Election Year (73.2)

This scene contains violence, verbal abuse, vomiting and severe mental distress.

44th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.

Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Junzien, Hotel Reich

War had made the Nocht Federation a sickened place.

For the Unionists, however, this had become an opportunity.

On the week of the 44th, polling showed that Union candidate Bertholdt Stein was up on Achim Lehner by three points in the Burns poll — the first time an opponent outscored Lehner since his first entry into politics in 2027. Burns had correctly predicted Kantor’s victory in 2024 and his defeat in 2028 to Achim Lehner. For the first time in years, it felt like the Union party had regained some semblance of an identity in Northern politics.

At the Hotel Reich the Union party held a fundraiser for Stein’s presidential campaign. It was a room that boasted an energy similar to that of the Liberty party’s 2027 hopes. It was a gathering of hotshot stars, glamorous models, up and coming intellectuals, and most importantly, war heroes. Older men, and yet men not that old; all wearing their medals and uniforms, awkwardly chatting with the heiresses, the actors, the nouveau riche. There were some military women too: artillery computer veterans of Cissea.

Beneath the gilded lights of the grand ballroom, the assembled crowd drank politely, debated gently, and waited for midnight, when the star of the show appeared.

Bertholdt was just young enough to run for President, and no younger than that. For a candidate, however, he was sleek and energetic. In the world of politics he seemed a boy, and it was this freshness that allowed him to challenge the slightly graying Lehner as Lehner had challenged Kantor before. Bertholdt was tall, broad-shouldered, his blond hair still cut close and sharp, in the fashion of pre-Ayvartan war. It made him look serious. His hook nose and squared-off profile made him seem tough, but his eyes were gentle and friendly. Overall he had a useful flexibility in posture and fashion.

When he took the podium he smiled gently and he waited out the clapping.

“My friends and colleagues, it is wonderful to be here tonight. When I left the forests of Cissea behind, got on the boat and put down my rifle, never could I have imagined that I’d have the fortune to be at a place like this. I couldn’t see a future back then, fearing as I did for the direction of this country, but today, my friends, I have a vision of a better world. With your help, we will articulate this vision — and then we will make it real.”

There was thunderous applause.

“Liberty thinks they can scare us all so bad, we’ll bend the knee to them and their anti-democratic agenda. For a while, they thought they’d run unopposed in this election — can you believe that? But that shows just how weak they are. In this room, we’re not afraid of terrorists from without, and we’re not afraid of thugs from within. We will meet every threat, and we will triumph, because we’re doing what’s right for the Nochtish people!”

Once more as if on command the crowd applauded fiercely.

The Federation of Northern States was a two-party system. Its oldest party was Union, the party of Gunther Von Nocht, father of capitalism, founder of the free market republic that they all hailed from. He who fought against the Elven Empire and its Frankish monarchist proxies and carved out, in this wild, frozen and forbidding land, a place for people seeking opportunity and self-determination. Union had fought many political battles in the growing Federation, but all of its opponents had fallen to history. That had been their identity. Elder statesmen of inexorable power and history who created Nocht.

Liberty was founded scarcely a hundred years ago. Since then they had traded the Presidency and Congress and their own political identities back and forth. Union was stalwart, old, wise; Liberty was fast and loose, the party of farmers then miners then strikers then bankers. Time flattened the differences and the parties lost any semblance of ideology. But then the Presidency of Achim Lehner broke Union. It was not the first hammer blow — the chronically moderate Kantor’s unexciting primary victories and historically low turnouts had made the cracks. But Lehner shattered the remains.

Lehner gave Liberty a striking and bold identity. He and his “technocrats” seemed to come right out of the technical colleges and swept into office. All the partisans and staffers styled themselves Libertaires after the revolutionaries in Franz who aided Nocht in bringing down the king. It was their vow to destroy the decrepit establishment of mediocre political dynasties and create a smarter, leaner, faster, stronger machine. They knew statistics, they knew processes, they spoke with an authority that the mass of voters craved to bow under. And though they breathed fire and promised devastation to the feckless elite, they also weaved a beautiful pageantry before the public that made them proud to be Nochtish, proud to stand atop and ahead of the world. Populism, nationalism, utopianism, technocratism, all of it synchronized, primed for victory.

Union was everything Lehner said it was. Old, spent, unmoving, with no idea what the world could, should or would look like in the next four, eight, twelve or twenty years.

Then Lehner’s perfect, inviolable Nocht Federation, a sleek train hurtling down its fated tracks to glory and leadership of the world, met a wall at the foul little nation of Ayvarta.

Now Union had an identity again. It was the party that stood for ‘no more of this.’

Bertholdt Stein had more to say than that. He was a veteran. He knew first-hand how the army mistreated and disposed of its personnel. And he had come to know more after leaving the service. How the vision of the world Lehner gave the public was censored and artificial and manipulative; how the economy struggled, its factories and workers dehumanized into ‘flows of production’ and ‘expected outputs’ and the like; how the police brutally rounded up Lachy and Ayvartans and queers and other low folk.

He had learned how to fight Lehner on his policy terms, and on territory he created.

“We have a man in power, who thinks he’s better, smarter, than all of us. No experience in the military, no previous experience in governing. Rode his father’s name and the names of a few stars to the top. He’s in over his head. I’ve fought wars, I’ve seen what’s out there. I promise you, tonight, that I will get this war sorted out, so we can bring our men and women back, and put everybody to work, building us the nation we deserve. And for our veterans who are here, who didn’t fight Lehner’s war, I won’t abandon you like he did. I’m here for all our veterans, young and old, deployed and reserve. I know how Achim Lehner treated you, because I know how he treated me. This is no way to treat our war heroes! Tonight, I pledge to build the nation these heroes fought for!”

Once more, applause, the greatest, loudest applause of the night.

It would be a long night for Union and for the Federation.

A night that would not end even with dawn.

Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Junzien, Eisern Station

Late into the night the first train that had left the ports at Tauta finally made its journey through to the city of Junzien. There was no celebration at the station. None of the banners had been hung yet, and the only courtesy was a table with mugs of hot chocolate that would have to be rewarmed and wrapped sandwiches exposed to the cold.

There were a few employees of the station working far into their overtime hours to handle the train but not the passengers. Nobody seemed to care for the passengers.

And all around them the wintry winds blew a gentle dusting of snow.

When the train finally arrived, the platform was a depressing sight. Almost nobody was there to greet the soldiers of the 13th Panzer Brigade as they set foot in a Nochtish city for the first time in many months. Their families had not been contacted. Nobody seemed to know who at all would be arriving. It was a mess. When the soldiers started departing the train, it seemed almost like they would have to ticket themselves!

But after all, these weren’t really war heroes, and the war department had little consideration for them specifically. Even this grant of leave was a burden on everyone.

The 13th Panzer, even in the climate of censorship in the Fatherland, was followed by a feeling of disappointment. They had been the pride of the Federation until Bada Aso. That was the first blow reality dealt to the Nochtish campaign, and it seemed nobody would let them forget it. Then, to add insult to injury, after their near-destruction in Bada Aso the unit went on to struggle in the Battle of the Ghede Rivers and was one of the last to break out into the Solstice Desert. From a strength of 10,000 soldiers and 250 tanks they had fallen to 1500 soldiers and 38 tanks. Complete and utter combat ineffectiveness.

Naturally they were pulled off the line, and ultimately, sent back to the Fatherland.

As far as the news was concerned, they were demobilized, pending reorganization.

News of their redeployment was not spread. It was as if they wanted them to be ghosts.

To Helga Fruehauf, it was only natural the platform be empty, the sandwiches cold, nobody around to take their tickets, and none of their loved ones to greet them. There was not even a security detail. All of the actual heroes were being carted in tomorrow, on the day declared for such things. Heroes had been carefully selected to insure their pristine quality. The 13th were not the heroes. They had been the first to fail everyone.

Fruehauf felt awful.

Her head was pounding, she desperately craved a smoke but couldn’t do it packed up tight as she was in the train car, and she hated having to think about what she would do the next day, let alone the next week or however long it took to get back to war.

This was not how humans lived, or how humans thought, she told herself.

She wasn’t human anymore, she told herself. She had been made inhuman.

Everyone had abandoned them, because they knew too much about Nocht’s failure.

Rather than kill them, which would be a step too far, everyone decided to ignore them.

Soon as she stepped off the train and looked around in bewilderment with the rest of the soldiers, she sighed and she reached into her pocket for a cigarette. Shaking hands grabbed hold of the lighter and the cigarette, and it was a struggle to light it, both because of the cold and her own poor condition. She had dark circles under her eyes and her skin was clammy. Her makeup was poorly done, and she had lost weight in the worst way possible — by simply not eating well, or not keeping down any of her food.

This sickly state made everything in her line of sight shake and shimmer. It was as if she was looking at things through a trick lens. Everything was dream-like, unreal. She was sick, dying of sick, and she wanted a cigarette so badly. A cigarette and a hard drink.

