52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building
Gaul Von Drachen had found himself listening to the rantings of a very ill man.
There was no other way he could put it. Mansa was troubled. He needed help.
No help was being offered. Nobody in the room made any kind of response.
He had the floor entirely to himself. Mansa stood triumphant, farcically sure of himself.
Gone was the reserved gentleman he had seen before. Had it all been an act?
Given one shred of a larger victory, Mansa confidently allotted himself the whole war.
And then-some; he alloted himself several other vast metaphysical concepts.
“Empress, I know of your abilities and I intend for you to use them. It is high time that Magic revive in this world and rejoin the powers of humanity. No longer shall it hide–”
The Councilman continued to goad the girl in this bizarre fashion.
She did not respond to his provocations.
She was not responding to anything. In fact her mouth seemed to hang.
“Hold on one moment.”
Von Drachen raised his hand as if in a classroom.
Mansa seemed irritated to have to respond to him.
“Yes, General Drachen?”
At this barbarity, Von Drachen found he had to postpone his questioning momentarily.
He wanted to ask him if Ayvarta’s magical scholars had any headway on this issue.
He knew well, however that none of the world’s universities had.
So he tackled the bigger issue instead.
“My good man, I believe I have said, many a time, that it is Von Drachen. We are not animals, Councilman! We have civilization and technology! And yet, what holds us above the beasts are the simple acts of courtesy embedded in our shared language for communication–”
“General Von Drachen, can you not see we have an honored guest?”
Mansa gestured toward the unresponsive body of Madiha Nakar, who to Von Drachen’s knowledge had not made an independent movement in what seemed like a half hour now. She was more of a verbal pummeling dummy than a person, much less an Empress.
Suddenly Mansa turned his ravings from Colonel Nakar and onto him.
“When I reached out to you I thought you were a disciplined military commander who had led the war machine of Nocht to countless victories! And yet, you appear as a child who cannot control his mouth and mannerisms! Would you at least defer to the adults?”
Von Drachen frowned pointedly. It was not an expression he made often in company.
“Well Councilman, I thought you a serious man of politics, and that is why against all counsel I agreed to the offer your infiltrators made to me. I could have shot all of your men and left the undecideds to rot in cages under the rain, but instead I came all this way to participate in what has, so far, been nothing but pointless theater. And now you have punctuated this sorry display of conspiracy with a stream of complete nonsense fairy tales.”
Their voices reverberated. Von Drachen was in the Council Building still — there was even a window here. It was not a place he would have chosen for an interrogation. He wasn’t even in a basement: it was Meeting Room #3, he had heard. Much of this wing of the Council Building had been cleared out for their purposes. They had a long window in the middle of the room, carpets, banners. They removed the tables, save for one, behind which Mansa had calmly sat before Nakar was delivered to be taunted and jeered at.
Though he had ridden in with the collaborating Ayvartan forces, Von Drachen had staunchly refused to throw himself solely on their mercy. Infiltrating with him was a Cazadores company, and of those men he brought two into this meeting. Mansa had with him a young man and a woman, both tall and rough-looking sorts, like gangsters. They stood unmoved by the presence of Mansa’s unannounced third man, a tall, thin kind of person who wore a humorous, shiny yellow mask, perhaps made of brass, and was wrapped in frayed black cloth parchments like a man out of an ancient coffin.
Von Drachen questioned his sense of style, but said nothing.
He did not want to seem culturally insensitive.
Then there were the captives with them. He knew Colonel Nakar, but there was another girl brought in and set aside in a corner. She was rather pretty, with ringlets in her hair and an office uniform. Before Mansa began his theater in earnest, she had been knocked out by the beefy woman in the room and had remained unconscious since then.
All of this was mostly as it should be, he supposed.
It was the room’s discussion that currently troubled him the most.
Over the course of his military career Von Drachen had heard many bizarre statements. Military organization bred a certain distance from reality. For example, whenever Von Sturm invented dates and projections for when his campaigns would see success — Von Drachen tended to file those into a mental bin labeled ‘nonsense.’ In his short time among the traitorous Ayvartans, however, he had heard more scandal out of mouths than ever before.
