Troubled Sky (57.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Ocean Road

Ocean Road trembled, buckling under the fury of dozens of tanks.

Burning red tracers flew over the streets, pitting the ground, smashing windows and walls, cutting through street-lights. Commanding the northern streets were several echelons of hull down Goblin tanks, their front armor reinforced with stacks of sandbags and chained-up wooden logs and concrete blocks.  Acting as mobile pillboxes set in staggered ranks, they spat AP-HE tracers with abandon, firing as fast as their beleaguered crews could handle, barely aiming. Even as they faced an encroaching enemy, they did not maneuver for an advantage, staying as still as the stone wall they were meant to represent.

Challenging their control were the Hobgoblin tanks of Shayma El-Amin’s 3rd Tank Battalion. Against the stone wall of the enemy, the Hobgoblins danced. There was barely any fire from them at first. Moving in coordinated groups of three, the tanks advanced using the buildings for cover, the alleyways to avoid lanes of fire, weaving an intricate pattern of track marks as they swung around the unguarded connecting streets. Even as the ground detonated all around them from the saturation bombardment of dozens of tank guns firing down the street, the Hobgoblins encroached with a steeled discipline.

At first the 8th Ram’s Goblin tanks believed they were confusing the enemy with their mass attacks, and the moving pillboxes felt the rush of victory. One Hobgoblin that clumsily exposed a flank was penetrated through the side; another had its track damaged, and was stranded in the middle of the road. Fire began to concentrate upon it until, after dozens of rounds, its pitted, ruined front armor gave in, and the tank violently exploded.

Two kills! Had the radios been working correctly the 8th Ram would have been abuzz with the sound of victory. Even in the face of the enemy’s strange new tanks, the old Goblin could score a victory! Not a single Goblin had yet suffered violence. For the first fifteen minutes of battle it seemed that the unmoving pillboxes had stopped their enemy.

Then suddenly the Hobgoblins reappeared directly behind the defensive line.

No one had thought the “retreating” enemy was actually bypassing them entirely.

Coming in from the alleys and the side streets, smashing through storefronts, the Hobgoblins opened fire. Unprotected engine compartments went up in smoke. Goblins all over the defensive line started to catch fire and explode. Any single 76mm shot from a Hobgoblin sliced through the Goblin’s armor like paper, turning the engine block to slag and cooking the crews inside their compartments. All over the lower Ocean Road the light tanks went up like signal bonfires. Outmaneuvered and encircled, and encumbered by their improvised armor and tight stationary positions, the Goblins could not redeploy.

After the fifteen minutes in which they held the line, it only took Shayma El-Amin’s tanks three minutes to completely dismantle it. Almost half of Ocean Road was open country, or it would be when the wrecks and the fire was cleared out. Engineers advanced from the bottom of the road, following the lead of the tanks. The 3rd Tank Battalion set track on Ocean Road proper and once more faced the north for the next phase of their attack.

“Forward! We’re breaking through to the rally point! 3rd Company will be the speartip, and 2nd Company will follow in from behind us! 1st Company, fade to the rear as we move past you; you’ve earned your rest. See if you can find any survivors in your two wrecks!”

Major Shayma El-Amin set her radio handset back on its unit, a vicious grin on her face. She adjusted her peaked cap and laid back on the commander’s seat of her Hobgoblin. A few centimeters below her, her gunner adjusted the gun and prepared the ready rack, while farther below and to the front, their driver slowly and steadily maneuvered them toward the front of the pack. Ocean Road could hold about six Hobgoblin widths of tank before becoming too crowded. Shayma had immediately noticed this when she arrived.

Ahead of her, the eight remaining tanks of the 1st Company began to make way for her own Company. All in all her battalion had thirty-five “main” tanks, not counting support such as the Kobolds she had allowed Burundi to borrow. She had spent 1/3 of her strength to tackle the first half of the operation. She intended to finish this with the other 2/3.

Her tanks advanced in staggered, alternating triangle formations. Each formation was three tanks, two forward, one rear, and stuck to one side of the road. Behind them, with about thirty meters of distance, a second triangle would take the opposite side of the road, with only these six foremost tanks attacking, to avoid friendly fire. Swinging her periscope behind her, Shayma could see that her vanguard was adhering to this doctrine excellently.

Her own platoon, a two-tank Headquarters, followed safely farther behind, and then the reserve triangle with three more tanks spread out among the center, left and right lanes.

“Brace yourselves, here comes the enemy’s second rank!” Shayma warned her tanks.

Ahead of them the 8th Division’s remaining pillbox goblins remained dug in, while infantry began to wheel artillery and anti-tank guns closer to the front. Guns poked out from the streetside windows, and sandbag circles protected mortar pits. Ocean Road steepened, and the 8th Division started to have a marginal high ground advantage. At the peak of the city, a pair of Orc tanks aimed their short-barreled guns down on them.

“Switch to high explosive rounds and fire on the artillery positions first!”

3rd Battalion’s tanks immediately acted on Shayma’s orders. All the while moving, the Hobgoblins opened a barrage of inaccurate but powerful fire on the enemy’s foremost artillery defenses. Explosive shells 76mm in caliber flew from the Hobgoblin’s muzzles and struck the earth and sandbags surrounding dug-in 76mm howitzers and 82mm mortars. Smoke and dust and shattered concrete burst skyward in front of the defenders and obscured their sight temporarily. Within the cloud a few fires raged from burnt ammo.

The 8th Division quickly retaliated. Howitzers and mortars adjusted for close fire and attacked through the cloud, casting explosives around and over the advancing tanks. Muzzles flashed and falling shells whizzed and sang, but the payload landed harmlessly behind and around the Hobgoblins. Fragments bounced off armor and no tank caught fire.

Shayma smiled to herself, baring a flash of white fangs, protected amid the blasts.

The 8th Division was operating on experience with slower and weaker tanks than a Hobgoblin and it showed in their every decision. Her armor could more than withstand indirect fire, and her tracks would always outrun it. Their gunnery just was too weak.

Quickly closing to within a hundred meters of the enemy, the Hobgoblins switched targets. Priority went to hard targets: the Goblins and the Orcs spread around the line.

Anti-armor fire grew fiercer the closer they moved.

At such short ranges the Goblin’s gun could punch above its weight class.

It was not enough. Armor piercing shells struck the fronts of the Hobgoblins and bounced off the thick, steeply sloped armor of the glacis and the strong, hardened armor of the gun mantlet, inflicting seemingly no damage. A Goblin’s 45mm gun could not penetrate the front of a Hobgoblin; if it could not be done under 100 meters, then it was impossible.

Across the enemy line, panic visibly set in. Shayma’s tanks coolly pressed their advantage.

HE shell casings popped out of the 76mm guns, and the lead Hobgoblins reloaded AP-HE.

Turrets quickly turned, guns correct elevation, and everyone found targets.

For an instant, the 3rd Tank Company’s formation paused completely.

In the few seconds that followed they fired almost a dozen deadly accurate shots.

Goblins went up in smoke throughout the defensive line, penetrated through their improvised armor of logs and blocks and the thin flat glacis armor behind it. Atop the hill both of the defending Orcs were accurately struck on the thinner armor on the bottom of their glacis plates, and the detonations inside their turrets sent smoke and fire blowing out of their guns until they finally exploded, spraying metal over nearby infantry.

Within the smoke and dust lifted by the previous high explosive attacks Shayma’s gunner indicated several moving shadows and outlines. Once the dust started to clear more, they could see several positions abandoned. Intact anti-tank guns were left behind. Mortars were decrewed. Useless machine guns, including a few Norglers, were discarded.

Soon as the last Hobgoblin gun sounded, Shayma ordered the advance to continue.

Her 3rd Company trundled forward, and then started to split up.

Taking adjacent road connections and alleyways, they dispersed from the center and opened the way for the fresh 2nd Company to repeat the two-phase barrage: first high explosive attacks on the defensive positions, and then armor piercing attacks on any remaining or arriving armor. Meanwhile Shayma’s Headquarters platoon drove through a connecting road and hooked around the enemy defenses; much of the rest of her 3rd Company did the same, dispersing through the urban environment in the same way they had dispersed through the Kalu wood, peeling off the line and evading enemy positions.

Bypassing the enemy strong point, Shayma and her tanks pinched off the rear of the enemy’s positions. Farther down the road her 2nd Company advanced to the positions previously held by the third. Now there were 12 tanks that could fire safely on the main road, and they held positions all around the enemy. They had formed a vice, and as the gunfire began to rain from all sides, it was clear that the vice was tightening quickly.

Once more the Kalu Raiders encircled the enemy line, and this fact was not lost on the enemy. More and more 8th Division troops gave in and abandoned their positions and weapons and even their uniforms. Retreating enemies threw themselves on the ground and begged for mercy. Those still nominally fighting hunkered down in their posts and waited for the cruel fire to blow over them. Remaining Goblin pillbox tanks popped their hatches and the crew waved signal flags in surrender. Ocean Road was quickly broken.

Hull-down tactics, a porous line of thick formations with nonexistent flanks, and outdated equipment exposed completely to a technically superior enemy — it was amateur hour tanking, Shayma knew. Standing at the top of Ocean Road and looking down on Rangda and the distant ocean, Major El-Amin became the first of Colonel Madiha Nakar’s commanders to take her assigned objectives, and she did so in little over an hour’s time.

Even so, much of the 8th Division did not know that they had been split into two sections in Rangda and that neither section had the power now to unite with the other. All of them knew even less that they would soon become nearly irrelevant to the conflict entirely.


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Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVI

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death.


