Pursuers In The Deep [7.3]

An hour after meeting with her personnel leaders, Norn finally saw with her own eyes the gravestone-like block of metal that was Ajillo substation. Jutting out from the grey dirt, bedecked in dead, dying and decaying ships docked to various repair bays like bleached skulls left as tribute. It was a somber giant, a monument to modernity amid a patch of wilderness that had been left to languish, its potential untapped, rotting as much as the ships.

“All of this country is an absolute mess. It beggars belief.” Norn said, thinking out loud.

Outside of the vast, rich underwater plains of the Yucatan Gulf, the majority of Sverland was deep, rocky territory on the edge of various collapsed island landforms that gave the undersea geography a rising and falling, complicated geometry. Any flats that could be found between the rolling “hills” and jagged, rocky gorges and mounts, likely had a station or a substation dropped onto it. The rest of the land was for ships to glide over and around, too difficult to build on with the effort the Empire at large wanted to spare for its southern colony — which was almost none.

Northeast of Serrano, one of these substations was Ajillo, a stout “newtype-utility pillar” set into what looked like a sandy crater 700 meters below the surface. Along the sides of the station pillar’s trunk were several protruding “wet” repair bays which were crammed full of docked ships of various classes, anchored in their twos and threes save for a single, newer Cruiser, by itself. Men in pressure suits and unarmed labor Divers buzzed around the hulks of metal in their dozens. They were worked on in the open ocean, with pressurizing cages around any sensitive areas.

Ajillo substation had been a site of restless activity the past few weeks.

Since the border fleet’s failed expedition to the Union, its repair bays were filled with the detritus of a neglected fleet on the underdeveloped border to the rest of the former colonies. Norn knew of Gottwald’s failed expedition and surmised from the sight of the pillar that conditions were deteriorating. Work for military personnel was guaranteed, so the men likely continued to be paid, in food and lodging and partial wages, to continue working on their ships. But there was a clear state of disrepair to everything Norn could see docked into a wet repair bay.

Military materials would be at a premium, with no ready to source.

Sverland was perhaps the most dependent territory in the Empire. And this lack of self-sufficiency also made it a black sheep. Many of the other territories had the strength and territorial agency to form the variety of breakaway governments now vying for supremacy. But the Empire had always had a purely extractive relationship to Sverland. Every mark spent on Sverland was one mark less of its mineral, agricultural and industrial output in profit. In a sense, Sverland was having to make up for the loss of the Union in extracting as much as possible to feed the growing, gluttonous Imperial nation with little investment. It was essentially paying reparations to Palatine.

Konstantin’s oppressive authority was the only reason Sverland had any Imbrian identity.

Now the dependent Sverland state was fully abandoned, since, at the present, the “central government” that would have been responsible for installations like Ajillo was de-facto disbanded. Erich and the Fuellers and whatever parts of the Imperial administration had not yet defected to another side, all continued to administer the shell of this government wherever they felt safe doing so. But it was fully functional only in the Palatinate, where Erich’s mighty fleet guaranteed its existence. Rhinea, Bosporus, Buren, Solsea and Veka had all established their own nations. And the Royal Alliance had rooted in the productive half of Sverland like a cancer, stealing away the Yucatan.

“All of this is the result of Konstantin’s ego,”Norn said. Her lips curled into a tiny grin.

“It’s a depressing sight, but should you really be openly criticizing the late Emperor?”

“Hah! I have more than earned the right to. More than anyone in the damn world.”

“I suppose so. But then again, a powerful woman like you is partially responsible too.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I suppose from your point of view, you accomplished everything you wanted.”

At her side, Adelheid was dressed in proper dress uniform for the visit to Ajillo. Rather than the grey coat of the Navy, she wore instead a flattering silver tunic with gold embroidery and a tall collar with her fleet insignia, over a white dress shirt with a red tie. Her hair was arranged in a slightly messy bun with a gleaming silver hairclip, and her rosy, done-up cheeks and red lips were particularly tantalizing. Beneath her clothes she wore a bodystocking that was translucent up top and black along her legs, a perfect complement to her modest knee-length skirt and heels.

Norn herself was also outfitted more impressively than normal for the occasion.

While she hated closed layers of clothing, and particularly bodysuits, and so usually wore an open coat and a camisole for comfort, she knew the situation demanded propriety. Norn wore to Ajillo a version of the blue and green Fueller coat that was tighter fitting and closed with several gold buttons. A gold braid connected the right shoulder to the left breast, and she wore a half-cape adorned with the intricate semiconductor emblem of the Fuellers. Black trousers and boots completed the outfit, while her hair was still a simple ponytail, and her makeup fairly minimal.

Adelheid had teased her upon seeing her in the Fueller attire. “Not going to wear the hat?”

“Never again.”

Normally the Fueller family regalia included a sort of flat mitre hat that Norn hated.

It could be substituted for a pickelhaube, another object that made Norn want to vomit.

As the official head of the ruling Fueller family, Norn could have also played a cruel joke on the men at Ajillo by wearing the Imperial crown. After all, Konstantin had left instructions for Norn to lead the family, and Syrmia Fueller and Prince Erich both agreed. She was practically the Imperial heir at this point. Had she brought the crown she may even have considered it, but she had not bothered to invest in the props for such provocations.

Though aesthetically less displeasing than the alternatives, wearing the crown was just as abhorrent.

Norn scoffed. “I prefer to wear my simple ponytail like the humble retainer I am.”

Adelheid laughed. “It’s like some kind of cruel joke isn’t it? A retainer leading the remnants of the #1 family in the Empire, alongside her adjutant, the disgraced heiress of the #2 family; and both dressed up in biological fibers like royalty to meet the Admiral of a dead fleet in the middle of nowhere.”

“Our beautiful story together is just a cruel joke to you? How callous.” Norn teased her.

Soon after Adelheid and Norn dispensed their last barbs, the Antenora was guided by Ajillo traffic control to the small port near the peak of the structure. Military transports would actually dock in an underground berth, accessible through an enormous hatch near the station, and take a long elevator ride up to the barracks in the center pillar. This was a fairly standard design for Military stations. To directly berth in the upper habitat was a privilege for the officers and for the vessels of dignitaries and VIPs. There was only room for two Cruisers or one Dreadnought.

Prior to entering the port, the Jagdkaiser launched from the Antenora as scheduled.

There was not a peep from Ajillo traffic control about this.

They knew they could not defy Norn the Praetorian’s orders in this situation.

And so, as the berth doors closed and the Antenora was secured, the Jagdkaiser hovered in the waters nearby, awaiting its orders. There was no other ship docked into the port structure along with the Antenora, and the station crew managed the fairly breezy job of docking the ship and extending and pressurizing an entry chute to her bulkhead.

Soon enough, the Praetorian and her adjutant found themselves finally entering the port structure.

This was a port that accommodated two ships that would undoubtedly carry people of some military or political pedigree, and as such, the arrivals area was a red carpet affair. A white coat of textured paint made the metal walls seem warmer and more organic, while below their feet, the carpet was silky, gold-inlaid, and colorful. There was no gate, no metal detectors, no security detail. Miniature ship models hung from the ceiling or were stood up on displays flanking the arrivals and before them the wall was dominated by a grand painting of the station layout that was more baroque art than a functional guide. Busts of former station commanders dominated the opposing half of the room.

It was garish, absurd even, an assault to Norn’s eyes in every direction.

Norn had to muster a lot of willpower not to immediately criticize the men who met them in these visually cluttered surroundings. There were only two, though Norn spied a few guards in the hallway leading deeper into the habitat. Both wore uniforms similar to Adelheid’s, with silver tunics and grey pants. Of those who had come to meet them, one was clearly the adjutant, a younger man with slicked golden hair, flashy blue eyes, and a strong jaw, who was smiling gently at them. He had a broad chest and shoulders but slim legs, and slightly slacking posture.

Beside him was a shorter man with thick, brushy mustache, which was the old style among Imperial officers. He had his hands behind his back and kept a critical gaze fixed on Norn herself, unlike the eyes of his adjutant which easily wondered to Adelheid. The generational gap between them must have been similar if not identical to that which Norn had to Adelheid. Though that was where the differences ended. Norn remained a somewhat exotic figure, while this man looked to her like any other rags-on-bones member of their military gerontocracy. As if the greed and hatred found in the soul of the admiralty was peeling and cracking his skin and turning his hair brittle and gray.

“Welcome! It is a pleasure to host such renowned guests. I am Captain Obermeyer.”

They were greeted by the adjutant first. He stepped forward and bowed his head to Norn.

Then when he rose again, he suddenly took Adelheid’s hand and laid a kiss on her fingers.

His eyes moved up to meet hers and she smiled awkwardly back at him.

Norn felt a sudden spike of anger that she hurled invisibly into the captain’s lungs.

In that instant, Captain Obermeyer staggered a step, bent down, momentarily choking.

“Excuse me,” he said in a frog-like, depleted voice, “Something in my chest, very sorry.”

He coughed into the black sleeve of his bodysuit, trying to smile and play it off.

“Get yourself together if you’re going to represent us. I swear; apologies, milord.”

Rear Admiral Vespucio stepped forward and saluted Norn, rather than bow his head.

Adelheid cracked a grin, while Norn retained a surly expression through the introductions.

“You both know who I am: Grand Marshal of the Imbrian Empire, Duke Norn von Fueller. This is my adjutant, Lieutenant Viscountess Adelheid van Mueller. Since we are here on your request, we will permit you to lead the way and set the agenda. I will be blunt, however, that this visit has eaten into my schedule. I hope you realize the favor I am showing you, Vespucio, in standing here before you at all. I trust that my time will be properly respected.”

Though her tone of voice was casual and masked her full displeasure, Norn’s words were pure poison.

While the situation deserved even harsher language, she enjoyed the craft of sinking a man with a veneer of politeness. Captain Obermeyer’s boyish smile seemed to gradually fade as she spoke, while Vespucio stared straight at Norn at first but gradually let his eyes wander like a schoolboy being scolded. It was the effect she desired.

She needed no new friends in this region. She was here purely to indulge a whim.

“Milord, apologies. I was unaware of your promotion to Grand Marshal and believed you still the equivalent of a Fleet Admiral.” Vespucio said. “I congratulate you on your richly deserved ascension and I am proud to serve in a nation which recognizes such once-in-a-century talents. Tales of your exploits reach far and wide.”

“Thank you; but it will take more than flattery for my visit to be worthwhile. Shall we?”

Norn gestured toward the hallway, and Vespucio silently assented.

Past a small group of guards in special occasion wear, through a bulkhead door, the regal white of the arrivals hall gave away again to the unvarnished metal of the station only briefly as they headed to an elevator. There was a small and unadorned courtyard occupied by a few officers in transit. It connected several means of transport to other parts of the station, and they scarcely saw much of it before stepping into an elevator with bronze walls.

Their destination would be the stark opposite of the humble courtyard.

“A place for the officers’ relaxtion and for honored guests.” Vespucio replied. “We’ll start with dinner.”

From the elevator doors they stepped into a massive lounge of umber and fake gold walls replete with false wooden textures, fake wooden tables, imitation leather couches and chairs. There was a bar in the lounge behind which Norn could see a wall of ice chests, likely hiding the alcohol. There were a few side-doors; at one particular door a pair of workers, the lounge waitstaff, ushered them into the location of their fancy officer’s dinner. A comparatively smaller and more tasteful room that had only a table and chairs, a more familiar setting for dinner.

While the room had a lot of imitation wood, the darker color made it less offensive to Norn’s eyes than the burnt umber walls with imitation grain. There was no food yet, but cutlery and glasses of water had been set out for everyone. Four seats were arranged like a cross, bringing to Norn’s mind something like ritual; Adelheid and Obermeyer sat across from each other while Norn sat across from Vespucio. At the door, the pair of waitstaff in their black vests and white shirts bowed their heads and informed them that a first course would be delivered soon.

For Norn, the act of seeing was gradual, like peeling layers. When her mind was idle, she saw hovering colors of auras, dim and gaseous, as if a vaporizer had been smoked in the area and the cloud was fading. Focusing her eyes, flicking an invisible “switch”, she could nullify the auras and calm the surroundings; or she could enhance everything she saw, thereby seeing the “textures” of the aura and realizing the constellation of feelings contained within.

Everything gave off an aura. Only a few people like Norn were cursed to always see it.

This time however she was curious about the atmosphere.

Without any perceptible difference in her countenance, she focused on the auras.

In her time, Norn had developed a system by which she read auras.

Color indicated intensity and proximal emotional responses; but the texture hid the truth.

Obermeyer’s was red with a green stripe; its texture wet and roiling. Lustful, desperate, afraid.

Vespucio’s was calmly blue and green and solid as stone but with black flecks that, every so often, would bubble or vibrate, stirring the entirety of the cloud. Blue was often a signifier for calm, while green represented a disquiet or stress. It was common to see Blue and Green together. Only the most self-controlled humans were fully at peace at any given time. However, the texture and behavior of the aura told Norn that Vespucio was scheming something.

To probe further would invite a brief skirmish between her mind and Vespucio’s will.

She opted to switch targets instead. Norn actively ignored Adelheid’s aura; she focused on the waitstaff all of whom had green and blue auras. Green was far more predominant with thin lines of yellow between the blue and the green. Yellow often meant disgust or sickness, a more extreme discomfort than the comparatively less severe Green. There were two workers, and Norn was assuming one was male and one was female; the lady had more yellow in her aura.

In a few seconds, Norn had a plethora of information about the situation.

And she thought to herself, even if Vespucio held her no ill will, she would kill Obermeyer.

“Are they civilian contractors?” Norn asked, gesturing at the door as the workers departed.

“Indeed they are.” Vespucio said. “My men are too busy, and I would not disrespect them by having them serve me wine and meals, even as a punishment. They are also salt of the earth fellows, they lack refinement, so we have our own cooks here who can serve higher quality meals than the canteen, to suit our elevated tastes.”

“Interesting. Do you eat here often, Captain?” Norn asked, glancing toward Obermeyer.

Obermeyer looked surprised to be addressed by Norn at all. It shook him from a reverie.

“Ah, no milord, not often, this is quite a treat for me actually.” He said.

He laughed and looked to Adelheid as if for some measure of sympathy from a fellow lower rank. Adelheid did not meet his gaze and instead deliberately took interest in Norn as if still waiting on her, playing the dutiful servant. This put Obermeyer in a somewhat awkward position for a moment, until Vespucio finally spoke.

“Milord it is usually just me and Commodore Erbing, but not too long ago, when we easily repaired whole flotillas at this station, we would have more commodores and commanders, as well as wealthy guests, for whom we valued hospitality. Our admiral Gottwald and his family were frequent visitors. Tragic that he met his end.”

“I hear he fought with pride to the end. Is that not how we all wish to go?” Norn said.

Vespucio and Obermeyer both seemed quite put off by that remark.

Norn saw a brief spasm in their auras. A green band was thickening in Obermeyer’s own.

“Will the Commodore be joining us? I’d love to hear his side of station life.” Norn asked.

Vespucio replied curtly, “He is busy.”

“Ah, unfortunate. It would have made for an interesting layout on this table.”

There was hardly any conversation until the first dishes came in.

After all, what would any man in this evil era have to say to someone like Norn?

Now that she was seated at their table and could not be turned away–

And now that she knew the tone of the evening better–

Norn could have all the fun that she wanted with them!

Her carefully maintained countenance slowly melted into a mocking, prideful grin.

Adelheid seemed to have noticed, and even Obermeyer glanced at her more than he ogled the adjutant. While often calm in her own element, around others, she knew she was known for being something of a hyena.

She couldn’t help it; the pretensions of the Imbrians drew out her very worst.

So she put on a face that fully expressed her amusement and satisfaction.

“Happy to see you in good spirits milord. Let us enjoy this meal, dedicated to your grace.”

“Why, thank you; I shall relish testing the mettle of your contracted chefs then!”

“Um, yes, of course, of course milord.”

Adelheid sighed, perhaps partly out of fondness, perhaps partly out of understanding.

Obermeyer averted his gaze to the door.

Norn’s sadistic side was slowly coming out from under the silky layers that hid it.

When the doors opened again, the waitstaff returned with the first course. Norn caught a glimpse of green on the plate as it was brought in, but even she was a little impressed when she saw the spread laid down before her. On each plate was a bright green, fresh salad of firm lettuce leaves, glistening with vinegar and mustard, a dusting of salty cheese, and gilded with bright red, juicy chunks of tomato. Amid the bed of leaves were perfectly golden cured egg yolks, like bubbles which when lightly forked released their creamy contents to the leaves around them.

Adelheid had the tiniest grin when she began to eat.

Such foods were not uncommon to her, both because she had a rich background, but because the Muellers were once farm monopolists in the Palatinate. Adelheid had eaten fresh greens, fresh eggs. She was a spoiled girl for whom nothing was new or interesting. Nevertheless, she was clearly enjoying the rich taste of the greens.

Obermeyer admired the salad almost as much as he had admired Adelheid’s breasts.

He had the response of a boy clearly from a humbler background than anyone at the table.

Norn was someone between worlds. She knew the decadence of the upper class table and the privation of months aboard military ships eating canned ham, cured cheese and reconstituted spinach. But even Konstantin never showed off to her like this. A fresh green salad; as soon as Norn brought a forkful of leaves to her mouth she realized they were far more authentic than the wood varnish on everything in the lounge. They had not been frozen, they had not been dried, they had not been pickled, they had not been reconstituted into leaf shape out of a block by a biostitcher.

Everything was fresh and firm and asymmetrical as only genuinely grown food could be.

Delicious as it was, something about it made her angry.

Why was this backwater station that could barely function militarily growing fresh greens?

Only for Vespucio to infrequently impress his guests? They could not be growing many.

“Delicious isn’t it? Grew them myself. Something of a hobby.” Vespucio said.

Absolute crap. You couldn’t lift your gun, much less a shovel. Norn grinned to herself.

Norn glanced at the waitstaff standing at attention the instant he said that.

She could see the turn of the yellow in their auras, growing, writhing.

“What kind of growing medium do you use?” Norn asked.

There was the briefest flash of confusion in Vespucio’s face. “Growing medium–?”

Norn grinned, interrupting.

“Well, it affects the taste of course! Synthetic soils, collapse ash, micropellets, come now, you know this– oh, and what fertilizer? Human? It’d be a clever way to recycle waste. Actually, we should work on a proposal! Imagine, every military outpost growing more than mushrooms and algae. You could revolutionize military feeding, Vespucio!”

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide as Norn spoke. He was instantly put in his place.

“Let’s not– talk about human waste at the table milord, funny as your grace’s humor is–”

“Fair; but you will personally walk me through the growing setup later.” Norn said.

Once everyone’s appetite had been whetted by the crispy green morsels, the waitstaff took their plates and left behind a bronze tray containing a few crisps speared into a soft mound of an orange-colored sauce flecked with green. Norn did not partake. Adelheid picked up a crisp and took a single sauce-dolloped bite. She struggled not to recoil from it, and delicately ate the rest of the crisp sans sauce. Norn surmised from this that the sauce was too spicy for her.

To the refined Imbrian palate, hot pepper was an anomaly.

The Serrano region was once upon a time known for its hot peppers, however.

“Careful, Lieutenant.” Obermeyer said, smiling at her. “Hot sauces are a local specialty.”

“Hmph.” Adelheid grumbled. “I should hope it won’t all be so astringent.”

Vespucio shot her a look as if angered at her remarks, while Obermeyer, clearly charmed by her response, replied in a soft and assuring voice, “Fear not, milady, I’m sure we have something for a more discerning and delicate palate such as yours. We knew we would have refined ladies for guests, and the chef’s world class.”  

“Am I counted among the refined ladies visiting?” Norn asked.

Obermeyer seemed to be hit by Norn’s words as if struck by lightning every time.

“O-Of course milord!”

Norn grinned. “I just noticed I’ve only been referred to as ‘milord’ or ‘duke’ tonight.”

Adelheid smiled mischievously, gesturing to Norn. “Obermeyer, how is your etiquette?”

“How is it?” Obermeyer asked.

“Were you formally taught? In fact, let me expand the question. What is your background?”

“My background? Well, if you’re so curious, my family had some money, we were never struggling. No peerage of course.” Obermeyer said. “I was taught formal etiquette– I attended Liebknecht School for Boys.”

“Such a prestigious school, but oh dear, what even are boys taught in it?” Adelheid teased.

“Why do you say that?”

“You’ve been mindlessly calling the lady Fueller ‘milord’ this whole time.”

Obermeyer stared at Adelheid in wide-eyed confusion until Vespucio cleared his throat.

He finally decided to butt in and rescue his disappointing adjutant.

“Now, don’t be so hard on the boy. Obermeyer, we call Norn von Fueller ‘milord’ or ‘duke’, in the male form, because those are the titles she was legally given. You do not call the lady van Mueller whatever you want, you call her the title she possesses, and its specific honorifics. That is true for milord von Fueller regardless of her gender.”

“Ah, apologies Admiral. He’s such a lively lad I can’t help but tease.” Adelheid giggled.

