BERSERKER (71.3)

Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she trusted her lover to return to her.

Madiha turned back to the desert.

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

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

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

“I’ll direct it from below!”

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

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

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

“Across the enemy side! Annihilating fire!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, Von Drachen.” Madiha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes ma’am!”

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

“Something wrong?” Madiha asked.

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

Then Chadgura turned to the bridge, and pointed.

“It’s Gulab.” She said.

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

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

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

“Ow! That, stings, Charvi,”

“Be brave. I love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

From her hip pack, she produced a gas mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She dropped suddenly mid-run.

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

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

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

“Huh. You avoided it.”

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

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

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

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

“Get out of my way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She knew it immediately. This was the Champion.

“Madiha Nakar.” She said.

Across from her, the woman grinned viciously.

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

“Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather.”

Their next instant went fast as lightning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You and me both.” Madiha replied.

There was something ushering them forward, driving them insane.

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

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

And it bayed for blood.


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BERSERKER (71.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death, and brief homophobia.


To the outside world it seemed Loupland was covered in a perpetual snow.

In the spring, however, Loupland thawed just like the world beyond the arctic sea.

Green grasses peered from under their blanket of snow. Flowers, covered in cold dew, rose from the earth, seeking the returning sun. It was the eye in the storm that seemed to consume the little country. A respite from the blizzards. In days gone by, the folk would have come out to till the fields and hold markets and dance under the festival wreaths.

Times changed, but at least the children still laughed and played.

That spring, a little girl from the village decided to go climb the mountain. She did not climb far, but she climbed far for a child. For a child, she felt she had climbed the entire mountain, in her kirtle and smock, getting dirty, laughing aloud and alone. She climbed over big boulders and ran up little hills and after an hour or two she could look back and see the village below her like a little brown square etched on the green and white earth.

On that day and atop that climb, the little girl met a demon on the mountain.

She was scared at first, to see the creature bundled up in a cloak, huffing and puffing and making noises to scare her away. But her curiosity led her to draw nearer to the monster and to stare into its eyes, and she laughed and called it a little imp and ruffled its cloak.

“I’m not an imp.” said the creature dejectedly.

“Can I stay here and play?” asked the village girl.

“Whatever. Don’t tell anyone about me.” replied the imp.

She returned the next day, and found the imp again and brought some food.

She found the imp not wanting for food, its lair strewn with frozen bones.

She returned the next day and brought the imp toys since it was clearly a child.

She found the imp to be a girl by her choice of a doll, which she clung to tightly.

She returned the next day and brought the imp a kirtle and a little smock.

“I don’t wanna dress up.” said the imp dejectedly.

“Will you dress up for me?” asked the village girl.

“No!”

And the imp dressed in the kirtle and smock, but kept her cloak wrapped around herself.

“I’ll come back with more tomorrow!”

“You really do not have to.”

She returned the next day having brought a blanket, stitched up into a cloak.

“Will you wear this for me?” asked the village girl.

“Ugh.”

She helped the imp into her new cloak.

She found the imp had a furry little tail, and she wagged her own furry little tail.

Day after day, the village girl awakened early, ate her porridge and drank her milk quickly, and ran off laughing and smiling to the mountain to play with her newfound friend. She showed her friend many things from the village, fruits and toys and sweets. The imp barely played, choosing mostly to watch, but it was enough that she remained. She followed the village girl wherever the village girl wanted, and they explored the caves and crevices of the mountain, and climbed higher and lower, and had fun.

One day the imp stopped the village girl and spoke to her in a new voice.

“Want to see something strange?”

“Yes! Show me!”

Eager to learn anything at all about her new friend, the village girl followed the imp to a spring formed out of thawing ice, where the imp reached down into the water, and took from it a big fistful of frost. As her hand rose from the water, the spring froze where the fist had entered, the little waves and ripples on its surface etched hard in the ice.

She really was a demon! A demon that could do witchcraft! It was amazing!

Never had the village girl been this excited.

“Promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”

“I promise!”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”

“I won’t! I never have!”

And so the village girl returned home, and every day she would leave for the mountains to play again, and she enjoyed many moons of the thaw season in this fashion. But the thaw season was too short for the village and too short for the girl. Soon the snows began to blow over Loupland once more, and the thaw season, and its thaw jobs began to wane.

Despite this the village girl was resolved. Whenever she had no lessons or finished them early, she would put on her coat, put on warm leggings and thick boots, and she would go out, though the mountain was treacherous and slippery. Though she even took a few bumps, the village girl was very brave and made it to the Imp’s hideout without fail.

“Stop coming here.” Said the imp.

“No! Lets play.”

Reluctant as always the little imp would play with the village girl.

“Soon we’ll be separated by the ice. Or something else.” said the imp.

“No! Lets play.” replied the village girl.

She made a great effort to meet her friend whenever she could.

However, the village around her was changing. With the coming of the snow, there were more people walking the street with nothing to do, crowding the shops and bars, being loud. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt dangerous to go outside, but the village girl kept going, heedless of anyone’s caution. Her routine went unchanged.

One day, however, without her noticing, three men followed her right to the mountain.

They had bottles in their hands, and strange expressions on their faces.

“Every bloody day you leave the village, and come here, for what? Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“Little girls shouldn’t be running around making a racket when the village is struggling.”

“You’re too carefree! It pisses everybody off. What’s up here that’s so special?”

They reminded the village girl of her own father; drunk, jobless, shouting every word.

She felt very nervous, and could not answer their questions, and it made them irate.

“Didn’t your mother teach you respect? Huh? You think you can look down on us?”

One of the men shoved the girl down at the maw of the imp’s cave, and she cried.

In the next instant, the imp stepped out from the shadowed rocks.

She gazed coldly at the men and they gazed quizzically back at her.

“Who’s this? Why she hiding out here? Who’s daughter is she?”

“I’m nobody’s daughter. Go away.”

Confused, the drunks commiserated while the imp stared all of them down.

“Huh? What’s with that tone, you brat? You think you can talk to us like that?”

All three men had emptied their bottles and held them like clubs.

Across from them the imp stood unfazed.

Her tail stretched straight behind her, and her ears were raised in alert.

Meanwhile the village girl tried to calm everybody down.

“She’s not bad! She plays with me! She’s just living out here. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You shut up, you brat. You wanna get hit again?”

One of the men raised an arm to strike the village girl with cruel ease.

In mid-air, the arm stopped moving.

The Imp’s eyes turned icy blue.

“What is–”

Suddenly the man started to scream.

His raised arm started to shake, and his whole body contorted in pain. Dark black veins threaded visibly through her skin, becoming harder and sharper as if the blood inside them was thickening, hardening, stretching. Everyone present watched in horror as the man’s arm started to peel away along lines of the sinews like a blossoming flower of skin and gore, and the stem, blood frozen sharp right under his skin, glowing, and glowing!

The captive man was in such pain and terror that he could not scream anymore. He slobbered and twitched and hung as if his arm was dangling from an invisible shackle, suspended by some unknown force like a sack of meat, the blood in his veins freezing.

“Aatto no!” shouted Petra, little village girl Petra who only wanted everyone to get along.

