madiha snapped back.
“I can assure you that thing is unlikely to respond diplomatically!”
Judging by his attitude, Madiha intimated that Von Drachen could not understand the Majini. It was either speaking only to her or she was the only one present who could hear. Perhaps only those with “ESP” could hear it. Madiha would operate with this idea in mind; she did not desire to ask Von Drachen whether he could or not. He was still her enemy and any information she could withhold from him might have a later use.
In the moment this discovery provided no succor or advantage. Madiha, in fact, felt ever more alone and trapped. Though she had Von Drachen’s tenuous support during this standoff, in reality it was only she and the Majini who could affect the ultimate outcome. Her exhausted mind and weary body shook with indecision. Nobody dared move and possibly prompt an attack. The Majini continued to ramble to the air, unvoiced, unheard.
“Ayvarta enslaved me. Did he use me to rekindle the human flame– no! He already had power! Even as I stood, a wall casting shadow o’er man, man created sparks. Four sparks on the four corners. And yet you employ the timbre too?”
She saw the eyes within the Majini’s slimy, fleshy face spinning every which way. Its black and purple, slimy gums and teeth seemed to expand and contract, as if taking in breaths of air without any visible nostrils.
Madiha glanced over her shoulder very briefly. Chakrani was still dormant in the far corner of the room. She had thankfully survived the shooting and the strange detonation that killed Mansa, and though unconscious she was unharmed. She was at least presently removed from the standoff.
It was imperative to keep Brass Face occupied and away from her.
“I do not understand. Too much time has passed. But my purpose remains.”
In a flash the Majini made the first move.
Madiha saw an inkling of its movement, like a glint in the air and a shuddering in her spine that warned her of danger, but her body could never react as fast as her mind. In the next instant the Majini had shifted its entire bulk behind them and with one massive hand seized Von Drachen’s companion and lifted him by his head. Frost-covered claws clamped down over the man’s face and neck. He kicked his legs and screamed and pulled on the digits but could not get free of the beast.
Von Drachen calmly raised his pistol and opened fire on the monster, squeezing rounds into its abdomen and legs and face, at every bit of its figure not blocked by the body of his own flailing man. Madiha’s reflex was to join him, but she lowered her pistol right after first raising it. Every shot seemed to go through the Majini without any effect except raising wisps of vapor that dissipated into the air after a second or two.
Unflinching amid gunfire, the creature tightened its grip on the man.
“I will borrow this flesh.”
Trails of white vapor blew from the man’s skin as the claw bit into him.
Madiha found herself paralyzed with fear at the sight.
Von Drachen stopped shooting and stared, mouth agape.
The Cazador screamed and wailed in desperate agony as his flesh sloughed.
Through the transformation his voice distorted and eventually muted.
They were spared much of the sight, but between digits of the gruesome claw Madiha could see an eye moving wildly within its socket, turning a copper color and becoming slitted as the lids fused together save for a thin line in the middle. Around the socket the skin discolored, liquefied, shed, bubbled and then set anew, bleached white, smooth, and solid. The man’s limbs turned black, indistinct and gelatinous. The Army uniform over his body began to sink in places as his muscles rapidly emaciated. He became too thin, too long, unrecognizable as human. Rags of slimy skin over bone.
From behind the Majini’s back its second arm reached for the window and ripped a curtain from its bars. In an unnatural flurry of movement, it draped the cloth over the man and wrapped him in it before the changes to his body had fully set, and then it released the corpse on the floor.
It should have hit the floor, limp and dead from the horrors done to it.
Defying all natural logic, it fell onto unseen feet and stood solid.
Hard all-white faceless head, like a mask, and a thin, tall cylindrical body in drapes. Long limbs that seemed to protrude and retract when needed.
The Brass Face had made something that frighteningly resembled a Majini.
And somewhere beneath all of that was the tormented remains of a man.
“All who cannot be turned will be killed. Until the timbre is forgotten anew.”
Von Drachen stared at the monster, and then at the monster that had once been a man. He raised his hand to his mouth, his teeth chattering.
“Shooting that cube was a mistake.” He mumbled to himself.
Madiha swallowed and it felt like she was forcing a stone down her throat.
Though the “newborn” Majini presented a problem, it also gave her an idea. Her overwhelming fear did not completely smother her tactical mind. Indeed, only in the desperate rush of emotion did she find her way.
There was something bundled deep within that cloak that she could use.
“Hit the dirt!” Madiha shouted.
She had no time to confirm whether or not Von Drachen was following her order, and she could only pray that Chakrani would be spared the violence.
There was no other choice.
Madiha set her feet and drew in a deep breath.
Both the monster and its master recognized the danger.
Madiha was an instant quicker than them.
She thrust out her least injured arm and her mind flashed the image of an old Territorial Army stick grenade, hanging from the belt of the disfigured man. Thinking faster than the enemy could move she lit a spark within the high-explosive blasting cap and ignited the TNT inside.
Unthinking, the new Majini reared back for a charge.
It made it two running steps from Brass Face before detonating.
In a burst of violent light the Majini disappeared, and a wave of heat and pressure tore suddenly across the room. Madiha had less than seconds to act. Out of pure defensive reflex her mind pushed against the blast, deflecting the concussive force screaming toward her. Her arm flared with intense pain, and she fell onto her back, the wind knocked out of her instead of the viscera. Brass Face recoiled violently from the blast and struck the nearby wall, smashing through the cement and falling under a heap of rubble.
Madiha could not tell whether it had tried to flee or whether the blast flung it away. She struggled to force herself upright, both of her arms functional but sounding a painful alarm with every movement. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she made it up onto her knees to find the vicinity caked in wet black and purple viscera and ashen jelly. This filth had spread across the room, save for a clean halo around her where she had pushed the blast and its byproducts and blocked their effects.
With Brass Face’s bulk removed from her sight, Madiha could again see Chakrani tied to her chair against the corner of the room. She could run for her– but there was no telling whether she had the advantage yet.
As she stood from the floor she scanned the room for Von Drachen.
Near the collapsed wall, she found him lying under the corpse of the soldier Jota took from him. He looked scuffed but relatively unharmed for the events that transpired. Von Drachen had hidden under the corpse; mutilated and burnt, the body had shielded him from the brunt of the blast. Luckily for him, he had managed to take the man’s grenade and flung it across the room before the violence erupted around him.
Soon as Madiha made eye contact with Von Drachen, he pushed the body off himself and stood on unsteady legs, dusting some of the alien jelly from his shoulders and arms. An enthusiastic smile played about his lips.
“I commend you on surviving to the end of this madness, Colonel Nakar!” Von Drachen said. “Now, allow me a few words about the dissolution of our truce.”
Madiha felt a fresh jolt of stress in her chest. “No! You idiot, it’s not–”
“Now, now, madam, I’m talking.” He raised his pistol to her.
Before Madiha could shout, a soundless roar psychically drowned her out.
Behind them the rubble shifted, and Brass Face stood from the mound.
Dust and masonry sifted off its shoulders. It appeared almost unharmed.
Rotating as if independent of its neck, the creature’s head stared at them.
Its grotesque snouts and teeth reformed into a mask.
Along its clean brass center, the wave-form symbols furiously oscillated.
With its grotesque head hidden again, Madiha felt the weight of its presence lessen. A burden lifted from her mind. She could almost think straight again. Her breathing still quick with stress, she took a guarded stance and waited. Running away in a panic would only get her killed.
And it would abandon Chakrani to an unimaginable fate.
“Truce?” Von Drachen asked in a strained, sickened voice.
“Move only in reaction to it.” She warned. “It’ll take advantage of any mistake.”
