The Center of Gravity (75.4)

60th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

There was a sense of foreboding permeating the stale air of the bunker as the new year approached. Hundreds of meetings had been held between the many Majors, Colonels and Generals in attendance at the bunker, and their chosen staff of trusted warrant officers, staff officers and specialists. They had decided everything from logistical priorities for hundreds of pieces of war materiel; to the exact supply routes that had to be secured and followed to deliver these supplies; to the tactical use of those materials, how many bullets to a man, how many men to the bullets. Training programs had been outlined, promotions hashed out for new officers leading new units. Every aspect of the war in Ayvarta for the next year had been examined and planned according to what everyone euphemistically referred to as “the new situation,” of the past two months.

Nocht had dearly wanted to have won this war by now, within a hundred days of its commencement. That would no longer be the case. It was found to be impossible.

It was clear that the next phase of the war would be much harder than anything Nocht’s military had ever faced, even the Kingdom of Franz. At the beginning of the conflict, Ayvarta’s army was scattered across its territories and each individual territorial unit was smaller than the Nochtish forces attacking it. Now all of them could concentrate on one defensive line around a very specific target. Solstice would decide everything.

At the dawn of the 60th, much of Ayvarta’s fate had been set in motion by the Federation armed forces. Its air, naval and ground branches each had their grand strategies in order. There were only a few more meetings left for the very highest echelons of Federation command, the few Major and Colonel Generals along with the grand Field Marshal, to review the decisions of the staff and make small amendments if necessary.

Field Marshal Haus was particularly busy at this time, and so, he found himself quite bewildered but not upset when he found Von Drachen early for their afternoon meeting.

At his side, however, a young, mousy-looking woman was far more upset. She had been holding a keyring meant to open the meeting room door, only to find that the lock had been picked and the door left askew. Shocked at this violation of bunker security, she charged through the door and there, they both found Von Drachen reclining in one of the couches that had been brought to the room. He greeted them with a nonchalant wave.

“Wh-what are you doing in here?” shouted the staff girl. “How did you get in?”

“I let myself in.” Von Drachen said. “I wanted to be punctual, and to put up my things.”

Held to the walls of the bunker with sticky tape were some scrawled-upon maps of Ayvarta, covered in lines depicting the flow of troops and supplies for Von Drachen’s vehemently marketed pet project. A mass desert march around Solstice and toward Jomba, the fertile breadbasket of the uppermost half of Ayvarta. Thanks to the desert bifurcating the continent, Jomba’s produce did not travel too far, but in a Socialist Ayvarta that now started at Solstice rather than Adjar, Jomba was wildly important.

Haus smirked at the maps and at Von Drachen himself. He crossed his arms.

“Schicksal, let us permit this nonsense just this once. I don’t want to have to deal with a courts martial for over-politeness.” Haus said, gently patting Schicksal on the shoulder.

“As you say, Field Marshal. At least General Dreschner wasn’t here to see this mess.”

Schicksal sighed and stood outside the door quietly, waiting for their next guest.

Haus, meanwhile, took his seat across from Von Drachen. There were piles of documents on the table between the room’s comfortable couch seats. Clearly Von Drachen took what he had said in their last meeting to heart. Though Haus had not truly meant to do so, he had encouraged Von Drachen to go through the data and craft a plan as thorough as Generalplan Suden. Back then he had wanted to be rid of Von Drachen; this meeting had been arranged before that incident and was supposed to be perfunctory.

They were supposed to shake hands and Haus was supposed to give Von Drachen his blessing to continue operating despite being widely hated by the staff and the President himself. All this owing to the fact that Von Drachen was quietly acknowledged as a powerful commander, and furthermore, a guarantee for continued Cissean cooperation. As the Cisseans’ only frontline general, Von Drachen was a point of pride for that nation, a symbol of their achievement and independence from the communists in Ayvarta.

Von Drachen’s eccentricity and zeal had changed the entire character of this meeting.

It was slightly irritating, but more than that, it was intriguing. Haus would humor him.

He picked up Von Drachen’s information packet, laid out on the table, and began to flip through it, finding himself strangely engrossed by the operation described therein.

He was not so sure that Dreschner, their other guest, would be happy with this outcome.

Nevertheless, he wanted to hear Von Drachen out. He had a chance to pick his brain.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus said. He put down the information packet, having skimmed all of the synopsis and some tables, and spread his arms out almost like a shrug. “I can hardly imagine what goes through your head. If you could make me understand one thing, I would like it to be this: what is it about Madiha Nakar and you? Are you in love?”

Schicksal, outside the door, gasped at the scandalous nature of this question.

Von Drachen blinked and frowned. “She is not my type at all. Women generally aren’t.”

Once again Schicksal was given cause to gasp outside the door at the sheer scandal.

Haus suspected as much and let the comment slide as if it were merely lad humor.

“Then what is it? I’ve dug up her records and studied the reports on Bada Aso and Rangda. Each time she was caught off-guard at first and got lucky with the weather.”

There was a prevailing theory among Nocht’s military intelligence that an earthquake hit the Bada Aso region on that fateful day in the Aster’s Gloom, triggering the fires that consumed the 13th Panzer Division and its affiliates and caused Nocht’s defeat there.

Her second achievement was also explained away as if by enthusiasts divining a piece of stage magic. While the defeat of the traitor Ayvartan forces was seen as inevitable given their weak leadership, the Elven force had the element of surprise and superior training. However, strong winds from a pressure system off the coast of Rangda diverted numerous Elven glider and paratrooper forces and caused them to land scattered, allowing Nakar’s forces to split and pocket and destroy them. Nothing was given to Madiha Nakar’s supposed genius, but to the weather and to military common sense.

These theories were hardly discussed, because Madiha Nakar was not a foremost concern of the Heer, but most officers who heard them believed them readily.

Most.

Von Drachen had his answer immediately, and did not need to dwell on Haus’ question.

“I’m fascinated by the idea that the Ayvarta of her adulthood could possibly create her and use her in this manner.” He replied. “Madiha Nakar is someone that a truly utopian communism should never desire, require or even create. She is militarism given form, an avatar of war and death. She thinks of nothing else but war. And yet, here she is.”

Haus was surprised at this answer. It felt masturbatory and its rebuke self evident. “Of course she is, because Lenanism is not an ideology of empathy except to fools. Lenanism is a brigand’s philosophy, its about stealing from the rich and industrious. Madiha Nakar is a product of a militarist culture that knows it needs force to accrue loot and defend it.”

“Do you know your Ayvartan history, Field Marshal?” Von Drachen replied, amused.

“Of course I do.” Haus scoffed. “I’ll have you know I grew up around Mary Trueday.”

“That wouldn’t teach you anything of value. What did she say, that the communists put rubber on toast in place of cheese? She doesn’t know anything, Field Marshal.”

Haus might have been expected to feel offense at this casual mistreatment of his childhood friend by a nobody like Von Drachen. However, he was not altogether very close to Mary and felt no such impulse. She was something of a romantic rival; and Haus himself considered her a little dim. Nevertheless he cleared his throat loudly in response.

Von Drachen snickered. “Ayvarta was at a crossroads between utopian communism and revolutionary communism. For a while, the militaristic revolutionary elements were highly placed, but with the death of Lena Ulyanova, there was a dawn of utopianism that dominated the Ayvartan trend for the better part of the last decade. Social democrats and libertarian communists developed convoluted distribution systems and generous social policies with one hand, while strangling military spending and drawing down Ayvartan involvement with parallel revolutions like Cissea and Kitan’s. These utopian communists wanted peace in a contained, almost autarkic state, and feared the revolutionaries.”

Von Drachen leaned forward, his fingers steepled, an eerie grin on his face.

“This is the Ayvarta that Madiha Nakar assimilated into in her adulthood. But Madiha Nakar is an avowed Lenanist revolutionary, and if you look into her eyes, you’ll understand that she is a born killer. She loves to inflict death; it is stimulating to her. All of this war is an exercise for her brain. She is the polar opposite of the Utopian communist. It is fascinating to me that Ayvarta is relying so strongly on the kind of person it ought to find the most revolting. All you need to turn Madiha Nakar into the perfect contradiction is to make her a secret royal, and then she would truly be deserving of exile from utopian communism. I saw it in her face, Field Marshal.”

“She would probably deny it if you asked her. All of this is conjecture.” Haus said.

“She would, but she can’t deny it to herself. We fought hand to hand, Marshal. And not only that, I saw her, on the fly, plan and execute a daring attack on an unknown enemy during the Rangda situation. You could see it in her face, Marshal! Flashes of excitement, exhilaration! I wonder, will Madiha Nakar stop fighting after this war? Or will she find cause to challenge her new government just for her own continued edification? Maybe she would keep fighting no matter happened. Maybe her zeal would never be satisfied.”

Haus knew all of this philosophy well enough, but it was in his nature to repudiate any politics that were unnecessary to accomplishing his goal. He as much hated the war profiteers in the Congress meddling with his fighting as he did the soldier-scholar who though too deeply about the matter of war. Both of them ultimately led to complications.

He himself had asked Von Drachen about this, though, so he excused him, for now.

“Why does this matter to you?” Haus pressed him. “It’s an utter inanity, to me.”

“It matters to me that Madiha Nakar is fighting for a future in which she cannot exist.” Von Drachen said. “I’m a scholar of war myself, Field Marshal. She is a threat to me!”

“A threat?”

Von Drachen shrugged and laughed. “Let’s say I just want the vanity and glory of being the most successful and defining strategist of my time. If not me, it would be her, so!”

Haus raised an eyebrow. His tone of voice had changed suddenly. It was as if Von Drachen had actively prevented himself from speaking too seriously; or maybe he was revealing an inkling of his seriousness, and the rest had been satire. He was lying, but Haus could not tell what part of what he said was meant to be the joke in this discussion. It unsettled him, because clearly it was the one on one setting that brought this about.

Von Drachen had thought of what to say and said this whole spiel. What was his angle?

Before he could press Von Drachen any further, or even think to do so, General Dreschner arrived at the door. He was grim-looking as ever, but gave his aide a gentle pat on the head as he arrived, and took his seat silently after a quick salute to the Marshal and a nod of the head to Von Drachen. Haus had wanted to assemble a group with himself as a neutral party, Von Drachen’s crazy idea, and a General who advocated for a Solstice Attack Operation, the unoriginal draft name for their current course.

“Gentlemen.” Haus began, once both men were comfortable. “Both of you have proven to be great warriors in this conflict. I’ve made many missteps in personnel management, but I correct them when I can. I am standing by my word: Von Drachen has managed to flesh out his ideas into something resembling an operational plan. I am surprised by the effort and on a superficial read, by the quality of his ideas. I think they deserve debate.”

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly. Some of their other generals would have scoffed and immediately began shouting Von Drachen down, but Dreschner was a little more composed when it came to his peers. This was not a quality he always had. It seemed that the course of the war in Ayvarta had tempered some of his most atavistic impulses.

Haus urged Von Drachen to go through with his plan. Dreschner sat back and watched.

Von Drachen stood and stretched a series of marked-up maps on a board atop a tripod.

He would flip between them at various points in his explanation.

“The Ayvartans are hard at work preparing for a valiant final stand in the city of Solstice. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We view Solstice as a vital political center for Ayvarta, from which communism radiates out to the rest of the world. Certainly, Solstice understands the importance we place on it, and mirrors it back in its defense of itself. So Ayvarta will be ready to fend us off from there, creating a long defensive line centered on Solstice.”

Von Drachen flipped to a map with a outwardly-bulging, semi-circular defensive line around Solstice, stretching across vast expanses of the desert from north to south. There were arrows pointing toward the semi-circle, each numbered the same as a major unit of the Federation’s armies that was scheduled to move in that direction. One arrow for example had his own 13th Panzer Brigade, jabbing at central Ayvarta off of the flank of the 3rd Panzer Division of General Anschel and between the 6th Panzergrenadier Division of Meist, recently reinforced with units of light tanks and motorized artillery.

“However, I do not believe Solstice merits this attention. Its military production is sizeable for a single city in the middle of a desert, but it is nothing compared to the industry Ayvarta is squirreling away beyond the sands. Furthermore, Solstice is utterly dependent on the remaining ‘Dominances’ past the desert for most of its precious food.”

Haus was about to ask a question but Von Drachen launched into an uncalled for explanation of the Ayvartan word for Province, which dated back to the Imperial years and the fact that each province was named for a warlord. So “Adjar’s Dominance” for the province controlled by Lord Adjar, and so on. Haus blinked, and Dreschner shook his head and they both wondered what this had to do with anything, and both protested.

“Ayvartan history is deeply important! To everything!” Von Drachen said, as scandalized himself now as Schicksal was when Haus implied he was in love with Nakar. He had a grumpy, petty look on his face, perhaps moreso for being interrupted than anything. “Solstice’s ancient history is the reason we are going after it, and the reason they are defending it. Why, if we understand this history, must we repeat it blindly?”

“Because the swiftest end to this war is decapitating the communist structure so that the Republic can rule in its place.” Dreschner said. “Because all we need to attack is Solstice.”

“Any siege of Solstice will drag out and cost us dearly in materiel and men. I am advocating a different approach that seems riskier but takes advantage of the moment.”

Von Drachen turned over to a new series of maps that showed a three-directional attack on the Ayvartan line; a massive concentration of forces in the southeast, launching a massive punch at one part of the Ayvarta line; a breakthrough in the south and a hasty march past Solstice. One enormous armored thrust at the ‘dominance’ of Jomba, the breadbasket of the Ayvartan east, able to perhaps feed the entire continent someday. Its industry had been young in the waning days of the Empire, but slowly, it was building.

“Our supply lines will collapse.” Dreschner said simply. He was visibly curious, however.

Haus himself was also very curious. He would not have thought of this trick. Had his forces managed any breakthrough he would have sent it directly to the walls of Solstice, hoping to pierce the city defenses and begin the political endgame. Von Drachen’s gamble was that the long Ayvartan line protecting Solstice would rearrange to meet two fake northern thrusts, break in the south, and that the fortress would be unable to chase a blitzkrieg charge past its walls and to its tender, necessary northeastern regions.

Von Drachen seemed to notice their engagement and smiled proudly at them.

“All we need at that point is to cause damage. Ayvarta can’t counterattack into the Republic with its current forces, so they cannot exploit our absence from the Solstice front or truly cut us off. And if Jomba suffers too much under us, they will lose the ability to resupply any kind of force. I believe the Ayvartans will surrender at that point.”

“What kind of forces are guarding Jomba?” Dreschner asked.

“It’s not important; any kind of battle on that soil is a win for us, even if we are beaten around a bit. However, I believe they have concentrated most of their forces defending Solstice. I doubt Jomba has a full army to its defense.” Von Drachen replied.

“So you want us to go in there and what? Torch crops?” Haus said.

“I think it is more useful to steal them for ourselves at that point.” Von Drachen said.

Haus rubbed his chin. “I can’t deny that you have a point, but it is terribly risky. If Ayvarta does not surrender, and continues to fight, we will be in a tough position.”

“Lets say Solstice does keep fighting and locks us in the northeast. They will kill many of us, but we will have done damage to their ability to prosecute this war long-term that will be impossible to repair. We will win eventually. Our sacrifices will still be pivotal.”

Von Drachen seemed to dismiss the concern. Haus blinked. He was ready to put himself in a nearly suicidal position, cut off deep in enemy territory. There was logic to what he said. By making Jomba a battlefield, at all, they would put the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, the power opposed to the new Republic of Ayvarta, under threat of starvation. Von Drachen might be cut off from supply but he had enough power at any time to rip up fields, burn orchards, poison and salt lands, and render the breadbasket useless. Only the Republic and its southern territories would be able to bear the burden of feeding the continent at that point. It would be nearly impossible for Solstice to recover. Even food assistance from Helvetia would be useless. Communism will have lost all credibility with the people if it could not under its own power feed them anymore. The Allies would win.

“I don’t believe it will come to that, because I think there are voices within the communist camp who will realize the damage that is coming and seek a diplomatic solution.” Von Drachen said. “People with the foresight to know they have been beaten.”

“Do you mean Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked, crooking one eyebrow skeptically.

Dreschner looked between the two of them, clearly confused about this new topic.

“No. I think she will realize what is happening, but I think her solutions to the problem will look utterly insane and she will probably be locked up or become a lone partisan. Her presence will certainly help peace seem reasonable, I think.” Von Drachen said.

“I must admit that I see some merit in it, but I must oppose any plan that hinges on our acceptance of suicide.” Dreschner said sternly. “Even if it led to a guaranteed victory, asking me to give up over 200,000 men– no, actually, you put here 500,000? Insane.”

“Not all of them will die.” Von Drachen shrugged. “You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Your glib tone is only making this plan less appealing to me.” Dreschner said.

“Every time we fight, we take a suicidal risk.” Von Drachen said. “You, and me, and him,” he pointed offhandedly at Haus, “and even the girl at the door, could die any minute.”

Schicksal gasped at the door, now scandalized at the casual acceptance of her death.

“There’s a difference between being in danger and plunging into death.” Dreschner said.

“On paper every one of these operations is plunging into death. In the long term, we want to destroy the communists, and this is what will do it. I guarantee it will do it.”

Dreschner scoffed, quickly devolving to his typically passionate debate.

“Which side are you on Von Drachen? Your attitude is putting all of this into question.”

He was shouting, and Von Drachen sighed and replied calmly, “I’m on the side of victory.”

Before Dreschner could shout something again or raise his shaking fists, Haus grunted.

The Major General paused, and seemed to find his calm and shame in himself.

“Apologies, Field Marshal.” Dreschner said.

Haus glared at Von Drachen, over fingers anxiously rubbing down his own face.

He moved his hands off his own face and clasped them together, staring at the maps.

“Von Drachen, tell me one thing and I’ll consider this plan of yours.” Haus said.

Von Drachen nodded his head. “Unknowing of the inquiry, I certainly shall try my best.”

Haus breathed heavily and dropped the question out into the air, heavy, dispassionate.

“Why did you betray the anarchists in Cissea? Why did you become a part of Nocht?”

Dreschner looked up from his seat at the standing Von Drachen.

Haus did not look at him. Still, he looked at the maps.

Von Drachen was smiling. His smile could be felt even if not seen.

“I’m just a man who falls on the side of victory over sure defeat.” He said.

Haus stomped his boot on the ground. “You’re lying.”

“Well, I don’t know what more to say.” Von Drachen said. He was unfazed.

Haus stood up from his seat and dusted off his coat. There was dust everywhere here.

He closed his fist, feeling a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.

“I’m sure your plan is genuine, and you’ve proven to me you’re a canny officer, but not one I can trust to shoulder the responsibility for an entire operation like this.” Haus said. “I’m putting Dreschner in tactical command of Group South, and you will follow his directive. We will break the Ayvartan front line and attack the walls of Solstice. If, as you say, you are on the side of victory, and not yourself, nor anarchy; you will help him out.”

“I am at your service.” Von Drachen said. His tone had not changed one bit.

“That all? Not going to stand up for yourself?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It’s fine. I did not expect much. I’m glad I got as far as I did.”

It was almost vexing how easily he took being put down this hard.

Dreschner said nothing. He looked between the two men with an expressionless face.

Just then, someone stepped past Schicksal at the door, and the little aide merely gasped and shrieked and did not seem to put up much of a fight. A beautiful blond woman in a pristine uniform charged past, holding in her hands a document and a letter, breathing heavily. Haus stepped closer and held her shoulders gently to reassure her. It was his trusted aide, Cathrin Habich. She was sweating and had clearly been running hard.

“What’s wrong?” Haus asked. He put one hand on her own, and signaled with his fingers over the back of her hand, where she could see it. They had developed this system together. He was trying to see if it was something they could talk about among them.

Cathrin signaled affirmatively with her own hand and slowly rose, caught her breath, and regained her composure and the cold, steely gaze for which she was known.

