This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.
52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, Rangda City — Council
Palladin Arsenica Livia Varus felt her brain trembling as she tried to process the sudden, deadly turn in her fortunes. She had hastily recalled all of her radio personnel back to her communications room upon discovering Von Drachen’s escape, and there she stood, pacing, rubbing her temples, eyes wide open, jaw hanging open enough to gasp.
“Order all units to fall back to Council and Ocean Road! Shut them down immediately!”
This nonspecific order belied her helplessness. On all sides the Ayvartan attack was slicing through her units. She was being pushed back from Rangda University, from the old 8th Division base, from Ocean Road itself. Madiha Nakar had come suddenly alive again and was sweeping her aside wherever she moved. Arsenica tried to raise her voice but her voice was not a gun, and all around the Lady Paladin, her guns were being silenced, one by one, shot by shot. Radio contact was sketchy at best, and she was short on field leadership.
It was almost enough to make her regret having sacrificed the Paladin combat team once led by her rival for the throne, Gwendolyn Vittoria. Almost, but not quite. She had her pride and still, and this pride was the rod set against her spine and keeping her upright. Throughout the battle, she waited, and she paced, and she hovered like a grim reaper over her radio personnel, over her tactical advisors, over the maps on the battlefield table.
“I want the Cheshires to dig in right on Ocean Road, do not allow anything through! I want barricades erected with whatever can be spared, and I want every gun we’ve got peering over or around cover and shooting until we’re out of ammunition! Use captured Ayvartan weapons, use anything! Throw rocks if you have to! We cannot let them through!”
Paladin Arsenica shouted as if it was a lack of effort and motivation that rendered a rock unable to pierce a tank. Her radio personnel relayed her orders with trembling voices and shaking hands, and they sat at the edge of their seats as if standing on tip-toe, nervously awaiting futile replies. There was nothing for them to hear back save incredulity and desperation, none of which was communicated back to the Paladin. But she was not as foolish as everyone around her assumed, not completely. She knew what was happening.
She was content, however, to remain uninformed. Ignorance allowed for some hope.
Then came the dreadful final blow in the place least expected. Northern Rangda, so stable, quiet, the bulwark sector that had been clinched by the elves at the start of the battle, began to call Arsenica’s headquarters. They called for help. Arsenica’s operators could hardly pass on the depth of the fear in their contact’s voices, and so Arsenica was coaxed into speaking and listening personally. She discovered then that horrific, final truth.
Amid sounds of heated gunfire, a woman’s voice pleaded, “Lady Paladin, we need support right away, the 8th Division is attacking every defensive line, and they’ve broken through to the east and south, heading into Ocean Road! We can’t contain them like this!”
Arsenica said nothing, and put the handset back onto the radio, and turned away.
The 8th Division, which had been several times humiliated, demoralized, broken, disarmed. Pushed into hiding in the darkest, deepest recesses of the city, cut off from supply and command, their communications compromised. Madiha Nakar had damaged them and the elven landings had broken them. So then, why? How? She thought she was hearing all their radio chatter: were they sending fake broadcasts and communicating personally among themselves? She could have sworn they were defeated, and yet here they were, using the last of their blood, bayonets and paltry ammunition to assault her.
And they were winning.
And they had won.
When this sudden surge of manpower met the lines of the Ayvartan motorized infantry under Nakar, they would become as floodwater uncontained. Surely that was their goal; any fool could see that Madiha Nakar had struck some kind of bargain with her former enemies against the threat of the elves, and this was the result. Arsenica had nothing that could stop such a press of bodies. She was barely hanging on as it was because Madiha Nakar had to stretch herself thin to cover the entirety of Arsenica’s line, as she desired to.
Had Von Drachen realized what was happening? She had taken an interest in him, but like all the toys of her girlhood, she had ignored him and was all but ready to discard him.
She could not indulge this fantasy for too long; gunfire erupted outside.
There was an explosion, one not distant enough, that alarmed the whole building.
The Paladin stared out the door, speechless.
Everyone in the room was looking at her.
Arsenica had a haunted appearance. Her skin had turned ghost-pale, her eyes shadowed.