From behind and around her more and more confused soldiers stepped off the platform like cats being introduced to a new apartment. Everyone was stumbling around, glassy-eyed, buckling under their winter coats. All of their humanity had stayed behind in Ayvarta, where a shouting officer or a dismayed radio girl or the report of enemy guns could signal to their bodies what was to be done that hour or minute or day. When the train whistled again, everybody, herself included, made as if to duck gunfire or shells.

This could not have been reality. Nothing about it felt good or made sense.

It was hollow, artificial. It was something forced on all of them.


Fruehauf herself knew nothing anymore except her immediate, base desires.

She raised the cigarette to her lips; someone pushed past her.

She nearly dropped the cigarette; she managed to catch in time.

Nothing had made her so angry in what seemed like months, as that action did then.

Taking a drag, she watched with contempt as Anton Von Sturm, their so-called leader, tried to make himself scarce as quickly as he could muster. Surely if one of these zombies caught him they would rip him apart, but nobody noticed. Her eyes were locked onto the back of his little blond head. She felt like picking up a stray bottle and cracking him over the head with it. Everything had been his fault. Their utter ruination as a unit; her personal ruination as a professional and sober woman; maybe even the nation’s ruin.

And despite everything he could still walk with his head high and push past everybody like he meant anything. Something inside her seethed so thoroughly watching that little worm flounce away, that she started to move after him. If nobody else would do it, she would. She would dash that little worm’s brains against the street, if none of these men were men enough to do it. Between the cigarettes, the alcohol, the drugs, something made her braver and madder and more bloodthirsty than ever! She’d kill him tonight!

She followed him, staying many meters behind but making no other attempt at stealth.

For Fruehauf, she had nothing to her name anymore. She had no family she wanted to see in this state; no boyfriend or lover or anyone to hold or touch her or make use of her in any way; no place to stay, save maybe hitting up some old friends and seeing what happened. She followed Von Sturm out of the station, feeling both impotent and yet empowered all at once, by his obliviousness and his arrogance and his foolishness. What did he think of her? Did he think anything at all? Last she knew of him he was just judging her for drinking herself stupid as they neared the end of their deployment.

Nothing mattered because everything was fake. This was all fake. She was free here.

More and more as she trailed him down the streets, deeper into the concrete and steel jungle of Junzien, she thought to herself that she would kill him. She would push him into traffic, or smash him into a light, or pick up glass from a waste bin and rip open his throat. Her head was hot and pounding with anger. She barely recognized the streets, she barely knew where she was going. There was no one out. Von Sturm wasn’t trained to fight a woman trying to claw his eyeballs out. She could absolutely win this one.

And Von Drachen was back in Ayvarta with his “Dragon” unit. No one was here.

Except there was someone. She saw Von Sturm turn a corner suddenly and crash into a man that came stumbling out from the other way. Both fell to the ground. Von Sturm cursed, while the man was almost weeping with regret. He had a shabby coat, and a little black hat. He was tall and lean, built like a factory worker, and perhaps even covered in the soot of one. She saw something on his chest, clipped on like a medal. A frog pin.

Fruehauf froze up suddenly. They weren’t alone. She had missed her chance.

Was she going to do it anyway? Was she ever going to do it? It was a nice fantasy, to rip Von Sturm’s head out for revenge and then have a warm place to sleep and food and a predictable routine in a woman’s prison. But she knew she wouldn’t have done shit. She was useless, broken, with no hope of doing anything, if she had hope to begin with.

“You giant oaf! Do you know who I am?”

Von Sturm shouted at the man and hit him with his cap.

Perhaps the man was drunk. He was reacting with a dire, exaggerated pain.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry; I respect the troops, I love the troops! My brother was the troops. My brother! Little brother! I’m so sorry mister troops!” He cried.

He tried to reach out to Von Sturm and pat the snow off his coat as if to apologize.

Von Sturm smacked his hand away with his cap.

“Ugh! Don’t touch me you god-damn ape!”

“I love the troops! I voted for Lehner! I’m sorry! I lost my job! I’m sorry!”

Again the man shrank back, immensely hurt. Fruehauf almost wanted to cry watching this injustice play out. It was this pitiable sight that typified their nation now — a weeping peasant whipped for a lack of reverence and whipped for having too much, whipped by the sniveling, whining nobility made by money and war. That was the Federation now. She hadn’t been drunk and drugged enough to see it before, but she did see it now.

Right in front of her. An incompetent, a worthless man whom everyone hated, but here, put beside some regular nameless man from the street, he was elevated to a god.

Suddenly everything seemed too real. It was a whiplash of emotion, going from cold and dead to hot and emotional; too emotional, too soon. Someone lit the candle in her chest, and the wax was the tears that ran down her face, as she watched this all helplessly.

“You say you love the troops so much? I’m a Colonel, a Colonel you horrid drunk! I’m Colonel Von Sturm! I’ll call the police on your beer-addled arse if you don’t leave my sight this instant! I wouldn’t care if your entire family lost their jobs!” Von Sturm shouted.

Sobbing, the drunk man staggered back a step. His jaw unhinged a little.

His eyes, still weeping, closed, and settled, and seemed to see Von Sturm now.

Fruehauf thought she saw his face darken. He started to clench and unclench his fist.

“Von Sturm? You’re– the 13th right? Little brother– he was– he sent letters–”

Von Sturm stared quizzically at the man and exasperated, gestured for him to move.

Fruehauf could hear the man’s breathing even where she stood. He was gasping for air.

He was looking around, covering his face with his hands, well and truly having a fit.

“That place– over in the ‘varta. Bada Aso. Little Brother– he was there–”

His sentences became more and more fragmented as his breathing accelerated.

“Will you shut up and move! I’m done with you! Just leave!” Von Sturm shouted at him.

He clearly was paying no attention, listening to nothing the man was trying to say.

He was so beneath Von Sturm’s notice that the Colonel had on his angry, arrogant expression right until the very second the drunk’s fist impacted with his nose.

Fruehauf covered her mouth with her hands and shrank back behind a mail box.

“You piece of shit.” cried the drunk. “You got him– you got him killed– you–”

In the next instant the drunk lunged at Von Storm and knocked him flat to the ground, beating him against the pavement with fists that seemed like they would break the stone. Von Sturm’s arms thrashed and clawed against the man but did nothing to stop him. Shouting about his brother and about Lehner and about his job and how he failed the troops, the man smashed Von Sturm again and again until Fruehauf could stand it no more and fled into the alleyway, her hands grabbing hold of tufts of her own hair.

She put her head to the wall and wanted to scream, but she also wanted Von Sturm to be beaten to death, and so the sound was restrained by something vengeful and primeval.

“Um, are you okay?”

Fruehauf looked up.

There was a fire escape above her, and there was a woman on it, brown-skinned, dark-haired, dressed in a coat over a nightgown. There was light coming from behind her.

She gave a friendly little wave.

“Is something wrong, ma’am? Let me go get my girl– my friend, we’ll help you!”

Staring up made Fruehauf dizzy, and she doubled over, vomiting.

Her eyesight started to leave her, the world going black.

She heard shouting, and the slamming of a steel ladder in the alley.

Everything felt unreal and dreamlike, and as reality collapsed, so did she.

Previous Part || Next Part

Election Year (73.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content.

43rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — “Jewel of the Orient”

Ramja Biswa heaved a sigh of relief after closing the door behind her and flipping the sign on the door from Geöffnet to Geschlossen. She briefly stood by and watched the day’s last customers walk away, through the soft drift of snow falling from the sky. She picked up a broom and glumly she began to sweep the entrance and dust off the welcome mat.

Though the sun was in retreat, it was not yet night, and normally Ramja would await dinner service instead of cleaning up; but the Jewel of the Orient, Rhinea’s most underrated 2-star Arjun-style restaurant, did not open for Friday night hours.

There was too rowdy, nasty and often racist a crowd out for it to be profitable.

“You need to be more confident with our customers.”

Behind the counter an older woman appeared, tinkering with the register. Pink-skinned with white-blond hair, dressed in a sari and a silk garment, and with an exhausted expression; she was the owner of the restaurant, and she certainly did her best to look it.

Ramja gripped her broom with both hands.

Replying in the Ayvartan tongue, she said, “I’m confident! But we need to be careful too!”

“Practice your Nochtish,” replied the boss, whose Ayvartan was quite rusty.

“Malakar, I’m always nervous about the northerners causing trouble!” Ramja said. “You let anyone in and you let them do whatever they want up front, it’s nuts in here.”

Her Nochtish had gotten much better since she moved in with her girlfriend.

Malakar scoffed. “There’s nothing to be concerned about.”

Few people could tell that Malakar was actually mixed race. Malakar and Ramja had lived in Nocht roughly the same amount of time, but Malakar was older, she already knew the language from her Nochtish father, so she found it much easier to integrate and to acquire capital. She also looked less conspicuous. There were jokes by regulars that Ramja brought more color and authenticity to the restaurant than Malakar.

She was brown-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed; easier to pick out than her boss.

Ramja could not help but feel sometimes that Malakar did actually want her for the authenticity — despite the cold, she was dressed in a sari and a tight blouse and skirt that perhaps too clearly accentuated certain parts of her. She felt like a mascot character.

It only added to the amount of eyes that would naturally be on her.

