Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

Conqueror’s Way felt quiet once the Vishap ceased to be.

Without the rumbling of its tracks, the roaring of its engine, the cruel shouting of its gun; the cracking of ordinary rifles and the puttering of submachine guns felt insignificant. There was still a battle beneath the wall. Nochtish frogmen and Ayvartan rifle troops exchanged sporadic gunfire on opposing sides of the bridge in front of the gate door. Though Drachen took an early advantage through deceit and the superior fire of the submachine gunners against the bleary-eyed, exhausted Ayvartan troops on their last clips of rifle shot, they were still fighting under the shadow of the wall. They were alone.

And thus the outcome seemed to become suddenly fixed against them.

Madiha Nakar’s eyes were burning. She wiped tears on her sleeve and complained of sand in her eyes to deflect from it. Parinita could see the effects, but remained quiet.

“I have to get a closer look.” Madiha said, as if asking for permission.

“Be careful.” Parinita said. Though she had once told the General that it was her duty to command and not to endanger herself unnecessarily, she understood the circumstances.

And she trusted her lover to return to her.

Madiha turned back to the desert.

There was something out there, something eerie and foul. Wary of its presence Madiha surveyed the battlefield beneath her, spotting the Vishap’s final resting place on one edge of the bridge. Could Nocht have uncovered a power like the Majini or some other aberrant monstrosity? It was those things that usually had this effect on Madiha.

It would be a dire scene indeed if Nocht deployed some supernatural aid to get back their machine. Before whatever was out there could pounce upon her, Madiha had to decide the remainder of this battle. “On my signal, I want creeping fire all across the bridge!”

There were nods and salutes in recognition. “Yes ma’am!”

“I’ll direct it from below!”

Without warning Madiha grabbed a rope and a kit of mountain gear and descended the wall, rappelling down the side at a quick but careful pace. She dropped alongside several Svechthan mountain rifle troops whom she had called in as reinforcements. Though the bridge gate was still out, Madiha had ordered engineers to drop rappelling cables and rope ladders, and for climb-capable troops to go down and fight and then help in evacuating back up the wall. Atop the wall, snipers and machine gunners anchored themselves to the stone and leaned over the ramparts, weapons trained on the enemy.

They would provide cover for all of these affairs, but served a second purpose also.

Soon as she hit the ground, Madiha raised her revolver pistol and shot into the air.

“Across the enemy side! Annihilating fire!”

Atop the rampart, the machine gunners and snipers opened up on Nocht.

Opposite the bridge from the Ayvartan positions, a storm of gunfire swept across the stone. Blazing automatic fire punctuated by the heavy sound of BKV anti-tank sniper rifles brought the Vishap to life again in spirit, drowning out the frogmen and their submachine guns. Behind the cover of the bridge the river ran red; a dozen men seemed to drop like a line of dominoes into the water, riddled with bullets that fell like rain.

One man stood suddenly alone in the squall, leaping over the bridge wall to safety.

He looked dazed for a moment, crouching behind rubble with a pistol in hand.

Madiha cracked a little grin as she approached the Nochtish officer, brandishing her revolver. She casually walked around the stone that the officer had put his back to; she pressed the barrel of her gun on the back of his neck. Suppressing the heat and tears from her eyes as much as she could, Madiha ordered the man to stand, and he did.

Slowly, the man turned around with a wan look on his face.

Grinning viciously, she pressed the gun up against the bottom of his chin, raising it up.

“Drachen, isn’t it? You’ve a knack for this, I see.” Madiha said.

Opposite her, Gaul Von Drachen raised his hands and smiled suddenly.

“Ah, how ironic; while on the one hand I am in quite a bind, it is bittersweet to finally achieve recognition as a nemesis. Even in such a situation as this.” Von Drachen said.

“I recognize that you’re a consistent failure.” Madiha said.

Von Drachen shrugged as much as he could in his condition.

“We try things. Sometimes they work.” Von Drachen said.

Madiha had to admit to herself that this moment felt intoxicating.

This feeling of triumph, superiority. She had crushed him. She and her troops had struggled so much; they had lost lives, they had been pushed back to Solstice. And after humiliation and humiliation, this was a victory. Not a Pyrrhic victory, not a fighting retreat. Nocht failed to breach the wall — any of the walls — and lost a multitude of units and now, one of their premier generals. And that last catch was Madiha’s to reel in.

