Dominoes (64.3)

This scene contains violence and death.

Rangda City — Council, Lubon Defensive Line

Minutes before the general collapse of the Elven line, at the fated focal point where the defenders first buckled, an anti-tank gunner drew back suddenly, surprised at the sight of several dozen very strong lights approaching from the Ocean Road connection. In the late sun they shone violently against him, creating something akin to a traveling heat mirage whenever he tried to discern them. Immediately he ordered his battery of three quick-firing two-pounder anti-tank guns to fire on the target. His crews scrambled to attack.

Though Paladin Varus had ordered a defensive line built outside the Council building, the effort had been poorly coordinated and ultimately sabotaged by the Paladin’s own easy trust in the defectors from the captured 8th Division HQ. Von Drachen and his men were gone, and no multilayered defense could be mustered at all. It was the vain final hope of the Paladin and her officers that nobody would break through the fighting on Ocean Road, and for this goal the Cheshire Highlanders and the Knights were fighting ferociously.

Anything that got through would face only a lone anti-tank gun and a few riflemen.

Clearly something had broken through. It was the darkest hour for Lubon’s finest, but what made it all the more vexing was the nature of the enemy; its impossible nature.

As the lights got closer, the gun commander and his men steeled themselves.

“Load armor-piercing rigid! Fire on mark!”

Struggling to aim, using the approaching sound of motors to very roughly gauge the distance, the gun commander and his crew fired three shells out to the road. Into the lights went their green tracers; and nothing seemed to follow the attack. Their two-pounder guns had no explosive shells, and required direct hits to defeat the enemy. Accurate as the cannon itself was, and intricate as its sighting equipment happened to be, their volley seemed to have no effect on the amorphous enemy fast approaching them.

And the closer the enemy came, the brighter the lights seemed to become.

“Fire again!”

Another round of shells hurtled out of the tubes, again to no discernible effect.

It was obvious that blinded and without explosives, there was little the gunners could do.

Moments after the last shot, as the gun crew reassessed their position as best they could, bullets came flying at them from within the light source in quick bursts. Submachine gun fire bounced off their shields and soared past their sandbags. This was the final straw for the beleaguered gunners, who were low on ammunition, working with a substandard gun and fighting a dangerous, mysterious, terrifying enemy. Rather than continue to struggle in vain, they fled amid sporadic gunfire and disappeared frantically into the urban maze.

Now, truly nothing lay between the mystery attackers and the Council building.

Past the abandoned anti-tank guns, a dozen motorbikes sped past.

Each motorbike towed behind it a contraption covered in mirrors, reflectors and torches set at careful angles. This device was the source of the strange mirages.

Banking on the fact that the Lubonin two-pounder gun boasted no explosive shell in its arsenal, and that it would be hard to aim solid shot at vehicles equipped with the experimental reflector defenses, the motorbikes had gambled on this attack. They managed to avoid losing any vehicles, suffering only damage to one reflector device.

“We did it Commander.”

“We did, I suppose.”

“You do not sound enthused.”

“Despite everything, I’ve ended up something of a failed Colonel.”

Madiha Nakar, on the lead motorbike, reloaded her submachine gun and sighed.

Staggered behind her in an arrow formation were the remaining five motorbikes.

“Why do you say that?”

Driving the Colonel’s motorbike, her long, black hair waving freely in the air, Engineer Sergeant Agni stared sidelong at her passenger, keeping to the center of the formation.

Madiha shook her head. She had enough time to think, and any time alone with her thoughts in a stressful situation made Madiha doubt. Her head was filled with darkness.

“I can talk strategy for hours, but whenever things have become desperate I’ve had to rely on myself as a weapon. Parinita has the right of it: a Commander should lead, not fight.”

Sergeant Agni seemed unmoved by these words.

“I’m not a strategic level officer, so forgive me, Colonel; but I believe you have saved far more lives by doing whatever it takes to win than by allowing yourself to lose correctly.”

“I suppose so.”

Madiha was dissatisfied.

She should have defeated the 8th Division and saved Rangda. That was the plan.

And that plan was supposed to work. She had accrued every advantage.