50th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea — Cuvenen

Upon leaving the road, the Redcoats found themselves overwhelmed in the forest gloom.

Terry the dog quickly became a beacon of light in the shadows of the Cuvenen.

Sylvano could readily understand why the elves left the ancient wood. It was incredibly dense, overgrown, hostile. There was not one spot free of the claustrophobic green. Vines crawled along the moist, sinking earth. Broad, massive trees stretched in haphazard directions and seemed to join at their crowns to form a second, closer sky that was eternally green and gloomy. Between them grew bushes and mosses and flowers and all manner of flora that seemed out of place — how did they grow so green with so little sun?

Around the party the air was thick with the scent of green matter. It made Sylvano gag, and he could have sworn that the smell was a tangible chemical making his eyes weep. It was an oppressive environment. Sylvano felt smothered despite being quite free to move.

Cuvenen was a labyrinth, a cage that enthralled and captured the unaware. It was one gigantic flytrap distributed among a great spread of hectares. There was visual beauty in its shamelessly colorful and fertile occupants, but every other sense was hammered by the surroundings. Somehow, Clarissa could navigate this forest. Perhaps that was part of her royal privilege. But for Sylvano and Salvatrice’s loyal redcoats, the wood was indistinct.

Terry, however, navigated the forest expertly. It was as if she could see a world that they did not. With her snout to the dirt, she confidently walked under the boughs, over the roots, around the trees, through the bushes. She had a straight line to something and she was following it without deviation. Sylvano could only hope it was Clarissa’s path too.

Still, a dog was a dog, and Sylvano, just like Salvatrice, could not fully trust it.

“How do we know she’s on the right track?” Sylvano asked.

At his side, Centurion Byanca Geta sighed loudly in exasperation. She had been having the same trouble as everyone else keeping up with the dog and following her through the wood. Byanca’s boots sank into the soft dirt and mud close to the trees and slipped on the wet, hard earth and stone that lay between them. Her clothing had more than once gotten caught on thorny thickets and on the grasping fingers of long, gnarled boughs.

“She’s a hunting dog, she’s tracked rabbits overland and caught them as they leaped out of their tunnels before! She’s leading us the right away, just have some faith in her.”

Sylvano crossed his arms and huffed but all of his ready arguments were too petty to say.

Nightfall seemed to thicken every meter of wood. Without an awareness of the gaps between every tree in the distance, the forest seemed a wall, with every step feeling like it should have been met with immovable force. Sylvano felt his breathing tighten. Byanca withdrew an electric torch, a military model with an adjustable power switch. She set it to the dimmest setting and pointed it to the floor to avoid exposing too much light.

It barely seemed to make a difference, so dense was the darkness that had fallen.

Ahead of them Terry slowed down, perhaps conscious of the limitations of her masters, and for once they caught up and walked directly alongside the dog through the forest.

Very soon, however, the dog came to a sudden and complete stop. It directed its snout up from the ground and toward a direction, and tensed its body, making no sound. Byanca urged quiet, and shut off her torch. Bowing low, she, Giuseppa and Torvald snuck through a wall of bushes that Terry had been pointing into. Sylvano moved behind them as stealthily as he could. He was practiced in sneaking around, but by no means an expert, and especially not in the woodland. Through the bush, he peered into the forest ahead.

There was a makeshift clearing, where trees had been felled but the canopy above was still so thick with the boughs and crowns of neighboring trees that the removal hardly changed the layout. In place of those trees there was a large camp, a series of tents and shacks built in and around the remaining trees. In the center of the camp there was a much larger tent with stacks of crates making up its walls. There were scattered foxholes forming defensive perimenters, many lazily abandoned, some lazily manned. There was a campfire burning in every other one.  Sylvano could not tell if the men were armed or not. He could only see silhouettes, both of the men sitting and those wandering about in meandering patrols.

In the distance he could hear rushing water. They were near a river, so they could get fresh water, and they could probably hunt and forage in the Cuvenen. It was a sustainable camp.

“Where is Clarissa?” Sylvano asked.

“She might be in a tent, being debriefed. We’ll have to get closer.” Byanca said.

“Can Terry lead us to her?”

Sylvano looked down at the dog. Terry gathered up her paws and laid on the floor.

Byanca shook her head. “She’s a dog, not a sneak thief. She’d just alert them.”

Sylvano sighed.

He had expected a much bigger presence, with tunnels and heavy weapons and light artillery and everything that he had been told the anarchists possessed and was to be feared. She did not expect a tent village for lightly armed, beggarly looking folk. It seemed as if their own little band of redcoats might be more heavily armed based solely on the Norgler Giuseppa carried slung behind her back. At Byanca’s urging, she withdrew the weapon, loaded it, and lay prone with it in the bushes on overwatch duty.

“Cover us. We’re going around the camp. We’ll shoot a flare if we need to escape.”

Giuseppa nodded her head in response and Byanca waved Torvald and Sylvano toward a low ditch that seemed to skirt much of the length of the camp starting where their bushes ended. Byanca crawled on her belly with a pistol in hand started to navigate the little trench. Sylvano thought she could not possibly be serious, but Torvald quickly got on his own stomach and started to move, hugging the wet, mossy wall of the selfsame trench.

Feeling an anxious thumping in her chest, Sylvano got on his own stomach and followed.

It was extremely dark. Light from the campfires danced over the trench but could hardly penetrate inside it. Ahead of him, Sylvano’s allies became indistinct shapes that blended with the dirt and the rock and the moss. Worms and bugs and creatures crawled among them in the natural ditch as they snuck through it, circumventing the outer ring of the anarchist defense. It was like swimming in mud. Sylvano pulled himself slowly with his forearms and hips and knees. Torvald’s boots were almost all he could see of the man.

In this way they crawled for several meters, unseen but incredibly vulnerable. There was no fighting position they could take from their current predicament that would help them. Being caught meant a swift death by bayoneting, sitting helpless like rats in a cage. All of them had pistols but lying on their bellies they would be unlikely to have the first shot.

Sylvano’s eyes drifted nervously from the foul-smelling earth to the rocky wall at his side.

Over the shallow trench the fire-light stirred suddenly.

Sylvano heard footsteps and froze up.

Ahead, Byanca raised her hand enough for Sylvano to see it in the dim illumination.

She then retracted it, and Sylvano saw no more of her. Torvald hugged the ground lower.

Sylvano quickly did the same.

He heard the footsteps come closer.

Overhead, he saw a shadow stretch, dividing the light that danced over the trench.

There was a sharp, sudden flash and a short fizzing noise.

Sylvano smelled smoke. Tobacco smoke.

Then the footsteps started to drift far once more.

Torvald started moving. Sylvano assumed Byanca was moving too, and followed closely.

As they crawled around the outer rim of the camp a pair of voices started to sound louder than the fire and footsteps and general chatter. Sylvano could not make them out at first. Following the trench, however, they came upon a thick, broad tree that blocked the camp’s sight to them. Covered in its shadow, Byanca stood from the trench, and stacked behind the tree. Torvald followed, and Sylvano left last and put his back to the tree with them. Now standing, he could peer around the bulk of the tree and see the men on patrol.

In the light of the campfire their rifle bayonets glinted; Sylvano swallowed hard.

“Byanca–”

“Sssh!”

Byanca lifted her finger to her lip. “Listen.”

Sylvano crawled closer to Byanca. Around the tree was a tent, strung from the branches. He tried to make out the speech coming from inside, and managed to catch a familiar voice speaking about familiar topics. Holding his breath intermittently, since even the slightest sound disturbed his understanding, Sylvano tried to put together as much as he could.

“–weapons will be arriving any moment now. Be patient.” a man was saying.

“Is Cesare delivering them personally?”

Clarissa was in this tent as well, talking with this man.

“He is bringing them to us, yes. We’re getting ready for a big play.”

“I don’t think weapons will make this cell ready for–”

Clarissa replied, but Sylvano had to breathe, and lost some of the meaning.

“We’re not in charge of operations. We’re stockpiling. Cesare wants–”

“I know that’s what he wants. And I trust him. But will the villagers fight if armed?”

“We’ve got a match we’re going to light. They’ll see their time has come–”

“How will you make contact?”

“We’re not cavemen anymore. The — helped us set up radio and taught us how to communicate safely with it to avoid decryption and–. We’re ready, Clara.”

Sylvano cursed his anxious heart and weak lungs. He was having trouble understanding.

“For all our sake’s I hope you are. So how do you take the Armory?”

“First our cells are going to make targeted attacks on barracks all around– This will be a diversion to force the Legion to deploy to Ikrea. Then the cells in — will rise up, and attack the Royal Armory, freeing weapons for the people. From there, we will march, rallying the villages around the Palace to assault castle and kill the Queen. It’s only a matter of–”

Clarissa seemed to snort. “How do you breach the walls?”

“Those walls are made of rock. We have anti-tank guns. We’ll tow them to the wall.”

“It is rather thick rock, but you know weapons better than I do.”

Next to Sylvano, Byanca finally reacted to the conversation by shaking her head.

“This is a suicide mission. It will never succeed.” Byanca whispered.

Syvalno took another deep breath and held it strongly in his chest.

“What happens after?” Clarissa then asked.

“We’ll bring the people’s war out from Pallas to the rest of the country. Our comrades in Borelia will also rise up. Our comrades in Iontano will also rise up. It’s time, Clara.”

“I am absolutely ready to stand behind you. But can you defeat the Regulars? Even if you stifle the Legion, mother still has an army that will still fight against rising proles.”