“Men around here are racist, yes, but they won’t do anything except say things. If they say things and eat we have their money, it doesn’t matter. Just calm down.” Malakar said.

“At my old job, a man almost fought my boss because I was around.” Ramja said. “And you see all kinds of things in the papers. People aren’t happy about Ayvartans at all.”

“Your old job was a chocolate place full of Franks, of course there’d be racists.”

“My– best friend is a Frank!”

Ramja almost said my girlfriend which, would not have been advantageous for her.

Malakar, as far as Ramja knew, was not a homosexual.

Though they could relate as Ayvartans a little, sexuality alienated them just a bit.

It was just easier for Malakar to go around without worrying.

“See? If a Frank can love you as a comrade, any other racist can too.”

“She’s not racist!”

Malakar chuckled. Ramja sighed and went on with her sweeping.

She was grateful to the older woman for the job. It had been hard finding work after the chocolate place; her girlfriend tried all kinds of things, but she just had no connections who would take on an Ayvartan without a state-issued proof of language competency. At last however a local mosque connected her with the restaurant. Neither Malakar nor Ramja were of the Diyah faith, but many Diyah were Ayvartans, so the Jewel was known and traveled and well-liked by Diyah, and the Diyah were compassionate to Ayvartans.

“I’m thinking of opening tomorrow. I hear some men are coming back from the war for the first time; maybe they’ll be back with a taste for dal and curry.” Malakar mused.

“Malakar, they’ll come back wanting to pour the lentils over your head.” Ramja said.

“Oh please, this is starting to seem less cute and to verge on frustrating.”

“I’ll calm down! But you need to consider these things more than never.”

“Fine, fine. Okay. Lets open tomorrow, but I’ll load this guy just in case.”

From behind the counter a grinning Malakar produced a sawed-off Ayvartan rifle.

She held it in one hand like a pistol, the other hand stroking the woodwork.

“You’re awful! It’s no wonder you’re unmarried!” Ramja said, half in jest, half serious.

About a half hour later all of Ramja’s cleaning was done in the front. She swept the floor, wiped down their tables and the counter, and made sure all the spice shakers and sauce bottles were good enough for the (thankfully limited) operation tomorrow. The Jewel was a small place, so it was easy to keep it neat, and it paid to do so. Malakar was pleased.

“I’m locking up soon, but I can wait for her to pick you up.” said the boss.

She disappeared into the kitchen, unlikely to come out for a while.

Ramja nodded, and took a seat by the window, looking out at the lightly falling snow.

A few minutes later, a figure in a fancy coat walked by the window and knocked on it.

Ramja grabbed her coat and ran outside.

Bonjour darling. I parked around the corner.”

Ramja was as elated to greet her girlfriend then as she had been a month ago when they first hooked up. She was a glamorous blond named Cecilia Foss. Sharply-dressed, her lips and eyeliner well made-up, with her hair in a utilitarian ponytail and thin spectacles perched on her nose, Cecilia was like an actress or a singer to Ramja, a celebrity, a person she thought she’d only ever see in magazine covers or theaters. But she was here now.

Cecilia reached out a hand to hold Ramja’s own.

Its delicate solidity and warmth were mesmerizing.

“I’m so happy to see you!” Ramja said.

Wordlessly, Cecilia’s other hand pulled Ramja in suddenly and she kissed her.

Her kisses were ravenous; Ramja was startled at first and afraid of being seen.

However it was snowing, and the street was deserted, and the few cars driving by likely weren’t seeing anything; and what’s more, she was too delighted to care about it for long.

Ramja felt like she would be devoured as Cecilia’s lips locked with her own. She took long draws of her lips, as if she wanted to savor her taste. Ramja was almost left breathless. At first only the soft shock of a playful bite gave Ramja room. Cecilia was so forward! But she was skilled. After taking Ramja’s lips a dozen times she teased and then thrust with her tongue, one hand holding Ramja’s head forward and the other creeping elsewhere.

Though she had kissed before meeting Cecilia, it had never been like this for Ramja.

She fell in a trance, following Cecilia’s lead perfectly through each pull of the lips and tongue. She loved it, she loved how on top of everything Cecilia was, it was so sexy! She was lost in the fervor as their lips joined, drew back for breath, and quickly and fully reunited. Ramja’s hands settled under around Cecilia’s waist, under her coat, gripping.

Feeling this, Cecilia nearly drove Ramja back to the door of the restaurant.

Her hands started to dance as well as her tongue did; Ramja had to politely intervene.

“Not here.” She said, peeling Cecilia’s hand from her thigh.

Both of them drew gently back, breathing hot air into each other’s gasping mouths.

“You’re right. I apologize. I’ve got some bad habits to shed.” Cecilia said.

Her cheeks flushed, and she looked almost demure for once.

Ramja smiled. “We can pick it up where we left off at home.”

They walked down the street together, though for modesty’s sake, and the awareness of their position, they did not hold hands. There were few people out because of the cold weather. Everyone was taking their cars or the buses, and vehicles were covered in snow. Ramja thought, probably nobody was watching the street. And what would they see anyway? But still, holding hands on the street was a bit more visible than two women one in front of the other in a recessed doorway. It was such an odd situation.

Unlike in Ayvarta, where girls just kissed girls and it was nothing, the Federation was very cruel to what Cecilia referred to as a “sapphic.” Ramja trusted Cecilia on that.

The Federation was very cruel about a lot of things, after all.

“I’m working tomorrow, can you drive me Cecilia?”

“You’re working on a weekend?”

“Malakar wanted to open to see if we can get any GIs coming back.”

“Well, I can drive you.”

“Thank you.”

They were talking in Nochtish, quite comfortably. Both had accents, but they understood each other. Certainly, Ramja was very comfortable talking to her own partner this way.

Cecilia huffed suddenly; Ramja saw a tiny white breath fly out of her.

“You don’t have to work at all, you know. I can support you just fine.” She said.

“I know! But I just feel bad sitting around. Everyone’s always talking about merit–”

“Everyone’s an idiot, believe me.”

“Oh, Cecilia, I just want to earn my own money too–”

“If I was a man, would you feel more secure letting me take care of you?”

Ramja blinked hard, staring blankly at her girlfriend.

“What’s this about? Is something troubling you Cecilia?”

She had only really known Cecilia for a month before they decided to move in together, so it wasn’t as if the two had shared their life’s stories with one another. Cecilia was always open, when asked; but Ramja couldn’t help but feel she still hadn’t asked the right questions to really understand her mysterious, glamorous, wonderful girlfriend.

That was scary, and also made her feel anxious and a little unworthy.

So she had on a rather worried expression when she asked Cecilia this.

And obviously, Cecilia must have picked up on it immediately.

In the next instant, however, they were around the corner, and at the car.

It was a small, fairly recent Oder Olympus model, a cozy two-door convertible.

Once they were both seated inside, they were silent for a moment.

Cecilia sighed deeply and put her hand on Ramja’s own.

She met Ramja’s dark eyes with those mesmerizing blues the girl loved so much.

“Look, Ramja, I’m sorry. To be completely honest, and this must sound so pathetic, I had a bad day at the office and now I got something an old girlfriend told me stuck in my head. I should have put it out of my head and thought about the wonderful girlfriend I have now, instead, but you know, I’m a disaster, so I’m just flashing back to that awful mess.”

Ramja smiled. She was almost relieved that it was something that silly.

“Cecilia, I may not speak Nochtish very well, but I’m not a child, you know? We’re both adults, and I can help you with your problems if you talk to me without being cryptic.”

“I know. Ugh. Okay. Today some nitwit at work got away with the credit for a project I was on, and it just. It reminded me. She basically said ‘I wish you were a man.’ As if me being a man would’ve solved our problems so fucking easily. It’s stuck in my craw now.”

Ramja nodded sympathetically.

“Oh, Cecilia, that’s an odd thing to say. I think you’re an absolutely wonderful woman.”

“I know I am, darling. But there’s certainly things a man is allowed in this world that a woman isn’t.” Cecilia sighed again, shaking her head. “That’s what’s getting to me.”

“Well, I don’t want you to be a man. I wouldn’t feel more secure at all.” Ramja said.

Cecilia shook her head. “Sometimes I wish I had my old job. But, it’s better I have you.”

As far as Ramja understood it, Cecilia’s old job (and presumably her old girlfriend with it) was some kind of government job, that she left behind to go work at the Central Bank. Ramja started dating her in the process of her leaving that job and finding her new one. It had been strange but fortunate; they met at the chocolate shop, both their lives seem to have exploded after that, but then they picked up the pieces together. It was romantic.

“I’m glad you’re here, Cecilia. You made my life a lot brighter.” Ramja said.

“You too darling.” Cecilia said. “Honestly, you saved me from a mess. Not the other way.”

“Well, I helped you quit drinking, I guess, but you still smoke too much.” Ramja teased.

“I haven’t smoked at all today.” Cecilia said, defensively clutching her coat pocket.

“You’ll smoke after we have sex. You always do.” Ramja said, giggling.

“Ugh. I’m so predictable. Listen. I’ll try not to.”

