Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIX

This chapter contains violence and instances of transmisogyny and misgendering.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Vicaria — Saint Orrea’s Hope

Salvatrice Vittoria returned to the living world seated atop a plush, luxurious couch.

She stared groggily about her surroundings as they came slowly into focus, gradually reconstituting themselves before her eyes from the fuzz and noise of dreamless sleep into a gilded and silken room. Circular with a domed roof, highly ornamented, with two stained glass windows depicting the virgin mother of the Messiah, Saint Orrea, the last elf to wield Magic, and banners depicting a green, ivy covered step pyramid, atop which floated an eye.

In the center of the room was an empty tea table with a few chairs.

There was something familiar about the space.

Then her mind regained enough sense to recall what had happened.

She heard the fatal gunshot ring out in her mind and saw her sister’s brains spilling out–

Something between fear and disgust seemed to trigger in her mind, and Salvatrice curled up on the couch, hugging herself as her stomach churned. In a moment the sickness passed, and gave way to further stressful confusion. Salvatrice quickly found that she was richly dressed — she had on a long-sleeved military overcoat, green and gold, old fashioned, fit for a warring prince, and long dress pants. Her hair had been collected into a discrete bun behind her head. She almost feared it had been cut off for a moment.

She slid her fingers over the cloth of her coat, and over her pants. It was extremely fine clothing, soft, smooth, a masterwork in quality. She had never worn boy’s clothes so nice.

Boy’s clothes–

Somebody had taken her here, and somebody had dressed her, deliberately.

She looked about the room again. She heard the chanting in her head. Ave Caesar!

All of this ugly picture was starting to come together.

She stood bolt upright from the couch, glancing in a panic over everything in the room once more, grasping for what to do. She felt her skin protest, her bones rattle with stress.

There was a wooden double door at the end of the room.

Moments after Salvatrice forced herself upright, that door slowly crept open.

Salvatrice expected to see a mask, but the first thing through the door was a maid’s headdress. Inching into the room, Cannelle, dressed uncharacteristically fancy in the vein of a frankish maid, approached the tea table with her head down, shaking hands holding a tray of small antipasti plates and full wine glasses. She set them down on the table, sighed audibly to herself, and began to turn around, when she seemed to catch sight of Salvatrice.

She covered her hands with her mouth.

“Princess, you’re awake! Thank goodness!”

Tears beginning to form in her eyes, Cannelle approached Salvatrice carefully.

Salvatrice in turn spread her arms and took her maid into a tight embrace.

She rubbed her face against Cannelle’s shoulders and felt like crying.

It was such a relief to see her after all of this.

Cannelle herself started to sob and weep with building emotion.

“I’m so sorry Princess! Those barbarians came to the apartment and I couldn’t deny them after they told me they had you in custody. They gave me this outfit to wear and brought me here, saying that I would be honored to attend to the divine emperor or something!”

Salvatrice pulled away from Cannelle, looking at her maid with worry.

“Did they hurt you?” She asked, her voice trembling.

Cannelle shook her head. “I resisted enough that they left the apartment briefly. But they had guns and they told me if I didn’t dress up nice and come along quietly, they would certainly shoot. I had to comply, but I used the opportunity to make off with a few things.”

She searched under her skirt, pulling something from her thigh-high stockings.

It was a little wrapped bundle, inside of which were some pink pills.

“Those monsters said you wouldn’t be needing it, but I brought your medicine.”

Salvatrice wished Cannelle had thought to sneak their gun out; but she was also thankful. Even one day without her medicine these days felt hellish. She depended strongly on them for her health, physical, emotional, and mental. And she would need to have a clear head to navigate this mess. Taking the gift, Salvatrice drank one pill with a sip of the wine.

Poor Cannelle! To think her loyal maid had been forced to take part in this charade.

There was no undoing it, however. And her presence was not wholly unfortunate.

She had come from outside the room, delivering food. So, Cannelle had access.

“What is this place?” Salvatrice asked, setting down the glass.

Cannelle shook her head. “It’s some kind of tower. I don’t know what this place looks like outside of the courtyard around this tower and the building connecting to it. I was brought here blindfolded and I’ve been working in a kitchen downstairs, under guard. I’m sorry. ”

“It’s not your fault.” Salvatrice said. She offered a small smile. “Thank you for your help. You’ve been extremely brave, Cannelle. I’m sorry you have been put in this position.”

“Don’t blame yourself either, Princess.” Cannelle gently replied.

Behind them the doors swung open, breaking up their tender moment.

Through the threshold, a young, blond woman in a purple dress stumbled forward.

She looked up from the floor in surprise. The Princess locked eyes with her and gasped.

“Carmela!” Salvatrice shouted.

As she called to her, a familiar, imposing figure emerged from the doorway.

His footsteps cried metal on stone, as if the floor was ready to give under his weight, and yet so feather-light was his movement that there was not a scratch or mark left on the tiles. From chest to feet, Legatus Tarkus Marcel was armored in a pale white, shiny metal, segmented like the body of a bug, each piece and shaped sloped down across the chest and around the arms, waist and legs. Swords and bullets would meet steep angles on his person. And yet it was not merely workmanlike. Studded on his gauntlets and chest were deeply purple, cubic gems the likes of which Salvatrice had never seen. They glowed with a palpable darkness — not merely an illusory contradiction, but as if sucking in the light.

Judging by the helm he carried on his arms, and the flourish of gilded wings on his shoulders and lower back, Legatus Marcel did not style himself a beetle, but a dragon.

“Ave Caesar!” He said, saluting Salvatrice.

Salvatrice rushed forward, leaned down, and took Carmela’s hand.

At once, with tears in her eyes, the heiress reached out, and Salvatrice pulled her up.

Hand in hand, and arm-in-arm, the two women stood and stepped back from Tarkus.

“Did he hurt you?” Salvatrice whispered.

“No. But his men made a mighty fuss in my home.” Carmela replied.

“Did they say anything, Carmela?”

She shook her head. “Not a word. I was blindfolded, too. I’m sorry, Salva.”

“It’s alright. I am glad to see you.”

Her hand was shaking in Salvatrice’s own. The Princess was shaking too – but with rage.

She turned a hateful eye on the Legatus, and through her fangs shouted at him.

“Tarkus, you will drown in smoke for this! I swear to you!” Salvatrice shouted.

One of Vittoria’s favorite, sadistic methods of execution. Interred in a sealed, concrete room, the victim would succumb to heat and choke on coal smoke until death.

Tarkus had himself probably condemned people to this fate.

He betrayed no emotion with his response.

“I resign myself to the fact that if such a thing were to happen it could only be by the hands of our divine Caesar and not that wretched witch.” Tarkus replied.

“What is he talking about?” Carmela whispered.

Salvatrice shook her head.

“Tarkus, what is the meaning of all this? Who is Caesar?” Salvatrice shouted. “Are you talking about the anarchist leader Cesare? What exactly is your point here?”

Tarkus closed his eyes and bowed his head, as if with shame.

“Do you really not know? My liege, Cesare Regale has been dead for a long time. He exists as a convenient fiction, an illusion spun to tame a disorganized rabble. He is I, or at least, a spectre of my control. You are, of course, nothing of the sort. You are our Caesar, our divine king, whose banner we long to serve. Who else would you be?” Tarkus gently said.

He was making no sense now. He reminded her of the men in the forest. But back then, he had seemed the more clear-headed among them. Now he was just as dull-witted as they, speaking of nothing but the myths of this Caesar. Had something been done to him?

Salvatrice grumbled. It didn’t matter.

“Let us be even more elemental then: what is Caesar?” She asked.

Tarkus smiled self-assuredly. “Our one true king, our destined elven king.”

She looked into his eyes. She could not see them so well in the forest, and at any rate, she was in no condition for details back then. Now, in the light of this beautifully furnished room, she met eyes with him, and saw a blank, red-ringed, eerie stare looking back at her.

Dispassionate, consumed by something, perfectly, unilaterally focused.

“And where have you deigned to take your king, as you disrespectfully call me.”

“To Saint Orrea’s Hope. You do not remember this place?” He asked her.

“Not one bit.” Salvatrice replied.

She searched her mind for a ‘Saint Orrea’s Hope,’ and found nothing there.

So many estates, so many homes, a childhood spent running; how could she remember?

All she knew was that Tarkus had taken her away many times.

She could have been in Saint Orrea’s before. But there was no confirming it.

“Whether or not you remember, this place is vital to you, my Caesar. Here in Saint Orrea’s, the impossible has occurred. Great and beautiful things have been unearthed. My radio center at the top of Orrea’s Peak is a black mark on this holy site. Your presence is in turn a benediction. Soon, however, my signal will go out, and both of us shall leave.”

Salvatrice grit her teeth. That was his plan. He would invoke the ghost of Cesare one last time and order all of the anarchists in the region to begin their revolt. They stood no chance of winning. It would be a slaughter. But convinced that the conditions of their revolution had been achieved, that the Blackshirt Legion was weak and the Kingdom blind to their intentions, the anarchists would throw themselves at the provincial armies, and they would bleed slow enough for Tarkus to sweep in and claim the throne for himself–

No, for her. For some reason that was what he settled for.

“And once your signal goes out, and we leave, where will we go?”

“To Pallas; to our destiny.”

“And what is your destiny, Legatus?”

“To make a King.”

Salvatrice closed her fists and grit her teeth with anger.

“You have a monarch already, and you once served her!” Salvatrice snapped back. “What madness compels you to fan the flames of the anarchist’s revolt? What do you gain?”

Her words did nothing to sway him. He was implacable, as if without emotion.

“There is everything to gain.” Tarkus said calmly. “Caesar, it is the Illuminati’s goal to return the Elven Empire to the height of its glory. Ever since the usurpation and tyranny of the witch Vittoria, we have labored in shadows to create the conditions for her demise. Vittoria has eroded the power, dignity and morality of the Elven race. We must show the world again our superiority, and span the globe. Vittoria has proven she cannot do this.”

Salvatrice knew this had to be the case, and yet, nonetheless, to hear it said so plainly was shocking. She felt the words like a fist aimed at her chest, and it was hard to bear the weight of them. They intended to kill her mother; and who knows how many more. They had been planning; for how long? When Tarkus protected her as a child, did he plot then?