“Most of the Regulars are gone. You’ve been cut off from news, Clara. The 9th Army, 10th Army and 11th Army have been deployed to Ayvarta. They’ve long since passed the naval point of no return and are– Between Borelia, Iontano and Lubon, the remaining armies are overstretched to the point that several Divisions have but two Regiments in them.”

“You speak a lot of gibberish to me, but I believe in you.”

“Believe, comrade Clara. You have seen our power, and you know the decline of your mother’s own. Our time is now. All we need is our weapons, and the signal, which–”

Sylvano felt his heart pounding. Lubon was throwing its mightiest forces into the war in Ayvarta on Nocht’s behalf, and they would not be able to come back in time to stop a general rising of the anarchists, if such a thing was successfully accomplished. And with the Blackshirt Legion having lowered the alarm in Palladi as a result of the Queen’s mercurial whims toward Salvatrice, the anarchists had enjoyed free reign to carry out these plans. Not only that, but they were engaging with Clarissa Vittoria as if she was a friend or equal to them. They were sharing their plans with her, they were treating her well. She was not clapped in irons and beheaded. Clarissa really was one of them.

At the eruption of this civil war, Clarissa would be safe among her comrades but Salvatrice would be hated and endangered by every side of the battle. Treated as a thing by the royals and legions; treated as a monster in need of purging by the rising peasants. She would have even less of a place to live her meager life. Everything would crumble around her.

Carmela, too, would be ruined in this madness. Byanca would not be spared either.

As he listened to the anarchists deliberate, as he listened to Clarissa ask her questions as ‘Clara’, their comrade and equal, Sylvano could not help but sympathize with them and their ideals. They just wanted to be free to lead their lives, like he wanted. They too, were under the heel of the Queen, exploited to feed her armies and fuel her wars and conquests, and decimated when they expressed disagreement or voiced criticism. They were nothing but things to the Queen, like Salvatrice herself. Lubon could better if they succeeded.

But Salvatrice, and Sylvano, and everything they loved, would be in jeopardy.

“Byanca, can we stop them?” Sylvano asked in a low, careful voice.

“Depends on how many of them are delivering these weapons. We can probably light up the camp as it is right now with Giuseppa’s help but we can’t handle any reinforcements.” Byanca whispered. She palmed her face and sighed. “Don’t know if that will stop them.”

“He said there will be a signal. Do you think the signal is in this camp? Did you hear–”

Byanca sighed. “I know as much as you. We may have to wait for the delivery to be sure.”

Sylvano bowed his head and put a hand to his chest. He felt his constitution waning. He had never been in such a stressful situation in his life. Salvatrice confronting her mother was one thing. The Queen could do nothing so terrible to her as what these men might do if they caught her, a royal, in their midst. She was face to face with death in this wood.

“Salv– Sylvano, up.”

Byanca pointed up at the crown of the tree and cupped her hands.

“Excuse me?” Sylvano asked.

“You can climb it.” Byanca said.

Just overhead there was a thick bough that served as an adequate first step onto the procession of branches forming the crown of the tree. Thick and bushy green and very dark, it was unlikely the anarchist patrols would think to look for spies in there. Sylvano, however, was displeased at the idea of having to climb up on it, and was initially quite reluctant, despite Byanca holding out her cupped hand for what seemed like a minute.

He then heard a rustling noise, and more footsteps, and that gave him the push he needed.

Nearly stepping all over Byanca in the process, Sylvano used her boost and climbed up onto that first bough, and from there began to climb the rest. Byanca helped Torvald up, and Torvald reached out a hand and helped her climb — a service Sylvano was far too panicked to provide for his loyal bodyguard. Within moments they had safely sequestered themselves high above the camp. Clarissa was nowhere to be seen from this vantage. She was directly below them. They could keep a good eye on the patrols, however.

As they waited Sylvano was astonished with how quiet and sleepy the camp seemed. Were they not preparing for a historical moment? Though they talked about slaying the Queen, the anarchists were barely lifting a finger. It was more like a pleasant camping site than a military installation. Sylvano wondered if this was the way every major event was preceded. Not with an understanding of its significance, with a buzz of anxiety toward what was to come, but with resignation and peace and even a casual lack of concern.

Either the anarchists were sure of their victory or they were ignorant of the gravity.

For what seemed like hours, Sylvano and his supporters waited atop that tree, watching the anarchists trace the same routes along the camp by rote, periodically going to one of the fires to set up a teapot on metal bars, or getting a pack of some nondescript food item out of one of the crates in the center of the camp and munching on it. They could hear no more of the conversation with Clarissa, but judging by some of the patrols Sylvano had been watching, they would be in grave danger on the ground even hiding behind the tree.

“Byanca–”

Sylvano had been meaning to ask her to be careful starting her attack. He had wanted to confirm with her again that Clarissa would be safe, that they could rescue her from here.

Then he saw the lights shining in the woods.

And he heard the turning of loud tracks, and the grunting of an engine.

Though in a panic he envisioned a tank, it was something much more mundane.

From the edge of camp, a large tractor with a covered top trundled through the bush, towing a container on a tracked carriage. Several of the patrolling anarchists turned to face it but nobody seemed alarmed. It was a white tractor with a big cab and tight, tall tracks, of the kind any industrial farm would have used for a variety of purposes. Procuring such a vehicle would not have been hard for anyone, and it could navigate the wood fairly well.

Inching forward at barely above a human walking speed, the tractor dragged its cargo near the center of the camp and stopped. From below the tree, Sylvano spotted Clarissa and a man in what seemed like hiking gear, with thick gloves, long sleeves and leather overalls. Both walked toward the tractor and gathered near the cab, waiting on the driver.

“Hey, about time you got here! Where’s Cesare?” asked the man beside Clarissa.

When the door into the interior of the tractor opened, a corpse fell right out.

A gunshot flashed in the cabin and rang out. Beside Clarissa, the anarchist fell dead.

Sylvano felt a silence that seemed to last an eternity, between the thud of the falling corpse, and the gunshot, and then the gurgling death of the stricken anarchist.

Clarissa screamed and fled past the tractor in terror.

Far too quickly, the camp descended into chaos.

Panels on the sides of the weapon crate slid open, and weapon barrels peeked from inside.

Automatic fire began to spray in every compass direction.

Muzzle flashes lit from the surrounding forest, putting lead on the anarchist patrols.

It was an ambush.

Men in dark clothing and masks rushed into the camp from the exterior.

Anarchists all over the camp began to shoot wildly in every direction to combat them.

From a foxhole, a glass petrol bomb was lit and thrown toward the center of camp.

In an instant the tractor was up in flames, and the fires quickly spread over the cabin and the burning engine and into the crate. The mysterious attackers inside it had their ruse turned into a horrifying slaughter. With the camp fully engaged, however, the silence of the machine guns only allowed every other rifle and pistol to sound all the louder and drown out the screams of the burning, dying men trapped inside their trojan horse.

Despite the loss of their treacherous support weapon, the men invading the camp moved almost unopposed, trampling over the outer line of foxholes on the side of the camp opposite Sylvano’s group. Swords and bayonet flashed in the dark. Anarchists in the interior of the camp, many wounded from the machine gun crate, took up positions where they could and fired back with their own rifles, forcing the invaders to take cover in the foxholes they had invaded, huddling with the corpses of the men they had freshly killed.

Then, from behind the foxholes, a second rank of invaders opened fire with submachine guns. Every anarchist position lit up from dense volleys of blue tracers from the wood.

It was clear which side was the winning one.

None of this mattered anymore, none of it had consequence; only one thing did.

“Clarissa!”

Sylvano leaped down from the tree in an action quite unlike him.

It was not him anymore.

“Salvatrice, no!”

Byanca shouted after, but the Princess was running after her sister.

The Legionnaire’s voice was barely a whisper beneath the gunfire and Salva’s own mind.

She landed harshly on her feet, nearly hurting herself, but she took off into wood, passing by the enormous bonfire that had become of the weapons crate and the tractor towing it, running past the positions of dead anarchists struck first and too quickly by the hidden weapon, ignoring the pitched battle unfolding between the shadowy soldiers and the anarchists across the camp. She rushed into the wood, into the dark. She ran on instinct.

Clarissa, whom she had never got to know, whom she had so easily abandoned.

Who was this woman who joined the anarchists like this? Who wanted to kill their mother, to betray her royal heritage? Salvatrice needed to know and Sylvano simply could not. She would look upon Sylvano as a stranger, but Salvatrice– would she see Salvatrice as her blood, as her sister? Would she pity her and free her the way she wanted to free herself? Wracked with confusion and questions and regrets, that screamed in her brain louder and brighter than the incessant gunfire she left behind, Salvatrice was running and running.

She heard the sound of the river, and she followed it. Everything else was thick bush and treacherous undergrowth and slippery soil. She ran with abandon, striking with her hands the branches and bushes and clinging vines that were in her way and rushing with all her strength toward the sound of the river, and the voices she soon heard over the battle.

“–Lubon has no more need of you.”

Salvatrice rushed out of the wood and into the river clearing in time to watch a bullet go through one end of her sister’s beautiful head and exit out the other. In the darkness of the forest night she saw the flash and she saw the blood and she felt a pain greater than the fleeting instant Clarissa must have felt as she defiantly stood before the gun, and accepted the bullet, and fell, like an angel freed from burden, backward into the river.

Clarissa Vittoria washed away with the foam of the rushing water.

Though she wanted to scream, to cry, to gnash her teeth, Salvatrice could only stare.

Her eyes welled up with silent tears, and her legs gave away.

She sat on the floor, her fists on her knees, weeping.

She was not alone.

Across from where Clarissa had stood, attached to the gun that had killed her, was a man in a black uniform, tall, strong and well-built, with a peaked cap and an unsmiling face. Around her were three other men, masked, wielding assault weapons, staring solemnly.