Instead the city was partially in ruins, somewhat ablaze; there were foreign invaders, even more than there were before, entering the war and driving her into a corner; and some of her own commanders had been captured or thrown into disarray, crippling her in the crucial hour and forcing her to struggle to take charge. Ultimately, she came up with the way to fix the situation: make peace with her old enemy, use them and her own forces as a distraction, and finish the job herself. She had identified the most glaring weakness of the Elven force: morale. She would break that morale herself by destroying their commander.

This was a desperate measure for a Colonel in command of the most experimental and high-tech ground combat formation in the new Ayvartan armed forces. She should have defeated the Mansa, the 8th and the Elves in raw maneuver; instead she had prodded and poked each of them into falling apart by themselves. Not a very glorious cause and effect!

“You are too self-critical. I’m sure the Chief Warrant Officer would agree.” Agni said.

“She might say that.” Madiha said. “But the fact is, Rangda has been a debacle.”

“Well. It is a debacle that you have navigated alive, and are poised to end.”

Madiha stared at the Council building, coming closer into view, and narrowed her eyes.

“Right. Let us bury this debacle once and for all.” She said.

On the lawn of the Council building the motorbikes skidded to a stop. Madiha leaped from her passenger side-car, submachine gun in hand, and signaled for her infantry backup to follow. With her submachine gun at the ready, Madiha charged through the lawn. At the top of the front steps to Council she spotted Elven defenders, and she opened fire. Even with minimal time to aim, her gunfire was deadly accurate. One burst of submachine gun fire struck a pair of enemy riflemen like a wrecking ball to the chest, and they stumbled and fell on their backs, dead. She trampled over them and into the main hall.

Close behind her, Agni, pistol in hand, pointed Madiha to the main staircase.

The Council Building was practically empty. There was nobody in the main hall, and though she could see people fleeing in the far distance, running through the damage left by her previous battle against the mysterious creature, they were not fighting and not worth attacking. As she closed toward the staircase, Madiha could hear panicky chatter from doors nearby, likely from technical staff in hiding. She ignored them and sped on.

“Three of you clear each wing. Be careful. Shoot to kill any armed targets, and on sight. Don’t open any barricaded doors, but if you’re shot from cover, feel free to destroy it.”

Madiha instructed her infantry to split up, and they charged in either direction through the separate ground level wings of the Council building, armed with submachine guns and a flamethrower per section. While the infantry took the ground floor, Madiha and Sergeant Agni climbed the stairs, nervously covering every angle they could as they ascended, their guns aimed skyward at the chandelier, the lamps and the balusters on the upper floors.

Soon as they set foot on upper story, they realized it was deserted as the lower one.

Madiha remembered her previous trip to the Council building, and knew exactly where Mansa’s command center would have been. The Elven leader was likely there too; she could not have airlanded with equipment to rival what was stocked in that room. At the sight of heavy radios ripe for the taking, any military commander would realize the logistical and informational coup in their fingertips. The so-called Paladin would be there.

“Fall in behind me and keep your eyes open. They’ll be desperate.” Madiha whispered. “We’ll sneak the long way around the building and go through Mansa’s office from the eastern side. They will probably be expecting us to charge in from the main hall.”

Agni nodded, and pistol in hand, she walked a step behind Madiha.

Together, they stole away through the empty halls of the Council building.

There was damage in every hall, it seemed. Broken windows, scratched and filthy trampled carpets, overturned artwork and decorative objects. There were signs of mild looting, but many more signs of improvised escape and defense. There were clearly curtains and tablecloths employed as rope, hanging out of windows, and tables and desks and drawers barricaded certain doorways. People had either fled out or fled deeper in. Whenever they passed a barricade Madiha felt herself go farther on edge, but nobody harassed them.

Every way they turned there seemed to be no resistance.

Had all the Elves fled this quickly? Were there only Council staff left behind?

But Madiha realized they hadn’t turned the appropriate corner.

When they did, she instinctively ducked back behind it, and pushed Agni away.

A lone round from a bolt-action rifle sailed past them.

Madiha heard the sound of the bolt and the spent casing hitting the floor.

Before they could make another move, there was a second shot.

“It’s an amateur.” Madiha said. “Wait for her to shoot again. We’ll trick her.”

Agni nodded, and hung back, pistol ready.

Madiha peered around the corner, and fired her submachine gun into the empty hall.