“Why are you doing this Tarkus? Why? I simply can’t understand it!” Salvatrice shouted.

“I am doing it because it is just.”

Legatus Tarkus was one of the most powerful men under Vittoria’s administration, but he commanded no great armies, achieved no legendary victories. Even among the staunchest elven nationalists, what sort of place would an intelligence specialist, a spy, a bodyguard, have in a revolutionary coup? He could at best be an assassin. But its leader, organizer? Without the prestige afforded the wings of the Queen he labored under he was a lowlife.

Great revolutionaries were thinkers, generals, charismatic men of the public, no?

Justice had nothing to do with this.

His Justice was as convenient and false as Vittoria’s love.

“I am doing it to protect you, Caesar. I have always labored to protect you.”

His voice was hauntingly confident. He reminded her too much of her own mother.

“You have been nothing but an accomplice to my torment!” Salvatrice shouted.

Tarkus shook his head. “Vittoria has been your torturer, Caesar. Anyone who hurt you did so under her duress, whether or not she ordered it directly. That is the nature of her rule. Do you not desire vengeance against her? I thought that you yearned for freedom.”

He withdrew, from one of his ammunition pouches, a folded tube of rolled papers.

Snapping the rubber band keeping them in check, he launched the papers into the air.

Several landed at Salvatrice and Carmela’s feet.

“Our letters!” Carmela shouted in horror.

The Princess needed only a glimpse to confirm. They were copies of her private letters.

Salvatrice wanted to shout, How dare you! but her mind became stuck on How–?

“Each one of these pages is a cry for help. I heeded that cry. I am the White Knight that has come to save a Princess; and the only way that can be done, is to make her a King.”

Tarkus stood ever more poised, ever taller, in his shining armor, and it vexed Salvatrice.

She grit her teeth and stood to her own full height, taking a solid stance herself.

“So that is why you brought Carmela here?” Salvatrice shouted. “You kidnapped her thinking I wanted her to be ripped from her life and forced into this game of yours?”

Carmela glanced briefly at Salvatrice and put on a demure expression.

“She is here because you have impeccable taste in partners.” Tarkus replied. “Simply put, an alliance with the Sabbadin fuel dynasty is a very convenient power-play for the ruler of an industrial nation. That the marriage would be a happy one is secondary but joyous.”

Salvatrice sighed. So nobody was safe from this conspiracy then.

Just by having her attentions, Carmela was in danger too.

The Heiress seemed to notice the change in her demeanor and subtly shook her head.

“Don’t blame yourself.” She whispered.

Salvatrice bit back at Tarkus.

“Tarkus, your commitment to this fiction is frankly astounding, and I commend you. But if what you desire is an end to the queendom, you are sadly mistaken in your choice of recruit. I am Princess Salvatrice Vittoria. I will not be your Caesar. I too am a Queen.”

Tarkus shook his head as if making ready to chide a small, ignorant child.

“The Kingdom of Lubon was a hereditary institution stemming from a dynasty of men. To unseat the witch, it is necessary for there to be a King. Only this will be accepted and proper. When Vittoria usurped the throne, she made any able men were all removed.”

Tarkus pointed a finger at Salvatrice without expression in his face.

“Are you ignorant of what you mean to her, Caesar? You will understand soon.”

“Shut up.” Salvatrice murmured, her voice trembled.

“Caesar, your ability to become a King is a grave threat to Vittoria. You know this.”

“Stop it.” Salvatrice said, gritting her teeth, wilting under the barrage of his words.

“You have labored to become kingly in your own fashion, haven’t you?”

“Cease your worthless fantasies at once Tarkus!”

Tarkus, without any compassion, continue his same course. “Vittoria has told you about all of these mysterious circumstances of your birth; can any be proven? Is anyone alive who knows the real truth? You would’ve made her but a Regent; now you’re another Princess.”

Salvatrice could not muster a response anymore. She felt instantly sick. She felt too acutely the fact that the eyes of someone like Tarkus attacked what she felt she was.

This whole conversation, this attitude, this line of questioning, this thinking, it made her sick. It made her sick to her stomach. It was disgusting. It made her flesh scream. It made her mind heavy. She held her arms around her chest, gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, feeling a visceral discomfort with her surroundings, with the clothes she wore. All of the ambivalence that she felt about herself as a person, and all the careful, comfortable things she told herself about herself, seemed suddenly under attack then. It was fine for her in her time and her mind to style herself a man. It was fine because she did it, because she flitted in and out of that skin as her body desired. But suddenly, these men styled her king.

She would be their KingKing. Their King. They were making her their King

“You were meant to be the King whose miraculous power will restore us–”

“Shut up!”

This time it was not Salvatrice’s voice admonishing the man.

From her sound, the demand came like the report of a gun.

“Shut up! Shut up right now!”

Carmela withdrew one of her sharp-heeled shoes from her feet and struck Tarkus.

She had an incredible arm; Tarkus reeled as the shoe caught him in his unguarded face.

“Shut up! Never speak to her like this again! I’ll be the one who has you smoked to death!” Carmela shouted. “Do you know who I am? My family will erase you from history!”

She shouted so loudly it felt as if the windows would burst.

Cannelle covered her mouth in shock.

Salvatrice blinked.

Tarkus raised himself back to his full stature, wincing, bleeding from over his right eye.

And yet there was a strange calm even to his then-obvious fury.

“Were your fortune, name and your hand in marriage to the Caesar any less valuable, you impudent harlot, I would have you thrown from the tower.” Tarkus icily replied.

“Come claim me then, Legatus!” Carmela shouted mockingly.

Salvatrice shook her head, trying to clear the miasma that Tarkus had planted in the recesses of her mind. She set herself on guard beside Carmela, opposing the Legatus.

She was exhausted, in every fashion. But she could not give in. Resistance was all she had.

Tarkus reached up to his forehead, and turned over his own blood in his steel fingers.

Toward this, too, he had no emotion. It was as if he was working off a script.

“Whether or not you cooperate, your destiny is set. I brought you here to Saint Orrea as a child, and I confirmed it: you have the Power of the King. I brought you here again, on this fateful eve, to claim your power, and to claim your throne. Saint Orrea will be your path to ascension, Caesar. It cannot be undone. You will thank your loyal servant, as you stand over the world, as you should, as you must, as it was destined since we left the Cuvenen.”

Tarkus twisted around and made for the door.

Salvatrice wanted to rush him, but she knew it would do no good. He was bigger, he was armored and armed, and there were probably more men right outside. At worst she would probably provoke them enough to threaten Carmela or something equally befitting the ruffians they really were. These Illuminati had her chained to the ground without need of metal. They had won. Despite all she knew, Salvatrice, truly, still knew nothing now.

She was not a religious person, but in that instant, she found herself wishing for a miracle.

She knew not the ancient elven words, for she paid little attention to religious study.

But something in her supplicated itself to destiny, and prayed that it was not Tarkus’ destiny which would unfold for her, but something else. Anything else, at that moment.

Before Tarkus was out the door, it seemed that destiny answered.

First with a sharp report in the distance.

And then with a series of booming bellows, and a rumbling along the ground.

Tarkus stumbled under the threshold of the doors.

“Artillery?” He shouted, his emotionless drone slightly tinged with outrage.

Two men appeared on the edge of the door, visibly shaken in their uniforms and masks.

“Sir, it’s a coordinated attack, mortars, anti-armor, assault fire, it could be Limitanae–”

“Absolutely not.” Tarkus responded to them.

“But sir–”

“There is no force in Vicaria that could possibly respond to us–”

In an instant, his eyes widened, and then almost immediately, narrowed again.

“Geta.” He said, slowly and deliberately, as if to himself.

Salvatrice’s own eyes drew wide, and she felt her heart lift as the world shook around her.

Geta?

That reckless, selfish, low-class, black-hearted Centurion–

She was alive.

And she was here.

Tarkus shoved past his men, running down what sounded like steps.

Though the doors closed on the tower, Salvatrice knew the doors of Saint Orrea had been thrown open. Holding Carmela close, and catching her breath, she knew she had a chance.

The Illuminati were being forced from the shadows, into the light of day.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

Alea Iacta Est II (60.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Harmony charged out of the alleyway to reclaim the street, and found itself alone.

At the sight of the air raid, it seemed everyone had fled into cover. And even when the guns started shooting back at the sky, no comrades emerged into the street to capitalize.

She was truly alone. And more painfully, she felt she had engineered this for herself.

Not the planes; not the fleeing; but the fact that she was alone. She shouldn’t have been.

But she couldn’t become mired in that guilt. Losing hope now would surely kill her.

Gunnerless, Harmony’s only defense was the DNV light machine gun tenuously attached by an improvised mount beneath the open front hatch. Far down the street, the remains of the elven bomber had split pilot Danielle Santos from her (beloved) partner Caelia Suessen. Rescuing her became Danielle’s singular priority as she leaped into her tank in a panic.

Seeing the hulk, however, sowed distress in Danielle’s breast. Fallen near-intact save its wings, Danielle was sure such a heavy, large bomber wouldn’t be dented by her 45mm gun.

Breathing quickly and intermittently, Danielle felt overwhelmed by the situation. She felt a tingling in the front of her head, a weight, as if a swarm of ants were crawling over her brain. Her hands were shaking wildly, one deftly twitching between the two control sticks and the other gripping handle and guiding the swivel on the removable DNV machine gun.

She leaned forward and put her head through the hatch. Gradually the sky had become a chaotic palette of red, blue, black and white. Every few seconds a shell went off, or an aircraft exploded or crashed, and the reek of smoke and metal started to fall from the heavens and come down to the city. Several aircraft seemed to deliberately be crashing into the city. There was noise and violence everywhere above — and it was spreading.

There were no enemies on the ground that she could see.

But Danielle soon found more white in the sky than just the wind-battered clouds.

Strings of parachutes started descending from the airborne no-man’s land at an alarming pace. Hundreds of troops were falling on the city. Automatic fire consumed many immediately, but more and more began to drop after them. As she leaned out of her Kobold tank she saw a dozen parachute troops coming closer to her, only a few hundred feet away, and even saw a few disappear behind distant buildings. She dove back inside.