Von Drachen frowned. “I suppose that precludes running away?”
Brass Face turned to face them, slow and deliberate. It did not pounce or charge or blink behind them as she had seen it do in the past. On its lower body she saw trails of chill air seeping through a frayed, burnt patch of cloak. There was a wound there but it was as if her eyes refused to recognize it. Blurry flesh seemed to roil and bubble and shift upon this surface.
Von Drachen’s lower lip quivered. He raised his hand to his mouth to gag.
Perhaps he had seen it; maybe even more of it than she.
Madiha said nothing, too transfixed by the monster to speak.
Once its head fully turned to meet them, the rest of its body began to twist to match, turning thin and long like a snake but with the suggestion of shoulders atop its upper section. From the midsection pieces of cloak rustled and separated. An arm lifted as the upper body twisted into the room; Brass Face suddenly raised its gnarled claw as if aiming for Madiha.
Madiha felt the air in the room turning very cold and dense.
It became suddenly hard to breathe.
When she gasped for air her breath was visible, white as snow.
“Outside, now!” She shouted, her voice dwindling.
“I thought you said–”
“Forget it! Now!”
Von Drachen quickly turned and ran for the door to the meeting room.
Between the fingers of Brass Face’s claws, frost and ice started to form.
Crackling and crunching like falling glass, the frost swirling around its fingers compacted and lengthened into a long shaft in less than seconds.
Madiha tore herself from the sight and ran out behind Von Drachen.
She felt a force strong as a hurricane gust and cold as a blizzard sweep past.
Behind her the lance of ice shattered and thundered like an explosive.
Over her shoulder Madiha caught a glimpse of the wall turned mirror-like with ice.
She ran out into the broad, enclosed hallway connecting the meeting room and felt both trepidation and relief when she found it deserted, save for Von Drachen. Any more people around could have become new Majini. She put her back to the empty hall behind them and aimed her pistol at the hole in the wall. She saw some of Brass Face’s cloak trailing from it.
“Come out of there and fight us seriously, you animal!” She shouted.
“What are you doing?” cried Von Drachen.
She hoped the monster could understand her at all. It never seemed to reply to her; it only spoke at her. She had to taunt it away from Chakrani and out into the hall, where she had more room to avoid its projectiles.
Her worry was short-lived. Brass Face understood.
It slowly turned itself back around to face them anew in the hall.
“Incarnation of Ayvarta, without the prism you are vermin to me.”
It shambled farther out of the meeting room through the hole in the wall.
Von Drachen hurried from the middle of the hall to Madiha’s side.
He raised his pistol alongside hers and gulped hard, shaking.
“Why isn’t it charging anymore? It was awful quick a second ago!” He asked.
“I must have hurt its feet.” Madiha replied. Her breath was quick, her heart struggling and her lungs raw, but she managed to keep a strong front.
“It isn’t even moving closer.”
“It must be focused on defense now that it can’t charge us.”
“God. At least you’re still thinking. Do you have a plan of attack, Nakar?”
“Out of respect for your great intellect, I shall allow you to lead us.”
Von Drachen cracked a nervous grin without looking at her.
Madiha would have rolled her eyes in any other situation but this.
Meanwhile their enemy waited, clicking its claws together.
Brass Face’s mask waveforms gently rose and fell as it stared them down.
“Incarnation of Ayvarta.” It mumbled soundlessly.
Was it sizing her up? Comparing her to the old Emperor before striking?
Madiha felt a chill whenever it spoke those words. It treated her like an extension of the Warlord that it had encountered, and not as her own person. The First Emperor, Ayvarta I, who set out to conquer the four corners of Ayvarta and unite its disparate ethnicities and civilizations. He accomplished this task using the power that she had been cursed to hold.
Had Ayvarta been the first, the original? Or just the one Brass Face knew?
It was eerie. To Brass Face, she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.
Another in a long line of half-lives tainted by the man’s conquests.
Perhaps even linked to the ancient tyrant by blood.
Incarnation of Ayvarta.
There was power behind that statement, the unknowable intellect of something that was ancient to an extreme Madiha could not imagine. Was it right in the way that it thought of her? She felt as if all of her fears about herself, all of the existential suffering she felt, was confirmed in the words of this beast. Maybe she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.
Maybe Mansa was right and Madiha Nakar was nothing at all.
Von Drachen glanced at her nervously. “Colonel, are you–”
She could not dwell on that. Madiha might not exist; but she could die.
For Solstice’s sake she had to survive to make something of Madiha Nakar.
For Parinita’s sake the most. She wanted desperately to see her again.
Her mind quickly refocused.
In the monster’s own words, Ayvarta once had control over it.
Did Ayvarta capture Brass Face to use it; or because he couldn’t kill it?
Could she kill Brass Face in modernity, if Ayvarta failed in antiquity?
She had to believe he wanted to use it; and that the prism was a way to contain its powers without having to kill it. And therefore that it could be killed and that Ayvarta could have killed it. She had killed Majini using the flame before. Once lit on fire their parched bodies went up like torches.
From a distance, they could avoid the darts. But if she got close enough–
She started to visualize a way forward.
Hopefully she had inherited more from Ayvarta than just his powers.
“Are you ready?” She whispered.
“Of course not. Nonetheless: how do we stop it?” Von Drachen asked.
“I need to get close to it.” Madiha said.
“And then what?”
“That’s classified information.”
Von Drachen raised an eyebrow. Madiha made no expression whatsoever.
City of Rangda — 8th Division Barracks
Logia Minardo felt a tingle in her belly and could no longer tell whether it was the stress of the situation or the protests of the child growing inside her. She had worked her legs raw pacing the room, little able to contain C.W.O Maharani as she shuffled around the office, staring out the window every minute. Minardo felt sick and tired; surely Maharani felt worse.
“Chief, you should sit down and perhaps have a drink.” Minardo said.
“At this point if I sit I will black out. I’m barely keeping my heart going.”
C.W.O Maharani was red in the face and breathing heavily and seemed to pace the office just to keep herself awake and aware. But she had long since proven her sufferings bottomless. She would not last the night at this manic rate. She was mostly just passing her stress on to everyone around her. Padmaja and Bhishma hardly said a word the whole time.
As far as ranks went, Maharani would not have been in charge under strict military guidelines; but as Colonel Nakar’s aide de camp, secretary, understudy and confidant (and lover), and as someone well known to everybody, she was implicitly thrust with the burden of command. Her attitude was doing little to validate all of the trust she was given.
Minardo would not have been in charge of the Regiment either. She was a Staff Sergeant. It was a position that meant taking care of the other comrades in the staff. She was supposed to coordinate with them, to make sure they had the things they needed, to keep them focused and driven, and to handle their affairs if trouble arose. She was bad at it. She knew she was bad at it. She was personable lady in a bar or in a warm bed; for a prospective mother she knew she was not motherly at all. Her interactions always became either flirtatious, disdainful, ironic or passive aggressive.
Instead of helping Nakar she had felt driven to challenge her.
Instead of advising Maharani she just teased her and egged her on.
She was, she recognized, more of a bully than a mother.
In this kind of situation her dubious charisma was deeply out of place.
For everyone’s sakes, however, she had to play the motherly role for now.
“I’ll resuscitate you in an hour with a stimulant. Please sit down.”
Not a good start; perhaps she could salvage it with some gentle contact.
Minardo reached out a hand to Maharani’s shoulder, hoping to reassure her.
Maharani rudely brushed it off.
“You don’t understand anything, Minardo!” She snapped back.
Padmaja and Bhishma looked away, hiding in their routine tasks.