Cecilia started the engine and drove them out from the side of the alleyway and down the road toward the tight little inner city apartment that acted as their new love nest. Rhinea had been Ramja’s home for many years, but 2030 had transformed it. In the inner city there was still all the hustle and bustle around the office buildings, hotels, train stations and the stock market. Old town was reeling from the war, however. Factories that once made meats and clothes and toys were shells of their selves, and the council houses were emptied of the poor. Market street was a shadow; the stadium was empty.

The Jewel still got plenty of business. Its clientele did not go to the war.

But there were far less lavish birthdays being booked, according to Malakar.

“It’s sad around here. I wish I could’ve gotten a job in the city proper.” Ramja said.

“Once we get you your language certificate, I can get you in at the bank.” Cecilia said.

“Can you?”

“I’ve got an old friend there, y’know.”

Cecilia gently slowed the car to a stop.

Ahead of them a pair of wooden barriers came down, blocking off a level crossing.

Moments later a massive train thundered past them, pulling many open cars each loaded with military vehicles. Ramja was amazed at some of them. They were armed, tractor-like things, big and rounded off and sharp and heavy, intimidating but fascinating all the same. Those were certainly artillery cannons that they bore, Ramja knew that much. She had read about some of the things that happened during the Ayvartan civil war before.

Cecilia, however, had a concerned look on her face as the long, long train passed them.

“Those are not Sentinels.” She said to herself, in a barely whisper.

“What do you mean?” Ramja asked.

“They’re too big.” Cecilia said. She was still a captive to the sight of the vehicles.

Ramja crossed her arms and sat back and sighed.

She thought of something cheeky to get her attention while they waited out the train.

“How many girlfriends did you have before me, Cecilia?”

“Huh? What? You’re asking– Ugh.”

Cecilia looked so annoyed by the question that Ramja laughed.

Ramja was not insecure about it. Cecilia had made her passion for her very clear.

She was curious though. Nobody could help but be gently curious about such things.

Especially because Cecilia so often mentioned “old friends” who did her favors.

Old lady friends usually.

“Come on, I promise I won’t be mad or jealous. Heck, I’ll tell you, I had a girlfriend once, a girl from the mosque. We called it off because of an arranged marriage. So, your turn.”

After a while of grunting and groaning Cecilia, with an anguished face, said, “just guess.”

Ramja burst out laughing, and tapped her hands on the car door.

“Wow, that many, Cecilia? I knew the first time you made love to me that you must have been a woman with experience. But I thought also, there had to be an upper limit to the number of women in Nocht who slept with other women. Now though, I’m not so sure.”

Ahead of them the train whistled, and the armored vehicles on the cars rattled loudly.

“You look so innocent on the outside, but you’re awful thorny.” Cecilia mumbled.

“It’s an Ayvartan talent. We’re all polite, but also vicious. It’s why everyone hates us.”

“Eh. Damn it. I slept around a lot, okay? I was young, and a mess.” Cecilia said. “That’s just how naive sapphic women communicate in this society, you know? It’s by having sex. We had sex before we could say more than sentence fragments to each other.”

“Wow.” Ramja replied.

“I was young!” Cecilia whined.

Ramja said aloud in mock wonder, “You could’ve been young yesterday.”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“I care now that it’s this much fun.”

“Ugh. I’m going to shut you up the instant we make it through the front door.”

Ramja put on a little grin. “I’d like that.” She patted Cecilia on the shoulder.

Finally the crossing barriers lifted, and the train charged out of sight.

But the little Olympus wasn’t moving across the track yet.

Cecilia looked at Ramja, and finally smiled, and she also, surprisingly, started to tear up.

“I do love you so much, darling.”

Ramja started to tear up as well. Those were words she just was not used to hearing in the Federation of Northern States. For a woman like Cecilia to not just bed her, but love her, and for Ramja to love back. It was hard. It simply didn’t happen.

It felt miraculous.

It wasn’t just Cecilia who was a mess; everything was a mess.

Ramja was a mess too in her own way. The Federation was a mess. The times; oh they were a mess. At least, however, they managed to weather the mess together now.

2031 was not shaping up to be a good year if they were both crying together at the mere thought of two women having a steady relationship, at the thought that past mistakes and current challenges could be reduced to fodder for jokes on a wintry car ride.

2031, however, was their year.

Previous Part || Next Part

E.S.P (72.3)

This scene contains violence, death, coercion and acts of misogyny.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — South Wall Defensive Line

Wave after wave of Nochtish infantry, sappers and armored vehicles hurled themselves at the walls of Solstice. The staggered marching ranks that appeared so clean over the hills broke into irregular masses as they approached the wall. Every incoming column lost scores of men and machines to an endless barrage of machine gun fire, howitzer shells and soon, the howling secret weapon of the Supreme High Command: rockets.

Blood, by the metric tonne, stained the white sand the color of wine. Piles of bodies choked up foxholes and makeshift trenches made by the previous barrages and exposed the new columns to more gunfire with less hiding places. Smoke from the shellfire and overheated machine guns lingered and turned the day dim; but the endless gunfire was a blessing, because the stench of gunpowder and fire and the unending din of the barrages and roaring of cannons drowned out the sheer absurd reek and riot of death.

Standing at their walls, the Ayvartans quietly manned their guns, every minute of shooting at least eroding their minds less than the bullets eroded northern flesh.

For some, it was a sight they were desensitized to, and with eyes wide and unblinking, they bore witness to a blur of indistinct violence. For others, it was justice, and they howled to their comrades that the imperialists were serving their time for their sin. These folks were welcomed, because the validation kept the rest a little more sane.

For a very select few, it was a disturbingly joyful chaos that they outright enjoyed.

Sometimes, over the endless cacophony of machine guns and howitzers, Brigadier General Nadia Al-Oraibi could hear the cackling of her colleague Brigadier General Gazini as she watched the unfolding carnage. Her expression was rapt, bright green eyes following the bombs across the sky and then twisting with laughter once they splashed fire and metal on some unsuspecting Nochtish unit, wiping it from the sands. She raised a machete into the sky and pointed out enemy units for the nearby wall gunners to attack, who then tried their best to oblige their superior. Gazini was easily pleased.

Bravissimo gunnery crews! Splendido! Carve up the earth and drop them to hell!”

While the slightly out-of-place elf cheered on the gunners, the calmer General raised an eyebrow at the sight of the last ammunition truck parked behind the wall, its stores rapidly depleting. It had arrived an hour ago and none since had come to replace it.

Despite the volume of fire and the loss of life, this situation was untenable. They were unprepared for such a sudden attack; Nocht should have been 50 kilometers from Solstice, and any penetrations through the desert should have been no bigger than company-sized. Nakar had warned of deep strikes from the open desert, but who listened? Nadia had thought the probabilities too small. Now she was enacting a plan that required days of preparation with hours instead. Everything was a mess.

They had to break the Nochtish forces, to destroy their will to fight, and soon.

It would at least buy time to figure out what the front line looked like anymore.

Nadia pulled back the sleeve of her uniform to check her watch, and turned to the radio man at her feet, huddling behind the thick stone ramparts for cover. She arranged a few locks of sweat-drenched black hair behind her ear and cleared her throat. Even fully prepared, she found it difficult to speak, and the radio operator was forced to wait a moment with the handset to his face and his eyes staring up at the commander. She wondered what he saw: a stout and confident commander, or a skinny, sweaty bespectacled girl pulled from a basement office, stuffed in a coat and medals.

“One minute until the Prajna are ready to fire. I want Corps artillery on the line.”

“Yes General! Will do. And um; I know what you meant ma’am, but Prajna are controlled by the High Command, not Corps, so it’ll take me a moment to reach them.” He said.

“Thank you, Specialist.” said the General, her hands shaking ever so slightly.

Nodding and smiling gently, the young man returned to work on the radio.

Nadia felt foolish and she almost wanted to be buried in a hole, but it was to be expected. This was the front line and she was nervous. She was so unused to speaking, and especially to speaking loud enough to be heard over the sound of front-line fire.

“Never thought I’d hear ‘the Genius of Defenses’ stuttering like that.”

At her side, she saw the sleek, smirking face of Eleanora Gazini lighting up with mirth, and she turned the other cheek and surveyed the battlefield instead. And yet there was an impression of the woman left in her eyes, radiant despite her years and her filthy brain and soul. Elves were infurating; who knew how old any of them were, perpetually frozen in their mid-thirties or early forties at some point or other. Gazini was old enough to have served under and been jailed by three separate administrations in one war each. Yet she was rather beautiful, with one vibrant eye, a slender figure, flowing golden hair falling from under her cap, and a lovely complexion only marred by a scar or two.

She could hear Gazini moving closer by the ringing of the bell on the bright red dog collar around her scarred-up neck. Her fellow General swooped in closer and threw an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close with too much presumed familiarity. When Nadia stared at her sidelong, she caught a glimpse only of the black eyepatch.

“Al-Oraibi, you’re not a scholar anymore! You’re a General! And in this degenerate age of impersonal machines, you’re a General who gets to watch the front, like the Cavalry of old! Take it from this spent old bitch, the youth need to stand straight, and be merry!”