From the pilot’s seat, she put both hands on the machine gun, and aimed high.

Drawing in a breath, putting the reticle on a cloudy white parachute, she hit the trigger.

From the front of the Kobold a stream of automatic fire launched skyward. Danielle, unable to aim for the small figures, instead aimed to clip the parachutes wherever she could get them. She could hardly see through the muzzle flash and the gun itself, blocking her hatch. But between three-shot bursts she spied parachutes precipitously dropping from holes punched in them, parachutes holding hanging men who seemed not to move.

She popped out a pan magazine from atop the gun, discarded it, attached a new one.

Rapping the trigger, pressing for a second or two and depressing for burst fire, reloading quickly from magazines she had dropped at her side, she sent hundreds of rounds sailing.

Soon she could see no more parachutes between her gunfire.

Satisfied with what little hindrance she caused the flow of men onto Rangda, Danielle pushed the control sticks forward and started Harmony down the road toward the bomber. She crossed a few blocks, and parked the tank several dozen meters from the obstacle. Now that she was closer to it, the fallen fuselage seemed ever larger and more daunting.

It had fallen in just about the worst place it could have. Rammed between opposing alleyways attached to buildings with ruined, blocked off entrances, the bomber fuselage could not be easily walked around. Previous fighting had taken its toll on Ocean Road. Caelia could have run into the alleys on her own side, but there was no telling where a parachutist had landed, or where debris, new or old, might bar the way forward again.

Danielle had no idea what Caelia might decide to do. If only she could signal her–

She remembered, from back in training camp. They had a signal. Tankers had flare guns with yellow smoke. Infantry had red smoke and white smoke. Maybe if Caelia remembered this detail she would know that Danielle was on the other side. Maybe she would hold on.

It was not just a matter of keeping her safe. To survive, both needed to be in this tank.

They had learned long ago they did exceptionally better together than apart.

Without each other, it was doubtful they would have even gotten to where they were now.

Caelia, an exceptional gunner, but a clueless driver. Danielle, a worthless commander, but a pilot who could make a tank glide over any terrain as if centimeters above the ground. They had known something of each other before all of that, but it was in the metal confines of a tank, separated by the turret ring, blind to each other and communicating exclusively over radio, that they found each other’s true selves, and maybe even their own.

Unglamorous as it was, they had achieved this goal together. Full-fledged tankers. From out of nothing, from everything they had left behind, from everything holding them back.

Danielle grit her teeth. She couldn’t believe how easily she had let petty jealousy root itself in her heart before. She should have known better. Caelia was special to her and she was special to Caelia. They had all of this; more importantly, they had always had it together. No matter where it was, what they did, it was always a medium for them, together.

Danielle had to trust her. She would hate herself forever if she lost Caelia for lack of trust.

Seizing the flare gun from the emergency kit, she reached her arm out the front hatch.

She pulled the trigger, and the flare launched right over the bomber fuselage.

It detonated over the barrier between them in a bright yellow flash and yellow smoke.

Caelia must have seen it. She must have — and she must have understood what it meant.

Now, however, she had to get that fuselage out of the way, some way or another.

Clumsily, she left the sticks and climbed up into Caelia’s seat, a place she never had occasion to see. A tank’s gun was probably the sturdiest part of the whole design. Engines and tracks and suspensions were under constant stress and frequently wore out during operations. Correctly mounted, the gun could last extremely long, and it was the one part that Danielle was not certified to repair. It required heavy equipment and a crew.

This was Caelia’s domain, walled off during operations. Danielle had her own space.

Now, however, she was gone and the gun was needed.

She was immediately struck with something she did not expect to see.

Sitting down on Caelia’s seat, she immediately spotted two photographs clipped to the gun sight. One had a large, friendly-looking black cat, staring inquisitively at the camera.

Another was of Danielle, sitting atop their old Goblin. Caelia herself had taken that one.

Shaking her head and stifling tears, Danielle reached into the rack for a 45mm AP round.

They had hardly been restocked. There were maybe a dozen fresh rounds available and a handful of leftovers from earlier in the day. Danielle grit her teeth. Even if she could penetrate the armor on the bomber’s hull, a small round would just poke a hole through it, and would get her no closer to removing it from the way. She felt helpless and trapped.

Sighing, praying for a miracle, she closed her eyes, she loaded the round, and looked down the sights. There was no need to aim. Her target was massive and it was very close.

Remembering how the gun operated, from her short-lived career as a gunner in training camp, Danielle shouted to no one in particular that she was firing an armor piercing shell.

There was a boom and a crack and a sharp, striking ding on metal.

Looking through the sight again, she found the bomber’s armor penetrated by a fist-sized hole. Moreover, she found something rather astonishing about the hole itself.

Danielle pushed open the top hatch and leaned out to look upon the wound she inflicted.

Her eyes were not deceiving her. This was not a well-armored bomber plane.

It was a ramshackle wooden plane with a layer of silver foil on the exterior.

How it survived the fall with any remaining integrity of form, Danielle did not know.

But she felt her heart soar suddenly. She felt a combination of foolishness and euphoria.

All of this time, that great impenetrable obstacle, forever separating her from Caelia; it was all in her mind. There was no invincible steel barrier isolating her. Caelia and her were separated by little more than a dozen millimeters of wooden skin with foil glued over it. She had been drowning in a glass of water. Danielle laughed, a bit bitterly, but relieved.

Perhaps this was not the only barrier that she had completely imagined.

Climbing back down to the driver’s seat, Danielle took the Danava machine gun mount off the front, backed the tank several dozen meters more into the street and lined herself up with the side hatch on the bomber plane. She shut her own front hatch, and then thrust the sticks as far forward as she would go, accelerating downhill at the plane with abandon.

“I’m coming, Caelia!”


Caelia Suessen found herself whistling, alone in the middle of the street.

Around her there was an uproarious battle happening between sky and earth.

She did not think about it, not at first. She was fixated on the way forward.

In front of her, in a scene that seemed fake, as if it had been staged for a production, stood the fuselage of a bomber plane. It had fallen from the sky, and in an instant, barred the way higher up Ocean Road. Behind her, a similar hulk had also fallen out of the sky, trapping her in a block of ruined buildings. Danielle was somewhere on the other side; she had ran out of their meeting in clear distress, and Caelia, deeply worried, had ran after.

But she was too late running, and not fast enough to make up the difference.

Danielle had been offended or hurt, that much she knew. Whether it had been Shayma’s effusive praise, or her own fault in overlooking Danielle, or something else entirely. Those were not the steps of an unwounded woman. She could imagine what happened, though she did not want to presume, lest she risk hurting her feelings even more. Danielle was soft in ways Caelia was not as much; or at least in ways Caelia did not let on as readily.

Now, though, they were in a situation where she could be killed.

Losing Danielle, never again having her in her life–

Caelia was not fond of mental time travel, but that was a future she had to prevent.

She was still processing what would happen next, and what to do.

She spontaneously whistled a song from a play. It was near and dear to her.

Though it was not necessarily calming, it was an outlet for her nerves.

Mustering her resolve, and shaking her head hard to relieve the dazedness she felt, Caelia started searching her surroundings. There seemed to be nobody around. Most of the buildings around her had collapsed, either in earlier fighting or because of the falling aircraft and aircraft debris. She was blocked off on all sides it seemed. She had her pistol in her possession, and she drew it and made sure it was loaded. She had no other weapons, no grenades, not even a knife. She had left much of her kit behind with the tank.

Any kind of fighting in this state would be pointless. She didn’t even have spare ammo.

Caelia thought of trying to climb the unsteady rubble and jump over the plane.

Suddenly she heard a loud buzzing overhead and raised her eyes to the sky.

She was ripped from her reverie, and forced to confront the wider world.

Flying low, a plane with a long and rounded fuselage, trailing smoke from its twin engines, swooped over Caelia, over Ocean Road, and crashed somewhere close by. Caelia could feel the impact, diffusing through the earth itself, and the vibration in her gut unsettled her.

But the plane mattered less than what followed it. High in the sky, and descending much more gently than their transport, a line of parachutes blossomed on high, popping from their packs and spreading like hard clouds against the smoke and fire in the blue.

Everywhere, it seemed, there were parachutes dropping, and planes falling.

One pack was closest and closing in. Any kind of wind would drop them right on her head.

“Almost a full platoon.” She whispered to herself. She immediately began to whistle.

There was nowhere really to hide, and if they landed close enough, they could dispatch her easily. They had rifles, numbers, and time was on their side. She had a pistol and music.

And she barely had music, and barely had a pistol in any way that counted.

Her hands shook with the futility of it, but she raised her pistol to the sky to fight back–

Soon as she pulled the trigger, a stream of tracers went flying overhead into the enemy.

Caelia watched as a succession of quick, bright red volleys went flying into the platoon, cutting parachutes, striking men. There were dozens of rounds going out in practiced bursts, and anywhere they struck would be tragic for the vulnerable paratroopers. Parachutes with holes in them or missing strings struggled to stay aloft but quickly and ultimately collapsed and sent the wearers plummeting to their deaths. Several surviving parachutes spilled blood onto the ground, carrying corpses. All the remaining living Parachutists struggled to influence the direction of their drop away from the gunfire.

Then, coming from behind her, Caelia saw the yellow flare and the smoke.

She knew immediately who it was. Danielle had come to her defense, to pick her up.

She had no way to signal back, but she knew it was a tanker, a tanker who was stuck on the other side of this fuselage. A tanker who was trying to get to this side. It had to be Danielle. She was trying to find a way through. Despite everything, she had turned around and sought her out. Caelia, briefly elated, moved to the side of the street, hiding behind a pile of rubble, and she drew in a breath. She heard shots, sounds of struggle. She felt the fuselage shake. But nobody was coming through yet. She still had some time to wait.

Caelia started to whistle again. She thought of what she could even say to Danielle now.

Whistling, music; though she had given them up, those were things she was good at.

Being forward with her partner was not something that came as naturally to her.

I love you, was a set of words that eluded her tongue. For one reason or another.

Even then, they were perhaps not fitting for their situation anyway.

