This chapter contains violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Ave.
Inside the medical tent the entry curtains stirred and spread at her behest, and behind them, Corporal Gulab Kajari found a familiar pale-haired, dark-skinned girl with a very blank expression, sitting alongside a nurse. Gulab smiled and stretched her arms wide.
“Hey! Guess who’s back? Gimme a hug!” Gulab called out amicably.
Charvi Chadgura almost leaped from atop the stretcher and seized upon Gulab, resting her head on the woman’s chest and surprising her with her energy. Despite the empty look to her eyes and the neutral setting of her lips, Charvi’s affection and relief was evident in the dead-tight grip she had on Gulab’s chest, and in her gentle, almost purr-like stirring.
“Well, it works, but it feels more like you’re clinging than hugging.” Gulab said.
“I want to cling.” Charvi replied. Her unaffected monotone remained the same too.
She closed her arms around Charvi’s shoulders and back and nestled with her.
“See, I’m perfectly ok.” Gulab said.
“I was still worried. You nearly died.”
“Hmph! Nearly nothin’! If a Rock Bear can’t kill me, nothing can!”
“I will still worry.”
Behind them, the nurse watched with a patient, smiling face.
Gulab caught sight of her over Charvi’s shoulder and felt self-conscious for a moment.
“Anyway, you should get yourself fixed up.”
She gently separated herself from Charvi, who looked at her in the eyes and blinked.
“Nothing is wrong with me.” Charvi said.
Interjecting, the nurse raised her hand with a concerned expression.
“Actually comrade, you have a fragment wound in your leg that should be cared for.”
Looking down, Gulab found torn cloth and seeping blood near Charvi’s knee.
“You should get that taken care of.” Gulab insisted.
“It’s fine.” Charvi said. “I don’t feel pain.”
“Infection respects no hero, comrade.” replied the nurse. “I must clean it at least.”
Gulab chuckled at Charvi’s casual obstinancy. She clearly wanted to spend time with her now that there was a hard-won instant of calm after all they had gone through. Gulab appreciated it; she wanted to be by Charvi’s side too, even if they did nothing more than sit down and sleep against each other’s shoulders in the back of a truck back to base.
“Nurse, would it be okay if I just stayed here?” Gulab asked.
“I don’t see why not!” said the nurse, smiling.
“Well then.” Gulab nodded to the nurse. “Charvi, I’ll be right here, so get patched up.”
Charvi clapped her hands gently.
“If you say so.”
The Nurse found Gulab a seat, and she sat back to watch the nurse snip away part of Charvi’s pants leg and dab her wound gently with a saline solution to clean it. Gulab watched the procedure with a placid smile, but her mind was mostly empty of thought. She was coming down from the rush and panic of the previous battle. She felt an eerie sense of satisfaction. A lot had gone wrong — she had been hurt, Charvi had been hurt, and many of their comrades suffered worse. However, they managed to pull through.
They protected so many others, and worked together to defeat an enemy that was vicious, numerous and ostensibly prepared for battle. Despite everything, they had won.
Gulab herself had hunted a giant; almost in the way that her ancestors always had.
Though she hated her interaction with that tradition, she realized that sometimes the giants were hunted because they could kill the people you love, and not for its own sake. She felt that she would fight any enemy to safeguard the people she cared about. For her comrades; for people like Adesh and the kids, or Caelia and Danielle; for Charvi. Anyone who would hurt them, who would hurt innocents; if she could hunt them then she would.
She felt a burden start to lift in that regard. Maybe even that side of her was not indelibly her father’s, not indelibly owned by men. Maybe it could be a part of her as a woman too.
Maybe it didn’t all have to end up like it did with her grandfather.
“All done! You were a swell patient, Sergeant.”
Charvi stood up from the stretcher and waved a hand at the nurse as a quiet thanks.
Her knee was wrapped in a big patch with a red blotch on it, but she could walk.
Gulab stood from her seat, and stretched her arms. She felt a hint of drowsiness.
“I think we’ve earned a bite and a long, quiet truck ride to the barracks, no?” She said.
“We have. I can go see how my stamp book is doing.” Charvi said.
“Where did you leave it?”
“I left it with the company commissary, back at the base. They have waterproof lockers.”
“Someday I’m going to make you a case for that thing.”