“You’re going to try a cornucopia of new things, Drachen.” Madiha said, giving in a little to that ferocious side of herself. “A procession of interrogation rooms, a few hearings with the Ayvartan Military Tribunal. Maybe a firing squad.” She cracked another grin.

“This is so unlike you.” Von Drachen frowned. “This stock military personality. I preferred that air of arcane mystery, that– that angelic, child-like naivety, that rounded out your killing edge. Mayhap I can speak to the other Madiha Nakar right now?”

“Shut up, Von Drachen.” Madiha said.

Who did this idiot think he was? To speak to her with such familiarity?

Von Drachen sighed. “I’m distraught. I wanted your war to be outsider art.”

Madiha swung her revolver and struck Von Drachen across the cheek, drawing blood and knocking him to the floor. She acted on reflex; she was angry, and his despicable, performative familiarity hit a raw nerve. She hated him. She wanted to kill him.

Her fingers shook on the trigger, but she mastered herself in time.

Turning her head, she called for one of the Svechthan mountaineers to come closer.

“Restrain him and lift him up the wall. I want him confined to a solitary hot box and curing in the sun before the gate is repaired!” She said, shouting out an order.

At once, the mountain troops grabbed hold of Drachen and began to work on him.

Madiha turned from her defeated foe to the Vishap while her soldiers restrained him.

Though much of the machine had been damaged, there was enough of it left to perhaps reverse engineer some of its remaining complicated systems. Madiha was not an engineer, but she thought its ability to bear the load of such massive armor and still move must have been mechanically impressive after its trip through the desert.

“Once the gate is repaired I want that hunk of metal dragged inside.” Madiha ordered.

Alongside her, inspecting the tank also, Charvi Chadgura saluted in recognition.

“Yes ma’am!”

She turned back to the tank, and then slowly turned to the side, staring off the bridge.

“Something wrong?” Madiha asked.

There were were heat mirages that warped everything exposed to the light of the sun. Solstice was scorching, a hot plate of a region with more desert than some countries had land. Madiha had gotten used to the heat, more or less, but when it came time to get her bearings she did not have the eyes to beat the mirages. Staring in the same direction as Chadgura she saw the sand and the river shore dancing, and the sky no more stable.

Then Chadgura turned to the bridge, and pointed.

“It’s Gulab.” She said.

Her face expressionless and her tone void of emotion, Chadgura stretched her out and Madiha’s eyes followed the line of it to the bridge ahead. Three small figures tumbled and tossed in the mirages; when they were close enough to penetrate the illusions, it was clear the bodies belonged to Gulab Kajari and two of her subordinates. Gulab was unarmed, roughed up; her braided ponytail was pulled almost free of its characteristic twists, her face was caked in grease and blood and dirt, her hands were shaking. The two privates with her looked no better. They stopped short of the General, and of the Vishap they sent to the slaughter, and bent to their knees, gasping for breath, barely speaking.

“Cloud,” Gulab began, breathing ragged, “Cloud, over there. Weird cloud. Coming.”

Madiha ripped the binoculars from Chadgura’s belt while the latter rushed to put a knee down beside Kajari and look her over, administering first aid on several wounds.

“Ow! That, stings, Charvi,”

“Be brave. I love you.”

Through the binoculars, Madiha stared over the heads of her lovebird subordinates and into the desert, where there was indeed a gaseous mantle spreading forward from the dunes. Though at first she wanted to believe it was the khamsin, or a run of the mill sandstorm brewing up, Madiha knew it was not dark enough nor quick enough to be either of these things. There was no characteristic blowing of sand, no trickle of cutting wind to build into a true desert storm. This was some other anomaly entirely.

Her eyes began to burn again. She could feel it; inside the cloud.

She threw the binoculars on the ground and produced her radio.

“Sound the biohazard alarm! Nocht’s launched a gas attack! Evacuate everyone off this bridge now, right now!” She shouted. “Right now!” She put down her radio and ignored the protests of the receiving operator who wanted standard procedural confirmation.

Chadgura, Gulab and the younger soldiers all their snapped their heads up in alarm.

“All of you need to run away now!” Madiha shouted.

From her hip pack, she produced a gas mask.

Gulab’s face went pale. “You can’t go out there General! If it’s really poison gas–”

“I’m going to confirm.” Madiha said. “Run now! That’s an order.”

