Stelle Cadenti (59.4)

This scene contains violence and death and descriptions of injury.

City of Rangda — Contested Airspace

All of a sudden the skies around the Elleth had started to rumble.

Much of the flight had been quiet, but something had awoken the Ayvartans to the fight.

Even inside the craft they could hear the pounding of anti-aircraft explosives, the popping of small automatic flak, the booming of heavy high-altitude anti-air guns. The Elleth rocked with every close miss of an explosive shell. Lydia could not see outside its walls, but she knew that the wooden glider craft would splinter immediately on any too-close hit.

Then a violently loud noise, deafening even inside the craft.

Something much larger had exploded with a much greater force than any shell.

Likely one of their allied craft, overloaded with fuel.

Once more the door to the cockpit flew open. Through the gap, the pilot was a shadow, lit by flashing explosions that cast horrifying light into the gloomy interior of the Elleth.

“Gunfire’s too rough up here! We’re going to descend right now!”

“Where on?” Lydia shouted back. She was the only Knight to speak up.

“Somewhere over Northern Rangda! I don’t know! Just sit tight!”

Once more the door to the Elleth’s cockpit closed, and again the fate of these noble girls was taken from their hands, to be decided by fate and by the pilot in charge of the glider.

At once the girls fastened their safety belts. Those already fastened were tightened.

Lydia gripped her myrta helplessly. Parachute training taught her that her weapon should be quickly and safely secured after inspection, in case a quick jump was ever suddenly necessary. But there was no opening an Elleth in-flight — the glider’s ramp door was so heavy and unwieldy it would likely go flying if its locks came undone in-flight, and it would likely take a chunk of the wall with it. Their parachutes weren’t for actual parachuting. They were a placebo. Elleth gliders landed, burst in mid-air or crashed.

They never released parachutists into the air. They were never meant to.

She glanced at her side. Gwen had a stubborn look on her face, staring forward at the floor.

“How are you holding up?” Lydia whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said. “I’ve never feared for my life. It isn’t that valuable.”

Her hands were shaking, however.

Lydia felt a tightening claw around her heart and turned her head.

As she did so, she saw some of the unused seatbelts at the other end of the craft, near the cockpit door, start rising; and immediately, she felt the craft start tilting into a sharp descent. Within moments the Elleth went into a dive. For the inexperienced girls among them the dive generated immediate panic. Beneath the screaming of the juniors, the women (or perhaps just older girls) closed their eyes and held their breaths. Had they been in a powered aircraft, a sudden dive was certainly something to fear. It often meant a damaged engine or propeller. But the Elleth had neither. This was its ultimate purpose.

Rarely did a glider achieve a graceful landing. They hit dirt so human flesh wouldn’t.

Its ignominious death, dashed upon the Ayvartan pavement, meant their own survival. Or so it was hoped. Lydia could only pray the Elleth would be a shield and not a coffin.

Unpowered, the glider’s speed was limited, and even its dive was far slower than that of a conventional craft. Lydia closed her own eyes, and reached out a hand to Gwen, awaiting either their end or the beginning of the long Elven conquest of the Ayvartan coast.

She found no hand there during the moments she scrabbled for one, just before the crash.

In an instant, the glider seemed to level, then shake.

Lydia jerked forward and back, striking the wall. Gwen seemed like she would go flying were it not for her seat belt. All around them the knights thrashed in their seats as the craft jumped and skipped like a rock over water — a wooden rock over hard, concrete water. Each rise and fall of the craft was followed by a striking noise like a gunshot ringing in Lydia’s ears. Her heart leaped in time with the jerking of the craft, and her eyes were open as if pried so, every second seeming like it would end in a darkness eternal.

She would have screamed if she had any breath to spare within the violence.

There was a noise like shredding paper.