She turned to the radio operators, then cast a sweeping glare at the knights out in the hall.
“What are you all waiting for? An order to retreat? You will receive none! You will remain here or lose your honor as cowards! Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?”
She drew her sword, and advanced out into the hall, red in the face.
There was a yelp of fear and a most surprising result.
As Arsenica raised her hand to strike down the first subordinate who looked to eager to run, she was struck in the face by an iron-gloved fist. She felt the cold of the gauntlet and the heat of rushing blood as the fist swiped across her face. Arsenica dropped to the ground, bloody, her nose broken, in excruciating pain. She looked through her hands, pressing on her own face and mouth as if trying to keep the blood in, and saw the face of a stoic, black-haired elven woman, who gave her a filthy look as she lay on the carpet.
“Gisella?” Arsenica cried, in disbelief and despondence.
Gisella turned her back and left the hall at a brisk pace.
From around the departing knight, some lesser subordinates became emboldened.
Three younger girls approached Arsenica, and with vengeance in their eyes, lifted their metal boots and kicked. They struck her breasts, her belly, her limbs. Arsenica cried out and pleaded, but they neither intended to sustain their assault nor stay it completely. Each girl delivered several quick, hit and run kicks, before running away, peeling back one by one as each had their seconds fill of thrashing their superior. Shaking, bleeding, hardly able to move, Arsenica curled up on the ground, and cried, her vision blurring with pain.
Passing beside her, the radio personnel then fled, thankfully without violence.
Within minutes, the hallway and the room and maybe the council building, were empty.
Empty, save for a blonde, classically-elven girl, shaking in her ill-fitting breastplate.
She looked barely an adult and her eyes were filled with tears.
When everyone had left, she approached Arsenica.
The Paladin covered her body with her arms as best as she could, and curled up.
She was expecting to be struck, but instead, the girl touched her gently.
“Lady Paladin, I’m sorry, please, lets get you back up.”
Arsenica groaned, every inch of her body screaming with pain as the girl helped her to stand on one foot, and supported the woman over her shoulder. Huffing and puffing with the effort, the girl struggled to get Arsenica back into the communications room, where she laid her on the couch, and wiped the blood from her face, and brought her wine.
“It’s my ration ma’am. You can have it.”
She poured the drink between Arsenica’s broken, bloody lips.
It was hot. That wine had been in a tin pressed against this girl’s body for days.
And yet, that strange act of kindness gave the drink a strange potency.
Arsenica did not feel better. She could not. But she felt an odd inkling of relief.
Watching her drink, the girl started wiping her own tears, and looking down at her.
“I’m so sorry ma’am. I couldn’t– I wouldn’t have been able to fight them all. I was scared if I pulled my gun they would all start shooting and everyone would die. I’m so sorry.”
She locked eyes with her battered superior, pulling back the tin once it was empty.
“You– you don’t deserve it ma’am. I admired you for a very long time ma’am. Those girls have no upbringing! How dare they do this. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I’m so sorry about everything. All of us, if we’d tried harder, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I’m sorry.”
That girl apologized more and more and the reasons why made less and less sense.
Arsenica wanted to ask her for her name, but she couldn’t find the strength to talk.
Instead, she curled up tighter, and wept, traumatized and uncomprehending.
Rangda City — Ocean Road Heights
When the car turned the corner onto Ocean Road, Gulab Kajari’s senses were finally able to put a presence on the storm of sound that had taken over Rangda. She saw the tracers flying with such frequency and intensity that the gunfire seemed continuous, like beams of light linking one position to another. Far downhill at the opposite end of the road, the Elves held the connection to Council with desperate ferocity, and it was here that the thickest gunfire flashed and raged. Hobgoblin tanks lobbed high-explosive shells against two-lengths thick sandbag walls, while hiding in alleyways to avoid the fire of a large anti-aircraft gun — the only weapon the Elves had secured that could harm them.
Along the center of the thoroughfare, Elven infantry clung for dear life to storefronts and offices, struggling to stave off the attack of the motorized infantry weaving in through the side roads and back alley streets. This part of the battlefield was cut in pieces, and each Elven position was an island of resistance amid a seemingly inexorable tide of Ayvartans. Methodically, Gulab’s comrades in the moto-infantry surrounded, suppressed, infiltrated and destroyed Elven positions, going building to building in brutal but effective fashion.