“Sir, McConnell went around all our backs.” She said.

“What?”

Haus raised his voice. He felt a sudden shock in his chest, a swelling of anger.

Dreschner looked speechless, caught in the sweep of events. He could not have known what McConnell was planning, unless McConnell also went to him with his idea. But Cathrin certainly made it sound ominous and deadly serious. Von Drachen, meanwhile, was cleaning up his things without concern for the drama unfolding around him.

“Show me.” Haus said.

Cathrin showed him the document. “Presidential approval. Here’s a telegram.”

She then opened the letter and handed Haus the paper.

Haus almost did not want to open it.

He felt stung, betrayed. He imagined what it must say and it made him hurt and angry.

In one sweeping move accompanied by a sigh he spread the paper open.

“Prepare Rolling Thunder. McConnell is sharp. Trust him like I did you.”

Trust him like I did you? When did Haus ever have to prove himself to Achim? When did he have to come up with some unnecessary, nonsense plan to earn his trust? Haus felt a level of dismay and even jealousy that he knew was irrational but could not contain. He had felt secure in his knowledge that he would be trusted utterly to make decisions like this. Achim had interfered in operations before, and Haus had allowed it and even seen some of the wisdom in it; but this time he had promoted a subordinate over him.

McConnell would get to execute an operation Haus had blocked as infeasible.

Had he used his pull with his brother in the Senate? Haus did not know.

He could only fantasize angrily about every backhanded thing that may have happened.

In a bid to tear his mind away from the shock and hurt, he handed Dreschner the paper.

Dreschner read it, and the accompanying document, and almost seemed not to believe it.

“This is exactly like Bada Aso. Why would the President order this to happen again?”

“Field Marshal, what are we going to do?” Cathrin asked.

Haus had no answers for anyone.

He stood, breathing heavily, his soft, boyish face broken up by anger and despair.

Looking up from the his hands, he only saw Von Drachen’s back as the man left the room with all of his maps and charts in tow, without a word or seemingly a care in the world.

Something in Haus yearned to understand how Von Drachen could continue to raise his head like that, where Haus felt such a burden upon his own that it was hard to even live.


On the 1st of the Postill’s Dew of 2031, a brand new year, the active airports of northern Dbagbo and Tambwe, in cities like Rangda and Karahad captured mere weeks ago, began preparations to launch massive daily air attacks on Solstice under plan Rolling Thunder.

At their disposal were the Archwizard class heavy strategic bombers with 7000 kg of bombs; Wizard class long range bombers with 3000 kg of bombs; the standby Archer fighter and its new cousin, the Crossbow; and the old reliable Warlock ground attack plane with its cannons, light bomb-load and a screeching dive right out of a nightmare.

There were other weapons being cooked up too; but the pilots knew little about that.

Enemy opposition was always implied in battle operations, but in this case, it was largely unremarked upon that the Ayvartans would try to keep them out of their airspace.

As far as they knew, their flying would be mostly opposed by the Ayvartan’s old Anka biplane with nowhere near the fighting power of even the older Archer. Perhaps a first generation Garuda might appear once in a while, to speak nothing of the rare Garuda II. In their minds the pilots of the Luftlotte’s Jagdwaffe and Schlachtwaffe felt that they would easily own the skies over Solstice, and kill without obstacle. It was almost funny.

None of the men on the ground had taken part in that meeting where Haus quoted a very large number of anti-aircraft guns on the ground and walls of Solstice. So in the minds of the pilots, it was a scenario where they would either fight gallant duels in the sky, or just bully Ayvartan planes into the dirt over and over while the bombers rained death.

In this environment, all the preparatory activities of Rolling Thunder were carried out with zeal. Lehner had finally been talked down, and the Eagles were now cut loose.

The Luftlotte scheduled the attacks to commence on the 13th and last for weeks, maybe as far into the month as the 30th or 40th from there, or until Solstice utterly collapsed.

Or until their ability to fly collapsed. Whichever came first; but only one was acceptable.

Thus began the apocalyptic Battle of Solstice.


Previous Part || Next Part

2.1: Mischievous Student

Magic: A learned ability to manipulate ambient arcane energies. Human minds can be triggered to agitate aura through various mnemonics, gestures and recitations. Once the aura is stirred from its ambient form it can cause various perceivable effects on the world.


There was a knock on the door and Minerva’s head snapped up from a stack of quizzes.

“Come in!” She shouted. Finally, she’d gotten Niko to come in for office hours!

There was nearly imperceptible shimmering as the door opened.

Cocking a big grin, Lyudmilla Kholodova took long steps into the room, her head held up high. Her hair was arranged in two purple-streaked tails, and each seemed to float for just a second as she stepped through the door. Similarly but more subtly, there was a mild tug on her uniform while she crossed through. She dropped her bookbag beside Minerva’s desk and dropped herself on a chair to examine her well-kept hair.

“Hey, what’s going on over there?” She asked. “My hair’s all tingly.”

Minerva sighed.

Lyudmilla frowned in response. “Wow. Nice to see you too, boss.”

“No, no, it’s not you.” Minerva reached out and patted Lyudmilla condescendingly on the head. “I had an appointment with a student set a half hour ago but he’s not shown up.”

Rather than complain Lyudmilla leaned into the petting in an unsettling way.

This had its perhaps intended effect of getting Minerva to stop.

“Anyway– afternoon, Master.” Lyudmilla grinned again. “Why did you decide to enchant your door? What did you do to it? Am I rigged to explode now if I act against your will?”

“What? Of course not. Who do you take me for?”

“Well, I don’t really know that yet.” She replied.

There was a bad feeling in Minerva’s stomach but she willed it away.

Instead she urged Lyudmilla to look behind herself for a moment.

Minerva swiped her wand at the doorway and lifted up a little basin that had been slotted just under the door threshold. Lyudmilla’s eyes drew wide as she spotted it.

“Oh, I think I get it.” She said, a delighted smile on her face.

She was easy to please (or distract) at least.

Minerva proudly explained her trick. “I put a weak Forbidding Lattice on the doorway. It is calibrated to forbid very very small things with very specific qualities. So in effect, it pushes the dirt and bugs right off anyone that comes in and collects it in the basin.”

“Huh. That’s the laziest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Lyudmilla grinned.

“I have a tight schedule! I have to save time where I can.”

Her office was always very clean, and magical shortcuts were certainly a part of it.

She stared back at the door. Niko was not coming, was he? Minerva started to worry.

But she couldn’t be consumed by the student who would not come when she had a student, and especially her apprentice, right in front of her. She put it out of her mind.

In fact she remembered she had something prepared for Lyudmilla anyway.

“Oh right. One second, Milla.”

Barely speaking, she swept her wand and Lyudmilla’s bag floated up onto the desk.

“No weed in there, I promise.” Lyudmilla said, raising her hands defensively.

“I’m not– oh nevermind. Here, I got you a present.”

Minerva opened a drawer in her desk and produced a plastic wrapped stack of books.

She had the books fly over to Lyudmilla’s bag, but she intercepted them in the air.

“Oh what are these? This is heavy.”

Lyudmilla ripped open the plastic with her fingers and picked a book out of the stack.

Minerva could not tell what the cover said. It was all in Rusean Cyrillic text.

That very fact immediately delighted Lyudmilla.

“Oh my god! This is incredible. You got me all my textbooks in Cyrillic?”

Lyudmilla flipped through the books with a massive, childish smile on her face.

It had taken calling in a few favors, but it was satisfying to see her pupil so happy.

“I figured some of the problem with your grades might have been a language barrier. You can read and write Otrarian, I know that much, but every little bit helps, right?”

Minerva crossed her arms and smiled as wide and brightly at her amazed pupil.

“Hell, one of the reasons I learned silent and shorthand casting was to avoid Otrarian.”

“How did you learn that, by the way?” Lyudmilla asked, still flipping the pages of the book and seemingly marveling at what they said to her now. “You still have not told me where all your superpowers come from, and I feel like I’ve asked every day since then.”

Then.

Minerva averted her eyes. “It’s not easy to talk about. I promise I’ll tell you eventually, but just give me a minute right now, okay? As for the shorthand casting, it’s weird.”

Lyudmilla flipped through one of her cyrillic textbooks. “You just said literally nothing.”

“I’m sorry, okay? Just trust me for right now.” Minerva sighed.

“Sure thing, Master.”

“Ugh.”

Minerva stared at the door briefly and then turned her gaze back on Lyudmilla.

“Okay, well, Niko isn’t coming, so I’ll just tutor you.” She said.

Lyudmilla looked at her over the book. “Tutor me in what? I don’t have homework.”

“You do now.”

She passed her a handwritten set of discussion questions that she had intended to go over with Niko Klein, covering several things in the current and former unit that had given him trouble. Most of them had also given Lyudmilla trouble, judging by her quiz answers and generally mediocre grades, so she figured it was a good way to make use of the work she had already done. It might also keep Lyudmilla shut for a bit, god willing.

Of course, it was immediately obvious the latter would not happen.

“I can’t believe this– this betrayal! I trusted you! I thought your office would be a safe space for me! You even have the stupid ‘safe space’ sign on your door!” Lyudmilla cried.

She put on a cartoonishly distraught expression as she manhandled the question sheet.

“My office will never be a safe space from schoolwork.” Minerva said.

“I’m never coming here again!” Lyudmilla shouted in even more cartoonish distress.

“You will come here and you will turn all your 60s into 90s.” Minerva replied firmly.

Lyudmilla stared at her, mouth agape for a second. “Master, I don’t know whether to be in shock that you think I can score 90s, or distressed that you think I can’t score 100s.”

“We’ll make you a 100s student next year. That’s my goal.” Minerva said.

She put her hand on her chest and closed her eyes solemnly as if swearing an oath.

Lyudmilla hung her head in surrender.

Soon they were deep into the sheet, engaging in a deadly duel of questions and answers.

Lyudmilla had put down all her books and was working from memory.

Minerva was reading from the sheet and tried not to be too merciless.

She quickly reckoned that she had failed to soften herself.

“Name and explain three different kinds of spells.”

“Enchantments last as long as they’re fed aura, Blessings and Curses last until dispelled, and Hexes are short lived spells exclusively targeting someone else. Did I get that right?”

“That is right. Date the first recorded Shimii scripture and explain their culture and form of magic.”

“Um, the Shimii, that’s 73 D.C.E right? And they practiced like, life-giving light.”

“Come on, you can do better. That’s a 60 point answer.”

“Well, 65 points is a pass, so I’m pretty close.”

“I don’t want you to just pass.”

“Fine. Let me think. Uh. They believed in the obfuscation–”

“Occultation. The Occultation of the Mahdi.”

“Right. That’s like, there’s this guy, like, a super sweet dude, and he’s hidden himself as a test to see if people are worthy of him, and he’ll come back someday when the followers prove that they deserve to be saved or something like that. Did I get that right?”

“Well, we’re up to 75 point answers, once we correct for grammar.”

Lyudmilla put her head down on the desk. “You’re a Tyrant, a literal Tyrant.”

Minerva winced at the suggestion. Some of it was maybe, technically, sort of, correct.

On accident, hopefully. Though, certainly, depending on how much Lyudmilla recalled of the events of the past few weeks, she had all the clues she needed to put it all together.

At least she was still just calling her Master and not, say, Lord Wyrm.

She tapped her wand on Lyudmilla’s head, not to do any magic, just to annoy her.

“You’re doing your reading, so that’s good. I’m proud of you.”

Lyudmilla turned her head sideways on the table, so she had one eye staring at Minerva’s hand. She had on a pensive expression and Minerva did not know what to make of it. It was as if she wanted to say something, so Minerva retracted her hand and gave her space to think. In a few moments, she raised herself back up and crossed her arms. She stared directly at Minerva, put on a little smile and tossed her twintailed hair.

“I figured out what that spell you used in the demesne does.” She finally said.

The demesne. Again with the thing that happened that Minerva did not want to discuss.

At this point however it was impossible to sidestep.

“What do you mean?” Minerva asked. She had cast a lot of magic in Moloch’s demesne.

Lyudmilla meant her statement to be provocative and she was delighted by the response.

“That Sudes spell. Magic gets buffed by the butt of the stake and weakened by the tip.”

“You saw me cast that, huh?” Minerva said, staring at Lyudmilla.

Sudes, “The Messiah’s Seven Castigating Stakes,” was not a spell one just found in the 5000 mark school packet bought from the library shop. The battle against Moloch had been desperate, and Minerva had not taken care to only use magic that would be safe and normal for a student to see and learn about. Had she done so, she could have died, even with Moloch’s weakened state. She was surprised that Lyudmilla had been sober enough and paying enough attention to have retained that detail from the encounter.

Minerva had figured (perhaps naively desired was more accurate) that Lyudmilla’s brain would buckle under the shock and terror of a Tyrant encounter and block out most of the details. Inside the demesne she had looked like her eyes were glazed over. Was she that resilient, or did Minerva just really underestimate kids these days? Either way, with her mischievous personality, Minerva had wanted to avoid disclosing anything to her.

After all, a lot of it was information she would have loved to avoid disclosing to herself.

That was probably unfair of her to do. Even if it involved trauma, even if it meant revealing ugly things. Minerva was her master and Lyudmilla was her apprentice. They were supposed to have a bond in magic and life that was different than the normal student-teacher relationship — closer to family. They were both outsiders also.

Lyudmilla seemed to have something of a past too. She was probably safe to talk to.

“It’s a difficult spell to cast. I could show you when I think you’re ready.” Minerva said.

“I cast it already. It’s how I broke up the demesne.” Lyudmilla replied bluntly.

Broke up the demesne?

Gods defend, it was Minerva’s memory of the encounter with Moloch that had buckled under the trauma. It hit her then like a brick that she had recklessly thrown herself at Moloch (using wyrm’s power?) and ordered Lyudmilla to infiltrate deeper into the demesne and attack its weakness. She had treated her like a soldier, made her execute a flank; she felt mortified at how much of that day was just scrambled in her memory.

Sighing deeply, Minerva replied, “It’s called Sudes, the Seven Castigating Stakes of the Messiah. And it is an extremely dangerous spell to just use willy-nilly Lyudmilla.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She sighed a little herself.

“Well, yeah, I kinda fucked it up I guess. It really gave me a beating, you could throw out so many of those stakes but I could only make one or two. I only knew it from your lips. You mouthed an incantation and I picked it up. I filled in the rest myself best as I could.”

Minerva blinked hard. To cast even one Sudes without training in such a dangerous and stressful environment was impressive. Certainly, anyone could cast any sort of spell if they knew the mnemonic and the basic principles of magic (and had an unlocked Homunculus, like Lyudmilla now did thanks to the card Minerva gave her and which she had not thought to ask for back). However, most people who cast something like Sudes would not “take a beating” and would instead keel over dead, bereft of their vitae.

“Don’t just copy spells at random, even if you technically can. Your arcanometry is advanced but unpracticed, and you’ll just hurt yourself. Please promise me.” She said.

Lyudmilla glanced askance and mumbled grumpily in response, “I promise.”

Minerva put down her wand, and concentrated for an instant.

Magic was a lot of factors working at once. It was a herculean effort that seemed effortless because it was carried out in an instant. It was trial in the space of error.

Human minds did not move like muscles did. To think was the most instantaneous action one could imagine, encompassing universes within instants in between any amount of perceivable time. Because humans thought, and were surrounded by auras and vitae, and because humans possessed a connection to the elements that gave off these auras and energies, they could perform magic. To think, therefore, to cast, one could say.

Communities shaped their environments through action; at a global scale, the human organism composed of billions of bodies, shaped the entire world. On the most quantum microscopic scale imaginable, a human thought was a world-shaping action too. Magic was the result of thought, and thought was influenced by input, like the light entering the eyes that became visual imagery, the vibrations that were interpreted as sound; and it was given shape too, by the muscle actions that created speech, breath and movement.

Magic was profoundly difficult to explain. It was easier in the time of Otar the Great, who claimed that God had given him the power. And yet what was academically known as Divine magic now was very different than the Otarian wizardry practiced in Otraria. Minerva cast magic like people took footsteps. On some level, she barely recognized that she was doing it. Nobody had to think to take a footstep. Similarly, most wizards who did not have a great being of fire embedded in them and an archmage for a childhood mentor cast magic like a musician played an instrument. On some level, it became rote, and in the way one knew to control one’s breathing, to hit a key or a string just so

All of that was Magic.

And if the act of playing was the rote, then the incantation was the sheet music to learn.

All of Magic was an effect caused by thought, but to perform specific, controlled effects, required the brain to think in specific ways and the body to act it out in specific ways.

Wizards employed a mnemonic of some kind to trick their brains into casting spells.

The homunculus used barely perceptible light patterns, special audio waveforms and even direct injection of pulses into the flesh to help fulfill what were once long incantations, smoke tricks, prayer music and other mnemonics, gestures and autosuggestions, reducing the act to second’s worth of sensory and physical activity. Because they lived in a fallen time long since Otar’s death after all; people did not have the time or patience for the long form when they could just say the name of the spell.

And even the latter concession was more of a requirement for sanity’s sake.

To Minerva, casting Sudes meant intending to cast Sudes, grasping with her hand like the stake was already in it, and then calling out Sudes. Under particular stress or if she needed to concentrate the magic more she could call them the Seven Castigating Stakes, taking more time to develop stronger mnemonics. To her brain, Sudes meant images of the Messiah, the stakes in his body; the specific waveform of his cries and prayers; the smell of the sand in the holy land; and the feeling of remorse for humanity’s cruelty. Feelings, senses, information — understanding shaped the magic. Sudes meant a weapon intended half to deliver one from magic and half to deliver one to magic as Lyudmilla pointed out. One end “buffs,” one end breaks. One end was in the open air of the land of Al-Zujaj, and the other end soaked in blood from the flesh of the avatar as he died–

She couldn’t help but twirl it after it manifested, and almost hit Lyudmilla. The Sudes was a wooden stake about the thickness of a cheerleading baton and the length of a throwing javelin. One end was blunt and just ever so vaguely rounded compared to the rest, while the other end was smoothly tapered off and mildly sharp. All of it looked worn, ancient.

All of it swept right in front of Lyudmilla like a swung sword.

“Ah! Sorry!” Minerva said. She dispelled the stake after the demonstration.

Lyudmilla had immediately backed up, defending herself with raised arms.

“Whoa, be careful with that.” Lyudmilla said. “Hey, are you ok?”

Minerva noticed that her face was sweaty, and she was breathing heavily.

It felt like all the air had left her lungs. Her stomach felt hollow suddenly.

She felt like she could tell apart all the nerves in her brain as pinpricks of pain.

This was not Moloch’s demesne after all. This was the material world.

Casting magic in the material world was much harder.

A Tyrant’s demesne draws magic out; the material world pushes magic in.

“I’m fine.” Minerva said. “This is a really tricky spell. It’s very powerful. Conjurations in general require tons of magic y’know? Creating an independent physical body and all.”

“Then that’s not the real stake you got there.” Lyudmilla said. “Conjurations are all fakes.”

She was learning! That was indeed a property of conjurations, a type of magic.

“Correct, they’re not real. Those real stakes got thrown out or burnt or buried. What matters is the image of the stake; the metaphorical stake. That’s what Sudes is. Copies of the seven stakes that killed the Messiah. Artifacts like that, with history that sticks in people’s minds, often inspire spellcraft.” She realized how much she sounded like an encyclopedia text to speech bot and paused for a moment to gauge Lyudmilla’s reaction. The girl seemed captivated by it, rather than bored or confused, so Minerva supposed she was doing something right. “You were right about their properties. One end will amplify magic that strikes it and the other end will weaken it. So I buried the weakening end into the Tyrant and kept the strengthening end open to the air for my purposes.”