A quick three-round burst would do. All it had to do was establish a rhythm.

Madiha hid again. She heard the bolt, and the casing.

As if lured by the beat of a drum, the enemy was drawn from cover.

On time, as Madiha had predicted, the rifleman at the other end shot at them.

Again a bullet sailed harmlessly past. At the opposite end a flower vase shattered.

They waited for the bolt, and the casing–


Agni peered around, pistol ready, and when the rifleman peered again to shoot, the door was already in the engineer’s sight, as was the opposing shooter. She fired three quick shots, and a body fell through the threshold and into the hall. Madiha stomped out of cover, submachine gun raised, checking the windows, the opposing hall, slowly and meticulously making her way to the door. She stopped beside the open threshhold, crouched, and looked at the body while Agni covered her. It was a woman– no, a girl.

It was a girl in armor, just young enough to fight but clearly not old enough for war.

Madiha sighed. No one could take pleasure from this kind of triumph.

All it did was stoke a dormant anger at the cowardly enemy hiding beyond the door.

“Let me borrow your shovel, Agni.”

Agni withdrew her entrenching tool and passed it to Madiha.

Madiha put her garrison cap on the end of the shovel.

Holding it by the end of the handle, she shoved the blade into the room suddenly.

Any on-edge guard on the other side would have riddled it with bullets.

There was no response.

“I’m breaching, cover me.”

There was no door shut against them that they had to breach.

Nevertheless, Madiha stacked on the side of the open threshold, took a deep breath, and charged into the room submachine gun first. There was always a blur of motion and stress whenever she breached a room; glancing gun-first at anything that could be a threat, Madiha found the landing empty, the radios abandoned, the conference table upturned.

“Step out with your hands up!” She shouted.

She said it first in perfect Elvish, and then in Nochtish speech.

“Drop your weapons and surrender.” Madiha shouted again.

From behind the fallen conference table, a pistol slid out across the room.

Madiha nodded to Agni, who remained by the door with her pistol trained on the table.

Submachine gun in raised to the shoulder, partially crouched, Madiha slowly approached.

She stepped quickly around the table and aimed down.

Through the iron sights, she saw a wounded lubonin woman. She was not what Madiha expected to see. This woman was clad in armor that would have gleamed were it not for the blood crusting on its surface, and the buffs and dings it had suffered, as it had been repeatedly beaten with a hammer. Her curly dark hair covered her face, which was despondent, running with tears and blood. There were blood-flecked bruises on her face.

“You are a vivid image of mutiny.” Madiha said.

Everything she had seen in the Council building made much more sense now.

When had Lubon broken like this? Was it triggered by her crossing the final defensive line? Or was the fighting already won the instant she decided to counterattack on Ocean? She wondered what part of her plan had become superfluous, unnecessary. There was a mixture of relief at learning her enemy had broken, and shame that it had taken them giving up for her to be able to defeat them. Skirmishing in the city could have extended the lifespan of the Elven assault for days, enough for the Royal Navy to arrive in force.

But perhaps such tactics were never her purview. She was ousted by her troops after all.

Madiha felt a kind of strange insight upon seeing her, as if she could feel the distress this woman felt, and in feeling it, could piece together where each bruise had come from and where each wound on her armor had been dealt. There were footprints in the air, a remainder of something, and it told her, vaguely, whom she was dealing with.

She knew the name, anyway, from Elven broadcasts. But she felt she knew much more.

“Paladin Arsenica Varus. I don’t care how close you are to your people’s throne; you will come peacefully and cooperate, or I will kill you. I don’t have the time or the space to struggle with you and take you prisoner. You will either walk, or you fall eternal here.”

Madiha aimed the gun squarely at the Paladin’s temple.

Without a word, Arsenica raised her hands, and slowly made to stand.

She was very weak, and walking on a limp, but she started walking to the door.

Her eyes were blank, her broken lips shut, and she showed no sign of defiance.

On some level, Madiha knew this was how it would turn out.

The Paladin’s spirit was broken and so was the Elven attack on Rangda. Broken.

All it could do was limp somewhere into their hands, or lie in hiding.

Madiha breathed out as if she had been holding in air for weeks.

The Battle of Rangda was finally over.

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