“Yup! You wouldn’t know it, but I’m pretty handy with leather.”
Chatting idly, they walked outside the tent and down the road.
The University and its surroundings felt like they had completely transformed.
After the fall of Muhimu Shimba the Lion Battalion was quickly mopped up. Lion’s remaining troops overwhelmingly surrendered outright; though they had no way of knowing their commander had been defeated, the presence of enemy forces in Muhimu Shimba was enough to break their faith. It became clear that at Lion’s last stand only a fraction of the battalion’s remaining troops were present. Had the entire battalion rallied the battle would have been bloodier; had the Jotun remained in place, it might have become a temporary rout. In the heat of the moment, everything had become hectic and improvisational but they managed to win out regardless. Now the location was theirs.
University Avenue had become the nerve center of the 2nd Battalion’s operations. Its logistics train back to Colonel Nakar’s HQ was solidified and trucks were coming and going unmolested, carrying troops and support personnel to and fro. Tents for the medics and signals personnel and computer support teams had begun to sprout, many hidden within or between buildings for some cover from enemy spotters. Burundi’s organic artillery support had begun to arrive too. Gulab spotted the light howitzers, towed in by truck, setting up in groups of three in a little sitting park along the way down from the medical tent. Broken-down buildings, damaged in the fighting, were used to conceal ammunition.
There was a lot of hustle and bustle. Not everyone could breathe as easy as she yet.
Though the battle raged on in spirit, it was no longer Gulab’s battle to fight now.
It was expected that Gulab and Charvi and their comrades would be rotated out for fresher troops. She had been given to understand that she could expect to fight much longer battles in the future, but to survive today against the 8th’s numerical advantages they needed troops to maintain a “high combat quality.” So rotations for rest were necessary. This was especially necessary for prized veterans like herself, who were invaluable.
Gulab had puffed up her chest quite a bit upon hearing such accolades.
But the promise of sleep and food was much more important at the moment.
Quietly basking in each other’s orbit, the pair sidled up to a fresh truck, newly arrived and with an empty bed, and climbed up onto the back, maneuvering around a machine gun on a mount grafted to the center of the bed, no doubt in haste. They sat with their backs to metal and their rumps on the cold floor. Gulab felt a little sleepy as soon as she took her body weight off her legs. Everything she had done in the past few hours seemed to have finally caught up to her, now that she had allowed it. She leaned against Chadgura.
“Hey, if you’re awake, lemme know when we get back to base.”
“I wanna grab some hot lentils before they’re out a batch, you know?”
“I will keep my eyes open.”
“Oh no, you should sleep too! I just mean, if you happen to be awake.”
Chadgura clapped her hands softly.
They waited in the truck, while more people arrived from around the block with their weapons and remaining ammunition in tow, sitting in whatever truck was closest or fancied them best. Gulab began to nod off. Whenever she blinked, she held her eyes in darkness longer each time, and felt she could see more and more of a dream each time.
Each glimpse of the horizon, briefer and briefer, put into stark relief a group of shadows.
They could have been specks of dust, so distant were they, or mere tricks of the light and the dreaming dark upon Gulab’s eyes. But their movement was predictable and relentless in the way only physical things could achieve, utterly lacking the whimsy of a fantasy. As they came closer and closer, as the mite-like shadows gained definite form and began to issue noise and part the clouds they sailed through, the drowsy Gulab started to realize she was seeing something materially real; and that she was not the only witness.
Slowly, across one street and then another, heads began to turn, eyes began to climb.
Everyone measured the sky and found objects fast approaching.
Visions of Bada Aso returned unbidden to the collective unconscious of the Regiment.
At first stupefied, the various units around University were joined under a singular call:
“AIRCRAFT APPROACHING! Sound the air raid sirens and find shelter!”
This call came not from a Major or a Lieutenant but a Sergeant in charge of a spool of telephone wire. Nonetheless, everyone was all too eager to comply, despite the lack of an air raid siren or any formal shelter — this was not Bada Aso. Soon Gulab found the truck around her emptying suddenly, and similar trucks as well. There was a mad rush away from open space and into the buildings. Doors to places left inviolate after the fighting, were finally kicked to the floor; everyone dispersed into the shops and galleries.
Gulab finally snapped from her half-awake stupor. Aircraft. Air Raid.