“Yeah, I kinda thought so. I did that trick too.” Lyudmilla said. She was being pretty casual about what should have been an utterly horrifying experience. Perhaps it was the distance to it; or maybe Lyudmilla had been conditioned in some way to accept such things. She continued, looking smug. “I knew I couldn’t break apart all the machines in the demesne by myself, because I don’t really know any big explosive magic like you probably do. So I buried the weakening end of a stake into the machines to bring down their resistance and then used the buffing bit to amplify my magnetic spell.”

“I’m sorry that I made you fight like that, Lyudmilla.” Minerva said. Even if Lyudmilla was alright and seemingly satisfied with herself, that whole situation was a massive failure on Minerva’s fault to protect her charge. She had thrown in to defend her students but ended up using a student as a tool. “Even if you were clever enough for it.”

“It’s not a problem. Aren’t apprentices basically just an arch-wizard’s troops anyway?” Lyudmilla leaned back on her chair and waved her hand in the air as if the tension in the room was smoke and she was trying to dispel it. “Anyway, you said there were Seven stakes or something, but you made more than seven of those though, I’m pretty sure.”

Minerva blinked, still a little shocked by the composure of her new apprentice.

And her apparent enthusiasm at becoming “an arch-wizard’s troops.”

Nevertheless she continued to explain. After all, an engaged student was a rare delight, and even if it was not course material, Minerva loved to teach things to a willing mind.

“Depending on my intentions, I can conjure copies of the copies that are even weaker but satisfy my needs. In the demesne, I used Sudes to spread Bariq, desert lightning, across Moloch’s body to intensify the effect. He had so much mass that he would have barely felt one stake or one bolt striking his body, no matter how powerful the bolt was. He was mostly made of metal though, so with enough contacts, I could shock all of his body.”

“Huh. So being that big had its upsides.” Lyudmilla said. “He seemed really weak compared to you. Looking back on it, you kinda made a clown of a Tyrant there.”

Minerva shook her head. She did not want Lyudmilla to think she was some invincible juggernaut. There was a ready explanation. “I think because of the circumstances of the summoning, Moloch was forced to express his element of Fire through the medium of the metal idol that Ajax guy lured you to. Metal and Fire are opposed though, so Moloch was dramatically weaker than he should have been. Moloch seemed to think Wyrm had permanently removed his Fire element in antiquity; but I think if summoned right, Moloch could probably have crushed me in the Fire department nonetheless.”

She was trying to be careful of what she said still; some part of her approached the eagerness of her student, and the deeply troubling things she had seen, with great trepidation. Lyudmilla, however, had a simple response to everything and seemed thoroughly untroubled. She was not conspiring over anything that Minerva said.

Instead, she diverted the subject once again to another linked curiosity of hers.

“I guess I can understand that. Wait though, aren’t humans made of fire and metal?”

“Most of them, magically, yes.” Minerva said. She let out a little giggle at the concept of humans being made of fire and metal. Certainly their auras tended to be that way.

“Is that why we suck at magic more than Tyrants do? Opposing elements or whatever.”

“Well. It’s one of many reasons. I’d like to think we don’t suck too bad.” Minerva replied.

“Well, you don’t, I guess. You’re some kind of genius hero.” Lyudmilla said.

She laid her head down on her arms and kicked her legs, looking mildly frustrated.

Maybe she really did not think Minerva was dangerous or monstrous and was, honestly, casually and simply, jealous of her abilities and greedy for a similar kind of power.

“Hey, I had resources others did not. I owe this to a lot of people and a lot of study.”

Lyudmilla glanced up at her with a foul expression on her face.

“Yeah, and you’ll tell me all about it someday.” She said sarcastically.

Minerva frowned right back at her. Even if she wasn’t malicious, she was a handful.

“I’ll teach you all of it. But not now. Right now, we should get back to your homework.”

“Yeah, the homework you made up to give me a hard time.”

There was almost some tension in the room now and Minerva did not like it one bit.

“Come on now, you’re doing really well. Lets build up some momentum! From 75 to 80!”

Minerva smiled and cheered and tried to be perky and nice to her in response.

Lyudmilla turned her head away and narrowed her eyes.

Picking the sheet back up, Minerva asked, “Explain the first formalized spellcasting method divised by Hama, and explain why it is so difficult to reconstruct today.”

She tried to sound bright and sunny, but that was actually a rather difficult question.

“Oh man, are you for real?” Lyudmilla protested. “Am I a PhD student or a freshman?”

Just as Minerva was about to comfort her, there was a vigorous knock on the door.

She snapped her head up from the sheet and stared in surprise.

“Come in!” She shouted, thinking that it must have been Niko who was just very late to office hours, and happy that she would not have to reschedule him to a later day again.

However almost as soon as the door opened, her homunculus vibrated on her wrist.

Looking down at it she found a message from Niko Klein.

Looking up from it she saw the door swing open and an unfamiliar woman walk through the threshold. She looked Minerva’s or Lyudmilla’s age and carried herself with confidence, stopping short of the desk with her hands behind her back and a big grin.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Orizaga. I apologize if I’m interrupting something, but I was told you could help me with my investigation, and I wanted to meet you right away.”

She was quite a dazzling character, slender, athletic. Her hair was long, shiny, a golden blond, adorned with a dark purple, reflective headband. A sharp streak of red eyeliner and a careful dab of ice-blue lipstick made her face stand out. Her attire was professional and more than likely symbolic of something: a blue-striped white uniform jacket with long sleeves and red shoulders and cuffs, buttoned up, with a similarly tri-color skirt.

On her hip was a tote-bag sized belted pack with a cable, connected to a holstered object clipped to her opposite hip. The cable stretched behind her back. Was it some kind of gun? She had no homunculus on her wrist; but there was an orb floating around her, gunmetal and purple with a recessed pink eye amid a pattern of concentric neon veins. About the size of a football and moving around as if of its own volition. What was it?

Lyudmilla stared at them half-turned on her seat, seemingly also confused.

“Good afternoon.” Minerva said. Since this woman had skipped introductions and just called her out by surname, Minerva would skip any formalities as well. “May I inquire as to the nature of this investigation? As you can see I am currently with a student.”

Her guest grinned ear to ear, crossing her arms.

At her side the orb’s eye and the veins around it blinked on and off.

“Pardon my rudeness. My name is Silica Von Drachen. I am here on behalf of a global task force of the Noct Republic, operation Panopticon, to investigate a summoning.”

Minerva blinked hard. That was a lot of words she was not prepared ever to hear.

Silica seemed to immediately pick up on her discomfort and genuinely enjoy it.

“Ever heard of the Etherian ‘Moloch’? I should hope not. Humans should not consort with such beings of course, especially humans bound by international agreements not to.”


Story 2, Lord Of The Tempest, BEGIN.


<<< Previous / Next >>>

Life In The Besieged City (74.2)

This scene contains mild violence and allusions to transphobia and medical violence.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Halwa Way

Weighing in at 52 tons, the Mandeha experimental self-propelled gun and its 152mm gun made an impression everywhere it went. It was loud, from the crunching of the tracks as they turned on their wheels, to the coughing of its engine and the rumbling in the dirt as it moved through the town. There was no subtlety to it: its too-tall turret and too-large body compared to the tanks common folk knew made it stand out far too much.

Having been given special provision to use civilian roads on its journey, the weapon and its crew trundled through the main street, down the old southern marketplace and out to the broader and wider-open historic neighborhood of Halwa Way. Known once for its confectioners and toy-makers, a little paradise for the city’s children, the war turned its eye on it as a source of open, under-developed space for military apparatus to expand.

Now there were no toy makers or candy shops. Confectioners produced canned and boxed food products for the military. Toy makers built guns and machined small parts.

The Mandeha headed for a workshop as part of an agreement to be examined in detail by a local cooperative and to apparently produce a limited run of extra turrets for it. Karima did not understand the purpose of doing such a thing but she did not question it.

She instead took in the sights atop the traveling tank, a soldier with nothing to shoot.

Clay brick houses, a few official-looking concrete buildings and many small wood-and-tin workshops were set on big plots of land spaced many meters apart, with waist-high stone divisions and broad dirt road between them. There were many empty, open parks and plazas and vacant, overgrown plots. All of it baking under the midday sun directly overhead. The heat was enough to cause ripples in the air ahead of and behind the tank.

Regardless, there were people on the street. Almost everyone in Halwa Way was dressed either in simple work clothes or some kind of uniform, though there were a few women in saris and one man in a robe and beads that Karima saw. The tank drove by a long line for certain rationed supplies, notably firewood and coal for homes and shops, handed out the back of a truck. They passed by a small clinic where a dozen soldiers in physical therapy practiced standing up on their prosthetic legs. They passed by a large school too.

Heads turned as the Mandeha neared. Older folk gaped and stared at the metal monster. Children clapped and danced and some of the misbehaving ones threw rocks and got scolded for it. There were still children, of course, even as Halwa Way metamorphosed.

To Karima, who was hanging half out of the top hatch, it looked like the children in the school were having a bomb drill. They were minded by a pair of military uniformed officers. After scolding them for the rocks their instructors had them practice ducking and crawling in the football field. There were shallow foxholes dug all over the field and a little sandbag wall. They were probably being taught to do basic earthworks too.

Past the school the Mandeha stopped and turned in place to go around a corner. Karima got a brief glimpse of a 37mm anti-aircraft gun and a group of teenage girls manning it.

Karima watched the landscape passing her slowly and gently by, resting her head on her arms.  It was miserably hot out, and the turret armor of the Mandeha was rather hot too. The long, smooth, shiny sleeves of her tight black tanker bodysuit protected her from being burned by the metal, but did nothing about the overall heat. She sweated profusely.

It was no better inside the tank. Though it was not worse — heat took much longer to penetrate the densely armored interior, so it was about the same temperature as just standing outside, even though it was a metal box cooking in the sun. Mainly, outside the tank at least Karima could feel the calm breeze sweeping up her long, brown arched ponytail and blowing the sweat off her olive skin. In the tank, it’d be cramped and while some air could come through the poor welding seams that was not an intended feature.

“Feeling down, Karima?”

A second hatch opened atop the Mandeha. A young blond woman pulled herself up half out of the hatch, and laid her head on her arms near Karima as if miming her.

“I’m fine.” Karima said brusquely. Lila was gorgeous and a joy but also annoying.

“This heat is monstrous isn’t it? I’ve never been anywhere so dry.” Lila said.

“It’s fine!” Karima said. She started raising her voice.

“You don’t look fine honestly, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You’re so noisy!”

Without responding, Lila turned her gaze on the surroundings with a smile.

Karima sighed.

“It’s not like I want you around. If you’re gonna be here, just take in the breeze quietly.”

She welcomed the company.

Karima snatched sidelong glances at Lila, thinking to herself that she liked when Lila was staring placidly at something other than her. She felt pressured when Lila stared at her, and resentful because Lila probably didn’t see anything good when she looked.

Lila was beautiful. Her golden hair, tied up out of the way, and her eyes, and her peach colored skin; she looked so lovely, like an angel. Karima found her gaze sneaking down Lila’s slim shoulders and along her back. She had taken off the combat vest, and the bodysuit hugged her figure very well under it. Karima had to pull herself away and force herself to stare at the buildings. Lila would tease her relentlessly if she caught her.

It wasn’t that Karima disliked the teasing, but she disliked her own reaction to it.

Her head was just a big screaming mess all the time. It made everything so hard.

The Mandeha rolled through a small park. As they maneuvered the tank carefully under the decorative arch out the other end of the park, Karima spotted a small crowd gathered ahead of them. They seemed to be trying to push something out from the middle of the intersection. Once they were close enough to see through the heat haze, Karima found the small group of workers and soldiers trying to get a supply truck going again after it struck a nasty ditch in the dry, dirty ground, knocking one of its wheels out of sorts.

“Huh. I wonder if everything’s okay.” Lila said airily.

Karima groaned. “Of course it isn’t. Just look at that.”

Onlookers gathered around the stalled truck, watching as a few men tried to prop the truck up, bang its wheel back into place, or push it out of the way. They did not appear as if they had made much progress. The Mandeha stopped at the edge of the crowd, and the hatch in front of the vehicle opened up. Karima saw their driver walk out into the crowd.

He was a comely young man with a braided black ponytail, wearing a combat jacket and shorts over his black bodysuit. Isa was not the sort who would have offered to help himself. He was probably going to rope them all into pushing on the truck or something.

“Ugh, he’s gonna get involved, of course.” Karima sighed.

“Well, we can’t just go through them, and it is nice to help out.” Lila said.

She turned her smile on Karima again, who turned her own head away from it.

“Whatever.”

Isa returned from a brief conversation with the men pushing the truck, and waved to Karima and Lila from the ground. He walked around the back of the tank and pulled from one of the storage hatches a hook and a steel rope. He attached the rope to one of the metal handles around the side of the Mandeha’s chassis, and brought the rope over to the truck, and hooked it to the front of it. Then he returned to the tank and dove down into the front hatch. He did all of this without saying a word to Karima or Lila about it.

Lila whistled.

“Huh, I guess he’s going to handle it himself. Our Isa has grown into a dependable boy.”

“We’re his age.” Karima retorted. “And he’s just playing around with the tank.”

“I guess it’s neat to be able to drive it.” Lila said, giggling.

“Less effort than hauling up those awful 152mm shells.” Karima mumbled.

The Mandeha rumbled as Isa started the engine, and began to pull back. The rope stretched taut, and the tank began to force the truck away from the intersection. People moved out of the way, and the Mandeha retreated to the park with the truck in tow and left it in a grassy little square patch once intended for picnickers. The owners of the truck had followed along, and when Isa popped back out of the hatch, they shook hands.

From the back of the truck, one of the men produced a small box, and he handed it to Isa.

“Lets go see what that’s about.” Lila said excitedly, pinching Karima’s bicep.

“Fine.”

They climbed down the footholds on the side of the turret, and closed the top hatches. Karima was tall for an Ayvartan woman, so the Mandeha was about the only tank she felt somewhat comfortable in. Its turret was still cramped, but nowhere near as much as the flatter turrets on smaller tanks. Karima could crouch into the turret from above, sit down and spread her arms — a Goblin tank felt like being caged in comparison. Lila, who was shorter and lighter, fit perfectly well inside the turret along with Karima as well.

Once inside, they both leaned down past the turret ring to look into the chassis below.

At the front of the chassis, past the racks of heavy shells, was Isa’s driving compartment. He closed the hatch and turned around just as the women were coming down from the turret. Smiling, he presented to them a little cardboard box. A fantastic smell of bread and spices swept through the interior of the tank. Karima identified it immediately.

“They gave you pakoras?” She asked suddenly.

“Sure did! They’re setting up a food spot for the workers around here.”

Isa opened up the box for them. It was indeed filled with pakoras: crunchy, flaky pouches of fried bread filled with vegetables and spices. He had at least a dozen in the box.

“Half of them have potatoes and peas, the other half are paneer.” Isa said.

“Paneer please!”

Karima stretched out a hand and Isa, in a bit of shock, deposited a pakora in it.

Lila stared at Karima, blinking the whole time.

Paying them no attention, Karima took a big bite.

She smiled and closed her eyes. It was perfect, the crust was so crisp, the paneer tender.

“We got some chutney also.” Isa said, pulling a little plastic cup from under the pakoras.

Karima snatched the cup, set it down on top of the turret ring divider, removed the lid and dunked her pakora into the spicy green mash. It was delicious: hot, minty, sweet.

She felt herself transported to an earlier, simpler time by the food.

“Just like mother used to make.” She said.

Lila and Isa stared at her.

Isa with a blank expression, and Lila slowly filling with delight.

When she noticed them, Karima shot a strong look. “What? Got something on my face?”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Lila said.

Isa crossed his arms and averted his gaze.

Karima turned her cheek on them and climbed back up out of the turret interior.

“She can smile sometimes, I guess.” Isa said.

“She’s great.” Lila replied.

Without the obstruction in the middle of the road, and with the crowd having dispersed, the Mandeha made its way steadily down to the Lower Yard, a series of wood and tin buildings with open walls. There were buildings on either side of the dirt road, forming their own little neighborhood here. In the past they would have been home to many cooperative workers tinkering with mechanical toys, karts, and other trinkets. Now the instant the Mandeha turned into the road, Karima spotted a table with a line of rifles in various stages of completion, and one little building housing a crane vehicle and a tank.

Several workers crawled around the tank as the crane lifted the turret off of it.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle, a sense of urgency, but also a sense of desperate haphazardness. Soon as Karima took her eyes off it, the crane dropped the turret off and almost took a man’s foot out. There were screams out of earshot. She grumbled.

“Karima~!”

Karima heard Lila calling up to her from below. “We’re stopping soon! Put on your combat jacket, we don’t want to run around in topless bodysuits in a public workshop.”

In response Karima stomped her boot on the foothold she was standing on.

She eventually did don her combat jacket. Her bodysuit was a bit tight up top.

The workshop was no more a building than the rest of Lower Yard. It did, however, house a plethora of machine tools. There were lathes and a smelting furnace and many molds. Everywhere that a shelf could be bolted to, they had bolted two, overburdened with tools and parts. It was busy; there were people running about who barely seemed to notice each other, all engaged in some manner of labor. Karima thought it was too noisy.

Several older men and women in tough, dusty leather work suits greeted them.

Lila, Isa and Karima stepped out of the tank and shook hands with the recently elected head of the cooperative, a stocky, bald older man with black skin verging on blue, by the name of Qeneb Yaibeh. He smiled a broad smile and laughed warmly at the Mandeha.

“Welcome! My, what a piece of kit you got there.” He said. “This is also little Ravana’s work? I did not expect it to be this extravagant. Her family used to be so conservative.”

“Perhaps that’s why she’s taking so many liberties now.” Isa replied.

“I’m glad little Ravana is still thinking about this place.” Qeneb said.

“She said, ‘Chief Yaibeh is the only man I trust with this project.'”

“Oh that’s a lie! I’m just the only man who would bother with that abomination she built! Come, let us talk about it. I wish she had come herself, but you seem lively enough!”

Before arriving, Karima and Lila decided to let Isa handle things at the yard, since out of all of them he knew the most about the machine and its technical details, being the driver and having some small mechanic experience. Whereas Lila was only supposed to be a medic, turned gunner in desperation; and Karima a bugler and general grunt.

Qeneb took Isa away to show him around the shop. Standing outside, Karima could see practically everything they had available and everything they were working on, a few cars, some radios; Lila looked delighted, but Karima was very unimpressed by the sight.

“Ugh. Why are we taking it here? This place is a dump.” Karima said.

Lila shot a suddenly aggravated look at her. Unprepared, Karima almost jumped.

“Chief Ravan trusts these men and women! Look at how hard they work!” Lila said.

Her tone of voice was rather harsh. Karima had rarely seen her become upset.

It made Karima feel defensive. “Working hard for what? Why bother letting them fix a few things here and there when M.A.W. could fix a hundred of them in a day?”

Lila turned sharply and stormed off into the shop by herself, leaving Karima suddenly.

Karima felt a powerful impulse inside her to be very angry herself; but she tried to control it. It was mixed with fear and anxiety. Her head was always mixed up in this fashion, but at the thought of Lila being mad at her, the chaos was all the more violent and cacophonous. She felt paralyzed, not knowing what to do but standing under the hot sun, her ponytail sweeping this way and that with the wind, sweating profusely.

She closed her fists so hard her gloved fingers bit into her palm.

“Fine!”

She shouted after Lila, and then turned around and made to leave.

Then she heard a loud crash from the side of the shop.

There was a scream.

Karima cast a glance at her side and then without thinking threw herself forward.

She interposed herself between an older woman and a shelf poorly bolted onto a pair of wooden building supports. Several steel tools crashed against her arms and shoulders and fell harmlessly on the floor. When the shelf itself fully collapsed Karima pushed it back, throwing it off herself and onto the floor. Several glass tubes blew up at her feet.

When it was all over, she felt like her arms had been trampled by caribou.

She looked behind herself, smiling weakly at an old woman in a headscarf and work suit.