She felt her heat beat faster as she thought of Danielle, of how to mend things.

If things needed mending; if they could be mended at all.

Caelia drew in a breath. She began to whistle again–

Soon as the first notes drew from her lips, she was interrupted.

A rifle bullet struck the fuselage near to her, forcing her to duck farther behind the rubble.

She peered briefly into the street, just in time for a handful of paratroopers to drop from out of nowhere, silently yet solidly. Blue-uniformed elves with sharp ears, long, blond hair, and piercing green eyes. They dropped, stumbling onto the pavement and quickly rising, and threw off the bulk of their parachutes. Four rifles pointed her way.

She had been concentrating on hiding and waiting, and Danielle had probably been concentrating on trying to break through to her. Neither of them realized that the parachutes were still dropping. That they would continue dropping, for who knew how long. Rangda was under siege from the sky. Caelia felt foolish for feeling a little safe.

Desistere!” they shouted, jabbing their bayonets into the air in front of them.

Her song wouldn’t last many more notes. Caelia paused to sigh and breathe.

Across from her the elves responded to the lack of compliance by opening fire.

Caelia crawled tighter behind the rubble. She heard the bullets striking the fuselage, and felt the hot lead bouncing off the surface and coming suddenly down on her back.

All they had to do was run forward and stab. Caelia wanted to cry. Though she had a hard time grappling with emotion, Caelia knew then and there who’s name she would cry.

“Danielle!”

Behind her the fuselage gave a great shudder that no rifle could have caused.

Chunks of wood burst from it, and a great metal thing thundered past as if through a door.

Caelia watched as Harmony hurtled through the fuselage toward the riflemen.

Surprised and speechless, the men did not move fast enough to avoid their fate.

Harmony trundled through them, crushing whatever of them it caught underfoot.

Two men it mashed to bits beneath its tracks. One man rolled out of the way, and a second attempted to evade far too late, and he dropped to the floor and lost his legs to the tank.

Harmony ground to a halt.

Caelia drew in a breath and stepped out from cover.

Standing to full height, she held her pistol up.

Across from her, the man with the rifle dropped his weapon, broke, and ran.

She did not fire after him. He disappeared, panicked, into the buildings.

Was this their foe?

Caelia shook her head. It didn’t matter. Not now. There was someone more important.

Whistling again, scarcely believing all that transpired, she ran swiftly past the corpses and around to the front hatch of the tank, where Danielle sat, stupefied, with her front hatch swung open. She was the same Danielle, with her brown skin and messy, curly black hair and her glasses, unharmed, just as she had been left. Her Danielle; her Danielle.

“Hey,” Caelia said, leaning into the hatch. She stifled a hint of tears of her own.

Inside, Danielle was shaking, and weeping, holding the tank’s sticks with a deathly grip.

“H-Hello.” Danielle said.

They looked into each other’s eyes, both shaking from toe to top, teeth slightly chattering, hair on end, sweating, breathing heavily. Exhausted; having both fought, both killed, and yet, both still surrounded by the enemy nonetheless. Both having suffered some shocks. Caelia’s eyes began to water as she reached a hand down to Danielle and wiped the tears from her partner’s eyes. A little sob escaped her, and briefly interrupted her whistling.

“I’m sorry I made such a big show in the tent. I was an idiot.” Danielle stammered.

“It’s okay.” Caelia said simply.

And for the moment, perhaps everything was simply okay for them.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Stelle Cadenti (59.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Ave.

Inside the medical tent the entry curtains stirred and spread at her behest, and behind them, Corporal Gulab Kajari found a familiar pale-haired, dark-skinned girl with a very blank expression, sitting alongside a nurse. Gulab smiled and stretched her arms wide.

“Hey! Guess who’s back? Gimme a hug!” Gulab called out amicably.

Charvi Chadgura almost leaped from atop the stretcher and seized upon Gulab, resting her head on the woman’s chest and surprising her with her energy. Despite the empty look to her eyes and the neutral setting of her lips, Charvi’s affection and relief was evident in the dead-tight grip she had on Gulab’s chest, and in her gentle, almost purr-like stirring.

“Well, it works, but it feels more like you’re clinging than hugging.” Gulab said.

“I want to cling.” Charvi replied. Her unaffected monotone remained the same too.

Gulab giggled.

She closed her arms around Charvi’s shoulders and back and nestled with her.

“See, I’m perfectly ok.” Gulab said.

“I was still worried. You nearly died.”

“Hmph! Nearly nothin’! If a Rock Bear can’t kill me, nothing can!”

“I will still worry.”

“That’s fair.”

Behind them, the nurse watched with a patient, smiling face.

Gulab caught sight of her over Charvi’s shoulder and felt self-conscious for a moment.

“Anyway, you should get yourself fixed up.”

She gently separated herself from Charvi, who looked at her in the eyes and blinked.

“Nothing is wrong with me.” Charvi said.

Interjecting, the nurse raised her hand with a concerned expression.

“Actually comrade, you have a fragment wound in your leg that should be cared for.”

Looking down, Gulab found torn cloth and seeping blood near Charvi’s knee.

“You should get that taken care of.” Gulab insisted.

“It’s fine.” Charvi said. “I don’t feel pain.”

“Infection respects no hero, comrade.” replied the nurse. “I must clean it at least.”

Gulab chuckled at Charvi’s casual obstinancy. She clearly wanted to spend time with her now that there was a hard-won instant of calm after all they had gone through. Gulab appreciated it; she wanted to be by Charvi’s side too, even if they did nothing more than sit down and sleep against each other’s shoulders in the back of a truck back to base.

“Nurse, would it be okay if I just stayed here?” Gulab asked.

“I don’t see why not!” said the nurse, smiling.

“Well then.” Gulab nodded to the nurse. “Charvi, I’ll be right here, so get patched up.”

Charvi clapped her hands gently.

“If you say so.”

The Nurse found Gulab a seat, and she sat back to watch the nurse snip away part of Charvi’s pants leg and dab her wound gently with a saline solution to clean it. Gulab watched the procedure with a placid smile, but her mind was mostly empty of thought. She was coming down from the rush and panic of the previous battle. She felt an eerie sense of satisfaction. A lot had gone wrong — she had been hurt, Charvi had been hurt, and many of their comrades suffered worse. However, they managed to pull through.

They protected so many others, and worked together to defeat an enemy that was vicious, numerous and ostensibly prepared for battle. Despite everything, they had won.

Gulab herself had hunted a giant; almost in the way that her ancestors always had.

Though she hated her interaction with that tradition, she realized that sometimes the giants were hunted because they could kill the people you love, and not for its own sake. She felt that she would fight any enemy to safeguard the people she cared about. For her comrades; for people like Adesh and the kids, or Caelia and Danielle; for Charvi. Anyone who would hurt them, who would hurt innocents; if she could hunt them then she would.

She felt a burden start to lift in that regard. Maybe even that side of her was not indelibly her father’s, not indelibly owned by men. Maybe it could be a part of her as a woman too.

Maybe it didn’t all have to end up like it did with her grandfather.

“All done! You were a swell patient, Sergeant.”

Charvi stood up from the stretcher and waved a hand at the nurse as a quiet thanks.

Her knee was wrapped in a big patch with a red blotch on it, but she could walk.

Gulab stood from her seat, and stretched her arms. She felt a hint of drowsiness.

“I think we’ve earned a bite and a long, quiet truck ride to the barracks, no?” She said.

“We have. I can go see how my stamp book is doing.” Charvi said.

“Where did you leave it?”

“I left it with the company commissary, back at the base. They have waterproof lockers.”

“Someday I’m going to make you a case for that thing.”

“A case?”

“Yup! You wouldn’t know it, but I’m pretty handy with leather.”

Chatting idly, they walked outside the tent and down the road.

The University and its surroundings felt like they had completely transformed.

After the fall of Muhimu Shimba the Lion Battalion was quickly mopped up. Lion’s remaining troops overwhelmingly surrendered outright; though they had no way of knowing their commander had been defeated, the presence of enemy forces in Muhimu Shimba was enough to break their faith. It became clear that at Lion’s last stand only a fraction of the battalion’s remaining troops were present. Had the entire battalion rallied the battle would have been bloodier; had the Jotun remained in place, it might have become a temporary rout. In the heat of the moment, everything had become hectic and improvisational but they managed to win out regardless. Now the location was theirs.

University Avenue had become the nerve center of the 2nd Battalion’s operations. Its logistics train back to Colonel Nakar’s HQ was solidified and trucks were coming and going unmolested, carrying troops and support personnel to and fro. Tents for the medics and signals personnel and computer support teams had begun to sprout, many hidden within or between buildings for some cover from enemy spotters. Burundi’s organic artillery support had begun to arrive too. Gulab spotted the light howitzers, towed in by truck, setting up in groups of three in a little sitting park along the way down from the medical tent. Broken-down buildings, damaged in the fighting, were used to conceal ammunition.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle. Not everyone could breathe as easy as she yet.

Though the battle raged on in spirit, it was no longer Gulab’s battle to fight now.

It was expected that Gulab and Charvi and their comrades would be rotated out for fresher troops. She had been given to understand that she could expect to fight much longer battles in the future, but to survive today against the 8th’s numerical advantages they needed troops to maintain a “high combat quality.” So rotations for rest were necessary. This was especially necessary for prized veterans like herself, who were invaluable.

Gulab had puffed up her chest quite a bit upon hearing such accolades.

But the promise of sleep and food was much more important at the moment.

Quietly basking in each other’s orbit, the pair sidled up to a fresh truck, newly arrived and with an empty bed, and climbed up onto the back, maneuvering around a machine gun on a mount grafted to the center of the bed, no doubt in haste. They sat with their backs to metal and their rumps on the cold floor. Gulab felt a little sleepy as soon as she took her body weight off her legs. Everything she had done in the past few hours seemed to have finally caught up to her, now that she had allowed it. She leaned against Chadgura.

“Hey, if you’re awake, lemme know when we get back to base.”

“Okay.”

“I wanna grab some hot lentils before they’re out a batch, you know?”

“I will keep my eyes open.”

“Oh no, you should sleep too! I just mean, if you happen to be awake.”