“It’s a witch! It’s a witch! Kill her! Kill her!”

In an insane frenzy the remaining two men charged past their dying ally, bottles in hand.

“I’m sorry Petra, but you can’t hear what is in their disgusting heads like I can.”

Aatto, Petra’s friend, the mystical little imp of the mountain, raised her hand and without expression, pushed on the men and sent them flying off the mountainside, their bodies twisting and smashing and clinging to the snow and rock, collecting into balls of slush and blood. Blood drew from her nose and from her eyes, her glowing, icy-blue eyes.

Petra saw it, the blue steam that emanated from Aatto whenever she committed this sin.

She rushed to her friend and hugged her around the waist, weeping openly into her.

“Why are you crying?” Aatto shouted angrily. “They were going to hurt you!”

“I’m not crying for them.” Petra said, sobbing and screaming. “I’m crying for you!”

At Petra’s touch, the steam started to calm, and Aatto started to shake. She wept a little.

“Shut up, Petra. I did a good thing for once. I did a good thing.” Aatto muttered.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

“Aatto! Open up!”

Atop a wooden staircase, Petra banged on the door of the camp’s command center module, a small air-conditioned mobile home set on the bed of a tank transporter. She saw beads of water dancing on the shuttered windows, and could feel air coming from under the door, so she knew Aatto was inside. She banged on the door twice, but there was no response. Behind her, General Von Fennec tapped his feet on the step impatiently.

“Why did she lock herself in here? I’ll have you both know this is my command center!”

Petra sheepishly turned to the General with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.

“Ah, well, Aatto really doesn’t like the heat, anything above 20 celsius is bad for her see–”

“Get that door open this instant, and that punk out in the desert fighting! Now!”

“Yes sir!”

Petra twisted sharply back around to face the door and started to twist the handle.

She brought a foot up to the door and kicked it, doing little to move it.

Though she had basic combat training, Petra Hamalainen Happydays was not a fighter, but a support officer. Specifically, a radio operator, as well as deputy to Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather. She was, compared to the tall and fit Lt. Stormyweather, smaller, plumper, and far less capable of battering down a door. She stopped for a moment to tie her golden hair up into a ponytail, her tail swishing to and fro with excitement.

This pause to gather herself before her next attack prompted Von Fennec to scoff.

“Good god you’re all so useless. Out of my way!”

Von Fennec pushed Petra aside, and put his shoulder up to the door.

In the next instant, the General charged the door, and the door suddenly opened.

Von Fennec tumbled into the room, smashing into the carpet.

Petra stood at the doorway, her hands raised in alarm.

“Petra,” someone mumbled in an aggrieved-sounding tone.

Inside the command center, behind Von Fennec’s desk, was Aatto herself, seated sloppily on a rotating chair with her arms dangling, her head thrown back. Her black uniform jacket and shirt were both unbuttoned down to the belly, bearing glistening brown skin and a hint of muscle — and well over a hint of her breasts, her brassiere’s central clip snapped apart so as to almost fully bare them also. Her hair was down, long and black. She was sweating like, well, a dog; all of her body was profusely moist, and her icy blue eyes looked like they would roll back into her head. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

“Petra, I’m dying.” Aatto said. “Petra it’s 44 degrees. I am going to die here.”

Sighing, Petra wiped sweat from her own brow and maneuvered around the fallen Von Fennec as carefully as she could. She rushed to Aatto’s side and immediately fastened her brassiere back and started to unbutton her shirt and jacket, trying to save her dignity.

“Aatto you’re an officer now! And in an army of men! You can’t behave this way!”

“Petra, I’m absolutely going to die. I am melting.” Aatto mumbled.

She fixed Petra with a pathetic look. She had absolutely beautiful eyes, even then.

Petra tried not to stare too deep into them as she fixed the Lieutenant back up.

“Aatto, you slob! You barbarian!”

Petra sighed again, and behind her, Von Fennec helped himself up from the ground.

“You have a mission, you witch! You monster! Go out there this instant.”

“Petra, I’m so hot.” Aatto said, ignoring Von Fennec.

Von Fennec grit his teeth, while on the chair Aatto swooned and slumped.

“Aatto!”

Petra raised a hand to Aatto’s brow and found her blazing hot.

She couldn’t spot any of the blue steam, the sign that Aatto had overdone it with her ESP.

So it was not a supernatural malady — that fact scared Petra even more.

She could, somehow, heal Aatto’s self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she couldn’t heal this.

“She’s burning up, General!” Petra said.

Von Fennec stood, silent, stupefied.

“If I lose her, and the Vishap, and Von Drachen. My career– no, I’ll be over! I’ll be killed!”

He rushed to the desk and started shaking Aatto.

Petra grabbed hold of him and shoved him back.

“This isn’t helping, General!”

“Do something Petra! Do something for God’s sake!”

“I regret so much. I’ll never get to marry Petra.” Aatto said.

Von Fennec blinked and stopped struggling. Petra covered her mouth, scandalized.

“WHAT?” She then shouted.

“We’ll never get to raise a litter of pups–”

“EXCUSE ME?” Petra shouted again.

Von Fennec took a step back from the chair and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

He then suddenly kicked the chair, knocking it from under Aatto.

“Lieutenant Stormyweather, I order you to assault Conqueror’s Way this instant! Your sexual deviancy will be overlooked if you succeed!” General Von Fennec shouted.

On the floor, Aatto started laughing uproariously, and the room suddenly cooled.

It was as if all the heat of the desert had been extinguished with a thought.

“Will do, General Von Fennec! Just give me some water and a target.” Aatto said.

“There’s an entire goddamn river where you’re going! Move! Both of you!”

Petra, mortified, red in the face, and far more tantalized by these sapphic ideas than any good girl of Loupland should be, stormed off with her hands balled into fists, stomping.

Aatto raised herself off the ground, and looked out the door with distress.

“Wait, Petra! I wasn’t kidding! Let’s get married!”

She ran out the door herself, Von Fennec staring at her back with gritted teeth.

Like Petra, he too knew the weapon that lurked inside that oafish bush-tailed girl.


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Status Update

I apologize for the lack of communication.

During the past month I fell into a deep depression and it made it very hard to work. There’s been some big changes in life, and something very painful, personal and dangerous happened to me that I’m not comfortable going into details about. I’m safe right now, but it’s been very hard to get back on the horse and Make Some Content. If you follow me on twitter and tumblr you might see me post and think “well, Madiha looks like she’s doing fine!” But those are my little respites. People who know me more personally know that I’ve been struggling a lot. There’s been times this past month where I have straight up just wanted to give up. Where it felt impossible to continue.

So, I want everyone here to know and understand that I desperately want to be able to continue The Solstice War. To do more creative stuff. To start new projects, to make more podcasts, to play with video, to Do More. Your support has been invaluable to me. I work a rather miserable day job that leaves me with no money to put toward my future, to get some entertainment, or to buy the tools I’ve needed to do my creative works. Heck, it was the money from my Patreon and from books and donations that built the computer I’m using right now and it was that money that fixed this computer when it broke last Sunday.