“Please be careful ma’am.” Karima said, her voice and hands quivering.

She put her arms down, with some effort, and started to collect the tools that had fallen.

“Oh no dear! Please!” Said the grateful woman, bending down next to her to help.

“You all need to clean up this place! It’s a hazard!” Karima said, growing annoyed.

She turned to the woman and found her staring at her.

“You’re bleeding, dear.”

From her work suit pocket the woman produced a scarf and put it to Karima’s forehead.

Karima ignored it. She collected several drill bits, hammers, and a few pairs of very large bolt drivers, and collected them into a nearby basket and lifted it up. At her side, the old woman was nearly speechless at the effort Karima was putting in for practically no reason. Karima herself, having been struck in the head, was not especially thinking her actions through, but some part of her justified it as ‘showing them how to do things’ and ‘being the decent person in the room’ and other excuses to retain her personal aesthetic.

No sooner had she taken a few steps into the shop that Lila reappeared.

She looked at Karima, first with confusion and then with wide-eyed shock.

“Hashem protect you, what happened?”

She rushed up to Karima with a bandage that quickly turned red as it touched her head.

“I’m fine.” Karima said brusquely.

“Ugh. You don’t have to be so– so you all the time.” Lila said in a defeated tone of voice.

She eventually forced Karima to sit down in a corner and hold a towel up to her wound.

She sat down next to her, sighing.

They watched the people come and go. Karima still didn’t get it.

But she thought, if Lila respected it, then she should just do it too.

“I’m sorry for being me. Please don’t hate me.” Karima said, admitting defeat herself.

Lila rested her head against Karima’s side. “Oh, just– You’re fine. Be quiet.”

Karima pressed the towel harder on her wound.

She guessed that everyone was trying their best to help the way they could.

She guessed there was no reason to stop them.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Ulyanova Medical Research Center

In the “special treatments clinic” the walls were painted a relaxing peach color and there was a piece of art hanging on every one of them. They were paintings of landscapes, with tiny cheerful trees, sweeping mountains and shimmering lakes and rivers, all in oil paints, with a quirky little signature that read something like “W. Kapp.” There was a corner with a large pillow with big cartoon eyes on drawn on it, and a smattering of random toys. On the pillow there was the same quirky handwriting: umarmung.

There was a reception desk, at which nobody sat, and a door into the office.

That afternoon there were only two patients waiting on the long couch by the door.

“How long have you been waiting?”

A young woman spoke first; she asked the young man at her side.

“Not long.” He said.

“I just got here.” She said. “Have you been here before?”

“It’s my first time.” He said. “But this doctor is very well regarded! So I’m hopeful.”

“I see. I came to get the results of some tests I took in the other hospital. How about you?”

For a moment, the boy hesitated. “I need a prescription for a new drug.”

She did not press him further. “Oh, well I hope you get it.”

For someone sitting in the special unit, the young woman certainly looked healthy. Dark-skinned, with black hair tied into a short tail, she was svelte and fit. The muscular tone of her legs was visible even through stockings, and she had strong shoulders. She wore a long-sleeved, knee-length blue dress and had a pink and blue band around her wrist.

She had the body of an athlete; but nobody would’ve known her true heroism by sight.

At her side the young man was slightly shorter and less physically impressive, with ruddy brown skin and short dark hair. He was dressed in a button-down shirt and suspenders, and twirled a little hat around on his fingers. His face was delicate and pretty, of an ethnic character the young woman thought, but otherwise he looked plain enough; nobody could have told at a glance his unique condition or achievements.

“I’m Leander Gaurige.” He said first, extending a friendly hand.

“Naya Oueddai.” She replied with a quick shake. “Nice to meet you.”

No sooner had they been introduced that the door to the office opened.

Out stepped a red-headed woman wearing a white coat, twirling a pen in her fingers. She was rather dexterous with it, and it spun like a wheel between two fingers and a thumb.

“Good evening you two– Oh!”

She bumped her heeled shoes on a small toy on the ground and nearly fell.

From her fingers, the pen launched like an arrow toward the patients.

Leander gasped and ducked.

Naya thrust out a hand and snatched the pen out of the air before it could strike.

For an instant the room felt like the air had been sucked out.

At the other end of the room the woman sighed with relief. “Mein gott. I apologize.”

She approached the waiting patients, and Naya handed her the pen with a grin.

“Goodness, what reflexes. You must be quite popular at parties.”

There was no mistaking her appearance, she was absolutely the doctor. Her professional dress consisted of a white coat over a button-down shirt and tie with a pencil skirt and black leggings. She looked well into her adulthood, with a striking face, sharp-featured and elegant with well-applied dark eyeshadow and lipstick. Her wine-red hair was collected in a bun in the back of her head with a few clips. A pair of thin spectacles covered her grey eyes. She was tall, slender and broad-shouldered, with a subtle figure.

Leander smiled at her as if meeting a celebrity. Certainly she was well made-up as any star, and she carried herself just as confidently, but the reaction from him was far more than any doctor seemed to merit. His face lit up with anticipation. Naya put her hands behind her head and reclined on her seat. She was sure she had a bit more of a wait on her hands. It definitely seemed to her that Leander knew the doctor and was set to go in.

The doctor bent down close to the two of them and put a hand on Leander’s shoulder.

“I know you’re full of anticipation, Leander, but Naya here will only take a few minutes, and I don’t want to delay her results longer. Can you wait just a little more?”

She spoke with a thick accent and her voice was a little deep and a little nasal.

Leander’s mouth hung open for a moment in response. He nodded his head.

He looked completely deflated, and Naya almost wanted to say he should go ahead.

But the doctor seemed to sense her reticence and comforted Leander quickly.

“We’ll have more time to talk if I’m not worried about another patient. I promise.”

She gave him a thumbs up, and then gestured for Naya to stand.

Naya gave Leander a sympathetic look and followed the doctor to the office.

Leander however looked a little more lively again with the doctor’s reassurance.

Past the office door was a large room built around a complicated fixed chair with several instruments attached to it. There were four large workspaces with multiple drawers and cabinets affixed high on the walls over them. Atop every one of these spaces there were baskets with tools wrapped in clear plastic, as if they were candy at a shop. There was one basket that seemed to actually have candy. One open drawer had several stuffed bears wrapped in clear plastic also. Each bear had a heart with the word for ‘hug’ on it.

Hujambo! I’m Doctor Willhelmina Kappel. Have a seat, and have a bear!”

Doctor Kappel shook Naya’s hand gently, and then ripped a stuffed bear free from its plastic packaging and handed it to her. She instructed Naya to sit on the fixed chair and hug the bear, and though she felt terribly silly doing so, the bear was soft, comfortable, almost therapeutic to hug. Her heart was beating terribly fast as it began to sink in that she would see the results of the tests on her back to see what could be troubling her.

“Though it is the one revolutionary idea I have for which I possess no evidence, I think that hugs are very powerful. I have all my patients hug a bear while we talk about tests.”

“Are all the toys out there for your patients too?” Naya asked cheekily.

Dr. Kappel smiled warmly. “I get a lot of children, mothers with children, so on. I think it is important to make spaces for children in ominous places like this. It might make adults feel silly, but adults can handle feeling silly. Children can’t help feeling anxious.”

Naya got the sense that Dr. Kappel was a genuinely thoughtful person.

Even if she did end up tripping on the toys she so kindly set out for the children.

This was her first time meeting her, even though she was getting the results here.

She had run her tests in the main building, but they referred her to special treatments for the results. Dr. Kappel seemed good, but the very fact that she had to come here and meet her felt ominous to Naya. Special Treatment did not ring as very hopeful to her.

Dr. Kappel sat in a little wooden chair across from Naya and leaned forward, smiling.

“Run any laps recently, Naya Oueddai?” Dr. Kappel asked.

“I’ve been keeping up on my exercising.” Naya said demurely.

“Set any good times on the local tracks?”

Her accent was thicker on some Ayvartan words than it was on others. Though she had command of the language, Willhelmina Kappel was still just a little more difficult to listen to than normal. Naya felt like she had to pay very strict attention to really get every word that she was pronouncing. It was not unpleasant, just different — she was used to such things with her commanding officer, who was partially deaf and partially mute.

Once she mulled over what Dr. Kappel had said for a second she responded.

“I haven’t really been trying, and I’ve never run the tracks around here before anyway.”

“You have the potential to beat some records. Solstice has mediocre runners. The South has always been better than Solstice at running.” Dr. Kappel said, grinning.

Did she mean Naya would be okay? Was that what she was insinuating?

“I’ll give it a go sometime, I guess.”

“Try the medical college track.” Dr. Kappel said.

“Duly noted.”

“How has your back been recently? Has your pain subsided?” Dr. Kappel continued.

“I’m managing, thanks to the drugs.”

“Between dosages, do you feel the pain returning?”

“Not much. I mean, my back is not going to be fixed by painkillers, and I know that, but as long as I take the drugs, exerting myself does not hurt like it did before.” Naya said.

“Would you have characterized your pain before as fleeting attacks, or constant pain?”

Naya felt tired just remembering the pains from before. “They would come and go.”

“And when an event transpired, it was debilitating, yes?”

It felt shameful to admit it, but Naya was honest. “I couldn’t even move sometimes.”

“And you noticed certain triggers for your worst pain events.”

She was starting to wither under the questions.

“I was usually exerting myself when they happened.” Naya admitted.

Dr. Kappel nodded, and reached for a thick file folder on a nearby countertop.

“Naya, would you appreciate a blunt assessment, or a softer delivery?”

Naya felt that request like a hammer to the chest.

Willhelmina Kappel practically held Naya’s life in her hands. Everything that Naya was and cared for could ride on this result. So few people would look at that girl in the ill fitting, borrowed dress with the thick legs and realize the sort of struggle she was in.

Naya was a successful tanker, and recently a medal candidate for her heroism during the evacuation of Benghu a few weeks ago. She was part of an experimental tank unit, and more importantly, she considered herself an athlete still, even if she had not run very much recently. Her physicality was important to her self image, esteem, and identity.

Thinking about it brought a pinprick of phantom back pain that nearly made her panic.

“Are you alright?” Dr. Kappel asked.

“I’m fine.”

She had reached to rub her back, but she stopped.

It distressed her to think that her prized body that she had grown so proud of was failing her. She was managing her mysterious back pains with pain medication, but she knew that she could not depend on her unit medic slipping her painkillers under the table.

“Be as blunt as you have to be.” Naya said. Her eyes were tearing up. The air in the office felt cold and forbidding. She gripped her own dress and grit her teeth and waited.

Dr. Kappel nodded. “It is difficult to determine exactly when, but if you keep going on your current trajectory you will lose the use of your legs. Take a look at this–”

She spread open the folder and showed Naya a strange photograph. There was a human form, and the photograph was specifically of a lower back, with the spine and the hip bones visible and the flesh a flat, blue transparent plane. There were various blemishes on the bones. Dr. Kappel pointed out a few spots along the slightly crooked spine.

“You have a rare condition affecting your spine that is damaging your nerves. Right now, it is only painful, because the nerve is affected in brief, violent events that subside with rest. You can manage it with drugs, but if you continue to push yourself, you will damage the nerve permanently. You will find yourself unable to run, then walk unsupported, and then stand. I cannot tell you exactly when but this is a certainty in your current state.”

Naya felt surprisingly empty of emotion. There it was, the punch to the jaw that she had been expecting. Her eyes were as tearful as they had been — only mildly so. She could not muster the strength to scream. She looked at the images of her compromised bones with weariness and a sense of resignation. Perhaps Dr. Kappel’s bluntness did pay off.

“Is it possible to fix with surgery?” Naya said. She found herself hugging the bear tight.

Dr. Kappel reached out and put a reassuring hand on Naya’s shoulder.

“We have options. For right now, I can schedule for you to receive spinal injections. Though painful and temporarily debilitating, they will give you enough of a respite to remain active and give us options. We can then consult and think about things like disc reshaping and bone grafts, but I must warn you that these are very invasive.”

“But if it can help me–”

Dr. Kappel gave Naya a serious look that chilled her suddenly.

She reached out and held Naya’s hand.

“I know from seeing you and reading about you that you are a fighter, Naya.”

Nodding her head, Naya couldn’t think of a verbal response to her sudden seriousness.

Dr. Kappel looked her directly in the eyes.

“Surgery can keep you walking. However, it would put you permanently out of the war. You would go through a very long recovery process that would involve a group home and regular therapy. Even if I succeed I doubt you would be able to run as you used to.”

Naya was surprised that she brought up the war.

“Am I going to be medically discharged?” She asked.

“I never said that.” Dr. Kappel said. She patted her on the shoulder. “I read your military file. That is why I’m telling you all of this right now. I want to give you a chance.”

Naya blinked, momentarily speechless. Her heart skipped a beat.

“So, Doctor, are you saying that if I just walk out of here–”

“You are gambling with your ability to recover from your condition. Naya, the more you fight, the more you will risk causing harm to yourself that will never repair. You must understand that. I need to be sure you understand the full depth of your options.”

Naya’s mind was racing as fast as her heart was thrashing.

“But I can fight? You will let me walk out and I can fight?”

“I’ll clear you for action. Spinal injections and painkillers can keep you going, for now.”

For a moment, Naya was silent. She wiped her tearful eyes and whimpered.

“But if I keep going–”

“You now understand what will happen.”

“It’s almost cruel how difficult this is, doctor.”

“I understand.”

Dr. Kappel nodded her head. She had a grim look on her face again.

She started to reminisce, as if both to Naya and herself.

“I was born in the Nocht Federation. I pioneered an amazing treatment that would have allowed many people to lead the life they desperately wanted. Because of the stigma against it, I was my only test subject. Soon it became impossible to mask the treatment’s efficacy.” She smiled again, but she looked bitter. “For my efforts, I was subjected to electroshocks and other abusive psychotherapy. When I started, I knew that I wanted to fight not just for my future, but for others. Even if it harmed me or killed me in the end.”

Naya knew what that felt like lately. Even if it broke her back, she made herself keep fighting all those weeks ago. Even when things felt the most hopeless, and when she had no idea whether she would or could succeed or change anything, she still climbed into the Raktapata and took action. She begged to be inside the machine, to be able to fight.

“So that’s why you’re not just forcing me to take the surgery.”

“I want you to take some time to decide what you want. When I came to this country, I wanted to become a doctor who gives people control of their life. Not somebody who creates an unhappy life for them based on my own prejudices. This is part of that. Especially with the current national situation. I don’t want to deny your convictions.”

It was an unbelievably heavy consideration for Naya. To forego surgery for the chance to fight, but perhaps give up recovery by the war’s end; or to surrender the Raktapata and her place in Vijaya for good, but lead something of a normal life by the end of the war.

If there was an end to the war; if after her retreat, her comrades managed to win.

Naya started to tear up again. For the first time, she thought ‘what am I?’ and it was not just a child’s aesthetic considerations, not just a dream for tomorrow. It was a heavy and troubling adult decision that would indelibly shape her. Could she be happy knowingly abandoning the battle? Could she be happy knowingly abandoning her health?

“Doctors are not supposed to do harm.” Dr. Kappel said. “But all the time, Doctors in Nocht did harm to me by treating me the way society expected me to be treated, and not how I felt I should. Naya, you’re the only one who can decide your future. It need not be now. I will schedule your injection. You will have time to think. Take that time.”

Naya stared at the doctor, tears flowing down her cheeks, her nose dripping.

She grinned, the same little shithead grin she gave for her joke about the toys.

“We should race sometime.” She said.

Dr. Kappel laughed. “We had such a heartfelt rapport, and now you want to bully me?”

“How bad were your times on the track, doctor?” Naya said, her voice choking up a bit.

“Oh dreadful. When I fled here I thought I could beat the fields like I did in college. My hormones must have ruined my running. But it was worth it to look as good as I do.”

She struck a little pose, sitting with one leg over the other and wearing a fox-like smile.

Naya clapped. “You look lovely.” The hormone stuff flew over her head.

“Thank you. For that, I’ll open up a spot for you this weekend.”

Dr. Kappel produced a clipboard and put Naya’s name down on it.

“Give yourself some time, Naya, before you decide permanently. As long as you can walk, you can still come back here.” Dr. Kappel said, handing her the clipboard. “It’s your future. Find a way to live it without regrets. I know you can do it. I did it myself.”

Naya took the clipboard and signed next to her name. She nodded, still weeping.

As she handed it back, and brushed the doctor’s gentle hand, she thought that Dr. Kappel was very strong. She was starting to feel the admiration that she saw in Leander’s face.


Previous Part || Next Part

Life In The Besieged City (74.1)

This scene contains alcohol abuse and mild sexual content.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

As the sun began to fall, and the sky turned red, the rings were exchanged.

It was not a massive ceremony nor a state ceremony. There was no roaring crowd, no band, no feast, no media. They had no diamond-studded rings and no bouquet to fling. Few people knew of the occasion; fewer attended. Kuwba was their silent witness.

Curtained off with bamboo dividers, the waterside was reserved for the brides and a handful of guests. Standing at the edge of the stone ring around the oasis, framed by the trees in the background, the women held hands and looked at each other fondly, close to tears with joy. Mayor Mazibe said some words, and linked the bride’s hands together, and then stepped aside for them to recite their vows. They were brief vows. Those women, who had fallen in love exiled to a deserted island for anti-goverment activities, knew each other’s vows by heart. They had already been living those vows for years.

“Daksha.”

“Kremina.”

They were dressed as bride and groom. Daksha in a sharp black suit, and Kremina in a silver-blue dress. Daksha wore her hair gathered up in a bun, while Kremina had a flowing ponytail ringed with flowers and covered by a lacy veil. Neither one looked her forties and fifties in this scene, in this attire. Both looked like young, romantic girls, openly weeping and trembling with emotion as they held hands and stared longingly at one another. Even before the Mayor started talking, and even after he stopped, the tears would not leave their faces, but neither would their smiles. Under the falling sun, they glowed with a sublime beauty. When they drew in to kiss, even their guests wept.

Parinita Maharani was weeping most loudly, sobbing, covering her mouth with a handkerchief to snort, her makeup starting to run a little around her eyes. She felt small, like a woman struck dumb by the sublime, belittled by a grandeur that shocked her to tears. She was standing in the shadows of giants and she felt completely unworthy.

Madiha Nakar was not weeping, but she admitted to herself that she was near to it. She felt almost nothing coherent at all. She did not have the greatest grasp on her emotions.

Daksha and Kremina broke their matrimonial kiss, held their hands up to each other’s faces, and kissed again. They put their foreheads together and sobbed and smiled. They were laughing, closer than anyone had ever seen them. There was a subdued applause.

“By the power invested in me by the office of the Solstice mayorship, I declare thee both joined in official matrimony!” shouted Mayor Mazibe, so excited by the whole ceremony that he completely mixed his secular, religious, ancient and modern speech together. Everyone was too busy with the bride and the suit-bride, to truly pay him attention.

After the declaration, Charvi Chadgura and Gulab Kajari raised rifles into the air and fired into the distance. They were dressed in matching suits, acting as designated wedding shooters. It was allowed by the resort — they fired toward the empty oasis.

All of it was merely traditional. For Ayvartans the ceremony was truly nothing so grand. It was no joining of a King and Queen. Only the dress and the people stood out.

Two women in love got to have a vulnerable, touching moment beneath a falling sun.

That was all they wanted, and by all accounts, it seemed as wonderful as they dreamed.

After a loving relationship of over 20 years, Admiral Kremina Qote and Premier Daksha Kansal were finally, officially married on the 24th of the Hazel’s Frost of 2030 D.C.E.

Madiha Nakar watched everything with muted emotion, not quite knowing how to behave appropriately or what to say that would be profound. She knew that everything was beautiful and happy, and she knew that she herself felt the swelling of emotion when the brides kissed, and she felt that she wanted something like this for herself.