Unable to sort out what was going on, Von Drachen casually addressed the room.
“How many of you are in on this nonsense? Do you all believe this fool?”
He pointed at Mansa, who scowled back at him.
Nobody but the two Cazadores he brought to the meeting seemed to care.
Everyone was suddenly aware of the one voice missing from this exchange.
Mansa silently ordered the man accompanying him to inspect the so-called Empress.
When Mansa’s man pulled the blindfold off Nakar, she was unresponsive.
Her eyes were spread wide open but her gaze was blank and glassy.
“Oh no. That looks undignified.”
Von Drachen approached her and waved his hand in front of her face. Her eyes did not track his movements at all. He snapped his fingers next to her ear, and her cold, sweating body did not react at all. Her face started to slump, but her eyes remained hauntingly open. He put a hand on her neck and felt an erratic pulse. She was not dead.
“Is it a psychotic episode?” Von Drachen asked. Though he found Nakar’s extermination to be unfortunately quite necessary, he could not help but feel a human compassion and worry toward someone who seemed to be in such incredible distress at the moment. Mansa had drugged her, normally an interrogation technique, though this was more an interrogation in reverse at the moment; and then he browbeat her with his fantasies.
Mansa was unfazed her condition. For someone who purported to be obsessed with the imperial royalty, he treated her not like a treasure but more like a living punching bag.
“It may be residual, from the toxin. Give her a stimulant.” He callously said.
At the back of the room, the woman of Mansa’s entourage procured a needle from the table and filled it with some transparent fluid. Indelicately, she stuck the implement in Nakar’s neck and injected her with the substance. This had an immediate effect. Her whole body shook and then straightened out in a grizzly fashion. Gasping for breath, Nakar’s head bobbed forward and back and she struggled with her bonds. She slowly settled down, and her gaze seemed more substantial and aware as the moment passed.
She cast eyes around the room, her breathing quickened sharply.
“Madiha, are you more aware now?” Mansa asked.
His voice was falsely sweet, and he spoke as if familiar with her.
Her eyes wearily tracked the man’s hand as he snapped his fingers at her.
Though she was clearly awake, she still did not respond to him. Judging by her face she was still disoriented, in a state of near-panic. Hearing Mansa’s story must have had a profound effect on her state of mind. Von Drachen knew nothing of her willpower, but such a revelation out of anyone’s mouth, and in such a crooked situation as this, would probably set even the most stout mind down a dark path. He felt a great pity for her.
And that injection could not have helped matters.
Mansa let the silence go on for a time before he stepped up to resume his speech.
“Listen well to me, Madiha. My political career has not been for naught here. You may think me mad but I do not act randomly. I have always gravitated to where the power is. Power creates stability. During the Empire the power lay not with the Emperor but in the wealth of the nation. In the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, power does not lie with the ideology of the state but with the system of its laws. Smart men go where the power is.”
He produced again the object he had been waving before. It was like a die, a cube, small enough to fit in his hand. Swirling within the cube was a spherical darkness around a tiny, flickering flame that produced much more light than its volume would suggest it should. Von Drachen had never seen its like. This was the kind of trinket that almost made one believe in the Magic that estranged scholars struggled to return to the world.
But it was not magic just like Madiha Nakar was not an Empress. Von Drachen knew that in this world there always a lie to be found within promises of grandeur and power.
“It was the power of Solstice that allowed me to carve out my little portion of the military to use here, and that gave me access to documents that shed some light on the events preceding the rise and fall of Kanawe Ayvarta. Now, I have seen that there is a new power, a greater power. You could even say it is a higher power. I knew since the fall of the Empire that there was a void that true, unimpeachable power could fill. That drove my curiosity. I knew there was a hidden history to our lives. You are that history.”
Whatever Mansa was seeing, he did not convey it convincingly enough for the General.
“You are confusing history for mythology, Councilman.” Von Drachen said.
Nevertheless, as he had all night, Mansa continued to talk with almost frothing fervor.
Again, Von Drachen found himself sidelined.