This man approached Salvatrice, and kneeled in front of her.

Gently, he lifted her chin. He bowed his own head, closing his eyes, and saluted.

“Legatus Tarkus Aurelius Marcel, 67th Signals Battalion, at your service, milady.”

Behind him, the three men bowed, kneeled, and saluted.

At her sides, from ambush, more legionnaires bowed, kneeled, and saluted with them.

Tarkus, that distant memory from her childhood, lay before her, contriving his stance to be lower than hers despite her collapsed state. He looked up at her from his genuflection and he smiled, and he addressed her with a warm, alien cordiality, almost a reverence.

“We dedicate this night to you, Princess. You will be in your rightful place, soon.”


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JOTUN (56.1)

This scene contains violence.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe, Rangda — Rangda University, Muhimu Shimba

Twisted smoke clouds rose from the center of the University, visible from the Main Street.

Gulab felt a great sense of urgency at the sight of them and kicked the back of the turret.

“Can you go any faster? Burn some gas already!”She shouted into the radio.

In a similar tone she received quick replies from the tankers.

“No! We need to conserve track integrity for battle!” Danielle said.

“Corporal, please calm down. Trust Private Santos.” Caelia added.

“We’re almost there anyway, just keep your eyes peeled.” Danielle said.

Gulab grit her teeth and squeezed her hands against the barrel and handle of her anti-tank BKV rifle, welded to a makeshift pintle atop the turret. Beneath her feet, the tank’s engine purred softly as they charged briskly toward the battle. Harmony climbed the hill past the Research Library and drove through the winding Main Street between the main campus buildings, cutting through the center of the University toward Muhimu Shimba park.

Though she felt mild shots of pain every time the tank stirred roughly under her, Gulab forced down that weakness, and focused on the environment and the task at hand.

There were signs of battle everywhere. Medics in ambulance trucks packed in wounded and dead personnel from all sides of the battle. Gendarmes with pistols and clubs chained together long columns of healthy prisoners and drove them like cattle away from the remains of smashed sandbags, burning crates and grenade-damaged emplacements. There were holes and dents on the road and pockmarked turf along the streets and lawns of the buildings. Harmony easily drove over shell-holes and around the ruined defenses.

In the distance, Gulab could hear the violent reports of guns and the booming of mortars.

“Charvi!”

Harmony finally crested the hill overlooking Muhimu Shimba and Gulab, behind the scope of the BKV, scanned the large crowd of confused soldiers gathered at the edge of the park. Gulab had no idea what could have happened to break up the column like that — she saw what looked like shell-holes in the park green and there was residual smoke in the air, and plenty of blood on the ground. Whatever happened, it had been violent and shocking.

Gulab’s heart raced, knowing Charvi might have been at the forefront of that violence.

Her eyes teared up as she searched desperately across the sea of green uniforms.

“Charvi! It’s Charvi!”

She found that unique and unmistakably silver-white head of hair that she loved so much in the periphery of the crowd. Charvi looked worse for wear, but she was alive, and standing under her own power. Gulab toyed with the radio box stuffed in her bread bag, hoping to contact her. She finally found the correct frequency and began to call Charvi–

They were not alone. From the forest, a massive tank trundled closer.

There was the better part of a platoon accompanying the tank. Wearing yellow sashes, the Lion battalion veterans carried much better weaponry than Gulab had seen in the hands of the average 8th Division soldier. Every man had a submachine gun or a danava to help them even the odds. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the 2nd Company and Chadgura’s troops at the edge of the park, the Lion soldiers had the advantage of their weapons and the tank, and they had their enemy standing out in the open. Any charge against the tank by the 2nd Company would be very bloody even if it succeeded.

Charvi wouldn’t make it out of that mess alive. Gulab had to put a stop to it.

It was then that Gulab made her call, and then ordered the charge.

She did not care what the violence of this signified for her. Whether the killing vindicated the men of her village or even if it anointed her as one of their own– it didn’t matter!

As long as Charvi was safe, it did not matter that she had to fight and to kill for it.

“Private Suessen! Private Santos!”

“I’m on it!”

“Yes ma’am!”

Harmony unleashed a smoke round, blinding the enemy tank, and then barreled downhill at full speed. Coming out of the hill slope with the force of gravity behind it, Harmony pushed marginally faster than its typical speed and rocketed from the street to the edge of the park and toward the column with desperate haste. Beneath its hull the tracks ground at an intense rate, and behind Gulab the engine worked up from a purr to a full-on roaring.

Gulab had her feet trapped in catches welded atop the tank, her waist tied loosely to a hand-hold on the tank’s turret, and her hands around the BKV rifle, and she still felt the power of the tank and the forces that it so easily generated. Her body was under pressure every second. Engine reverberations transferred energy into her feet, and the churning of the tank’s internal organs stirred her own gut. Air whipped her hair and rushed against her face, and her upper body and the BKV in her hands swayed with the tank’s turning.

It was difficult to aim in that situation, but Gulab had little choice in the matter.

She was practically their main form of anti-tank offense, pathetic as that was.

As the tank moved quickly into the park, the allied column seemed frozen in place.

“Corporal, we don’t have radio contact with anyone here but Sergeant Chadgura!” Caelia informed her. “So if you want them to retreat you’d best start shouting orders!”

Gulab took a hand off the BKV, and drew in a deep breath.

Caelia gasped. “Oh no– wait– please take off your mic–”

Before Caelia and Danielle’s protests could even register to her, Gulab broke into shouting at the top of her lungs, screaming at the crowd as they sped by. “Find cover or retreat or something!” Gulab cried out. “Get on the floor or dig a foxhole, just don’t stand there!”

Harmony wobbled left and right for seconds before setting course for the enemy tank.

“My head exploded.” Danielle moaned over the radio.

“Rest in fucking peace.” Caelia grumbled in a labored voice.

Perhaps in response to Gulab’s screaming or because they saw a tank hurtling toward them at full speed, the column scattered away from the enemy line. Stray gunfire from within the smoke cloud sounded briefly and abated very quickly, as the enemy found themselves ineffective within the cloud. At the head of the enemy the tank trundled out.

Gulab jerked the BKV on its attached pintle. It could move, in a tortured fashion, on a pretty wide arc in front of the tank. To turn it this way, she had to turn her own body at the waist with it. Whenever she did so she felt the sting of her poorly-patched flesh wounds and cringed. It was not ideal; but it was all she had. She pulled the bolt back to load it and got ready, looking down the scope and trying to keep the tank within her sights.

She kept her shaking fingers off the trigger. Shooting the tank’s front was useless.

“Okay! So what’s the plan?” She asked over the radio.

“Um, ramming speed?” Danielle replied.

“No, definitely not!” Caelia added.

Clear of the smoke, the enemy tank appeared in front of them like an iron wall. It was nearly ten meters long and nearly four tall, and bristling with guns. Gulab had never seen so many turrets on a tank. Arrayed around a central turret with a big-bored but short-barreled gun were two turrets that looked like they had been ripped from goblins, and two drums with what looked like autocannons or machine guns jammed into the mantlets. On the front there was one short gun and one long gun, and the back was much the same. All of these guns were set atop a long chassis with flat sides and a crudely sloping front plate.

Like turning heads among a stage crowd, the turrets all began to gaze toward Harmony.

A voice projected from within the tank.

“You think a Goblin with some cosmetic improvements can challenge the Jotun?”

Gulab thought the voice was coming from her radio at first, but it was definitely coming from within the tank. She did not know how, but the commander could speak out loud.

“You should have stayed in hiding, little recon tank! Now you won’t live to tell your superiors that Lieutenant Badir the Lionheart routed your forces this day!”

Following the bloodthirsty voice of Lt. Badir was a sound much less human.

The Jotun’s central gun descended slightly, turned a few creaking centimeters and fired.

In the blink of an eye a bright red tracer launched past Gulab, trailing smoke.

Behind them the shell erupted at the foot of the hill and punched a meter-deep hole in it.

“Are you alright, Corporal?” Caelia asked.

Gulab blinked and crouched low against the turret. “No!”

“We’re running past it, brace yourselves!” Danielle shouted.

On the softer, grassy earth of the inner park, Harmony lost speed, but retained enough to hurtle past the front of the Jotun before its turrets could fully track it. Dashing past the front of the tank, the comparatively diminutive Kobold turned and made for the woods.

Caelia swung the turret around; Gulab clung as best as she could as Caelia sprayed the Lion soldiers around the tank with inaccurate machine gun fire. Hundreds of bullets seemed to fly in every direction like a gigantic spray of buckshot, and the men bolted around the tank and away from it for cover, quickly breaking up their prepared overwatch positions.

Scrambling as they were and still surrounded in part by the smoke cloud, the elite men of Lion could not effectively pick off the 2nd Company. Caelia had bought them some time.

Gulab seized the opportunity.

As the men fled and Harmony flew past, the Jotun was isolated.

Turning the BKV perpendicular to Harmony’s hull, Gulab aimed for the Jotun’s side.

She squeezed her trigger and let off several rounds.

She watched her tracers fly into the Jotun’s side plates and disappear to no visible effect.

Gritting her teeth, Gulab reached down into a bag hung behind the turret.

Withdrawing a fresh stripper clip, Gulab began to reload the BKV.

In the second she took her eyes off it, the Jotun moved to threaten her.

“I see a rear machine gun aiming for us! Danielle!” Caelia shouted.

“Got it!”

Gulab raised her head from behind the BKV and saw a drum turret line up with her.

Dozens of red sparks shot out of its gun.