Obermeyer squirmed for a bit, trying to laugh it off. Norn contained her own laughter.

While they were speaking of backgrounds, there was no need to go over Adelheid’s or Norn’s. Adelheid had been big news. Her family was the number two family in the Empire in terms of proximity to the throne and influence in peerage politics. Her being disinherited and having her surname struck from ‘von’ to ‘van’ Mueller was news.

Nevertheless, she was still owed respect by people without any peerage. And every military man had heard of Norn, it was impossible not to have done so. Inviting Norn to recount her past would have given her a chance to criticize and seek grievance. Not because she felt hurt or pressured but simply because she could and would do so.

Even someone like Obermeyer knew not to extend a conversation about backgrounds and social origins to cover Adelheid’s disgrace or Norn’s infamy. He knew that much etiquette. So there was no place to take such a conversation beyond himself. Vespucio’s background was not up for casual discussion either. He was a Rear Admiral. Obermeyer should already know him. Norn did — though there was not much to know about him ultimately.

He was just any other career military man, long-serving in a quiet post.

Knowing this, Adelheid had probed the only person in the room who could be probed.

Thankfully for Obermeyer, his rudimentary etiquette and upper middle class upbringing would not continue to be the center of attention for much longer. The conversation was given a reprieve by the arrival of the second course which was set into bowls brought on plates. Knowing the mores of Imbrian haute cuisine, Norn knew that the second course would be a soup course. First was an aperitif, then soup, main course, and finally tea or coffee.

Those bowls were served steaming hot with a thick golden yellow soup upon which floated circles of green onion. That creamy surface was gilded with circles of suspended oils. A single piece of bread was offered, crusty on the outside but pillowy soft and warm within. And in the middle of the table, a bottle of wine and several small glasses were set around a plate of pickled carrot and pepper with lardons. Norn tasted the soup and found it rich with a subtle tang from lemon juice. Katarrans called this avgolemono but in Imbria it was tebiye, from the Shimii.

Norn felt a bitter feeling tasting the food of two ruined cultures as Imbrian haute cuisine.

“Your chef has range, Vespucio.” Norn said.

“Glad you are enjoying it, milord.”

“Has he met a Shimii in his life? Or a Katarran?”

“I– I wouldn’t know, milord?”

Though she had been waiting for another brag, Vespucio was no longer setting himself up for Norn’s verbal counterstrokes. In fact, after this exchange he remained unpleasantly quiet for most of the dinner.

While Obermeyer tried to chat Adelheid up about the food or service life, comments which she rarely reciprocated; and Norn interrupted every so often to tease him or make a joke; Vespucio simply wouldn’t bite. The great and generous Rear Admiral had become miserly with words. Perhaps unused to receiving barbs in return for his flattery and vain flaunting of his privilege. Norn was simply not impressed with him, and he was perhaps not ready for it.

What was he hoping to gain from this? What did he even know of her character?

Once the soup bowls were emptied, the servants took them away and returned with main courses. They proudly declared that for the men, there was spicy beef bourguignon. Slices of tender steak clearly lacquered in a red sauce of wine, mirepoix, fat, and hot peppers; for the women, coq-au-vin was on order, served in a delightfully dark red wine sauce with waxy potatoes and crisp carrots. As with every other dish at the table, Norn had to hand it to the chef. Even the “blander” dish for the “female palate” was full of rich flavors, the wine sauce emulsified with the chicken fats and starch from the potatoes to a naturally unctuous consistency without a heavy hand of dairy.

Despite there being wine in the sauces, the wine for the table had been well chosen to pair. Not a rare vintage, but serviceable and complex with a gentle alcoholic bite and a sweetness that complimented the aggressive meatiness of the main course. Everyone ate, everyone looked happy, but soon no one was exchanging a word. All talk around the table had quieted down from what little there even was before the main course.

Such eerie gatherings were not unusual at the tables of the rich and powerful.

An invitation to eat was a veneer of politeness.

Friendship and camaraderie did not factor into it. It was like choosing clothing over nudity.

Bitter enemies could share a meal to prove a shared sense of civilization, a code of honor.

Many high class dinners passed in quiet indulgence, until moved to shadowy backrooms. Even a chatty series of guests often served as a veil to hide other intentions. For the upper class and military social climbers, self-interested people who sought only positions, power, advantages, it was rarer to have friends at the table than to have prey. For the conversation around Vespucio’s table to have died out simply meant everyone was being more honest.

Norn happily ate the food, and happily let the clock run on Vespucio’s ambitions.

But nobody at the table could be under the illusion that they were truly friends.

Soon, there came the first shattering of the veneer.

After the main course, coffee and sweet patisserie would be served, but–

“Milord, would you indulge me in taking our coffee in private? I wish to discuss an important matter with you, and I hope that we could do so without further interruption. Obermeyer shall entertain the lady Mueller. With our adjutants out of earshot, we can speak more candidly to one another, no offense to the lady or my good Captain.”

Vespucio interrupted the dinner to suggest their last course be taken in private.

Such a request was not unreasonable if there was a sense of urgency or a prior agreement.

However, Norn had not been invited to Ajillo under any pretext of emergency.

As such, trying to hurry her in this manner, to functionally disband the table, was rude.

Norn did not point out this fact. She had no desire to continue playing tea party.

“Gladly. Lead the way, Rear Admiral.”

She glanced briefly at Adelheid, who nodded her assent, understanding the situation.

They had already discussed the possibility of such a thing happening.

If he had a plan, Vespucio would peel his mask off and expose his scheme soon. So Norn followed him out of the room, a tiny thrill in her chest, curious of what would result. Watching the colors in his aura as a tiny, creeping black line began to appear. The fear of; acceptance of; or even experience of death.


Norn followed Vespucio out one of the side doors in the lounge to a metallic hallway, barren save for a door at the end. On the opposite end of the hallway was a single automatic bulkhead door that was locked by an officer’s keycard, and behind that door was an observation room. Reinforced glass and steel grid walls dominated half of the space, exposing the grim blue of the ocean outside. While a few fish bounced off the glass here and there, curious about the light emanating from the room, there was nothing to see, unless Vespucio was secretly a dolphin.

While normally a room like this would be filled with computing equipment and a multi-purpose detection array, this particular room had only a square island surrounded by a few chairs for sitting and taking tea, and a few cabinets that seemed to contain tea and coffee-making accoutrements. It was largely unoccupied and unadorned, though Norn could see scrapes on the floor where equipment had perhaps once stood. There was probably a gun hidden in the island. Norn could not imagine why Vespucio had this room, except as a vain attempt at grandeur.

“Have a seat, milord. I wish to have a hopefully brief discussion if you will allow it.”

“Discuss to your heart’s content, Vespucio.”

Norn and Vespucio sat across from one another.

Alone in this room, they dispensed with the pleasantries.

There was coffee in cups between them but no cakes, no shiny silverware, no servants.

Only two people staring daggers at each other and awaiting a backroom verbal spar.

Vespucio studied her, his aura thrashing as he thought of what to say.

Norn rested her chin on steepled fingers, waiting for a response.

“Milord, how much do you know about the military-political situation here in Sverland?”

He raised his cup to his lips, as if wanting to punctuate a hard stop in his words.

Norn briefly shut her eyes and smiled. There was overwhelming color around Vespucio even though his face was as stone-like as ever. She needed to shut her eyes every so often to avoid the strain. “I know that when Konstantin’s passing was unfortunately leaked to the military, your commanding officer, Gottwald, launched a sudden raid on the bandit nation to the south, without any authorization. This was shortly after Groessen, former Duke of the territories on the Union border, was provoked to launch his own mission to the Union border for unknown reasons. Gottwald and most of Sverland’s functioning military forces were slaughtered by the communists.”

“That assessment is correct regarding the preamble to our present dilemma, but I can’t help but notice that Milord makes a shocking habit of calling many men of power by familiar names and without their titles.”

“Konstantin himself allowed me his name; if I can speak his name, I can speak any.”

“Fair enough. You always had a special relationship to his majesty.” Vespucio said.

“I was a retainer beloved by all of the Fueller family, enough to be adopted.”

Konstantin was so lovesick toward his youngest wife Leda Lettiere, that after her passing some twenty years ago, rumors began to bubble around him and Norn pertaining to Norn’s rise in stature. Did his attentions shift to Norn? Such gossip completely disgusted Norn, but even an indiscrete homosexual life did not seem to dispel the suspicions, judging by Vespucio’s attitude. She was exotic, powerful, an outsider; therefore hated and feared.

“There was some shock in the high society circles pertaining to your ascendance to heading the Fueller family. Had you been a man, there may have been pressure on you to marry Duchess Syrmia in order to solidify your position within the family. Perhaps pressure to assume the throne. We live in progressive times for women: I’m curious if political alliances such as this are in milord’s plans? Anything that stabilizes our politics would be welcomed news.”

“I’m afraid my nuptials would do nothing to stabilize our society at this point.” Norn said. “Regardless of the rumors swirling around in the chaos I am not the emperor, nor am I an Emperor-in-waiting.”

“Then Prince Erich will assume the throne in the Palatinate?”

“You have a very old fashioned understanding of the situation, Vespucio.”

“Am I wrong to believe that the ascendance of an Emperor to our empty throne would do much to alleviate the present situation, where we have several illegitimate powers at work pulling the Empire in their own ways? Milord would know more than me about such things I’m sure, but filling the seat would help, no?”

“You are missing the point of our current crisis to an alarming degree.” Norn said. “Having an Emperor changes nothing. The Volkisch would not back down, for example. To them, we have entered a stage of history where the throne of the Palatinate carries no power. It does not confer to the wielder the resources of an Empire as it did before. Those resources have returned to their constituent states; filling the seat will not bring them back.”

She could have explained the motivations of any given faction.

But she wanted to introduce the word to the conversation. To be the first to say Volkisch.

His aura reacted no more strongly to this word than any, unfortunately.

“Your assessment is grim, but I’m afraid I must agree that it is quite valid, even here.”

“I didn’t get where I am by not knowing what I’m talking about, Vespucio.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at him, and Vespucio seemed to sigh at the increasing hostility.

“At the present,” he began, as if ignoring or papering over the previous conversation for now, “Sverland is in chaos. We have hardly any military power. To our south, the communists could advance at any moment if they wanted to. We have no way to stop them and no forthcoming military supplies because, to our west, a group of aristocrats have started a breakaway state and taken hostage almost all our military-industrial capacity. To our east, the Vekans, who are orientals with no Imbrian solidarity, have declared their own Empire. They have a hundred times our remaining fighting strength at their command. Milord, there is no way we can fight in the emperor’s name.”

“What do you want from me, Vespucio? Why did you invite me here?” Norn asked.

“You wield considerable powers. Any news would be good news from you. Will the Grand Western Fleet cut down through Rhinea and relieve us? Will Prince Erich ride out as Emperor and squash these rebellions? We need to know the intentions of the ruling house of Fueller. Every other territory has rebelled, only we have remained loyal. What are we expected to do? How are we going to be repaid for our loyalty? To remain loyal?” He said.

He was still betraying no emotion. Simply staring her down directly in the eyes.

Norn wanted to simply tell him to go die, but she also wanted to draw things out a bit more.

“At the moment Prince Erich is preparing for a campaign to the Bosporus-Volgia front and securing the border with Rhinea through limited engagements.” She said calmly. “The leftist movements in Bosporus and Buren concern the long-term stability of the Palatinate, as they present a threat to our most accessible supplies of Agarthicite. We are not in a position to march down to Sverland until we can secure the resources to defeat Rhinea.”

“So we’re stranded then? Is it any wonder then that there is talk in Serrano of capitulating to the Volkisch? Would you blame them, milord? Would you have us stand against them and punish them for it? My men and I are helpless in the midst of this cyclone! We can’t possibly uphold the Empire’s law in this state. We barely have weapons and supplies. At this juncture all we can afford with our funds and supplies is to surrender!” Vespucio said.

“But you have the funds and supplies for salad greens, fine wine and a private chef?” Norn said.

“Such things are easier to acquire than coilgun shells!” Vespucio shouted back. He was clearly offended by her response to his hospitality. “I invited you here milord because I need to know what the Empire expects from my men now. My wealth can’t buy them guns and ships! So will you provide them for us?”

Norn sighed mockingly and shrugged her shoulders at him with a grin.

“Vespucio you put on such a boring show. I wish you’d capitulate to the Union instead.”

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “Is this a joke to you? I have thousands of men in this station!”

Whether he meant this as a threat or to garner sympathy, he seemed to leave ambiguous.

Norn finally lifted her cup of coffee and began to drink as if ceding the floor again.

Vespucio grunted his indignation.

He began to shake his head, his hands up to his face. “This is my reward for not riding out with Gottwald? Had I turned traitor, maybe we would have defeated the Union and improved our situation. And yet despite my loyalty the Fueller family so easily abandons me? You are legitimizing the actions of men like Gottwald, Norn von Fueller!”

“I commend Gottwald’s foolish audacity. He at least took his destiny into his own hands.”

Norn smiled at Vespucio as she put down her cup. She calmly watched his aura begin to turn furiously red.

“Do you have your own ambitions, Vespucio? Tell me: what will you do now?”

Click.

“Do you think I’m afraid of you? You are a resourceful woman, Norn, but only a woman.”

Vespucio raised a firearm right at Norn’s head. Her eyes shifted to stare at the barrel now pointed between them.

She moved to raise her arms as if to yield to him. He began to rant at her.

“Without an Emperor and army to hide behind, you are nothing so frightening. In a world without titles and dynasties, without peerage and noblesse oblige, without lèse-majesté, the only thing that matters then, is this.” Vespucio gestured with his head toward his own gun. “Without an Emperor all that matters is who is holding this gun to whose head. This gun, Norn, is your doing. Through your inaction, you have forced me to put this gun to your head.”

Norn laughed. “You’re more correct than you appreciate Vespucio. It is my doing.”


“What kind of cakes do you like, Viscountess? I can get the staff on it right away. Judging by that incredible dinner spread, we may even rival the taste from the Muellers’ own kitchen.”

“Such hubris! I very much doubt you can!”

Adelheid gave Obermeyer a pleasant smile and leaned forward with her hands behind her back.

This pushed her chest very close to the suddenly flustered Captain, who was taken aback by the contact.

She poked at his chest with one slender finger while responding in a cheery voice:

“My favorite cake is tamarind-passionfruit rum cake, so what do you say to that?”

She winked at him as if; a wink she almost hoped would just behead him where he stood.

Instead he took a step back and tried to play it off with a laugh.

“Well, I guess we are completely outmatched.” He said, raising his hands as if in defense.

“As a peace offering, I can put up with any cake, as long as my coffee has milk and sugar.”

She backed up a step, hands behind her, tipping her head to one side in a cutesy way.

“That’s some tough diplomacy. But we can make it work.” Obermeyer replied.

He motioned for her to follow her out of the room where they had taken their dinner.

Informing the waitstaff that they move to the ‘private lounge’, with his guest assumed to consent, Obermeyer led her out into the main lounge and to another side area, with a short hall that seemed to branch to the bathrooms, and which ended in a keycard door. When he flashed his own card at it, it opened to reveal a cozy room with more fake nutty-brown wood varnish, lit orange yellow, with leather seats and a square island set as a table for two. Obermeyer left the door open for the waitstaff to return with coffee and cheesecake, the door finally closing after their departure.

Now it was just Adelheid and Obermeyer inside of that room.

“Viscountess, would you permit me to call you by given name?” Obermeyer asked.

“No~”

She replied with a silly little twist of her voice and took a sip of her coffee.

“Ah, I’m sorry, I meant no offense.”

“Well then, you’ve done a sorry job of looking sorry. For your information, only Master Norn is allowed to call me by name.” She said, putting on a fake pout, leaving Obermeyer momentarily confused.

Adelheid van Mueller was often accused of not acting her age.

Young as she may have outwardly looked, at thirty years old, she had no business having adventures. Many women in the Imbrian military, particularly aristocrats, served a few years, if any, got a token promotion, retired, and married a man. Those Imbrian women who passed their twenties and remained in the service were seen as lesbians, mentally ill, or otherwise having something wrong with them in the eye of polite society, even if they had great achievements.

In her mind, Adelheid was past the stage of her life where everything was so complicated.

To her, every new year meant that she had a narrower focus on what interested her.

And a greater disdain and less time to spare for anything that she found boring.

It was only Norn von Fueller who truly understood the appeal of her philosophy.

“Growing up” was to surrender to a set of orthodoxies about what a “woman” was.

Orthodoxies which included a submissive deference to boring men like Obermeyer.

“Captain, there is only thing about you that interests me.” Adelheid said, reaching across the table to poke him with a stirring stick that had been dipped briefly in the coffee, and rubbing down the brown stain on his shirt. He looked down at it with a frozen expression he once reserved only for Norn. “I’m only curious, what it is you are interested about in me. Rather than stumbling around awkwardly trying to establish a familiarity you’ll not get, you should merely shower a girl in compliments, for that is all a girl wants from a man she does not know. Once you have paid your toll in flattery I will reward your loyalty with pleasant answers to questions about myself.”

Again Adelheid sipped her coffee, discarding the stirring stick at the side of her coaster.

Obermeyer again tried to smile and laugh it off, the oafish boy.

“You high class girls are something else! I don’t even stand a chance. Very well; lady van Mueller, from the moment I saw you, it was your eyes that took me in. So dark and intelligent; I wondered how it must have been like to serve under that terrifying lord Fueller. Now I see that it’s got to be that wit of yours that gets you by.”

“You liked my eyes?” Adelheid said, “but my eyes aren’t down here?”

She ran a hand provocatively over her chest, winking again.

“I– Well, your figure is just so– it’s– Of course any lad’s eyes would–”

“Lads who are like any lad are the most boring kind by definition.”

Adelheid shot him a narrow-eyed, disgruntled look for a brief moment and sighed.

Again Obermeyer seemed frozen. At times she wondered if she had an aura like Norn.

Or if perhaps Norn was simply the first woman to disrespect him and now she the second.

“You did ask a tantalizing question though– what was it?”

“Um. Yes, I– I did want to ask about your relationship to lord Norn.”

“Well, I’m her distinguished adjutant. You’d be surprised to hear, but she can’t function without me. She’s such a hopeless woman as a matter of fact!” Adelheid declared this with such delight it seemed to stun Obermeyer again. “I bet you could never imagine it, but the powerful and frightening Norn von Fueller, left to her own devices skips her meals until her brain is screaming, hardly sleeps, and works until her body completely quits on her! And despite all of that, she will always insist it’s part of a rigid schedule, in which caring for herself was simply allotted no time.”

Obermeyer blinked several times. “I– that sounds rough– Viscountess–”

Adelheid clapped her hands together in delight.

“Oh no, it is very fulfilling work. Do you ever see a woman like lord Norn, who has such a beautiful face and body and prodigious talent, but beneath it all is a mannish, acerbic thug with such poor socialization; and of course you think to yourself ‘that’s a project; I can surely fix her’?”

“I can’t say that I do.”

“Oh, true, I suppose you wouldn’t.”

Obermeyer seemed to miss the particular tone of that response and did not comment on it.

“Well, it sounds like the two of you are quite close.” Obermeyer said.

“Do we not all live in submission to our lords?” Adelheid said.

“That’s– a curious thing to say.”

Adelheid tried a bite of the cake. It had a one-note sweetness that was acceptable.

She smiled vacantly at him, as if waiting for Obermeyer to make any kind of movement.

He finally spoke up: “Norn is coercing you, isn’t she? That’s why you can’t speak freely.”

“Hmm? Have you been listening at all?”

Obermeyer reached out and grabbed her hand suddenly.

“Such words couldn’t have come from you. I realize what it must be like, working for such a powerful, evil person that it warps how you can talk to anyone. But we are safe here.” He said.

“What are you saying? Let go of me.”

Adelheid snapped her hand back.

Obermeyer had a conflicted look on his face all of a sudden.

“It must be true. The Rear Admiral told me the rumors about Norn. That she is a rapacious deviant whose sins the emperor forgave for her viciousness in enforcing the Fueller family’s edicts. Your behavior– she’s clearly tried to ruin you– milady, you don’t have to serve her anymore!”

His voice was becoming erratic with a strange passion. Adelheid grit her teeth in anger.

“How dare you! Such things are always said by jealous men when a woman gains power!”

“You don’t have to cover for her! Lady van Mueller, Norn’s days are numbered.”

Adelheid had been prepared for this eventuality, but hearing the words still stunned her.

There was no preparing her to face a deadly threat. No matter how much she expected it.

She was too emotional a girl. So her eyes welled up with her tears, but she stood defiantly.

“Norn is no more rapacious than any of you thugs.” Adelheid said, baring the full venom in her voice. “And you will not find her easy prey. I pity you for the punishment you’ll receive.”

Obermeyer drew a firearm at her from seemingly under the table.

Or maybe from a slot in the island. Adelheid had not thought to check.

She herself carried no weapons. She was neither authorized nor issued with any.