Y’all and your support have been my future and my hope all this time. Things have gotten dark, and have gotten hard, and I’ve been doing my best to try to recover. I wanted to let you know that. I don’t know when I’ll be able to write my next thing or do my next podcast or make a video or anything right now. I’m trying to get back in, but it’s been hard. It’s harder than it seems. I’m so grateful for your support and I want to ask for your understanding and your patience as well. I’m trying to get out from the dark. Please bear with me.

BERSERKER (71.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — Armaments Hill

Premier Daksha Kansal saw the smoke trail from the Prajna shots trace the sky outside her window. She steepled her fingers on her desk, and waited for news. For the Prajna to fire required her authorization: she was informed of every target, of the ammunition to be used and the aftermath of the attack. Prajna ammunition was valuable and hard to manufacture. It was quite alarming then, that the Prajnas had been fired several dozen times since the Nochtish army moved within its 50 kilometer maximum range.

While she waited, she went over a packet of disparate combat reports given to her by her SIVIRA, the overall HQ unit for the Golden Army. There was no connection between the reports: a battle report from Sahr, a month ago; three weeks ago a skirmish between a patrol unit and an elven forward element around Kharabad; five days ago, a sniping shootout between a special agent of the KVW and a Jager from the Nochtish army.

There was only one connecting thread. All of the men and women highlighted in these reports for their heroics, gallantry, and exemplary bravery in holding back the enemy, had died cementing their legends. Daksha had to review each case so she could write a letter awarding them the title of Hero of the Socialist Peoples. It would have been an affront to them to simply send a form letter to their grieving parents. Every Hero Daksha crowned would receive a full accounting. Even if she had to spend hours and hours.

She never shook; she never wept. She had given every tear years and years ago. But she was not an automaton. It was exhausting work. Her eyes often wandered away from it.

Often she begged silently for any respite from it.

Sometimes, like on that day, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in.” Daksha said.

Through the double doors, a small entourage of blonde-haired, blue-eyed and blue-dressed Helvetians arrived, accompanied by a single Ayvartan staffer from the SIVIRA. Chief among them was Larissa Finesse, a comely blond woman with a cold expression, dressed in a bright blue coat and fur cap that seemed utterly out of place in the Ayvartan spring. She arrived, nodded her head toward Daksha and stretched out a hand.

Daksha shook with her at arm’s length, briefly and with a face just as dispassionate.

“You look professional, Premier. I am pleased with how you’ve made up.” Larissa said.

“Are you here to flirt? I’m not interested.” Daksha replied with a grin.

Larissa turned up her nose and crossed her arms at the jab. “I am not predisposed toward older women; at any rate it is not flirting, but relevant to my purpose.”

“You know the city’s being shot at? I thought you’d have run farther north.”

“I am staying here.” Larissa said bluntly. “I’m not some lend-lease bean counter, I’m a diplomat, and Solstice is a diplomatic nexus. I am unafraid to remain, Premier.”

Daksha had to admit, she thought low of Larissa, and this was turning her around.

“I appreciate it. So, why have I been blessed with a visit from so fine a lady?”

Larissa narrowed her eyes.

“Now who’s flirting?”

Daksha chuckled. “I’m married now, you know.”

“That has never stopped anyone.”

“You’d know?”

Both women seemed to then become aware of the staffers staring at them.

“At any rate,” Larissa finally said. “Helvetia is on a war footing for the first time in many years, Premier, and the Helvetian people are still very ignorant of our allies. I wish to run a series of propaganda ads and filmed shorts on both you and Stahl. I want to sell you to the Helvetians, and in so doing, sell your nations to them to build confidence.”

“And you’re starting with me? Stalh would have flirted you all through the night.”

Daksha always had to get in the last barb. It was not altogether untrue; she took this line of attack because while Larissa made a career for herself shouting hoarse about what a tyrant Daksha Kansal was, the Premier knew foreign diplomats tended to mingle in their work. And there was no more bothersome libel than one which was partially true.

Some of the staffers chuckled, while Larissa closed her fists and glared daggers.

“Don’t tell her I said that.” Daksha winked. It was bad diplomacy, perhaps, but Helvetians were irksome, and also too beholden to Ayvartans now to be able to begrudge anything.

Larissa scoffed. “Behind the makeup and the suit you’re still a vulgar bandit, I see.”

Daksha raised a hand to her chest, in a mock girlish way. “Larissa, you’ll find I possess many qualities beloved by the Helvetians, starting with my sense of humor. Why, I am also a strong advocate of human rights, and a complete, unrepentant féministe.”

“Yes, well. Unfortunately, you will be allowed to make that rosy case.” Larissa said.

It was true that Daksha was still rowdy at heart, but she was a popular leader now.

To this effect, Daksha had changed just a little. She had her hair cut shorter, and she arranged it in a bun. She wore reading glasses, and even a bit of makeup. She felt like a strict school teacher, all prim and proper and dolled up. She wore the same uniform, but laden with impressive titles and awards that inspired confidence and served as evidence of her leadership skill. For once in her life, she was wearing her Hero of Socialist Labor medals. Her physical appearance had changed a little too. There were a few more lines of age creeping around her eyes, mouth and cheek, creasing the dark skin. Her hair was a little more white in places and less black in others. She was less fit; not lifting as much.

All part of her transformation into the metaphorical mother of the Ayvartan people.

Like Lena, she was to be a symbol of the motherland, a literal socialist mother.

Her wayward children were under her wing, protected, guided, provided for.

She received a starring role in posters and newsreels and other propaganda. In her customary uniform, with her hair in a bun and glasses on her face, looking sternly at cowards and thieves, smiling reassuringly at the injured, gazing solemnly at soldiers on the battlefield and grinning with delight at soldiers in battle performing heroic deeds. Premier Daksha Kansal: military leader, civilian star role model, and yes, mom to all.

Some of her propagandists went as far as to suggest she become a literal mother until she snapped and told them of both her lesbianism and the inability of even the notorious “gender miracle worker” Dr. Willhelmina Kappel to give a child to two sapphic women.

Despite the artifice, it was useful now that she had the eye of people beyond Ayvarta.

“I look forward to seeing what becomes of me once the footage is cut.” Daksha said.

“I’ve half a mind to edit them as I used to with my editorials on you. But I’ll be gentle.”

Larissa was hissing venomously now, which was music to Daksha’s ears.

“We should begin filming post-haste.” She said, once she had collected herself from her momentary anger at Daksha’s scandalous attacks. “Getting some war footage will show everyone the state of Solstice. They will be sympathetic and will cry with us for justice.”

Daksha lturned her head to get a quick glance at the state of the capital.

Since the “siege” of Solstice had begun it felt like the sky overhead was turning grey from all the shell smoke. Solstice was changing. It was becoming hardened to this state of war. Looking through the glass leading to the balcony, Daksha could see the sky and much of Solstice’s skyline stretching out below. Armaments Hill was one of the highest points in Solstice, and the city flowed outside that window like the texture on a complex painting, the bumps of millions of small houses, the sharp, thick thrusts of the city’s few ‘scrapers, ten and twenty stories tall, the deft twists of the brush that created roads, and the walls, the massive walls that protected them all, stone giants in the horizon standing sentinel.