“Charvi!” She cried out.
At her side, Charvi had stood upright and was looking over the walls of the truck.
“Excuse me,” she said aloud, trying to get the attention of running passersby.
Nobody answered her, and the dispersing troops made every effort to get as far away as they could from the sight of the aircraft during their brief moment of leaderlessness.
Gulab grabbed her belt and helped herself to stand.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
Charvi looked at her, blank-faced as usual.
“Wondering what our orders will be now.” She said.
To her seeming confusion, nobody appeared to have orders to give as the aircraft overflew their skies with relative impunity. Gulab watched her comrades dispersing, and having never been under the bombs in Bada Aso, she wondered what she could now do.
City of Rangda — Approaching Rangdan Airspace
Sitting inside the Elleth troop glider was like being imprisoned in a hanging cage. Not all of them were imprisoned — Lydia knew that for some, this was liberating. For her, and for one other, she knew it was not a choice they could have ever made, not really. For a lady Knight of her predilection, it was either this sacrifice, or a lifetime of other sufferings.
The Elleth was the largest of the gliders flying from the Higwe. Despite its awe-inspiring size, its interiors were tight and rattling, and the floor beneath her feet felt unsteady and loose. There were no viewports to the outside and the door to the cockpit, where the pilot would land the massive unpowered glider craft, was sealed up. The troops sat fifteen in a row on either side of the craft, under a series of great arcing ribs supporting the fuselage.
All of them were women. It was rare to see a squadron of knights that was integrated.
“Gwen, how are you holding up?”
Lydia looked beside herself. There was an elfin girl about a head shorter than her — Lydia was pretty tall, so it was no aspersion on Gwen. Though dressed in the same blue uniform, with the same plate guard over her chest and back and the same steel-lined gloves and knee caps and boots, the same silver circlet denoting a Paladin, a Knight officer, Gwen looked like a wilting flower sitting in the Elleth. Her delicate face was bowed, and her wavy chestnut hair dropped over her face. Lydia could only see her lips, curled in frown.
“Gwendolyn?” Lydia asked again.
Slowly, the girl looked up at her with her shining, emerald green eyes.
The eyes of the Palladienzi family; the survivors now known as the Vittoria family.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the noise.” Gwen said.
There was air rushing outside the craft, and in the interior it was the background hum of their existence. Buffeting winds and rattling joints and the unadulterated stench of metal.
“How are you feeling? Are you air-sick?” Lydia asked.
“I am fine.”
She was not fine. But there was not much that could be done about it.
“How close do you think we are to landing?”
“Are you ready, you think? Have you checked your rifle yet?”
“Lydia, I got the same training as you. I’ll take care of it.”
She was going from monosyllabic to snippy, so it was time to retire the conversation.
Taking her own advice, Lydia began to check her equipment. Despite their titles and prestige the Knights were a military unit in the modern world. Though she had on a breastplate and a circlet over her uniform, she still had a firearm, grenades and ammunition. As a tall and strong girl she was selected to be the automatic “rifleman” for the squadron. She wielded a Myrta light machine gun that she stowed under her seat.
It was a strange and unwieldy weapon, a long rifle, all metal save for the buttstock, with a conical barrel shroud and a fixed, side-loading magazine into which stripper clips were fed. She was careful with the magazine — if it was damaged the gun became inoperable. There were no field replacements, though there was an extra Myrta in the Elleth’s storage. Lydia had already loaded a stripper clip and she checked to see if it was still seated.
Her biggest worry was the lubricating device that helped in feeding the gun.
She could not tell if it was properly working or not, without taking the gun apart.
While Gwendolyn sighed at her side, Lydia counted her ammunition and rations.
“Fine, I’ll do it.”
Gwendolyn seemed to say this as if to the air, and pulled her wooden Quercia rifle from under her seat. She checked the chamber, the bolt and counted her 6.5mm en-bloc clips, all with a grumpy look on her face. Lydia smiled and suppressed a giggle at the sight.
If only Gwen could have smiled too. But she had a lot on her mind.
Lydia understood all too well.
She knew that out of all them, Gwendolyn had the most to worry about.
Being a cousin of the Queen was not luxurious. Especially when the Queen had killed her every other cousin; the ones she did not like. Gwendolyn Vittoria was one of the very few afforded that name. There was a dire implication to her presence in this aircraft.