“Soon you’ll be free.” Obermeyer said coldly. “The Rear Admiral has a plan to destroy Norn and the Fuellers. We will be your knights, lady van Mueller. Let us protect you, please. You do not have to stay with that monster.”

Adelheid smiled through her tears, her heart racing, her mind clouded with stress and anger.

“I have no need for a knight, Captain. I’m quite happy with the monster who has taken me.”

Obermeyer bared his own gritted teeth. “Then I’ll be a knave instead and you my hostage.”

He stood up from the table, still aiming the gun at her, and moved slowly and with menace.

“We wanted you to give us access to the Antenora, but we can use you in other ways.”

“That is the greatest difference between you and Norn, Captain. Men just want to use me.”

“And Norn does not? Does that vile woman truly care about you?”

“Norn needs me.”

Obermeyer narrowed his eyes with clear contempt.

“You must be brainwashed. I can’t see how anything you say makes sense otherwise.”

Adelheid grinned bitterly at him.

He would be surprised to hear she was one of the few people who wasn’t.

“Follow me to the detention center. I know enough etiquette that I won’t drag you there unless you make me do so.” Obermeyer said. His pistol hovering just short of Adelheid’s chest. He stood over her while she had remained seated, and defiantly seated she stayed, looking up at him. Tears in her eyes, a smile on her face, and a pounding heart full of trust in her master. She was emotional, but she was not afraid of him.

“I will do nothing to make you feel heroic, you bastard.” Adelheid said. “I won’t be your helpless girl. Drag me from this chair with all your strength. I’ll bite and claw and kick like an animal until you shoot me.”

Obermeyer’s finger slipped through the trigger guard. “Get up now, you shrill bitch.”

Adelheid thought of doing something rash like grabbing the gun and daring him.

Something like what Norn would do in this situation–

Her impulse was quelled stopped by a sudden crash– a sound of shredding metal, and the pitched whine of something slicing through the thin air like a bullet just barely crossing the ear–

–the sudden disappearance of Obermeyer’s hand, leaving only a wet, dripping stump.


Norn stood from behind the island table as commanded by Vespucio, the cold steel of the barrel never lifting from the bridge of her nose as she moved. At literal arm’s length, Vespucio himself moved out from around the table so they could stand face to face without obstacles. Norn demurred to only this instruction.

She continued to smile to herself as she watched him sweat.

“So who is it that you’re selling me off to? It’s not your own initiative is it? You’ve said this yourself. You’re not like Gottwald. You’re always loyal to somebody else’s orders.” Her voice turned mocking.

“You can judge me all you want from your high castle.” He said. He almost looked for a second like he would spit in disgust at her, but all he spat was more words. “I can’t do anything but to follow the currents, and down here, they favor the Volkisch Movement. Who else am I going to turn to? That Royal Alliance plundering the countryside? The Vekans? The Solceanos zealots? It is clear we only have a place with the Volkisch.”

“So you don’t see anything in the Volkisch Movement, but a process of elimination?”

Vespucio’s narrowed eyes continued to stare directly into hers without once faltering.

“Theirs is the only world I’ve been promised without rule by bloodlines or false faiths.”

“You truly believe that? You believe the Volkisch Movement professes a coherent truth?”

“I know they are the pragmatic choice, and that puts them above everyone else.” He said.

Norn grinned at him and shrugged. “I didn’t realize the sons of Campos could be so shockingly sympathetic to elaborate racism, when they themselves have been so exposed to it.”

“I’m not a Campos. I’m an Imbrian. I have done nothing but serve the Imbrian Empire.”

“You’ll find as I have, that it doesn’t work that way, no matter how high you reach.”

“Shut up. The only Campos thing I’ll say to you is how tired I am of being lectured by a puerca like you. A bitch fed by the golden spoon of the Emperor having your shamelessness. We all sucked up to you because Konstantin von Fueller looked through your eyes and struck terror in us. We all feared and respected the enforcer of the Imbrian Empire. If you’re not backed by a fleet fighting for the throne, you’re just some whore.” Vespucio said.

He pressed the barrel more tightly against Norn’s nose, gritting his teeth.

Clearly letting out all the repressed stress and disgust that had lain behind his etiquette.

“Vespucio, in your mind, what happens now?” Norn asked.

For the first time, Vespucio grinned at her, viciously, full of bloodthirst.

“Once you are in Volkisch custody, Erich’s faction will surely collapse. That boy has only coasted on the power of the Grand Western Fleet. He is no great man of state; he has amply demonstrated this. Your capture and execution by the Volkisch will level the Fuellers and any power they have after the death of the Emperor. And I just keep eating my fresh beef and greens; with Gottwald gone I may even be promoted to Fleet Admiral for Sverland.”

“Do you really think the Volkisch see you as part of the National Proletarian ubermensch?”

“They’ll see me as a willing collaborator who delivered a political prize. That’s all I need.”

He pushed the barrel against her head and his hand forward, as if cautioning her against moving, while his free hand withdrew from his coat a handset into which he spoke with a voice filled with triumph.

“I have taken the Tower. Prize claim in Observation room Ludwig. Schnell.”

“Your High Imbrian is quite good.” Norn said calmly.

Vespucio put the handset back in his coat pocket and snorted, indignant with her tone.

“Why are you so chipper? You think you can escape? You look down on me at your own peril. I’ve heard stories about your exploits, but this time, I’ve ambushed you, Norn. You’ve walked into my fortress and you are isolated here because you are a vain, self-obsessed cunt. Whatever plot you are concocting in your head, don’t try it. You’re more useful alive but I will pull this trigger the instant I see any muscle on you even twitch my way.”

“Fair enough. I will not move any muscle that you can see.”

“I can only hope when my time comes, I go out as gracefully or as insane as you.”

Seconds later, the door opened. A squadron breached the room in a quick and practiced formation. Four men in uniform with boxy, compact submachine guns entered the room and set their sights on Norn, two standing and two crouching, likely bearing frangible loads to perforate her flesh but not the walls. Behind them two other men appeared ready to collect her, with cuffs, a straitjacket, and what looked like a loup muzzle in tow, along syringes full of drugs to knock her out. The party assembled at the door, and the men approached with their cruel implements.

Vespucio briefly glanced sideways to confirm their arrival.

At that point, Norn responded without moving a muscle that Vespucio could see.

She took a calm breath and twitched the muscle in her mind.

Temporal control.

Around her, everything turned blue as if filling with water. Everyone stood frozen still.

Quickly and wordlessly, Norn grabbed hold of Vespucio’s hand. There was no reaction.

With a brutal crunch, she bent it backwards at the wrist, tore his fingers off the gun.

She ran to the men, turned their upper bodies to face each other, like playing with dolls.

Each of their fingers she squeezed against the trigger. None of them responded in any way.

Finally she stood at the flank of the two men arriving to capture her. She raised the gun to the temple of one man, making sure he lined up with his partner, and rapped the trigger. Then, and only then, head hazy without air and her heart struggling to beat, did Norn finally let out a breath. Around her, the bubble collapsed as if it never existed, returning the true colors of the room. Suddenly, everyone was moving again.

In the next instant bullets went flying, blood sprayed, corpses fell, rhythmically, all at once.

Within the time it took to blink, Vespucio found his hand shattered and his men dead.


Obermeyer gasped for breath; his chest appeared to seize with shock.

He lifted the end of his arm where his hand once was and stared at the space now empty save for blood that pooled and began to drip down what was once his wrist across the remains of his forearm. His eyes drew wide and his handsome face blanched until he was sheet-white. He lifted his other hand as though he needed a model to confirm what he was seeing. His legs shook and beads of sweat glistened on his face.

On the floor his firearm lay discarded.

Adelheid kicked the firearm away and stepped calmly back to avoid the dripping blood.

She turned to the door, covering her mouth and nose. Everything reeked of bloody iron.

On the door to the lounge was an orifice the size of a fist, blossoming like a flower with shredded steel its petals. A projectile the size of plumbing pipe had gone through the steel door flying bullet fast, and it embedded itself in the wall behind them. Much of its structure was a sharp, sleek, jet-black spike, save for the back, where a small pustule dribbled a bloody-smelling fluid and gas. Obermeyer was too focused on his injury to see this shocking thing.

There was a brief flash of motion behind the door itself, visible through the orifice.

Several thick, slimy tendrils squeezed through the hole.

One of them had an object cradled on its end, like a cylinder with flashing LEDs.

It slid this object into the side of the card-key reader on their end.

Then the door locks shifted with a chunky, metallic noise that alerted Obermeyer.

Through the hole the tentacles retreated; and through the door, a woman walked in.

Shorter than Adelheid, dressed in a blood-streaked black robe with the hood thrown back.

Her face, pale as chalk, streaked across by a splash of red, wore a vicious fang-baring grin. Her shoulder-length white hair also had a streak of blood running across to match where it had splashed on her face.

“Y’ok Addie? Norn’ll kill me if I got here too late to prevent ya bein’ ruined for marriage.”

Adelheid pouted. “I would’ve never let it get that far! I can defend myself, Hunter III.”

“Who is– How did– Why–”

Obermeyer clutched his wrist as if he could make the blood stop running.

He stared at the door with wild, unbelieving eyes.

At the pale, blood-strewn Hunter III calmly approaching–

Whose arm, exposed at the end of her long sleeve, spread like a flower of tentacled flesh.

Petals of sinewy skin that seemed to shift like a sped-up timelapse of a blossoming plant.

These protrusions collapsed into themselves, reabsorbing the tendrils into an ordinary arm.

“Monster–” Obermeyer gasped, doubled over, choking. “Help– Help me–“

“Any word from Norn?” Adelheid asked, ignoring Obermeyer’s pleas for help.

“Y’really worried for her and not ya’self?” Hunter III asked, tilting her head like a cat.

Adelheid felt that was a solid ‘no’ to her question. “How many have you eaten?”

Hunter III shrugged. “Started with one; but I tasted a disease in ‘im I didn’t wanna risk it.”

“How picky. Is that where you got the door override key? Does that work for other doors?”

“Y’think I know? I can barely get the food dispensers to work, I dunno! Norn told me the thing I needed to get, and I got it. If you tell me a thing to get with pictures I’ll go get it.” Hunter III lifted up and waved the override cylinder to prove her point. She must have found it through omen seeing; so she really did not know how it worked or what it did, or whether it was restricted. She just saw it pop into her head and knew where it was.

Just then, an LED strip running along the edges of the ceiling began to flash red.

A female voice began to broadcast.

“All stations to high alert. Mobilize all squadrons to detain vessel in the upper dock.”

“Ah heck.” Hunter III said.

Adelheid caught Obermeyer moving from the corner of her vision.

He was trying to lift a handset communicator to his trembling lips.

“You need more biomass right?” She said. “I hate this man. Eat him and let us leave.”

Hunter III’s eyes settled on Obermeyer and a wide smile spread across her lips.

“Oh he does look like a snack.” She said, licking her lips.

She lifted her arm, holding her palm out toward him, eyes glowing red.

With an audible crunch, her wrist broke, separating her hand in two unnatural halves with the fingers backwards and melding into the flesh. From the back of her hand a series of gill-like vents formed; there was a brief yellow flash and ejected gas. A bone-like bullet burst from the center of the appendage and struck Obermeyer’s hand splitting his fingers into airborne debris, blowing through his wrist before striking the wall.

There was a clatter as the handset dropped to the ground, not long before its owner did.

Obermeyer could barely let out a scream of pain as Hunter III sprang and pounced on him.

Adelheid saw their lips meet for the briefest instant as if to kiss– before Hunter III’s teeth bit down through the cheeks, the jaws, crushing Obermeyer’s teeth and tongue and– she turned away, her stomach turning over, unable to bear the sight of this violence. Behind her back, Hunter III’s impassioned chewing, tearing and smacking was met with muffled shouting, gurgling, the slamming of Obermeyer’s legs into the ground until life left him, and he could no longer thrash and scream through this horror, having no face, no throat, no life with which to do so.

Hunter III seemed to fill in the void left by him with her own contented moaning.

“I could cry! He’s so tasty! He’s tough but sooo juicy and flavorful!” She exclaimed with delight.

A shaking tail crept out from under her robe and struck the floor with a contented thump.

Long and thick, seemingly reptilian at first but segmented and shelled upon inspection.

That thumping briefly distracted Adelheid, leading her to catch a glimpse of the gore–

“Hurry up!” Adelheid shut her eyes, arms crossed. “You don’t have time to savor it!”

That it used to be a person before it became a piece of meat in Hunter III’s gullet–

–was something Adelheid had pushed firmly out of her thoughts.

“I s’pose not. But it really hit the spot. Thanks for the meal.” Hunter III said.

When Adelheid next made herself turn to look, ever so briefly, she glimpsed fully half of it (the body) gone, a pair of legs in pants smeared with something now all that remained aside from a puddle of red and brown. Hunter III was soaked in blood, it was caked in her hair, around her mouth, on her hood, on her hands. Where half of it (the body…) had gone Adelheid couldn’t say, as despite the shocking amount she ate Hunter III looked as small as usual.

Except the tail, which did not surprise Adelheid but was not an inborn trait of Hunter III.

“Do you have enough mass to transform?” Adelheid asked.

“Yep. And I’ll be gettin’ more. Stand back.” Hunter III said.

Normally her voice was higher pitched, whiny– in that moment it deepened.

Adelheid looked away from the body and focused on Hunter III, who began her ritual.

She reached into her hood pocket and procured one of those disgusting fruits she treasured.

As she brought it to her lips and took the first bite, she was overcome with euphoria.

Doubling over, hips shaking, her whole body quivered; she mashed the fruit into her mouth as if she couldn’t eat it fast enough, couldn’t get enough, like a passion, an obsession. She chewed in clumsy open-mouthed bite, masticating loudly while her eyes seemed to go into a trance. She slipped out of her hood, unveiling her pallid, perfectly white body as her skin began to thrum, as her sinews traced red under her skin as if she was an empty vessel filling with blood. She was a wet white grub of a human whose cocoon soon began to form.

From her back and hips, two wide and round, scar-tissue protrusions burst out of her skin.

She took a deep breath from gills opening on her chest and the air blew out through them.

Her legs thickened, turning muscular, while her chest and shoulders broadened–

Her head disappeared as if a new one had grown over it, long with a vertical slit mouth–

Her hands widened, the fingers tearing apart into steaming, jet black claws–

With a leap and thunderous burst of air Hunter III charged through the doorway.

And in that instant, caught the group of armed men in the hall in a press of teeth and claws.


Vespucio, his whole body shaking, flicked a switch on his communicator.

In retaliation, Norn swept her hand dismissively at him, emitting a psychic shock. An invisible force drove the man to the ground as surely as if Norn had punched him, throwing him on his back with a thud.

He looked up at her from the floor, looked down at his ruined hand, breathing heavy–

“You– you monster– you witch,” He said slowly, struggling to get the words out in his pain and desperation, “You could have– with your skills– why is this happening? Why did you allow this to happen to us–?”

Norn looked down at him, her chest tight, still recovering her breath.

Struggling to remain composed, she lowered the gun she had taken from him and scoffed.

“Allow? You’re falling short of the truth, Vespucio. I did not just allow this to happen.”

She felt a thrill down her spine and a fluttering in her chest as she spoke.

It was not entirely the truth– and yet it was certainly not altogether a lie–

Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “So many– so many will suffer. So many are suffering–!”

Norn felt a surge of anger. Such sophistry! For this gerontocrat to pretend to care!

And yet, he hadn’t inkling of all of her suffering that led her to this day!

Or the vastness of the grudge that split the Imbrian Empire seven ways!

All the horrors of Katarre– the flight, homelessness, statelessness– the privations of the abyss– the threat of genocide– the terror of Mehmed– the truth of the Omenseers– Konstantin’s foolish fascination– Norn felt as if looking at her own body from outside. In that moment, she stood in another blood-stained image in the vein of these torturous memories. As if she was a third party to her own life– puppeteering herself.

Born to greatness– given unto nothing– exploited and tortured and abused in every way–

This was the only time in her life that she could ever truly say she had control of herself.

“Ordinary people have always suffered! They’ve suffered as much from you and yours as ever!” Norn said. “But there’s one thing about this new era that is truly, wonderfully just, Vespucio. For the first time, men like you will also suffer! Every self-declared man of history will be drawn out and exposed by my hatred and cast out to sea to die. Coming here was worth it just to snap your wretched elitist head and add you to the detritus of this age!”

Before Vespucio could speak again, Norn flicked her hand at him, pushing on his neck.

He may have been able to resist at least a little had he been in any stronger position. But kneeling before her, in incredible pain, already bewildered and bloodied– His head jerked to the side at an unnatural angle, and he fell dead in an ungainly position, his neck shattered and limp. In an instant, he was silent, gone.

Norn raised her hands up to her face. She laughed. She laughed! Passionately; painfully.

Alone, surrounded by corpses, she laughed, and she wept!

She wept all the tears Adelheid couldn’t be allowed to see; and laughed at the pain she felt.

As Norn let herself break, Vespucio’s discarded handset flashed a tiny red light, an omen of further violence.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.2]

“Milord, we’ve received an acoustic message from Ajillo substation.”

One of Norn’s drones pushed the message out from her station to the monitor on her chair.

Norn’s brows drew up in casual surprise. She blinked, dimly confused at this occurrence.

“How did Ajillo know of our presence? Did we detect any active sonar from them?”

“Negative. Only sonar pulse was from the Sowilo.”

“Did we broadcast an IFF? Or check in with the strategic network at all?”

“No milord. We observing confidentiality until you order otherwise.”

“Strange. I can’t help but wonder how they knew it was us.”

No rest for the wicked; every day on the Antenora’s bridge, there was some kind of drama.

With the Jagdkaiser left in Potomac’s acceptable care, Norn and Adelheid had departed the hangar together to take their places on the Antenora’s bridge. As soon as they settled down there was a message from the nearest military substation, Ajillo. They had no intention of visiting, as there was nothing of value for them at Ajillo, the junkyard for Sverland’s crippled fleet. And it was standard procedure for the Antenora to remain partially off the grid after a dive from the photic zone, to avoid suspicions about their itinerary. However, the invitation to dock at Ajillo had come directly from the station commander, Rear Admiral Vespucio, and been addressed directly to Norn.

As written, it was an invitation resupply and discuss recent events. It sounded benign.

Adelheid read the message from Norn’s monitor and made a little noise as she pondered it.

“We weren’t being careful about sound, so Ajillo could have found out about the battle from the noise. They would have heard us kilometers away.” She said, raising an index finger and moving it from side to side. “But they would only be able to tell the relative sizes of the ships and the types of ordnance. Do you think Vespucio had a spy drone out? That’s the only way I can think of he would know specifically that the Antenora is in his waters.”

Certainly Adelheid didn’t wear that uniform just to look pretty. She had a good assessment of the situation.

Norn agreed with her. She turned from Adelheid to address one of the drones.

“Did we detect any mechanical objects beside the Volkisch?” She asked.

“Negative, but it’s possible that something snuck in and out during the battle.”

The Praetorian rested a hand on her fist, eyes wandering as she turned these events over in her head.

“In a noisy environment anything is possible, but all my sonar technicians have golden ears. If a stray mechanical object were moving in the battlefield, I would have known about it. He must have been in communication with the Volkisch during the incident. He acted upon the knowledge of my presence without considering the bigger picture.”

Adelheid giggled. “Quite an amateur mistake! We’re not dealing with a bright one here.”

Norn briefly grinned at her plaything’s sudden smugness. She lifted her own index finger as if to mimic Adelheid’s little gestures. “Information warfare is never so simple. Knowing only part of the facts can be as dangerous to you as knowing none of them. In his case, he just doesn’t understand the Antenora’s true nature. In his mind, even if he wasn’t immediately aware of our presence through his own information, and only learned from the Volkisch, we must have sent an IFF or used the network somewhere along our journey to Sverland. He assumed we traveled in the depths; he had no way of knowing how suspicious it would be for him to contact us when he did.”

“Why do I feel like I’m the one being scolded now?” Adelheid said, shrugging playfully.

Heedless of the play-acting going on behind them, one of the drones raised their voice.

“Ma’am, do we maintain heading, or divert to Ajillo?”

“Full ahead to Ajillo. Let’s not keep the Rear Admiral waiting.” Norn said.

At once, the Helmsman drone began to turn the ship in the appropriate direction. The Chief of Communications returned Ajillo’s message with a curt reply. On the main screen, a diagram of Sverland showed them turning away from their northwesterly heading and hooking south instead. While Norn’s objective in the region was to secure some defectors to Erich’s banner, and employ them as pilots to replenish her own losses, all the intrigue on their end had already been carried out. They could wait a bit longer for a pickup. This Ajillo situation was much more interesting.

“He’s obviously got some ulterior motive.” Norn said. “Can’t wait to make him explain what he’s up to.”

“Does he have to be up to anything special? Every man inviting a woman somewhere has ulterior motives.” Adelheid said, doing an exaggerated little shrug again. “I’m more interested in the conspiracy in your head, Norn.”