Solstice was enduring a pounding today, but all of those trails in the sky that signified war, were also emblematic of resistance. They were fighting; and yet undefeated.

In that, Solstice had not changed. It was still The Invincible City in the red desert.

And Daksha had to make sure that it remained as such.

“Very well. But I’m waiting for the results of an attack. I should have them soon–”

Before Larissa had a chance to hear her defer the meeting, the double doors opened suddenly and without a knock for a rather mismatched pair of folk Daksha did not remember ever meeting. Larissa gave them a quizzical look as they walked up to Daksha’s desk, and bowed their heads together. She and her staff stood aside. Man and woman, but it was clear they had no connection. He was a Helvetian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed; blue uniformed, too. An older man with groomed facial hair and a beret.

She was a young woman, perhaps around Madiha’s age, svelte and fit, her skin a light tan, her green eyes folded in the way characteristic to easterners. Likely Kitanese, she was fairly tall, long-limbed, elegant, mature. She dressed in a refined, sleeveless shirt that resembled the top half of a mandarin gown, along with a pair of tight silk trousers and cloth shoes, all a resplendent green. Her hair was cut above the shoulder, brown and loose but fine and groomed, her bangs swept so as not to cover her eyes and the rearmost locks of her hair flared ever so slightly up, like a bird’s raised tail feathers.

“Premier, it is an honor.” said the man. “And Lady Larissa, I did not expect to see you, I apologize, but I am fresh off the boat as I can be. I am Captain Hayter Durand of the Helvetian Naval Expeditionary Forces: East. I am glad I could make it here so quickly. When I heard Solstice was under attack, I feared the worst. Sorry about the short notice.”

Daksha chuckled. “It was such short notice that I wasn’t notified at all.” She said.

At Durand’s side the girl raised a delicate hand to her painted lips and laughed.

Larissa glared at Durand, and especially seemed to target his rank insignia.

“Excuse me, Premier, Lady.” Durand said. “I spoke with the war counsel, Chakma–”

“It’s fine, you’re here now.” Daksha said, quickly and bluntly. “I’m interested in why a Helvetian would leave the Eastern theater for the South, and especially why he would be in a hurry to meet in this besieged city. You are a long way from your post, Captain.”

“Yes, we would all like some explanation.” Larissa said, in a deliberate, venomous tone.

“Apologies. I was part of the task force assigned to transfer manpower requested from Helvetian commands to the Golden Army for Lend Lease.” Durand said. “As per the terms of the Pact. The Helvetian Expeditionary Corps has been fighting for some time already, but, Helvetia promised you an army, and we have delivered the rest of that army today.”

Durand nodded with a smile toward the young woman, and she bowed her head.

“I am Yanyu Zhuge, commander of the Kitanese 8th Route Army.” She said.

Yanyu spoke in a way that almost magic. Her voice was lovely, for sure, but it was the easy, fluent way with which she handled Ayvartan that was most captivating of all. It reminded her of when Madiha spoke foreign languages. It was almost as if she was not saying anything foreign, but instead was simply being understood no matter her speech.

There was an air of refinement and a breezy regality to her that was quite stunning.

“Zhuge, the star of the Kitanese communists. I’ve heard of your exploits.” Larissa said.

She crossed her arms and continued to glance between icily Durand and Yanyu.

Daksha blinked and looked over the girl. “I see. You’re far from home also, comrade.”

Yanyu crossed her arms over her breast and smiled easily at Daksha.

“Premier, it is because I recognize this is the true battleground of world communism.”

Durand seemed to shudder at the concept, but he aired none of his thoughts on it.

Larissa’s expression remained unchanged.

For Yanyu it seemed natural, every word she said. In fact, she seemed subtly eager.

“Your homeland is facing its own communist struggle. I don’t know that I can in good conscience accept your forces here, while your homes and comrades are in danger.”

Daksha did not really mean that. She would take any forces she could get. Not out of desperation, at least not yet, but to stack the deck. Every rifle was a good rifle where she stood. However, she wanted to test Yanyu. She wanted her to say something revealing. Daksha had little contact with the Kitan Red Guards since their inception. She had sent nominal aid, along with Svechtha, but both countries wanted to lay low on the world stage, and openly stoking the flames of Kitanese civil war seemed a fool move then.

She wondered whether Yanyu held a grudge. Whether Yanyu had an agenda here.

Perhaps it was because she just got done talking to a snake like Larissa, but Daksha was skeptical of this development. The Helvetians, bringing communists here to her? And Larissa seemed surprised and vexed by this. Surely this kind of thing was her doing?

Waiting for her answer, Daksha watched as Yanyu put on a cheerful, girlish smile.

It was a smile that reminded her eerily of another little daughter of the revolution.

It broke, momentarily, that air of reserved, mature, empress-like determination.

However, her words were just as easy, just as fluent as ever, even in that girlish voice.

“Premier, should communism fall in Ayvarta, it would have no hope in Yu. We read books from you and Lena Ulyanova in our schools in the mountains of southern Kitan. Nationalist tyrants burn your books as they burn our villages; Hanwan imperialists do the same. We have our own words and concepts and ideas, and our own identity as communists, and so we are aware that we cannot suffer the loss of Ayvarta. Our words aren’t being burned. Kitanese communism is patient and well-guarded. Do not worry.”

Daksha felt almost moved. Some part of her was still on its tiptoes, claws ready, subtly wondering if she was being deliberately disarmed. Yanyu looked completely innocent. She was telling the truth, Daksha thought. She believed, like Madiha believed. She talked like that girl did. Raised on the red books, selfless in sacrificing herself for other’s sake.

She glanced at Larissa, who in turn closed her eyes and seemed to take a step back.

“Very well. So this army is part of the forces Helvetia promised.” Daksha said. For now she had to hold back her latent drive to praise and cheer the young, and remain neutral toward Yanyu. Instead she addressed Durand again. “However, Kitan has never been part of the Pact agreements, since its recognized government is unwilling to speak with a communist nation. So I must ask where Helvetia stands on using the Kitanese for this.”

“I would comment, but it seems I have been circumvented.”

“I apologize, Lady Larissa. This was part of the wishes of the Kitanese under Helvetia’s charge, and a decision of the Helvetian GQG.” Durand then turned to Daksha. “There’s not just Kitanese people in this army, Premier. Lady Zhuge should explain this–”

Yanyu joined in. “A sizable part of the 8th Route Army are communist volunteers from other parts of the world. Communists from every continent are among us: Aglians, Ayvartans, Borelians, Yuans, Occideans, and even a battalion of Nochtish communists.”

“So Helvetia started a volunteer drive for us?” Daksha asked.

Larissa openly and disdainfully shrugged.

“Negative, Premier.” Yanyu said. “These were people inspired to fight for Kitan based on their own convictions. Many have fought imperialism for a decade now. They organized among themselves and decided to leave when the 8th Route Army left Kitan and came to fight here. Not all of them ascribe to our views. Some are liberals, I’m sorry to say; some are anarchists; and so on. But they have traveled with the struggle for longer than I.”