At any other time, Lydia would have been overjoyed to keep the duchess company.
She was polite and winsome and skilled in ballet and had an angelic voice.
She was a perfect lady.
But neither of them were here for each other.
Neither would have chosen the Ayvartan sky for their elopement.
Lydia was here because she would have been enslaved otherwise.
She was headed to Ayvarta; it was a place that she once dreamed about as a child. Her family had wealth and could go anywhere. She had heard of the red sands and the world’s largest waterfall and of the exotic foods; she had seen paintings of dancing girls and camel caravans and photos of drakes the size of a truck, caught in safaris. As a teenager she had wanted to see it all. She had felt so free to go anywhere. Now she was there to destroy it.
She had no choice. This was her only means of liberation.
Lydia turned the myrta over in her fingers. As she moved to set the heavy thing down again, she saw the pilot’s cockpit open, and the woman inside call out to them.
“We’ve entered Rangdan sky! Put on your parachutes and brace for stormy weather!”
As glider-borne troops, they weren’t meant to jump. But they might have to.
For them, stormy weather meant a hail of flak.
And the sunshine creeping in through the front glass of the Elleth was a dire omen.
“I’ll help you if you need it, Gwen.” Lydia said.
Gwendolyn gave no response. She held her rifle to her chest and looked at her shoes.
Lydia joined her.
Around them the glider started to rock, and slant, as it descended.
“I’ll keep you safe.” Lydia mumbled.
City of Rangda — Umaru Park
All around him the truck horns blared like makeshift sirens and people rushed in every direction. Officers tried to direct the exodus, but the soldiers found shelter wherever their legs took them, without any sense of order. Inside buildings, under rubble, even beneath the hulls of parked armored vehicles. Everyone was waiting in terror for the bombs.
“Not again,” Adesh mumbled, eyes transfixed by the sky.
He could not move. While everyone else ran, he froze, and he bore witness.
It was far worse at first blush than even the horrors he saw in Bada Aso.
There, he saw squadrons flying in formation. He saw an enemy that meant him harm in a surgical, precise fashion that seemed as if it could be challenged, however meagerly.
Over Rangda there was no pretense of regimentation. A mass of aircraft approached the city in blobs of thirty and forty aircraft and columns a hundred strong, a curtain of metal and wood utterly unlike the efficient, practiced triangle wings of the Nochtish Luftlottes. Adesh felt his heart sink, remembering what one bomb from one bomber plane could do.
Nocht wanted to destroy positions; this felt like a force to destroy city blocks.
Eshe shouted for him, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Adesh, we need to run back to the chimera, it’s safer there!”
He grabbed him by the arm and started to tug him back toward their vehicle.
Soon as the planes came into focus, everything went into disarray. Lieutenant Purana’s voice and, intermittently, a broken, intercut voice that might be perhaps be the HQ, sounded over radios that had been all but abandoned, urging the troops to calm and to counterattack with anti-aircraft fire that nobody seemed to think to deploy. Chimera crews ran back to their vehicles, and where the artillery staff had run to, Adesh did not know. All of the mass of soldiery once devastating the park with machine-like efficiency had fled the open to hide wherever there was concrete high enough to form a ceiling.
Eshe pulled Adesh back to the middle of a circle of forgotten 76mm guns, where the Chimeras had been parked. He saw several men and women jumping the sides of their vehicles to cram into the fighting compartment. Nnenia, atop their own Chimera, urged them closer, and held out her hand to help them. “Hurry!” She said. “It’s dangerous!”
Inside the hull, catching their breath, the youth found Sergeant Rahani on the Chimera’s radio, reporting as best as he could to whatever headquarters had rang him in panic.
“I don’t know how many! I can’t count that high! We’re losing cohesion out here, we need a higher officer on-site immediately! No, I don’t know where our flak crews have gone!”
It was a desperate situation. Adesh felt his heart pounding in his chest at the thought of fighting another battle against the sky. In Bada Aso, they were fully prepared. They had drilled on AA guns for days. They had prepared defenses. Their positions bristled with anti-aircraft guns of all calibers. And they had thousands more men and women fighting.
Despite everything, they lost thousands and thousands of their own to the Luftlotte.