Though she had written extensively about what happened in theory in these situations, actually acting out the plans that she crafted as “The Genius of Defenses” was a new challenge. Especially with “The Cannibal Hound” as her neighboring commander.

“Your brand of merriment will just land me in prison.” Nadia shot back.

“It’s not bad! It builds character. You meet many interesting women.” Gazini shrugged.

On her arm was an iron shackle, worn to denote her status as part of a penal troop.

Nadia stared at it with disdain.


The radio operator called to her from below and Nadia was grateful for the attention.

“Are the Prajna crews taking suggestions for targets?” Nadia asked. “I have a few.”

Gazini covered her mouth to stifle a little chuckle while Nadia gave the coordinates.

Below them the scattered remnants of another wave of Nochtish infantry coalesced into a dreadful mass and made a push for the wall once more. On their backs were large bags of explosives that Nadia had witnessed going off in isolation before, detonated by shells and fire. They were powerful bombs, more powerful than any Nadia had seen carried by infantry before. It was the objective of their attacks to blow a hole in the wall using the explosives, Nadia quickly surmised. She had since had her units target them specifically.

However, Nadia had her own powerful explosives available.

Within minutes of her request, she felt the ground beneath her, the wall upon which she stood, quivering with a force originating from the city center. Overhead the massive shells of the Prajna cannons soared skyward in an acute arc, rising into the clouds completely out of sight before careening earthwards. Nadia and Gazini watched the super-heavy shell as it crashed to earth amid the teeming mass of the enemy in front of them and exploded widly, detonating their bombs and consuming the enemy charge.

White fires spread across the desert in front of them. Gazini stared, bewildered.

From the initial explosion flew a cloud of burning fragments that clung to bodies. Sticky, flashing white-and-red fire spread throughout the corpse-choked trenches and foxholes and sandbars, consuming the bodies as fuel and leaping atop any survivors like hissing imps, grappling screaming men to the floor and twisting them into horrific shapes. A smell, a smell more terrible than the gunpowder and carrion, rose from the sin below and up to the wall, where Nadia caught a whiff. She recoiled. It was chemical, awful.

“Tell the Prajna crews the experimental white phosphorous super-heavy incendiary worked. Nocht should not have exposed Madiha Nakar to such weapons.” Nadia said.

“It’s beautiful!” Eleanora Gazini cried out, clapping her hands, the inferno below reflected in her eyes, burning figures dancing with the flames. “Oh, what a sight!”

Nadia thought Gazini might shed a tear, but instead she picked up a radio from off the backpack carried by another man who had a shackle around his lower arm. Her voice lost is cheery, girlish tone as she addressed the men on the other end of the cord, barking at them like a mother or a teacher giving pitiless discipline to some misguided flock.

“Hey you laggards, isn’t it about time you made your appearance? You’re making me look bad! Such a beautiful battlefield and you haven’t the dignity to seek glory in it? Go!”

From somewhere below the wall, trap doors opened, and from them emerged men in fireproof hardsuits and welder’s masks, with machetes, trench shotguns, and pistols in hand. Screaming like the berserkers of the northern legends, they stormed out to meet the remaining Nochtish forces. Amid the white fires, the field of corpses and the blowing sand of the khamsin, they must have seemed like demons. Nadia saw the incoming fresh wave of Nochtish men crest the sands toward the killing field, and upon witnessing the horrors ahead of them, they broke before they even set foot into gun range, and fled.

“Pursue!” Gazini shouted into the radio. “Your heroism in defense of the capital in these desperate times, will be rewarded! You do well and we’ll be made a real rifle division!”

She sounded almost giddy at the prospect.

Nadia, already in a real rifle division, knew not why.

She sighed, and laid back upon the wall, sweating profusely, breathing heavily.

War was just a mathematical equation, or so she had thought.

She solved this one, at least. But there would be more. And today wasn’t even over yet.

“We need to convene with Nakar. How’s the Conqueror’s Way holding up?” Nadia asked.

Below her, the radio man made the relevant call out to his counterpart across the city.

“I’m getting interference ma’am.” He said, confused. “It’s like there’s a storm out there.”

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Conqueror’s Way

Yanyu Zhuge waited for a little bird, but none would send a pity chirp her way.

She withdrew her own pistol and took aim at Aatto Stormyweather, who in turn pressed her own pistol harder against the temple of Madiha Nakar. Aatto struggled to hold the general, who was severely weakened by her recent traumas but strong enough to be a nuisance. The two of them were each screaming all manner of things at Yanyu.

“Shoot her! She’s too dangerous to be allowed to escape!”

“Shut up! I’ll really shoot, you know! Don’t fuck with me!”

It made the grimness of this scene almost subtextual. Everything looked an utter farce.

Yanyu felt the stupidest of the three. She had relied so much on the little birds, on the whispers in her brain that told her what to expect, what would happen, what should happen. It was hard to stand on her own two feet with the kind of confidence she once had. How did one respond to one’s own complete failure? She stood with her pistol up, paralyzed with indecision. Everything felt surreal and heavy and impossible now.

“Fuck this! Listen you! I demand all the Nochtish prisoners be released right now–”

“Don’t listen to her! Shoot me and I’ll use the spark to blow her to pieces!”

“What? Are you crazy? You don’t even know if that will work! Just shut the fuck up!”

“Both of you shut up!” Yanyu shouted, suddenly shooting her own gun.

Her bullet landed at Aatto’s feet and the dog-eared woman nearly leaped with fear.

She barely managed to retain control of Madiha, who tried in vain to escape.

Aatto pulled her back by the neck and aimed her pistol at her head once more.

“Hey! You think I won’t do it? Stop this crazy bullshit and start a prisoner exchange–”

“Oh, no need, I’m here! I’m the only prisoner!”

Before Yanyu’s temper could snap again and cause an even more grievous mistake, all three of them were drawn to a shadow walking in through the clouds. He approached amicably, his hands raised over his blond hair and a mirthful expression on his face.

“Von Drachen!” Aatto shouted.

Yanyu moved as invisible and instant as a gust of wind.

In the blink of an eye she had Von Drachen on the ground, one arm twisted behind his back, his bent legs controlled by her own, and her gun behind the man’s neck. Both the speed of her attack and general shape of the contortion she had put him in seemed utterly beyond human, and Aatto stared in astonishment at the scene. Her gun trembled against Madiha’s head. She was clearly unsure of what to do in this situation.

“I’ll shoot him.” Yanyu said. “Free Madiha this instant.”

“God damn it! You fucking idiot!” Aatto shouted, hurling abuse at Von Drachen.

“Everything is fine.” He said in a choked voice, wincing as Yanyu applied pressure.

“You escape from the Ayvartans and get captured again? And you call yourself a man? You’re a garbage little boy playing soldier! I should shoot you myself!” Aatto yelled.

“I’m doing my best.” Von Drachen replied. “I still have options. Let me think.”

“Think fast.” Yanyu said.

She seemed to press her knee somewhere uncomfortable, and Von Drachen gasped.

“Any ideas?” Aatto shouted.

“She has beautiful, powerful legs, Stormyweather.” Von Drachen muttered.

Aatto grit her teeth. “Ugh! Fine, we’ll free our prisoners together. Let’s just break even.”

“I agree. Clearly this is not the destined hour of our deaths.” Yanyu replied.

Madiha seemed to then regain the manic energy she lost while struggling.

“Don’t do it! Von Drachen is extremely dangerous! We can take both out–”

Aatto smashed the back of Madiha’s head with the pistol and knocked her out.

She threw the body on the ground. “I’m walking away. Let that guy go, you hear?”

Yanyu watched Aatto intently as the dog-eared woman started walking back, cycling her aim between Madiha and Yanyu but retreating as she had promised. Yanyu slowly released Von Drachen from her grip, and the humiliated General stood at an anguished pace, as if collecting the bones he was using to raise his arms and legs one by one.

Soon, he vanished in the fog alongside his psychic companion.

And when the fog started to vanish with them, Yanyu sighed with relief, and awaited rescue from the walls. The Gate went miraculously down, tanks and infantry came rolling out, but the battle was over long before the reinforcements arrived. Yanyu propped Madiha up against a wall and tried to make her look dignified as her subordinates approached. Despite wavering at the end, she was still a hero today.

50th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Field Infirmary, 1st Guard’s

Madiha dreamed of evil, thrashing emotions.

Her slumber had no coherent designs, no poignant imagery.

It was all fire and rage, loud directionless sound. There was shaking cold that traveled through copious sweat that tore across her body like razor blades. There was violence, a horrible dehumanizing violence of the senses that ripped her brain in half. Violence unrelenting upon her body. It was an indescribable, formless pain upon herself, from all sides. There were bullets from without, and a brutal slashing coming from within.

Unbeknownst to her she was moaning, screaming.

There was no sense of time. She could’ve been suffering a million years.

Then without warning, she bolted upright, coughing and choking when suddenly the need to breathe returned to her. She felt a sharp pain shoot down her body from her head. All of her senses turned on at once. What little light was coming into her space was too bright, and what little sound she heard was too loud. Her skin was clammy, and her whole body heavy and hurting. Her stomach burned, a cauldron empty save for acid.

“Madiha! Take this.”