“So they’re irregulars.” Daksha replied, a bit coldly. That detail mattered, and she was not as happy to have received from Helvetia a dozen battalions of ragtag fools with a poor materialist analysis of the world as opposed to a modern Chasseur division or three. Was it not lady Tsung herself who said to struggle against liberalism? This was disappointing.

“Don’t worry!” Yanyu waved her hands in front of herself as if to dismiss the concern. “We’re all disciplined and we will follow your rules. Besides, the volunteers are only one division and I’ve got three. My reliable Red Guards compose the other two divisions.”

Had Daksha never met Madiha before, Yanyu would have looked ridiculous, a girl not even out of her twenties talking about her divisions like she knew what war was. However, Madiha and her entire warring generation existed. This was their war, a war that young people fought and led in. Yanyu felt like her country’s miracle worker.

Which made Daksha feel almost guilty when she decided then and there to keep her.

“Alright, I appreciate the aid, Yanyu Zhuge. It is an honor to have you here.”

“Premier, do not thank me yet. I have not yet been useful to you, and furthermore, I lend my aid in part because I would like to ask a favor of you.” Yanyu said. “And I believe Mr. Durand’s GQG friends have a favor to ask from you also. You are welcome to decline.”

Daksha blinked, and leaned forward, steepling her fingers once more. “I am listening.”

“I would like to meet Madiha Nakar.” Yanyu said, her voice suddenly serious.

“That’s all? You could have met her for free. She’s like my daughter.” Daksha said.

Yanyu looked a little surprised and a bit red in the face and averted her eyes.

“Lady Larissa, and Premier Kansal.” Durand said with a more serious air than before. “My message from Army GQG is this. Helvetia is right now fighting the Nochtish forces in the Arctic ring and we are also preparing for land invasions of Mauricia and Afarland. We hope to be in Lubon in a year’s time. We absolutely require Ayvarta’s help in creating another front, this one in Kitan and the far eastern sea, if Solstice survives the year.”

Daksha tapped her fingers together in the steeple. This was sudden.

It would not be the last sudden thing that day.

Before Larissa could vent her growing outrage at this demand and her lack of a role in its inception, and before Daksha could say even a word in response, the air in the room grew very still and thin. All sounds they wanted to emit were then stifled and quenched.

In front of them, Yanyu’s eyes glowed.

Green rings appeared around her irises, and she seemed to shake in place.

She’s coming.” Yanyu said, as if in a trance. “Madiha’s in danger.”


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“Ah! What cruel god to have created the waters! I despise them!”

Though he had learned to swim, Von Drachen was still far from the most proficient swimmer, and all of his men were already up and fighting by the time he extracted himself from the water, breathing heavily and struggling to stand. He was pulled up to the barrier by a soldier in a black wetsuit, and found many more of his soldiers fighting already. They had the good fortune to have hit ground near a portion of the bridge where a tower had fallen over, providing good rubble for cover. His men pulled submachine guns free from waterproof bags and enfiladed the Ayvartan portions near the gate.

All manner of red tracers went flying over his head as he got settled.

There was a blazing exchange of gunfire happening as Von Drachen entered the scene. Across the bridge from him there were a dozen Ayvartans around a the remains of a collapsed, bullet-riddled tent, shooting back with a machine gun and rifles. This was likely their command post. Their cover was sparse, however, while his own men had the strong, chest-high concrete barriers. There were Ayvartans scattered all about, fighting ineffectively from any isolated rubble. He had successfully flanked the lot of them.

And this close to the gate, the wall gunners could not adequately target him.

Water was vile, but swimming was a powerful ability.

His own men fought with discipline. They engaged in groups of three submachine gunners, peeking up from the barriers, shooting at targets of opportunity, and then hiding from return fire while three more men attacked from farther up or further down the barrier. Though their position was confined to the left side of the bridge, they had many men and various angles from which they could shoot. While half his men engaged he ordered the remainder to crawl down the bridge and climb the rubble to flank.

Meanwhile, Von Drachen produced his own bag, and pulled his uniform from it.

“Keep fighting,” he said, “our lively friend is on its way.”

Von Drachen buttoned up his coat and put on his shoes in time to watch the Vishap come barreling through the second gate. He smiled, and he clapped for it, standing up to greet it alongside three of his men, dutifully firing on the Ayvartan position and suppressing it while he showed his support. To be the first man inside Solstice; what an honor–

In the next instant, the smile on Von Drachen’s face twitched as the Vishap exploded.

Already worse for wear, the Vishap was blown forward by an unseen blast and propelled across the bridge. Sliding on a streak of flame, throwing up rubble and churning up the bridge floor, the crippled superweapon came to rest, wheels spinning helplessly, its gun staring into space, almost off the edge of the Conqueror’s Way, with no line to the gate.

Von Drachen clapped his hands one final time and crouched with his back to the barrier.

“Hmm. Plan B.”

He waved over one of his men who was crouched with him.

He had a large waterproof pack with an X marking on it.

“Alvarez, we’re deploying the C-10 on the gate.” Von Drachen said.

Alvarez looked as if he was surprised to be addressed by name.

Von Drachen, puzzled by the reaction, tried to explain his orders once more.

He did not count on a far louder sound than his voice rising suddenly nearby.

A shell sailed over the collecting heads of Von Drachen’s platoon and struck the wall.

Rock and shrapnel exploded out from the impact and rained down on the bridge.

Von Drachen covered his head.

“Looks like our so-called superweapon is still alive!” Von Drachen shouted.

He peered over the barrier, briefly glancing over to Alvarez to find him dead, his forehead crushed by a stone come flying from the wall. He frowned at the sight.

Seizing Alvarez’s explosive pack, he pushed the corpse into the river.

“Water burials are honored in some countries.” He told the rest of his men.

Many of them stared at him.

“Look at the road! Our injured friend has company, you know!”

Von Drachen pointed to the Ayvartan side of the bridge.

Against the wishes of a shouting officer, it seemed, several men and women desperate to see the Vishap stopped once and for all ran out of cover with grenades in their hands.

This breach of discipline was most opportune. Von Drachen ordered covering fire.

His men rose as one from behind the concrete barrier and opened fire.

An overwhelming amount of submachine gun bullets crossed the bridge from their side.

Not one of the Ayvartan runners made it to the Vishap’s corpse.

Not one Ayvartan gun responded to the salvo. His men fired continuously on them.

Von Drachen took the opportunity and jumped the barrier with the C-10 in hand.

He ran as fast as his feet could carry him, crossing the no-man’s land, ducking fire.

He was within breathing distance of the gate, the closest any enemy had gotten to–

Just as he raised his head to behold the great wall and its gate, he saw a muzzle flash.

Overhead, one of the wall guns fired on the Vishap at an oddly direct angle.

Von Drachen watched as the shell flew downward from the wall and struck the Vishap.

There was a colossal explosion.

Such a blast could only have been generated by a 152mm gun or higher, but, he had seen all the aerial photographs, and he read the plans their collaborators in the Republic had given them, and various other sources. He knew all the guns on this wall were 76mm caliber at the largest, with the bigger guns used as indirect artillery behind the wall.

He looked briefly up again, and he thought he saw her.

He saw her red eyes, staring down at him in disdain.