Maharani had a childish anger in her eyes. This malice was purely reflexive; she was lashing out without thinking her words through. It was quite unlike her to act this way. Minardo sighed. She supposed under great stress even the tamest cat would claw at a helping human hand.
“You think I don’t understand, when I was cheering you two on the whole time? When I have been in the same position myself? I understand perfectly, Maharani. But what you are doing now is why the military frowns upon love; please prove them wrong, and calm down.”
There was a flash of recognition in the Chief’s eyes. She stopped where she stood and instead sank into a nearby chair. She covered her face in her hands and a handkerchief pulled from the pocket of her field jacket. Minardo heard a few choked sobs coming from under the handkerchief. But Maharani seemed to restrain herself from pacing any more.
Not that sitting down and crying was any better.
Minardo stared wistfully out the broken window. She saw a young soldier outside aimlessly patrolling around one of the anti-air guns, rifle in hand. Off in the distance, a Hobgoblin tank moved in much the same way. They had all of this power sitting here, restlessly, waiting for something.
In this situation, waiting was before than lashing out.
She knew, however, that they could not wait forever.
“What is on your mind, Chief?” Minardo asked, trying to make conversation.
“Nothing’s on my mind. I’m all broken up. That’s the problem, Minardo. I don’t know what to do.” Maharani said. “I want to go out there and find her, but I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake and lose soldiers. I can’t– I can’t just commit to those things. I feel blind to everything around me.”
“Even if you launched a preemptive strike, there’s no guarantee we would recover the commander.” Minardo said, trying to sound gentle for her. “A ground assault might even endanger her. Right now we’re trapped here. You’re doing the right thing by waiting. Sometimes that’s all we can do.”
Though she did not entirely agree with herself, it seemed the best thing to say. Supporting a preemptive strike would have been foolish at the time.
“Waiting doesn’t change anything.” Maharani solemnly replied.
“But it doesn’t add to our troubles either.” Minardo replied.
Maharani shook her head.
“Madiha would have had a plan to attack, I just know she would, but I can’t think like her, Minardo. She sees everything that’s happening in a way I can’t. She just– she sees the need for everything around her and I can’t, I just can’t! I can’t see the battle through those kind of eyes. Madiha is willing to shoulder the burden of everyone’s pain and I just– I can’t!”
Her voice was starting to irritate Minardo. It should not have been so difficult for her; she had been the closest to Madiha, she had seen how Madiha operated. But she held herself back. It sounded too much like someone like she had known too well in the past. It brought out that instinct to challenge rather than tease, to attack instead of dismiss. She grit her teeth and tried to focus on calming down the room, on positives.
Minardo forced herself to smile, sweetening her affect for Maharani.
“Perhaps that is an asset to you! Think like yourself instead. Madiha sees something in you Chief, you need to try to see that in yourself.” She said.
She was trying to deflect from how much bite her voice was gaining.
“I’m nobody. I can’t do anything. I’m just stuck here, hopeless.”
Maharani descended into a fresh round of pathetic sobbing.
Those same words she said– those words that had come out of–
Minardo felt a rash, poisonous retort climbing to her tongue.
Before Minardo could shout anything offensive at Maharani, Padmaja interrupted from across the room. Seated behind the radio unit, she raised the handset into the air, waving her arms. Maharani twisted toward her with desperation in her tear-soaked face; Minardo crossed her arms and waited quietly. She felt guilty about how quickly her patience had strained.
“Speak freely.” Maharani said, sniffling, her voice ragged.
Padmaja nodded her head at the two of them. Despite the situation, and her own clearly shaking hands, she spoke in a cheerful, boisterous tone.
“Yes ma’am! We have just received a message from Shohr that the liaison plane successfully delivered its passengers and cargo several hours ago; but on the return flight, the pilot found the Rangda Airport closed off. His fuel will not last enough to get him to another safe airfield. So Shohr is requesting we allow the pilot to emergency land in our field instead.”
Minardo raised a hand to her mouth, her chest fluttering with hope.
She traded a glance with Maharani. The Chief seemed suddenly immersed in her own ideas as well. Her eyes brightened, and dammed her tears.
They locked eyes for a moment and nodded their heads at each other.
In a moment, a plan was silently built. Everyone went into motion.
“Approve it!” Maharani ordered Padmaja. She turned to the opposite side of the room, where Bhishma sat behind an empty desk. “Bhishma, go fetch Agni and her engineers! Tell her we need to prepare for a plane making a rough landing. It will need repair and refueling!” She shouted.
Bhishma nodded and was dutifully out the door within seconds.
“Padmaja, pick up the radio set and come with me!”
The Chief Warrant Officer dashed to a stand, straightened out her uniform and wiped her face with a fresh handkerchief. She pulled her long, wavy hair into a ponytail and headed out the door in a hurry. Padmaja followed at her heels, her headset over her ears and the radio tied to her back.
Minardo followed, struggling to keep up with Maharani’s renewed energy.
There was a flurry of activity outside the headquarters. Patrols doubled as the night went on and reports of increased 8th Division activity in the city center came to light. Sounds of creaking gun swivels, rolling steel track links, trampling feet and whining engines overwhelmed the singing of nocturnal insects. Though the night was moonless, the many searchlights assisting the dozens of anti-air guns, along with the torches on patrolling vehicles and foot squadrons, all shone brightly enough to offer some light to the HQ personnel as they walked off the base roads and into the field.
“By any chance do you have the same stupid idea I do?” Minardo asked.
“We’ll have to see if they can land that plane first.” Maharani said.
She did indeed have the same idea. Neither of them wasted any time.
“Hopefully they won’t crash.” Minardo said.
“And then hopefully they can get back out; and then land it again.”
“If that pilot can’t do it, then I will.”
Maharani looked over her shoulder briefly. “You’re a pilot?”
Minardo smirked. “I was an ace in the age of biplanes!”
“Aren’t you in your early thirties?”
“Look, I joined the age of biplanes a tad late, but I performed expertly!”
“Is it safe to fly a plane while a hundred days pregnant?”
“I am perfectly fine, thank you very much.”
Maharani frowned with concern.
“This could be extremely dangerous, Minardo.”
Minardo smiled. “I am well aware.”
There was no point in playing it safe; she would lose her child and herself to the 8th Division’s attack anyway if something was not soon done.
Though she sounded a little irritated, Minardo felt calmer than before. Finding herself cooped up in the headquarters with everyone confused or in despair frayed her nerves; taking action, even reckless action, did indeed feel a damn sight better. Perhaps Madiha had been right after all.
In the distance they found the engineers already at work, laying down a line of reflectors and lights to guide the plane. They had selected the most suitable part of the training course, one that had been prepared scarcely a day ago and hardly used. Maharani and Minardo stood off to the side of this course, composed of a stretch of field that had been flattened, mowed and partially paved to serve as a tank acceleration road. On such flat earth, a tank could achieve its maximum velocity easily and unhindered. Tank crews could drive on it to acquaint themselves with gear shifts and brakes.
And in theory a plane could land on it the same as an ordinary runway.
“Padmaja, relay to all anti-air gun crews to hold their fire until ordered otherwise.” Maharani said. “The searchlights should be retrained north.”
Padmaja set down the radio box and began to call.
Minutes later, the searchlights once scanning aimlessly across the sky converged north of the base, illuminating thick clouds. There the officers set their sights, and soon Minardo spotted the tiny dot of a plane growing closer and larger as it descended. Nose down, the Stork liaison plane quickly lost altitude and soon cut its speed also. Below it, the crew on the makeshift runway dispersed; Minardo and Maharani slowly stepped back, giving the prepared stretch of field a wide berth. As it drew closer to final approach Minardo distinctly heard the buzzing and whining of its engine.