But it was hard to communicate it in a way that didn’t seem trite, so she mostly kept to herself and Parinita, on the periphery of the ceremony, holding hands and trembling.

“I want a ceremony just like this.” Parinita said. “I want a cozy little venue by the water with a pretty background, a beautiful dress, and a funny little man as the notary.”

Madiha put on a little smile. “We should book this place today, so we’ll get it in a year.”

Anyone could book the hotel now, and so, it was booked very far ahead of time.

“We’ll do it.” Parinita said. Her eyes teared up again. “We’ll live and we’ll shine like this.”

She tightened her grip on Madiha’s hand and Madiha gripped tightly backed.

Their hearts were full of emotion that they could scarcely identify or handle.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Hotel

“Madiha Nakar! It’s been far too long.”

Kremina Qote extended a hand to Madiha and she shook it, and Kremina laughed in return. Madiha did not know why, and thought perhaps she made some kind of embarrassing etiquette blunder. Maybe she was supposed to kiss her hand?

“Don’t break my bride’s arm, please.” Daksha joked.

Madiha laughed a little herself then, and at her side, Parinita giggled with her.

“I remember when she was just a little courier girl.” Kremina said. “To think she would grow a head taller than me and nearly rip my arm off at my own wedding day.”

“She doesn’t know her own strength.” Parinita said, trying to play along.

“I didn’t pull that hard.” Madiha said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

Kremina patted her on the arm. “Just having fun! Come now, let’s have some drinks.”

Madiha turned to Parinita, who nodded pointedly.

“Come on, of course you’ll drink. It’s practically contractual.” Kremina said.

“Take her up on that or she’ll drink it all herself.” Daksha said. “I’d prefer her a bit sober.”

After the ceremony, Kremina and Daksha relocated to the resort’s Principal suite, their best accommodation, for a short honeymoon stay before resuming their duties. Madiha and Parinita were invited for a meeting before the two lovebirds secluded themselves.

It was a palatial establishment they were given: almost a whole floor of the hotel for themselves, with a kitchen, a hot bath, a game room with pool, darts and shuffleboard, and a bedroom that was passionately red, candle-lit and smelled of sweet incense.

They caught up with Daksha at the foyer, and she took them on a little tour while Kremina dug into the alcohol cabinet, as was her wont. They soon rendezvoused at the dining room, a cozy affair, small and square with the walls decorated with paintings of things like fruits baskets, wine bottles and whole hams. Kremina put out several different bottles of champagne, rice beers, sugarcane wine, and grape wine.

There was also a bit of a spread. Fresh, crunchy vegetables in little cups; small flatbreads; and various spiced dips like lentils, chickpeas, and chutneys.

“Cheers!”

Before anyone else even reached for a glass, Kremina downed a shot of sugarcane wine.

“You only live once!” She said, slamming the glass down on the table with a satisfied grin.

In no time, she was already pouring herself a second.

Regardless of her drinking manner, Kremina looked stunning at the head of the table. Her face was bright and immaculate, the lines from her eyes giving her a stately beauty that was as well aged as the drinks being served. Her ponytail, already silvery in the past, took well to growing grayer and the flowers around it were fresh. She was well made up, with blue eyeshadow and lipstick that suited her sleek, tidy blue dress. Her shoulders were free, her bust raised up by the bodice. It looked to Madiha as if made of a futuristic metal rather than cloth because the skirt was shiny and unruffled. Madiha was used to big dresses at the very few western-style weddings she had attended in her life.

“I know I can’t stop you, but I can try to empty the bottle before you.” Daksha said.

She seized the offending item from her bride’s hand, and drank directly from it.

“That’s unfair! Well, there’s always the rice beer.” Kremina said, popping a different cork.

Truly they seemed a couple made for one another.

Though Kremina was definitely a sublime beauty, Daksha was no slouch herself. She was reminiscent of her gangster days, sans her iconic fedora, now in Madiha’s possession. Her hair was turning grayer in places, but the gradient-like effect when collected into a bun was attractive; the little lines around her lips and eyes added a regal gallantry to her overall appearance. She wore just a touch of powder on her skin. Her wedding suit was well tailored, with a black coat that accentuated her shoulders, a buttoned vest that was loose enough for her chest but well fitted, and pants that made her legs look perfectly straight. Though she was not quite the wiry brawler that she had been in the past, the Premier was still dashing and handsome enough to match the beauty of her bride.

“Madiha, we have to put up a fight!” Parinita whispered to her.

She picked up the bottle of grape wine and poured Madiha a little glass.

“Social drinking is a contest of wills. We are representing our generation!”

Madiha did not understand the collective madness of the room. Despite this, she drank dispassionately, tipping the contents into her mouth and swallowing, hoping it would please everyone involved. Parinita stared at her critically, until Madiha extended her glass out as if to ask for another pour. This brought a prize-winning smile to her girlfriend’s face, quite a match for those on the giddy brides. She happily complied.

Though it was impossible for them to outshine a pair of experienced wives on their wedding day, Madiha and Parinita certainly tried their best. Madiha herself was wearing a suit, as she was known to do. Her hair, which had gotten long enough again, was tied up in a little ponytail. She had left her coat elsewhere and dressed down to her vest and shirt, which were rather plain, but she thought her height and stature and the gentle smoothness of her face lent her a good mix of boyish-girlish charm. Daksha’s fedora also helped a little to make her stand out. Parinita, however, was the bridal guests’ trump card, in a colorful, traditional Ayvartan garb. She was draped in a purple and gold sari over a matching dress, with a plunging neck and an open midriff. Her strawberry hair was flowing and decorated with flowers, and her gold makeup was immaculate.

There were numerous cheers around the table, and with each cheer, the girls drank.

“To health!”

“To sapphism!”

“To socialism!”

In appearance, as a relatively young couple Madiha and Parinita could hold their own, but it was quickly becoming clear they were amateurs at drinking. Madiha quickly developed a headache, and Parinita was drinking shamefully slowly, trying to mask that she was a lightweight. Meanwhile, between the two, Daksha and Kremina had nearly disposed of the rice beer and sugarcane wine, and taken notice of the snacks too.

“This is too hectic.” Madiha said. “I need water.”

Parinita drooped her head and put down the bottle. “I submit also. They’re too strong.”

“Like the…second act villain?” Madiha whimpered.

“If you’re going to steal my lines, you’ll need to do better.” Parinita said weakly.

Across from them, Daksha and Kremina were giggling, chatting half-sentences and interrupting each other, the alcohol clearly starting to unwind their brains.

“Ah, if only, if only, Anatoly, Anatoly right? He was the guy?” Kremina said.

“It wasn’t Anatoly. I killed Anatoly. He was a rat.” Daksha replied.

“Okay, not him. There was a guy. A guy who drank well, remember?”

“Kremina, we knew a lot of guys.” Daksha said.

“I wish Anatoly, was here. I’d drink him to shame, that rat. I’m invincible at drinking.”

“I told you it wasn’t Anatoly who did anything. You wouldn’t drink with Anatoly.”

“We knew a lot of guys, you say. None of them here at our wedding! How rude!”

Daksha looked at the floor for a second, shaking the bottle of wine, stirring the remnants.

“A lot of them– well, they can’t help it. A lot of them died. They can’t help it.”

Kremina held up a glass. It was empty. She put it to her lips like it was full.

“To the dead!”

Daksha, her head bowed still, lifted her bottle. “To the dead.” She said, much less eagerly.

“You know who was a good drinker? Lena Ulyanova. Fantastic drinker.”

“She was.”

“Such a tiny body, could hold so much alcohol. It was death-defying. I was still better.”

Daksha shook her head. “If Lena Ulyanova was, if she was–”

“‘scuse me?”

“I said if Lena Ulyanova was alive, things would be different.”

“Yes, they would be.” Kremina poured a shot, half on the table. “She wouldn’t be dead.”

“That would be big indeed. But I think she would know get people to do things right.”

“We’re doing things right. We got married finally. We stopped living in sin.”

“I mean, things of the state.” Daksha said. She held up a bottle. “To Lena!”

“To Lena!” Kremina drank her shot.

“Bah!” Daksha put the bottle down, and it toppled over on the table and would have spilled had any decent amount of liquid remained in it. “I’m a lousy cheerer, Kremina. Lousy at drinking, lousy at cheering, lousy at everything. Lena was a genius. I’m lousy.”

Kremina patted Daksha on the shoulder, and with amazing technique, managed to leverage the gesture into a grab, taking the back of her head and pulling her down into a kiss. It was very sloppy, given she was juggling a mouthful of beer as well as her wife’s tongue, but somehow Kremina managed it, and a shocked Daksha played well along.

When their lips parted, Kremina put her forehead to Daksha’s chest.

“You don’t have to be a genius. I don’t want a genius! I want someone like me who understands being trampled and overlooked. I think the people, they want someone like that too. I think these kids need that too.” She turned to look at Parinita and Madiha.

Groggily, the two girls had been watching the exchange, without input.

At the mention of them, they snapped to attention.

“All the geniuses went and died in their lofty dreams. We’re normal people who are making a world for us. That’s our job now. And we’re doing it well.” Kremina said.

Daksha rested her own head against that of her wife. “I hope you’re right.”

They held each other there, weeping lightly, for seemingly as long as they had drank and rambled before. Madiha and Parinita did not know what to say. So they said nothing.

“To the kids!” Kremina let out an anguished cheer, launching her glass overhead.

Everyone scurried for cover. Everyone agreed to stop drinking after that.

Madiha and Parinita left the table less drunk than the brides, but also less confident.


On the foyer there was an old matchlock rifle hung up on the wall.

Madiha had to train with one of those so-called classics in the Academy, for purposes of procession duty. She despised it. Temperamental, slow-firing. Powder was easily ruined, the bullets were old and deformed and sometimes the barrel interior deformed too.

“I know you hate everything old, because your head’s poisoned by efficiency.”

Daksha stood beside Madiha and stared up at the rifle on the wall.

Parinita had gone to look after Kremina, who was, for what she claimed was the first time in her life, taking her drinking poorly and laid up in bed. Madiha wondered if it was time to consider the wedding ruined and perhaps plan a makeup, but she did not voice her concern. She had walked idly around the suite, trying to shake off the alcohol in her own head, when she was taken in by the curious token in the foyer. Then Daksha had caught up. They had been wanting to speak for a long time, Madiha knew this, she knew this desire was shared. However, there had been no good opportunity until now.

“Well, we have better rifles now.” Madiha said. “We could use those for procession.”

“These are historic. They remind us of something.” Daksha said.

“They remind me of how poor these old rifles were.”

“You can be such a child sometimes.” Daksha laughed.

“What is the message supposed to be then?”

Daksha looked up at the rifle with a weary expression.

“For the Empire, these rifles represented pride. For us, they represent sin. You wield those rifles in procession to remind you to be respectful of the tools your predecessors used to commit evil. You toil with them so you understand that even with those weapons they slaughtered countless people, and that you must not just look at it as a mere tool.”

Madiha averted her gaze. She already thought of that quite often.

She just did not think of it during procession at school.

“We should consider a lecture element to procession then.” She said demurely.

“We should.” Daksha sighed.

She contemplated the rifle and crossed her arms, and began her own impromptu lecture.

“That style of rifle was imported by the Ayvartan Empire from the Elves. The Empire claimed all of the territorial Ayvartan continent for itself, including the south, like Adjar, Cissea, and Mamlakha. But they didn’t have the power to back it up, until they exercised one strength that nation-states have over tribes and villages. They engaged in diplomacy with an equal nation, a nation that taught them armed conquest the likes of which the world had never seen before. And just as the Elves spread over Afarland, Borelia, Nort, Helvetia, Mauricia, and so on, the ethnic Arjun of Solstice spread across Ayvarta.”

She referenced two historical ethnicities in Ayvarta. Down South, it used to be the Umma, and in the North, it used to be the Arjun. It was different now. There were all kinds of people everywhere. There was a third catch-all category, created for the Imperial census, called “Zungu,” people who were mixed with ‘white’ or ‘foreign’ people. There were various other ethnicities often unacknowledged. The Hudim, for example, who practiced their own unique religion and were considered an ethnic group; the Zigan nomads; various Barbar tribes in the desert; the Mamlakhs themselves, the Cisseans, and so on.

All of those peoples and territories were beyond the grasp of Solstice once again.

This time it was not an Arjun empire that conquered them, nor was it by their own hand that they were made separate from the rest of Ayvarta. It was the Nocht Federation.

“A lot was done to the Southern peoples, hundreds of years ago. Socialist Solstice has tried to make up for it here and there. We teach what we have of the Umma language, we incorporated it into the Socialist Language Standard. I named the KVW that way, a lot of the Unions, to pay homage to their language group as best as I can. And we also let the South practice self-governance as a bloc. A lot of things were overlooked that way, but it’s what the people wanted there. It’s the least we could do to make up for the past.”

Madiha found questions of ethnicity difficult to answer, but she understood, as one trying to make up for her own past, the need to fulfill those sorts of reparations. She did not hate anyone nor did she think she oppressed anyone for their ethnicity and as a good socialist she tried to be conscious of all kinds of social positions and relations, such as those of class and race and sex. But she remembered Mansa; she hated him completely, and she despised the things that he stood for, and all that he did to her and to Ayvarta.

However, the growth of his power independent of Solstice made sense when one considered the history of ethnicities in Ayvarta. His people looked up to him as a strongman who wielded Umma power in a majority Arjun world. They loved him because he positioned himself against an Arjun orthodoxy that was seen as ineffective and untrustworthy. Even if it had been the Ayvartan Empire who committed the sin in the first place, Solstice in general was tainted by it, and Solstice’s socialist project, as the successor state, had to be the one to make amends. Perhaps they didn’t do enough.

It was all such a mess.

“I really don’t know what to say that.” Madiha finally admitted.

Daksha cracked a little smile.

“I guess it’s unfair for me to act like we’re both complicit. I’ve always thought of you as an Arjun because of your physical appearance. But I honestly can’t know. And at any rate, it isn’t your place to do anything about it. I was the one who was supposed to save everybody from the tyranny of the Empire. I feel like I ended up failing at that.” She said.

The tyranny of the Empire, she said–

It jogged Madiha’s memory. She thought of how her birth was something of a mystery.

And Mansa, too, being on her mind at the same time–

“I am really sorry for everything Madiha.” Daksha said. “We used you. I struggle every day thinking of the backs we built this country on. You were just a child, and I ask myself, is all of this really worth all the desperate measures that I took to build it–”

Quite suddenly, Madiha turned to face Daksha with serious eyes.

“Am I Empress Ayvarta II, Daksha?”

She almost expected to be shot at that moment, in some dark, lurid corner of her mind. Certainly it was a shocking question to ask, and at such a moment too. At least it allowed her to dodge thinking about the question of ethnicities, which was always fearful and puzzling. And it had been on her mind for far too long now, her status. She had been afraid since hearing the insinuations from the villains she came across in Rangda, and since remembering her role in the chaos of the Revolution. She had been afraid that if she was actually some long lost noble child, she was undermining socialism by living.

So, thinking all of that, she expected Daksha to dispose of her, to end the royal line.

Instead, Daksha grinned and shook her head. She looked like she had tears in her eyes.

“On the census, you keep putting down Madiha Nakar every few years. If you want to change your name, you can do it without saying scandalous shit like that.” Daksha said.

She smiled, but there was indeed a glistening of tears she was fighting off.

Madiha chuckled. “I guess you’re unbothered by the whole thing, huh?”

“Did you expect differently? Madiha, I think of you like a daughter. I don’t know where you really came from and I never checked. To me, that doesn’t matter. Didn’t we want to erase class, sex, ethnic discrimination and all of that? Isn’t that socialism? Hell I don’t know my own ethnicity really. I was born in the South. I might be some quarter Umma or something, who cares? I never had the privilege of my ethnicity but I identify as an Arjun to make amends to people who were far more oppressed than me for far longer.”

Daksha turned to her and put both hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

“You’re what you decide to make of yourself. No matter who your parents were. Even if you end up being the long lost Empress, you killed your father. There’s no Empire now. On the census, I could put Umma or Arjun. I decided which and why. You can too.”

Madiha nodded her head solemnly. There was a lot on her mind still. This was not such a liberatory thing to be told. After all, even knowing all of this, and being given a choice, she still did not know what she truly wanted to become or what she could become at all. She just knew what she was good at, and what she was interested (or obsessed with).

She supposed that she had no choice right now but to fight this war.

So she could defer thinking about everything else when there was peace.

“At any rate, why am I being so gloomy on my wedding day?”

Daksha shook her head and picked up the matchlock from its place of honor.

“You know how to use this, of course.”

Madiha nodded. She could use any weapon by touching it. Ever since she was a child.

“Lets have a little contest then.” Daksha said.

Under the matchlock there had been a stack of plates, and a pair of boxes.

One contained charges, the other contained balls. It was a shooting kit.

“I never miss.” Madiha said apologetically. “So, I cannot lose.”

“Bah, don’t be so full of yourself.” Daksha replied. “If I can’t win, I’ll tie you.”

Madiha laughed.

“It would be a moral victory.” She said.

“It will be!” Daksha corrected her.

They went to the roof and twenty plates later, Madiha handily won.

She was not even able to throw the game for the bride’s sake.

Madiha was just not capable of throwing games.


“I’m truly growing old. My youth has absolutely left me. I’m decrepit — a crone!”

Kremina Qote bemoaned her misfortunes in the grand bedroom arrayed for her and Daksha’s honeymoon night. Dressed in full wedding regalia, she lay against the pillows with a hand over her face, tossing and turning, the blood drained from her face. She had drank too much and it made her sick. She claimed this was an unnatural occasion, an ill omen. Parinita did not know that she and Daksha had met because Kremina had fallen dead drunk and essentially got them captured by the Imperial police. She believed in Kremina’s fierce drinking reputation and told herself it was a pity that everyone aged.

“Here, drink this. Drink all of it, Mrs. Kansal. Even if you dislike the taste.”

Parinita came back from the kitchen with a mug of honey-ginger tea and a big piece of salty breaded paneer, fried quickly in ghee. She dropped the cheese plate on the dresser beside the bed, and handed Kremina the mug. “It’s a traditional cure. I vouch for it.”

Her patient moaned and protested, but eventually started drinking the tea.

“It’s awful! It’s got too much ginger!” Kremina said, recoiling from it.

“Trust me, my grandmother knew a dozen hangover cures, but this is what she did when she was hungover herself. That’s how you know it’s the real one.” Parinita said.

Kremina frowned, staring down into the mug. She took another belabored sip.

Parinita pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down. She did not need to read Kremina’s aura to understand how badly the bride must have been feeling. She looked quite worse for wear. Parinita felt like saying ‘it wasn’t even that much alcohol’, but she was playing the role of the healer. Wounding her patient even further would be cruel.

“Ugh, what a way to start my honeymoon.”

Once more, Parinita’s more vicious side wished to retort with ‘you did this to yourself.’

Instead she said, “I come from a family of faith healers! You’re in good hands.”

“Well, it turns out I don’t have faith in healers!” Kremina moaned.

She took another drink of the mug and shut her eyes hard, and clenched her teeth.

For a moment Parinita felt like the bereaved heroine of some comedy flick, caring for her whining mother in the first act to establish a dysfunctional family relation and her drive to escape into a bawdy adventure. Then the hero would arrive and sweep her away.

Unfortunately for her, Madiha was in the other room, already arrived, and unhelpful.

Still, even her current attitude couldn’t mar Kremina’s newlywed radiance. Parinita was stuck by how majestic the two of them looked. This must have been such a massive relief for them, and such a long time coming. Surrounded by tragedy and with the weight of the nation on their shoulders, they finally found the opportunity and courage to make themselves eternal to one another. Their auras had been so brilliant at the wedding that Parinita cried, overwhelmed by their beauty. Truly it was the power of love at work.

It was almost like film. Perfectly shot and directed, beautifully acted. A real fantasy.