Von Drachen dropped the C-10 pack, and made for his own side of the bridge.

He reached for his hand radio, carefully preserved in a waterproof bag.

“Von Fennec, it is likely I will be captured now. My new plan is to escape Armaments Hill somehow and attempt to undergo a guerrilla or sabotage campaign inside the city, and–”

His clearly stressed voice was met with dismissal from the other side.

“One moment,” said a woman’s voice.

In the next instant, Von Fennec took to the airwaves himself, scoffing.

“Von Drachen you’re not going anywhere! We’re protocol thirteen, and I need you there to keep things controlled. She’s coming to get you and the Vishap! You’d better live!”

Von Drachen looked out into the desert, sighing. “I’d rather be captured.”


On the bridge below them, the Vishap came to a halt, its legs chopped out from under it.

“You did it, Kajari. I hope you survived it.”

“I’m sure she did, Madiha.”

“I’ve got to make good on it now, Parinita. Let’s go.”

Atop the wall, Madiha watched with anticipation as Agni and a pair of engineers slid the gun barrel into the completed mechanism of the 152mm howitzer and fastened the recoil buffers tight, finishing the assembly of the gun. It was unmounted, merely sitting on the floor of the rampart without its carriage parts or gun shield, and its optical and ranging equipment lay on the floor as well. There were various other unused parts around.

There were also five shell crates containing pieces of the gun’s two-part ammunition.

“I completed my miracle.” Agni said. “It normally takes eight people an hour, you know.”

“With all due respect General, that gun will fall apart after a shot or two, and in its current state, its too unstable to be accurate anyway,” one engineer remarked.

“She knows. I explained all of this.” Agni said, in her toneless, matter-of-fact voice.

“Yes Sergeant! I am just sincerely hoping this gun needn’t be used.” He replied.

Madiha smiled. “You’re dismissed, corporal. See if you can help with the gate.”

She waved away the two men helping Agni and waited for them to be gone.

“Parinita, hold me from behind, okay?” Madiha said.

Parinita dropped her radio headset on the floor and stood behind Madiha.

“Agni, you load and fire, on my signal.”

Raising one curious eyebrow but otherwise inexpressive, Sergeant Agni nodded.

Madiha took in a deep breath, and focused on the howitzer on the floor.

Her eyes went red and her head felt hot as she pushed gently on the howitzer.

It vibrated gently and began to rise off the floor.

It was the heaviest thing Madiha had ever moved, she thought. She could feel her body tense up, and her brain, also, tensing like a muscle at the limit of its endurance. Her hands shook and she grit her teeth. She was out of practice for this sort of thing, but the howitzer was moving, sliding gently across the ground over to the rampart. Her shaking arms and legs steadied a little, and she lifted the howitzer off the ground a few meters.

Her head felt like it would explode, so hot and tight was the sensation.

“I’ve got you, Madiha. You can do this.”

Parinita embraced her from behind, one hand around the waist, and the other perhaps a little too close to Madiha’s breasts than appropriate, but Madiha didn’t mind then. Having the touch of a healer, Parinita could cool off the burning sensation Madiha felt when she pushed too much or invoked the fire inside her. She could feel Parinita shaking behind her, however. There was a slowly building pain, pinpricks of it, in her brain.

“Madiha, I’m having to go through a bit of effort myself.” Parinita said.

She felt her lover’s grip tighten, and her chest press against Madiha’s back.

This was such an effort that Parinita was being taxed trying to keep it controlled.

But Madiha had the gun over the rampart, and she was pointing it down.

“Now, Agni!”

Agni, staring silently at the spectacle, blinked her eyes rapidly.

“Yes ma’am.”

She quickly picked up the heavy projectile portion of the shell, unlocked the breech, and shoved the object inside. Behind it came the brass-colored propellant casing, a long, thin tube. Once both pieces of the shell were inside the gun, Agni locked the breach tightly.

“I’m firing, ma’am! Get ready!”

Madiha took a deep breath, and Parinita tightened her grip.

Agni pulled the firing pin.

For Madiha it was like trying to hold back an earthquake. She felt the force of the gun diffuse into the air and it was as if she was holding the piece not with her mind but with spectral arms that could be shaken, and that were shaking, and it took all her strength to keep the gun from wobbling as it fired. A bright muzzle flash followed the ejection of the shell, and the recuperator simply couldn’t handle it, and the gun started to come apart.

All eyes turned to the bridge, where the shell sailed into the front of the Vishap.

The explosion that followed consumed the front of the Vishap in smoke, and nearly knocked the hulk fully off the bridge. It just barely managed to hang on to the stone.

When the smoke cleared the damage was immense. All of the concrete and armor in an area the size of a watermelon had collapsed inside and left a smoking pit amid the face of the Vishap. A quarter of the gun mantlet was blasted off and the rest came unseated, and the gun hung half-out of the orifice, almost like an eye plucked from its socket.

That was the end of the Vishap. Madiha let go of the howitzer.

Agni took a step back as the gun came crashing down onto the rampart, spilling apart.

One recoil buffer went flying, the recuperator was crushed, and barrel twisted off.

But it had served its purpose. This ramshackle gun had finally put an end to the Vishap.

Madiha looked down at it from the ramparts.

“Tell the Svechthan mountain troops and the snipers that they’re clear to rappel down.”

Parinita nodded her head and let go of Madiha slowly. She was breathing heavily from her exertions, but smiling and triumphant. Even Sergeant Agni looked relieved after her own efforts. There were enemies invading the bridge, but with the Vishap gone the existential threat to the gate was gone with it, and they could rally once more. Even as they spoke, Madiha could see her troops rallying once more and the frogmen and their officer on the bridge beginning to retreat back closer to the water they came from.

“Tell HQ that the eastern sector is tentatively clear–”

Madiha felt an eerie, sudden chill that prompted her to quiet suddenly.

It was as if there was a sound, distant, just on the edge of her ability to hear it.

Her pupils dilated, and red rings began to burn around her irises.

She looked down at the bridge again, gritting her teeth, her hands smoking.

“Madiha?” Parinita asked. “What’s wrong? You’re burning up!”

Parinita rushed to her side, and applied her healing touch.

Madiha felt her eyes sting so badly she started to tear up.

“Something’s coming.” Madiha said, words drawn from some ancient, prophetic sense.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.2)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

Gulab scarcely had time to guide her shaken troops back into the shadow of the Vishap before the trails of fire appeared far overhead and arced violently down to the bridge.

“Get down!” She shouted, physically shielding those close.

She pulled down Loubna and Aditha in time for the first warheads to come crashing down like meteors. Waves of heat washed over the squadron as flames engulfed the bridge, barely contained by the concrete barriers along the edge of the bridge. Ravenous tongues of fire lashed out over the bridge, shrapnel bounced off the top of the barriers and cascaded into the river. They saw enemy infantry, on fire or badly maimed or both, climbing and tumbling and thrown bodily over the barriers and falling to their deaths in the river below, swept up by the current under the stone and out of their sight.

Though the rookies gaped and gasped at the ruined men, Gulab had long since learned to tune out the immediate casualties of the enemy. She kept everyone in line and urged them to stay down until her signal. This was a god-sent opportunity for them right now.