“Brace for landing!” Minardo shouted out.
She had seen enough Storks landing to know the time it took.
Within mere moments of her shouting, the plane had pulled its nose up, and in a blink, hurtled down just over the surface. Landing gear touched down on the improvised pavement and screeched; the plane bumped up, struck earth and rose again. It flew less than a meter over the ground.
On its nose, the propeller slowed enough for individual blades to take the place of the whirling disc that once held it aloft. Again it touched ground.
An unearthly noise issued from the wheels. It bumped up off the ground.
Unlike a traditional runway the tank training road had a limited length. In an instant the plane was almost upon the end of the runway and the soft grass and dirt beyond. Minardo watched, her breath catching in her throat. The Stork blew cleanly past them, knocking out several lights.
She heard the final screech as the wheels touched ground and remained.
At the very edge of the runway the aircraft came to a stop.
Minardo sighed deeply. Maharani fanned herself, sweating and anxious.
The Stork was a boxy-looking rectangular biplane some twenty meters long with wide, semi-gulled top and bottom wings and a single frontal engine with four blades. Sturdy landing gear held it aloft, and its cockpit was covered by a boxy, sliding glass canopy. It was painted brown and red with a mark of the Hydra on its sides. There was no visible weaponry on it, and no hatch on the sleek tail — a side-door gave access to the rear cab.
At Maharani’s urging, medical personnel approached the aircraft and climbed the wings. They slid the cockpit canopy back and helped the pilot out from his seat. He was clearly dazed and unsteady on his feet, but showed no truly alarming signs of injury. He was taken away, and Agni and her engineers took over the plane. Minardo ambled forward. Crouched on her knees, she examined the landing gear. Behind her aviation fuel was pumped into the plane, and engineers assessed the hull integrity.
Minardo tapped her fist on the landing gear and ran a hand over the shaft.
There were no visible lacerations or stress marks. On the landing tires, the rubber discs were visibly scuffed and worn from contact but functional.
“Well, we can land it again at least.” She said aloud.
Maharani crouched near her and looked under the plane. Her eyes wandered along the hull. She likely did not know what to look for.
“That’s good, but I have to wonder where we would land it? Even if we fly around the city and find some trace of the Colonel, how do we save her?”
From behind them, a shadow rose to cover the two.
Sergeant Agni loomed over them holding a strange bundle wrapped in tarp. Though she had on a stoic expression, there was a glint in her eyes.
“I have an idea, but it has a probability of killing the Colonel.” She said.
Maharani scoffed. “Are you mad? Why would I agree to it then?”
Agni looked at the bundle. “Because we won’t have to land to rescue her.”
City of Rangda — Council Building
Madiha and Von Drachen nodded silently to one another.
Scarcely fifteen meters away, Brass Face awaited them. Its arms had partially retracted into its body, and the waveform on its mask was still gentle and calm. Tiny geysers of cold air blew from the front of the mask. Perhaps Brass Face was taking Madiha’s own advice. Unable to preempt them or use the fullness of its speed, it was waiting to react to them.
Brass Face was larger and stronger and had unknowable power on its side.
All they had were pistols, wits, and Madiha’s so-called “ESP.”
Madiha could not make ice lances and smash through walls and turn men into monsters. Or at least, she hoped to whatever gods that she could not. However, her mind was clear, and the drive to survive had tightened her senses and helped her endure the fear of being in Brass Face’s presence.
She noticed that Von Drachen, too, had steadied. He kept a steel gaze on Brass Face. They did not need to speak to plot against the beast. Madiha had quickly realized they operated on a fairly similar level of thinking.
So if Madiha was going to attack, Von Drachen knew he was a distraction.
“Ready?” Madiha asked.
Without responding, Von Drachen ran out in front of her.
From his coat, he withdrew a stick grenade.
Had he picked it from the floor when he was fleeing the ice lance?
Madiha had not noticed it; Von Drachen was trickier than she thought.
With a flourish he flicked a finger at the grenade and swung his arm.
Brass Face’s mask waveform grew agitated.
Responding to the attack it lifted its hand and blew a gust of freezing cold.
Madiha felt the chill air and looked around for the rebounding projectile.
But there was nothing for the chilling blast to deflect.
Von Drachen had not thrown the grenade. It was behind his back.
He had feinted out Brass Face’s defense.
“Those old eyes must be failing you!” He laughed.
Grinning wildly, he flicked the grenade from his side in a batting motion.
Such a throw could not achieve the purported thirty meters of range.
But it was good enough for ten.
Under the Majini’s outstretched arm, the grenade soared and detonated.
Around them the air stirred with a shrill psychic screech.
Brass Face’s arm went flying into the air in rapidly evaporating pieces.
Madiha took the opportunity and dashed along the far wall of the hallway.
She raised her pistol and opened fire as she ran.
Though her perfect aim was gone, a wild aim suited the situation fine.
Rapping the trigger, she riddled the beast with all of her bullets.
Lead struck the monster’s shoulders, its “legs” and torso. These impacts were marked by rising vapor that seemed not to bother the beast. Several bounced off Brass Face’s mask. One lone bullet struck just under it.
Brass Face raised an arm to its throat. This one shot had penetrated.
Judging by what was behind that mask, Brass Face had flesh somewhere.
And Madiha had managed to wound it.
She closed to within three meters of the beast and pushed herself.
Her body accelerated suddenly. She felt her heart and gut sink.
Through the discomfort she leaped almost to the ceiling.
Brass Face swatted an arm at her to no avail. She soared over its head.
Turning around as she hit the ground again, she crossed its defenses and reared back to launch a dart. A flaming knife, right in its exposed back.
She felt fire build in her palm and saw a red flash as she threw.
In an instant a blue flash from Brass Face answered her.
Out of nowhere another arm exploded from his back and intercepted.
Dense cold snuffed out her fire dart.
“Your people have achieved a frightening power.”
Two other arms burst out of its back and seized her, pulling her up by her arms and waist like a doll about to be ripped apart by a destructive child.
Brass Face’s head turned all the way around on its unseen neck.
“You cannot be turned. But you will be punished for the hubris of your kind.”
It started to squeeze its claws around her arms. Her whole body grew cold.
Madiha cried out in pain, feeling the chill start to dig into her sinews.
Overhead something wildly sparking and blue struck Brass Face.
Its head turned all the way back around in time to watch a flare go off.
Blue smoke and sparks flew off the tip of the stick and onto the monster.
Madiha dropped from the creature’s limbs and hit the floor as they retracted and reappeared along the front of its body, swatting desperately at the flare and getting the sparks on its hands and over its rags. Though seemingly harmless the flare evidently caused Brass Face great distress.
“No! Not blue flame! Not blue flame!” It cried, whining psychically as it did.
Von Drachen ran to the side of the wall so that Madiha could see him around Brass Face’s writhing bulk. He waved his hand with a grin.
“He is quite alarmed by the merest spark!” He shouted.
Madiha suspected Von Drachen wasn’t simply cheering her on.
He wanted to see what she did.
She could not hide her power, not now. Brass Face was distracted.
Madiha stood up on her legs and thrust out a hand. Her arms felt as if mildly burned now that the chill had receded. She grabbed her better wrist with her injured but recovering arm, bracing herself as if holding on to a cannon. She realized a simple dart would not be able to overcome this creature. It was not an ordinary Majini. It would not simply light ablaze.
To defeat this Father-Of-All-Majini she would need a flame unlike any.