Madiha shoved past Gulab and in parting pushed her as if to take the first step for her.

She charged away, donning the mask, as the cloud started to move over the bridge.

Madiha looked over her shoulder once, to see if her order was being followed.

She saw troops starting to go back over the ropes. Gas masks were handed out.

Gulab was protesting, but Chadgura and her subordinates pulled her back and away.

Everyone saw the cloud now. They could not overlook it. It was as if the sky had been drawn to the earth somehow. Thick white gas emanating from seemingly everywhere swallowed up the landscape ahead, progressively picking up speed from walking to running pace as it approached. Conqueror’s Way fell to the devouring mist. It was unlike anything the desert had seen before, and Madiha was running right into the center.

Her eyes burned so bad she thought they’d turn to jelly; she fought to suppress the feeling. She broke through the cloud, almost expecting it to eject her, to solidify and smash her to pieces as if she’d ran into a brick wall. She felt instead the gas parting, and an eerie, desiccating cold, an antithesis of both the dry heat and clinging humidity she was used to. This was not poison gas. She knew that. She’d always known it.

She just wanted everyone to get out. She knew there was something dangerous here.

Her vision was limited; the gas mask was restrictive. It must have been how horses felt–

Madiha felt a pinprick, a shock, a bolt of something from her side, that told her to duck.

She dropped suddenly mid-run.

And she felt something big and heavy going over her head.

Madiha skidded clumsily to a stop on the ground, and cast off her gas mask.

She found a chunk of something glistening, transparent blue, smashed into the bridge.

“Huh. You avoided it.”

Amid parting mists on a ruined bridge in the middle of the great desert, two primal forces met, eyes locked on one another. Madiha felt the burning ever worse, as she laid eyes upon the woman in the black Nochtish uniform with the eagle on her peaked cap. Long, black hair, dark skin, and icy eyes; tall, lean, powerful. She carried herself with an easy, careless gait, her furry ears twitching, her fuzzy tail curling in the air as if with the wind itself. Something about her provoked a psychic revulsion. Madiha felt the horrid twinge of hatred, twisting at her heart, gripping her brain in frustrated malice.

She mastered herself, as much as she could. She was shaking.

Both of them were shaking. She saw the woman’s clenched fist, quivering.

Her eyes seethed with icy mist the way Madiha’s raged with smoke and flame.

“Get out of my way.”

She was pushing; just like Madiha pushed. But she was pushing with her voice.

She was trying to control Madiha. Nakedly, openly, casually, and without remorse.

Gritting her teeth in anger, Madiha stood up from the ground defiantly.

Her counterpart smiled. “Oh shit! You can do it, can’t you?”

As the woman said this she reared back and pitched something at Madiha.

Almost instinctively Madiha pushed and swatted a baseball-sized chunk of hail away.

“Ha ha! You can! So I can’t just fuck with your head like I do everyone else then.”

“What do you call it?” Madiha asked. “ESP or Magic?”

“The Doctors say ESP and the Church men say Magic. I don’t care.”

Neither of them was speaking the same language. Madiha could tell from reading her lips that this woman was speaking some form of Nochtish, and Madiha herself was pointedly speaking in standard Ayvartan. But they understood one another, the words from their lips both perfect for the physical motions of their speech and yet, understood, universally. They were both people who could fundamentally understand anything.

Madiha realized that this was their Madiha. As she was the Warlord, maybe this was the–

She knew it immediately. This was the Champion.

“Madiha Nakar.” She said.

Across from her, the woman grinned viciously.

It reminded Madiha too much of her own grin, when she felt the ferocity rise in her.

“Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather.”

Their next instant went fast as lightning.

Madiha threw a hand forward and pushed, and in the same instant Aatto pushed back.

There was a glimmer in their eyes and a blinding flash in the world.

Like a curtain drawing and shutting, the mist blew apart and settled back in a second.

Madiha’s hand snapped back painfully and she slid a meter away.

Aatto drew back as if she’d been charged to the shoulder, gripping her wrist.

Neither could flick the other away as they had gotten used to doing to objects, to pests.

“You know, that shit makes me kinda mad.” Aatto said.

“You and me both.” Madiha replied.

There was something ushering them forward, driving them insane.

A weight, a rushing force that prevented them from turning.

There was history at their backs, more than the 2031 years they even knew.

And it bayed for blood.

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