This scene contains graphic violence and body horror.
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.