From the opposite end of the glider a blond woman launched suddenly into the aisle running between the seats, and slid across the floor in an instant. There was look on her face first of surprise and then of horror as her belt ripped. Two girls shrieked and edged aside suddenly in abject fright; the woman’s head smashed against the wall between them. She crumpled, sliding down onto the floor, her arm twitching, blood spattered on the wall and pooling over her own face and splashed over the armor of the screaming girls.

“Blood! Queen protect us, there’s blood!” they shouted in a delicate panic.

Everything happened so fast Lydia hardly knew who anyone was in the commotion.

Then there was one final jerk that squeezed the wind out of Lydia’s body.

With a great screeching cry like nails on a chalkboard the craft came to an abrupt stop.

Gwen clung on to her safety belt as though she expected the plane to move again.

Lydia quickly unbuckled herself, gasping for breath, and dove onto the aisle, crawling close to the fallen woman. She pulled up her hair from her face, and found her horribly bloody, with a purple-tinged gash on her forehead. So much blood had caked in her hair and her face that it was hard to tell who she even was. She had impacted a steel bolt on the wall.

She did not know where all her sudden strength had come from, but Lydia recalled what needed to be done and without thinking about the fear and horror, she began to act.

“She’s unresponsive! She needs an injection now!” Lydia cried out.

Immediately she tore off the woman’s molded breastplate, ripped her uniform open, and began to pump on her chest. She counted to ten, raised the woman’s head, and put her lips to the dying woman’s own, forcing air into her system. As she rose to pump her hands once more, Lydia realized that nobody else in the crashed glider had even made a move. They were all staring at her in shock, even the women and girls with medic armbands.

“What are you waiting for? She needs to have her heart started now!” Lydia shouted.

Everyone stared between themselves in wide-eyed confusion.

Then, from behind Lydia, a gentle hand plunged without grace a needle into the woman’s heart, and pressed down on one end. Powerful drugs contained in the needle directly entered the woman’s heart. Without a moment’s hesitation, Lydia started to pump again.

She looked briefly over her shoulder and realized it was Gwen who had done the deed.

Moments later, the drug having began to accelerate her heart, the woman twitched and shook and coughed and showed thrashing, agonizing signs of life. She did not wake — she could not after such a terrible blow to her brain. But her heart started and lungs pumped, and the rhythm of the living returned to her. Gwen brought a bandage and quickly plugged up the wound as best as she could. Lydia searched through the woman’s possessions and found, to her horror, that this pale, half-dead elf was their commanding officer.

“I guess we’re in charge.” Gwen said with a deep sigh.

By virtue of being the only sign of life in the glider, Lydia reasoned Gwen was right.

“Could you tell them something?” Gwen said softly. “I’m no good at this.”

Lydia nodded. She looked to the other women. “We’re moving out! Staying here is a death sentence right now. Pick up your kit and anything useful in the plane’s stocks!”

This, it seemed, the knights were ready to do.

While everyone mechanically prepared themselves for the march, Lydia raised the wounded woman to a seated position, and started toward the front of the craft.

Lydia quickly found that she could not open the cockpit door.

“Hey, pilot, we’re moving out! Are you wounded? We could use your help carrying–”

As she spoke, she tested the door, and in the next instant, knocked it off its hinges.

Lydia stepped aside, and the wooden board came crashing down.

On the other side, there was only a mound of rubble.

Shaking her head at the mounting death toll, Lydia made her way to the side of the plane and tried the ramp. If it could not clear, then they could very well be trapped inside the Elleth. One good molotov cocktail would then be all it took to kill all of them. She tested the lever, found it compliant, and managed to get the ramp almost all the way open.

Light streamed into the Elleth. Lydia looked back at the women, hefted her light machine gun, and tentatively stepped out of the glider to survey the territory in this new world.

Outside, the city was in chaos. Overhead the sky was equal parts black, red and blue and dotted with the thousand aircraft of the kingdom’s Operazione Millenio as they hurtled through the unfriendly skies. Long lines of parachutists trailed down from the fiery sky toward the city. Heavy, fuel-laden bombers and interceptors acted as escort planes and glider tows and troop transports, crossing and then circling around the city to find a place for their payloads, or in ill-fated attempts to bring their half-loaded guns to bear.