She heard the familiar, supportive voice of Parinita Maharani, her lover and confidante and deputy; she felt her warm, soft hands thrust something into hers that was cold to the touch. Parinita helped Madiha lift the drink to her mouth, and Madiha drank. Once she got used to the sensation of drinking, she downed the entire cup of soda water.

“Parinita.” Madiha said, breathing heavily.

“I’m here.” Parinita said. She held Madiha’s hand.

When her eyes finally got used to the lights, Madiha could see her lover’s eyes, her bouncy strawberry hair, her peachy skin and her red-painted lips. She smiled, weakly, and still breathing heavily, but feeling safe and at home with the one she loved.

“I’m sorry.” Madiha said.

“Oh you will be!” Parinita replied, weeping suddenly. “When you get better I’m going to make you watch the most cringe-worthy theater adaptations I can find on film, I’ll punish you thoroughly for being so reckless after you told me you wouldn’t!”

“I’m really sorry.” Madiha said, weeping herself. “I’ll accept my punishment.”

“Ah damn, now I’m gonna cry even harder.” Parinita said. “Ugh. I was useless again.”

Before Madiha could say anything to assuage her lover’s anxieties, the flap of cloth that covered the entrance to the infirmary swung open, and the two of them had to quickly stifle their tears and try not to look too lovey-dovey in the presence of whoever had just entered the room. Madiha was nearly blinded again by the sudden intrusion of more light into the room, but she did see a pair of figures in uniform trenchcoats walk in.

“General, I’m glad you’re awake. Congratulations are in order.”

“Hah! I knew you’d bounce right back. You’re unkillable, they say.”

Madiha knew both of the visitors. She knew the first one to speak exceedingly well: it was Nadia Al-Oraibi, the General known as ‘The Genius of Defenses.’ A young woman with a tired, loveless expression on her face, her body thin and long-limbed, her sweat-slick skin the color of desert stone. She arranged her black hair behind one of her ears, fidgeting with it. At her side was the wildcard known as ‘The Cannibal Hound’, Eleanora Gazini. Though she ruthlessly self-flagellated her own age, calling herself a “spent bitch” and an “old harpy” far more often than tasteful, Eleanora looked as vibrant as an elfin girl half her age, blonde-haired, emerald-eyed, fair-skinned.  Though she was scarred up, especially around her neck and missing eye, she was tall, sleek and quite sparkling.

Gazini used to be a prisoner of war before; Madiha was still hazy on her promotion.

Both of them approached for handshakes. Al-Oraibi gave her a proper and very quick shake, while Gazini seemed to want to rip her arm off, drawing a predatory glance from Parinita. After exchanging pleasantries the arrivals sat across from Madiha; Al-Oraibi properly, and Gazini backward, pressing her breasts against the back of the chair.

“General Nakar, as I said, congratulations are in order. We believe that, unknowingly, you endured the main objective of the Nochtish attack. Your destruction of the Nochtish secret weapon prevented a breach in our most vulnerable sector.” Al-Oraibi said. “And with the western desert thrust scattered, Nochtish forces have retreated back to their main lines 50 kilometers away from the city, out of artillery range. Though their forces are likely extending slowly northward and eastward in the deserts, the city is safe.”

“Yes, well done! Our work isn’t over yet, but you really sent those goons packing. As far as the desert is concerned, I sent some of my undesirables into the sand in pursuit.” Gazini said with a vicious little grin. “If they come back, we might get something to work with on how far the Nochtish lines have stretched out and how thick they’ve gotten.”

Al-Oraibi stared at Gazini with consternation. “Our recon aircraft will do that work.”

“Our air recon is amateurish and you know it. They’ve given us the wrong coordinates to everything except the most intimidating rocks and sand pits in Solstice.” Gazini replied.

“And you think a bunch of inmates on horseback can do better?” Al-Oraibi snapped.

“I don’t think anything about those scum, but for their sake, they’ll find something.”

Al-Oraibi turned away from Gazini and started to very obviously ignore her. “General, once you are up and about, we need to go over any actionable intelligence together. As our mechanized element, the defense of the city beyond the walls will fall on you.”

Madiha nodded her head silently. Al-Oraibi’s unit was largely infantry and relatively static, with their motor vehicles in use as artillery and ammunition transports. Gazini’s unit had some motor transport but as a penal unit, were not allowed to use it freely. Most of the motor and tank power in the city lay in Madiha’s hands, with only a few other, smaller tactical units given to the southern defensive army. Outside the city, the rather green northern and eastern armies had motor and tank units, but they were raw, and untested. High Command was cautious about committing them so soon after formation.

For better or worse, the SIVIRA had adopted a posture that Solstice should be self sufficient as possible in its own defense, and the industrial might of untouched North Ayvarta was being hoarded and accumulated cautiously. Though the new armies were theoretically powerful, the High Command was saving them for when an opportunity arose for a massive counteroffensive. Everyone had the mindset that Solstice was still in the defensive phase, and so the new armies shouldn’t be wielded. After all, many old officers had been court martialed or shot in grim 2030 for wasting good armies on pointless attacks when they could’ve been defending strategically and saving themselves.

Madiha knew the southern army was in a bad way from defending Solstice for so long.

It was not in any state to counterattack, not by itself.

But Madiha had other ideas about the state of the army as a whole.

“I’m recovering fast.” Madiha said. “Once I’m back up, I will be heading to the SIVIRA to propose that a counteroffensive be planned in the northwest and eastern desert.”

Al-Oraibi and Gazini stared at one another; Al-Oraibi in horror, Gazini in awe.

“You splendid nutcase!” Gazini said. “I will give my full recommendation!”

“Your word means nothing, you chained-up dog.” Al-Oraibi said. “Nakar, this is crazy.”

“I know.” Madiha replied. “It’s a gamble. But we have to do something.”

Parinita smiled from the side of the bed, and sighed fondly, shaking her head.

“I cannot support this. And furthermore, we should also consult our new comrades.” Al-Oraibi said, reaching for any out. “The Helvetians and the Kitanese might not consent–”

Behind them, the cloth covering the entrance flapped up once more.

Yanyu Zhuge arrived then, dressed in a lovely, form-fitting, long-sleeved silk gown.

Madiha averted her gaze, but the Kitanese woman seemed to harbor no ill will.

She was smiling, and she spoke as if she had heard the entire conversation.

“A little bird told me our comrades are ready to attack.” She said, winking one eye.

Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Nocht FOB, “Ostlich Wüste”

After the punishment received at the hands of the Ayvartan superguns, the remains of the forces sent against the walls hastily retreated to the 50 kilometer “safe zone” in the desert surrounding the city. Their own gamble had failed: sneaking in units through the desert gave them access to the city past the South Solstice Front, but they could not move enough firepower to be decisive. Almost all of the Corps that had made it through was infantry and light tanks, and almost all of it had been destroyed. Now the remainder risked being trapped between the Solstice garrison and the South Solstice Front.

Progress along the coasts was slow but it was happening, but the city and the armies in the desert around it still represented a massive bulge against in the Nochtish lines. In order for the Fennec group of forces to survive, they would have to link up with either the elven coastal forces, many hundred kilometers away; or sneak back through south.

Right now, however, Von Fennec was preoccupied with assigning blame instead.

Far in the background, the tank transporters lumbered away despondently and the remaining infantry marched away alongside them. Von Fennec ordered Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather and Petra Hamalainen Happydays to follow him out behind a large boulder jutting out of the sand, and he stood them between himself and the stone.

He then started to shout at them, at first incomprehensibly. For the past few days they had been marching he had been quiet, but now he seemed to be letting it all out.

“I blame this on you, witch! We lost the superweapon, we lost massive amounts of men, we lost our shot at the wall, and all because you fell asleep on the job when you should’ve been our secret weapon! You’re nothing but a trumped-up fog machine!”

Aatto grit her teeth and closed her fists, and Petra rubbed a gentle hand across her arm as a gesture of sympathy, and to try to calm her down. Around them the air grew colder.


“Quiet, radio girl!” Von Fennec raised an index finger just a hair’s breadth away from Aatto’s face. “Us Louplanders, we’re treated as the scum of the Federation, because of people like you! Those of us who work hard and uphold the Federation’s values keep being brought down into the dirt by barbarians like you, Stormyweather! You are the reason that our kind will never make it! You disgust me! I made General in this army, the only Louplander General in the regular forces, and now look at what you’ve done to me! I will go back to the Oberkommando and be humiliated and demoted, my work undone!”

“I don’t give a shit about you or your precious Federation! Fuck you!” Aatto spat back.

“You had better start caring! Our homeland will never become anything without the Federation! That’s the work I’m trying to promote! And I thought I could have an ally in you, but you’re content to be another drunken, hedonistic bitch in my way instead!”

“General!” Petra shouted, scandalized. “Aatto’s done everything she could–”

In one brutal snap Von Fennec put his hand across Petra’s cheek, knocking her down.

“Don’t raise your voice to me!”

Aatto’s calm finally broke and the subtle cold around them became a wintry gust.

Von Fennec gasped as his throat closed. He struggled as his body raised off the ground.

“Aatto no!” Petra shouted from the ground, weeping, rubbing her cheek.