As a child she had compared her fires to various objects. She had started making small wicks of flame in her fingers, harmful only when she forced them into someone through physical contact. She had moved up to “darts” that she could throw. Then balls the size of a good throwing rock. She had almost worked her way to high caliber fire when tragedy struck.
Now she was back at square one. She was not the prodigal child who played with psychic fires as if they were toys and tools. She felt a knife drive through her brain whenever she invoked the fire now; her whole body shook and her nerves screamed. She was broken, fallen, weak.
Drawing out the fire was not easy. It was like trying to force phlegm down one’s throat. There were muscles that could be controlled but they were such an abstraction, their actions so indiscernible, that it became a struggle. She pulled on the fire, she shaped it, she held it together. It built in the palm of her outstretched hand, to the size of a wick, a dart, a rock.
Von Drachen stared in disbelief. Wild strings of flame began to travel down Madiha’s arm, connecting with the fire in her hand. It was like a mass of worms trying to mate with one another. They trailed, writhed and split and many dispersed entirely. She was nearing the limits of control.
Brass Face whirled around, a mass of vapor bursting from its “feet.”
Three arms stretched, and currents of chill air swirled around them.
Icy choking hands closed in to smother her and her nascent fireball.
Madiha struggled to grow the fireball, she knew it would dissipate if discharged now, but she felt the cold from the approaching hands, held off only by the wild tongues of flame billowing around her arms and body. Her whole body shook from the effort of maintaining her weapon and shield, and Brass Face inched closer and began to loom over her, gaining ground.
She felt her eyesight fading and her body faltering.
As if a great distance away she hard gunshot after gunshot from Von Drachen striking Brass Face and doing nothing to stop the monster.
“God damn it! Somebody come help! Anybody!” Von Drachen shouted.
But the halls were empty. All of the wing was apparently empty.
In this desolate stone place, within the agonizing silence of her struggle, Madiha’s hands began to slack. Her fireball started to spin out of control.
Brass Face’s body curled overhead as its arms struggled to grasp her own.
She raised her head and saw the mask; her entire sight was the mask.
“I will make sure you never return, Ayvarta.”
Brass Face drew within centimeters of her.
She felt something; she felt a push. Like her own.
It was like a push on her soul.
She felt as if something was being torn from her, but it did not hurt. It was accompanied by a numbness, a falling away of the senses one by one.
Things started to go dark. But even this sensation itself stopped suddenly.
Brass Face recoiled violently.
Its head reared back as if stricken by a fist.
Madiha found herself released and back to her senses.
Once more the spiraling fires in her palm grew concentrated.
Madiha felt a hand join her own, covering the flame on one side.
Attached to the hand was her child self, in her shorts, vest and cap.
Child Madiha nodded to her and stood at her side.
Another hand appeared; another Madiha. She was taller, dressed in the uniform of the Academy of Solstice. She wore the pants uniform; she had always been the type to wear pants. Her hair was long and a little unruly. She had a gloomy little half-smile on her face. She stood her ground too.
There was a third hand; Madiha as a young adult in the KVW. Serious, stone-faced, loyal, perhaps to a fault. She added her own reassurance.
Another hand — this one was a smaller hand once again.
Dressed in great finery was the venomous Madiha from her hallucination. She had that same look of cold disdain on her face, but without protest her hand joined the other Madiha in shielding the fireball that was building.
They were not alone. Different hands then joined the many Madiha.
First there was a boy, and a young man, and an elder man. Boy and man were scarcely dressed save for loincloths. But the man, like the false Madiha, was well dressed and covered in gold jewelry. All three were bald, dark-skinned boys and men with striking features. They joined hands too. Hands that had dreamed of freedom; hands that had forged great terror.
Glancing aside their eyes briefly met Madiha’s own.
She saw the powerful sparks in their eyes and felt her own kindle.
More hands, more and more hands, covering the fire on all sides.
Soon there were dozens of hands, men and women, some remembered, some forgotten, some buried, some half-known; several false, several real, several made when needed, several vanished when their time had come. Some were kings and queens, others servants, others slaves, others rebels. Some liberated and some oppressed and some did both in equal measure. None were her and all were her and all of them were themselves and others in the endless chaotic permutations of life and living.
That knife which had been buried in the deep recesses of her mind pulled out of her flesh and fell away. For a moment she felt no pain. She knew the true color of her eyes then, her eyes that had before been indistinctly dark to her. They were red with the fire inside her soul. Her soul; none other. Her hands shaped that fire now; Her hands decided her history.
All of the other hands let go and one by one they disappeared.
Only the forms of Madiha remained at the end.
And then their hands, too, raised and vanished one by one.
Only one pair of hands was left.
She was Madiha Nakar, and like every human on Aer, she was many.
She alone was a variety of people across the space of history.
She alone was a variety of people in her own mind, her own emotions, her own vacillating thoughts and feelings building and rebuilding day by day.
She was herself; she was real.
“Incarnation of Ayvarta!” cried Brass Face, fearing the flame.
Trapped in their clash, it was unable to draw itself away from her now.
“Stop calling me that.” Madiha replied.
Her hands and her hands alone released a mighty blast of red flames.
Fire unlike any Aer had seen consumed Brass Face. It was as if his body had descended into a sun. A burning red sphere swallowed Brass Face, struck the roof and detonated into a blast like a high-caliber howitzer shell, showering the hall around Madiha in red-hot rock fragments. Furniture from a higher meeting room, thankfully empty of human souls, fell through the collapsing room and shattered all around her as well.
In a second the fire had burnt itself out and the chaos had passed.
Something heavy then fell from the roof along with the stones and wood.
Scorched part black and part purple, the surface of much of its flesh burnt off, was the real Brass Face. Its ragged cloak burnt off, Madiha saw a creature that no longer resembled anything like a human being, but her mind seemed incapable of processing much of its alien features. It was like a skinless many-snouted fish with dozens of grotesque feet like writhing worms curling around a thick body that was long and gelatinous and malleable. All of its arms were burnt off but she thought she saw dozens of holes on the remains of a thick exoskeletal sleeve that was once encasing its “torso.” Many of its wicked eyes had melted from its snouts.
She looked around the hallway. Von Drachen had gone. Was he hiding?
She forced herself to walk closer to the monster.
She pushed on its body; on its brain.
Images assaulted her mind as she tried to read Brass Face.
Cold; everything was cold.
Long had the sky iced over, long had the waters frozen.
Long had the animals fled the holy land.
Long had the ice spread. There was nowhere now to go.
But the holy land was anything but deserted.
There were things; people? There were figures, standing around a fire, sheltered from the endless blizzard in a cave that shone ominously with a dark purple sheen. These figures spoke, stone-faced, solemn. All had cloaks, all had crude weapons. All of them had shapes like men.
In 2030 their voices could have only been understood by a select few.
In a time before history, they spoke words that would recur.
They spoke among themselves about war.
“All of the windborne will bear their strength upon us. I hear them whisper in the blizzard. They remember this place. They know what it means. They know the old fire is here. They want to use the old fire.”
“Let them come.”
“Heretics! They left this land faithless and now return to loot it?”
“It is they who raised the endless ice. Their foul excesses sapped the land! And now they believe they can clear the sky and see again the sun? When we who keep old fire bright are ourselves trapped under the ice shroud?”
“They believe we keep a secret strength from them. They believe if they have the old fire they can employ it to further their vicious powers.”
“So be it.”
“Do they mean to slaughter us?”
“Perhaps they can be parlayed with. When they see the holy land–”
“They know the ice is here too. They do not care.”
From among the group, one then stood, flanked by supporters.
“Let them come, yes. But they will not touch the old fire.” It said.