Near the top of the hill, the Elves had their strongest and most secure presence, linked to their northern strongholds in the parts of the city where resistance had evaporated out of fear of a strategic bombardment that never came. Having not had to fight for position, these Elves had all of their equipment mostly intact, their morale unbruised, and all the time in the world to fortify. While their tanks had left to challenge the Hobgoblins farther downhill, their infantry positions were mutually supporting, entrenched, and dangerous, and they seemed to have received no orders but to hold the hilltop at all costs. Probing attacks by the 1st Motor Rifles had been softly repulsed. This was the place least in flux.
As Gulab and company arrived, she was seated on the turret of the armored car and quickly spotted where the tide was turning. From the side connections to Ocean Road Heights, came pouring in groups of previously unallied Ayvartan riflemen. The hated 8th Division, the traitors, the loyalists to the imperialist cause, had woven through Elven territory and were launching attacks once more. Gulab watched the Elven rearguard’s hilltop machine gun positions, unaware of her car’s presence, light up, and they rained gunfire on the road they defended. A squadron of 8th Division riflemen fell a dozen meters out, having turned a corner to meet a wall of bullets. More of them came from behind like a human wave.
Men ran out, roared or cheered as if summoning power, charged the guns, and died.
There were barely shots fired against the machine guns. Men stacked up in corners, but hardly waited before rushing out piecemeal. It was as if bodies had become ammunition.
The 8th Division was spent. They had no more tanks, no more fuel, no more artillery, and limited small ammunition. However, they also had no way out of it now but to fight.
And so with bayonet in hand like the soldiers of the old wars, they charged and fought.
Gulab was sure none of them rationalized it as “suicidal.” But it looked that way to her.
“This is senseless.” Gulab said, looking down from her scope. “I don’t care about those men, they killed friends of ours! But this is just stupid! They’re wasting their lives.”
From below her, Charvi Chadgura looked up from a radio console, inexpressive.
“They make a good distraction.” She said, a little too callously for Gulab’s taste.
“Smoke mortars make a good distraction too.” Gulab said.
“It’s not our call. It’s not even Colonel Nakar’s. We can’t really control them. We have our hands full coordinating our own maneuvers. The 8th has its own officers. Our bargain was that if they fight they will be disarmed and evacuated with the civilians peacefully. It was either that, or they remain traitors if we win and enemies to the Elves if we lose.”
Gulab sighed. She supposed all of that was true and no greater leniency merited.
After all they were traitors, and they had nearly killed her friend– well, her lover, now.
Gulab looked down at Charvi, who was looking up.
She smiled weakly, remembering the kiss they shared, and returned to her gun.
On the scope she saw the 8th Division men dying and she waited for her chance.
She had no pity for them, she did not want to make friends. They had made her comrades’ lives miserable, isolated them, scapegoated them, attacked them, killed them, all because of their loyalty to a man who was out for himself. They could’ve believed in their comrades and in the good things all of them had accomplished, but instead they believed in tearing it all down to satisfy their own greed. Even after all that had happened, none of them had the courage to renounce their actions until Elves fell from the sky and humiliated them.
No, Gulab had no pity. However, men dying at the feet of a machine gunner was useless. It was almost irritating. How dare they fight her so viscerally a few hours ago, to now surrender to their fates this easily? Gulab was not a real officer, or at least, she did not consider herself one. But without her knowing it, there was an inkling of officer-thought that was now bothering her. It was the feeling that in her hands there was a plan that made more sense than this. A burdensome ego that could become leadership; she had it.
“When do we attack?” Gulab asked.
Everything was set to go off. She had already loaded high-explosive into the 45mm gun on this Gbahali armored car. The top-side turret, taken from a Goblin tank, had enough explosive power to obliterate something like a machine gun nest. Married to a car with armor proof against machine guns, it made an excellent skirmisher. Gulab had worked the turret on an earlier, rougher model in Bada Aso. This one was pristine, with a clearer, farther-seeing scope, quicker electric controls and turret traverse, and a wet ammo rack.