“Though I had an inkling of awareness of your power before, it was during Bada Aso that I realized I had to accelerate my plans with hundredfold speed. I must admit, I expected you to fail. I started to lose my younger, fanciful mind and lost my sense to stoic pragmatism. I saw the forces arrayed before you, and saw what you had at hand. I expected to use your failure to bolster my political position and perhaps even to seek my own premiership. Seeing the devastation you unleashed, I knew I had to move in on you, no matter the cost. It was confirmed to me; only Magic could have done this.”
Madiha raised her head and sat back against her chair. She breathed in and sighed.
Mansa smiled, and spoke more pointedly after seeing her more animated state.
“Knowing what you do now, Madiha, can you continue to struggle?” He asked. “Would you do to other cities what you did to Bada Aso in order to protect the doomed Solstice? Properly aided you can nurture a power that could end all of this. You can reign over this continent and bring the pax austri that the world is screaming out for. What do you say?”
“I’m going to kill you.” Madiha said, her voice cracking with rising emotion.
Von Drachen found himself smiling admiringly at her resolve.
“Cute.” Mansa replied. He scowled at her, despite his quick retort. “What do you really intend to do, Empress? You cannot possibly return to the Socialist Dominances of Solstice now. You are a walking contradiction! These people ignorantly see you as the hero of their propaganda! And yet, you undermine your system by merely existing, do you not? You are no proletarian lionheart. In your blood there are conquerors and kings! This system exists to purge you! Upon knowing the truth, would not the masses hate you? Anyone hearing this conversation, with a socialist strength of character, would hate you.”
“Stop asking me the same things. I already said what I would do to you.”
She was starting to sound as irate as Mansa sounded delirious.
“You cannot kill me. You cannot even move from that chair without my consent. Empress, I am promising you the power to bring peace to our people. Do you want to continue to witness a war you are likely to lose from its front lines? Or do you want to spare your people this suffering from the seat of power? With my aid you can unite our people and wipe all of your enemies from the very face of Aer. Please reconsider.”
He raised the cube again as if to thrust it against her face. As if it meant anything to her.
Von Drachen turned to face Madiha, who looked past him with fiery determination.
“Swallow your trinket and shit it out, you pathetic coward!”
Her voice strained from the violent tone of her voice.
“I’m sick to death of these godsdamned fantasies! Everybody projects on me and defines who I am; it’s not fair! It’s not fair that this keeps happening! I’m sick of the Hero of the Border and the Right Hand of Death; I’m sick of the Warlord! I’m sick of people coming up with names for me that I never chose to have and I do not want to live up to! I’m sick of your delusions, Mansa! You should have focused your disgusting obsessions on unearthing child graves instead of day-dreaming about me!” Madiha shouted.
She started trying to jump in her seat, like a rabid dog raring to bite at the sight of flesh.
Her eyes flashed wildly with a great depth of hatred.
Even when they fought back in Bada Aso, Von Drachen had never seen her like this.
She was well and truly furious. He could believe she would kill this man on the spot.
“You are nothing without those things, Madiha Nakar! Your chosen name is a falsity invented by convent records; your ideology is the parroted words of Daksha Kansal! You are a fabrication; the only thing real is your blood and power!” Mansa shouted back.
“Then after walking over your corpse I will invent a real Madiha!” She shouted back.
Her eyes were filled with tears but her whole body was shaking with rage.
“I am not some myth! I am only Madiha Nakar and I swear on this earth I will make you suffer; your soul will continue to burn even after death, if you do not surrender to me!”
Mansa took a step back, perhaps in shock. He sighed deeply, rubbing his face.
Von Drachen chuckled. She was not a graceful speaker, but she was energetic.
Amid the shouting match, he finally found a space to interject.
“You understand the peril of your position, don’t you Councilman? The Nochtish invasion is predicated on the claim of Mary Trueday as the symbolic ruler of the Ayvartan people. The Lehner administration will not take kindly to a second claim; and acting as their representative, neither can I.” Von Drachen said. He was not very concerned for the non-military elements of this war, at the moment, but he had to uphold his sworn duty.
Mansa turned his scowl back on him from the champing and frothing Madiha.