Parinita’s fantasy; not that seeing it in the flesh made it feel any more achievable.

After all, Kremina could look like an actress, but Parinita was always her boring old self.

Still, she was quite moved by the day’s events. She was smiling like a bashful little girl.

“Ma’am, I’ve been wanting to congratulate you personally. I was so moved by the ceremony. I really want to know how you two made it so special. There was something in the air, everything was charged with electricity! It was like film, it was perfect.”

In truth there was a part of Parinita that really wanted to have a girly talk session with someone like Kremina, an elegant, sapphic bride to a strong and constantly engaged woman. She wanted to compare notes, almost, to share experiences in loving women and being loved and having a relationship that could lead to a wedding. She had never been able to talk to her grandmother and certainly not to her mother, and the closest other confidant she’d ever had was Logia Minardo — a regrettable person for that role.

Kremina looked upon her with renewed interest and cocked a little grin.

“It’s all the resort, it’s very lovely. You should put in your reservation soon. It’s very popular, and they really only do weddings now that there’s no tourism.” She said.

Her piercing gaze put Parinita quite on edge.

“Well, I’m not getting married–” She said.

Kremina leaned forward with a conspiratorial expression on her face.

“Trust me, you two should not wait. There’s no sense in waiting.”

“Us two?”

Suddenly, Parinita remembered that she could have no such discussion with her.

Parinita and Madiha were not fully open with their relationship, mostly because it was scarcely a month old and they were in the military, and in the same unit. In fact, Madiha was technically Parinita’s boss, which made the whole thing look even worse to outside observation. While it was almost an open secret, people who suspected said nothing, and people who knew, like Logia Minardo, were on their side and not keen to expose them.

So it behooved Parinita then to act dumb when Kremina pressed her.

Though the Admiral and the Premier were like family to Madiha, Parinita did not know how strict they were on her. They might not see the relationship as fully appropriate.

Her own parents would have definitely tried to scare Madiha away!

So she thought, she had to keep this as hidden as she could from Madiha’s ‘parents.’

However, her beet-red face and awkward, averted gaze made everything too clear.

Kremina quickly tried to disabuse her of any fearful notions.

“I see right through the two of you.”

Parinita was so stunned she couldn’t think of what to say.

“Whatever do you mean–”

“Why would she invite you here? Madiha always goes to parties alone, if she goes.”

“She’s not that anti-social–”

“Madiha’s never had a lot of party-going friends. She’s a private sort of person.”

Parinita briefly choked up. “Well– how do you know she–”

Kremina raised a finger to Parinita’s lips, quieting her.

“I know she’s a sapphist. She had a girlfriend before. Perhaps she has another.”

Parinita mumbled nervously. “She has friends, we’re just very good friends–”

She found herself denying everything out of impulse.

Meanwhile, Kremina seemed to be living this moment to its fullest.

“Hey, why don’t you two stay the night? There’s a guest bedroom.”

Kremina rapidly changing the subject threw Parinita entirely off-course.

Staying the night with Madiha in this gorgeous hotel full of silks and wines and candles, in a relatively private room all the way across from the brides, where nobody would bother them. An entire night just to themselves in the most sinfully lavish luxury–

Parinita blinked, quivering. “Why of course, we can’t turn down such generosity–”

“You’ll share one bed, you know. It’s only got one bed.”

Parinita started to shake, and clenched her fingers on her skirts, her face red hot.

“I suppose it can’t be helped–”

“We don’t really have a change of clothes either, so you’ll be a bit exposed.”

Parinita fanned herself. “We’re both girls, it’s okay–”

“Why it’s like your very own honeymoon night, if you were like that of course.”

“It really isn’t–”

“Just you and her, one bed, nothing but robes, warm incense, anything could happen.”

Now she was truly the heroine in a bawdy romance comedy, exposed to the audience in a moment of pure farce. Defeated, revealed to be impure, and laughed at by all.

“You win.” Parinita was shaking with embarrassment at the salacious thought of taking Madiha bedding her in the brides’ guest room. “Are you teasing me or really offering?”

She raised her hands to her face, wearing a crooked, demonic smile.

Kremina reached out and played with one of Parinita’s long locks of strawberry hair.

“Madiha is very lucky! You’re pretty, funny, and passionate.”

Parinita wanted to sink into the earth, but could not truly deny any of that.

At least the latter part of it. She almost thought Kremina would say perverted.

“Oh come on, why are you shaking so much?” Kremina said. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Daksha and I are both in the military too and nobody will object to it. You should probably keep the secret from your subordinates, in an official capacity, so that you set a good example for them. But you don’t have to keep it from me. I do want to help you.”

She reached into the drawer on the bedside dresser, and produced a key.

“Help yourself.”

She flicked the key over to Parinita. Then she picked up the paneer and took a bite.

“Now this is good stuff. This tea tastes like motor oil, but paneer can’t be done wrong.”

Parinita smiled and faked a little curtsy. “Even someone as useless as me can do it.”

She pocketed the key and felt a little cloud starting to loom over her head.

She felt ridiculous and inadequate. It had all been in good fun for the brides, the drinking and the teasing, but Parinita, she thought if any of it had been serious, then yes, she would not have kept up. She was a bad drinker, a bad liar, a foolhardy girlfriend. She looked fine in a dress, maybe a touch too chubby to really pull it off, but that was it.

“Why are you all gloomy now?” Kremina asked through a mouthful of cheese.

Parinita took a deep breath. “Madiha isn’t lucky, I’m lucky she pays me any attention.”

“What’s this all about?” Kremina asked. “Are you feeling well? Do you want tea?”

She swallowed her cheese and tried to push the mug of tea back to Parinita.

“It’s just difficult standing among titans sometimes. I feel unworthy.”

Parinita pushed the mug back toward her with a sigh.

Kremina smiled warmly and laid back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.

“And you think I don’t? I’ve never been half the woman Daksha was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Weren’t you listening when we were all drinking? We shared some wisdom then.”

Had she known Kremina possessed similar insecurities, Parinita would’ve said nothing.

“I’m being gloomy on your wedding day, it really isn’t right.” Parinita said.

“Weddings are beautiful and cheerful, but they are also gloomy too. Thinking about the future is gloomy. And after all the glitz and glamour, you wake up in bed with another person and you have to think about your life together, about all the rest of your life.”

Kremina sighed deeply, but then she sat back up, and she took Parinita’s hand.

“Listen, how you feel about yourself doesn’t reflect how your lover feels. She loves you. To you, she’s your Madiha and you’re her Parinita, and that’s what matters. I should know. I’m a mediocre Admiral who is now married to one of the most powerful women in the world. And Daksha thinks she’s mediocre and foolish and all that too. I make her feel different. She makes me feel different. I bet Madiha thinks that you are wonderful and she is a slug. I bet she doesn’t understand why a beautiful woman looks at her at all.”

Kremina caressed Parinita’s cheek and put on a warm, motherly smile for her.

Parinita smiled a little back. Under that smile, however, she was still worried. These were words that were easy to hear and be comforted by now, but to truly believe them, to deprogram years of living as someone who had to make herself verifiably ‘valuable’ to others in order to live with herself. It felt like fooling herself, like living a terrible lie.

She loved Madiha with all her heart. From that fateful day, when the war started, it was almost like insanity. All the world went insane and she went insane also, and she came to obsessively love a warrior with the world’s strongest, strictest, most insane sense of justice. Someone who stared madness in the face and made miracles happen, not for herself, but for those around her who couldn’t. She grew close to her and discovered her vulnerable side, her charming side, the little moments of sarcasm and levity that could be extracted from her, and the naive wonder with which she beheld certain things.

She grew to love her even more, to want to know everything about her, to want to know her as a person and not an idol, and to want to be by her side forever to see the world that her dark eyes envisioned. She wanted to quell the fire that was killing Madiha from the inside; to save her. But in the back of her head, she told herself, ‘I must get stronger for her, I must be useful to her.’ She could not live in Madiha’s world without strength.

Because she loved Madiha and wanted to remain at her side, to see the justice in those fiery eyes and to love the tender shadow cast by that pyre, she had to reach her level.

Perhaps, instead of being gloomy, she could at least try to be determined instead.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take your words to heart.” She said.

It was a sincere as she could sound then.

Kremina laid back on the bed and put a handkerchief over her face.

“Good. Just remember three things. Let her win sometimes; pretend she’s in the right sometimes; and let her be on top if she wants to. That’s my time-tested wife advise.”

Parinita’s hand clutched the little key Kremina gave her, and she averted her gaze again.

“I’m going to do my best too. Even if I’m drunk and sick, this is my honeymoon.”

Kremina put the mug on the dresser.

“But I’m not drinking that. I’m sorry.”

Parinita giggled.

“What if I told you the tea is what has made you so lucid these past few minutes?”

She hoped to get one over on Kremina at least once.

Kremina shook her head. “Fine. I’ll let you have this one.”

She reached over the dresser and took the mug back with a heavy sigh.


Previous Part || Next Part

1.8: The Fire That Consumed Canaan

This chapter contains disturbing imagery, violence and death.


Supplicant: The Servants of a Tyrant. They are created from the demesne and serve the function of worshiping the Tyrant. Like blood cells carrying oxygen throughout the body, supplicants grant the Tyrant easy access to the magic of the demesne. Should a Tyrant lose its demesne, it can survive so long as it is worshiped, and its Supplicants can survive by continuing to worship, or by constructing a new demesne for the Tyrant to occupy. Their power and appearance and their number reflects the state of the demesne and the Tyrant.


Lyudmilla’s ‘autopilot’ mentality crumbled as she soon as she found herself faced with the dreadful creature of girders and gears and cables that Moloch had become. Despite the difficulties she found doing magic with the so-called limiter off her homunculus, she had managed to keep a semblance of cool. Compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety, she managed to outwit the monster and aid Minerva with a bit of luck and good timing.

It was a fight, a battle; she had fought those before. Fighting wasn’t easy, but she could.

But she’d fought people. She froze at the sight of a monstrosity dozens of meters high, towering over her. Its shadow could have been its own separate malignant beast.

Milla felt as if she had been thrust into a completely new reality, as if pushed through a mirror into another world, and the glass had cut her, and her face and chest had felt the impact of crashing through the barrier. She struggled to stand, craning her head up as high as it would go and still not seeing all of the monster that stood in front of her.

Something had gone terribly wrong in the world around them.

Things had stopped making sense. Everything had gone stark mad.

She heard Minerva say, in a low, breathless voice, “is this his legend?”

She didn’t understand it.

Milla had seen magical creatures before. One could not avoid them! There were commonplace things, like kobolds, gnomes; and there were all kinds of videos on the internet about bigger things. Army camera footage declassified after a decade by activists that showed men firing rockets and guns and wand blasts at Mother Hydra before the peace had been brokered; cryptid style videos of blurry beasts in dense jungles far away; quickly cut news footage of academy diplomats meeting with ancient things; and so on.

And yet here she stood face to face, in the dense, hot atmosphere of this demesne, in the presence of a real Tyrant. Those beasts whose history ran parallel to all of humanity, who when mindless threatened to destroy the world and when sentient threatened to rule it. Those primordial beasts who were magic in natural form. Moloch, Lord of the Wildfire!

She was nothing in its presence. She was reduced to quivering, aware suddenly of death.

Everything was insubstantial. Under her the floor felt hollow. Above the sky was gaseous.

“Lyudmilla?”

Minerva looked over her shoulder briefly, standing before Milla like a guardian.

Ahead of them, the looming fleshless cow head of Moloch unhinged its jaw by the turn of a gear, and smoke billowed out from a dark orifice between the bones. He raised with much effort one of metallic skeletal arms, and flexed the scissor-blade claws at the end.

Minerva whipped back around to face him and raised her wand.

Her homunculus lit up and rapidly processed the gestures for her spell, a globe of vibrating, unstable force that flew from the tip of her wand and struck Moloch right in the jaw. She waved her wand as if conducting instruments, and from the tip several more of these globes peeled off and hurtled toward the monster, crashing into its jaw and eyesockets and shoulders. As Minerva’s waving grew faster the barrage became more intense, like a machine gun of thick magic bullets. All the while Minerva mumbled the maintenance chant, continuing to channel the spell alongside her homunculus.

Not one of these missiles left a mark on Moloch save for thin trails of smoke.

As the projectiles crashed and sputtered on its metal surface, the monster’s arm lit up in red. Seemingly hundreds of vein-like, pulsating, glowing orange and red lines traced and crisscrossed the length of its gear-studded shoulder and down the cable-laden forearm. Steam and smoke billowed from the gaps in the elbow and from the joints of the claws.

“Target is concentrating heat in the left arm–”

Minerva’s homunculus aired its warning as Moloch’s claw descended upon them.

It shot toward the platform like a rocket and Milla was sure she would die.

Her limbs felt as heavy and immobile as stone.

She shut her eyes, and turned her head as if about to be slapped.

A wave of hot air blew past her and she heard an ungodly metal on metal screeching.

She felt the ground rumble.

Soon Milla realized her body was left untouched and she opened her eyes.

Moloch’s metal arm lay twisted and smashed palm-up against the metal floor.

In front of Milla, Minerva stood, her hands glowing brilliantly red.

She had grabbed hold of Moloch’s arm, her claws (claws?) digging glowing orange holes into the metal. She looked as if she had taken both his hands into her own in an arm wrestling contest, and smashed aside the defeated arm in the process. Moloch’s body, suspended in front of them, seemed unaffected, and its cow-skull head did not emote.

Red smoke blew from Minerva’s hands as she pulled her claws loose from the metal and then vaulted over the jagged wrist of the mechanical arm and onto the forearm.

Milla watched in awe as Minerva ran up the arm without the impediment.

Moloch started to raise its right arm but could not do so fast enough to stop her.

Soon as her feet hit the creature’s shoulder she leaped easily onto the cow-skull head, standing with a foot on one horn and another on its crown. Smoke billowed from the creature’s eyesockets, mouth and its open chest. Glowing red veins streaked across both its broken and functioning arms and the gears all over its body grinded violently.

Moloch was struggling to counterattack, but it was far too slow to respond.

Atop him, Minerva raised her hand skyward, holding her wand, cried out “Barik!

A massive black and red aura collected around her, thicker than any Milla had seen.

She was brimming with power. Her whole body lit up as bright as her claws had been.

Suddenly several points on Moloch’s body started to light up.

Milla realized it was everywhere Minerva had shot a missile before.

She must have done as Moloch had before and hidden something in her projectiles!

Sudes!” Minerva cried out.

At her word, from each of the glowing points a thin, small metal prong surfaced.

Her purpose became obvious when, from the seething, smoking sky overhead a dozen bolts of lightning descended on Moloch’s body. Minerva leaped out of the way as the lightning smashed Moloch’s crown open and spread across the metal, striking every glowing point along the surface. Gears blew out, cables burst; high-pressure jets of smoke escaped the joints of the metal body and split apart the metal linkages in the frame.

Moloch thrashed in front of Milla like a puppet jerked about on its strings.

High above them the metallic supports and cranes and manipulator arms holding the monstrosity aloft tore with a terrific noise. Unceremoniously the metal body broke free and fell, its jaw clapping, its arms flailing. Milla nearly took a tumble, the floor shaking under her as the creature smashed into the platform and slid off into the abyss.

While Moloch was in the midst of vanishing, Minerva dropped back onto the platform.

Her hands, wreathed in a furious red aura, looked as big as her torso for an instant.

Then without transition they were simply back the way they always had been.

Almost as if Milla had hallucinated the whole thing. She blinked rapidly in confusion.

Minerva looked at her, and gave her a thumbs up with a sweet little grin.

Milla stood silent for a minute, sweat trickling down her nose and over her dry lips.

“Is it gone?” She asked.

Minerva sighed. “God, I hope so–”

Temperature spike detected,”

Minerva raised her wrist up to stare in shock at the homunculus’ screen directly.

Milla however read the Alternate-Reality text overlaid in air by the homunculus.

It had started at forty degrees, simultaneously very hot but not convincingly hot at all for a place surrounded by fire and made largely of metal. Milla thought in a place like this her shoes would be melting and her hair would have caught fire. Then the number started to climb so quickly that it made no sense. Surely Milla would have been a desiccated corpse in those kinds of temperatures, but she only felt a little bit hot.

Hot enough to sweat, to have a little trouble breathing–

Sweat started to dribble down her forehead. Long rivulets of sweat, trailing down her face, down her neck, between her breasts. Sweat streaking down her thighs.

Each breath she took ripped down her neck like a cloud of pepper.

“It’s the furnace! The furnace was the Tyrant all along!” Minerva realized.

Milla stumbled toward her, and grabbed onto her arm, coughing.

Minerva’s face seemed to go pale. She was sweating also, though not as badly.

“Lyudmilla!”

Her hand turned red again.

She pressed it down on Milla’s forehead.

For a split second Milla remembered an unpleasant feeling.

A child, drowned in the baptismal water–

But this was fire, a great fire enveloping her and for the most minute possible instant, the smallest unit of experience that could still pass off as a lived and breathed feeling, Milla felt pain. An unimaginable pain like burning to a crisp from head to toe.

It was there and then gone and yet,felt so thoroughly that it shocked her.

She gasped, and screamed, and ripped herself from Minerva’s touch.

Sweat dripped off her body like the thin rivulets of water following a fresh shower.

But she could stand, she could move and breathe. It wasn’t getting any hotter.

“Please, I’ll explain everything when we’re safe, but right now, I need your help.”

Minerva looked at her with a curious expression. Concern, probably. But visibly, it was shame. Her defiance and confidence was gone for a small moment, and she looked deeply, awfully ashamed, in the way Milla herself, often felt ashamed. When she was caught smoking or asked about her childhood or her parents; when she hit too hard with a ball at the sports club; or when she looked away from a girl who was too pretty–

In those fiery, eerie eyes, there was so much pain and shame and helplessness.

Milla couldn’t help but feel that she had to help Orizaga now.

She couldn’t look at that vulnerability and not feel ashamed of her own cowardly self.

She spread open the pages of her grimoire and held it by the spine.

“Tell me what to do, Professor.” She said.

Spared from the heat of the arena she felt it much easier to keep her wits.

Minerva smiled a little. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

On the edges of the arena, smoke belched into the sky from unseen chimneys.

Around the demesne the fiery pit burned brighter and redder than it ever had.

Once more the platform began to rumble under Milla and Minerva.

All of the gears and mechanisms hanging in the air around the demesne, seemingly attached to nothing, turned with noise and violence, suddenly alive. Though their positions correlated to no rational device, turning and pulling on nothing, the machine seemed to have some effect on the platform. As they cranked away at the air the platform shook more and more strongly, until from the abyss the smashed Moloch machine started rising. Two interlocking pieces extended from the platform, attaching the Moloch animatronic to the platform furnace and supporting him, and more cranes and arms descended and attached a mess of cables, pipes and pumps to the machine.

Grimly, several arms twisted Moloch’s head into place and snapped its limbs together.

It was like they were building up a toy. A figurine of what the God should’ve been like.

“Wyrm.”

Its call hissed out into the air and sounded filthy. It seemed to come from under them.

You stole my fire to begin your journey to the throne of the world, and yet, you stand before me now so feeble, so alone, not one supplicant to your name!”

Suddenly the Moloch machine began to smoke and turned an offensively bright red.

“I’m insulted! I’m offended! I’m vexed! Return my flame so I can be king!”

Red-hot gears on the cow-skull’s cheek turned its mouth open.

Red particulate aura traces, and smoke, and fire, all began to collect in its mouth.

It was as if the creature were vacuuming the surrounding heat and shaping it.

“Witness the Doom of Canaan!”

Jets of smoke burst from the back of the Moloch machine’s head.

Its mouth erupted in a stream of red.

Milla leaped away in one direction and Minerva in the opposite.

Pure heat swept past them like a hurtling comet, a red wall slicing across the platform.