As many or more took the brunt of seemingly thousands of rounds anti-air fire.

Great clouds of thick black smoke from ignited fuel canisters, acted as the airborne craters of successful shell impacts on their heaviest planes. It was a massacre. All she had to do was crane her head and Lydia witnessed first-hand the death that befell numerous other planes. She spotted a heavy bomber, laden with parachutists and extra fuel and nothing in the way of defenses, swoop over the city. She watched as a dozen lancing shots sailed past it from the ground, exploding into anti-air fragments. One bright red tracer sailed closer.

Clipping the under-slung spare fuel tanks, the shell triggered a monumental explosion.

It was a flash that illuminated Lydia’s astonished face, and even glowed inside the Elleth.

In an instant all of the bomber’s fuselage was blown to diminutive pieces, hidden in a black cloud, massive and dense. Then its nearly-intact wings fell haphazardly to earth.

Gliders, interceptors, bombers, transports, all of the thousand were in grave danger.

Shaking her head, ripping her eyes from the horror, Lydia surveyed the surroundings.

The Elleth had miraculously slid across a smooth double-wide street without breaking apart completely, its right wing ripping through cheap wood and stucco facades like a knife. Judging by its slashed trail across the ground, the glider crossed an intersection, where its unfortunate cockpit smashed directly into a building with real masonry.

That had spelled the pilot’s end, and the start of the Knight’s campaign.

She saw no Ayvartan troops in the vicinity, and ordered the girls to exit.

One by one the girls stormed out, rifles in hand, bayonets affixed, with Gwen out first and then standing by the door to offer direction. They formed up around the Elleth, covering every direction while Lydia took stock of the situation. One pair of girls carried the wounded officer with them. Knights never left behind their own if they could bring them.

“They’re ready for your orders, Lady Paladin Lycenia.” Gwen said.

“Acknowledged, Lady Paladin Vittoria.” Lydia replied.

Gwen wilted and turned her eyes. Around her, the knightly girls seemed astonished.

Formed up and in a readied stance, the girls awaited orders.

As Lydia made up her mind on what orders to even give, her thoughts and the beginnings of her speech were drowned out by a plane, zooming by overhead, closer than the others.

From its side hatch a line of two dozen parachutes bloomed open like white flowers.

Paratroops, probably from the 7th Cheshire. Fortuitous; they could link up.

But no sooner had Lydia entertained the idea that it was literally shot from the sky.

In horror the girls watched as dozens of flashing red lances sliced through the riflemen in the sky. Loud reports of anti-aircraft fire heralded the explosions and violence; the parachutists were singled out and minced. Heavy shells exploded among them, burning many parachutes and maiming several bodies. Smaller shot methodically punctured men and left the victims limp, dripping dolls, a macabre sight falling gently toward the earth.

This, too, was a fate that could easily be repeating all across the city.

One of the knights seemed about to scream but was gagged by her peers.

“Shit!” Lydia shouted. There were gasps from around her. She turned suddenly to the platoon. “We need to take out those anti-aircraft guns or we’ll be the only ones touching ground on this god-forsaken turf! We’ll spread out in columns through the buildings!”

Several of the knights looked at each other briefly in response.

“How do you know we can even reach those guns?” one incredulous girl asked.

Gwen confidently interrupted. “Because we heard them shoot. They’re not very far.”

Lydia nodded, and appreciated the unbidden support.

It seemed enough that a Vittoria gave a word in confidence.

In good time, the knights divided into squadrons, and began to move.

Lydia looked to Gwendolyn as they marched, marveling at how quickly her perfect lady seemed to become a stately soldier when under the right pressure. She wondered what compelled the two of them, what had baked the fearful clay in their hearts so suddenly. Whether every woman who had ever been trapped in a foreign land responded in kind.

Whether Gwen wanted to protect her as much as she wanted to protect Gwen.

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