“What are you insinuating, you ridiculous man? What can you do?”
“Magic or no, Empress or no, Nocht is not amenable to your position. You seem to be proposing the tolerable creation of a third faction. There will be no such thing. We will destroy you as we plan to destroy the Socialist Dominances of Solstice.” Von Drachen said. “I came here because you were joining our side. You cannot now make your own. Echoing the young lady, I am afraid I will have to put an end to you myself if she cannot.”
For his trouble, Von Drachen found himself suddenly face to face with the masked man.
It had appeared in front of him as if from out of a smokescreen, one second behind Nakar and the next in front of him. He had not even seen a blur. It was simply there.
Mansa spoke again with the calm, callous demeanor Von Drachen found more familiar.
“General Von Drachen, I must thank you for releasing my 8th Division back to me. Though it appears I have drastically erred, I still have more troops than either you or Colonel Nakar. I have plenty of time and plenty of different means to help to mold our dear Empress Nakar into the wise and useful ruler I know that she can be. But you, unfortunately, have proven quite redundant. It’s a pity. Know that I did not want this.”
He almost seemed to speak as if trying to convince and calm himself down about this.
Just another part of the theater? Von Drachen could no longer tell his motives or senses.
And from word one he knew not what to make of the brass mask.
He felt a chill coming from it that was disturbing to his very core.
“Big guy, aren’t you?” He said.
There was no response from the being.
In front of Von Drachen, the sleeves of the brass-faced man’s garments burst outward from the rest of the parchment, wrapping around flesh that seemed as if newly sprouted.
Cold blue claws flexed with anticipation. On his mask, the design of a sharp, rising and falling wave-line seemed to twist and warp with a hissing, barely audible laughter.
Sighing with exasperation, Von Drachen drew a pistol and his men loyally followed.
At once the masked man reared his arms back as if it were stretching them out.
“Kill him and then find the rest of his men and take them at your leisure–”
Mansa’s order to the creature was interrupted as the window burst into pieces.
Like a cannonball something shot through and slammed into the masked man.
Together the intruder and the masked man fell into a rolling melee. Something long and scaly and snarling bit and clawed and thrashed with Mansa’s enforcer smashing him into the far wall behind Nakar and tearing chunks out of his body. Visible white vapor like cold breaths burst from every wound in place of blood, and the masked man shrieked.
In that instant, Mansa and his supporters were exposed.
Pistols were going up on all sides; everyone was targeting everyone.
It would get bloody.
Von Drachen had only one chance and one shot to escape the likely result of this mess.
He had to take someone out before anyone else could shoot.
In less than a second his mind seemed to make the decision for him.
Though he was pained to let other opportunities go, he pulled the trigger on Mansa.
“Don’t kill me yet, Nakar.” Von Drachen shouted.
His shot struck the man’s hand. He flinched and screamed and waved broken fingers.
From his grip the rough-hewn black die slipped and dropped.
His subordinates struggled to escape its vicinity, but everything happened too fast.
Von Drachen heard the object shatter like a vast window meeting a pulverizing death.
He knew not what it would do, but the noise told him he had chosen correctly.
It made a sound too great and terrible for such a small trinket.
Then there was an unnatural, sudden shadow, like a flash of black inky darkness.
For a brief second he saw an expanding sphere around the feet of the enemy.
It consumed Mansa and the desk and the woman that was near him.
Von Drachen blinked, and the two disappeared from the world.
Beneath where their feet had been was a hole about a meter in diameter.
On a nearby wall there was a perfectly symmetrical crater the same size.
Had the shadow swallowed them whole? Had it vacuumed in part of the wall too?
Mansa’s remaining man stood speechless. His face contorted with grief.
Behind them the monstrous thing standing off against the dragon howled suddenly.
In the next instant, Madiha Nakar’s eyes flashed with fire.
She stood weakly from the chair she had been confined in, her bonds burnt off.
Her breathing was heavy and her voice was spent. But she did not strike the Cisseans.
“You’ve earned yourself a few minutes of my clemency, Drachen.” She murmured.
“It is Von Drachen! Von Drachen!” He shouted helplessly.