She waited for a moment for Charvi Chadgura’s quick, unemotional orders. She was monitoring the radio, making false calls that the Elves could pick up over the 8th Division’s known frequencies. This was part of Colonel Nakar’s battle plan.
“When they manage to separate the positions, or when the Elves rush to reload.”
Gulab nodded down at Charvi and returned to the scope, and the grizzly sights.
Moments later she spotted her opportunity.
An 8th Division soldier threw a grenade far enough to land into the Elves’ position. Just as quickly, a monarchist soldier picked up the grenade and threw it back, but not quickly enough, and it detonated in mid-air over the machine gun nests, causing a moment of confusion. Gulab shouted that she was engaging the enemy position; having already trained her gun on the central machine gun nest, Gulab hit the electric pedal trigger.
Gulab’s 45mm HE shell went flying from the hilltop corner and down into the machine gun nest, exploding amid the Lubonin gunners. Their machine gun shot skyward, reduced to shards of metal, while their corpses hid within a red and black mist. At the flanks, the remaining machine guns lost the central pillar of their network, and the 8th Division soldiers started closing in much more effectively. Within moments, they had infiltrated.
“The 8th Division’s got an in! Are we moving with them?” Gulab shouted down.
“To a point.” Charvi shouted back. She turned over her shoulder to the driver, whom Gulab could not see from her vantage on the turret. “Take us down. I’ll signal the Svechthans.”
The armored car got moving. Charvi looked back up at Gulab and held up her hand.
“Our mission is to create a distraction so our special rifle squad can extract Major El-Amin safely. Please be careful with your fire; friendlies will be fighting among us in the street.”
Gulab grumbled. “Yeah, yeah, I know! I’m not stupid! You think I’d get them killed?”
“You know I trust you. But sometimes, you become too immersed in the battle.”
Gulab grumbled more because she knew it was true and did not like to be told as much.
“Fine, fine. Why don’t you get up here and direct my fire then.” Gulab said.
Before Gulab could protest, Charvi had already climbed the footholds up into the turret, stepped up past Gulab’s position at the front with the gun, and popped open the tank’s upper hatch. Cool air and the reddening light of the late sun flooded the turret, along with the unvarnished noise of the carnage unfolding outside. Gulab hardly knew how much the armor insulated her from the noise until Charvi invited all of it in. The Sergeant stayed half out of the turret, and began communicating through the tank’s intercomm.
“Target dead ahead, Gulab. Start putting HE on it right now!”
Through the scope, Gulab watched as the armored car drove through the middle of the road, past the machine gun nests, where the 8th Division fought hand to hand with the remaining gunners and their support personnel. She heard machine gun fire, and saw the tracers go flying from her own vehicle. There was a front gunner in the passenger seat, shooting across the front of the car’s path to keep the fleeing elves in flight. In the middle of the enemy camp, past the machine guns, the armored car came to a stop, and running out ahead of them came several Svechthans, who took positions behind crates and rear sandbag walls, and trained their anti-tank and sniper rifles downhill on the road.
“Chadguri, Gulachka! My scouts infiltrated the enemy line and have eyes on VIP.”
On the radio Gulab heard Sergeant Nikayla Illynichna of the venerated Svechthan snipers, and she trusted her assessment implicitly. She spotted the small, ice-blue-haired woman on the front, hiding behind a crate and looking out periodically with her binoculars. She was an expert in stealth, but was now burdened with a radio pack, coordinating a team.
Charvi responded. “Good work Sergeant. Tell your team to hide and keep eyes on.”
“Will do.” Sergeant Illynichna turned back to the road. Gulab watched as she then quickly got on the radio again with an urgent expression. “We’ve got a more immediate problem! More of those bastards are out to take back this position. They’ve got an armored carrier and a tank with them. You should be able to see them turning the corner now.”
Gulab focused the scope on the next corner downhill from the captured Elven defenses, and spotted brown-vested enemy soldiers with thick caps and padded elbows and knees, running out with rifles and light machine guns. Those were the parachute troops, the elite fighters of the enemy’s invasion force. Most of them had died in the landing, but those who survived put up the toughest fight out of all the Elven infantry, in Gulab’s experience.