In Rangda, they had nothing. No observatory hill; a fraction as many anti-aircraft guns and operators; and no real training to speak of. They had drilled for ground battle, prepared for ground battle, and won at the ground battle. Now, suddenly, their deadliest foe, the foe that had scarred them in a way no other Northerner had, was here again.
Within moments, the aircraft overflew. Adesh winced, remembering the bombs.
Nothing fell upon them, not immediately.
Instead, seemingly hundreds of parachutes sprouted like mushrooms amid the clouds.
While Nnenia and Eshe fretted and Rahani shouted into the radio in desperate, Adesh stared at the sky, and he took in the colors, the white of the parachutes, the blue of the atmosphere, the shadowy blurs of the aircraft themselves. He saw no bombs, felt no fire, and instead, he thought he saw something very different. Time seemed to slow down.
He saw a massive bomber flying high in the sky.
Adesh hurried to his instruments, zoomed in on the masses of aircraft.
His scope caught sight of a lumbering bomber. Beneath its wings it carried no ordnance, and its underbelly bays were shut. Instead, all along its hull there were canisters.
Extra fuel for the long journey from wherever its home was.
All of it exposed to the ground.
Somehow his mind made the calculus. He put together all the math he barely knew.
“Nnenia, elevate the gun to the maximum! Now!” Adesh shouted.
Nnenia stared at him, wide-eyed.
Eshe fidgeted. “Adesh, we–”
“Get me an explosive round, now! Please trust me!”
Nnenia and Eshe continued to merely stare.
Behind them, however, Rahani raised his head with grinning interest.
“Do as he says!”
In moments, the Chimera’s gun was rising at Nnenia’s command, and Eshe handed Adesh the explosive shell. Adesh disarmed explosive shell, and procured one of their very rare time-delay fuzes. Once he had snapped back together the shell, he loaded it into the gun himself. Adesh did not tinker with the sighting equipment then. He was not going to fire at any particular plane. He was just going to fire into the mass, the endless ranks parading over their heads. They had not dropped one bomb, not a single measly projectile.
Adesh knew it was because they had no bombs. They had fuel and parachutes.
Lots of both.
But no bombs and nothing to defend themselves even from a measly tank.
“Firing high explosive!”
Speechless, Nnenia and Eshe watched as Adesh triggered the gun.
A shell sailed from the gun and toward the horizon, as high into the sky as it could go.
Adesh counted the seconds. If he had set the fuze right–
In the distance the 76mm shell exploded more like a firecracker than a missile.
There was a puff of smoke, almost impossible to see so many kilometers away.
Then amid the teeming mass of aircraft, a much larger explosion resounded.
Black smoke and raging orange flames spread through the center of the sky and formed a thick cloud that started to trail tendrils earthward, as debris fell from inside the blast. Adesh had succeeded, and he stood dumbfounded with the result. When the fuse went off, the near-miss of the frag shell must have ignited the spare fuel on one of the distant craft.
In the notable absence of falling bombs, the explosion made the only violent sound.
Nnenia and Eshe looked upon Adesh with blinking eyes and hanging mouths.
Around the park, the soldiers that had once been hiding, started to reappear to witness the sudden, surprise counterattack they had found themselves confusingly responsible for.
From the back of the Chimera, Rahani, smiling, stretched the radio handset toward Adesh.
“You’ll want to inform the Lieutenant of your discovery, I think.” Rahani cheerfully said.
Within minutes, the sky would teem not only with planes, but with shells and shot.
Adesh’s 76mm round, a most unlikely candidate, would be only the first.
His was the shooting star that shone hope upon the ranks.
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.
City of Rangda — Council Building
As the sky started to fall on their heads, Council and the 8th Division flew into an even greater panic. Mansa the younger struggled to control the chaos, but all faith in him had long since been lost. It was immediate: the troops on the Council lawn deserted their defenses and rushed into the building when the first aircraft overflew them. From every room, it seemed, staffers began to flee for their lives. People then packed the halls, staffers wanting to flee and troops wanting to hide, both blocking the others path. In the madness, weapons were lost or abandoned, radios and telephones left unmanned.
To everyone’s surprise, not a bomb dropped in the minutes that followed.
After the first long column of planes went by there was an eerie calm.
Then the first glider descended upon the lawn.
Nobody heard the whistle of the incoming craft over the cacophony and press of the mob.