Chadgura clapped her hands softly.

They waited in the truck, while more people arrived from around the block with their weapons and remaining ammunition in tow, sitting in whatever truck was closest or fancied them best. Gulab began to nod off. Whenever she blinked, she held her eyes in darkness longer each time, and felt she could see more and more of a dream each time.

Each glimpse of the horizon, briefer and briefer, put into stark relief a group of shadows.

They could have been specks of dust, so distant were they, or mere tricks of the light and the dreaming dark upon Gulab’s eyes. But their movement was predictable and relentless in the way only physical things could achieve, utterly lacking the whimsy of a fantasy. As they came closer and closer, as the mite-like shadows gained definite form and began to issue noise and part the clouds they sailed through, the drowsy Gulab started to realize she was seeing something materially real; and that she was not the only witness.

Slowly, across one street and then another, heads began to turn, eyes began to climb.

Everyone measured the sky and found objects fast approaching.

Visions of Bada Aso returned unbidden to the collective unconscious of the Regiment.

At first stupefied, the various units around University were joined under a singular call:

“AIRCRAFT APPROACHING! Sound the air raid sirens and find shelter!”

This call came not from a Major or a Lieutenant but a Sergeant in charge of a spool of telephone wire. Nonetheless, everyone was all too eager to comply, despite the lack of an air raid siren or any formal shelter — this was not Bada Aso. Soon Gulab found the truck around her emptying suddenly, and similar trucks as well. There was a mad rush away from open space and into the buildings. Doors to places left inviolate after the fighting, were finally kicked to the floor; everyone dispersed into the shops and galleries.

Gulab finally snapped from her half-awake stupor. Aircraft. Air Raid.

“Charvi!” She cried out.

At her side, Charvi had stood upright and was looking over the walls of the truck.

“Excuse me,” she said aloud, trying to get the attention of running passersby.

Nobody answered her, and the dispersing troops made every effort to get as far away as they could from the sight of the aircraft during their brief moment of leaderlessness.

Gulab grabbed her belt and helped herself to stand.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

Charvi looked at her, blank-faced as usual.

“Wondering what our orders will be now.” She said.

To her seeming confusion, nobody appeared to have orders to give as the aircraft overflew their skies with relative impunity. Gulab watched her comrades dispersing, and having never been under the bombs in Bada Aso, she wondered what she could now do.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVIII

This chapter contains violence and death and mild misogyny.


??nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, ???? Province of — ????

Byanca Geta awakened in a thick darkness reminiscent of sleep.

She could feel the movement of her body. She was sure of her own weight in space.

Everything was so dark, however, that she felt like a mind floating in the ether. Had she been blinded? What had even happened? She felt a sharp pain in the back of her head as she tried to move, and it confirmed to her that she was awake and alive somewhere.

A cold terror swept across her body. She did not know her condition or space.

Byanca patted herself down. She felt her uniform. Her arms, her chest, her belly, her hips and legs and feet; everything was in its place and as clothed as it was before. Her pockets were empty, and she had no holsters or weapons. Her belt was still there. She was sitting, and she felt the hard, stone-like perch upon which she sat. She raised her arms, and she stretched them. She stretched her legs. She touched walls, cold walls, on all sides.

When she tried to stand, she found that she could, but she felt her ponytail brush against the ceiling when fully upright. She was in a box, a cold stone box, unmoving, with a perch to sit on and enough room that she could stand, and that her arms could just barely not outstretch, and her legs could just barely fail to draw out to their full length.

Touching the walls she found nothing that suggested a doorway or even a slot for food.

She drew in a deep breath. This was not a cement burial; there was too much room.

Trying not to panic, she told herself this was probably a solitary confinement and sensory deprivation box in a prison complex somewhere. If they wanted to starve her to death they would have just buried her alive. And if they wanted to kill her they would have shot her. She reasoned that they wanted her alive and just needed to keep her isolated until she cracked. It was torture, not torture to death. She had to believe that for her own sake.

For Salvatrice’s sake. The Princess was in the hands of the Legatus and his deranged conspirators and who knew what they would have her do; or what they would do to her?

Byanca breathed in deep. She did not feel light-headed, so there was enough air coming in from somewhere that it could sustain her breathing. So there had to be a gap somewhere.

She could still be blind, and that was a frightening thought. She looked around the box, trying to get a feel that she was facing where her arms were touching, and trying to find a gap anywhere that could filter in even the smallest of lights. But there was nothing. Every surface was perfectly smooth and seemed to fit perfectly well. She pulled off her gloves and started to touch, where corners met, where a lid or a door might be placed.

Overhead, she found she could slip a fingernail and a bit of the flesh of her index finger through a gap. So it was not a perfect crate. It had a lid that could come off the top.

So if there was no light coming in, then it was still night, or the lid was further covered, with a tarp or a second lid or something that blocked the outside world but not air tight.

Byanca sat back on the perch and heaved a heavy sigh.

Her head hurt. Sharply at first, but the pain dulled over an unknown length of time.

She was cold and sweating colder still.

At this point, Byanca was almost positive that she was not buried alive in cement, a torture that she greatly feared, and as such had temporarily calmed a bubbling panic in her heart. However, she was also sure she could not extricate herself from her predicament and might still in some other fashion die or be killed, either in this box or its proximity.

And any more time wasted could be horrific for Salvatrice, and for Lubon.

Knowing no other solution Byanca maneuvered her body such that she could kneel with her hands on her sitting perch. She bowed her head and entwined her fingers in prayer.

As a child she had lived in Saint Orrea’s Hope, a monastery dedicated to the Messiah, as they all were, but also to the restoration of magic. She was a choir girl, and a servant, and in her teens she had been something of a nun. During those days, she prayed; she prayed almost on reflex, in the morning, before every meal, at night. When she left St. Orrea, she stopped praying eventually. It was hard to pray while homeless on the street. It was hard to pray while fighting in the Borelian brush. It was hard to pray even here in Lubon.

Saint Orrea’s Hope was that miracles were real and the faith could be materially rewarded.

It was hard to imagine such a thing in the kind of world they inhabited now. It was hard to believe in Gods and Miracles when there was discontent, poverty, homelessness; war and death and devastation; when every authority and order that professed to give security and solace to the people preyed on and destroyed them instead. Byanca would not have called herself an atheist, but she couldn’t understand a God who would allow a world like this.

But having nothing else, knowing nothing else, Byanca prostrated herself and prayed.

Benedicite,”

In the ancient tongue of the elves, as she had been taught, she beseeched the God Of Many Names and his earth-bound martyred form, The Messiah, for succor, for strength. She extolled his virtues. Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. For he was a God who demanded acknowledgment before considering mercy. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam aelfia, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. For her was a God of many powers, and whose powers had to be respected and feared before they could ever be called upon by the humble.

Having humiliated herself as a lowly human before his great power, she could now beg.

“Please grant me the power to save her. I would die if that’s what it took.”

She craned her head skyward, at the great yawning dark she felt just overhead.

“Please. I love her; I loved her as a child, and I love her still. I know it’s stupid. She doesn’t remember me. She doesn’t remember that she promised me a pony and that I’d be a knight and that she would have big tea parties with me in the castle. But she was the light that shone on my soul in Saint Orrea; stranded in a place where I was nothing, no family, no ambitions, no future. I don’t even need to be something to her anymore; I just need her to be okay. I just want her to live and find happiness. Please, if I can do that, I will–”

Dust sifted from overhead, and a thin beam of light shone into the enclosure.

It was the dim, eerie light of a part-dawning sun as earth shifted above and unveiled a sky.

In place of an angel, however, was a short, sturdy fellow in a black uniform.

He had lifted the ceiling of the enclosure and revealed its true position in the ground.

“Geta, take my hand!” He whispered, leaning down into the cell.

Much to her surprise, Byanca found herself raising her arms to take Legionnaire Minimus’ hand, and furthermore found herself being pulled up from her prison by this man. Minimus, whom she had so often wronged before. He was the last person she had ever thought she would see. Especially not standing over her concrete grave plot.

“We have to be quick. Here, I brought you a stovepipe.” He said.

From a bag in his hands, he produced a small submachine gun and a magazine.

She took the weapon, loaded it quickly, and found it to be startlingly real.

This was not some kind of trick; Minimus was really here to help her.

“We don’t have time to be surprised. We have to move.” He said sternly.

He had not changed at all since they first met several years ago. He was a stocky and a round lad with a shaved head and big hands. He wore a white armband over his black uniform that marked him as a medic. She found herself looking for signs of the bruise she left him in their scuffle years ago, but of course, it would have long since healed by then.

Byanca shook her head and took a step back in defense.

“I need answers Minimus. What happened here and why are you helping me?”

Minimus shook his head and waved his hands.

“Listen, I need answers too, but we’ll talk while we move. It’s crucial we go now.”

Byanca cast a quick glance around herself. It just as quickly became more deliberate.

They were in the middle of a stretch of green grass out by a pair of power generating stations. There were several other concrete-lidded plots nearby. Near each of the plots there lay a grass camouflaged tarp that had been pulled aside. A line of decorative trees blocked the view of the unsightly power station from what was clearly a Legionnaire garrison’s administrative building. It was a familiar one — the headquarters of the 17th Blackshirt Legion. Byanca’s legion; Legatus Tarkus’ legion; the traitorous legion.

“What about those cells? Did a man and a woman with me get thrown in those?”

Minimus sighed. “Yes, they did. Are they as good as you? We need to travel light.”

Byanca was almost shocked to hear the casual compliment.

“They’re competent. Help me get them out. They were very expensive.”

“Mercenaries? Good lord.”

Despite his reticence, Minimus helped Byanca to slowly undo the catches holding the concrete lids in place, and lift them from two of the tombs. Inside, she found Torvald praying and Giuseppa sleeping. Both of them had been roughed about as much as she had been, and neither had trouble accepting her hand and climbing out of the enclosures.

“How are you holding up?” Byanca asked.

Giuseppa shook her head. “You did not pay me enough to be buried alive.”

“You weren’t, quit being a baby.”

Torvald crossed his arms. “I’m with her. We’re gonna unionize against this kind of shit.”