“Then do we accept war?”
“Not war; we use the stones. We invoke the foul timbre.” It said.
“Use the stone? Are you mad?”
Around the fire those convened grew incredulous, but the lone figure stood its ground and demanded they listen, demanded they agree.
“We will feed them all to the old flame. You know what the stone can do. We will draw them to this place, and we will strike the stone and cause the foul timbre! Feasting on them the old flame will burn brighter than ever!”
Many left the site of the fire in disgust. Many did not listen.
But enough did. Enough joined the defiant figure to fight the windborne.
And so the stones were gathered. And around the site of the old fire, came the windborne who had fled, descending upon the holy land from the four corners of the world, desperate for relief from the ice of the millenium.
There was a monumental battle. Both sides committed their most horrible powers against their enemy and left the land scarred. The windborne outnumbered the old keepers. They strode into the holy land to claim the fire and extend the age of the magic that they had come to depend upon.
Then the radicalized among the keepers employed the foul timbre.
A spreading curtain of the dark that consumed everything.
It was too high a cost for what it accomplished.
“I, who stood as a wall to the potential of man. How could I fall like this?”
Madiha awoke, cast out of Brass Face’s mind, the images she saw fading even as she tried her best to retain a hold on the information. She saw an age of ice, and she saw people (were they people?) and she saw great destruction– but it was all slipping from her fingers, all of the details. Had she known names? Had she known their intentions? Was everything just a blur of speech? She struggled to retain the context, to retain clues.
Blood trickled down her nose and over her lips.
Much of the vision was gone. Minds were not like books. Exposed to the sheer desire of Brass Face to hide history, her mind was coaxed to follow suit. Perhaps Brass Face had ESP too; perhaps it was just the nature of things. For an instant, she thought she could see the fullness of his form.
It was a flash of something terrible and inhuman. It hurt to think of it.
“I fear! I fear your steel! I fear your will! I fear what you will attain!”
Soon as the last of the black and purple jelly turned to smoke, Madiha heard another shrill psychic screech. She felt it travel down her brain stem, into her neck and spine and down her limbs. She felt the noise as if rending through reality itself. She felt a wave that traveled the world.
In the next instant, Brass Face was truly gone.
Madiha felt her body aching again. Her arms were worn down. Her legs were unsteady. She tasted the blood on her lips. She felt the blood coming from her nose, her eyes, from her ears. She could not tell whether it was the fighting or the poison or the drugs or her powers that had done it all. She had suffered so much that she wondered how she could stand at all.
Stumbling through her first few steps, Madiha regained enough of her wits fast enough to cross over the mound of rubble left in the wake of Brass Face’s exit from the meeting room, and from her own blast. She rushed back into the meeting room and found Chakrani in the corner. Descending upon the unconscious woman, Madiha took her pulse, felt her breath, raised a hand to her coldly sweating brow. Chakrani was alive.
Madiha raised a hand over her own eyes, rubbing on her own forehead. Thank the spirits; Chakrani was safe and unharmed. She had survived the madness untouched. Now she had to think of how to take her from here.
“I’m afraid you’ll be leaving her, Nakar!”
Madiha whirled around; she found Von Drachen standing in opposition.
Both of them drew their pistols at once and aimed at one another.
“Now, I am certain our truce is over!” He said.
“You’ve recovered quickly from the shock.” Madiha replied.
“I could say the same for you!” He said.
She grit her teeth. He grinned through his own. Her weapon was empty, but he did not know that — she hoped he did not. For a few seconds she expected he would shoot. She expected her breast or gut to blossom red with that final gunshot. No amount of fire would stop that at close range.
But he did not shoot. He did believe her bluff and thought her gun loaded.
Both sides kept their irons trained on the other.
“I’m not as vulnerable as I seemed in that chair.” Madiha replied.
“I do not doubt that! Of course, magic probably plays a role.”
He knew now; but that was the least of her concerns.
He was one man and Nocht would probably laugh him off.
There was no need to hide anything. She spit out what was on her mind.
“It’s not magic!” Madiha said. “It’s ESP!”
Von Drachen stared at her, blinking his eyes incredulously.
“Extra-Sensory Perception. There is science behind it!”
“Well. I see. If you say so.”
Madiha felt ridiculous. It was an incredibly surreal scene.
To think they had slain a real-live monster of legend; and yet humanity was nowhere near united even in this minor cause. They were enemies.
Behind her, Chakrani slowly seemed to wake.
She was too weak to struggle against her bonds or make any racket.
Madiha glanced briefly at her before returning to Von Drachen.
“It’s alright Chakrani.” She said. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“You’d best focus on keeping yourself safe, Colonel Nakar!”
Von Drachen raised his other hand. There was a handheld radio on it.
He flicked a switch. Madiha did not shoot; if she shot him he would shoot back immediately. They were scarcely 10 meters apart and she was very exhausted. She did not know whether she would be able to escape harm.
Even ESP did not solve everything.
“Gutierrez! Deploy with the gebirgsjager to the– Gutierrez?”
Von Drachen withdrew the radio from his ear.
Over the speaker Madiha could hear loud snoring.
There was no other response.
Von Drachen dropped the radio and sighed.
Now neither of them had any advantage or known hope of rescue.
Madiha continued to aim her weapon. Von Drachen seemed ill at ease.
“I despise standoffs, you know.” He said.
“Right. When you fall into disadvantage, anyway.” Madiha said.
“You understand that if we shoot here we will kill each other for no gain, Colonel? I’d much rather not die. How about you?” Von Drachen said.
Madiha growled. “You’re pathetic! You’re the one who instigated this!”
“I own up to that. But,” he sighed again, “this was not what I wanted!”
Madiha did not respond. She kept a stone-faced stare on Von Drachen.
“Here is what I propose.” He said. “We put away our weapons, and walk away to our respective sides. You get as far as you can in, lets say, ten minutes. I will chase after you once I have reconvened with my forces. Then we will engage in a less suicidal form of combat. What say you?”
“I have no reason to believe you’ll uphold any of that.” Madiha said.
Von Drachen shrugged with his unarmed hand.
“Colonel, I just saw you perform magic. I’m not exactly thrilled at my chances in this particular confrontation. I am quite ready to walk away.”
“Magic does not exist.” Madiha cheerlessly replied.
“It’s ESP!” Madiha shouted angrily back.
Von Drachen blinked. “Well. Sure. About my proposal–?”
“I’m considering it. You were quite enthusiastic about killing me before.”
“I was, but what is the point of killing you if I cannot live through the moment? It is a waste. We shoot each other right here and nothing will be accomplished. I desire to live Colonel Nakar! I have military goals and political goals and romantic goals for my life! Killing you is necessary to accomplish my goals, but I cannot accomplish them while dead!”
He was smiling and speaking with an excitable cadence.
She felt almost compelled to believe him.
“On that final point at least, I can relate.” Madiha said.
Von Drachen nodded his head, smiling brightly.
“Now, I understand that you might be tempted by the strategic value of killing your most deadly rival in this war; believe me, I am the same–”
Madiha interrupted him. “That has never entered my mind.”
“Excuse me, Colonel?”
Madiha sighed deeply.
“I do not hold you in any high regard.”
Madiha stared at him and took a step back. He did not shoot.
Satisfied, she held out a hand in defense.
“I accept your proposal; my life is indeed more valuable than this.”
Von Drachen stared blankly.
“Hold one second: surely you realize I am your deadliest–?”
“To me you are just another imperialist general.” She said bluntly.
There was an awkward silence.
Von Drachen suddenly threw his weapon at a wall.
He turned and walked away in a huff.
“You have ten minutes!” He shouted.