Norn ignored her little flourishes. “For one thing, most people are terrified of me. I have never received an invitation to personally visit a commandery ever since I became a Fueller enforcer, much less now that I’m the head of the family. I’ve inspected plenty in Konstantin’s stead but that was coercive in nature, and I have a reputation for turning up something sanctionable every time. So in my mind, this is too bold out of Vespucio. And judging by the suspicious source of his information, it has to be some kind of trap. I bet he will try to sell me out to the Volkisch.”

“Maybe he just wants to get on your good side? Because everyone’s terrified of you?”

“It is possible he’s not working directly for the Volkisch just yet. I’d be curious to see if he tries to strike me down on his own initiative rather than something more predictable. Regardless, I’ll accept his offer and see what he’s up to firsthand; even if it’s nothing exciting in the end, at least we get the hospitality of an Admiral out of it.”

“Norn the Praetorian, who has anything she wants, mooching off an Admiral’s pantry?”

“It’s more his wine cellar I’m interested in. You never know who has good vintages.”

Norn settled back in her chair with a placid expression.

Adelheid crossed her arms and turned her cheek at such easy responses to her provocations.

Her pouting face was simply delicious— but turning her all red would have to wait.

All Norn allowed herself at the moment was to reach out and gently smack her in the cheek.

“What was that for?” Adelheid said, shrinking back slightly.

“To keep you on your toes.” Norn said smugly.

Knowing her, this would correct her attitude for maybe minutes.

But it did sate Norn’s own appetite for the moment.

On the Antenora’s bridge the two of them sat together, side by side. They were close enough that Adelheid could lean her head on Norn’s shoulder. Next to Norn’s chair was a slot on the floor from which Adelheid’s could pull up. Adelheid’s chair was more traditional, fitted with upholstery and designed for comfort. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, it did add a splash of red color to the otherwise grey room. Like Norn’s chair, and most commander’s chairs in the Empire, it had a variety of useful tools for the adjutant. From a slot on the side of this chair, Adelheid pulled up a computer monitor and began typing away on a touch keyboard for a moment.

Like Norn’s chair, Adelheid’s had access to the ship computer and network interfaces.

Norn snatched a glance at her monitor.

She was filling in a network address. Something was downloading to the device.

“Who gave you permission to use the public network?” Norn said.

“We identified ourselves to Ajillo, so that means we’re back on the grid, right?”

“No, it doesn’t, as a matter of fact. We’re not back on the grid until I say so.”

“It’s fine I’m using an encrypted requester, I’m not stupid.”

Norn glared at her.

“In the future, you will ask me for explicit permission. Understood?”

“Okay.” Adelheid said, rolling her eyes.

Norn loosened up and cracked a tiny grin. “Just remember. We’re in a new era and have to tread lightly. That said I’m a woman of unparalleled forgiveness. So then, tell me, what are you doing on that network?”

Adelheid rolled her eyes at the speech but answered the question. “Downloading stuff.”

“Over the acoustic network? Good luck with that.” Norn said.

Adelheid crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair, sighing.

“Well, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be able to read my magazines.”

“You should just wait until we’re at Ajillo and connect over laser.”

“I’m bored now, so I’m doing something about it now.”

Norn laughed. She was quite savoring Adelheid’s childish consternation.

“We could go hit the gym if you want.” She said with a wink. “I’m not required to be here.”

Adelheid grumbled. “I would go to the gym by myself if I wanted, but I’m not in the mood.”

“Suit yourself then. Enjoy watching a bar moving kilobyte by kilobyte.”

Even without a laser connection to a hub, the Imperial public network was still accessible via wireless connections. Using the same technology by which acoustic messages were sent and received, encrypted, and decrypted, by ship communicators, a protocol for sending and receiving data at long distances underwater was ultimately devised. As far as Norn understood, the surface society had been far more networked than theirs. Many technologies fell by the wayside in the transition from air and land to the oceans, and civilian communications was one. The Imperial Public Network came about in Konstantin’s fifties; and wasn’t even very “Public” until recently.

“Instead of those awful stories, you should pick up the local news for me.” Norn said.

Adelheid raised her hands and gestured toward the slow-moving progress bars.

“Why should I? What can some journalist in this backwater know that you don’t?”

“I’m not omniscient. Besides, seeing local perspective is more valuable than you think.”

Staring at Norn with a mock aggrieved expression, Adelheid navigated a page back to the file distributor she had contacted, from which she was grabbing her comics and magazines. She made a very flamboyant show of touching a local newspaper’s link to download it, which brought her back to her download manager’s page, and then slowly sliding its progress bar far down below all of the other files she had queued up, such that at the rate the rest were going, it wouldn’t be downloaded for hours. Norn watched the entire process with a neutral but unamused expression.

“Happy now? Aren’t I such a dutiful adjutant for you?” Adelheid giggled.

Norn turned back to the main screen, mustering all of her will in saying nothing back.

Adelheid stared at her expectantly at her before balling her fists up and sinking back into her chair with a pout, after it was clear she would not get any satisfaction out of this for the moment.

All around the bridge crew was unbothered by the scenes of their superiors’ familiarity. A few of them stood from their stations to switch shifts, and of course, had nothing to say except to tell Norn when they were expected to return and who was expected to replace them for the shift. Norn’s crew was obedient and efficient, but they could not be driven down into the dirt like draft animals. They needed time to rest, to eat, to wash, to relax. Norn had devised a tight and balanced schedule which was kept to the second by every one of the drones. It helped sustain their sense that they led normal lives, and in turn, sustained Norn’s unnatural control over their activities.

Seeing everything in such a predictable and practice stated brought her stillness, peace.

Everything around her was governed by such an intricate order–

For perhaps the first time in her entire life.

“What’s that look on your face? Anything on your mind?” Adelheid asked, staring at her.

Norn smiled placidly. “Nothing at all. Now I understand how you’re so peppy all the time.”

“Fuck you.” Adelheid said. But there was a pleasant little smile on her face too.


“We’re treating this as a combat operation. Maintain readiness and alertness at all times.”

As the Antenora neared Ajillo Substation, Norn organized several people in the hangar.

At the head of the “drones” was the Chief Security Officer, Reinhardt. Often, the security chief was selected for peak physical condition, such that he could be counted on to wrestle multiple men by himself. When choosing a Security team, the theory was that they needed to be both able to quell internal disorder and also serve as a boarding party or detached infantry force. This was not necessary in the Antenora. Instead, Reinhardt was a special forces veteran with several missions under his belt and an excellent array of combat and operational skills. His sleek build, which was flexible but strong, attested to the versatility with which he operated. He was not just muscle, but brains.

Around him there were other men and women of the Antenora’s security squadron: of similar backgrounds.

“We will uphold a zero-trust policy toward any personnel from Ajillo.” Norn said. “Do not allow them aboard, do not permit them to carouse. Treat even the most minor details about the Antenora with strict confidentiality. Refueling and resupply of the Antenora shall only be undertaken by Antenora personnel with a security escort. Act natural around Ajillo men but do not be sociable. You are here to do a job and nothing else. Bring up my name if necessary.”

“Yes milord.” Said the Security team in unison. They understood their orders instantly.

“Lieutenant van Mueller and I will meet with the base commander.”

Norn gestured toward Adelheid, standing next to her. Adelheid waved awkwardly.

This was all unnecessary, as all the drones were quite well aware of who she was.

However, Norn had only recently established her clique of drones, so she was still used to explaining her operational plans as if speaking to the average soldier who was stressed out and had an ephemeral memory for minutia. Even understanding this, she still felt compelled to convene tactical meetings. After all, part of the conditions of her control was that the drones believed their situation to be normal, and maintaining military routine, rather than dispensing with everything unneeded, helped the control to hold. So this meeting, and the way it was conducted, had a purpose.

“There may well be a situation in which either Lieutenant van Mueller or I may become imperiled on this mission. I believe strongly that Vespucio has some kind of plot in mind, and he may try to isolate or capture one or both of us. I am quite convinced of Lieutenant van Mueller’s combat skills as well as my own, and do not need any personnel to come to our rescue. However, we will need a way to suppress any unwanted response from the Station’s combat unit.”

Norn turned to face Selene, who was standing in her pilot suit next to the Security force.

It had been hours since her battle with the Volkisch. Norn assumed that Selene had gotten some rest, but she was clearly groggy and bedraggled, nevertheless. Her face was pale, her silvery-purple hair a bit messy, and her rainbow-colored antennae were even sticking up unclipped, a rare sight from her. Despite this, she seemed to do her best to remain at attention during the meeting, standing up straight and keeping her gaze moving.

“Ajillo is a ship graveyard, but they have Divers and other weapons available to them. Because of this potential threat, we will be releasing the Jagdkaiser into the water under the guise of trim testing so that we can respond quickly to any moves by the station staff.” Norn continued. “The Jagdkaiser will be armed with a single cartridge. I’ll send a signal, Selene — you’ll know if you can use it. Blow up a ship and cause a ruckus. Do not hit the Station.”

With the way Norn looked at Selene, the girl understood the signal would be psionic in nature.

She could see the red rings around Norn’s eyes as she briefly invoked the power when their eyes met.

“Okay. Got it.” Selene said. “So I’m just trying to scare them? What if they fight back?”

“Even these second-rate troops wouldn’t be so stupid. After they see the cartridge go off, they’ll certainly break completely. But, if anyone tries to be brave, just swat them down with your remaining weapons.”

“Are these guys that lame?” Selene asked.

Norn smiled. Her vernacular was quite amusing sometimes.

“They are extremely lame. You’d slaughter them in a fight.”

“Sure, okay then, no complaints from me. What do I do while I’m waiting?”

“Swim around a bit, but conserve energy.”

Selene yawned. “Got it. I’ll just take a nap in the cockpit then.”

From Selene, Norn turned back to the Security personnel and to a final group comprising the NCOs in charge of the sailors. They would organize groups to carry out any repairs and to lug around whatever supplies Colonel Vespucio offered them. While the Antenora had not taken any damage, there was wear and tear that could only be maintained properly while the ship was not moving, and the ship had been moving for a while. This was a good opportunity to catch up. Much like the Security staff, the NCOs and all the sailors were under Norn’s influence. In Norn’s view, this was mainly so they would not divulge anything out of the ordinary they saw on the ship.

As far as their work efficiency, it could not be faulted, even before they became drones.

Norn had handpicked the best of the best, after all.

“You already know what work needs to be done on the ship, so just go do it. Work smart, not hard. We aren’t in any rush. One important thing to note: Hunter III of the Third Sphere will be providing special support in the Station. If you see Hunter III in your area of operations, ignore her and act unsurprised. Don’t give away her position even if she starts acting openly near you. I will meet with Hunter III separately about her orders.”

Each of the NCOs saluted Norn and acknowledged their orders.

“You’re all dismissed. We should be docking in about an hour.” Norn turned from the departing NCOs and Security staff to her sole pilot. “Selene, go start the immersion process, and just take a nap in the cockpit if you want after that. We can always inject something to wake you up if your attention is required.”

“I’d rather you inject something to put me to sleep.” Selene stretched her arms with a heavy sigh.

Norn grinned broadly at her. “We’ve got all kinds of things to inject here! Just say the word!”

Selene cringed in response. She silently made her way to the Jagdkaiser and its technicians instead.

This left Norn and Adelheid once again alone in the middle of the hangar.

“Seen Hunter III around?” Norn asked.

Adelheid shrugged. “She hasn’t come down. She’s probably sulking in some dark corner.”

“I’ll go find her. Go mom on Selene a bit. She doesn’t like you much.” Norn said.

“What? She doesn’t?” Adelheid put her hands on her hips and leaned forward.

“She hates your guts actually. So go make nice, okay?”

Norn turned around abruptly, waving one hand dismissively and laughing as she went.

She left Adelheid standing there with no recourse but to hover over to the Jagdkaiser’s orbit after a brief bout of loud but aimless grumbling. Norn looked at her briefly as she departed. It was all well and good; Norn did not really want Adelheid to be present for her conversation with Hunter III anyway. Not because she did not trust her with the information, but because Adelheid had a weaker gut than Norn around Hunter III.

For a moment she focused on the aura of Hunter III and saw trails of color she could follow.

There was a warm feeling behind her eyes; onlookers with power would have seen it.

Often the use of Psionic power came to her as easily as breathing or moving her limbs.

She had mastered this ability from a very young age. It was not just raw power she had acquired but understanding. It was understanding that allowed her to control everyone on this ship. Her crew was founded and sustained by an intricate web of conditions and deceptions with the end result that they would never fear the things they saw on the ship, reveal her secrets or utter a word of disloyalty, and never shirk their duties.

It was rare that Norn had to think about Psionics, had to actually exert effort.

She could sustain her control over the Antenora near indefinitely with very little pain.

But it was not something she could do to the people at Ajillo. Not on short notice.

For them, if it came to it, she would need brute strength. She did not have time for tricks.

Thankfully, she had brute strength to spare. She had acquired very many powerful people.

Norn made her way up to the upper deck and traversed the Antenora’s sparse hallways, following her sixth sense. As a Cruiser, the Antenora was quite spacious and mostly comfortable compared to other warships, but Norn felt that unnecessary decorations were an assault on her senses. She already saw too much color floating around as it was, and did not need a gaudy paint job, wall ornaments and other tacky manor-style adornments in her halls. So unlike most flagships, it felt very little like a home, and far less like a manse or a palace than the Irmingard.

At least, that would be the response from typical, garish Imperial sensibilities.

As far as Norn was concerned, she had lived in far worse places and called them “home.”

To her, the Antenora was her palace, her fortress. She felt safe; she felt cared for here.

Following Hunter III’s trail led Norn to a wall with a panel which had been pulled off.

When Norn kneeled, she found within the gloomy niche an interior panel also pulled out. It was a maintenance entry into the guts of the ship, mainly for workers to access the water circulation and electrical systems, as well as some room electronics. Within the little space, she caught a trail of familiar colors, gaseous tongues, and sparks, swirling colors faded from their source, hovering like the nebulas from old pictures of the space outside Aer’s tainted surface.

“Hunter III! Come out of there. I don’t want to crawl around for you.”

“Then don’t.”

Just as she suspected and sensed; a familiar whiny voice echoed in the little metal room.

“Come out this instant.” Norn said. “Or you’ll miss out on a big reward.”

“Is it meat?”

“It’s better than meat.”

“Bullshit.”

Curiosity got the better of her. Soon Norn saw a slender shadow come crawling out.

Her name as she had given it to Norn was Hunter III of the Third Sphere.

Norn had an inkling of what this name meant: she was the third Hunter type unit of a specific numbered group within her people, the Third Sphere. Whether the ‘Spheres’ were military in nature or domestic units, Norn herself did not fully know, nor was it something high on her list of priorities to learn about the young woman.

There were other, far more curious features of this woman to be probed.

Hunter III was a slim, lithe, pale individual, so pale that when her wrists or neck were bared the major arteries were quite noticeable running just under the surface. Her face had an eerie beauty to it, with its red eyes and cold complexion, dark shadows around her eyes giving her the look of someone stressed or hardly sleeping. Her shoulder length hair was as white as her skin with a single streak of blue running through it. In terms of height, she was a fairly small woman, but quite clearly an adult in figure and strength. For clothes, she had a too-long, too-large hood, going down to her knees with sleeves longer than her arms. Norn knew this to be the only garment she had on.

When she wanted to, Hunter III could have a comically expressive face.

As she crawled out of her tunnel cubby, her face bore only a passive, tired expression.

“I’m waitin’ for this thing that’s better than meat that y’got.”

“It’s all yours, but first, I want to know: can you smell it?”

“S’it in your coat?”

“Indeed.”

Hunter III drew closer to Norn and leaned forward, catching a whiff of Norn’s scent.

Her eyes drew wide open.

At first, she recoiled, but then she drew closer again, sniffing again and again.

Her strong, slim hands grabbed hold of Norn’s coat and brought it up to her nose.

This unwanted touch bothered Norn, but only slightly. “Did I say you could do that?”

Hunter III looked up. Her eyes looked cloudy, perhaps even more tired than before.

She tugged gently on the coat, putting her head to Norn’s chest.

“Give it– Please give it here– Please I need it–”

Her entire demeanor had completely changed. She was so immediately vulnerable.

“So you can smell them. Good to know if we ever want to go find more ourselves.”

Norn produced from her coat a sliver of something. To her, it was odorless, small, and in its appearance, abhorrent. It was like finger’s-width of meat wrapped in clammy silverskin. When she peeled the silvery wrapping off it like a web, she unveiled a glob of yellow fat affixed with a pellicle-like spine to a warm, soft, pink mass. Sinews ran through the object that held color as if alive. Hunter III snapped up from Norn’s chest and stared, transfixed, at this object in her hands, her mouth drawing open, her body shaking. Her little protests grew a bit more animated.

“That’s mine–” Her voice faltered; her eyes wide open, moist. “Give it– give it here–”

Hunter III had eaten these before. But back then, the fruits had been plentiful.

This was a discovery. Norn now felt she better understood the importance of the fruit.

“That’s right. It is indeed yours.” Norn dangled it in front of Hunter III for a moment. “A sliver of fruit from a Garden of Marrow; these are important to Omenseers, aren’t they? The Sunlight Foundation destroyed a nest recently and Hudson’s machines collected this for me in the aftermath. You’ve been treating me like I’m such a slavedriver, and yet, I do so much for you. I’ll give you this taste. And there will be more if you’re a good girl.”

Hunter III opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue.

Grinning to herself, Norn deposited the piece into Hunter III’s open, awaiting maw. And she watched with fascination as the woman before her savored the bite thoroughly, as if with her entire body. Skin brimming with new color, her chest shaking, holding herself with irrepressible pleasure and excitement in the act of eating this slimy thing. Her knees buckling, a tremor under her skin, her breathing heavy as she swallowed the tiny morsel.

Licking her lips as if lustfully trying to savor every last bit of the taste that she could.

“Don’t be too greedy.” Norn said. “And you’ll be rewarded with more.”

Hunter III pulled back from Norn as if suddenly snapping back to her senses.

Her eyes were wild with a surprising passion.

“I won’t be! But ya know if ya want me to go out there, I’ll need– a whole fruit!”

Her voice trembled as if even the thought of more of this food made her knees weak.

There had been a time when the Antenora had more of these in her possession.

One of the Omenseers’ ritual practices was that they did not leave ships or go into battle in person without having eaten one of these fruits. Norn surmised that it was not just superstition, and in fact most of Hunter III’s unique biology was locked away until she ate this disgusting little morsel. Hunter III had her own supply, once upon a time, but little by little, as she participated in Norn’s campaigns out of her greed for the luxuries of humans–

“I should be keepin’ it.” Hunter III said. “I promise I won’t just nibble on it willy-nilly.”

Norn scoffed. “You were a poor steward of your own wealth. If you want a cut of the treasure of this ship you will follow military logistics like the rest of us. So let’s come to the following agreement: I’ll be keeping an eye on any fruits I find or that the Sunlight Foundation bequeaths to me. If you discover a Garden of Marrow yourself then by all means you can do whatever you want with those fruits. But if I acquired the fruit, it’s mine to dispense.”

“But they ain’t yours!” Hunter III protested. “They don’t belong to you no matter what, they’re ours.”

“Are you going to rat me out to Arbitrator II for hoarding Omenseer relics?”

Hunter III snorted. “What’s she got to do with this? I hate her guts more than you.”

“Good. Then we’re agreed?” Norn grinned, leaning forward to the smaller woman.

“Fine. We’re agreed.” Hunter III grumbled.

“Good girl.”

From her other coat pocket Norn produced a second sliver of the fruit.

Hunter III, perhaps because she was sated, was not as desperate for this one.

But her eyes did follow it calmly all the way from the pocket to the air.

And stared almost incredulously as Norn deposited the object in her waiting hands.

“You can save it or eat it now. It’s all up to you.”

“I’m gonna be fightin’ soon I guess, or you wouldn’t give me none.”

Hunter III excitedly put the object into her mouth, silverskin and all.

Once again, her body seemed to go weak at the taste of it. She shivered, turned her hips.

“Does it taste that good?” Norn asked. Of course, she received no answer.

Though she had not been as enthusiastic for the morsel the second time, her weakness to its taste was precisely the same. It seemed to overtake her entire body, and only after swallowing did she return to her senses, albeit smacking her lips and clicking her tongue as if still chasing some measure of what the fruit made her feel. Her face brightened, and Norn did notice that some color had returned to her skin, which was now very slightly flushed.

She smiled, baring her fangs. More like the Hunter III that Norn remembered.

“So boss, who are we killin’?” She asked, a new enthusiasm creeping into her voice.

“My, you’re lively. I should feed you this stuff more often.” Norn teased.

“Y’ought to, cuz all that fruit belongs to me anyway.” Hunter III replied.

She put her fists on her hips and tried to puff her chest up in a way to seem larger and more confident. Her mood did not dampen despite Norn’s continued refusal to give up custody of the fruits to her. There was a large smile on her face, through which her sharp teeth could be seen. While Hunter III could be quite whiny, she could muster an attitude that lived up to her moniker. As long as it was meat, she would eat anything.