Harmony made a hard turn.

Caelia swung the turret around just as forcefully.

Several bursts of machine gun fire deflected off the gun mantlet and barrel as the turret turned sharply to Gulab’s defense, reversing itself almost completely to cover her.

Sparks flew off the top of the turret and over Gulab’s head as the shots deflected away.

“Corporal, I’ve got one more AP-HE shell and Danielle’s lined me up a shot on those turrets. Pick a target; but remember you’re on your own after that.” Caelia said.

Gulab grit her teeth. Despite all their heroics they were unprepared to fight a battle like this one. They had come running from University Avenue in haste, the moment Gulab regained consciousness. There was a stray distress call on the radio, very quickly snuffed out, but enough to draw their attention to Muhimu Shimba. Caelia and Danielle relented quickly in the face of Gulab’s determination, but their supply situation was very bleak.

Harmony was not wanting for fuel, but they had precious little ammunition.

Welding the BKV to the turret was a quick fix that allowed them a chance to fight, but the 14.5mm rifle was no substitute for having a 45mm gun with full AP-HE ammunition.

“Corporal?”

“I’m thinking! We’ll have to make it count.” Gulab replied over the radio.

“Target the rear machine gun!” Danielle suddenly said.

“Whoa, whoa,” Gulab interrupted, “that’s no threat to the tank!”

Danielle insisted. “No, but it’s a threat to you, Corporal, and to our comrades.”

Hunkered down behind the reversed turret, Gulab saw the Jotun’s guns start moving.

“She’s right, Danielle. One shot from those big turrets will kill us.” Caelia said.

“No, I can avoid their AT fire. I’ve got this. Trust me, Caelia!” Danielle pleaded.

There was a sigh on the radio. It sounded more fond than it was angry.

“Firing Armor-Piercing, High Explosive!”

Gulab felt the energy transfer into her body as the gun released a shell.

Her headset offered mild protection, but the report of the gun sounded right next to her.

Even for a small cannon, the 45mm felt earthshaking so close.

Harmony’s barrel briefly flashed, and behind the Jotun’s main turret a fireball erupted.

One of the drum-shaped machine gun turrets on its rear went up smoke.

“Thank you! Now I’m getting us on gravel!” Danielle said. “Hang on!”

Harmony veered suddenly away from the tree line and made for the road.

Behind them the Jotun’s main turret swung toward them.

Gulab fitfully expected another shot, but the gun remained silent.

Instead the tank started turning.

Smoke from the ruined turret blocked the main gun’s vision over its own back.

Until it turned around it could not shoot them with its main gun.

“Danielle, it’s moving!” Caelia called out.

“Trust me!”

In the center of the park the Jotun completed its turn and lined the Kobold up with its main gun, forward anti-tank turret and forward machine gun. Gulab had no protection from it. It was directly behind them, and all of its ordnance would sail clear into her, or into the engine block directly beneath her feet. Or into Caelia’s back inside the turret.

“Your determination to betray your people sickens me! Die, traitors!”

Badir’s voice was quickly overpowered by the sound of his guns.

“Hang on!”

Before Badir could unleash his weapons, Harmony hit the pavement of the road and quickly accelerated into a wide, sweeping turn. When the Jotun finally threw its bite, the teeth went very wide. Machine gun fire and shells soared over the road behind the Kobold as it began to put distance between itself and the enemy tank. On the pavement, the Kobold’s speed raised by nearly ten kilometers per hour, and quickly enough to escape.

Behind them, Muhimu Shimba started to erupt into a seething exchange of automatic fire.

Gulab had been too concerned with the Jotun to notice, but 2nd Company and the Lion veterans had lost the barrier of the smoke between them. 2nd Company opened fire into the woods, and from the woods the Lion Battalion retaliated. Machine guns and rifles cast lead over the shell-stricken park grounds while Harmony sped away from the scene.

Somewhere back there, Charvi might have still been stuck in battle.

Something crawled inside Gulab’s chest as she thought anxiously of Charvi’s fate.

“So we’re just running away?” Gulab shouted.

“No, I have an idea.” Danielle said. “The Jotun will follow us.”

“How do you know?” Gulab asked.

Caelia was silent on the frequency for a moment. She then broke into a little laugh.

“Look ahead, Corporal!”

Harmony’s turret swung around to the front, and Gulab peered over it.

Danielle had driven them through Muhimu Shimba, out into the road, around the outer edge, and toward the enemy’s rear. In a sandbag nest ahead of them, Gulab spotted Badir’s artillery. One short-barreled howitzer and several mortars had been packed behind waist-high sandbag walls fencing off a makeshift fort the size of school classroom.

Gulab blinked, and joined Caelia in laughing.

“Private Suessen, do you have any high explosive?” She asked.

“I’ve got a little left.”

“Good! Light them up!”

Gulab got behind her BKV and held on tight, in time to endure Caelia’s rumbling shot.

She saw the tracer go flying out of the gun and in a blink, it exploded over the sandbags.

Fragments and smoke and heat swept over the exposed mortar crews.

Gulab lined up the scope of her BKV with the ammunition boxes behind the crews.

Rapping the trigger, she launched several incendiary AP bullets into the stack of crates.

Startled by the attack, the artillery crews dumped their weapons and scrambled away.

Moments later the ammunition crates exploded behind them.

Chunks of metal and burning wood spread over the interior of the sandbag fort.

Several men were thrown to the floor in mid-run trying to escape, and anyone caught vaulting over a sandbag as the shells went off was perforated in mid-air by hundreds of flying fragments, all of which soared out in high arcs from the crates on the floor.

Losing no speed, Harmony ran past the emplacement and left it a smoking ruin.

“Look up in the sky, Corporal! There’s more!” Caelia shouted.

Gulab peered over her scope.

She saw trails in the sky from more howitzers and mortars, targeting the park.

“That’s why he’ll follow us!” Danielle said. “Otherwise we’ll–”

Caelia urgently interrupted. “We’ve got company!”

Behind them several guns went off in quick succession.

Gulab ducked her head as a volley of machine gun fire flew over her.

Just a few meters off the side of the tank, a shell impacted the ground.

Dust and smashed concrete burst into the air and fell over her.

Appearing hundreds of meters behind them the Jotun followed, guns blazing.

Harmony weaved from one side to the next, deftly avoiding a shot from the 45mm gun.

It hit a building off a street corner and punched through its wall.

“We’re getting seriously shot at here!” Gulab cried out.

“Danielle, plan?” Caelia shouted in distress.

“We’ll lead it back into urban terrain! We’ve got an advantage there.”

Two more shots sounded in unison as the Jotun managed to synchronize its turrets.

Ahead of them the 76mm explosive burst like a giant firecracker.

Around their side, the 45mm gun struck Harmony’s flank armor at an angle.

Gulab watched with a momentary horror as the shell bounced off a welded track link.

Any straighter trajectory could have penetrated the armor.

There was soon a respite.

Though moving at an unexpected speed for such a monstrous machine, the Jotun was still quickly falling behind. For every meter that rolled under its tracks, Harmony made good three. And as Harmony took the north-eastern corner around the park and then made for the northern campus intersection, they momentarily left Badir and his monster behind.

For a few seconds they had peace. Then they heard the shout.

“Come and face me like men, cowards!” came the voice from the tank.

Caelia grumbled on the radio.

“How is he doing that?” Gulab shouted.

Danielle piped up excitedly.

“When the Jotun prototype failed trials, it was turned into a parade vehicle!”

Gulab blinked. “How do you know that?”

“Um.”

“She’s amazing, is how.” Caelia said.

In a few moments the damnable gunfire resumed behind them.

The Jotun had cleared the corner and was hot on their tails again.

“Call me amazing when I get us out of this!” Danielle shouted.


 

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The Battle of Rangda III (55.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Rangda University Campus

“Lay down suppressing fire overhead! We’re storming the Research Library!”

Sergeant Chadgura shouted out to her troops, her dull voice achieving an air of strength.

Rushing up from University Avenue, she and her forces were poised to lay siege. Sniper bullets struck around their cover and stray machine gun fire swept the street, but it did not slow their advance. Smoke cover went up, elements reorganized and the attack pressed.

Machine gunners from Green and Yellow squadrons rushed uphill along the edge of the snaking road, making use of a brief smokescreen to cover their advance. Before the cloud fully thinned, they dropped on their bellies on the streetside green, using the curve of the hill to partially shield them from gunfire. Laying their Danavas down on their bipods, the gunners opened fire at angle on the upper floor windows of a massive square building overlooking the streets, raking every second floor aperture. Continuous gunfire danced between the windows, pitting the stucco exterior. Across the street an allied group of machine gunners performed the same maneuver on a second, opposite building.

Snipers and machine gunners, once commanding the terrain from inside the red brick buildings, quickly ducked away from the windows. They gave up their advantage for safety.

This was the best chance Sergeant Chadgura would get to invade the building and gain a powerful foothold in the University District. She steeled herself; she would seize it.

“Second Platoon will take the building at nine o’ clock, and we are going at three o’ clock! Move quickly; blocking group peels on contact, while the maneuver group keeps running!”

As she shouted this order, Chadgura stood up from behind a bus stop bench and rain shield and held her pistol into the air. Wind swept up her short, silver-white hair, and beads of sweat glistened over her dark skin. On her face was a stoic, unaffected expression, with easy eyes and neutral lips. She looked like a brave hero from a military poster.

Her gallantry was not lost on her troops. A group of twelve riflemen and women from her Green Squadron immediately left their cover in the vicinity of the fighting and joined her as she rushed uphill and past her deployed machine gunners. They ran without question.