Madiha blinked. She could have shot him in the back then.
That is, if her pistol was not completely empty.
He rounded the corner out of the room and vanished.
Madiha crept forward and took his pistol.
She sighed. It, too, was empty.
Running back to the corner, Madiha withdrew a knife and a fresh gun from Jota’s corpse and cut Chakrani’s bonds. She was a little dazed; her first action with her freed hands was to rub her face and she curled up in her chair, yawning and moaning. Her head must have been swimming.
“Madiha, I’m so dizzy. Everything’s floating.”
“Calm down. We have to go.”
“Chakrani, it’s dangerous.”
Madiha could not get herself to say we’re in danger.
She did not know whether Chakrani would be worse off here or running into potential gunfire on Rangda’s streets with her. She had to get back to base; back to a world Chakrani had long since rejected along with her. Perhaps Chakrani would be better off here, in this corrupt world that had suddenly sprang around them. Perhaps she should be spared Madiha’s presence.
Madiha had to fight.
She would fight her own people.
She would do everything that Chakrani hated about her.
“Madiha, what– what happened?”
Chakrani looked around.
She spotted Jota’s corpse and covered her mouth.
“Ancestors defend!” She cried. Her eyes filled with tears.
Madiha shook her head. She could not spare a tear for that man.
“Mansa captured us. I managed to fight free of him and release you.”
“Where is he? Where is Mansa?”
“Gone. He was killed– in the collapse.”
Madiha despised lying like this, but the truth was too much to say.
“Chakrani, we need to leave.” She said, her voice quivering.
Chakrani looked about to vomit. She could hardly speak.
She struggled to form words.
“I can’t. I can’t follow you.”
She bowed her head, covering her mouth.
She avoided eye contact. Madiha could barely see her bowed face.
Madiha nodded her head silently. “I’m sorry.” She said.
She could not wait a second longer.
Armed with Jota’s gun, Madiha charged out of the meeting room, over the mound of rubble, over the inky outline on the floor that had once been Brass Face, and down the hallway. She ran as fast as her weary legs could carry her. Once more she abandoned Chakrani. She had to keep fighting.
She could not save or help or heal everyone. She was not a god-emperor.
She was just Madiha Nakar.
Even ESP had numerous limitations.
Somehow the chaos that had unfolded in the east wing had lasted only twenty minutes or so, and everyone in the rest of the Council building had strictly adhered to Mansa’s orders that the 3rd Meeting Room and all adjoining halls be left alone. Perhaps he had given that order to conceal the monster in their midst. Von Drachen had thought it innocuous at the time. Now, however, his thinking was very different. He had seen much.
Some things however had not changed much at all. Von Drachen strode down the Council Building hall into a more populated area, pushed past the aides and guards standing dumbly around, perhaps having heard the blasts from the eastern meeting rooms and wondered what was wrong. He walked nonchalantly past them and entered the room that had been given to his Cazadores company for clandestine Nochtish liaison duties.
There were a few radios, some weapon racks, and a small table.
There also he found Colonel Gutierrez sleeping in a chair, alone.
Von Drachen pulled off his own hat and struck Gutierrez with it.
In shock, the old man fell backwards with his chair and hit the ground.
“Why you do this Raul?” he cried, rolling around on the ground.
“It’s what you used to do to me when I slacked off!” Von Drachen said.
“Yes, but you were slacking off because you were undisciplined! I slack off because I am over sixty years old, mijo!” Colonel Gutierrez cried at him.
“I plan to be quite spry and aware at sixty! It’s not an excuse!”
Colonel Gutierrez glared. “You plan, mijo. And then the arthritis hits.”
Von Drachen raised his finger and began to respond.
There was a knock on the wall; the tapping of a bayonet.
At the door appeared a pair of armed Ayvartans, flanking the arriving Rangdan governor. He was sweating. Son of the regrettably late Arthur Mansa, Aksara Mansa was a tall, slender, dark-skinned man with a dire expression on his face, as if perpetually cursing the world with his eyes. He wore a dark gray suit, and cropped his curly hair close to his scalp.
There was some of his father in him at first glance.
But as soon as he spoke the illusion was quickly dispelled.
“General Von Drachen, I demand an explanation. I was to be notified when the meeting in the east wing was adjourned. And yet you return without my father, without your subordinates, and there is no word from the 3rd Meeting Room. I hesitate to disobey my father’s commands, but it appears you do not. So I ask you: What was the result? Where is Madiha Nakar?”
He had a voice that was clinical and humorless and boasted no great ego.
Nothing like that self-satisfied bastard Mansa.
Von Drachen smiled inside. Such was their obedience to the old man, that even though they must have clearly heard the grenades going off, they hesitated to seek after him until the last possible second. Von Drachen assumed there were no guards heading there even now. Nothing would have been done for hours, perhaps, had Von Drachen not himself arrived before Mansa. Madiha Nakar would have wide open passageways, so long as she kept to the east wing. She would probably notice this herself soon.
Perhaps she would appreciate a little more challenge than that.
“Madiha Nakar has killed your father and his subordinates, including that quaint fellow in the robe. I barely escaped her rampage.” He said.
Though far from the truth, Von Drachen knew he could not tell Mansa about monsters, magic and the like. That much he would reserve for Haus, though he knew the Field Marshal would not believe it. He could hardly believe it himself. No; for the young Mansa, a utilitarian lie would suffice.
It was such a good lie, Von Drachen thought, that even he wanted to believe it. Anything to distance his mind from what had transpired.
“Yes, everything was the doing of that murderess, Nakar, my Governor.”
Von Drachen needed no exaggerated affectation and no great storytelling skills. Aksara Mansa seemed immediately to believe everything he was told. His serious expression softened, his eyes grew wide, his cheeks slacked. At his sides his arms started to stir, his fingers curling.
Though he continued to deny Von Drachen, Mansa was already mourning.
“How? I don’t understand. Father said he could contain her. He said–”
“I suppose he knew how dangerous she was, or else he would not have ordered the eastern halls be given such a wide berth. We were quite lucky that the wing was deserted, though Arthur was not.” Von Drachen said.
“Explain to me how he died!” shouted the younger Mansa.
Von Drachen crossed his arms. He had Mansa ensnared.
“She escaped her bonds. Everything happened so fast. Mistakes were made. She eluded all of us. She was too quick. In the ensuing battle she bombed your father’s defenders and my own. Not even ash remains.”
“That cannot be. It is not possible. How could she–”
“She stole our grenades and killed everyone with executioner’s precision. Did you not refer to her as The Right Hand of Death? Trust me. I saw her earn that moniker tonight, Governor. She is exceedingly dangerous.”
“Have you any evidence for this?”
“One person survived. She will tell you that Nakar is fleeing as we speak.”
Though the girl might not say everything, she was clearly traumatized. As long as she said that Nakar escaped and killed someone, Von Drachen won.
“I think her name was Walters? She is worse for wear, and it would have been an impropriety for me to touch her, so you should fetch her soon.”
Somehow that seemed to do the trick.
Aksara ran his hand over his mouth and down his chin. At his side his men seemed equally shaken by the news of Arthur Mansa’s death at the hands of Madiha Nakar. Von Drachen was pleased at how easily they accepted his slightly embellished events. Though they were wary of him, they accepted Mansa’s distrust and aggression toward Nakar. She was their own blood, but the Cissean imperialist was a closer kin in spirit. He had an advantage.
At the moment he intended to push that advantage as far as possible.
“I offer my condolences, but now is not the time to mourn, Governor. You have an elite soldier now heading back to a military arsenal. She plans to make use of it against you, I am sure. I suggest you lend me your 8th Division so that we can swiftly cut her off and end the threat of her.”