Aatto’s eyes burned with blue vapor.

The atmosphere around her was dense with power.

She had her hand outstretched, her teeth grit. She growled, and squeezed her hand as if struggling with Von Fennec’s physical throat. He thrashed and coughed in the air before her, helpless against her attack. Petra made it to her feet and grabbed hold of her, and she shouted and pleaded, but Aatto would not acknowledge her and pressed her attack.

Von Fennec’s fingers wildly struggled against his belt.

He seemed to finally shake something loose and brandished it at her.

Aatto’s eyes dimmed, and the cold dispersed from around her like a popped bubble.

Von Fennec fell to the ground, and raised himself back up, gasping for breath.

Aatto was suddenly stunned, and she moved as if in a trance, trying to raise her hands to attack Von Fennec again, but doing so too slowly and limply to have any effect.

Petra, still holding on to Aatto, looked at Von Fennec in horror.

In his hands there was a small purple cube attached to some sort of horrible little mechanical stand, like a compass with a skeletal claw set on top, clutching the cube. Every so often the little metal fingers would turn the cube on its axis, one rotation, and there would be a tiny, almost imperceptible spark of some dim, purple-black energy.

Could Petra see it because she was a little bit psychic herself?

She could feel something dreadful from it, but it didn’t have the effect it had on Aatto.

“You absolute dog.” Von Fennec gasped. “Not so mighty now?”

He struggled to walk up to Aatto and smacked her with his other hand.

“No!” Petra shouted, but she was too scared to stand up to Fennec herself.

Von Fennec ignored her, focused entirely on Aatto with a cruel, cold gaze.

“You think this wasn’t foreseen? You belong to the Federation, witch!”

Von Fennec raised the device to Aatto’s face, and the catatonic Aatto stared at it.

“This wasn’t the protocol, but to hell with it. If you won’t be an ally, you’ll be a tool.”

“Please stop!” Petra shouted.

“I said shut up, you worthless peasant!”

Von Fennec raised his hand again.

From the desert, a gunshot rang out.

Von Fennec’s fingers flew from his hand before they could come down on Petra.

Blood spurted down on his face. He brought his wounded hand down and stared at it.

He looked up at the rock; Petra looked over her own shoulder in disbelief.

Gaul Von Drachen emerged from around the stone landmark, brandishing his pistol.

“You should show a little more respect for women, Von Fennec! Do you not know the sort of things they go through? Aatto and Petra experience your oppression twofold.”

He walked nonchalantly up to Von Fennec, and kicked him in the knee.

Von Fennec fell back, screaming and thrashing, dropping the device.

“Von Drachen! You traitor! You’re turning against us! Just like you turned against the anarchists! I knew you would!” Von Fennec cried out, making as if to try to crawl away.

“Ah, you have me all wrong. I think you’re the one who betrayed our values.”

Von Drachen picked up the device he dropped, and threw it into the desert.

It struck a rock, and shattered.

At the site of the impact and upon the very second it was struck, the device issued a wave of purple-black electricity, lightning, energy — whatever one could call the effect — that surged and grew into a perfectly circular blast, a hole in reality, consuming everything. A few meters in diameter across three dimensional space, the blast seemed to sink into itself after a few seconds, and left behind a perfectly circular hole in the ground.

For a moment, it was as if it had left a perfectly circular hole in the wind too, a spot where the gently blowing sand of the desert had been consumed in mid-air.

“Huh. Interesting. Anyway, I do this for the Federation and all of that.”

Von Drachen nonchalantly aimed his pistol at Von Fennec and shot him in the head.

Petra screamed with horror.

Aatto blinked, and looked around herself in confusion.

“Oh shit, I must’ve killed the old fuck. Damn, ugh, I really did it–”

She noticed Von Drachen then.


Von Drachen shrugged for an instant.

He then shouted. “Snipers! Snipers in the desert! Double time! Double time!”

He pushed Aatto and Petra by the shoulders away from the site.

“Let us agree,” he whispered, “that Von Fennec was just a regrettable casualty of war.”

Petra was speechless and upset by everything, and merely sobbed and clung to Aatto.

Aatto, meanwhile, grinned viciously. “I won’t miss him.”

Previous Part || Next Part



Status Update II

Greetings everyone. It’s been difficult to write this post, but just to be quick and clear: I’m taking a personal break from writing The Solstice War for a few months. I intend to return to the story, but I’ve been working on this for years and it’s gotten increasingly difficult for me mentally and I need a breath of fresh air. I’m going to write something different for a bit, something mostly self contained and much simpler than The Solstice War. It will hopefully still be interesting. Everything I write has similar themes.

The Solstice War is my cherished work; both I and many people cherish it. It’s been amazing having this much support for it. But it’s also been overwhelming. I’ve felt crushed both by my own ambitions, which I set extremely high when I began this project, and also by the expectations I cultivated for it. When I started the Solstice War I had all the free time in the world and I envisioned something grand and massive. But the reality of my life is, I have to work a day job and writing doesn’t come as easily as it used to after an 8-hour shift, you know? And people love it so much. For someone with a way bigger audience, maybe it’s easy to just “do what you want,” but for me, I still read every fan mail that tells me how much The Solstice War has meant to them. And it’s really hard for me to just do whatever after that: this feels like the community’s baby, not just mine.

So this decision is tough.

It’s been especially tense because it has been supported financially. There’s been so many times lately where I’ve been thinking that if I write this post, if I do this and take this break, I’ll lose money that I’ve been using to live. I hope that isn’t the case, but it’s always possible. However that’s not to cast aspersions on all of you. You all have been nothing short of amazing for me these past few years, and I know in turn I’ve been inconsistent a ton of the time. I’ve lost several Patrons over time because of this, and I have no defense for it. I apologize sincerely for all of it. I’ve tried to explain my circumstances, but at the end of the day, it’s on me.

However, this is just something I really have to do to get my head on straight. The Solstice War is important to me, and I want to be able to do things right. I want to be able to have fun and to have passion for it. I’ve been spinning my wheels lately, and it’s not been working. I hope that getting fresh inspiration and putting down some different words will help with this. When I’m reunited with the Solstice War I want it to be great.

Until then I’ll be running a Wounded Tyrants novella in place of The Solstice War for a bit. You’ll know when that stuff starts going up! There’ll be a new page Here.

I understand if you feel you can no longer support me or my projects based on this decision. If The Solstice War was all that was keeping you here, I fully understand and support whatever decision you make about your support. I humbly ask that you stick with me for a bit, wait and see what I have cooking and give it a read. Maybe you’ll enjoy it.

E.S.P. (72.2)

This chapter contains violence and strong language.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Conqueror’s Way, Eerie Cloud

It is as true that I can win this contest as it is true that I cannot.

Everything in the world could be understood and analyzed.

Yanyu Zhuge knew this to be true. Theirs was a world of contradictions and struggles, but everything in it could be understood by human minds if they made a human effort.

Anything that couldn’t be understood now could be understood later.

Any obstacle could be surmounted; all it took was to escalate the effort to surmount.

These guiding principles allowed Yanyu to face the roaring enemy with a calm face.

“Fuck! Another one then? Well, if you’re interfering, then it’s your funeral!”

Aatto was shouting so loud that her voice was breaking.

Tired of being toyed with by Yanyu, the dog-eared woman from Loupland practically glowed with energy, encased in an aura that hissed with steam and cracked like ice.

She leaped back to her feet from the ground and charged at Yanyu without restraint.

As if viewing a beast raging from behind protective glass, Yanyu did not waver.

Minutes ago, a little bird had told Yanyu that Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather was volatile, stubborn, and a believer in the doctrine of overwhelming force. Yanyu heeded the bird.

“A gentle hand,”

Though the irate hound swung with a fist that could tear neck from head on impact, Yanyu did not give up even a step in her protected direction. She moved into the attack as Aatto closed on her, and she swept with one hand in front of her, and in a fluid motion she caught and turned away Aatto’s punch with nothing but the back of her hand.

“–guides a solid fist!”

In the next instant Yanyu countered. Just as Aatto realized that she had failed to connect, Yanyu moved, swinging against Aatto’s momentum and putting her fist like an iron wall right in the woman’s way. She connected with paralyzing force, crushing Aatto’s rib and causing the woman to stagger back, her feet shaking, her mouth drooling, eyes popping. Aatto swayed and shook as if standing amid an earthquake, and like a breeze blowing away a stack of paper, Yanyu flowed from her punching stance into a two-handed push, and blew the hound a dozen meters with a powerful gust of air, sending her tumbling.

Aatto hit the ground screaming and raging with a voice that needed no air to howl.

Despite the sound and the fury, Yanyu merely shifted back to her earlier, relaxed stance. She held her hands out in front of her, but they were not tensed, nor ready to grip. She was fluid, open, gentle. She had a confident expression, neither grin nor grimace.

Behind her, Madiha Nakar lay on her knees, shaking in place, bloody and disoriented.

Her mind was still taxed from her exertions. Yanyu couldn’t even be sure she was conscious. She had gotten too bold, and she was not used to being bold with fire.

Yanyu was used to struggling with the air; Aatto was an expert at intimidating water.