A sudden wave of gas followed the attack, and threw Milla back in mid-air.

She landed ungracefully, crying out as she slammed into the metal floor.

Had it been any denser she would’ve been broken upon it.

But she felt almost like she had landed on a sheet of foil rather than a sturdy floor.

She raised her head from the ground.

When the fire subsided, there was a residual slag, glowing red, bubbling across the floor.

This substance formed a line at every point stricken by Moloch’s attack.

It was as if Moloch’s attack was not a beam or laser at all, as it seemed to Milla from the fanciful things she had seen in popular fiction. Instead she started to think he had sprayed molten metal at them so fast that it just seemed like a giant stream of heat.

In a sudden panic, she looked around for Minerva and thankfully found her on the opposite edge of the platform, doubled over, breathing heavily. Minerva raised her own head and she and Milla made eye contact. Minerva waved; she gestured off the edge of the platform, and then to the Moloch Machine, which was hunched over and steaming.

“I’ll distract him! Jump down into the furnace! That’s the real Tyrant!” She shouted.

Milla blinked. She looked behind herself, over the edge of the platform.

There were all kinds of pipes and devices and chutes but no clear way inside.

Eyes open wide, mouth hanging and quivering slightly, she shook her head at Minerva. Her twintails swung this way and that with the effort. She started to feel hopeless again–

There was a terrifying, dominant sound, the shearing of metal, the grinding of a gear.

Heat began to pump into the Moloch machine once more.

Again the cow-skull head on the animatronic swung its jaw open.

“You’re protected from heat Lyudmilla! Go!” Minerva shouted.

She then stood up straight and swung her wand at the machine.

From thin air in front of her a stake flew out, as fast as a professional baseball pitch.

Flying without resistance, it stuck in one of the Moloch Machine’s ribs.

Barik!”

Minerva summoned another bolt of lightning and this one launched out of her wand.

The bolt struck the stake and lashed across the Machine but could not stop its attack.

All of the arms and cranes reoriented the monster, jerking it toward Minerva.

Even as the lightning tore through its body, the heat around it grew fiercer.

It was her she wanted; it didn’t even care about Milla at all.

This is the fire that consumed Canaan!

A second blast of heat and molten metal erupted from the machine’s mouth.

In an instant it sliced through the air, a cannon shot to Minerva’s mere fastball pitch.

Minerva leaped.

She thrust skyward, stirring the air in her wake as if she had flapped massive wings.

Milla saw her form disappear inside the mass rushing her way.

Her heart sank–

Within the gas billowing up after the shot, Milla saw a speck of something.

Minerva shot out of the cloud toward the machine, dashing in the air.

Before she could cast anything the Moloch machine spread its mouth once more.

Milla realized Minerva, for all that she could dance in the air, could not stop it shooting.

Following the teacher’s body, leaping around as if from cloud to cloud, she also realized what she herself could do. Her eyes settled on the Moloch body and the pipes and cables.

She held her grimoire by the spine, with a thumb inside the pages, and took off running.

Moloch fired a third blast from its mouth, its breath attack sweeping across the sky. Minerva continued to dash to and fro around its head, getting in a kick here and there as she used the machine as a platform to take off again. She was a mere nuisance, but she was a great distraction. Without resistance, Milla ran the length of the platform, to the edge where the machine was connected. It grew larger and larger as she approached it, until she had to crane her head up high as it could to try to watch the fighting play out.

Milla looked down off the edge of the platform, breathing slowly and heavily as an unimaginable heat emanated nearby. It was as if she stood steps away from a star. This must have been what standing on the sun felt like, she thought. Looking down she could see where all the pipes and cables and metal supports reached out from the furnace, like a replacement spinal cord winding up into the hovering Moloch Machine from below.

Taking in a deep breath, and swallowing hard, she leaped down toward the pipes.

She morbidly expected her whole body to melt and end up a puddle atop the monster’s makeshift spine; though she landed clumsily and hit herself again, she found herself surprisingly whole. Her hands, touching the metal, did not sizzle or hurt. It felt eerily room temperature, no hotter than anything else. Bolting up to her feet, she looked around for a way into the furnace. Far overhead, Minerva and Moloch dueled mightily.

Milla did not need to look very long.

Right in front of her, the platform bore a massive, bull-like face. Those smokestacks Milla had seen sticking out resembled horns when viewed from this angle, and the mass connecting the Moloch Machine to the furnace stuck out of the bull’s cavernous mouth like a tongue. She could easily run across the spine and into the furnace’s interior.

There was a plan hatching in her head but it depended on what she found inside.

She made for the gaping maw only to stop a few steps short.

Several pairs of glowing eyes approached from inside the furnace.

Intermittent flashing from inside the furnace revealed many of the kilnling creatures that had been trying to harvest Cheryl and the others. They dragged themselves forward, their exposed ribs snapping open and closed like jaws. The Kilnlings lurched out of the furnace in clumsy stopping-and-starting movements, as if their locomotion went on and off the way the burners inside the furnace did. They were very large and solid, however, and their size and presence alone was enough to put Milla on the defensive.

She took a step back out of the furnace’s shadow and grit her teeth.

She remembered an old commander who admonished her for cowardice.

Tightening her grip on the spine of her grimoire, she swept her hand over the pages.

Kladenets!” She called out.

Her grimoire left her hand of its own accord and hovered off the ground.

Standing between her and the approaching monsters, it produced an image of a sword.

It seemed an ordinary sword, the butt coming to rest a few centimeters off the pages.

Milla thrust her hand forward with the palm to the enemy.

Her grimoire launched toward the kilnlings, and the glowing sword swung at them.

No arm held it, and it appeared to have no mass, but the blade nonetheless swept across the head of one of the kilnlings and battered the monster aside. Rather than slice through them the sword rang aloud on impact, screaming metal on metal as it clubbed the monsters. Despite its visible position atop the grimoire, the blade had deceptive reach. It struck as if held on an arm that could stretch, twist, and handle a blade deftly.

From head to head the blade turned, striking in turn each kilnling as they approached, and rattling their skulls with every hit. When stricken the beasts toppled off their legs and onto their sides, reacting as if concussed. No sword could have rent the metal on them, not even this one, but a good clubbing made an effective deterrent instead.

Milla rushed forward, and again by itself the grimoire charged with her, and the blade threw its terrible weight every which way. Dazed kilnlings fell aside and Milla charged past them, never staying long enough to pick a real fight. They were big and she was not terribly damaging them, but it was not her intention to brawl with them at all.

Leaping and dodging her way past the monsters, Milla penetrated the mouth of the furnace and instantly found herself faced with its immense interior. A short hallway, guarded by kilnlings, led to a massive set of interior works that funneled metal to burners, which fired off every so often to melt the metal instantly. Then the metal was dropped into a massive, glowing red pit recessed into the ground in the center of the furnace, where it was siphoned through red-hot pipes out to the Moloch Machine.

Everything was decayed, eroded, rusted, sharp and haphazard, like the kilnlings were.

Every surface in the demesne wore its armor like moth-eaten clothes.

Behind her the stricken kilnlings began to get back on their legs, and in front of her, several more started to close in from the furnace interior. She had surrounded herself.

She was not driven to panic despite this. In fact, she smirked instead.

Milla had figured there was something important inside the furnace, after fighting on top of it. She could not have been entirely sure, not being a student of engineering, but she knew it was not just a hunk of metal as it had been prior to Moloch’s transfiguration. She knew it was home to a lot of those pipes and cranes that she saw everywhere on Moloch.

Even so, she had no ordinary means to affect such a massive thing. She knew no spells that could launch an armor-piercing rocket or set off C-4 inside this furnace and damage its works. Mages could throw around lightning and fireballs and cast massive reavings and disintegrations at people and things but the larger and sturdier the affected object, the more raw power had to go into it. She could batter kilnlings, but she could not tear down this massive edifice by herself. Lyudmilla Kholodva did not have raw power.

She was tired, too.

Even at her least tired she might not have been able to tear down the furnace. She did not even really know many spells. She figured the basic packet from the Academy did not include a full combat suite; so she was relying on things she picked up here and there.

Lacking in options and in the raw strength to execute them, Lyudmilla substituted a bit of inventiveness. She was not surrounded; she had the kilnlings where she wanted them.

Sometimes, physics alone could be a force multiplier for a dynamic magician.

“Lets hope this works!”

Closing her fist, she caused the sword atop her grimoire to dissipate.

In a blink the book was back in her hands.

She held it by both covers and thrust the pages forward, trying her best to copy Minerva.

She had read her lips as she cast, and seen something of the gestures.

As for mnemonics, Milla just tried to focus on stakes and hoped for the best.

Sudes!”

A metal stake; a metal stake; a metal stake–

It was crude mnemonics, but it had an effect.

Like Minerva, her spell conjured a metal stake that flew out from between the grimoire’s pages. Lacking the precision of a wand or advanced knowledge of the spell, Milla’s casting went wild. She felt the metal portion of her very human, mixed metal and fire aura, suddenly peeling almost right off. Her whole body glowed black and red and the black burst out of her into a wave of particulate aura, lost magic consumed by the spell.

Some of this particulate, but not all, attached to the stake in the instant of conjuration.

Instead of a clean shape, it became irregular, lumpy, its weight poorly distributed.

When the stake exploded into being out in front of her, Milla felt like it not only ripped up her aura and took it with it but also ripped the breath from her lungs.

She nearly doubled over in pain, but she retained enough composure to watch.

Flying haphazardly with the speed of an artillery shell, the stake bowled past several kilnlings in front of Milla and sailed over the red pit and embedded into a gear.

No one spell could stop the machines from turning. Though there was a stake clearly stuck in the gears, the conveyors continued to turn, the burners continued to blast, and metal continued to be fed into the Moloch Machine. They had no physical logic after all. Many were not even attached to anything, and operated in an almost metaphorical way.

Milla never intended to target the machines themselves.

She was gritting her teeth from the reckless exertion, but still managing to grin.

Behind her, every Kilnling struck by her sword glowed momentarily.

Instead of following the initial taps with the Alwi spell Barik, as Minerva had, she instead reached for a trick closer to home. One that would not cook her alive from inexperience.

Taking in air, calm even as the remaining kilnlings started to close, Milla shouted:

“Lord Pherkhan, we become to metal as Earth is to the Moon! Pherkhan’s magnetism!”

As she pronounced each word a little bolt played about her grimoire and hands.

She needed all the focus she could get. A full incantation gave her time to gather energy.

Milla locked eyes on the stake and reached out mentally.

It was her favorite spell of the suite developed by the Rus War-Mage, Pherkhan.

At first the little bolts extended from one end of her grimoire to the other like the poles on a horseshoe magnet, suspended between the open pages. After receiving the full command, they traveled up the grimoire and left the pages altogether. As soon as the bolts leaped off the metal-bound corners of the grimoire they extended across the entire furnace in an invisible instant, connecting the numerous kilnlings behind and around Milla with the stake she stuck to the interior of the furnace. Dozens of tiny bolts of lightning danced between the kilnlings and the stake like blurry, flashing strings.

For a moment the kilnlings were given pause, but their relentlessness soon returned.

When the kilnlings resumed their advance, the bolts sharply, suddenly contracted.

Had they exhibited any kind of magical talent that instant could’ve been crucial.

The Kilnlings did not cast spells; so Milla’s sloppiness instead had a devastating effect.

Dozens of the metallic monsters all around Milla and in the interior of the furnace works launched into the air as if their weight meant nothing. They bounced as readily as rubber balls, drawn toward the stake as if lassoed by the strength of a giant. Milla ducked and covered her head with her grimoire. Chunks of metal flew off their bodies as the kilnlings collided with the walls and with each other hundreds of times on their way toward the stake. For a moment the hallway into the furnace works was a churning, vibrating mess of ricocheting metal. Once free of the confines of the hallway, the kilnling mass slammed into the stake faster and harder than Lyudmilla could’ve ever imagined.

Boilers cracked and burst under the violence, cranes were smashed into the furnace pit, gears knocked out of place fell heavily upon the conveyors and other works and battered the whole mechanism apart. The furnace roared and quaked as great masses of metal rained down into the pit, clogging up the lifeline to the Moloch Machine outside. Molten metal began to rise out of the pit and spill over into the corridor. Around Milla the walls started to crack and glow red, and to bleed molten metal as if grievously wounded.

That’s as far as she had planned for. It was time to run!

Milla turned around and bolted for the exit, a wave of molten metal rushing after her.

Crawling up the walls as if chasing her, the cracks in the furnace spewed and sputtered with fire and gas and searing red metal that landed around Milla in fist-sized globs. She ducked and dodged the streams, swatted away the metal with her grimoire, all the while running as fast as she could, and breathing in less and less air as it seemed to burn up.

Her vision started to waver, and the tunnel felt endlessly long, the outside world too far.

Struggling for breath, she screamed as loud as she could, “Sudes!”

In a flash of light, some of the metal flying around her collected itself into a stake.

Once fully formed the lumpy, misshapen stake shot off into the distance like a rocket.

It ate up almost all her remaining metal aura, but she had purposefully held back.

She only needed a small stake this time.

Milla pulled a chain from her blazer pocket and wrapped it around her arm.

She shut her grimoire on the end of the chain as her legs gave out on her.

Falling, she mumbled again the name of the great Pherkan and prayed.

Blue bolts of energy trailed up and down her body.

She jerked forward, and back and suddenly launched out of the tunnel.

Screaming, Milla leaped clear over the ever-burning pit.

Behind her the mouth of the bull-head furnace choked with molten metal.

All around the demesne the fires started to go out, the gears stopped turning.

Fuzzy lines like the static on a busted television started to divide the walls, the seemingly endless pit and the skybox of the demesne, and once those cleared more of the outside world, the real world, became visible again through the distortion of the demesne.

Sailing off into nothingness, Lyudmilla watched with a self-satisfied little grin as the Moloch Machine began to choke, its cow-skull head leaking molten metal from the eyesockets and from the pipeline inside its jaws. It spewed its red-hot pyroclastic attack into the air at random, vomiting up metal with no target, screaming and out of control.

As she fell she saw Minerva, briefly, and saw her light up brighter red than ever.

Wyrm!” Moloch screamed. “Wyrm!

Minerva’s voice responded, deeper and richer and more beautiful than ever.

I’m, Minerva Orizaga. Wyrm isn’t here. Thanks again for the fire.

Something like a massive whip (a tail?) lashed out from Minerva and cleaved Moloch.

Just as she watched Moloch break apart, she heard Minerva’s homunculus again.

Entity MOLOCH unstable. Temperature drop exponential. Containment successful.”

Next thing she knew, Lyudmilla Kholodova hit the ground. It was dirty, dusty.

She felt as if she had been dunked suddenly in freezing water.

Hugging herself, Milla squirmed and twisted herself onto her back.

There were trees. A canopy; she could see the blue sky and the stars.

Nothing was burning anymore.

Milla pushed herself up from the ground, to her knees.

How much time had passed? She scanned her surroundings. It was still dark.

Suddenly she heard a scream, a girl’s scream.

Milla struggled up to her feet, stumbling and swaying, a little dizzy.

She managed to maneuver herself through the trees and found herself back at the clearing where the Moloch statue had first been unearthed. She arrived in time to see the crumbling statue, Phillip struggling to stand and trying to snake away, and that armored man, Ajax, menacingly approaching Amber, Jenn and Cheryl. The girls squirmed away from him on the ground, crawling on their backs until they hit the treeline again.

“Let go of that.” Ajax hissed. His voice was eerie. It sounded as if it was coming from a broken radio in his helmet, hissing and scratching and becoming inaudible for a second or two in the middle of this syllable or that. It made it difficult to understand him.

He was dragging one of his feet, and his hands were limp at his sides.

Milla summoned her grimoire to her hands, and stumbled out of the forest.

“Get away from them!” She cried.

He turned his head partially over his shoulder. His eyes glowed on and off, sparking.

Ajax stared at Milla, and then at his own feet, where his two subordinates lay beaten.

He stared at the Moloch statue, broken, its once incredible aura sputtering away.

He charged without warning–

But in the direction of the treeline, to escape!

Milla grit her teeth and made to follow. Could she get him?

Ajax did not get far; in the next instant he bounced back into the clearing and hit the dirt.

From the wood, Minerva appeared.

Vorra leaped down from the canopy, visibly wounded, but alive and seemingly mobile.

“Milord, he is faltering.” She said.

They had Ajax surrounded. Judging by his last attempt, he was on his last legs.

Ajax picked one of his subordinate’s clubs off the floor.

“Alwi trash– you–” His voice broke up. “Undone– I’ll–”

He threw himself forward and swung his weapon.

It stretched to cover the gap and came at Minerva’s side like a whip.

She held out her wand at her side and the metal bounced off of it.

Ambling casually toward Ajax, Minerva then swung her wand at him wordlessly.

A wave of force blasted the weapon off Ajax’s hands, and took several fingers with it.

Surprisingly he did not whimper, did not cry out, despite this brutal amputation.

He was clearly done fighting but he continued to try to escape.

Minerva would have none of it.

Ajax struggled to stand; a second blast from Minerva’s wand threw him back to the ground. Her eyes were fixed on him with a cold, steely hatred that shook Milla in its intensity. Each step she took, Minerva swung her wand, and Ajax was blasted in his chest, and thrown back; blasted in his legs until the armor was pummeled off them; and blasted in his head, jerking his neck left and right until his battered helm fell off.

Beneath the plate legs, there was nothing. Beneath the breastplate, nothing.

There was nothing beneath the helmet either.

Ajax had been nothing but a construct. Had it been the entire time? Had he swapped?

Minerva disregarded the empty suit of armor and walked over to the girls.

She knelt beside them with a smile. “You all have been through a lot. It feels silly to ask this, but are you ok? Are you hurt? Do you need a hospital? Can you talk to the police?”

Amber and Jenn stared dumbfounded at Minerva for a second before throwing themselves at her, hugging her and crying, shaken thoroughly by their experience. Minerva seemed to not know what to do other than stand there and allow herself to be thoroughly grappled. She eventually started rubbing their backs in a motherly way.

Vorra hid in the wood, sitting solemnly with her back to a tree, breathing heavily.

Cheryl sat at the edge of the clearing, staring at the Ajax armor, empty-eyed. In her hands she was turning over the orange-red orb that had come out of the Moloch statue’s head.

Somehow despite everything, they all had survived that mess.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She nearly dropped her grimoire out of exhaustion.

She managed to keep a steady grip on it.

So she was ready when she heard the dirt sifting.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

She turned her head and fixed a murderous glare on Phillip, his face caked in his own blood, weeping, gritting what was left of his teeth through a broken mouth. He had been trying to crawl up the steeper side of the clearing and out of anyone’s sight. He said nothing, and merely stopped where he had been. Milla pointed her grimoire his way.

“Sit down or I’ll sit you down.” Milla said.

From across the clearing, Minerva let go of Amber and Jenn, who then clung to Cheryl.

“Yes, Phillip Theimer, we’ll need to repair your face so you can talk to the police.”

Minerva spoke, and Milla thought she saw Phillip shake. He knelt down, giving up.

Whatever glorious night he thought he might have was now over.


Next morning, having gotten no sleep and talked to too many different uniformed persons, Lyudmilla Kholodova and Minerva Orizaga found themselves in the office of Miriam Hirsch, who was disheveled, having had to dress quickly and arrive at the Humanities’ main department very early to deal with the ugly situation. Word was getting around about what happened. Police were investigating, the students were variously in hospital care and out of it, and the Department itself was in a furor about it.

Minerva rarely spoke to Miriam Hirch without Beatrix around. Her office felt empty and oppressive. There was nothing separating Minerva from Miriam, nothing shielding her.

Miriam had an intimating expression, full of barely restrained anger.

“University Police tried to explain it to me, and I couldn’t believe a word I was hearing, so I would like to hear it from you instead. What the hell happened last night, Minerva?”