From behind the wall, the rockets came relentlessly for what seemed like a solid minute or more of non-stop bursting and blasting, running down like a series of stomping steps all over the bridge from the back of the Vishap and stretching almost to the desert itself. When the pounding of the rockets eased up for long enough, Gulab dared to peek over the wall briefly. Smoke billowed from the scattered fires left in the rocket’s wake, and the bridge was pitted and cracked all over from the explosions. There were corpses, charred and charring, and she felt the residual heat from the explosions. It was different from the dry, windy heat of the desert. It was chemical, noxious, it reeked like a coal mine.

And slowly creating distance was the Vishap, almost to the rubble of the second gate.

Gulab shook her head and crawled back down to her squadron, who looked at her with their eyes wide open, their hands shaking, their weapons dropped on the bridge-side.

Seer, in particular, was so despondent and shaken that Gulab knew she was done now.

“We’ve only got one more shot at this while the bridge is clear.” She said. She couldn’t spare time for comfort right now. She was an officer, and she had a mission. It was just like the General, like Madiha Nakar, everything was like she had told her. Everything had to be for the mission. Steeling herself, though she felt uncomfortable with the hardness of her own tone, Gulab continued quickly. “Loubna, Jaffar, you’re going to throw fragmentation grenades at the machine guns on top of the Vishap. You’ll shut down the guns and I’ll run in and jam an anti-tank grenade into the track and stop it. Okay?”

“Sergeant, you’ll die!” Aditha shouted. “You’ll absolutely die if you go out there like–”

Gulab puffed out her chest and stuck her hands to her hips, grinning at Aditha.

“Hah! You think this hunk of metal scares me? I’ll have you know I hunted rock bears in the inner mountains for years. And those could turn on a dime in less than a second!”

She shook her finger right in Aditha’s face, who stared on in speechless confusion.

“Act your rank, rookie! Rookies don’t worry about their officers! It’s the other way around! Loubna, Jaffar, you have your orders. Aditha, lead Seer up to the C.P.! Now!”

Aditha looked at Seer, who in turn was staring at the ground despondently.

She took her hand by the hand and reluctantly led her away, following the river and keeping their heads low below the wall. Gulab barely watched them go; she had precious little time. Already the bridge was starting to shake, and rock started to fly as the Vishap crunched into the rubble of the second gate, its bulldozer blades and gun blasting into it.

“Come on!”

Loubna and Jaffar swallowed hard and followed Gulab as she crouched and ran beneath the bridge barrier and followed close to the Vishap’s position. Beneath her she could feel the ground shake from the machine’s struggle. She heard its infernal engine pounding so hard that the vibration seemed to overwhelm that of her own heart. She grit her teeth.

Everyone got into position in the shadow of the Vishap, grenades in hand.

“Throw now!” Gulab called out.

Loubna and Jaffar pulled the grenade pins, stood, and each quickly made their throws.

Before them the Vishap was gargantuan. It was like a mountain enduring falling stones.

Two explosions consumed the roof of the Vishap in smoke for an instant.

Gulab had little time to check whether it had worked as she intended. At least for a moment, the Vishap was blinded, and she had her chance. Taking in a deep breath, she jumped, climbed the barricade, and landed on the other side in a run. She threw her anti-tank grenade by its handle as straight as she could, and ran around the back of the Vishap. She heard an explosion and saw sparks flying from under the machine.

She was on the bridge, running past the corpses of the men caught in the rocket attack.

It was hot. It was hellish. She peered over her shoulder at the nearby Vishap.

On the floor, the Vishap’s track flew out the back of its churned-up track guard in pieces.

Gulab nearly caught one of the chunks.

She stopped dead in her tracks, catching her breath, staring.

She wanted to laugh. They had done it! They had crippled the machine!

Then in front of the Vishap, there was a terrible flash.

Gulab nearly tumbled from the shock of the explosive blast from the Vishap’s main gun.

In moments, the rubble of the second gate vanished, like a door opening before them.

There was screeching. Sparks went out from the Vishap’s side, where metal met rock.

Beneath the machine, something struggled, metal on metal, something ground.

Something twisted, something labored, more than it possibly could have.

Gulab felt the vibration in her stomach, in her throat, punching her adam’s apple.

She felt her heart sink as the Vishap’s road wheels began to turn on its injured side.

It once more started to move.

Stunned to silence, Gulab’s eyes helplessly tracked the machine as it began to inch away, and then they darted to the top, where the smoke had cleared and the two rear machine guns were slowly turning around to meet her. She could almost see the flash of the guns and the flash of the eyes behind the guns, and what she did then was turn, and run.

At her back twin glowing trails of tracer rounds slashed the air with a ravenous fury.

Gulab threw herself forward moments into her dash, hitting the dirt in a shell crater.

She fell in with a corpse and quickly pushed herself under it.

She covered her head with her hands as the trail of bullets caught up to her.

Nothing but the sounds of a thousand hornets buzzing–

Chunks of stone and spent casings and dust and something fluid trickling, trickling–

Gulab felt a series of impacts along her back and cried out.

It was like a hammer pounding away at the body on top of her.

Blood started to pool at the bottom of the crater and she felt cold and numb and limp.

Her hands shaking, her strength wavering, she pulled the hand radio in her bag to her mouth. Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she drew in a long, labored breath.

“I’m pinned down behind the Vishap! I need help!” she shouted desperately.

Briefly she heard Charvi’s voice answering back, inter-cut with a sound like gunfire.

“Gulab, stay down, we can’t–!”

More noise; the radio signal cut out abruptly.

Charvi was in danger too! But how–

There was no time to think about it. Gulab had to escape and stop the Vishap.

All of the blood wasn’t hers. It came from the corpse. Nothing had impacted her body.

She raised herself slowly, and in turn raised the body above the cover of the shell crater.

She felt the bullets striking around the shell crater, and an impact on the corpse.

Gritting her teeth, Gulab once more lowered herself into the crater.

Her eyes filled with tears. She felt helpless to do anything.

She pulled the radio back up to her face and started turning the frequency dial.

“I can’t wait longer! I’m attacking the Vishap! I’m sorry Charvi! This is my only chance!”

Even if she was hit by the guns, even if she was killed, she could at least take out the tracks! She was not her father at all. His hard words weren’t backed up by anything! Gulab Kajari was a woman who would sacrifice her own life to defend her charges!

Feeling anxious and overwhelmed and not thinking straight, Gulab thrust herself up.

At her back, the advancing Vishap adjusted its machine guns. It was not shooting.

Reloading?

Gulab quickly reached into the pouch of the dead man and took his anti-tank grenade.

She glanced it. Her heart nearly stopped when she noticed the expandable fins on it.

It was a panzerwurfmine! Those things were impossible to use!

She dropped it back into the crater and grabbed the corpse’s pouch.

Inside she quickly found what looked like blocks of clay.

“A satchel!”

Feeling a ray of desperate hope, she stood up off the shell crater and charged.

Her bomb in one hand, and the radio in the other, committing the last of her strength to either radio in her own death or the crippling of the Vishap. She girded herself for it.

There was no more time. She closed in as fast as she could.