In an instant, the younger Mansa’s dire expression returned.
His personal anger seemed to focus entirely on Von Drachen now.
“You failed to protect my father from that witch, and now you demand that I hand you more power to misuse? You have your own men, Cissean! If you wish to fail us again then pursue her under your own power! I will see the meeting rooms myself and determine Rangda’s next move!”
Von Drachen was left speechless.
He had not planned on this happening.
“With all due respect–”
Without a word more, Mansa pushed past his own men and out into the hall. He ran, likely toward the east wing. Stunned, his men ran after him moments later, leaving Von Drachen standing dumbly in the room, while Gutierrez helped himself to a sluggish stand using the table nearby.
Once again he was left to his own devices.
“Can no temperament ever work in my favor?” Von Drachen moaned.
He turned to Gutierrez with a sigh.
Gutierrez stared at him critically.
Von Drachen blew through his nostrils, irritated.
“I apologize for hitting you with my hat. It was a childish reflex.”
Gutierrez nodded. “I can’t stay mad at you, mijo.”
“I’m lucky at least one person can’t. Inform the rest of our men to wait ten minutes and then enter a state of high alert.” Von Drachen said.
“What? Wait ten minutes?” Gutierrez asked, raising an eyebrow.
Von Drachen rushed out of the room himself without explaining further.
He had a tank he needed to deploy now, and quickly.
“Wait ten minutes?”
“What do you think he means by that?”
“I don’t know! We usually go on alert immediately.”
“Another of the General’s schemes– hey, wait, stop!”
Madiha stepped out into the east green of the Council Building and held up her hands. She had built a lucky streak running down the halls of the Council Building, but she knew that however much Mansa had emptied the eastern interior, there were likely that many guards guarding the outside. Soon as she set foot on the ground, she had rifles aimed at her.
There were two men, Cisseans by the look of them and by their native speech, which she understood as filtered through her own. They had been patrolling around a little white-tiled path through the grass to the road. In their hands they wielded old bundu rifles with bayonets attached. They set their sights on her and she raised her hands. Neither moved closer.
“Identify yourself! Name and unit!” shouted one of the men.
His Ayvartan was excellent. Probably one of Von Drachen’s men.
She found it odd that they would not know her face.
She supposed Von Drachen’s discipline did not extend perfectly to them.
“Sneja Raj, civilian volunteer police! I’m out on patrol!” She called out.
“Bullshit! Show me your ID then, lady.”
Madiha wondered whether her reflexes could surpass theirs. Could she shoot a dart at them, and evade or deflect their shots, all at once? She did not know, and she was not inclined to attempt the maneuver. She was not desperate enough yet. But she grit her teeth in anger. She hated feeling so helpless.
“I’m getting my ID!” She said.
Both men lowered their weapons temporarily.
She reached into the inner pocket of her police coat, slowly and gently. There was nothing there. She had been stripped of her weapons and effects by Mansa and she supposed those had been vaporized along with him and his desk back there. But the movement gave her time to think.
“Hurry up lady!” they shouted.
Both men took a few threatening steps forward, their rifles held loosely in front of them as if wielded like wooden staves or clubs rather than guns.
Thinking fast, she formed a fist in her pocket and withdrew it.
In one quick motion she made as if throwing something.
Both men saw the flash of motion and panicked.
Together they stumbled to avoid the throw.
Madiha charged them.
She threw herself at the closest of the men, seized him by the waist and slammed him into the ground. Rifle and all they fell together on the grass, his helmet striking the earth hard enough to disorient him momentarily.
Madiha pulled his knife from his belt and stabbed him in the neck, tearing the blade out the side and ripping apart his throat and artery in a stroke.
Before she could turn the knife around she felt a rifle on her own neck.
She raised her hands and felt the bayonet puncture her collar and cut skin.
The remaining man cursed her in an explosive voice. “You fucking–”
From behind both of them sounded a high-pitched growl.
Madiha heard the man scream and his gun falling with a thud.
She heard him collapse on the green and the sound of ripping flesh.
She turned and saw a blur of motion as Kali mauled the man.
Its claws ripped large stripes of bloody cloth from his chest, and his struggle grew immediately weaker as its teeth closed around his neck.
In moments he had dropped dead.
Kali sat over his body and stared at her curiously.
Madiha glanced at her. She saw injuries; there were shards of glass embedded on her side and a slash mark on her belly and bruises and purple spots, where Brass Face had beaten her and imparted its cold.
“Oh no! Kali, you’re hurt! You need to go back to base–”
“Hey, what the fuck’s going on over there–”
From around the corner of the building more men appeared.
Kali leaped up into the sky, spread its wings and suddenly flew.
She descended on the men in a flurry of claws and teeth.
Madiha was torn, but she could not stay and fight. Nearly weeping, she took the opportunity and ran out into the street. She saw the long block road leading through the front of the building and into the connection to Ocean Road, and she made for it with all of her remaining strength.
Almost a dozen guards along the front green stared dumbfounded.
Most were volunteer police who scarcely knew what was happening.
But a pair of men started after her immediately, shooting as they ran.
Those must have been more of Von Drachen’s men.
Madiha covered her head and ran as fast as she could.
Lead flew around her, men screamed for her to die.
She grit her teeth, and she felt tears welling up in her eyes.
Her body ached, her head pounded, and the cacophony was unbearable.
Could she have stricken them all dead at once with ESP?
Could she have destroyed the entire building?
Could she have rained devastation down on Rangda as she did in Solstice?
No; those things would kill innocents. They could ultimately kill her.
They had done so in the past.
She hated it; she hated feeling so weak, so overwhelmed.
It was as if the power itself was screaming to be used.
But she could not simply throw it around.
Stepping out to channel fire would have exposed her to guns anyway.
Guns were by far more immediate.
Behind her she heard a loud thump and a scream.
Over her shoulder she saw Kali coming down on the running men behind her, knocking one to the ground like a boulder dropping from the heavens onto his back. With a bonecrunching slam she downed the man and took off into the sky again to gain air for a swoop against the other man. She was fighting viciously, despite her injuries, with all of her strength.
Madiha could have tapped into their minds and stopped them.
Like she had done to Brass Face. She could have swept into their heads.
That was what he would have done–
Madiha shook her head, desperate to clear it of these thoughts.
She was exhausted, stressed, tense and hurt.
Her brain would have probably turned to mush trying to control theirs.
She made it past the green and into the next city block.
Her pursuers had literally fallen behind her, harried by Kali.
Soon more would come, she knew.
She could not keep running. Not aimlessly, not like this.
She needed a strategy.
At the corner from the Council lands and a few buildings into the surrounding city she ran into a man on patrol near a shop alley.
He was not part of the volunteer police.
She saw a green uniform and immediately attacked.
Madiha tackled him down and stabbed him.
He put up no struggle.
Pulling him into cover behind the brick wall forming the alley, she took his rifle, his ammunition, his pistol, his grenades and flares. She found a first-aid kit in his bag and injected herself with a morphine shot; in his pocket there was a bag of nuts that she devoured. That would at least keep her upright for a time. Satisfied with her spoils, she returned to the street.
Overhead she saw Kali circling like a vulture.
Madiha took a knee behind a thick post-office box and waited.
If Kali could risk her life to fight then so could Madiha.
She would not set this city on fire to win.
She would not rely on her ESP alone and would not use it wantonly.
She was exhausted with false victories and the toll they took.
Those things she left to the dead tyrant Ayvarta.
She was Madiha Nakar and Madiha Nakar had made a decision.