Sweeping in from out of the blue, the gargantuan elven glider dove with abandon and leveled with miraculous precision, sliding over the grass on its belly and casting turf and tile every which way. It smashed its tail on a statue of Mansa the elder, went into a swift turn, and ended up just in front of the steps. Down came the ramp; and from inside the craft dozens of elven girls with submachine guns and rifles streamed out, their gleaming silver breastplates and circlet headpieces marking them as elven Knights of Lubon.
Von Drachen watched from the second floor window as the women forced their way in.
That was all of the sight his vantage afforded him. All of the rest was intuition.
He patted down his stolen Ayvartan uniform, smacking off the dust that had collected on him his last few scuffles in this god-forsaken building, and he walked back to the main Council room, where Mansa and a few foolishly loyal staffers remained despite the commotion. He looked with stoic neutrality at the Governor, who seemed to shrink back from his gaze. There was disquiet in the room, but not yet the outright panic elsewhere.
There was no immediate gunfire, despite the clearly forcible entry of the elven knights into the lobby. As the minutes passed, the staffers seemed almost to suddenly relax, as if there was any possibility the invaders would just turn around and head home at the sight of their brave council guards, holding fast the entryway they lusted to cross and abandon.
But Von Drachen knew that in this situation, silence could only be the sound of surrender.
Soon he heard the plate-armored footsteps coming fast up the stairs to the second floor.
He loudly cleared his throat and stepped forward, to the bewilderment of the room.
Soon as the first elf girl rushed through the door to the room, brandishing a pistol, Von Drachen drew himself up in a dignified fashion, and with a jovial expression, he spoke.
“Greetings, dear Allies to the North! I am Gaul Von Drachen, a Nochtish Brigadier, and–”
At once, the girl attempted to strike him with her pistol to silence him.
Almost on reflex, Von Drachen peeled the weapon from her hand and struck her back.
She staggered, her delicate little nose gushing blood over her pearl-white skin.
Von Drachen blinked, and looked down at the pistol now in his possession.
“I– I assure you, I did not intend to do that.” Von Drachen said.
Nevertheless he brandished the pistol back at the confused, frightened, hurt elf girl.
She raised her hands and dropped to shaking knees, suddenly defeated.
Then from behind her, a fresh pair of young female knights appeared, rifles in hand.
Witnessing the scene, they laid aim on the Brigadier. He drew his eyes wide.
Having tried Nochtish to no avail, he switched to speaking Ayvartan instead.
“Well. Now. Please listen to me, I’m a Nochtish — um, io sono um amico?”
In response both girls cried out in tandem. His elvish was not impressive.
“Desistere!” They insisted, jabbing their bayonets threateningly into the air in front of him.
Von Drachen grumbled. He did not speak Elf very well; he was as multilingual as one could be in Nochtish and Ayvartan territories, but not the world over. He got the gist of things, however. None of them would recognize him as an ally. None of these Elves were in on his plan. They were in fact not supposed to be here. He had not planned for this at all.
What was Allied Command even doing? What was happening?
He glanced briefly at his flanks, where Mansa’s guards had already given up their guns, and where the remaining staff hid behind whatever they could find. Mansa, still wounded and broken from the humiliation Von Drachen visited upon him, fell to his knees before the girls, who must have been half his age, and seemed ready to grovel for his life.
Just then, a much grander presence entered into this farcical engagement.
Crossing the door was a tall, young woman, her bouncy dark hair polished to a sheen as bright as her light armored breastplate. She came flanked by a procession of eerily young knights like the ones previously holding Von Drachen and the room in check. She wore the same rounded breastplate as them, molded to a gentle, even curve over her chest, and a blue uniform with decorative shoulders. Armored gauntlets and boots, and a silver circlet, as well as a sword, one perhaps deadlier than the trinkets given to Nochtish officers, gave her the look of a real knight. She had the aesthetic of dignified obsolescence, but the rifle at her back and the pistol in her hands were all too real signifiers of a modern combatant.
“Finally, a Paladin.” Von Drachen said aloud. He continued to speak in the Ayvartan tongue. At this point it hardly seemed to matter. “I am Brigadier-General Gaul Von Drachen. You and your forces are in the middle of a Nochtish coup operation, milady.”
Instantly, the woman grinned. She scanned the room. “How is that working for you?”