However, the infantry was the least concern. Trailing behind them was an open-topped, square vehicle, tracked, one of those ‘universal carriers’, and trailing behind that was one of the elven light tanks, with its thick gun mantlet and small turret, and huge road wheels.
“Can our armored car withstand a shot from that?” Gulab asked over the radio.
“We’re not going to be shot by them.” Charvi quickly replied. “Sergeant, move ahead in cover and act as a spotter. I’ll link you to our artillery support. Act quickly.”
Sergeant Illynichna could hardly have heard this proclamation when she decided to run out of cover and to the steep part of the hill. She had her sniper rifle with her, but it was not an anti-tank rifle and certainly not meant to be fired at anything with armor. She crouched behind a mailbox, peered around it, and took aim down the hill.
She fired one tracer out into the air, and it sputtered uselessly against the tank.
In response, the enemy infantry took a knee and pelted the mailbox with bullets.
At their side, their tank began to turn its turret and take aim for the hilltop.
“Slow down the tank!” Illynichna shouted into the radio.
Gulab blinked, and quickly loaded another round into the gun and aimed downhill.
“Firing armor-piercing, high explosive!” She announced.
She took her shot and watched the tracer go flying into the front of the enemy tank’s turret. An explosion followed, and the tank rocked from the force of the attack, but was not penetrated. Realizing it was endangered, the elven light tank began to move forward again, and for the moment its shooting had been suppressed, though not permanently.
“I’ve got them.” Sergeant Illynichna said. She shouted coordinates into the radio.
Gulab was perplexed at the numbers and letters, but Charvi recalled them all perfectly.
She repeated the coordinates over the radio to an different entirely different team.
“This is Adesh Gurunath. We hear you Sergeant. 76mm artillery barrage, on the way.”
Gulab was pleased to hear from one of her favorite kids again, though she could not help but think he sounded very weary and distant, compared to how she remembered him.
In moments, Adesh’s voice was followed by trails in the sky and the whistling of shells overhead. Dozens of shells soared over the northern Ayvartan penetration in the Elven front and struck amid the arriving enemy forces. Across the next minute Gulab watched as a punishing cascade of explosives obscured the enemy, sending the Lubonin infantry scurrying for cover, lighting the universal carrier ablaze, and blunting their attempt to retake the heights. Shells that landed near the tank failed to penetrate the armor, but a fateful explosion split its track. Hatches went up, and the tankers fled with their support.
“Fire mission complete. Effect on target, Sergeant?” Adesh called again.
“Substantial!” Gulab butted in before Charvi could reply. “Good to hear from you kid!”
“Ah, Corporal Kajari. Thank you. It’s nice to hear from you too.” He said.
“You sound tired. Take a rest kid. You’ve done well! It’s all clear streets here.”
Adesh seemed to hesitate upon hearing that. He sighed a little bit.
“Thank you. Will do. Please be careful.” He replied, before signing off.
“Thank you.” Charvi said. She looked down from the turret hatch at Gulab. “Who?”
“Don’t you remember the nice gunner kids, from the church in Bada Aso?”
“Jeez. You need to pay more attention.”
Soon as Gulab said that a bullet went whizzing by Charvi and forced her down.
“Get in now!” Gulab cried out in horror.
Charvi practically dropped off the footholds of the turret top. She landed roughly behind Gulab on the gunnery seat. They both heard and felt loud, continuous gunfire breaking against the turret’s front armor and the open, armored hatch overhead. Gulab breathed in deep once she had Charvi by her side again; who knew what could have happened?
“Driver, back us up–”
Though she tried calling on the radio, Charvi quickly realized there was no answer and in fact, nobody else on the intercomm. She could hear nothing from the front or below.
Gulab looked through the scope, just in time for a bullet to shatter it.
She had seen, however, a 20mm Nochtish Sturm autocannon shooting at them.
“One of those carriers is coming this way, armed with a 20mm!” Gulab said.
Charvi dropped farther below, and stared into the driver’s compartment silently.
She looked back up, and shook her head.
Gulab blindly loaded a shell into the gun and fired ahead.