Whatever the old stories said, their power did not come from nature. Nature was in fact quite inimical to their manipulations. Yanyu did not control the wind. She struggled with it. Wind was an authority, a power, an oppressor, a thing older and greater than her in every way, and she fought it for every scrap it would give. Aatto was not loved by the water, but it feared her. She tormented it with the icy cold of her heart and home and made it her own. Meanwhile, Madiha’s relationship to fire was confused. Fire itself was apathetic to her; but she hated it. Such a relationship was erratic and it caused her grief.

“General, Chairwoman Tsung once said, ‘War can only be abolished through war’. I wanted to say those words to you because I greatly admire you, and I want you to heed them. That is all: this lowly girl will hold her tongue until you desire it henceforth.”

A little bird had told her she should say that to General Madiha Nakar.

Fulfilling missives that little birds brought her was one of Yanyu’s objectives in life.

She thought she saw a gleam of recognition in Madiha’s eyes after that, but the General was still stunned and barely breathing and could not possibly move nor respond.

There was a scream from farther down the bridge.

“You think you’re cleverer than me? Listen, bitch, I’ve seen the wind work on glaciers–”

Yanyu spotted water flying in from the sides of the bridge, gathering over the head of an Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather who had stood back up from a devastating attack as if mostly unharmed, barely panting from lost breath. Aatto forged a sphere of water the size of an outhouse, and in a flash, she froze the fluid solid and dense, holding it psionically.

“–and you don’t have years to push this one away!”

Aatto screamed and swung her arms, and as if thrown from them like a bowling ball, the sphere of ice struck the ground and slid at mounting speed toward Yanyu and Madiha.

As the missile hurtled toward her, Yanyu felt a thrill of nervous excitement and fear.

She was human and flawed just like anyone. She could only project calm, not own it.

Yanyu straightened the fingers in one hand and held the other close to her chest.

She fought with the air, she insulted it, she besmirched its honor, and it grew turbulent.

Though by outward appearances she was a polite, respectable girl, Yanyu was very rude.

Her target, however, could speak to no one but her, and was not so inclined.

As it was goaded, so did it react. Yanyu stirred the chaotic air around herself.

She saw the boulder and moved faster than her breath.

In one perfect chopping motion, she brought down her arm.

So powerful was the chop that the cloud around them also split in half down the center, creating an eye within the storm. It had the force of air itself, air primeval. It was psionic.

A crack several meters long formed along the bridge and the boulder split into two.

Both halves of the orb flowed perfectly past her and past Madiha.

Knocked off their course, the projectiles burst through the walls on either side of the bridge and went down into the river. Two massive pillars of water rose where the missiles struck, as if live ordnance had fallen in the river in place of the ice. Water sprayed and splashed over them all, as if it was raining suddenly. Yanyu teased the air, and it kept her immaculate amid the tidal waves, and Madiha, too, was protected.

Aatto closed her fists and drew in a deep breath.

Several smaller projectiles, like stalactites hanging in the air, appeared around her.

“There’s so much more where that came from! Just step aside!” She shouted.

Yanyu Zhuge knew she struggled against a hopeless situation, defending the precious general Madiha Nakar, the child of fire, from the depredations of the volatile Aatto Stormyweather of the waters. She had the sense that she could not accomplish the objective of “killing” Aatto Stormyweather. A little bird had told her as much.

Aatto had been killed before, many times. She defied conventional death.

So long as there was water, she would be back on her feet.

However, there was more to defeat in war than death.

Sometimes death was merciful.

In response to Aatto’s shout, Yanyu merely took up her stance once more.

In perfectly fluid Nochtish she replied, “Reactionaries are paper tigers.”

Frustrated, Aatto unleashed her projectiles in rapid succession.

Yanyu left Madiha’s side and leaped into the air.

She sailed clear over the icy spikes and they crashed into the ground where her feet had laid. She swept under herself with one hand, blowing a gust of wind that scattered the shrapnel away from Madiha, and propelling herself higher. She shot into the sky, and seemingly converting all her momentum she snapped suddenly toward the ground.

Aatto braced herself for an attack, but found Yanyu instead breezing a step past her.

She found herself seized by the belt, and lifted off the ground, and spun in the air.

Yanyu twisted Aatto several times as if preparing a sling and then hoisted her up.

Pushing on herself and on the air around them, agitating the wind and lessening its resistance, collecting strength in her arms and in the fluid motions of her swing, Yanyu spun Aatto a dozen times and launched her like a bola into the sky and toward the desert. She threw her at the velocity and arc that a gun might launch a shell.

Aatto went flying without resistance. She soared toward heaven with no control.

Out in the desert Aatto would have no allies and no water. She’d live; but harmlessly.

Her forces would retreat, defeated first by Madiha militarily and now again in spirit.

They would live and regroup and return because Yanyu knew she was not going to conclusively defeat Aatto this day. But she was going to protect Madiha. She would win–

Yanyu followed Aatto’s body through the parting cloud.

She felt a jolt of fear and her eyes drew wide at an inexplicable sight.

Far overhead, Aatto’s body burst like a popped bubble, disappearing instantly.

Just then a little bird brought a missive to Yanyu.

Yanyu’s entire body shook, her eyes burned with the grudging passion of the air.

You underestimated Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather, said the little bird, she is no savage, she is not a brute, you lost your humility, you fell to pride, she tricked you, she ambushed you.

Yanyu had thought she felt little to no undue emotion for the past several minutes.

But overwhelmingly, she knew she had felt pride. She had felt superiority.

She expressed her pride in her every motion, in every rehearsed step she took.

Yanyu had the power to tell many things ahead of when they would occur.

She had manipulated the air with pride and she in turn, was manipulated by pride.

All around her, there was water.

When she turned away Aatto’s attack, water had gone everywhere.

Now Aatto rose suddenly from behind her, right out of the water.

She trained a zwitscherer pistol at Madiha’s temple, taking her hostage.

“Oh, what’s wrong? Got taken advantage of by a fur-tailed savage?”

Yanyu stared, speechless, her jaw shaking, her eyes so wide they were tearing up.

Aatto laughed at her. “I was a bandit in Loupland for years! I did nothing but set up ambushes on people who thought me some lowly beast! How’s it feel to be just like the Noctish you so despise, communist? Both in your ignorance and in your desperation.”

Aatto psionically pulled back the bolt and prepared the gun to fire.

“You two have made me really irate! I am still shaking mad. And I have all the power here, because you care about this girl a lot, don’t you? Madiha Nakar. So you’ll do what I say, or else she’ll even more literally brain-dead than she looks right now. Got that?”

She turned the gun against the stunned Madiha’s head as if twisting a knife.

Yanyu’s mind was racing.

She was not ready for this turn; everything had changed suddenly.

Back home, she had always acted so methodically. To a point, she was always ready.

And when things changed, it wasn’t so dramatic.

Then again, she had never met someone like herself before.

Someone who made events change dramatically. Someone who fought history.

Sometimes for better.

Often for the worse.

“Don’t do it.”

Madiha Nakar had a miserable, resigned look in her face.

“We do not bow to the wishes of the imperialist. Yanyu Zhuge, kill her.”

“Shut up! I’ll shoot you!”

There was no fear in her eyes. There was fire again. Passion. Misguided passion.

“So be it! Yanyu Zhuge, split her in pieces and split the pieces after that. Crush every bone, cut every sinew, splatter her brain! Let’s see her reform herself from that!”

Aatto and Madiha struggled and Yanyu sighed, frustrated, exhausted.

There was Madiha Nakar’s relationship to fire once more.

Self-hatred and a death wish paired with a grudging excitement toward violence.

Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

E.S.P. (72.1)

This scene contains violence.

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way

Wordlessly, the battle began.

Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.

Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.

Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.

Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.

E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.

It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.

Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.

It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.

Something frighteningly like an instinct.

“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.

Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”

She needled her.

Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.

Water started to rise once more.

She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.

Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.

She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.

Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.

“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”

Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.

“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.

“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I do.”

She had some kind of armor on her body.

Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.

Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–

As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.

“You’re not the only one with tricks!”

Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.

In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.

Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.

Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.

Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways.  When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.

Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.

Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.

Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.

It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.

Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.

“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”

At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.

She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.

Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.

Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.

Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.

“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”

She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.

Or she was an idiot who talked too much.

Madiha pushed again — on herself.

She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.

Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.

For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.

Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.

Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.

She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.

“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”

Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.

She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.

“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”

Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.

Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.

Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.

Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.

She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.

She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.

“Use your inside voice–!”

Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.

She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.

Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.

Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.

Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.

For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.

Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.

Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.

She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.

Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.

She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.

Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.

Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”

She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.

That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.

“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”

Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?

Or was it just low-key misogyny?

Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.

It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.

Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.

There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.

Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.

Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.

All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.

Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.

There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.

But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.

She realized that she could take something else.

“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”

Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.

Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.

She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.

Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.

Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.

“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”

Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.

Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.

“No, no, no, no, no–”

Aatto grit her teeth.

“No! Stop it!”

She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.

Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.

Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.

Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.

Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.

Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.

Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.

She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.

She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.

Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.

Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.

Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.

Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.

She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.

“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”

She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.

Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.

She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.

Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.

“What the hell–?”

Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.

Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her.  She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.

Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.

“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.

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