Byanca grinned. Her redcoats grinned back at her.

Minimus snorted. “We can catch up while we run away from here. Soon the next shift of guards will be headed this way, and I don’t want to start a firefight this quickly.”

“But you do want to start one.” Byanca said.

“We’ve got to. I’ll explain as we go. Follow me to the detainment building.”

Minimus bowed himself and snuck out along the row of trees.

Byanca nodded her head to her subordinates, and they followed after.

She caught up and moved with Minimus, as close and quietly as possible.

Judging by the way he moved, he had been practicing for this kind of moment.

He knew his route. He knew where to hide and from what vantages. He had a plan.

Together they stole from behind the administrative building and around a trimmed, tree-studded green grounds toward a place Byanca remembered not as a detainment facility but as the warehouses where trucks brought food and fuel and ammunition and stockpiled everything the Legion’s Headquarters staff along with its training and security garrisons would need. The Legion Headquarters was not a base for combat troops, but a logistics and training center first and foremost. They had a small brig for troublemakers but nothing worthy of being called a “detainment facility” had ever been part of the base.

Much had changed under the mysterious new administration, it seemed.

“Minimus–”

“I’m doing this because it’s right.”

As they inched toward the warehouse facilities, Minimus answered very suddenly.

“You asked why I was helping you; because it’s right. I’ve only been saving my own skin until now and I can’t live like that. I can’t keep ignoring what’s happening here. I told myself the first opportunity I get, I’m going to put a hole in their dam. And there’s no bigger hole than the one you’re capable of making, Centurion, if I sprung you out.”

“Did you know that they would be capturing me?”

“Not specifically, but they threw damn near everyone else into containment, so.”

“You sound more confident in me than even I am.”

“You throw a mean punch.”

Byanca felt a little grin forming on her lips.

“Okay. Great. So what is happening here Minimus? Who are the Illuminati?”

She remembered them all too clearly from the forest; and from her wounds.

Minimus seemed to feel a chill then in mid-run.

They paused behind a brick enclosure around an outdoor water pump. Enough distance had been put between them and the administrative building that they could make the gamble of facing its vantage to hide from their new destination. It was now in their sights.

Beyond their hiding place, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated the old warehouses from the rest of the 17th Legion’s grounds. There was a gate, guarded; several rows of tall buildings with locked shutter doors made up the fenced-in facilities. Judging by the flashlight beams in the distance there were several guards. From a distance, she spotted a literal ammunition dump. There were stacked-up crates, maybe of howitzer shells, out in the open. Likely emptied from the warehouse when it became a prison.

Minimus shook his head and sighed again.

“Hearing you say the word is a little startling, even though you had to have seen them. It’s still hard to believe this is all real. The Illuminati are a bunch of traitors. I don’t really get it; and I’m technically with them. The Legatus has some kind of influence over them.”

Byanca blinked. “You’re with them? Are they from the 17th Legion then?” She asked.

“Almost all of them. Some outside guys, but it’s mostly legionnaires that the Legatus convinced to join his coup movement. Listen: I’d suspected there was something going on but I figured the Legatus and his croneys just had a secret privileged boy’s club with a first pick of the secretaries to fuck.” His crass behavior had already earned him a strike from Byanca before, but Minimus would be Minimus regardless. Byanca contained herself as the Legionnaire continued his tale, and figured she would save the punching for peace time.

“Then a while back,” Minimus continued, with a look of dread on his face, “when they announced we’d gotten all the anarchists, which we very much did not, people started being transferred from the active Maniples to the 4th Reserve Maniple. At first this was just standard demobilization paperwork that you do when a years-long operation is ending. But then the people they targeted started being recalled here to train as part of that Reserve Maniple, which we have never done before. And then they started not being allowed back out. Those are the guys in the warehouses. Then the guys in the masks started showing up at night. And if thought they could use you, you got sent on an isolating errand, so those guys could get to you, and then you got read the ultimatum.”

“Join us or die?”

“Pledge yourself to elven supremacy under the future Caesar, or stagnation in a pit.”

“Amazing. They’re quite full of themselves. But what are they exactly, Minimus?”

“Well, I don’t know everything. I joined them because I was scared, but Tarkus is a 25-karat paranoid and he and his goons won’t tell you anything going on in their heads. But if you listen for it you can learn a lot. Especially if you’re a medic who is writing their prescriptions. What I know: they’re planning a coup; and they have a puppet ruler lined up that they call The Caesar. They think this Caesar is something real special, and I can’t imagine why. All of the inner circle are from the Legatus’ signals battalion. He thinks they can control people’s minds over the radio or something. It’s insane. It’s like a cult, Geta.”

Byanca remembered how they saluted and shouted in unison in the forest.

It was indeed like a cult. But when had its dogma been laid down?

Judging by the situation, even a week ago, the Legatus already had plans for Salvatrice.

How long ago had he started to plot? Had he really groomed Salvatrice all of this time?

That was not possible; Byanca knew that was just arrogant bluster from Tarkus Marcel.

He would say anything to render Salvatrice vulnerable to his demands.

He needed to cultivate that sense of inevitability and omnipotence. All of this time he had more control over Salvatrice’s life and environment than any other person in the world. He didn’t just need her to acquiesce to being his puppet. He wanted, he needed, for her to accept the strings as a part of her. To use her as a ruler, nothing short of that would do.

Maybe that was the magic of the radio, the magic of surveillance. To scare people into believing it controlled the world around them. To make them acknowledge it as a God.

Byanca grit her teeth. Salvatrice did not deserve this abuse. It was abominable.

And to stop it she would have to depend on every ally she could immediately attain.

“Legatus Tarkus ambushed myself and the princess. He has her captive now.”

Byanca said it abruptly. Minimus suddenly looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide.

“Well, fuck. I figured it had to be something like that, but good lord.”

He then put on a little grin just as suddenly. Perhaps it was his idea of being reassuring.

“Luckily, I happen to know where the Legatus is keeping himself these days.”

Byanca gave him a critical look. “Do you know, or are you guessing?”

“I’ll tell you my evidence once we’ve got the army you’ll need to get through him.”

When Giuseppa and Torvald stacked up with them behind the brick walls, Minimus led them down a little hill into a ditch running alongside one stretch of the wall. There was loose earth beneath parts of the fence, and he pulled up a sizable chunk, creating enough space for them to crawl under. Ahead of them were the backs of several of the lower warehouse buildings and no guards in the vicinity. They rushed to the warehouse walls.

“There’s shutter doors on the other side.” Minimus said.

He opened his bag once again and withdrew a second submachine gun, for himself.

“Do you have a knife?” Byanca asked.

Minimus searched his pockets and found a scalpel and shrugged.

“I’m a doctor!” He whispered.

Byanca took the scalpel. It would do.

She handed her submachine gun to Giuseppa and crept around the corner.

Listening for footsteps, watching for the beam of light.

Moving along the side of the building and between the two rows of warehouses, she caught a glimpse of a guard, masked, with the familiar uniform from the forest. Byanca rushed him, seized him and pulled him around the corner in a lighting-quick ambush. She forced the scalpel into his throat and covered his mouth as she dragged him away, butchering his neck until his hands ceased to thrash against her own and his body went slowly limp.

Blood cascaded from the wound, staining her hands slick and dark.

She felt momentarily a little sick.

Were these the hands of a knight who rescued princesses?

In that instant the guard’s flashlight rolled off his fingers.

Byanca felt a moment of panic.

But from behind her a hand seized the flashlight. It was Legionnaire Minimus.

“Be more careful!” He whispered, his own voice growing strained with worry.

Byanca sighed deeply and nodded her head. She pulled the corpse back around the corner.

With the guard gone, there was at least one row of warehouses that could be accessed.

Everyone quickly reconvened before the series of shutter doors.

Minimus drew a lock cutter from his bag and started snapping the prisons open.

Byanca pushed open one of the shutters.

Dozens of eyes seemed to turn her direction at once.

Behind the shutter the warehouse had been emptied of goods and crammed with men, who huddled together making use of any available amount of space. They were weary, sitting back to back and side to side without even room to stretch their legs. It almost seemed like they would fall out in a cascade into the space created by opening the door. There were maybe fifty men all crammed into a storage space meant for a few crates.

“Stand up slowly, and come out.” Byanca urged them.

Incredulous at first, not one man allowed himself even to flinch in their presence.

“We’re not with the black masks. We’re here to fight them. To free you.” She added.

Given that piece of information, they were quicker to move. One by one the haggard faces lit up, and the men helped themselves to stand and walked out of the warehouse as if they were being freed from prison after years instead of days. They looked worn, but freedom seemed to urge them on. Minimus went through the shutters, unlocking each prison. Meanwhile the freed men started immediately to arm themselves. Stray bricks, drainage pipes, chains and chunks of wood. Byanca handed Torvald the pistol from the dead guard.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta.” She said aloud. “Those black masks are conspiring to–”

There were few among the crowd paying her any attention. Though they did not show her any outright hostility, it was clear that they were– they had to be– suspicious of anyone in the Legion, given their own former comrades had become their jailers. Most of the men were still disoriented. Those who were arming themselves seem to do so out of reflex. Nobody was organizing, nobody was speaking. Some part of them was spoiling for a fight, but imprisonment could beat the strategic mind out of any soldier. They were half-awake.

At this point, it struck Byanca that they were in no condition to be led except by example.

“Minimus, on me. We’re taking the remaining cells by storm.” She said.

“Well. Okay. Fine. Ugh. Geta, I expected a more measured approach.”

“Being measured right now is a half-measure. These men need to see carnage.”

Minimus raised a finger in protest but Byanca started moving, with or without him.

Minimus heaved a heavy, exasperated sigh, and he had an uneasy grip on his submachine gun as he ran, but he followed behind her nonetheless as she turned the corner around the back of the next row of warehouses. Surprisingly, a trickle of the prisoners, armed with whatever loose debris they could find, seemed to slowly follow behind her as well.

When the expected patrol rounded the corner ahead, Byanca aimed for the light.

With a strong pull of the trigger she loosed a hailstorm of automatic fire.

Through the warehouse rows there echoed the tinny rap-rap-rap-rap of the gun.