Norn smiled back at her. “You look like you’re ready enough. Here, but don’t eat it now.”

Reaching into the coat itself, Norn procured the final gift she had for Hunter III.

One complete fruit from a Garden of Marrow.

Wrapped in silverskin and a thin layer of soft white fat, flecked with deposits of sea salt within its pellicle-like outer ridges, it was not the uniform shape of a fruit from an ordinary fruiting tree, but a lopsided pink blob. Like an organ drawn from an animal, small enough to hold in the open palm of Norn’s hands, completely still and yet pulsating as if it had life. Concentrating her gaze on the object revealed the faintest trace of placid aural colors, as if it were a thing dreaming or even perhaps yearning, a potential close to life and yet unrealized. Perhaps like an egg.

This was not an object whose mystery Norn could crack alone.

So Norn entrusted the object into Hunter III’s hands and watched closely.

Hunter III stared at her master with eyes drawn wide open and unbelieving.

She looked down at the object in her hands and back up at Norn, her lips drawing apart as if to form words that caught in her throat every time. Through a few cycles of this Norn stood and watched the woman in front of her fumble, before she mustered the willpower to put the fruit into the pouch of her hood. Her face grew warm with a soft and tenuous delight. As if she did not know how she should feel about the gift.

“I guess ya really ain’t that bad huh?” Hunter III. “Or y’re sending me to my death.”

Norn smiled. She laid a hand on Hunter III’s hair and brushed it gently.

Uncharacteristically, the shorter woman allowed this display of affection.

“We’re going to a station that may be full of enemies. I am giving you this because I am entrusting you with Adelheid. Any smart enemy would use my adjutant to gain information about me or coerce me. I want you to be ready to kill to protect her. She has seen combat in the past, but not so much as you or I. So I want to be certain of her safety. If you can keep her safe, I can defeat any enemy we meet there and unravel any scheme we find.”

“So, ya do care about her this much, huh?” Hunter III said.

Those simple words caused Norn to falter for just a brief moment.

I would die without her.

She could never say such a thing.

It felt like admitting a certain weakness to say something like that in front of Hunter III.

“Her path and mine are intertwined, and where one ends, so will the other.” Norn said.

“Talkin’ like an born an’ blue-blooded Apostle now aren’t ya? Like y’ve got some kinda big destiny with her or somethin’. Hah! Y’re just down bad after all!” Hunter III joked, hugging her own belly, and giggling to herself. “But whatever! Gettin’ to eat red fruit and humans today? Really? I’m so spoilt right now! So of course I can’t say no to ya! Just gimme a peek at the station layout if ya can. They won’t know what hit ‘em!”

Norn could not be angry when faced with that unrelenting enthusiasm.

Even if she was saying things about her that she found uncouth.

“You’ll have all the information and any tools you need down in the hangar.” Norn calmly said.

“Only thing I need to get the killin’ started is this.” Hunter III said, gesturing to her pouch, where the fruit was securely stored. “What I wanna know is, how are ya plannin’ to take out a whole station by y’rself too? I can kill a lot of guys, but we’re gonna need more of a plan than that for hundreds of guys. If you get surrounded or somethin’, and you gotta rely on brainpower, you might just keel over from how much blastin’ you’ll be doin’!”

For most psychics that was indeed a genuine concern.

Norn’s whole body could suffer greatly for any irresponsible use of her great gift.

While there were mitigating factors, the basic formula was that the complexity and relative weight of the feat would determine the size of the feedback and injury. Psionics was like a muscle. Even for a practiced body, great effort over prolonged periods of time engendered pain. A power-lifter could fight brilliantly against enormous weights that would break an ordinary man’s arms, but not just any weight, and not indefinitely. And in Norn’s case the muscle she was pushing to its limits was not a sturdy, purpose-built tool like the arms and legs that could be diligently trained, but a vulnerable piece of human xenobiology that felt more miracle than material. In her case, the limits were not something physical that could be easily measured. They had to be felt; and that feeling could be dangerous.

Such ephemera was true even for an Apostle: someone who was born uniquely gifted.

It was also true even for those who trained the eldritch muscle in their own minds to its fullest.

For Norn, who trained among the Sunlight Foundation, Psionics was still not limitless magic.

And yet, in this modern era, there was always an alternative. A power-lifter could imbue his arms with new power through drugs, cybernetics, gene editing, or even being born with a selection of traits that afforded him greater strength, like the Katarran process that Norn herself was quite familiar with. Norn also had access to ways to enhance her own mighty abilities even further. Ways she had already employed to survive to see this day.

She had a simple answer for Hunter III: “I’ve already prepared for that eventuality.”

From Norn’s other inner coat pocket, she produced a long, thin object with a thick cap.

Visible through an opening along its length was a green, blue, and red spiral of fluid.

Embossed on the complex injector was a highly stylized sun emblem.

Hunter III sniffed it briefly. “Huh. Somethin’ funny from the old engineers. You trust it?”

“Your concern is becoming less endearing and more insulting. With this formula I bested Mehmed the Tyrant, who was a powerful Apostle. So don’t worry about me and focus on protecting Adelheid.”

Mehmed– why was she remembering that name–?

“Sure, boss. I guess I better go get ready.” Hunter III said, barely acknowledging the response.

Norn nodded. She felt something solemn take over her then.

Staring at the creature in front of her, so human, so alien, so in between worlds.

Painfully close to how Norn herself had always felt.

It brought up bad memories.

Memories Norn had no use recalling.

“One last thing.”

Hunter III gave her a toothy smile. “What’s up, boss?”

“If you do feel Arbitrator II’s presence, you must let me know.”

“Huh? Well– I gotta be careful with that–“

“I will free you from her.”

Hunter III seemed to have no answer to that.

She was confused why that name had come up.

Twice, even.

“Sure thing, boss.“

She was likely not even listening anymore at this point.

Maybe to some degree, she could not listen to a request like that.

Norn laid a hand on her head, feeling the silky hair on the Omenseer like the fur on a fondly loved dog.

“You will be free to help me terrorize the world, to your heart’s content.”

Those words that crossed her lips scarcely acknowledged the actual truth.

And she was so powerful in her self deception that not for a second did she allow herself to acknowledge why she was even speaking names like Mehmed and Arbitrator II so casually to Hunter III, for whom they could not hope to be memories as long, lasting and harshly lived as they were for Norn. Memories of lofty goals, foolish naivety, and half-understood truths about the deep, dark world they journeyed in. Memories that she had become adept at referencing sans their context, to never again follow to their source. Mehmed was just a name.

And Arbitrator II would soon be just another name in the recesses of her mind.

But first, she had to attend the stultifying tasks that lay ahead in Konstantin’s little farce.


Previous ~ Next

Pursuers In The Deep [7.1]

Whenever she marched up this dusty grey carpet to meet him, the grim throne room of their souls was not actually at Heitzing where it should logically be but was instead displaced to the summer palace at Schwerin Island.

She could see through the stark white pillars out to vast fields encircling the palace, fields of her favorite flower, purple Lilies. Schwerin was the terminal point of a wound that began to be cut into the emperor’s upper torso at Vogelheim. But it was at Schwerin Island where the knife fully disemboweled him and cut everything from him.

His guts, his groin; his sins spilled pathetically on this holy ground.

And so he remained surrounded on all sides by the perfectly preserved memory of his lusts.

“What vice! What tragedy! But Konstantin, I am happy you still choose to watch over me!”

It was a vision of a soul being made to dream. It was a place only the most powerful saw.

For some it could be blissful and innocent, but this Aether reflected the self in this man.

Stark white pillars caging him in a throne far from the vast colorful fields of his regret.

Upon the throne was a wasting, sickly man clad heavily in coat and cape, a marshal of vast forces long dispersed, whose gaunt countenance retained only his severity and grim expression. Any hint of his soft handsomeness was faded, replaced by the haunted, far-away gaze with which he ordered wars, enslavement, genocide, and the death of his beloved. He retained some of his vanities, such as his head of long black hair untouched atop his head as if the last remnants of life upon his body. A corpse wearing the suit of prestige, any beauty also merely part of a disguise.

Standing opposite this man was also the true self of his only remaining companion.

A blond woman, hair tied up in a functional ponytail, with a deceptively soft expression just barely touched by makeup and just barely restraining laughter. Her stark red eyes contrasted the blue and green coat of the House of the Fueller, that she wore over a sleek black camisole blouse and white pants. She looked much younger than she was, for she and the skeletal man before her were only separated by a few years. Because of her power and charisma, her beauty remained unmarred both in the Aether and in the real world. She was proud of the body she exhibited to him.

“You could have simply let it go! But now your ego has trapped you here forever!”

He could say nothing back.

“I’m beyond thrilled! You think you will get some satisfaction from this? Then keep watching me! Bear witness while everything that represented you rusts and turns to dust! Gaze upon the bountiful rewards I enjoy while you suffer! Haunt me with all your remaining strength!”

She spat on the ground before the throne and then made an act of sorting out her coat. She had come to like wearing the coat and what it represented, the climbing up of the intelligent and feared machinists of the Fuellers to the ladder of power after suffering a grievous disrespect, the first revolution this stagnant society ever saw. She admired them, collectively. But not this man.

Soon, however, the walls began to waver, turning into many-colored smoke and fading–


“–Descending through the Upper Scattering Layer in five minutes.”

A cold and inexpressive voice rose above the sounds of mechanical keys and the whirr of the individual station computers on the gloomy bridge of the Imperial cruiser Antenora. Unlike the flamboyant bridge designs common to many other Imperial ships, this one was spartan, with bare metal walls and the ship’s commander seated amid a tight square of her supporting station officers.

It was on this bridge that Lady Norn von Fueller awakened from a dream already dim and forgotten.

Though she could turn her gaze in any direction and see right over the shoulders of her subordinates, she mainly stared at the main screen with an almost bored expression. Her officers reported to her efficiently throughout the course of the descent, but she had questions of her own the whole time, which received answers just as efficient. Nothing more than what was necessary.

“Current depth?”

“286 meters and descending.”

“Sonar shows all clear?”

“All clear, milord.”

Moving quickly on from one subordinate to the next.

“How’s the red biomass in this sector?”

“1 parts per million at concentration 2 on the Schechter scale.”

Her station officers did not even turn their heads to speak to her, nor did she demand it.

“Are we detecting any imaging attempts against the Upper Scattering Layer?”

“Negative, milord. No signs of radiation or human acoustic patterns.”

“Of course they would not. And yet, for every concept under the sun, there is a someday.”

Among her bridge, it was only Norn who had spare words to say.

As far as most of the public, and even the most of the military knew, the Upper Scattering Layer was the boundary of the human world. An absolutely massive ecosystem that stretched ocean-wide containing almost all life that survived the calamity which befell Aer. When sonar and laser imaging was turned surfaceward from the deeper civilization of humankind, there was a “false roof” to their endeavors formed by fish, leviathans, and other ocean creatures.

The Upper Scattering Layer separated the Aphotic zone of humanity from the Photic zone, the ocean nearest to the surface and which received direct sunlight, even through the cover of the corruption clouds. Nothing could be built by humans in the Photic zone that wouldn’t be destroyed by its alien temperament. Navigation was nearly impossible due to the erratic currents and the touch of the surface’s most corrupted areas and their eldritch weather influencing the waters. If a ship did not get blown off-course or wrecked by a sudden turn in the waters, it could antagonize the many aggressive lifeforms that grew out of humankind’s calamity and get devoured.

Outside of the geographic locations known as Reaches, areas where the surface was miraculously tamer and humanity could therefore enter its shallows, the Upper Scattering Layer at between 300 to 500 meters depth, represented the wall between the world of light and the shadow of humanity. It was this wall through which the Imperial Cruiser Antenora now descended through, from above.  Back to the dark to rejoin the rest of humanity after a brief sojourn in the holy land.

This was but one of many powers commanded by the woman known as “the Praetorian.”

“Hunter III, you’ve been keeping mum. Anything interesting in that head of yours?”

In a corner of the bridge, a pallid woman lifted her head up as if waking from a trance.

Eyes glowing with intermittent red rings as she stared into space, called by her Lord.

“I mean whatcha wanna know anyway?” She said. Her tone was confrontational.

“How about the currents? What’s the weather looking like?”

“Currents are fine. We’ll dive through without problems.”

Her Lord, nothing but the back of a chair from her vantage, rapped fingers on metal.

“Any visitors?”

“Couple’a big ones. 5 klicks out. Fightin’ each other. Won’t follow us.”

“You sure? I’ll hurl you out there to be bait if you’re wrong.” Her tone shifted suddenly.

“I can’t be unsure, I’m seein’ it. Quit givin’ me grief. You’re always treatin’ me like trash when I’m the only reason any of ya are alive. Give me more meat if ya want me to be more accurate. Otherwise all y’all getting is my half-dead ramblings, you greedy evil witch.”

Laughter erupted from the chair. A black-gloved hand slammed the armrest with joy.

“How dramatic! Woe is you! Eating sausage and luncheon meat like us humans do!”

At the Lord’s response, the pallid, sharp-toothed woman grumbled openly.

“When are ya gonna give me real meat again?” She moaned. “Y’just starvin’ me for fun?”

“Quit acting like a dog I don’t feed. You eat every day. You’ll get something special soon.”

“Soon huh? The days’ been creepin’ and soon ain’t ever closer for Hunter III, it seems.”

None of the other bridge crew had any comment about the repartee behind them.

At the back, Hunter III pulled her hood up over her stark grey-and-white hair and sulked.

“Work hard and pray for trouble!” Norn cheered. “Then I’ll have use for you again!”

There was a crooked grin on Norn’s face as she berated Hunter III that she wore at no other time on that bridge. Everyone else was an automaton; but there was real value, and real fun, in a person whom you could not control. Particularly someone with the myriad uses Hunter III had.

“We’ve crossed the Upper Scattering Layer,” droned one of the officers.

The Antenora descended through a vast cloud of fish that parted and then closed in its wake as if shutting the door to the forbidden world behind them. Around the ship the color of water formed a slowly darkening gradient, from the brilliant light blue and green water kissed by the light of the sun to the deep blue and ultimately near-black waters of the aphotic zone. Visibility grew worse, until the ship’s cameras turned their floodlights on to achieve the familiar 50-75 meters of vision. At 700 meters, they could claim to have returned fully to the human world.

All manner of learned men dreamed of making this transition and found a depth of tragedy and poetry to this gradient in the water and light. Norn found nothing poetic about it. In her mind, there was no irony to humans’ remnants having been reduced to living in the shadows of the aphotic zone. She avoided such sophistry as to say, “we are shadows of our former selves.”

After all, she was living proof that humanity’s best was yet to come.

Her most common emotion sitting on this bridge was a sense of sheer boredom.

A blankness of the mind that only cleared once she was back in the dark world of humans.

“Depth?” She asked, back to an inexpressive, business-like tone of voice.

“700 meters.”

“Ah, home sweet home. We are in Sverland, correct?”

“Correct. Nearest station is Ajillo.”

“Ignore biologics again and inform me immediately of any mechanical profiles.”

“Yes, milord.”

Norn did not thank her bridge “drones” for their efficiency and attention.

In this role, she was as much of a drone as they were.

Soon, however, she would have cause to come alive again.

Now that she was back in the human world, her own vision started moving to other matters.

“Hunter III, feel free to nod off. I’ll wake you if I need you. Send Adelheid up.”

“It’s not sleep I’m cravin’, but as ya wish, milady.”

Behind Norn’s seat, Hunter III stood up and stormed out of the room.

Norn grinned to herself. She was back in Sverland, in the final act of Konstantin’s play.

It was not the surface world in which anything was transpiring, the poets and clergy be damned.

Movement existed only where humans could view it. That she could rise out of the world of humanity and travel through the waters above only made her anticipate her return to the dark more eagerly.

This was a time of great chaos and emotion in the world of humans, after all!

“Milord, we’ve detected a sonar pulse coming from a pair of Frigates.”

Without another word, the officer put the data she was referencing on the main screen. While a sonar pulse was a good way to be absolutely sure of everything that was around a ship, it also lit the ship up underwater like a stage spotlight. The Antenora was quickly aware of the ship that sent the pulse and their relative position. Soon, predictive imaging data came in as well.

“Milord, what is our posture?”

Norn smiled to herself, leaning back and resting her cheek on one of her fists.

“Combat. Let’s clean this up quickly, and then we can pick up our reinforcements.”

A few kilometers out were two Frigates, one of which was a missile Frigate with six bays, the other a reconnaissance ship outfitted with several domes filled with imaging and detection equipment more powerful than standard. It must have been this ship that sent out the pulse, but for what? Were they so reasonably sure that nobody meant them ill in this sector? One supposed they could not have known a ship would be descending from the photic zone.

Nobody planned for that.

“Nobody sends those missile Frigates out as part of a recon unit except the Volkisch.” Norn said. “That second Frigate has no missiles, it’s probably packed with Divers. Heidelinde Sawyer came up with that trick and now every one of those goosestepping clowns thinks they can do it.”

“To whom should we delegate combat command?”

A different drone spoke up than the one handling detection, but it didn’t matter who did.

“I’ll command.” Norn said. “But there won’t be much to do. Ping them over acoustics and tell them to stop, turn their cannons away, show their flanks to us, and prepare for inspection. All I want to know from the reply is whether they’re identifying as Volkisch or not, ignore the content. They won’t comply anyway, so just tell Potomac to get Selene and the machine ready to launch.”

Norn toyed with a long lock of blonde hair from the side of her head, briefly admiring its sheen. Adelheid was simply unmatched when it came to making Norn look beautiful. On the main screen, the Volkisch Frigates turned to meet her advance as soon as the acoustic message went out, putting them on a collision course. Norn glanced at it, gently kicking her feet while she waited.

“Fleet identified as ‘Aufklärungsgruppe Sowilo’ from the Rhinean navy.”

“Ah, fun! It’s the Volkisch. Stick to counterfire only.” Norn said. “Let Selene handle it.”

She rubbed her hands together and then spread them in a spontaneous cheer.

A grin appeared on her face from ear to ear and she could barely contain her excitement.

A grin that only broadened when she finally got the message she wanted to hear from the hangar.

Jagdkaiser Testbed, pilot Selene Anahid, cleared for deployment.” An officer said.

“I’m authorizing one cartridge, Selene. Anything goes otherwise. Have fun!” Norn said.

She then sat back to watch she show, hoping only that Adelheid might join them soon.


From the deployment chutes at the bottom of the Antenora a single machine was released.

Imaging predictors could not distinguish it from a Jagd and labeled it as such.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching.

To meet this threat the missile Frigate’s bays opened to reveal six modified Volkers. These Sturmvolkers used the smaller cockpit module of a Jagd rather than the bathyspheric torso of an older Volker, but retained the arms, legs, shoulders, and other parts of the classic imperial mecha to design a rugged but lighter footsoldier worthy of the frontline stormtroops. It was this stripping down that allowed the Sturmvolker to fit into the modified missile bays and launch from them.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd was approaching, and they had ambushed it.

Six Sturmvolkers with MP-443 20 mm submachine guns charged the enemy in formation.

Withering volleys of light gunfire cut across the ocean between the opposing forces.

Bullets soared into the dark, open water and detonated around an enemy no longer there.

An instant before they had begun to fire, the enemy Jagd veered left–

And a pair of foreign objects separated from it and veered right.

Several of the Volkisch troops opened fire on the objects believing them to be missiles. Dozens of rounds of submachine gun fire met the objects on the right flank. Much to the confusion and disbelief of the soldiers, these missiles dove, and banked, and circled around the gunfire, moving with a speed, reaction and efficacy that seemed unreal as they sped past the formation.

Taking the Volkisch’s backs, the missiles suddenly opened fire themselves.

Not just from behind, but from above as well.

Coordinating fire from two separate directions, the weapons laid down a hailstorm of frighteningly accurate 37 mm bullets while they circled over and around the Volkisch group, too fast for the bewildered soldiers to effectively respond. Two of the Volkers had their backpacks and helmets blasted apart immediately, and the rest began to panic and flee in every direction– they broke completely at the unusual weapons attacking them and without cohesion could do nothing.

Though the remaining Volkers dispersed in seemingly every direction, the strange mobile weapons simply adjusted the angle of fire and widened their strafing movements to expand the circle in which they kept the Volkisch trapped. Three more Volkers were sunk, but a single one dove down and to the left at just the right time as everyone else rose, narrowly avoiding the attack.

He lifted his submachine gun skyward and opened fire, blasting apart one of the missiles.

A shadow swept upon him as quickly as he remembered it. A massive claw ripped through the back of his armor and tore out the suit’s mechanical guts in a swift motion. With them was a red smear made unhuman by sudden decompression. Slowly the once survivor sank out of sight, arms limp, trailing ribbons of oil and gore like the machine that killed him trailed water and power.

As far as the Volkisch knew, a single Jagd had torn through their forces like a storm.