Not knowing what she was aiming for or what she hit, she could not possibly fight back.
Up overhead, several more rounds visibly flew by the turret hatch.
In front, several more struck the gun mantlet.
Suddenly, a hole opened in the armor.
A 20mm AP round flew past Gulab, ricocheted, and fell down into the compartment below.
Charvi ducked. It clanked harmlessly below them.
Gulab was fixated on the tiny hole in the armor, through which a beam of light entered the gloomy turret interior, and from which, she felt, she could hear all of the chaos outside distilled into a single point. She saw the beam, touching her shoulder, as if to guide the next bullet in. She was speechless, and she never felt more vulnerable and exposed.
On the radio, Sergeant Illynichna shouted desperately amid blazing gunfire.
“Gulachka, I’m pinned down! An anti-tank carrier is moving on you! Retreat now!”
Below her, Charvi reached out a hand to signal her to stop.
But Gulab had already noticed the hatch overhead and stubbornly made for it.
“Stay where you are, armored car! We’re coming to help!”
There was a new voice on the radio, deep and affirming, and before Gulab could do something stupid and dangerous with her life, a shell sailed past the armored car.
Amid the haphazard wave of mixed 8th Division and 1st Motorized Infantry rode a small but inexplicably fierce-looking Kobold tank, barreling through its own ranks at top speed and coming to settle atop the Ocean heights as if issuing a challenge to the road defenders.
All Elven ammunition was immediately turned toward it, but as it trundled forward, it seemed impregnable and unstoppable for its size, as bad as the Hobgoblins farther afield.
Automatic gunfire from the anti-tank carrier turned from the stranded Gbahali, its nose and face and the drivers behind it perforated and chewed up completely, to the newcomer tank, and showered it in a volley. Again, the tank approached implacably and fired.
Across the road from the stranded armored car the universal carrier and its 20mm Sturm autocannon burst into flames, its ammunition stock detonated by the accurate 45mm gunshot. Roaring past the wreck went the Kobold tank, clearly battle-damaged but just as clearly patched up. Chunks of plate from disparate tanks had been bolted onto the frame at disparate angles to create shot traps and ricochet surfaces, and wheels pillaged from different frames had been stuck in the track in a meticulous, inventive fashion.
Ayvartan and Svechthan infantry watched it go, mouths agape, utterly bewildered.
Lubonin infantry stood bravely for enough time to shoot and to have no effect.
On the driver’s side, a machine gun blared incessantly, firing across the front of the tank without aiming and finally causing the newly emboldened Elves to flee despite the success of their lost Sturm cannon against the enemy. Though effective against the armored car, the small, sharp shells failed on this new beast. Meanwhile the 45mm gun on the one-man turret scanned the road ferociously for prey. Anti-tank rifle shots bounced off its mantlet, and failed to strike its deeply recessed optics. It could not be blinded as easily as Gulab’s car was, and it could not be stranded any easier. The driver’s-side hatch was reinforced, and the machine gun was welded into an armored, pivoting ball-mount.
Once more, the Ayvartans were advancing, Lubon retreating, and Ocean Road buckling.
“Identify yourself, Kobold tank. What is your designation and orders?”
Sergeant Charvi Chadgura was mostly inexpressive but still showed a muted concern.
Inside the tank, Danielle Santos and Caelia Suessen grinned to themselves, perhaps a little too satisfied with the job Danielle had performed on the tank, and with the nature of the mission they had, well, given themselves after some consideration. A few hours ago neither of them would have thought they would travel so far together just in Rangda’s streets.
Together on the radio, they declared, “Harmony ‘Perfect Fifth’, is on the assault ma’am!”
There was silence on the radio, and then a burst of laughter from Corporal Kajari.
“We’ve been briefed on the situation and we’re going to help rescue Major El-Amin.” Caelia finally said. “Please leave this place to us, ma’am. We’ll hold the road.”
“We’re uh, not much for safe extraction, but we can distract them.” Danielle added.
After some more silence, they heard a weak sigh on the radio.
“We will focus on the rescue then. Me, Corporal Kajari, and the Svecthan troops.”
“Roger!” Both Danielle and Caelia replied.