Her Nochtish was near-perfect, spoken with the cadence of an avid dictionary reader.
Judging this to be some kind of test, Von Drachen himself began to speak Nochtish.
“I admit it could be going better, but, if plan C fails, there is always Plan D, you know?”
She did not seem amused nor convinced by any of this.
“Have you some way of confirming the status of your operation?”
“I’m afraid I am only ready to make a very minimal effort to confirm anything, milady.”
Her grinning smile turned to one of cold contempt.
“Servant, you are in the presence of Lady Paladin Arsenica Livia Varus.” She said, again in near-perfect Nochtish. “In the absence of evidence for your claims, I will graciously extend to you the mercy of the Elves. Deliver me the Ayvartan commander of this garrison and become my subordinate, Drachen, if you wish to make yourself useful to the Alliance in its endeavors. I require intelligence and equipment to coordinate my troops.”
Von Drachen scoffed at the brazen mispronunciation of his name, but pressed that issue no further with the lady. He also did not resist her demands ,made in the name of “the alliance” and did not press her to, for example, use the selfsame radios she wished to abscond with to contact Field Marshal Haus, who, knowing his present disposition toward Von Drachen, might have decided to hang up and forget anything important was afoot.
No, it was best to go along with her and pretend to be Ayvartan, and pretend to be a turncoat to the turncoats he was helping turn coat. He had previous experience in this.
“I place myself at your disposal ma’am. My battalion shall aid your efforts, but I should warn you, the garrison of this city is ready to defect from the communists, and should you desire their aid, keeping their commanders in your pocket would be quite valuable.”
Paladin Varus nodded her head and demanded again. “Who commands them?”
Smiling, Von Drachen pointed to the prostrating, shell-shocked Mansa nearby.
“Mansa, please make yourself relevant.” Von Drachen said.
Ignoring him, and in fact speaking over half of what Von Drachen tried to tell him, Mansa immediately cried out. “Milady, I am Governor Mansa of the great port of Rangda! My family have been Elf-Friends for generations! Forever we have traded with your great kingdom, enriching its divine nobility! It is only the godless communist hand that severed our ties of friendship! My city is in open revolt against them, and should you aid us in betraying the heathen red yoke, I can guarantee your great navy an ally in perpetuity–”
In the next instant, Paladin Varus plugged two quick bullets into his skull and throat.
Mansa slacked, and fell with a thump onto a growing pool of his own blood.
“Pathetic flatterer. I have no use for a snake like you. Traitors betray again. Should this mutiny of yours be true, then I will bring all of you to heel. You will all submit in chains!”
From behind her, more of her knights charged into the room and began rounding up the staff one by one. Seemingly the only person not immediately manhandled was Von Drachen, who every girl bypassed while Paladin Varus approached, and, as was customary of the knights of old, ripped Von Drachen’s honors from his shirt, signaling the “taking of his banners” in the ancient custom. It was supposed to be shameful, but all of the things on Von Drachen’s shirt were fabrications, so it was ultimately meaningless.
“No longer are you an enemy general, Drachen. You bravely confronted and assisted me, and so, true to my word, you may join me as an Auxiliary of the great Kingdom, and men under your banner may also join. I cannot promise you glory, for that is reserved for–”
Von Drachen sighed. “Milady, you are making a terrible mistake.”
“There is a mutiny, and you could’ve stood to aid it, and have a city on your hands!”
At once the woman raised a hand to delicately shut him up.
Paladin Varus scoffed. “You are a talkative one, aren’t you? Ugh. I hate that.”
She turned her back on Von Drachen as if he were an insect, no more worthy of being squashed despite his offensive and pestilent nature, and she wandered over to the radios, idly playing with the knobs as if they were curious jukeboxes ready to sing her a song.
Von Drachen’s head descended into his open hands.
Not even allied foreigners seemed to understand how good and pure his intentions were.
All that he wanted at this point was a well-engineered victory. Was it too much to ask?
He looked to the corpse of Mansa on the ground. Belligerent, ignorant, reckless Mansa, too fast to do everything wrong, too slow to everything right. With his death, the 8th Division was now an unreachable, and un-led, but suddenly independent body in the struggle for Rangda. Paladin Varus had swiftly, smilingly, shot a strategic coup between the eyes.