Atop the Frigates, 76 mm light guns began to pound the immediate area around the machine but to no greater effect. Before it was fired upon the machine was already moving, accelerating faster, and maneuvering more swiftly than the cannon crew anticipated. Gas gun emplacements on the Frigates whipped up an intimidating fusillade of flak, but even through this, the enemy charged, unharmed, its cruel claw extending hungrily toward the Frigates as it closed in, 100 meters, 75, 50.

“You have one cartridge. Make it count.”

Within moments, the Jagd was upon the reconnaissance Frigate, face to face with the prow.

Having danced around every bullet as if it could see them before they flew out the barrels.

Dwarfed as it was by the vessel before it, the Jagd still reared back its claw to tear at it.

From within the seams in its arm’s armor plating a dim purple glow briefly escaped.

Vapor vented from several ports on the claw.

Razor-sharp digits parted to reveal an opening like a cannon barrel in the palm.

Stabilizers on each digit affixed to the central port as it snapped open.

A burst of water vapor punched forward from the opening encasing an indigo light.

On the Frigate’s prow a pulse shook the metal. Purple streaks crackled across the surface slashing up and down the prow to the keel and deck, to the port and starboard. Hexagonal bits of material peeled off the surface wherever the arcing energies danced leaving gaps momentarily smoking in place, before a second later the entire prow sunk in and burst, ejecting great plumes of bubbles and vapor as the interior decompressed. Roughly half of the ship lost structural integrity and collapsed, sinking inward or bursting open, and it toppled to the ocean floor a heap of metal.

Across the Jagd’s claw, hexagonal burnt marks were left around the weapon’s opening and all of the stabilizers had been eaten away. Dim crackling purple energy still played about the digits leaving tiny hex-shaped scars wherever they went. Parts of the armor plate on the arm had been peeled entirely off the machine revealing complex, silvery metalwork, and various electronics.

As the machine capsized a ship with one swing of its arm, its remaining weapon swiftly strafed across the deck of the missile Frigate, overflying the missile bays with its barrel pointing down and shooting directly into the openings as it went, punching holes directly to the interior of the ship. Nonchalantly, the weapon overflew the conning tower as the Frigate began to list, taking in water and expelling atmosphere. It returned to the machine and docked to the shoulder.

Minutes had passed since the launch of this machine.

Suspended amid clouds of debris and the wailing remains of hundreds of lives so easily erased, the machine was cast in a demonic gloom. Water billowing off its rear jets like wings, its blue coloration rendered black in the darkness of human waters, the horns on its head emitting strange lights. It was a demon released to haunt the oceans.

A demon called the Jagdkaiser.


Water dribbled down the armor of the recovered Jagdkaiser as it was lifted to the hangar by cranes, collecting on the orange steel floor of the Antenora’s lower deck. Soon as it arrived at the deployment chute, the pilot followed instructions to power down the machine. It was delicate and should not be made to move out of the water under its own power until set into its own gantry.

As Norn stepped out of the elevator to the hangar floor, she saw a welcome face gawking.

“Fancy looking, isn’t it?” Norn called out.

“I can’t stand it, honestly. Too many sharp edges.”

“Your skin too fine for it? Scared of getting a cut?”

“Hmph. My fashion sense is too fine for it.”

Standing apart from the sailors and engineers tending to the machine was Norn’s adjutant and first officer, a young woman named Adelheid van Mueller. Unlike Norn, who dressed however she wanted and essentially just wore her nicest shirts and pants beneath Fueller regalia, Adelheid had the grey and silver uniform of the Grand Western Fleet, a strapping coat that flattered her shapely figure, paired with a short skirt, black tights, and heeled shoes. Her glossy, deep red hair and the pastel-soft features of her face could have graced a classic portrait. She not only looked every bit the perfect noblewoman, but her every movement exuded an almost exotic grace–

–even as she blew off Norn’s high-tech prototype mecha with a bratty turn of the cheek.

“I’ve decided I quite dislike it.” She said. Her green eyes were unreadable, but her soft pink lips pouted just a little as she looked at the machine with vague disinterest, or perhaps disdain.

Norn shrugged, approaching the young woman, and standing at her side near the machine.

“You’ll have to get out of its sight, princess, because it’s not going anywhere.”

“Perhaps I will. Maybe I’ll take off and you’ll never see me again.” Adelheid laughed.

“Hunter III told you to go up to meet me.” Norn said nonchalantly.

“Hunter III ran straight to the commissary to beg for meat and told me nothing.”

“Wow. I can’t rely on her to do anything. Anyway, you know you’re not going anywhere.”

Norn briefly fixed a sharp gaze on Adelheid before setting her sights back on the mecha.

Possessed of the sleek, angular profile of the second-generation Jagd, the Jagdkaiser had a pointed face from which two steeply angled “horns” protruded, glowing with LED lights. One of its 20 mm shoulder guns was removed. That shoulder was thickened and mounted its semi-autonomous “Options” weapon system.

Rather than a backpack, the propulsion consisted of self-contained hydrojet thrusters set on exterior movable mounts. Two large ones extended from the hips, another pair on the legs, and pair behind the shoulders that, when engaged, cast a wake behind machine as if it had wings or a shimmering cape. One of its arms was equipped with a large claw, almost out of proportion to the body, sleeved in angular armor enclosing complex machinery.

Upon seeing the design, Prince Erich dubbed it Jagdkaiser. It was a marvel of engineering, the most stunning armor beneath the waves. The stagnant conflict between the Republic and Empire, which neither had the will to conclude, could have never produced such an apex predator. It could only emerge from a grand upheaval of the current order. Regardless of Adelheid’s silly attitude, even she had to have realized the significance.

“Is Selene unplugged yet?”

Norn turned to one of the technicians near the machine.

He was looking at a diagnostic computer that had a real-time image that looked like a brain-scan, showing different regions of the pilot’s neurological system in different colors. Everything was blue and green, calm. Norn could see similar colors when she focused on the aura around the machine itself. Selene was in good health.

“Separation is almost complete, milord.”

“Did it take this long last time?”

“Average separation time is 5.45 minutes.”

Like the rest of the crew the technician did not turn to face her, it wasn’t necessary.

When Norn stepped forward to look at the computer herself, she briefly saw the hard red rings around his eyes. He continued to be under her influence. There was no possibility that he was lying or trying to sabotage anything. After all, he himself would not want to do so. He himself had no understanding that he was controlled, and he was not wanting for food, rest or luxuries. He was simply working his job efficiently and enjoying it.

That being said, there was always a tiny thrill of paranoia about it, in the back of Norn’s brain.

Adelheid look over Norn’s shoulder with a curious expression.

“Norn, this time’s definitely taking longer.” Adelheid said.

“We’re well within the average time based on our tests.” The technician said calmly.

“He can backtalk me?” Adelheid pouted.

Norn grinned. “He can state the facts plainly and clear misconceptions. It’s his job.”

Taking Adelheid by the shoulder, Norn led her away from the computers and drones.

They stepped in front of the Jagdkaiser and waited until they finally heard a mechanical hissing. An efficient two part hatch slid into the bodywork, opening to reveal a young, skinny girl emerging from what looked eerily like a conglomeration of sinews attached to her head. Extricating herself from the various cables and sensors in her cockpit, the lithe girl in a black pilot suit climbed down, withdrew a visored mask from her pearl-skinned face.

She pulled a clip from the back of her head to release her long, purple-colored hair.

Two long, rainbow-colored, shimmering locks remained pinned down to the rest, however.

“I was having too much of a blast and busted one of the things. It’s whatever, right?”

Selene Anahid pointed at the Jagdkaiser’s shoulder with an easygoing smile on her face.

“Ordnance gets shot down. It’s fine. Logistics worries about that.” Norn said, shrugging.

“Hah! I knew you wouldn’t care. You’re the coolest commander I’ve had.” Selene said.

Grinning widely, Selene walked up to Norn and gave her a lighthearted little punch.

Norn refrained from roughhousing back and simply crossed her arms and smiled back.

At their side, Adelheid rolled her eyes and scoffed, loudly, performatively.

“It’s not a long list.” She said. “And I bet you’ll hate it the first time she scolds you.”

“Whatever.” Selene blew off the comment. “As long as I get what I want, I’ll be happy.”

“What you want huh? Killing people?” Adelheid said, with mock sweetness.

“That’s just a hobby. Anyway I’m bored. I’m gonna get some dinner and go to bed.”

Selene looked at Norn both expectantly but also with a great disinterest in her response. It was the kind of look only a self-absorbed kid could give. Norn couldn’t help but laugh. Such quick, almost schizophrenic swings; what a lively girl! Truly the only appropriate pilot for this test.

“Of course. If you see Hunter III over there, tell her to come down.” Norn said.

“She won’t listen to me, but ok.”

Selene waved disinterestedly and walked away with her arms behind her head, yawning.

The two of them watched her go, until the young woman had disappeared into the elevator. Norn and Adelheid looked at the interior of the Jagdkaiser and at the missing slot in the “Options” mount of the shoulder, just briefly enough to realize it was indeed a problem, before wandering away from the gantries. They would have to talk to Chief Engineer Potomac to see about fixing it.

Side by side, with Adelheid matching Norn’s contemplative pace, they marched to the ship’s workshop. There was clear and growing agitation in the First Officer’s stride, however.

“Norn, about Selene? She’s a vat kid, right? How old is she?” Adelheid asked.

“Supposed to be twenty, but who knows?” Norn asked. “And what’s with ‘vat kid’? I’m also a ‘vat kid’ I’ll have you know; I don’t want that phrase coming up in my ship again, okay?”

“Okay, fine. But you have to tell me what you promised her!” Adelheid demanded.

“What’s this mood you’re in suddenly? Are you feeling jealous? You colicky child?”

Adelheid turned her cheek. “And what if I am? I know I’m nowhere near as important–”

Norn interrupted decisively. “I’ll see to you soon. Hold on to your skirt until then.”

Her voice took a turn that seemed to put some kind of order back in Adelheid’s brains.

She started keeping pace with Norn again and her expression was slightly livelier.

“Fine, but what did you promise her? I want to know. I have to help take care of her too.”

In the face of Adelheid’s endearing determination, Norn finally relented.

“I promised her information about her past. I know who her main genetic donor is.”

“‘Main Genetic Donor’? Like, what, her father?”

“So in your mind, the principal actor behind a child’s creation is the father?”

“I mean. I guess? I wasn’t really getting philosophical with this.”

“I was just surprised by your reaction, given we’ve been through.” Norn shrugged. “Well, in her case, if I explained all the circumstances regarding her father-slash-mother, it might confuse your apparently narrow minded ideas of the world around you. So put that pretty head to good use thinking about less complicated matters, like our logistics, and onboarding our reinforcements, and let me worry about Selene.”

Adelheid took the insult to her intelligence in stride and put on a mischievous little grin.

“You’re the boss. But now I’m curious. What about your own donors? What kind of genetic powerhouses are behind the impeccable, almighty Astra Palaiologos whose company I cherish?”

Norn glanced sideways at Adelheid with a sudden fierceness.

Adelheid both saw, and felt the force of, that particular gaze, and it put her in her place.

Her flighty officer put her hands behind her back and kept quiet as they crossed the hangar.

Norn made only the tip of the iceberg of her displeasure known to her in that moment.

This particular turn in her plaything’s mood was starting to get a little annoying.

Adelheid knew everything she needed to know about Norn. More than any Imbrian knew.

Her curiosity toward boring, long-gone days was getting on Norn’s nerves.

Next time she taught Adelheid a lesson she’d make those feelings quite clear to her.

Almost assuredly what she wanted to happen.

When the pair arrived at the workshop space, a drone had just pulled in through one of the utility chutes and disgorged from its pod a heap of twisted metal and seawater collected from the battlefield. This was what remained of the “Option” that had been destroyed in the battle with the Volkisch, or so Norn presumed. There was no one paying it attention in that precise moment.

“Ugh, I wish they’d sent Tigris or Hudson instead. Potomac! Get over here and make yourself useful!”

Hunched over a table, prodding with an electrode at something wet and plastic colored encased in a metal shell to which far too many strange cables were attached, was the Antenora’s current Chief Engineer, named only “Potomac.” She was on loan from a certain distasteful group.

Potomac had turned the workshop into a circle of tables each playing host to mounds of tools and parts. Fluids of various sorts, random indiscernible pieces of machinery, worn or broken tools, and rolling hills of cabling and silicon dies littered the area. She was drowning in materials.

Clearly, she was not paying much attention to her surroundings whatsoever.

“In a minute.” She mumbled dismissively.

Right now.” Norn hissed.

Norn caught a brief glimpse of her honey-brown face as she looked over her shoulder. Where she came from, it was no obstacle to look however you wanted. Her lab coat, turtleneck and long skirt were all made of organic materials, worth thousands of marks by themselves. To the average onlooker she would have she would have been quite eyecatching, with a curvaceous figure, wide hipped, round-shouldered, an ample chest and a firm, round belly, thick legs. Her face had a soft-featured, small-nosed, gentle beauty to it that felt quite cozy, and long, lustrous black hair.

“I just need to get a few more reactions out of this neuropod. It’ll just take a second.”

Sparks flew as she jabbed the strange object in front of her with an electric prod.

Adelheid turned her cheek with a look of vague disgust.

Norn held out her hand, and in an instant, Potomac’s experiment was sent flying.

It struck the opposite wall of the workshop, a blue and white smear left in the case.

Potomac stared at it with barely any reaction. Her eyes teared up just a little.

“I– I don’t even know how to respond to that. I worked on that for hours.”

“If you value the integrity of the rest of your experiments, you will follow my commands immediately when I tell you.” Norn said. “Not one minute, not one second later. Right now.”

The engineer heaved a long sigh and turned to face them with a wan look to her face.

Her movements were very stiff, as if she were dragging herself through every motion.

“Duly noted.”

Potomac could choose to look however she wanted. Therefore, to some degree, perhaps the dark bags under her forced-open eyes, the uncared for look of her hair that was haphazardly collected and restrained with a clip behind her head, the shabbiness that had befallen her coat, the dirtiness of her glasses, were all symbolic of what she chose to do with the resources she had.

“Glad we understand each other.” Norn said. “I have something you need to fix.”

“I’m not one of your sailors, you know.” Potomac complained. “I’m not here to keep your ship’s ovens running or whatever. I’m only supposed to be working on important stuff.”

Norn crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Like poking at slime in a jar?”

“It’s not slime! It’s so much more than slime, bah! It’s the future of computing!”           

“I don’t care. One of the Jagdkaiser’s Options was damaged in the battle. Go fix it.”

“Uh huh? Well, that is worthy of my talents.”

Potomac looked suddenly interested and began to look around the workshop.

“Did you bring it back? Where is it?”

Norn pointed over her shoulder. “It’s over there.”

“Over there? I don’t– Are you sure? Huh. I don’t see it. This might be tricky.”

“Are you blind? Over there. What do you need to fix it?” Norn asked.

She gestured to the drone as if unveiling the heap of metal they collected from the water.

Potomac blanched at it, her face sagging with growing displeasure.

“What is that? Is that really one of the Options?”

“Yes. Don’t act stupid. I’m sure you can tell from looking at it, you made it.”

“When I made it, it didn’t look like that.” Potomac bent down to stare closely at the gnarled slag that became of her invention. She shook her head, while still bent stiffly over it. “I did not expect to ever see an Option in such a state.” She stood back upright as stiffly as she bent.

“You eggheads never disappoint me with your naivety.” Norn said.

Potomac curled her hands into fists at her side.

“Look, I am an engineer advancing humanity’s digital evolution! My brain is constantly beset with world-spanning dilemmas that need cutting-edge, innovative solutions. I spare any expense to achieve my results no matter how high. I am not one of your small-minded logistics people counting beans in a bag. I will need to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”

Norn rolled her eyes at that histrionic spiel. “Problem solved then.”

“No! There is a new problem. I do not want to ask Yangtze for more parts for the Options.”

Potomac stared dead on at Norn with those wide open eyes and that stiff posture.

For a moment, the room was dead silent. Norn grit her teeth.

“How about I stomp on your ribs until they come out of your mouth instead?”

Red rings briefly flashed in Norn’s eyes.

Potomac turned stiffly around and started an exaggerated march toward a comm booth.

“I will go have a chat with Yangtze about the parts.” She said, waving her hand.

She removed herself with more grace and alacrity than she had ever exhibited.

Throughout this exchange, Adelheid kept blissfully quiet, playing with a lock of red hair.

“You sound so heated lately.” She finally said. “Looks like someone could use a massage.”

“Now that you’re offering, I will be expecting it.” Norn said, sighing deeply.


Previous ~ Next

Life In The Besieged City (74.1)

This scene contains alcohol abuse and mild sexual content.


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

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

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

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

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

“Daksha.”

“Kremina.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha turned to Parinita, who nodded pointedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cheers!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly they seemed a couple made for one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To health!”

“To sapphism!”

“To socialism!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To the dead!”

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

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

“She was.”

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

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

“‘scuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“To Lena!” Kremina drank her shot.

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

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

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

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

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

At the mention of them, they snapped to attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is the message supposed to be then?”

Daksha looked up at the rifle with a weary expression.

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

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

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

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

“We should.” Daksha sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all such a mess.

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

Daksha cracked a little smile.

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

The tyranny of the Empire, she said–

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

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

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

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

“Am I Empress Ayvarta II, Daksha?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madiha laughed.

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

“It will be!” Daksha corrected her.

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

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

Madiha was just not capable of throwing games.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her piercing gaze put Parinita quite on edge.

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

Kremina leaned forward with a conspiratorial expression on her face.

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

“Us two?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kremina quickly tried to disabuse her of any fearful notions.

“I see right through the two of you.”

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

“Whatever do you mean–”

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

“She’s not that anti-social–”

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

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

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

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

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

She found herself denying everything out of impulse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose it can’t be helped–”

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

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

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

“It really isn’t–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Help yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita pushed the mug back toward her with a sigh.

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a sincere as she could sound then.

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

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

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

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

Kremina put the mug on the dresser.

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

Parinita giggled.

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

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

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

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


Previous Part || Next Part

1.8: The Fire That Consumed Canaan

This chapter contains disturbing imagery, violence and death.


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


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

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

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

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

Something had gone terribly wrong in the world around them.

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

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

She didn’t understand it.

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

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

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

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

“Lyudmilla?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Target is concentrating heat in the left arm–”

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

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

Her limbs felt as heavy and immobile as stone.

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

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

She felt the ground rumble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudes!” Minerva cried out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it gone?” She asked.

Minerva sighed. “God, I hope so–”

Temperature spike detected,”

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

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

It had started at forty degrees, simultaneously very hot but not convincingly hot at all for a place surrounded by fire and made largely of metal. Milla thought in a place like this her shoes would be melting and her hair would have caught fire. Then the number started to climb so quickly that it made no sense. Surely Milla would have been a desiccated corpse in those kinds of temperatures, but she only felt a little bit hot.

Hot enough to sweat, to have a little trouble breathing–

Sweat started to dribble down her forehead. Long rivulets of sweat, trailing down her face, down her neck, between her breasts. Sweat streaking down her thighs.

Each breath she took ripped down her neck like a cloud of pepper.

“It’s the furnace! The furnace was the Tyrant all along!” Minerva realized.

Milla stumbled toward her, and grabbed onto her arm, coughing.

Minerva’s face seemed to go pale. She was sweating also, though not as badly.

“Lyudmilla!”

Her hand turned red again.

She pressed it down on Milla’s forehead.

For a split second Milla remembered an unpleasant feeling.

A child, drowned in the baptismal water–

But this was fire, a great fire enveloping her and for the most minute possible instant, the smallest unit of experience that could still pass off as a lived and breathed feeling, Milla felt pain. An unimaginable pain like burning to a crisp from head to toe.

It was there and then gone and yet,felt so thoroughly that it shocked her.

She gasped, and screamed, and ripped herself from Minerva’s touch.

Sweat dripped off her body like the thin rivulets of water following a fresh shower.

But she could stand, she could move and breathe. It wasn’t getting any hotter.

“Please, I’ll explain everything when we’re safe, but right now, I need your help.”

Minerva looked at her with a curious expression. Concern, probably. But visibly, it was shame. Her defiance and confidence was gone for a small moment, and she looked deeply, awfully ashamed, in the way Milla herself, often felt ashamed. When she was caught smoking or asked about her childhood or her parents; when she hit too hard with a ball at the sports club; or when she looked away from a girl who was too pretty–

In those fiery, eerie eyes, there was so much pain and shame and helplessness.

Milla couldn’t help but feel that she had to help Orizaga now.

She couldn’t look at that vulnerability and not feel ashamed of her own cowardly self.

She spread open the pages of her grimoire and held it by the spine.

“Tell me what to do, Professor.” She said.

Spared from the heat of the arena she felt it much easier to keep her wits.

Minerva smiled a little. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

On the edges of the arena, smoke belched into the sky from unseen chimneys.

Around the demesne the fiery pit burned brighter and redder than it ever had.

Once more the platform began to rumble under Milla and Minerva.