Chadgura ran the fastest and hardest and it showed. She ran with abandon, her sense of pain and exhaustion and fear blunted, so that the palpitations of her heart and the raggedness of her breathing and the struggling of the muscles in her limbs felt distant and disassociated. She ran from the fog in her head and ran headlong into the fray instead.

“For Corporal Kajari! Charge!” She shouted, feeling a desperate pang in her heart.

“Oorah!” her comrades shouted back. She could almost feel their own rising spirits too.

Unbeknown to them the Sergeant was not sweating from mere heat and not screaming with h0t-blooded spirit. She was wracked with pain and stress not evident in her voice or mannerisms. She was conditioned to fight on regardless of this; and so she fought on.

Soon as her feet hit the top of the hill she aimed her pistol and laid down fire mid-run, smashing the glass panels of a long basement level window sinking into the lawn at the building’s far wall. Rifle shots rang out between the volleys of her allied machine guns. Tracers swept past her from the door to the Research Library and struck the turf.

There were riflemen stationed at the building’s ground floor doorway, leaning out of the cover of the doorway to fire on her. She felt chips of earth and concrete come flying at her legs and feet as snap shots struck the ground around her as she ran. She did not retaliate.

She was part of the maneuver group, and so she bounded forward. Others would cover her.

Behind her, three riflemen peeled from her group, took a knee atop the hill and engaged the enemy, shooting into the hallway partially concealed behind the glass panels and wooden frames of the doors. Well-timed long rifle shots on the door kept the enemy in the hallway from leaning out to fight, temporarily silencing the ground floor’s gunfire.

Machine gun fire flashed out from behind the hill and struck the second floor overhead, sending bits of the masonry and spent lead raining down over the maneuver group. Both the snipers and the ground floor defenders offered only scattered resistance, unable to deny the movements of their advancing enemies. Chadgura raised a fist in the air.

Her covering group saw the gesture and got ready for their new task.

“You saw her! We’re assaulting the front! Grenade out!” a man shouted behind her.

A safety pin clicked off. A can-shaped grenade went flying and rolling over stairway handrails in front of the building. It slipped in between half-open doors into the Library.

Chadgura heard the explosion go off to her side as she made it to the window she shot out. Six of her troops hurried past her, coming in from the hilltop she had left behind. They shouldered their rifles, stacking at the door with pistols, grenades and machetes in hand.

Half her squadron followed her to the corner of the building and crouched with her on the edge of the lawn. Chadgura and three soldiers guarded the broken basement window, while three others crouched and slid inside. From the sounds of it, they had a rough landing. It was an actual drop, from the ground roof to the floor of the basement level. Chadgura could not make out what was directly under them below, and had only a few dozen centimeters-wide glimpse at the long rows of book shelves and ceiling lights.

After a few seconds of low mumbling and groaning the entry team regrouped.

“There’s a table down here that’ll break your fall!” one woman shouted up.

She sounded mildly irritated, and likely still in much pain.

Chadgura unceremoniously ducked under the window and rolled inside herself.

Misjudging the height, she slammed side-first into the aforementioned table.

Very real pain shot through her whole body, and she felt the wind go out of her.

Her face contorted subtly, and her movements were sluggish, shaken.

None of her own self would allow her to really emote, to cry out or gnash her teeth.

Instead, stone-faced, she struggled to her feet, silently shaking.

Partially standing from the table, she raised her hands and clapped them softly.

Behind her, the two remaining soldiers dropped clumsily inside and landed hard on the tiled floor behind the table, missing the mark altogether. Neither recovered very quickly.

They had all landed in a small reading area surrounded by the basement’s shelves.

There was little time to take in the surroundings. Becoming stuck in here would spell death. Upstairs, they heard the sounds of individual shots fired, audible beneath the cacophony of the machine guns and snipers dueling outside. That must have been the ground floor team, engaging the enemy. Chadgura had no rifle, and ordered those who did to either shoulder it or affix bayonets. One woman had a submachine gun. Everyone else switched to their pistols — the bundu was too long to wield in confined spaces.

Chadgura withdrew a machete from her belt.

She wielded it one hand with an automatic pistol in the other.

Raising it like a cavalry sword, she ordered her fire team to hug the basement wall and follow it through the shelves. Two soldiers with bayonets led the team, followed by the submachine gunner, and Chadgura near the rear with the rest of the team. On one side they had a stark white wall, and on the other the long lines of black shelves filled with labeled books. At any point an enemy with an automatic weapon could have turned that cramped lane into a killing field, but none did. Chadgura’s group followed the wall down to a corner, and turned into another reading area that was also empty. There was a recess with a staircase inside, as well as an elevator. Chadgura did not trust the latter to be safe.

“Up the stairs. Private Ngebe, you first.”

She nodded to the submachine gunner, who nodded back. Ngebe was a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl that seemed ill at ease, but she was as trained as anyone there. Despite the perplexed look on her face, Ngebe carried out her duties well. Stepping carefully toward the recess, the submachine gunner stacked against the outer wall, quickly leaned in with her weapon to scout the room, and then proceeded inside carefully. Chadgura and the rest of the team followed, keeping out of sight of the staircase steps until Private Ngebe had taken a step and raised her weapon to the next landing. She raised her hand and urged them forward. Carefully, the team ascended the steps, keeping watchful eyes overhead.

An automatic weapon was vital to command access to obstacles like staircases.

But it seemed the enemy had not thought to defend the basement at all.

No sentries, no mines or traps, not even a locked door.

At the top of the stairs, Ngebe and Chadgura simply burst through an unlocked door and immediately joined the ground floor battle from directly behind the enemy defenses.

They entered a square lobby connecting the front hallway to the building proper. Behind a desk reinforced with sandbags a Khroda machine gun blasted the hallway and forced the entry team to duck behind the narrow strip of brick supporting the interior doorway. Already the door itself had been shredded. Three enemies crouched behind the reinforced desk, and a fourth man well inside the room directed the gunfire from within a stairwell.

Chadgura raised her pistol and shot this last man first, striking the side of his head.

He had barely hit the ground dead when Private Ngebe turned her gun on the desk.

She winced anxiously as she held down the trigger and hosed the defenders down.

Nothing that could be called battle unfolded from this — stricken by a hail of automatic gunfire at their backs, circumventing all of their protections, the defenders collapsed suddenly, their bodies riddled with bullets. Blood pooled over the sandbags and splashed the interior of the Khroda’s metal shield. In an instant the room grew dead silent.

The Sergeant wasted no time contemplating the scene.

“Entry team, form up!” Chadgura ordered.

From the hallway, the entry team crossed inside over the bits of door debris.

Now Chadgura had her whole squadron back, and without casualties.

She picked out one man and urged him out the door. “Go outside and signal for the rest to move in. We’ll advance upstairs to the main library.” Nodding, the man hurried out to do as he was told. Chadgura turned her attention to the rest of the squadron. “Reserves will sweep and hold the ground floor, while we secure the rest of the building. Move out.”

Clapping her hands — for effect rather than anxiety — Chadgura and her squadron inspected the stairways up to the second floor with the same caution that they approached the ones from the basement to the ground floor. Submachine gunners approached first, poised as they were to defend themselves from ambush with automatic gunfire. There were two staircases from the lobby, on opposite sides. Chadgura split her squadron into two fire teams and then she accompanied her original team up the leftmost stairway.

Quietly and carefully as they could, the squadron climbed each step without incident.

At the top, Chadgura and Private Ngebe left the stairwell first.

Soon as Chadgura set foot on the second floor landing a bullet struck the wall just a centimeter off from her cheek. She felt the force of the impact and winced. Though the mental shock was muted, the response from her body was visibly the same as anyone’s.

Chadgura ducked blindly behind the frame of stairwell opening to avoid the attack.

Several more rifle rounds flew past her. She heard a wet choking sound follow.

“Throw a grenade!” She ordered.

Some suppressed portion of her brain wanted to turn that into a visceral, echoing scream, but the words came out as a dull, slightly higher pitched cry that was still typical to her.

Nevertheless, she heard that grenade go flying out, thrown from the stairwell.

There was a deafening blast several dozen meters outside.

Chadgura waited a few seconds before leaning out and firing her pistol into the room.

Through the thinning smoke she caught a glimpse of where they were.

Ahead of them stretched a vast and broad room that seemed to encompass the entire floor. There were hundreds of shelves full of books to either side of a broad central space with tables and lamps. Many tables had been flipped over for cover. Several that had been stacked close to form a barricade in the center of the room had been blown to pieces by the grenade, killing and exposing the riflemen hidden behind them. There were men behind the tables, men hiding among the shelves, and a few men running between positions.

Behind her, one of her own men had been shot and was dragged downstairs. There was little room to hide or maneuver in the stairwell; most of her squadron was hidden down the steps. Private Ngebe was hiding behind the stairwell doorframe on the side opposite Chadgura’s own. This was the only place she could fit into and only one person could fit.

Chadgura could almost make out her remaining squadron on the far side of the room.

There were fewer positions opposing them than those opposing her.

Flipping on her radio pack, she called out, “Section, attack the central defenses!”

She waved to Private Ngebe, and reloaded her pistol.

At her signal, both of them leaned out and engaged the central defenses. Chadgura’s pistol was automatic, and the same caliber pistol round as Private Ngebe’s submachine gun, but its rate of fire was much lesser. Her fire flew in fits and starts, striking tables and floors and bookshelves inaccurately; Private Ngebe’s gunfire was continuous and accurate, fired from the shoulder, sweeping over the enemy’s cover and along its edges and forcing the defenders of the central position to cower in fear of being stricken wherever could be seen.

Cower they did, but only momentarily.