As their officers extricated themselves from their dead armored car and moved to secure the objective, the Kobold tank instead charged heedlessly forward toward the next Elven staging area farther downhill on the road, hoping to stem any chance of reinforcement, and any chance of escaping with the captives through Ocean. Elves and their last few vehicles had been coming in from around the corner a few blocks away. Caelia had eyes on the corner and the enemy’s hasty blocking position; Danielle drove them forward, one hand on the sticks, another on an improvised machine gun lever to let her shoot.
“Harmony ‘Perfect Fifth’…” Danielle said to herself off radio, mildly giggling.
“It sounds silly.” Caelia said, once they were off the radio. “It’s really not my aesthetic.”
“Oh, but I love it so much. Thank you for playing along.” Danielle replied amiably.
“Hey, you decided to follow along with my unreasonable plan, so.” Caelia said.
Danielle paused for a moment, hands on the levers. “El-Amin’s important to you, so–”
“Shayma’s a friend.” Caelia said. She said it in a tone that implied correction.
“And our superior, so I know, it means a lot to you that–” Danielle did not seem to get it.
Caelia knew that tone of voice and cut in quickly but gently to direct her partner away.
“Hey, listen, if it was you who was captured I would throw everything down to my harmonica at them until they let you go.” She said. “God forbid, I’d drive the tank.”
“You’d drive the tank?”
“I’d drive the tank.”
Danielle sighed fondly. “Well, I guess that settles it.”
Caelia sighed herself. “You’re still nervous.”
“Well. Well, It’s not necessarily that but, it’s like–”
“Listen.” Caelia quickly added. “Danielle, you’re special to me. Okay? You’ve been there for me for so long. Nobody else has been this close. And I wouldn’t want anyone else.”
Danielle chuckled a little. “Alright.”
She sounded relieved. Caelia smiled to herself.
Danielle could be a little difficult, but it was always worth it when she was happy.
She bent down to look at her driver, and found her fiddling with something.
“I’ve got a plan for up ahead.” Danielle said. “Just get close and face the turret at them.”
“Oh. You did something to the smoke launchers you jammed on there, right?”
“I did something alright.” Danielle replied, chuckling.
Without questioning her partner’s logic for a second, Caelia faced the turret forward.
Danielle let got of the machine gun and pushed both levers into the next gear setting.
Harmony accelerated at full downhill speed toward the makeshift barricade. Though the extra weight was a factor, while moving downhill it did not impede the tank as much, and all of the added armor was worth it for a small loss of speed. Anti-tank rifles fired on the approaching tank, but the shots ricocheted harmlessly off the improvised frontal armor, and even the bulletproof glass on Danielle’s visor survived a direct shot. Danielle started calling out eyeballed meter distances as Harmony closed in on the enemy position.
“Use the coaxial but not the main gun!” Danielle cautioned. “I’m almost ready!”
Ahead of them a tank appeared out of the corner and began to take aim.
“This is going to be tight if I can’t shoot this guy!” Caelia shouted.
“Shoot him a few seconds after we penetrate!”
“That’s even tighter!”
“You can do it! Just try really hard!”
“I always try really hard!”
Within a few dozen meters of the barricade, Danielle left the driver’s seat.
She clambered up into the turret, where she hardly fit, and crawling all over Caelia while doing so, she struck a series of triggers welded through the turret, for the triple-stacked smoke launchers she had mounted outside. Instead of the pop of slung smoke grenades, however, the two of them heard the sharp banging of pistols firing in succession.
Outside, puffs of smoke burst from the launchers as rifle grenades launched from the barrels like bottle rockets. Sixteen grenades flew from the sides of Harmony’s turret, flew over the barricade and exploded in a sequence of bursts and blasts over the Elven defenders, sending shrapnel into heads and faces, throwing back people behind sandbags, and spreading a short-lived cloud of smoke and fire over the haphazard defenses.
“Are you crazy? Get back down there and drive!” Caelia yelped.
“Shoot the tank now!” Danielle cried back.