All of the gears and mechanisms hanging in the air around the demesne, seemingly attached to nothing, turned with noise and violence, suddenly alive. Though their positions correlated to no rational device, turning and pulling on nothing, the machine seemed to have some effect on the platform. As they cranked away at the air the platform shook more and more strongly, until from the abyss the smashed Moloch machine started rising. Two interlocking pieces extended from the platform, attaching the Moloch animatronic to the platform furnace and supporting him, and more cranes and arms descended and attached a mess of cables, pipes and pumps to the machine.

Grimly, several arms twisted Moloch’s head into place and snapped its limbs together.

It was like they were building up a toy. A figurine of what the God should’ve been like.

“Wyrm.”

Its call hissed out into the air and sounded filthy. It seemed to come from under them.

You stole my fire to begin your journey to the throne of the world, and yet, you stand before me now so feeble, so alone, not one supplicant to your name!”

Suddenly the Moloch machine began to smoke and turned an offensively bright red.

“I’m insulted! I’m offended! I’m vexed! Return my flame so I can be king!”

Red-hot gears on the cow-skull’s cheek turned its mouth open.

Red particulate aura traces, and smoke, and fire, all began to collect in its mouth.

It was as if the creature were vacuuming the surrounding heat and shaping it.

“Witness the Doom of Canaan!”

Jets of smoke burst from the back of the Moloch machine’s head.

Its mouth erupted in a stream of red.

Milla leaped away in one direction and Minerva in the opposite.

Pure heat swept past them like a hurtling comet, a red wall slicing across the platform.

A sudden wave of gas followed the attack, and threw Milla back in mid-air.

She landed ungracefully, crying out as she slammed into the metal floor.

Had it been any denser she would’ve been broken upon it.

But she felt almost like she had landed on a sheet of foil rather than a sturdy floor.

She raised her head from the ground.

When the fire subsided, there was a residual slag, glowing red, bubbling across the floor.

This substance formed a line at every point stricken by Moloch’s attack.

It was as if Moloch’s attack was not a beam or laser at all, as it seemed to Milla from the fanciful things she had seen in popular fiction. Instead she started to think he had sprayed molten metal at them so fast that it just seemed like a giant stream of heat.

In a sudden panic, she looked around for Minerva and thankfully found her on the opposite edge of the platform, doubled over, breathing heavily. Minerva raised her own head and she and Milla made eye contact. Minerva waved; she gestured off the edge of the platform, and then to the Moloch Machine, which was hunched over and steaming.

“I’ll distract him! Jump down into the furnace! That’s the real Tyrant!” She shouted.

Milla blinked. She looked behind herself, over the edge of the platform.

There were all kinds of pipes and devices and chutes but no clear way inside.

Eyes open wide, mouth hanging and quivering slightly, she shook her head at Minerva. Her twintails swung this way and that with the effort. She started to feel hopeless again–

There was a terrifying, dominant sound, the shearing of metal, the grinding of a gear.

Heat began to pump into the Moloch machine once more.

Again the cow-skull head on the animatronic swung its jaw open.

“You’re protected from heat Lyudmilla! Go!” Minerva shouted.

She then stood up straight and swung her wand at the machine.

From thin air in front of her a stake flew out, as fast as a professional baseball pitch.

Flying without resistance, it stuck in one of the Moloch Machine’s ribs.

Barik!”

Minerva summoned another bolt of lightning and this one launched out of her wand.

The bolt struck the stake and lashed across the Machine but could not stop its attack.

All of the arms and cranes reoriented the monster, jerking it toward Minerva.

Even as the lightning tore through its body, the heat around it grew fiercer.

It was her she wanted; it didn’t even care about Milla at all.

This is the fire that consumed Canaan!

A second blast of heat and molten metal erupted from the machine’s mouth.

In an instant it sliced through the air, a cannon shot to Minerva’s mere fastball pitch.

Minerva leaped.

She thrust skyward, stirring the air in her wake as if she had flapped massive wings.

Milla saw her form disappear inside the mass rushing her way.

Her heart sank–

Within the gas billowing up after the shot, Milla saw a speck of something.

Minerva shot out of the cloud toward the machine, dashing in the air.

Before she could cast anything the Moloch machine spread its mouth once more.

Milla realized Minerva, for all that she could dance in the air, could not stop it shooting.

Following the teacher’s body, leaping around as if from cloud to cloud, she also realized what she herself could do. Her eyes settled on the Moloch body and the pipes and cables.

She held her grimoire by the spine, with a thumb inside the pages, and took off running.

Moloch fired a third blast from its mouth, its breath attack sweeping across the sky. Minerva continued to dash to and fro around its head, getting in a kick here and there as she used the machine as a platform to take off again. She was a mere nuisance, but she was a great distraction. Without resistance, Milla ran the length of the platform, to the edge where the machine was connected. It grew larger and larger as she approached it, until she had to crane her head up high as it could to try to watch the fighting play out.

Milla looked down off the edge of the platform, breathing slowly and heavily as an unimaginable heat emanated nearby. It was as if she stood steps away from a star. This must have been what standing on the sun felt like, she thought. Looking down she could see where all the pipes and cables and metal supports reached out from the furnace, like a replacement spinal cord winding up into the hovering Moloch Machine from below.

Taking in a deep breath, and swallowing hard, she leaped down toward the pipes.

She morbidly expected her whole body to melt and end up a puddle atop the monster’s makeshift spine; though she landed clumsily and hit herself again, she found herself surprisingly whole. Her hands, touching the metal, did not sizzle or hurt. It felt eerily room temperature, no hotter than anything else. Bolting up to her feet, she looked around for a way into the furnace. Far overhead, Minerva and Moloch dueled mightily.

Milla did not need to look very long.

Right in front of her, the platform bore a massive, bull-like face. Those smokestacks Milla had seen sticking out resembled horns when viewed from this angle, and the mass connecting the Moloch Machine to the furnace stuck out of the bull’s cavernous mouth like a tongue. She could easily run across the spine and into the furnace’s interior.

There was a plan hatching in her head but it depended on what she found inside.

She made for the gaping maw only to stop a few steps short.

Several pairs of glowing eyes approached from inside the furnace.

Intermittent flashing from inside the furnace revealed many of the kilnling creatures that had been trying to harvest Cheryl and the others. They dragged themselves forward, their exposed ribs snapping open and closed like jaws. The Kilnlings lurched out of the furnace in clumsy stopping-and-starting movements, as if their locomotion went on and off the way the burners inside the furnace did. They were very large and solid, however, and their size and presence alone was enough to put Milla on the defensive.

She took a step back out of the furnace’s shadow and grit her teeth.

She remembered an old commander who admonished her for cowardice.

Tightening her grip on the spine of her grimoire, she swept her hand over the pages.

Kladenets!” She called out.

Her grimoire left her hand of its own accord and hovered off the ground.

Standing between her and the approaching monsters, it produced an image of a sword.

It seemed an ordinary sword, the butt coming to rest a few centimeters off the pages.

Milla thrust her hand forward with the palm to the enemy.

Her grimoire launched toward the kilnlings, and the glowing sword swung at them.

No arm held it, and it appeared to have no mass, but the blade nonetheless swept across the head of one of the kilnlings and battered the monster aside. Rather than slice through them the sword rang aloud on impact, screaming metal on metal as it clubbed the monsters. Despite its visible position atop the grimoire, the blade had deceptive reach. It struck as if held on an arm that could stretch, twist, and handle a blade deftly.

From head to head the blade turned, striking in turn each kilnling as they approached, and rattling their skulls with every hit. When stricken the beasts toppled off their legs and onto their sides, reacting as if concussed. No sword could have rent the metal on them, not even this one, but a good clubbing made an effective deterrent instead.

Milla rushed forward, and again by itself the grimoire charged with her, and the blade threw its terrible weight every which way. Dazed kilnlings fell aside and Milla charged past them, never staying long enough to pick a real fight. They were big and she was not terribly damaging them, but it was not her intention to brawl with them at all.

Leaping and dodging her way past the monsters, Milla penetrated the mouth of the furnace and instantly found herself faced with its immense interior. A short hallway, guarded by kilnlings, led to a massive set of interior works that funneled metal to burners, which fired off every so often to melt the metal instantly. Then the metal was dropped into a massive, glowing red pit recessed into the ground in the center of the furnace, where it was siphoned through red-hot pipes out to the Moloch Machine.

Everything was decayed, eroded, rusted, sharp and haphazard, like the kilnlings were.

Every surface in the demesne wore its armor like moth-eaten clothes.

Behind her the stricken kilnlings began to get back on their legs, and in front of her, several more started to close in from the furnace interior. She had surrounded herself.

She was not driven to panic despite this. In fact, she smirked instead.

Milla had figured there was something important inside the furnace, after fighting on top of it. She could not have been entirely sure, not being a student of engineering, but she knew it was not just a hunk of metal as it had been prior to Moloch’s transfiguration. She knew it was home to a lot of those pipes and cranes that she saw everywhere on Moloch.

Even so, she had no ordinary means to affect such a massive thing. She knew no spells that could launch an armor-piercing rocket or set off C-4 inside this furnace and damage its works. Mages could throw around lightning and fireballs and cast massive reavings and disintegrations at people and things but the larger and sturdier the affected object, the more raw power had to go into it. She could batter kilnlings, but she could not tear down this massive edifice by herself. Lyudmilla Kholodva did not have raw power.

She was tired, too.

Even at her least tired she might not have been able to tear down the furnace. She did not even really know many spells. She figured the basic packet from the Academy did not include a full combat suite; so she was relying on things she picked up here and there.

Lacking in options and in the raw strength to execute them, Lyudmilla substituted a bit of inventiveness. She was not surrounded; she had the kilnlings where she wanted them.

Sometimes, physics alone could be a force multiplier for a dynamic magician.

“Lets hope this works!”

Closing her fist, she caused the sword atop her grimoire to dissipate.

In a blink the book was back in her hands.

She held it by both covers and thrust the pages forward, trying her best to copy Minerva.

She had read her lips as she cast, and seen something of the gestures.

As for mnemonics, Milla just tried to focus on stakes and hoped for the best.

Sudes!”

A metal stake; a metal stake; a metal stake–

It was crude mnemonics, but it had an effect.

Like Minerva, her spell conjured a metal stake that flew out from between the grimoire’s pages. Lacking the precision of a wand or advanced knowledge of the spell, Milla’s casting went wild. She felt the metal portion of her very human, mixed metal and fire aura, suddenly peeling almost right off. Her whole body glowed black and red and the black burst out of her into a wave of particulate aura, lost magic consumed by the spell.

Some of this particulate, but not all, attached to the stake in the instant of conjuration.

Instead of a clean shape, it became irregular, lumpy, its weight poorly distributed.

When the stake exploded into being out in front of her, Milla felt like it not only ripped up her aura and took it with it but also ripped the breath from her lungs.

She nearly doubled over in pain, but she retained enough composure to watch.

Flying haphazardly with the speed of an artillery shell, the stake bowled past several kilnlings in front of Milla and sailed over the red pit and embedded into a gear.

No one spell could stop the machines from turning. Though there was a stake clearly stuck in the gears, the conveyors continued to turn, the burners continued to blast, and metal continued to be fed into the Moloch Machine. They had no physical logic after all. Many were not even attached to anything, and operated in an almost metaphorical way.

Milla never intended to target the machines themselves.

She was gritting her teeth from the reckless exertion, but still managing to grin.

Behind her, every Kilnling struck by her sword glowed momentarily.

Instead of following the initial taps with the Alwi spell Barik, as Minerva had, she instead reached for a trick closer to home. One that would not cook her alive from inexperience.

Taking in air, calm even as the remaining kilnlings started to close, Milla shouted:

“Lord Pherkhan, we become to metal as Earth is to the Moon! Pherkhan’s magnetism!”

As she pronounced each word a little bolt played about her grimoire and hands.

She needed all the focus she could get. A full incantation gave her time to gather energy.

Milla locked eyes on the stake and reached out mentally.

It was her favorite spell of the suite developed by the Rus War-Mage, Pherkhan.

At first the little bolts extended from one end of her grimoire to the other like the poles on a horseshoe magnet, suspended between the open pages. After receiving the full command, they traveled up the grimoire and left the pages altogether. As soon as the bolts leaped off the metal-bound corners of the grimoire they extended across the entire furnace in an invisible instant, connecting the numerous kilnlings behind and around Milla with the stake she stuck to the interior of the furnace. Dozens of tiny bolts of lightning danced between the kilnlings and the stake like blurry, flashing strings.

For a moment the kilnlings were given pause, but their relentlessness soon returned.

When the kilnlings resumed their advance, the bolts sharply, suddenly contracted.

Had they exhibited any kind of magical talent that instant could’ve been crucial.

The Kilnlings did not cast spells; so Milla’s sloppiness instead had a devastating effect.

Dozens of the metallic monsters all around Milla and in the interior of the furnace works launched into the air as if their weight meant nothing. They bounced as readily as rubber balls, drawn toward the stake as if lassoed by the strength of a giant. Milla ducked and covered her head with her grimoire. Chunks of metal flew off their bodies as the kilnlings collided with the walls and with each other hundreds of times on their way toward the stake. For a moment the hallway into the furnace works was a churning, vibrating mess of ricocheting metal. Once free of the confines of the hallway, the kilnling mass slammed into the stake faster and harder than Lyudmilla could’ve ever imagined.

Boilers cracked and burst under the violence, cranes were smashed into the furnace pit, gears knocked out of place fell heavily upon the conveyors and other works and battered the whole mechanism apart. The furnace roared and quaked as great masses of metal rained down into the pit, clogging up the lifeline to the Moloch Machine outside. Molten metal began to rise out of the pit and spill over into the corridor. Around Milla the walls started to crack and glow red, and to bleed molten metal as if grievously wounded.

That’s as far as she had planned for. It was time to run!

Milla turned around and bolted for the exit, a wave of molten metal rushing after her.

Crawling up the walls as if chasing her, the cracks in the furnace spewed and sputtered with fire and gas and searing red metal that landed around Milla in fist-sized globs. She ducked and dodged the streams, swatted away the metal with her grimoire, all the while running as fast as she could, and breathing in less and less air as it seemed to burn up.

Her vision started to waver, and the tunnel felt endlessly long, the outside world too far.

Struggling for breath, she screamed as loud as she could, “Sudes!”

In a flash of light, some of the metal flying around her collected itself into a stake.

Once fully formed the lumpy, misshapen stake shot off into the distance like a rocket.

It ate up almost all her remaining metal aura, but she had purposefully held back.

She only needed a small stake this time.

Milla pulled a chain from her blazer pocket and wrapped it around her arm.

She shut her grimoire on the end of the chain as her legs gave out on her.

Falling, she mumbled again the name of the great Pherkan and prayed.

Blue bolts of energy trailed up and down her body.

She jerked forward, and back and suddenly launched out of the tunnel.

Screaming, Milla leaped clear over the ever-burning pit.

Behind her the mouth of the bull-head furnace choked with molten metal.

All around the demesne the fires started to go out, the gears stopped turning.

Fuzzy lines like the static on a busted television started to divide the walls, the seemingly endless pit and the skybox of the demesne, and once those cleared more of the outside world, the real world, became visible again through the distortion of the demesne.

Sailing off into nothingness, Lyudmilla watched with a self-satisfied little grin as the Moloch Machine began to choke, its cow-skull head leaking molten metal from the eyesockets and from the pipeline inside its jaws. It spewed its red-hot pyroclastic attack into the air at random, vomiting up metal with no target, screaming and out of control.

As she fell she saw Minerva, briefly, and saw her light up brighter red than ever.

Wyrm!” Moloch screamed. “Wyrm!

Minerva’s voice responded, deeper and richer and more beautiful than ever.

I’m, Minerva Orizaga. Wyrm isn’t here. Thanks again for the fire.

Something like a massive whip (a tail?) lashed out from Minerva and cleaved Moloch.

Just as she watched Moloch break apart, she heard Minerva’s homunculus again.

Entity MOLOCH unstable. Temperature drop exponential. Containment successful.”

Next thing she knew, Lyudmilla Kholodova hit the ground. It was dirty, dusty.

She felt as if she had been dunked suddenly in freezing water.

Hugging herself, Milla squirmed and twisted herself onto her back.

There were trees. A canopy; she could see the blue sky and the stars.

Nothing was burning anymore.

Milla pushed herself up from the ground, to her knees.

How much time had passed? She scanned her surroundings. It was still dark.

Suddenly she heard a scream, a girl’s scream.

Milla struggled up to her feet, stumbling and swaying, a little dizzy.

She managed to maneuver herself through the trees and found herself back at the clearing where the Moloch statue had first been unearthed. She arrived in time to see the crumbling statue, Phillip struggling to stand and trying to snake away, and that armored man, Ajax, menacingly approaching Amber, Jenn and Cheryl. The girls squirmed away from him on the ground, crawling on their backs until they hit the treeline again.

“Let go of that.” Ajax hissed. His voice was eerie. It sounded as if it was coming from a broken radio in his helmet, hissing and scratching and becoming inaudible for a second or two in the middle of this syllable or that. It made it difficult to understand him.

He was dragging one of his feet, and his hands were limp at his sides.

Milla summoned her grimoire to her hands, and stumbled out of the forest.

“Get away from them!” She cried.

He turned his head partially over his shoulder. His eyes glowed on and off, sparking.

Ajax stared at Milla, and then at his own feet, where his two subordinates lay beaten.

He stared at the Moloch statue, broken, its once incredible aura sputtering away.

He charged without warning–

But in the direction of the treeline, to escape!

Milla grit her teeth and made to follow. Could she get him?

Ajax did not get far; in the next instant he bounced back into the clearing and hit the dirt.

From the wood, Minerva appeared.

Vorra leaped down from the canopy, visibly wounded, but alive and seemingly mobile.

“Milord, he is faltering.” She said.

They had Ajax surrounded. Judging by his last attempt, he was on his last legs.

Ajax picked one of his subordinate’s clubs off the floor.

“Alwi trash– you–” His voice broke up. “Undone– I’ll–”

He threw himself forward and swung his weapon.

It stretched to cover the gap and came at Minerva’s side like a whip.

She held out her wand at her side and the metal bounced off of it.

Ambling casually toward Ajax, Minerva then swung her wand at him wordlessly.

A wave of force blasted the weapon off Ajax’s hands, and took several fingers with it.

Surprisingly he did not whimper, did not cry out, despite this brutal amputation.

He was clearly done fighting but he continued to try to escape.

Minerva would have none of it.

Ajax struggled to stand; a second blast from Minerva’s wand threw him back to the ground. Her eyes were fixed on him with a cold, steely hatred that shook Milla in its intensity. Each step she took, Minerva swung her wand, and Ajax was blasted in his chest, and thrown back; blasted in his legs until the armor was pummeled off them; and blasted in his head, jerking his neck left and right until his battered helm fell off.

Beneath the plate legs, there was nothing. Beneath the breastplate, nothing.

There was nothing beneath the helmet either.

Ajax had been nothing but a construct. Had it been the entire time? Had he swapped?

Minerva disregarded the empty suit of armor and walked over to the girls.

She knelt beside them with a smile. “You all have been through a lot. It feels silly to ask this, but are you ok? Are you hurt? Do you need a hospital? Can you talk to the police?”

Amber and Jenn stared dumbfounded at Minerva for a second before throwing themselves at her, hugging her and crying, shaken thoroughly by their experience. Minerva seemed to not know what to do other than stand there and allow herself to be thoroughly grappled. She eventually started rubbing their backs in a motherly way.

Vorra hid in the wood, sitting solemnly with her back to a tree, breathing heavily.

Cheryl sat at the edge of the clearing, staring at the Ajax armor, empty-eyed. In her hands she was turning over the orange-red orb that had come out of the Moloch statue’s head.

Somehow despite everything, they all had survived that mess.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She nearly dropped her grimoire out of exhaustion.

She managed to keep a steady grip on it.

So she was ready when she heard the dirt sifting.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

She turned her head and fixed a murderous glare on Phillip, his face caked in his own blood, weeping, gritting what was left of his teeth through a broken mouth. He had been trying to crawl up the steeper side of the clearing and out of anyone’s sight. He said nothing, and merely stopped where he had been. Milla pointed her grimoire his way.

“Sit down or I’ll sit you down.” Milla said.

From across the clearing, Minerva let go of Amber and Jenn, who then clung to Cheryl.

“Yes, Phillip Theimer, we’ll need to repair your face so you can talk to the police.”

Minerva spoke, and Milla thought she saw Phillip shake. He knelt down, giving up.

Whatever glorious night he thought he might have was now over.


Next morning, having gotten no sleep and talked to too many different uniformed persons, Lyudmilla Kholodova and Minerva Orizaga found themselves in the office of Miriam Hirsch, who was disheveled, having had to dress quickly and arrive at the Humanities’ main department very early to deal with the ugly situation. Word was getting around about what happened. Police were investigating, the students were variously in hospital care and out of it, and the Department itself was in a furor about it.