There were flashes from machine gun mounts atop the Vishap.

Twin bursts of gunfire sailed past the dashing Gulab.

She felt something graze her skin, releasing a sharp, short spurt of blood.

Gulab’s feet went unsteady, and she nearly fell.

For an instant she felt suspended in water, struggling to gain any ground.

She thought she could see each individual bullet flying her way, closing in.

Her cheek was cut; a pouch fell off her side; her hip was clipped, the closest shot yet.

She was struck then, she knew it, and the force was almost enough to throw her down.

She hit the button on the radio.

What would she say?

“I’m sorry I gave you false hope, Charvi, but you love an utter fraud–”

But before she could even transmit, someone preempted her and called first.

“Gulachka, don’t worry. ‘Mommy’s’ got you.”

In the next instant, she saw flashes inside both of the machine gun cupolas in quick succession. There were sparks and a brief flame like an incendiary round going off.

Both machine guns moved to stare in different, haphazard directions.

There was a shred of light inside each cupola where someone had penetrated.

Gulab briefly glanced at the wall, where she knew she could see the flash of a gun.

And she recognized the voice. It was the little blue haired sniper: Captain Illynichna!

She had saved her! She saved her from the guns–

Gulab’s face went red and she slammed the button on her hand radio.

“Change your callsign, right now Illynicha!” She shouted.

Chto?” went the voice again, clearly Illynichna’s. “Gulachka?”

“I refuse to call you ‘Mommy’! Have you no shame?”

“What are you talking about? I chose this sign because of my deep respect for mothers–”

“Change it now!”

Atop the Vishap one of the Cupola swung open.

A man thrust from atop the tank, his face ruined with scars, blood and burns.

His shaking hand wielded a pistol at Gulab.

Before he could shoot, however, he was pierced from the side by a friendly red tracer.

Gulab took off running after the Vishap, and with her came Loubna and Jaffar.

“I’m sorry Sergeant!” Loubna cried, a rifle in her hand, “My throw didn’t do anything!”

Jaffar cast eyes down at the floor, perhaps ashamed of his own ineffective attack.

All of three of them were mere meters from the Vishap, and the Vishap itself was beginning to cross the second gate, and would in moments be within shooting distance of the gate into Solstice itself. It would be able to shoot the first artillery to ever hit the city interior in decades, and the first to ever threaten the Socialist community inside.

No matter what, Gulab had to prevent this disaster.

And she had to get through that hunk of metal to assist Charvi as well!

Her own insecurities, and everyone else’s, could be dealt with later.

“I’m just glad to see you safe!” Gulab said. “I’m going to need your help.”

She raised the hand radio to her lips once more. “Illynichna, what’s wrong at the C.P.?”

Presumably from atop the wall, the Svecthan captain replied. “Frogmen, Gulachka! A sizeable amount of infantry came out from the river and onto the bridge to assist the Vishap. We don’t know how they managed it: they must be world class swimmers.”

“Without the Vishap they’ll have to retreat.” Gulab said. “Illynichna, is Charvi okay?”

There was an instant between her question and the reply that nearly lanced her heart.

“Yes, she is alive.” Illynicha said.

“Assist her then! I’ll take out the Vishap!” Gulab said.

“You will what?”

“Just do it!”

Gulab pocketed the hand radio, and turned to Loubna and Jaffar.

All of them were practically in the shadow of the Vishap.

And they seemed just as helpless against it as before, even if they couldn’t be shot by it.

It took being within meters of the beast, staring it dead-on, to realize how solid every part of it was. How thick the metal seemed, how armored, how invincible. Even the individual rivets seemed unassailable. Substantial battle damage had been inflicted on it, and yet every scar seemed inconsequential while the machine continued to lumber on.

“Tanks rears are supposed to be the least armored part, but, this is a lot still.”

Gulab found herself able to run right behind the Vishap at its pace.

“We’ve only got one bomb.” Gulab lifted the satchel to show Loubna and Jaffar.

“Ma’am, I have an idea.” Loubna said.

She pointed at the top of the Vishap. “If the engine is at the back of the tank, then, there must not be a lot separating those machine gun points from the engine block.”

Gulab blinked. She smiled and grinned wildly. “You’re a genius!”

She speed up the pace and took a leap.

Her feet hit the track guard of the Vishap, and she climbed up.

In front of her, two remaining machine guns were busy firing forward.

Gulab could see the final gate ahead, and the C.P. just off the main bridge thoroughfare.

There were tracers flying everywhere there.

Her whole body was screaming with pain and exhaustion. She felt the heat like the cruel beam of light from a magnifying glass, burning the ants below. The Vishap itself was like a frying pan, its armor unbearably hot to touch, gleaming in the sun despite the hundreds, maybe thousands of pockmarks upon its surface. Gulab’s head was pounding with bad thoughts and with grave fears and anxieties. It took so much from her to climb onto that machine, and to drop herself inside the ripped-up machine gun mount.

There was a little drum-shaped space there, sealed off. There was a corpse, and a ruined Norgler with ammunition still laying, protected in a case on the wall.

Gulab faced the front of the Vishap from inside and set the charge.

She had maybe ten seconds to spare, so she scrambled back atop the Vishap.

There was no time to climb down, and Gulab’s strength, sapped by the heat and the stress, would not suffice for it. She threw herself off the machine and onto the floor.

Below, Loubna and Jaffar rushed to catch her.

All of them hit the ground together and fell back into a shallow crater.

And ahead of them, the explosive went off with a greater fury than Gulab imagined.

She felt a wave of heat and power coming from the blast that knocked them all back.

Consumed in a beautiful and terrifying flash of light, the rear of the Vishap exploded like a tin can under pressure, ejecting its wheels and parts of its complicated suspension system into the air. Bits and pieces of the monster went flying everywhere like a cloud of shrapnel. Gulab raised her head and immediately lowered it and forced Loubna and Jaffar down; over their heads went a sheet of armor spinning like a thrown chakram.

The Vishap was propelled forward by the blast, and it slid on the smooth stone of the inner thoroughfare, the jagged metal of its underside and remaining wheels casting sparks as the machine flew out of the second gate, skidded around the bridge and smashed into one of the side barriers, stuck partially off the bridge with its cannon facing away from the innermost gate. Flames played about the massive rupture on the rear of the machine, and its remaining track and wheels spun haphazardly in a futile show of its remaining life. Fluid trickled out of it and spread into a puddle, like blood.

Gulab managed to force herself straight, sitting knees-down. At her side, Loubna and Jaffar were thoroughly exhausted, and laid on their backs, panting and panicking.

“We nearly died! We nearly died!” Loubna screamed, checking her body for wounds.

Her head was cloudy, but in that instant, Gulab felt an incredible sense of triumph.

She raised the hand radio to her lips. “Sergeant Kajari, reporting one tank down!”

Almost in the instant she transmitted, an ear-splitting boom sounded ahead.

The Vishap’s gun fired a round and struck the right-hand wall next to the gate.

Ancient rock chipped off the wall and into the water; there was a sizeable dent.

Gulab dropped the radio, and felt all of her remaining strength leaving her.

Had she failed?


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