Seconds into Chadgura’s attack, from behind the defenders the second fireteam started shooting. A second submachine gun burned its ammunition, and this one had little to contend with and a likely unintruded view of the enemy’s backs. Pistols joined the volley and the volume of gunfire saturated the area. Suddenly the enemy found themselves enfiladed, caught between two pincers of brutal automatic fire. Chadgura could not see through the tables facing her, but she saw small holes punctured in the wooden cover; she heard the screams and shouts; she saw blood spatter, and saw wounded men trying to run.

Private Ngebe’s gun clicked empty, and she ducked behind the doorframe to reload.

Chadgura ducked behind as well.

Out in the library the gunfire did not abate.

Over the radio, Chadgura heard a man cry, “Grenade out! Take cover!”

This was soon followed by a blast in the middle of the room.

When Chadgura peeked out of the doorframe again, she found the barricade of upturned tables scattered in pieces, blown apart into bullet-riddled debris over isolated corpses and spreading pools of blood. There was not a living man still deluded enough to take cover in the mess. All of them had dispersed into the ranks of shelves, putting anything between themselves and the omnidirectional killing field the center of the library had become.

Chadgura grabbed hold of her microphone and shouted, as much as she could, “All units advance and clear the room! Shoot through the shelves! Don’t let them regroup!”

From behind her, the soldiers ducking down the steps came charging out.

Raising her pistol, Chadgura rushed out with them, and Ngebe followed.

Dispersing across the width of the room the column advanced. Pistols flashed repeatedly, shooting diagonally through the ranks of shelving units to avoid hitting their counterparts across the room. Lines of red tracers punched through books and wooden shelves and sent paper flying into the air. There was no resistance. Two submachine guns and a half-dozen automatic pistols systematically laid waste to the room, cutting a swathe across what seemed like a hundred rows of shelves each towering over the bloodshed. Rifle-caliber fire from the bayonet-bearing bundu punched through several shelves at once with each shot.

Within moments the last shot was fired and there were no sounds of resistance.

Checking between each row they found blood and bodies, some dead, many wounded.

Pleas of surrender went out from those still alive enough to know their plight

Papers soared and glided through the air like a cloud of white and yellow butterflies, stacking on the floor wherever they fell, turning crimson where there was blood. Several damaged shelves collapsed spontaneously as if awaiting the end of the violence. There was a partial domino effect on one end of the room, a dozen shelves falling over and crushing several men beneath their bulk; Chadgura’s forces steered clear of this as they marched.

Regrouping in the center of the room, Green Squadron exchanged clear reports.

Once sure that the situation was well in hand, Chadgura called over the radio.

“Second floor clear. Ground team, what’s your status?”

“Ground looks clear so far Sergeant. Should we join up?” one of the men responded.

“Send four of you. Everyone else barricade the basement and guard the lobby.”

After clearing the room, Chadgura completed her picture of its layout. She found the accursed second floor windows that she was being shot from earlier, vacant, at least one abandoned machine gun left lying there. And she found the next set of stairs, and once more stacked up at the stairwell. Ngebe took the lead again, and again Chadgura followed her up. Six fresh soldiers including four from the ground team followed behind her.

This time they were more cautious, and peered into the upper floor before fully climbing up the stairs. Nobody was shooting at the landing. In fact nobody was out in the open in the third floor. There was only a long hallway with closed doors to a dozen rooms. Austere brown carpets and beige walls, windowless showed no sign of tampering. Still, Chadgura was not going to take any chances. She called the ground floor and had a package brought.

On the closest and farthest doors explosives were quietly affixed.

Wire was drawn back to the stairwell.

Chadgura and her team hid, counted, and electrically set off the bombs.

In quick succession four blasts blew through the room.

Doors blew off their hinges and walls partially crumbled. Fires danced over splintered wooden supports and burnt carpet. Smoke swept across the hallway and into the rooms. Dust sifted from the cracked roof shimmering with the rays of the rising morning sun outside, while splintered walls unveiled the clouded remains of reading rooms.

“Clear the rooms.” Chadgura ordered.

Nodding heads; her soldiers donned gas masks and quickly spread among the doors and through the holes in the walls. Chadgura donned her mask and followed Ngebe into one of the nearest doors, pistol on hand. Behind the smashed doorway she found a room full of injured men and women, their weapons discarded or broken, coughing and choking with every wound conceivable from broken bones to missing fingers and limbs and cuts and bruises of all kinds, disoriented and mildly burned and concussed and dazed by the blasts. They crawled under upturned tables, behind fallen shelves and smashed file cabinets.

Across the floor, Chadgura heard the cries of “Clear!” come echoing from every corner.

She wandered through the debris and bodies, feeling nothing for them.

Her heart was always a little dull; today it was absent entirely.

It was somewhere else, with another person, one who needed it more.

“All clear.” She called on the radio. “Send medics up. We’ve got a lot of enemy wounded in grave need of treatment. Tell the ambulance and supply trucks it’s okay to move in.”

University Avenue was conquered, and now they had a castle from which to guard the Main Street. They were only a step from Muhimu Shimba. It felt like they had been fighting for days, but in reality a handful of hours passed. It was not even the proper time for lunch.

Chadgura started out of the building posthaste.

She feared that if she stopped moving, she would have gone back to her.

And though she wanted nothing more to stare at Gulab, to see her rest angelic and to suffer with her every second that she was not awake and aware among them, Chadgura knew that Gulab would not be safe until Muhimu Shimba was taken. She had to move.

“Orange squadron and Purple squadron move up, with me. We’re on the attack.”


Read The Previous Part || Read The Next Part

 

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XV

50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Ikrea

Byanca could not believe how quickly everything was moving.

Walking out of the convent with a firearm trained on Princess Clarissa Vittoria was a surreal experience. Byanca marched step by step with a heart squeezed by tension, as the gallant young woman three steps ahead strode past ranks of her fellow sisters frozen with terror. Any of those women could have lunged for them and set afire the whole scheme; had the whole mob managed to come together they could have killed Byanca, certainly.

Through the gardens, through the hallways, across the outer wing. Every corner, every balcony, every higher story, suddenly teemed with onlookers watching them in disbelief.

Despite their every advantage, none of them were convinced of their own power.

No woman took any step closer to the two of them. They walked as if between a fence laid down with habits and crosses and skirts, rather than amid a teeming human mass.

Clarissa had her head up high and an almost smug expression on her face.

“Mice.” She said to herself aloud, as she stared at the women and girls around her.

She was amused enough to indulge in the slightest, cruel little giggle.

Byanca pushed her gun forward like a real kidnapper would have.

They passed through the arched main gate of the convent. At the side of the cobblestone path stood the Convent Mother, her tall, gaunt, long-limbed form draped in the most covering and ornate habit Byanca had yet seen. Even in the monastery she had never seen a sister so over-dressed. All of her hair was captured in her habit, and not even a hint of neck or bare hands could be seen through her dress, which was richly embroidered. Her only visible flesh was that of her face, taut and pockmarked, void of readable emotion.

“Clarissa, if you leave with these people, you will not return. I assure you. They will use you and bury you somewhere lost and deep, and you will never see heaven.” She said.

Only threats. No greetings, no prayers, no honorifics. No respect whatsoever.

Clarissa, her hands held up in feigned captivity, scarcely spared the woman a glance.

“If you’re a keeper of heaven, no such thing can exist. Out of my way.”

She started walking again even before Byanca did.

They were no longer captive and captor; it was clear who was in control, and Byanca had lost any pretense to it, even as she held a fully-loaded, automatic firearm in her arms. Even with the ability to put a bullet through her breast and end her at any time, she felt powerless in the face of Clarissa’s strength. She was as immovable as a statue and with a similar stoic beauty. Bullets would surely ricochet against that ramrod straight stance.

Byanca contemplated pointing her gun at the Mother, but did not do so. She did not even stare at her. Like a phantom, the woman merely left the world as Byanca averted her eyes.

Past the gates, there was a long dirt road, seemingly endless, raised up with sand and stone against the shallow ditches flanking it. Dense woodlands stretched high to both sides of the road. Thick-trunked trees with great crowns formed a mantle that cast deep shadows. Compared to this gloom, the road between seemed gilded, a thread of light.

Farther down the road, a green truck lay conspicuously in wait.

And from the forest, Byanca’s subordinates soon stepped carefully into view.

Though they had only recently made her acquaintance, Byanca did not have the time to be properly paranoid of Torvald and Giuseppa. She had a good first impression of both, and they came recommended by a certain Signore Giovanni. Torvald was a stocky sort with a sharp face and overgrown, slightly unkempt blond hair; he had a twisted smile and clearly did not care for himself too much, if at all anymore. Giuseppa was a tall, long-haired, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with ears almost like a rabbit’s — an indigenous Borelian who had served with the colonial authority for a time. She had an incisive voice.

Both seemed like the sort of people unsuited to elaborate personal schemes.

Dinari and the promise of a rifle in hand was alone what sang to them.

They made good subordinates and minions were all Byanca desired at the moment.

Coming out of the wood they looked focused on their mission, dressed in camouflaged greens (a red uniform for Byanca’s redcoats seemed counterproductive for the moment) and with steel gazes that did not linger on the Princess for long. Soon as they appeared and Byanca acknowledged them, the three of them quickly headed down the road for the truck. Two more of Byanca’s cadre waited inside the truck’s cabin, and they primed the engine the moment she reappeared. Byanca led the Princess around to the vehicle’s bed.