Caelia peered briefly through her scope and held her breath; Danielle passed her an armor piercing shell. Everything rumbled as Harmony smashed through sandbags and over machine gun positions, punching a hole in the barricade. Now on the other side, Caelia loaded the gun. The Elven light tank opposing them began to retreat, having chickened before them; Caelia slammed her foot on the gun pedal and shot at the enemy turret.
Outside Harmony’s own turret the two felt an audible explosion.
Then the interior of the turret shook wildly.
Caelia and Danielle crashed into one another and struggled to remain upright.
Harmony came to a sudden stop.
Both women were tangled together, face to face against the gun.
Caelia looked through the scope and sighed with a mixture of relief and consternation.
They had nearly run over an elven universal carrier, and become stuck.
But the enemy tank was ablaze; and the Elves were in the midst of fleeing.
Caelia turned back to her partner to find her backing up.
“Sorry. I’ll check outside.” She said.
Danielle recovered enough to climb out of the turret hatch.
Caelia squeezed out with her.
“Ah! It’s tight.”
“Not unpleasant though.” Danielle murmured.
Together they watched Ayvartan infantry come streaming through the road and streets, those with weapons firing at the retreating Lubonin infantry, or throwing grenades, or giving bestial chase with bayonets and machetes. Far downhill, the battle for the center of Ocean Road seemed decided, as the exchange of tracer fire had all but ceased.
Farther below, the enemy barricades had ceased to trade gunfire as well.
Hobgoblin tanks firing red tracers did the only visible fighting.
Caelia sighed. She felt as if someone had taken a sack of stones off her back.
“You’re ridiculous sometimes.” Caelia said.
“Ridiculously good.” Danielle said.
“Ugh. That too.”
There was a call then on the tank radio, to which Caelia and Danielle were still tethered.
“This is Sergeant Chadgura. Target secure and extracted. She is alive and safe.”
Both Danielle and Caelia sighed deeply, letting all the tension out of their bodies.
They slumped together over the turret ceiling. It seemed the fighting was done. Around them the infantry began to slow down and take stock of the situation. Vehicles started to come up, trucks and armored cars, ready to extract the wounded and to chase after enemy stragglers. Danielle and Caelia, bodies pressed together through the hatch opening, laid back against the metal lid, shoulders together, feeling warmth through their bodysuits.
Danielle’s face turned a little red. Caelia started to whistle absentmindedly.
“Hey, Caelia, I’ve got something I want to give you, if you’re okay with it,”
Caelia did a lethargic turn through the hatch opening to meet Danielle.
Before her eyes settled on her partner, their lips had settled together instead.
Danielle laid her hands on Caelia’s shoulders, and the two shared a clumsy kiss, the footholds on the Perfect Fifth’s turret unsteady, unable to support two people with enough space between them. The two of them found each other on different footing every moment it seemed, and their lips clumsily separated, their heads bobbing at different heights. They closed in anew; Caelia took the next kiss, even more fervently than Danielle initially had, surprising herself with her own passion. Nearly falling, they kissed until they had sucked the breath from each other, and parted, gasping, hands on the turret roof for support.
Caelia was speechless. She was surprised to have finally felt Danielle in this way.
“I love you.” Danielle said.
“Wow.” Caelia said awkwardly.
“Feeling’s mutual.” Caelia replied.
Danielle laughed. “This is awkward, isn’t it?”
“It’s kind of hard to respond to, but I’m happy.”
“I’m happy too.” Danielle said. Her eyes started to tear up a little. “It’s hard to talk, you know, and we’re both kinda, reserved about things. But actions speak louder than words, you know? So even if we feel a little weird at first, if we can be together, I’m happy.”
“I’d like that.”
Danielle was clearly nervous, even with her newfound boldness. It was– it was cute.
“It’ll be like in the books!” Danielle quickly added. “It’s like a lilly story, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Caelia replied, touching her own lips incredulously.
Danielle sighed, scratching her hair nervously.
“Was it ok? I stumbled around, and I think I might’ve bitten you.”
Caelia smiled. She awkardly broke eye contact, and said, “It was fine. I liked it.”
Danielle smiled as if she heard all of the romance in the world in place of what was said.
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.
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 by the book.”
“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: leadership. She would break that herself by pressuring 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 Mansas, 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.