Minerva rarely spoke to Miriam Hirch without Beatrix around. Her office felt empty and oppressive. There was nothing separating Minerva from Miriam, nothing shielding her.

Miriam had an intimating expression, full of barely restrained anger.

“University Police tried to explain it to me, and I couldn’t believe a word I was hearing, so I would like to hear it from you instead. What the hell happened last night, Minerva?”

Minerva was annoyed by everything, but she tried to keep things matter-of-fact and she spoke so quickly and in such a tone that Miriam, try as she might, couldn’t interrupt.

“It is my understanding that at around midnight three boys identifying themselves with the Otrarian nationalist group ‘Iron Flags’ cooperated with Phillip Theimer to lead several girls to a clearing in the Whispering Wood with the intent to perform a dark ritual to summon the Tyrant Moloch. They intended to make sacrifices to a statue that had been popularly mistaken to represent Baphomet that had appeared suddenly some time ago in the woods. This statue had a carved orb of Agnicite that was sealing some of Moloch’s demesne, and upon its release, the Tyrant was unleashed. However, it was severely weakened from having to express his main element of Fire through its antagonistic element, Metal. With Lyudmilla Kholodova’s help, I contained the Tyrant and detained Phillip, Trent and Arnes. Ajax, the fourth conspirator, was piloting a construct from afar all along. I called the authorities and an investigation is underway.”

At several points in the story Miriam Hirch seemed to want to interrupt as if it was inherently a ridiculous thing to say. Minerva talked over her enough times to keep her quiet and get her whole message across. At the end of it, Miriam sat dumbfounded.

“You contained a Tyrant?” Miriam asked at last, regaining a bit of composure.

“Yes.”

Minerva reached into her coat, withdrew the fire orb and put it on Miriam’s desk.

“Put that under the tightest security you’ve got, ma’am.” She said.

Miriam picked up the orb and instantly shook with goosebumps and dropped it.

“My word!”

“It’s not something to take lightly, that’s for sure.” Minerva said.

Miriam looked momentarily offended. She left the orb on her desk.

“Setting all that of that aside for later. I want to know about the facts I can confirm right now. What happened to Phillip Theimer? He claims you injured him.” Miriam said.

She had seemingly ignored the part where Minerva implicated him in the crime.

Of course, the word of a white Otrarian boy with a donor father carried a lot of weight.

Minerva sighed. “He was attacked by the leader of the Flags, nom de guerre Ajax. Ajax had manipulated him into providing his own girlfriend, Cheryl von Schutzherr, as human material for the ritual. Whether he intended to seal Moloch in her or otherwise–”

“You realize how ridiculous that sounds?” Miriam said. “The Theimer family have been supporters of the Academy for generations. They’re a completely above-board family.”

She sounded strangely and specifically outraged about this.

“I say nothing of the family; only what I collected at the crime scene.” Minerva said.

In truth she hadn’t been there at the time, but she had Lyudmilla’s testimony.

Miriam sighed heavily and rubbed her palms over her own face.

“Minerva, I support the teachers under my direction, but to engage in such unserious he-said she-said talk, and where it concerns a student claiming you assaulted him–”

Lyudmilla cut Miriam off and spoke, her accent thicker owing to her anger.

“Ms. Orizaga did not hurt him at all! I’ll testify to that. I smacked Phillip in the face!”

“You’ll speak when prompted, Miss Kholodova!” Miriam shouted. “Tread lightly!”

Lyudmilla scowled at her, squeezing her own knees as she sat on the couch.

Miriam sighed and rubbed her own forehead and started sifting through some papers.

Minerva’s heart beat faster. What was going on here?

She had contained a Tyrant and saved the lives of those girls.

Did she not care? Was she ready to ignore all of that as a fabrication?

This was so ridiculous, unfair and unjust to an unrealistic degree, and yet, possible.

A fleetingly possible thing that somehow happened all of the time.

Miriam was just outright ignoring her words and defending Theimer.

Minerva was an Alwi, a person hated in this society. She had this etched in her skin.

Was Miriam trying to frame her for the entire situation right now?

“Ma’am, I’m not sure I understand what your point is. Please speak plainly.”

 

“Fact of the matter is, Minerva, Lyudmilla Kholodova is not exactly a trustworthy prospect in a situation like this. Phillip Theimer claims he is innocent and a victim. I can believe Trent and Arnes were implicated in something, though goodness knows what, but I’m struggling to believe stuff about rituals and tyrants and a mysterious fourth man.”

Minerva couldn’t tell if Miriam was really so tortured over this or faking all of it.

She certainly sounded and acted annoyed and uncomfortable but it seemed all too easy for her to abandon Minerva and Lyudmilla at this juncture for well-moneyed words.

“And all this talking about Tyrants– yes you have that orb, but it’s just, it’s too much! I cannot believe that a Tyrant was summoned, that it attacked, that you contained it–”

“I’ll give you the data collected by my Homunculus!” Minerva shouted at her.

Miriam glared at Minerva, clearly offended now at her tone. “I don’t want it! Ugh. It’s not enough I have to deal with Beatrix now you’re also making problems. At least when Beatrix comes up with some scheme to endanger students she owns up without excuses!”

“Now it’s a scheme? Nationalists attack your students and suddenly it’s my scheme?”

The Department Head was taken aback by this and quickly retreated from her rhetoric.

“I’m not saying that!” Miriam said. “I’m not accusing you! Goodness. You’re clearly giving in to emotion, Minerva, we can’t have this discussion and I can’t defend you if you’re showing this kind of attitude! It’s Academy policy to first side with the students–”

Minerva intended to shout ‘you were never going to defend me,’ but then someone did.

Bursting through the door into the office was the blonde-haired, starry-eyed, and clearly furious young lady known only as Cheryl, but actually named Cheryl von Schutzherr.

She stormed into the room and charged right up to Miriam’s desk, her eyes afire.

Behind her, Beatrix Kolsa ambled in with a bewildered expression, and shrugged.

“You’re the Department Head? What the hell is this?” Cheryl said. “Why did you summon Ms. Orizaga and Milla instead of that no-good piece of shit who just tried to kill me!”

Miriam blinked, taken aback. “Language! Ms. Schutzherr, I’m just, I wanted to–”

“Minerva Orizuh– Minerva saved my life! Milla Khalod– Milla saved my life!”

Minerva and Lyudmilla both wilted. Cheryl couldn’t pronounce their surnames.

“That’s–” Miriam seemed to shrink in her chair. “That’s– well– Phillip Theimer also–”

“I’m sure that fucking rat has something to say too! Then he should say it to my face! To all our faces! To us and to Amber and Jenn, he tried to get us all killed for his buddies in the Iron Whatever! Instead he’s trying to hide behind you, isn’t he? You’re covering up for him! He should be in this room so I can shout his face off along with yours!”

Miriam turned bright red and nearly fell over with her chair. “Why I– I never–”

“You listen to me! I’ll tell the cops, I’ll tell the courts, I’ll tell the tabloids, I’ll talk to anyone! I’ll vlog about it! I got 3000 followers! I’ll tell everyone that Phillip Theimer is a sick, lying freak who seduced and led me along so he could literally kill me! And I’ll tell my daddy to donate all the money you dirtbags get from him to animal shelters! I’ll call him right now!” Cheryl, breathlessly shouting at the top of her lungs right in Miriam’s face, produced a cellphone and shoved that right into Miriam’s face too. “I’ll make these rickety walls come right down on you if you think you can get away with hiding this!”

“Please– I wasn’t– I didn’t mean to–” Miriam, a grown woman, was almost in tears.

Cheryl continued to shout, at the top of her lungs, her voice bravely holding out.

“Minerva and Lyudmilla better leave this room with medals! Medals! You, and your cops, and your stupid department, you didn’t do shit to help me! I was nearly killed by a bunch of LARPers and a big ugly metal bull! KILLED! You didn’t do shit about it! I was nearly killed! A bunch of lunatics go to this school planning to kill innocent girls and you didn’t know, you didn’t do anything, who knows how many girls have been victims here?”

“Of course not– Our school– we pride ourselves– we’re very safe–”

Are you going to do something?” Cheryl put her face to Miriam’s, baring her teeth.

Miriam backed her office chair up to the wall behind her in fear.

Cheryl’s eyes watered, her nose ran, and her face was beet red. She was shaking.

The full force of everything that had happened to her, and of everything that could have happened to her, hit right there like a dam bursting. She had screamed out as much of it as she could, but now she was shivering, hugging herself, weeping openly, sobbing loud. Her knees shook. She looked to be in agony, unable to contain herself. Lyudmilla made to stand but Minerva shook her head and put out an arm to stop her. She had to be delicate.

Beatrix moved closer to the desk and took Cheryl by the shoulders, giving her someone to cry on. For once she looked almost like a responsible adult, comforting Cheryl.

“There, there.” Beatrix said.

Miriam Hirch, nearly weeping herself, glared daggers at Beatrix, who smiled in return.

“Miriam, I caught wind of what happened from the university police when they came to the Department last night. I predicted you’d handle this situation very poorly. I want to believe you’re just trying to get out of doing paperwork, because you are lazy. At any rate I felt that, out of everyone involved, this girl deserved to have her voice heard, and I wanted to make sure that she did.” She turned her head a little and winked at Minerva.

Minerva allowed herself a restrained smile back at Beatrix.

“Yes, very– very well.” Miriam stuttered.

“If I remember correctly, the von Schutzherr grants go directly to the Humanities, do they not? It’s twice the Theimer grant money too.” Beatrix mused aloud. “As someone whose research depends on things like that, I also felt my voice mattered too.”

Miriam sank atop her desk.

“I’ll– I’ll take care of things. It’s fine. Everyone please. Go.”

Beatrix led Cheryl away slowly, rubbing her back and wiping her tears, smiling at her.

Before she could be taken through the door, Lyudmilla turned around on the couch.

She shouted, “Cheryl! You’re really cool, you know?”

And Cheryl held a shaking thumbs up in response, before vanishing out the door.

With Beatrix and Cheryl gone there was a sudden silence.

It dropped between everyone like lead walls.

“Ms. Hirch, perhaps I should take this orb for safe-keeping.” Minerva finally said.

Miriam sighed. “Yes. Yes. Please leave.”

Nodding, Minerva quickly swiped the orb from Miriam’s desk and left the room.

Soon as the office was vacated Miriam slammed the door.

There was another sudden falling of silence. It was as if the world itself, having held its breath throughout that entire drama, could finally breathe and take stock in things.

Everything ended up working itself out somehow.

Out in the halls again, Minerva checked the time on her homunculus and sighed.

The National waited for nobody. Life, outside oneself, had to keep going.

“I’m gonna be so late for my office hours.” She groaned.

“You’re gonna hold office hours? After all this?”

Behind her, Lyudmilla Kholodova approached with a questioning expression.

She looked mightly disheveled, her blazer frayed and spotted, her hair messy, a distinct ashen pall over her otherwise fair skin. Probably owing to the smoke and the fire. Minerva wondered what was going through her head now. She didn’t look tired or shocked or vulnerable, like she had been in the demesne a few times. She seemed well.

Minerva turned fully to meet her. She recalled Lyudmilla’s heroics in the demesne.

This girl had potential, and some hidden depths to her. Minerva kinda liked her.

“Well, the students need my help whether or not I was nearly killed by a monster.”

Lyudmilla seemed amused by the answer.

“And whether or not your Department nearly betrayed you.”

“That’s not the student’s fault. They have a right to an education you know.”

“That’s dedication. I’m straight-up blowing the rest of class this week after this shit.”

Minerva grinned a little. “That’s honestly fair. I’d encourage you to show up though.”

“Yeah, you would do that, Professor.” Lyudmilla grinned back at her.

“It’s just Ms. Orizaga, please.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla then reached into her blazer and pulled out a letter for Minerva.

“I got this in the mail. Just uh. I guess I want you to know, that I got it.”

Though she seemed conflicted at first, she made up her mind quickly.

Minerva took the letter and unfurled it. It was the notice of apprenticeship.

Officially signed by Miriam Hirch and dated about a day before Minerva was told.

“How do you feel about it?” Minerva asked.

“Well, I can’t say no now. This is too cool, you know?” Lyudmilla bent forward, her arms stretched behind her with the fingers interlocked, rocking. She had an air of mischief.

She spun her finger idly and one of the hair bobbles on her twin-tails spun with it.

“I won’t tell anyone you’re some kind of superhero if you teach me your tricks.”

Minerva sighed. What a little devil she had on her hands! She should’ve known.

“I’m not a superhero.” Minerva said. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

“Yeah, and I’m just an innocent maid, never smoked a joint, never touched a boob.”

Lyudmilla stuck her tongue out at Minerva.

“You’ll find I’m far less impressive outside of a fire-rich demesne.”

“My standards are very, very low.” Lyudmilla said, cackling.

“You’re a handful.” Minerva said. “Listen, if you’re fine with this arrangement, then I’m glad. I know I promised I’d explain everything to you, and I will, but right now, I really need to work. So lets meet somewhere private later and we can discuss all of this.”

“Fine. But I’ll tag along for today anyway. No discussion necessary.”

Minerva nodded. “It’s gonna be boring you know. I plan to act like nothing happened.”

“Me too. It’s too early for me to have a big cry and scream like Cheryl did. I’m too icy for that. Anyway. I’m here at your service for both mundane and magical tasks, master.”

“Oh god no. There’s enough people who call me master. Just, Minerva, or something.”

Lyudmilla grinned. “Ah, yeah, how’s that subby dragon of yours doing, Professor?”

Nothing happened.” Minerva said dangerously.

“Ah fine, fine.” Lyudmilla replied cheerfully.

Together they got going to Minerva’s office.

 

At least, regardless of everything, her job always gave her something else to do.

Right now, the only world she knew or wanted was her students and a pile of papers.

She was the first Alwi magician of the National! She had to keep performance high.

“If I’m your apprentice, can I look at the quiz keys?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Yes you can. They’re all there in the textbook if you read it.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla started to whistle intermittently. “I guess I should’ve expected that.”


That night, Minerva arrived at her home just off the edge of Lake Bratten and the Whispering Woods, feeling exhausted, and like the feelings she had been damming for the sake of the world were about to burst through the wall of her heart. Still, she made herself smile for the little girl at the front desk, and waved at her when she passed.

“Oh, Minnie!” Laksha called out. She looked sad. “Your girlfriend came in this morning looking a little, bad. Did something happen to her Minnie? Is she going to be okay?”

Minerva continued to smile. “She did a big heroic thing, Laksha. But she’ll be okay.”

“Wow! I’ll get her some meat sometime to thank her for being a hero.” Laksha said.

Her frown had immediately turned into a starry-eyed smile.

“Thank you. She’d love that. Good night, Laksha.”

Upstairs, Minerva practically fell through her front door. Using the back of her foot, she shut the door behind herself and practically crawled up to Vorra’s mound. Sitting atop the pile of magazines, again dressed only in one of Minerva’s ill-fitting button-downs, Vorra sat, looking out their window to the lake and the moonlit, cloudless night.

She turned her head over her shoulder and gazed fondly at her arriving partner.

Her tail wagged slowly and gently. She had bandaged her sides up, but there was damage to hidden things, like her wings, and her ribs, that would take time to heal inside.

“Milord, good to see you. This Academy ill deserves your tireless effort.”

“Yeah, it sucks, but it’s good to have on the resume, you know?”

“I do not, milord, but I am pleased that your efforts fulfill you.”

Minerva got herself up to Vorra and sat by her side. She kissed her on the cheek.

“How are you?”

“Milord, of course I am on the mend. I am a dragon. I am power itself.”

“It’s really been a day.”

“It has been a day, as you say, milord.”

Vorra rested her head on Minerva’s shoulder and vibrated, with a slight hissing purr.

Tears built up in Minerva’s eyes and feeling Vorra at her side caused them to spill.

“Vorra, Wyrm was a monster, wasn’t he? Am I a monster too?” Minerva asked.

She clutched her chest, where, in her deepest nightmares, she felt Wyrm exist.

Everything that she had seen and heard in Moloch’s demesne, all of the horror and power and hatred, seemed to fall upon her at that very moment. It hit harder than the craven cowardice of Miriam Hirch or the abject cruelty of Ajax. Both of those things were evil, but they existed outside of her as verifiable lies. Neither of them could say truthfully that Minerva was a monster, that she was abominable and inhuman. But then Moloch–

“I say milord, with the utmost certainty, that you are you, and whatever you desire.”

Vorra turned to Minerva and kissed her briefly on her lips.

“Wyrm would have never accepted me as a Queen because I was not born one.” She said, staring directly into Minerva’s eyes and centimeters away from her face. “Denounce me for my bias, but I prefer you as King.” She laughed gently. “I love you, Minerva.”

“I love you too.” Minerva said. Those kinds of sentimental things were a bit hard and almost felt embarrassing to say, but Minerva really felt it at that moment. It was not at all what she expected as a child, that she would be the beloved of a dragon staring at the moon from the National Academy just a day after containing the evil of a Tyrant.

“Minerva,” she was pointedly not saying ‘milord’, “You possess the bravery to transmute all that you once thought fundamental, and to struggle against that which you are told you are unfit to change. I admire that about you. It draws me to you. Truly, I believe you can become anything you desire. I believe even by desiring it alone, you will become it.”

Minerva felt fresh tears coming up, and she clung to Vorra with a smile. “Thank you.”

Vorra purred at her side. “I was discarded, alone, unwanted, without future. Now I am here. To me, that is the greatest portent signalling that anything is now possible.”

Whatever it was that lay ahead, surely a series of hardships; Minerva felt she could do it.

She had made it this far and changed so much. There would be more change coming.

All of those tyrannical things that had once chained her up — she had wounded them.

“God, what am I even going to say in my report to the Party. This is really a lot.”

“It is, as you say, a lot, milord.”


Bright blue waves filtered into the elevator through glass panes.

When the doors opened at the bottom floor, Miriam Hirsch walked through a hallway of glass, reinforced by titanium supports. She followed a long carpet to a dead end with a wide, unobstructed pane of glass with a view into the massive aquarium all around it.

“I requested an audience, headmaster.” Miriam said, her voice trembling.

All around her, a cold voice reverberated through the water and glass.

I am listening.

“Phillip Theimer has been taken into custody. The Theimer fund has pulled from the Academy. I thought you should be made aware. It’s– it’s rare for this to happen here.”

Theimer deserved his fate. He aided the heresy of summoning a Pretender God.

Miriam was surprised to hear the headmaster already knew.

Then again, the headmaster was a strong diviner. His water aura was massive.

All of the water around her was like a scrying glass. He could see her.

He could see through her.

And yet, it was in her nature to lie, to conceal, to conspire, and so, she did.

“Yes, headmaster. I felt compelled to seek your input. Our elite families are valuable–”

I am aware of what has happened. I am aware, that you thought to shield him of his crime. I am aware of your connection. I am aware of your small mindedness.”

Miriam flinched and drew back a step.

“I– I simply couldn’t believe such a thing could happen at our school.”

I care not about the the Iron Flags; I care not about politics. Summoning Pretender Gods is becoming quite a trend again among you. I care about that. It is a heresy.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

In the next instant the water outside the glass became obstructed.

In its place was a massive eye, more complicated than that of any human being.

Miriam nearly fainted from shock. The depth of that eye felt like it might suck her in.

You are all forgetting the purpose of humans to me. Call me by name, human.

Miriam choked up, nodding her head. “Yes, Great Lord Leviathan.”

Slowly the eye retreated from the glass, and became smaller, until it was clear that it was one of many along the side of a sleek serpentine head adorned with many-colored crests.

I desire to meet Minerva Orizaga. Teaching, is valuable. Learning, is valuable. Discovering, is valuable. As long as they remain valuable I will not interfere. Minerva Orizaga, might be valuable. I desire to confirm that.

Leviathan, the God of Water, surged forward again until his eye covered the glass.

Do not forget what is valuable to me. Do not confuse it for what you value.

Miriam, feeling suddenly the weight of the plutocratic kickbacks that got her into her position, that got her clothed, that got her respectability, bowed her head to Leviathan.

“Yes, headmaster, great lord.”


Story 1 — Lord of the Wildfire, END


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Election Year (73.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content.


43rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramja gripped her broom with both hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My– best friend is a Frank!”

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not racist!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramja grabbed her coat and ran outside.

Bonjour darling. I parked around the corner.”

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

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

Its delicate solidity and warmth were mesmerizing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re working on a weekend?”

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

“Well, I can drive you.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

“Everyone’s an idiot, believe me.”

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

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

Ramja blinked hard, staring blankly at her girlfriend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramja nodded sympathetically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you?”

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

Cecilia gently slowed the car to a stop.

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Ramja asked.

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

Ramja crossed her arms and sat back and sighed.

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

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

“Huh? What? You’re asking– Ugh.”

Cecilia looked so annoyed by the question that Ramja laughed.

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

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

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

Old lady friends usually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow.” Ramja replied.

“I was young!” Cecilia whined.

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

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“I care now that it’s this much fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I do love you so much, darling.”

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

It felt miraculous.

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

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

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

2031, however, was their year.


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