Minerva was annoyed by everything, but she tried to keep things matter-of-fact and she spoke so quickly and in such a tone that Miriam, try as she might, couldn’t interrupt.

“It is my understanding that at around midnight three boys identifying themselves with the Otrarian nationalist group ‘Iron Flags’ cooperated with Phillip Theimer to lead several girls to a clearing in the Whispering Wood with the intent to perform a dark ritual to summon the Tyrant Moloch. They intended to make sacrifices to a statue that had been popularly mistaken to represent Baphomet that had appeared suddenly some time ago in the woods. This statue had a carved orb of Agnicite that was sealing some of Moloch’s demesne, and upon its release, the Tyrant was unleashed. However, it was severely weakened from having to express his main element of Fire through its antagonistic element, Metal. With Lyudmilla Kholodova’s help, I contained the Tyrant and detained Phillip, Trent and Arnes. Ajax, the fourth conspirator, was piloting a construct from afar all along. I called the authorities and an investigation is underway.”

At several points in the story Miriam Hirch seemed to want to interrupt as if it was inherently a ridiculous thing to say. Minerva talked over her enough times to keep her quiet and get her whole message across. At the end of it, Miriam sat dumbfounded.

“You contained a Tyrant?” Miriam asked at last, regaining a bit of composure.

“Yes.”

Minerva reached into her coat, withdrew the fire orb and put it on Miriam’s desk.

“Put that under the tightest security you’ve got, ma’am.” She said.

Miriam picked up the orb and instantly shook with goosebumps and dropped it.

“My word!”

“It’s not something to take lightly, that’s for sure.” Minerva said.

Miriam looked momentarily offended. She left the orb on her desk.

“Setting all that of that aside for later. I want to know about the facts I can confirm right now. What happened to Phillip Theimer? He claims you injured him.” Miriam said.

She had seemingly ignored the part where Minerva implicated him in the crime.

Of course, the word of a white Otrarian boy with a donor father carried a lot of weight.

Minerva sighed. “He was attacked by the leader of the Flags, nom de guerre Ajax. Ajax had manipulated him into providing his own girlfriend, Cheryl von Schutzherr, as human material for the ritual. Whether he intended to seal Moloch in her or otherwise–”

“You realize how ridiculous that sounds?” Miriam said. “The Theimer family have been supporters of the Academy for generations. They’re a completely above-board family.”

She sounded strangely and specifically outraged about this.

“I say nothing of the family; only what I collected at the crime scene.” Minerva said.

In truth she hadn’t been there at the time, but she had Lyudmilla’s testimony.

Miriam sighed heavily and rubbed her palms over her own face.

“Minerva, I support the teachers under my direction, but to engage in such unserious he-said she-said talk, and where it concerns a student claiming you assaulted him–”

Lyudmilla cut Miriam off and spoke, her accent thicker owing to her anger.

“Ms. Orizaga did not hurt him at all! I’ll testify to that. I smacked Phillip in the face!”

“You’ll speak when prompted, Miss Kholodova!” Miriam shouted. “Tread lightly!”

Lyudmilla scowled at her, squeezing her own knees as she sat on the couch.

Miriam sighed and rubbed her own forehead and started sifting through some papers.

Minerva’s heart beat faster. What was going on here?

She had contained a Tyrant and saved the lives of those girls.

Did she not care? Was she ready to ignore all of that as a fabrication?

This was so ridiculous, unfair and unjust to an unrealistic degree, and yet, possible.

A fleetingly possible thing that somehow happened all of the time.

Miriam was just outright ignoring her words and defending Theimer.

Minerva was an Alwi, a person hated in this society. She had this etched in her skin.

Was Miriam trying to frame her for the entire situation right now?

“Ma’am, I’m not sure I understand what your point is. Please speak plainly.”

“Fact of the matter is, Minerva, Lyudmilla Kholodova is not exactly a trustworthy prospect in a situation like this. Phillip Theimer claims he is innocent and a victim. I can believe Trent and Arnes were implicated in something, though goodness knows what, but I’m struggling to believe stuff about rituals and tyrants and a mysterious fourth man.”

Minerva couldn’t tell if Miriam was really so tortured over this or faking all of it.

She certainly sounded and acted annoyed and uncomfortable but it seemed all too easy for her to abandon Minerva and Lyudmilla at this juncture for well-moneyed words.

“And all this talking about Tyrants– yes you have that orb, but it’s just, it’s too much! I cannot believe that a Tyrant was summoned, that it attacked, that you contained it–”

“I’ll give you the data collected by my Homunculus!” Minerva shouted at her.

Miriam glared at Minerva, clearly offended now at her tone. “I don’t want it! Ugh. It’s not enough I have to deal with Beatrix now you’re also making problems. At least when Beatrix comes up with some scheme to endanger students she owns up without excuses!”

“Now it’s a scheme? Nationalists attack your students and suddenly it’s my scheme?”

The Department Head was taken aback by this and quickly retreated from her rhetoric.

“I’m not saying that!” Miriam said. “I’m not accusing you! Goodness. You’re clearly giving in to emotion, Minerva, we can’t have this discussion and I can’t defend you if you’re showing this kind of attitude! It’s Academy policy to first side with the students–”

Minerva intended to shout ‘you were never going to defend me,’ but then someone did.

Bursting through the door into the office was the blonde-haired, starry-eyed, and clearly furious young lady known only as Cheryl, but actually named Cheryl von Schutzherr.

She stormed into the room and charged right up to Miriam’s desk, her eyes afire.

Behind her, Beatrix Kolsa ambled in with a bewildered expression, and shrugged.

“You’re the Department Head? What the hell is this?” Cheryl said. “Why did you summon Ms. Orizaga and Milla instead of that no-good piece of shit who just tried to kill me!”

Miriam blinked, taken aback. “Language! Ms. Schutzherr, I’m just, I wanted to–”

“Minerva Orizuh– Minerva saved my life! Milla Khalod– Milla saved my life!”

Minerva and Lyudmilla both wilted. Cheryl couldn’t pronounce their surnames.

“That’s–” Miriam seemed to shrink in her chair. “That’s– well– Phillip Theimer also–”

“I’m sure that fucking rat has something to say too! Then he should say it to my face! To all our faces! To us and to Amber and Jenn, he tried to get us all killed for his buddies in the Iron Whatever! Instead he’s trying to hide behind you, isn’t he? You’re covering up for him! He should be in this room so I can shout his face off along with yours!”

Miriam turned bright red and nearly fell over with her chair. “Why I– I never–”

“You listen to me! I’ll tell the cops, I’ll tell the courts, I’ll tell the tabloids, I’ll talk to anyone! I’ll vlog about it! I got 3000 followers! I’ll tell everyone that Phillip Theimer is a sick, lying freak who seduced and led me along so he could literally kill me! And I’ll tell my daddy to donate all the money you dirtbags get from him to animal shelters! I’ll call him right now!” Cheryl, breathlessly shouting at the top of her lungs right in Miriam’s face, produced a cellphone and shoved that right into Miriam’s face too. “I’ll make these rickety walls come right down on you if you think you can get away with hiding this!”

“Please– I wasn’t– I didn’t mean to–” Miriam, a grown woman, was almost in tears.

Cheryl continued to shout, at the top of her lungs, her voice bravely holding out.

“Minerva and Lyudmilla better leave this room with medals! Medals! You, and your cops, and your stupid department, you didn’t do shit to help me! I was nearly killed by a bunch of LARPers and a big ugly metal bull! KILLED! You didn’t do shit about it! I was nearly killed! A bunch of lunatics go to this school planning to kill innocent girls and you didn’t know, you didn’t do anything, who knows how many girls have been victims here?”

“Of course not– Our school– we pride ourselves– we’re very safe–”

Are you going to do something?” Cheryl put her face to Miriam’s, baring her teeth.

Miriam backed her office chair up to the wall behind her in fear.

Cheryl’s eyes watered, her nose ran, and her face was beet red. She was shaking.

The full force of everything that had happened to her, and of everything that could have happened to her, hit right there like a dam bursting. She had screamed out as much of it as she could, but now she was shivering, hugging herself, weeping openly, sobbing loud. Her knees shook. She looked to be in agony, unable to contain herself. Lyudmilla made to stand but Minerva shook her head and put out an arm to stop her. She had to be delicate.

Beatrix moved closer to the desk and took Cheryl by the shoulders, giving her someone to cry on. For once she looked almost like a responsible adult, comforting Cheryl.

“There, there.” Beatrix said.

Miriam Hirch, nearly weeping herself, glared daggers at Beatrix, who smiled in return.

“Miriam, I caught wind of what happened from the university police when they came to the Department last night. I predicted you’d handle this situation very poorly. I want to believe you’re just trying to get out of doing paperwork, because you are lazy. At any rate I felt that, out of everyone involved, this girl deserved to have her voice heard, and I wanted to make sure that she did.” She turned her head a little and winked at Minerva.

Minerva allowed herself a restrained smile back at Beatrix.

“Yes, very– very well.” Miriam stuttered.

“If I remember correctly, the von Schutzherr grants go directly to the Humanities, do they not? It’s twice the Theimer grant money too.” Beatrix mused aloud. “As someone whose research depends on things like that, I also felt my voice mattered too.”

Miriam sank atop her desk.

“I’ll– I’ll take care of things. It’s fine. Everyone please. Go.”

Beatrix led Cheryl away slowly, rubbing her back and wiping her tears, smiling at her.

Before she could be taken through the door, Lyudmilla turned around on the couch.

She shouted, “Cheryl! You’re really cool, you know?”

And Cheryl held a shaking thumbs up in response, before vanishing out the door.

With Beatrix and Cheryl gone there was a sudden silence.

It dropped between everyone like lead walls.

“Ms. Hirch, perhaps I should take this orb for safe-keeping.” Minerva finally said.

Miriam sighed. “Yes. Yes. Please leave.”

Nodding, Minerva quickly swiped the orb from Miriam’s desk and left the room.

Soon as the office was vacated Miriam slammed the door.

There was another sudden falling of silence. It was as if the world itself, having held its breath throughout that entire drama, could finally breathe and take stock in things.

Everything ended up working itself out somehow.

Out in the halls again, Minerva checked the time on her homunculus and sighed.

The National waited for nobody. Life, outside oneself, had to keep going.

“I’m gonna be so late for my office hours.” She groaned.

“You’re gonna hold office hours? After all this?”

Behind her, Lyudmilla Kholodova approached with a questioning expression.

She looked mightly disheveled, her blazer frayed and spotted, her hair messy, a distinct ashen pall over her otherwise fair skin. Probably owing to the smoke and the fire. Minerva wondered what was going through her head now. She didn’t look tired or shocked or vulnerable, like she had been in the demesne a few times. She seemed well.

Minerva turned fully to meet her. She recalled Lyudmilla’s heroics in the demesne.

This girl had potential, and some hidden depths to her. Minerva kinda liked her.

“Well, the students need my help whether or not I was nearly killed by a monster.”

Lyudmilla seemed amused by the answer.

“And whether or not your Department nearly betrayed you.”

“That’s not the student’s fault. They have a right to an education you know.”

“That’s dedication. I’m straight-up blowing the rest of class this week after this shit.”

Minerva grinned a little. “That’s honestly fair. I’d encourage you to show up though.”

“Yeah, you would do that, Professor.” Lyudmilla grinned back at her.

“It’s just Ms. Orizaga, please.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla then reached into her blazer and pulled out a letter for Minerva.

“I got this in the mail. Just uh. I guess I want you to know, that I got it.”

Though she seemed conflicted at first, she made up her mind quickly.

Minerva took the letter and unfurled it. It was the notice of apprenticeship.

Officially signed by Miriam Hirch and dated about a day before Minerva was told.

“How do you feel about it?” Minerva asked.

“Well, I can’t say no now. This is too cool, you know?” Lyudmilla bent forward, her arms stretched behind her with the fingers interlocked, rocking. She had an air of mischief.

She spun her finger idly and one of the hair bobbles on her twin-tails spun with it.

“I won’t tell anyone you’re some kind of superhero if you teach me your tricks.”

Minerva sighed. What a little devil she had on her hands! She should’ve known.

“I’m not a superhero.” Minerva said. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

“Yeah, and I’m just an innocent maid, never smoked a joint, never touched a boob.”

Lyudmilla stuck her tongue out at Minerva.

“You’ll find I’m far less impressive outside of a fire-rich demesne.”

“My standards are very, very low.” Lyudmilla said, cackling.

“You’re a handful.” Minerva said. “Listen, if you’re fine with this arrangement, then I’m glad. I know I promised I’d explain everything to you, and I will, but right now, I really need to work. So lets meet somewhere private later and we can discuss all of this.”

“Fine. But I’ll tag along for today anyway. No discussion necessary.”

Minerva nodded. “It’s gonna be boring you know. I plan to act like nothing happened.”

“Me too. It’s too early for me to have a big cry and scream like Cheryl did. I’m too icy for that. Anyway. I’m here at your service for both mundane and magical tasks, master.”

“Oh god no. There’s enough people who call me master. Just, Minerva, or something.”

Lyudmilla grinned. “Ah, yeah, how’s that subby dragon of yours doing, Professor?”

Nothing happened.” Minerva said dangerously.

“Ah fine, fine.” Lyudmilla replied cheerfully.

Together they got going to Minerva’s office.

At least, regardless of everything, her job always gave her something else to do.

Right now, the only world she knew or wanted was her students and a pile of papers.

She was the first Alwi magician of the National! She had to keep performance high.

“If I’m your apprentice, can I look at the quiz keys?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Yes you can. They’re all there in the textbook if you read it.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla started to whistle intermittently. “I guess I should’ve expected that.”


That night, Minerva arrived at her home just off the edge of Lake Bratten and the Whispering Woods, feeling exhausted, and like the feelings she had been damming for the sake of the world were about to burst through the wall of her heart. Still, she made herself smile for the little girl at the front desk, and waved at her when she passed.

“Oh, Minnie!” Laksha called out. She looked sad. “Your girlfriend came in this morning looking a little, bad. Did something happen to her Minnie? Is she going to be okay?”

Minerva continued to smile. “She did a big heroic thing, Laksha. But she’ll be okay.”

“Wow! I’ll get her some meat sometime to thank her for being a hero.” Laksha said.

Her frown had immediately turned into a starry-eyed smile.

“Thank you. She’d love that. Good night, Laksha.”

Upstairs, Minerva practically fell through her front door. Using the back of her foot, she shut the door behind herself and practically crawled up to Vorra’s mound. Sitting atop the pile of magazines, again dressed only in one of Minerva’s ill-fitting button-downs, Vorra sat, looking out their window to the lake and the moonlit, cloudless night.

She turned her head over her shoulder and gazed fondly at her arriving partner.

Her tail wagged slowly and gently. She had bandaged her sides up, but there was damage to hidden things, like her wings, and her ribs, that would take time to heal inside.

“Milord, good to see you. This Academy ill deserves your tireless effort.”

“Yeah, it sucks, but it’s good to have on the resume, you know?”

“I do not, milord, but I am pleased that your efforts fulfill you.”

Minerva got herself up to Vorra and sat by her side. She kissed her on the cheek.

“How are you?”

“Milord, of course I am on the mend. I am a dragon. I am power itself.”

“It’s really been a day.”

“It has been a day, as you say, milord.”

Vorra rested her head on Minerva’s shoulder and vibrated, with a slight hissing purr.

Tears built up in Minerva’s eyes and feeling Vorra at her side caused them to spill.

“Vorra, Wyrm was a monster, wasn’t he? Am I a monster too?” Minerva asked.

She clutched her chest, where, in her deepest nightmares, she felt Wyrm exist.

Everything that she had seen and heard in Moloch’s demesne, all of the horror and power and hatred, seemed to fall upon her at that very moment. It hit harder than the craven cowardice of Miriam Hirch or the abject cruelty of Ajax. Both of those things were evil, but they existed outside of her as verifiable lies. Neither of them could say truthfully that Minerva was a monster, that she was abominable and inhuman. But then Moloch–

“I say milord, with the utmost certainty, that you are you, and whatever you desire.”

Vorra turned to Minerva and kissed her briefly on her lips.

“Wyrm would have never accepted me as a Queen because I was not born one.” She said, staring directly into Minerva’s eyes and centimeters away from her face. “Denounce me for my bias, but I prefer you as King.” She laughed gently. “I love you, Minerva.”

“I love you too.” Minerva said. Those kinds of sentimental things were a bit hard and almost felt embarrassing to say, but Minerva really felt it at that moment. It was not at all what she expected as a child, that she would be the beloved of a dragon staring at the moon from the National Academy just a day after containing the evil of a Tyrant.

“Minerva,” she was pointedly not saying ‘milord’, “You possess the bravery to transmute all that you once thought fundamental, and to struggle against that which you are told you are unfit to change. I admire that about you. It draws me to you. Truly, I believe you can become anything you desire. I believe even by desiring it alone, you will become it.”

Minerva felt fresh tears coming up, and she clung to Vorra with a smile. “Thank you.”

Vorra purred at her side. “I was discarded, alone, unwanted, without future. Now I am here. To me, that is the greatest portent signalling that anything is now possible.”

Whatever it was that lay ahead, surely a series of hardships; Minerva felt she could do it.

She had made it this far and changed so much. There would be more change coming.

All of those tyrannical things that had once chained her up — she had wounded them.

“God, what am I even going to say in my report to the Party. This is really a lot.”

“It is, as you say, a lot, milord.”


Bright blue waves filtered into the elevator through glass panes.

When the doors opened at the bottom floor, Miriam Hirsch walked through a hallway of glass, reinforced by titanium supports. She followed a long carpet to a dead end with a wide, unobstructed pane of glass with a view into the massive aquarium all around it.

“I requested an audience, headmaster.” Miriam said, her voice trembling.

All around her, a cold voice reverberated through the water and glass.

I am listening.

“Phillip Theimer has been taken into custody. The Theimer fund has pulled from the Academy. I thought you should be made aware. It’s– it’s rare for this to happen here.”

Theimer deserved his fate. He aided the heresy of summoning a Pretender God.

Miriam was surprised to hear the headmaster already knew.

Then again, the headmaster was a strong diviner. His water aura was massive.

All of the water around her was like a scrying glass. He could see her.

He could see through her.

And yet, it was in her nature to lie, to conceal, to conspire, and so, she did.

“Yes, headmaster. I felt compelled to seek your input. Our elite families are valuable–”

I am aware of what has happened. I am aware, that you thought to shield him of his crime. I am aware of your connection. I am aware of your small mindedness.”

Miriam flinched and drew back a step.

“I– I simply couldn’t believe such a thing could happen at our school.”

I care not about the the Iron Flags; I care not about politics. Summoning Pretender Gods is becoming quite a trend again among you. I care about that. It is a heresy.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

In the next instant the water outside the glass became obstructed.

In its place was a massive eye, more complicated than that of any human being.

Miriam nearly fainted from shock. The depth of that eye felt like it might suck her in.

You are all forgetting the purpose of humans to me. Call me by name, human.

Miriam choked up, nodding her head. “Yes, Great Lord Leviathan.”

Slowly the eye retreated from the glass, and became smaller, until it was clear that it was one of many along the side of a sleek serpentine head adorned with many-colored crests.

I desire to meet Minerva Orizaga. Teaching, is valuable. Learning, is valuable. Discovering, is valuable. As long as they remain valuable I will not interfere. Minerva Orizaga, might be valuable. I desire to confirm that.

Leviathan, the God of Water, surged forward again until his eye covered the glass.

Do not forget what is valuable to me. Do not confuse it for what you value.

Miriam, feeling suddenly the weight of the plutocratic kickbacks that got her into her position, that got her clothed, that got her respectability, bowed her head to Leviathan.

“Yes, headmaster, great lord.”


Story 1 — Lord of the Wildfire, END


<<< Previous / Next >>>

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.

Whatever.

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