Wet gurgling and choked screams followed in its wake.

Flashlight beams that once pointed in her direction swung wildly and then rolled along the ground, falling with the crumpling, shredded bodies of the guards holding them. Their corpses made more promising sounds than simple thudding. Among their equipment was a new pair of submachine guns. Byanca handed one gun to Giuseppa, and she waved another toward the prisoners that had been aware enough to follow in her wake.

“I am Centurion Byanca Geta! Follow my lead and stamp out these traitors!”

She slid the submachine gun along the ground, and one man set out a boot to catch it.

He picked up the weapon, handed it to an empty-handed prisoner, and took up a pipe club.

“We of the Maniple swore to follow the Centuria to death!” He cried out. “Forward!”

At once, the rest of the prisoners revitalized and charged suddenly past Byanca.

As another disparate group of guards arrived to survey the disturbance, they were instantly mobbed. Their black masks were ripped from their faces and they were pummeled into the ground, kicked, clubbed, stabbed with glass. More guns were freed from them and passed around. Byanca ran ahead to the group; leaning around the corner, she opened fire down the warehouse row, and forced another pair of guards into hiding.

Covering her men in this way, she gave them opportunity to run to the warehouse shutters and cut and smash free more prisoners. Giuseppa and Torvald rushed past her to the corner across from her own, and covered a different approach. Minimus seemed to stand behind her in awe, as the flashing gunfire flew over the heads of an ever-enlarging mob of angry, haggard, rampaging men hungering to mutilate anyone wearing a black mask.

“He’s taken her to Saint Orrea.” Minimus said suddenly amid the carnage.

Byanca looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous.

“How do you know?” She asked.

From around the corner a string of fiery blue tracers hurtled past, forcing her to cover.

Minimus covered his ears momentarily, but kept speaking as loud as he could muster.

“He had his medicines sent there. Morphine. Pervitin. Cholesterol Testosterone.”

 

Byanca put her back to the wall and raised her submachine gun to her chest.

“We need to hurry then.” She said. She leaned out of the corner and opened fire.

Alarms and searchlights came alive. It was starting. Now it was a fight.

But she had a swelling mass of wrathful legionnaires, and a heart lit with holy fire.

She knew no matter the odds she overcame, she could never be a Knight. Not now.

But if she was doomed to be an evil dragon, then that fire would burn her enemies away.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The Battle of Rangda II (54.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — University Avenue, North Rangda

Standing atop the tenements, Gulab had an incredible view of the surroundings. It was as if the morning sun cast light on the streets and roofs solely to highlight Rangda for her.

“What do you see from up there?” Charvi asked over the radio.

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

“It’s not a mountaintop view, but it’s pretty spiffy.” Gulab replied.

Raising her binoculars, she could see far north across the remaining battlefield. Following the northern road, from behind the lower tenement where Harmony had scored its final victories against the Goblins, it was a straight shot to the heart of Rangda University.

Gulab could see the cluster of research buildings dotting the hilly University terrain in the northwest, the great three-winged library like an upside-down ‘T’ facing her from the northeast, and beyond both, the wooded central park of Muhimu Shimba, accessible by a winding main street crossing between the shadows of each landmark.

All that separated her from the core of the University was one long, flat road flanked by broad streets decorated with trees and sculptures and busts, and housing in blocks various shops, art houses, fashion boutiques, and modern co-ops that catered to the younger, worldly university students. University Avenue was a strip of low-lying buildings widely spaced out, each built to a standardized format with glass fronts framed between stuccoed columns, concrete bodies, flat roofs, each no taller than two stories.

Behind each side of the strip was a back street flanked by the thicker urbanization.

Though there was decent cover in and around the buildings, the enemy was far better entrenched. Tiered defenses dominated the landscape, composed of sandbags and guns split into three large ranks at the edge, center and end of University Avenue. She tried to count the men and women in and around the area but there were simply too many. There must have been two or three squadrons of infantry holding down every sandbag line.

There were likely more riflemen hiding in the buildings as well.

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Gulab said to a waiting Charvi.

“How many do you see?”

“I can’t really count heads from this far up, Charvi.”

“Okay. Estimate.”

Gulab coughed. “More than I’d want to see.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line, and a short clap.

“We’ve got reinforcements and supplies incoming. You can come back down now.”

“What if I like it up here? Maybe I wanna stay.” Gulab teased.

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

On a lark, she raised her binoculars one more time before leaving and looked at the line.

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

It was still hard to believe it was her own people whom she was fighting.

Some part of her accepted it, but another kept confronting it again and again.

Why were they fighting her?

What had she done; what had she chosen; what did they have against her?

She asked about herself, and she asked about Colonel Nakar, and Charvi, and all of them.

Weren’t they all trying to protect Ayvarta? To protect their future?

She could joke to try to keep the dark cloud at bay; joking was a quick patch on a long-bleeding wound that she felt, a wound she feared picking at. Peel off the bandages, and everything could come gushing out. It almost had before, a few times already.

She could not afford to have that happen.

She had a journey to make; a person she wanted to be.

But the reflex to reexamine her enemy did not merely serve to staunch her mind.

Just as she got her final look at them, she caught the defenders starting to move.

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

“Charvi! I think they’re rotating the line!”

Pushing her microphone up with one hand while holding the binoculars in the other, Gulab watched as horse riders arrived at each of the checkpoints. They brought fresh horses with them. Riders came, alerted the defenders, and set them moving. Several people started to pick up weapons and to gather around the lines. Gulab could not tell what they were doing, but all across University Avenue the defenders were in flux.

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

“Yes! Cavalry’s come in to contact them, and people are moving around.”

Again there was a pause on the radio.

“We could attack them now then.” Charvi said.

“They’re completely off their guard, the guns aren’t pointing at anything, we can clean house. We just need to move fast enough to smash through all of them.” Gulab said.

“It could be a trap.”

“If it’s a trap they’ll have to set up longer or they’ll be throwing it on their own men!”

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

Gulab felt a twinge of excitement, a stark contrast to her formerly somber thoughts.

This was the other half of her, the hunter, the fighter, the little mountain bandit.

Her prey was showing its juicy flanks, and she wanted meat for the week.

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

She gathered up a large pack she had left in corner of the building’s roof and ran down the skeletal steel step stairs descending the sides and rear of the building, yelling for Red Squadron units still searching tenement rooms on each floor to gather their things, get up and move. Her troops quickly realized it was time to go, and perhaps wanting no more of huddling dozens of meters off the ground level, they wasted no time following her.

Within minutes she and a train of 12 charged down the lobby of the tenement and out.

There they found four freshly-arrived trucks on the lawn.

Two of the trucks were infantry-carrier trucks with thin, hastily assembled metal plate walls on large beds that could carry a squadron and a heavy machine each gun or anti-tank gun each, or two infantry squadrons if the men and women did not mind being crammed in tight. Utility trucks rounded out the convoy, their own beds covered only by a canvas tarp, and likely carrying ammunition, rations and medical supplies in small crates.

From around the trucks, Charvi appeared alongside that long-haired engineer girl that Colonel Nakar was fond of, Sergeant Agni. Both of them had very similarly affect-less expressions on their faces and Gulab suppressed a laugh. She waved and walked over, joining them in what seemed to be a quick strategy session before the coming battle.

Atop a picnic table in the middle of the children’s playground, they laid down a map.

“We don’t have much time, Sergeant.” Charvi said. “We’ve got enemies mobile. If we can catch them while they’re shuffling feet we’ll have the advantage on our side.”

Sergeant Agni nodded her head. “I merely wanted to let you know that I supplied Shaumian’s northwestern thrust an hour ago. He will link up with you at the University, but any regrouping will have to be done past Avenue. I sincerely doubt he will arrive in time to cut off the retreat you might cause if you attack Avenue right now.”

“That’s ok! We’ll cut it off ourselves!” Gulab said, raising a fist.

Charvi and Agni stared at her for a moment before returning to their deliberations.

Charvi almost looked like she wanted to smile. Maybe Gulab was imagining it.

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

Agni shook her head. “Still in reserve. We do not want to expend our forces too quickly.”

“Understood.” Chadgura said. “Then I must seek this advantage now, Sergeant.”

“Yes. You will need speed. We can use my trucks to lift your advance force.” Agni said.

“I would appreciate it.” Charvi replied. She turned to Gulab with a slightly darkened face. “Harmony will have to lead the attack, and dangerous as it is, I need someone with them who has seen the layout of the Avenue and can direct their fire. Can you ride desant?”

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

“Alright. I must go organize our the remaining squads. Red and Green will follow you.”

Charvi seemed to not want to say another word on the matter. Perhaps she feared she might take back her decision. After all she had already objected to endangering Gulab before. But sometimes it was necessary to jump into the fray; and no one was more eager to do so than Gulab. She was practically brimming with excitement in the toes of her feet.

She had discovered the enemy’s weakness; this would be her battle.

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

And she could not allow herself to let down the people counting on her. Not in this hunt.

Saluting both the sergeants, Gulab took her leave. From the tenement lobby, Red Squadron saw her moving and began to follow along with their weapons at the ready.

On the road north, behind a repurposed sandbag wall where a few of Blue Squadron’s soldiers manned an anti-tank gun and a machine gun stolen from the 8th Division, Harmony sat guard over the entry to University Avenue. Atop the turret, the upper half of Caelia Suessen watched the road through binoculars. Around the tank, Gulab finally caught sight of the elusive Private Danielle Santos, a slender and slight girl with a frizzy head of black hair and big glasses, just a touch shorter and darker in complexion than her superior. Upon being stopped, she visibly shook a little and gave an awkward salute.

“What’s the damage on our friend here?” Gulab asked.

Caelia put down her binoculars and looked down from over the turret.

Danielle briefly stared at her as if seeking reassurance, then addressed Gulab.

“Um, not much. I was just tightening the road wheels and the track, it got a little slack.”

“You took a few shots, didn’t you?” Gulab asked.

“It was all on the turret front.”

Danielle pointed to the bulging armor around the gun. Two big dents scarred the armor.

“We’ve got sixty millimeters of armor there. No Goblin will crack it.”

She started to sound more confident. Tank minutia might have been her strong point.

Gulab smiled. “I’ll take your word for it. Mind having me as a passenger again?”

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

“Not at all.” Caelia interjected. “Climb up, Corporal.”

“One second.”

At the feet of the tank, Gulab dropped the large bag that she had been carrying and unfurled the contents. The Norgler she had disabled at that horrid intersection fell out in three pieces, barrel, bipod and the rest. Several belts of ammunition also dropped out of the sack. Danielle and Caelia watched as Gulab quickly reassembled the gun, the former wide eyed, the latter stoic. Gulab stuck the barrel back into place and fastened it. She tossed the bipod away, and threw the ammunition over her shoulder. Supporting it via an improvised leather shoulder-strap made of a pouch belt, Gulab hefted the Norgler.

“How’s it look?” She asked, grinning as she loaded in a belt.

“It looks like it’s going to vomit a stuck round into your face.” Caelia replied bluntly.

Danielle stared dejectedly at the formerly evil weapon, as if nervous in its presence.

Norglers had quickly become a symbol of fear for them all over the past month.

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

“It’s just a gun, it’s not surgery or anything. I’ll be fine.” Gulab said.

“I don’t know.” Caelia said, glancing at her shoes.

“Corporal Kajari has done some weird things in the past, so I guess, it will work out.”

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

“Okay.” Caelia replied dejectedly. “Climb aboard then.”

“I can’t. Not like this anyway. Help me up.” Gulab said.

It was impossible for her to climb aboard with all of the equipment she was carrying.

And she was not keen to take it all off and throw it on individually.

That might have resulted in the Norgler finally falling completely apart.

Caelia and Danielle, heaving many a sigh, had to pick the Corporal up by her legs, while Gulab supported herself on their shoulders, and together they lifted her. Several Red squaddies stood in confusion as the trio struggled. Gulab banged the Norgler on Danielle’s head more than once, and the iron sight fell off as she smashed the weapon against Harmony’s turret. Eventually they managed to get Gulab atop the rear of the tank.

There she quickly knelt, raising the Norgler over the turret, unsupported without its bipod. For footing, she stuck her ankle through an iron loop meant for tow ropes, and wound her leather strap around the antennae mount for the Kobold, near Caelia’s hatch.

Once at her onerous position, Gulab winked at the tankers with a smile.

“That looks like a bad time.” Caelia sighed.

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

Gulab’s ankle started to hurt and she barely had a grip on the Norgler.

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

Her radio sounded. “Gulab, can you hear me? Are you in position?”

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

Behind Harmony, two of Sergeant Agni’s infantry-carrier trucks formed the rear of a spearhead formation. Red Squadron climbed aboard one, while the recently arrived Green Squadron occupied the other. Yellow, Blue and the fresh Purple squadron would follow on foot, with a small rearguard trailing slowly behind. Red and Green would dismount near battle and leave their trucks behind while Harmony engaged the first sandbags.

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

“Yup!” Gulab shouted. She banged her fist atop Harmony’s turret. “Get going!”

Beneath her, Gulab felt the tank start shaking as the engine started.

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

Gulab heard the distinctive sound of tracks, and pressed herself against the turret.

Holding the Norgler with both hands, she readied herself as the tank picked up speed.

“Hold on tight Corporal, we’re going in fast!” Danielle said.

She seemed a lot more upbeat over the radio than in person.

Gulab felt a jolt in her stomach. “How fast?”

“As fast as Tank Commander Suessen likes!” Danielle cheerily added.

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

Within the next few seconds, Harmony began to pick up a prodigious speed.

Gulab held on much more tightly.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

Alea Iacta Est (51.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — City of Rangda, 8th Division Barracks

In the middle of the cross-hairs appeared a shadowy, helmeted head.

Under the gloom that had settled around a knocked-out street light, the figure moved with confidence, as though sure that it was not watched.

Muttering under her breath, Gulab Kajari held as steady as she could.

She kept her scope trained on the peak of the faceless human shape.

Watching from far across the street, behind the gates of the base, she followed the figure as it wandered around the corner, holding a rifle to its chest, turning its head down both directions on the opposing street. It signaled with its arms, waving a pair of allies out from their own cover and onto the street. They crouched behind a bus stop bench. Gulab heard the springing of a handset cord, and a minute of unintelligible whispering.

They were using the radio. Calling in whatever it was they had found.

Then the figures stood from cover and began to retreat back to the corner.

“I’ve got you, you snow weasel!” she whispered to herself.

Once more the cross-hairs expertly followed the figures, swaying from one figure’s head to its torso, keeping just far enough head to lead a shot.

Gulab held her breath again.

She steadied her aim; but the figures disappeared from her sight.

Her scope had gone entirely black.

“We have orders not to shoot, Gulab.”

Charvi Chadgura lifted her hand from Gulab’s scope, and she could see again. However the men in her sights had gone. Somewhere around the street corner toward Ocean Road they had vanished, but they were all still out there. Through the stillness of the night she had heard trucks moving in the distance, and even at times what sounded like a tank or a tractor.

The 8th Division was moving closer, but the false war dragged on.

“I was not going to shoot!” Gulab said, slightly irritated.

“I’m sorry. I trust you, but we can’t take any chances.” Chadgura said.

Then you don’t trust me!, Gulab’s mind screamed at her superior and friend.

She felt half indignant and half foolish. She felt as if she was blowing everything out of proportion, but also slightly offended. Gulab knew her orders. Nevertheless she felt she had to keep a close eye on the enemy.

And it was a fact she had to confront, that she had half a mind to shoot; Chadgura was not entirely wrong in intervening. It still annoyed Gulab.

“They are likely scouting the area for a checkpoint.”

At their side, Sergeant Nikayla Illynichna laid on her belly with the scope of her silenced carbine only a centimeter removed from her eye. She spoke in a monotone that rivaled Chadgura’s, but she could become much more heated if necessary. She was small, her eye level reaching only to Gulab’s chest, and pale as a ghost, with icy-blue Svechthan hair; add the dark of night and Illynichna was practically invisible in their ambush position.

Gulab and Chadgura crouched near her. All of them were hiding in a ditch on the side of the base road that ran through the front gate. Orders from high were to detain the gate guards, who might possess some allegiance to the 8th Division, and to shut off the gate searchlights. Under the cover of darkness they would lay near the gate and watch the road. All along the gate road there were several ambush positions. Gulad and comrades had been given the foremost position and watched the road most closely.

Through the iron gate bars they silently preyed on anyone who appeared.

Any 8th Division troops that barged into the base would be shot by snipers and machine gunners in a hellish crossfire. However, if they walked in with their guns down and unloaded, it was a wonder what anyone would do. They had been told not to shoot unless shot first. Operating under those rules of engagement was quite stressful. It meant anyone had a chance to die before an effective defense could potentially be mounted.

“More vermin incoming.”

Illynichna urged everyone to crouch, and they settled against the ditch.

From around the corner they heard the sound of marching boots and then the drowning-out of that sound by the wheels and exhaust of a truck. A dozen men and an old rompo turned into their street and stopped a mere thirty meters away. Briefly the truck’s headlights shone through the gate, their beams illuminating a few fighting positions by accident. When the truck completed its turn onto the street everything was dark again.

Adjusting her magnification Gulab spied on the arrivals with her scope.

She watched helplessly as 8th Division soldiers approached the truck and began to unload sandbags and set down a foundation for a fighting position near that old bus stop across from the gate. From the back of the truck a heavy machine gun was unhitched and rolled until it was protected behind the sandbags. Bag by bag the wall went up, waist to chest high.

“This is more than just a checkpoint, Chadgura.” Illynichna said.

“I’ll report it to command.” Chadgura said. They had a radio nearby.

Gulab drummed her finger on the side of her gun, near the trigger.

“I’m getting mad. Are the 8th Division our enemies or not?” She asked.

“It doesn’t matter to our rules of engagement.” Chadgura replied.

Illynichna cracked a little grin, lying next to her gun.

“Would you shoot your own people whenever someone declared them your enemies, Kajari?” She casually asked. She did not even turn away from her scope to make eye contact; she simply dropped the bombshell.

“Would you?” Gulab shot back, stammering slightly.

Illynichna grunted.

“The Elves and their Colonial Authority all but enslaved my people and destroyed their culture and killed scores of us for hundreds of years. Any countryman of mine siding with forces like them deserves death.”

Gulab’s own thoughts were more elusive and much less forceful. Some part of her that she deemed reasonable did not believe the 8th Division was some force for evil; things were more complicated than that. Just like she believed in the Colonel and followed her orders, she was sure the 8th Division was following their own heroes in this time of confusion. Surely they owed their lives to whoever extracted them from the Nochtish lines.

They thought they were doing right to come here, and that it was the 1st Motor Rifles who were putting the city at risk. Something happened along the way that twisted everyone. Ordinary rifle soldiers were not to blame.

The 8th were not here to steal land like Nocht. Rangda was their home and they believed they could protect it through these dubious actions of theirs.

Or at least that is what she wanted to think of fellow Ayvartans.

And yet– if they did anything that would put Gulab’s precious comrades at risk, like the kids; or the staff; or Charvi; she would definitely kill them.

And if Colonel Nakar gave her a good reason to shoot she would just shoot.

“It doesn’t matter to my rules of engagement.” Gulab finally replied.

Again Illynichna cracked a little grin. “My, my, what a sly answer.”

Gulab focused her attention on the road. It was practically bustling.

When the enemy’s sandbag wall was finally constructed, the truck backed away around the corner and out of sight, and the soldiers remained. They crouched behind their sandbag wall, next to their machine gun, and they faced the gate, opposite Gulab’s own fighting position in the ditch. It was like a scene from decades past. Rival trenches across no-man’s-land. She was sure the 8th Division knew she was there now, or at least suspected it.

It raised the tension. Now she had an enemy in sight who could shoot first.

“Can I at least give them a scare?” Illynichna asked, finger on the trigger.

“No.” Chadgura said sternly.

Illynichna sighed and slumped over her carbine. “Bozhe moi…

Minutes and hours passed, staring at the enemy in the eye. Gulab called on all of her resolve. She would shoot them if they shot her. She had to.


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part