Inside waited Terry the dog, its tail quite unwagging, and a brooding, effete young man with a delicate face and ruddy-brown hair in a short ponytail. He was the only one without military garb, dressed instead in a vest, shirt and dress pants, black tie and all. Byanca would have called him the ringleader; he looked the part. There was a glimmer in his eyes as Byanca helped Clarissa up into the bed of the truck. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but he did not. On his subtly curving hip was a small Nochtish pistol.

There were more guns in the truck. They had one Contracarro Boyes rifle, a large, long piece with a thick stock and a recoil buffer; and one Myrta light machine gun, already loaded with a thick, unwieldy 30-round magazine sticking out of the gun’s side. But the centerpiece was lying on its bipod, in a corner of the bed. One Nochtish Norgler machine gun and its ammunition belts. These were rare and prized in the Kingdom of Lubon.

“My, you’re better prepared than I expected.” Clarissa said, glancing at the weapons.

“We’ve been busy.” said Sylvano D’Amore. His voice was conspicuously gentle.

“Indeed you have. I thank you for your service. It will be rewarded.” She said.

She did not mince words. There was only a limited use in saying more to commoners.

While Clarissa stood tall everyone else seemed to buckle.

Sylvano’s eyes shied away from contact. Torvald and Giuseppa sat on the side of the bed, while Byanca sat beside Terry, who maintained a subtle, restrained growl at the sight of Clarissa. Sylvano sat on her other side, quiet. All of them seemed beneath the notice of the confident Princess, who was already turning from thoughts of escape and to her future.

“Run your plan by me. What has been happening around here?” She asked. “How is Cesare? How are his cadres? Last I knew he was being relentlessly hunted.”

“We’re just a cell; we do not know about our counterparts.” Sylvano said.

Byanca would have rather he not say anything, but it wasn’t too damaging at least.

Clarissa did not seem to have any change in attitude.

“Princess, the Blackshirt Legion has pulled out of Palladi, but they’re still thick in Ikrea.” Byanca interjected. “For safety reasons, we will drive you to a noticeable landmark of your choice, somewhere you know you can navigate. We’ll give you civilian clothes and money and you’ll have to make it to a safe base area by yourself. Can you do this for us?”

Clarissa held a hand up to her mouth. She was still standing in the middle of the bed.

She loomed over them, like a giantess. She radiated sheer power in an eerie way.

“What will you do then?” She asked.

“We will disperse, to regroup when an opportunity presents itself.” Byanca said.

Perhaps Clarissa was asking genuinely, and perhaps she was testing their knowledge of anarchist operational art. Byanca could not be sure. She was confident that she knew enough, having destroyed several rebel cells in Borelia, to understand their tactics and organization. Even here in Lubon, they had sympathetic “base areas” in rural villages that either tolerated or outright supported them. From those areas they sewed independent “cells” like seeds cast into the wind. These were less solid formations and more fluid groupings of people aware of each other’s presence and role in an operational area. They came together when there was an opportunity, and were strangers the rest of their days.

Ikrea was the root of their strength. It was here that they had launched their deadliest attack, and it was here that they were most hunted. But knowing men like Cesare, Byanca knew that he would not abandon the site of his greatest victory. Ikrea teemed with enemies for the anarchists, but it was also confused and weak in the knees after his last blow. Palladi would mean starting all over from scratch. Cesare was still in Ikrea, because he could never abandon the irreplaceable things he built here: allies, and reputation.

And Clarissa seemed to know it as well. Her response was unsurprising to the group.

“Take me to Cuvenen Forest.” She said.

A secluded, forgotten place no soul should have been near.

There were many such places in old Ikrea, but now they had narrowed it to one.

Everyone nodded in recognition. Clarissa smiled at them.

Delicately, she lifted the hem of her skirts and sat against the side wall of the truck bed.

Byanca banged her fist on the rear of the bed, and the truck began to move.

Soon the trees were flying past them as they picked up speed.

Wind blowing through the gaps in the truck’s bed armor whipped everyone’s hair.

Sylvano had a look of disquiet on his face.

“Princess, how,” he paused for a moment, sighing slightly, “how have you been?”

“Captive.” Clarissa replied, with a small smile full of subtle viciousness.

Byanca felt a temptation to force Sylvano to shut up, but in a way that would have been incredibly cruel. This was the first time the person who was both Sylvano and Salvatrice Vittoria would meet their long-lost sibling. Byanca could not have imagined what was going on in their mind at the moment. Certainly it must have been heart-wrenching.

Despite the danger, her compassion won out. She allowed Sylvano this moment.

“I apologize, Cl– Princess. We could have attempted this much sooner.”

Clarissa’s devilish countenance softened somewhat.

“I do not need your apology.”

“I– We forgot you.”

“Rebels never forget their comrades. You were being pragmatic.”

“So you never lost hope?”

“No. I lost hope very quickly. But I adapted just quickly to losing hope. I wrote some letters that went nowhere, tried to escape a few times. I thrashed and fought and made a mess of myself, I cried copiously. Then I settled in. I’m nothing if not stout-hearted. It was fine. ”

Clarissa spoke as if merely telling a story. As if she had no connection to those events.

Sylvano looked hurt by those words.

“None of that needed to happen.” He said, his hands shaking, balled into fists.

“That’s her wretched Majesty for you.” Clarissa said, in the tone of a gossip, still smiling, still flighty in manner. “She will soon get what she deserves. I’m sure Cesare is ready.”

Sylvano lifted his eyes from the floor and locked them on Clarissa.

“I thought Cesare loved you. Shouldn’t he have done anything to free you?”

Byanca felt a growing sense of alarm, but she restrained herself. It was not as dire a situation as she feared. Clarissa did not seem offended or suspicious. She was curious, drawn in, perhaps endeared even. Her entire stance and countenance was softening, and she allowed herself more emotion toward Sylvano than she had previously shown.

“Revolution is his wife. I am only his mistress. For what he promised to do for me, that was enough. I love him, yes. But I love him in the context of this state of affairs.”

Sylvano shook his head. “I don’t understand at all.”

Clarissa giggled suddenly. “I’ve led many lives, peasant; of them, the life I shared with Cesare, briefly, was the one where I felt most alive. In the palace, I have always been dead. And in the nunnery, I was merely frozen, asleep. I was not suffering there, you see. I suffer only under the claws of my harpy of a mother. Elsewhere, in comparison, I am at peace.”

She leaned forward and with her fingers, pushed up Sylvano’s chin.

“Your friends have given me hope that I may yet live again. That I can be free of Lubon’s cursed crown and lead my own life. For that, I will always remember you and be grateful.”

Sylvano seemed to shiver at the touch, his eyes wide with bafflement and emotion.

“I may be only his mistress, only one of the women in his bed, but Cesare would kill a Queen for me, and that is more than he would do for any other woman.” Clarissa said.

Giuseppa and Torvald turned their eyes away. The Princess was becoming quite animate in this conversation and sounded almost like a member of a cult whenever she spoke.

Byanca wondered what Clarissa even knew about anarchist ideology to think this. In ignorance, Byanca might have accepted it too; but she knew better now what they stood for. To them, Clarissa was a visible part of the state that they hated, a prissy and privileged woman who had been pampered her whole life on the sweat of others. It might have been pretty convenient for Cesare to be able to taste royal flesh in the course of his goals, but as an organization with an ideology, anarchists would sooner flay Clarissa than free her.

Was Cesare that convincing? Was she that foolish? It was such a confusing situation.

Sylvano seemed reduced to mumbling, and any rate, Clarissa stopped paying him attention. For the rest of the ride through the countryside the truck was dead quiet. Byanca instructed the driver to stick to back roads and to keep an eye out for patrols. Whenever they entered a populated area a tarp was thrown over the back of the truck before passing through. But there were no Legion patrols, no convoy of police vehicles headed to the Convent. Byanca had the radios destroyed and phone lines cut back there.

So it gave them a pretty sizable head-start on their pursuers, if any materialized.

Ikrea was a province of mostly woodland and farmland arrayed around a few waypoints of civilization. Towns in open places served as hubs to receive the produce of the small villages in the thick woods and amid the vast fields. Ikrea’s handful of cities procured this produce from the towns in turn and delivered it to the industrial places of the north after eating their fill. Those farming the land received the least benefit of their efforts.

It was this state of affairs that led to Ikrea becoming a nest for insurgency.

Byanca could not challenge this root cause; she could only ameliorate the symptoms.

Watching the world travel past the back of the truck bed was an eerie sensation. It felt like being flung through a tunnel, like falling forwards down a stretch of trunks and green crowns and wispy white clouds of dirt. It was isolating, even with people at her side. This was a different world with different sensibilities from Palladi. It was more like Borelia.

It was like invading the villages in the Borelian outskirts all over again, trampling over grass not one’s own and waiting for the next grenade to fly out of a roadside bush.

But nothing happened. There was no antagonist; the way was open, a way to nowhere.

Between much of Palladi and Ikrea stretched a great silver lake, and it was in the southern, Ikrean portion of the lake that a stretch of woodland, seemingly no different from the rest of the great forest, was historically acknowledged to be the Cuvenen. Known by some as the First Forest, the Cuvenen was important to elven history, but only marginally important to the folklore known to most. Elves had been said to have entered the world from the Cuvenen; but that they left it behind said enough about its importance to them.

Byanca had been taught that Elves reveled in exploration and expansion. That the whole world was the forest they would chart, nurture and ultimately protect. They were destined to have an Empire, and in the Cuvenen, they would have never built one. Places like Cuvenen were meant to be forgotten, and under Vittoria’s shadow, they easily were.

The truck arrived at the Cuvenen just before sundown. Descending a shallow ditch, the Redcoats hid as best as they could from the lakeside road, and straddled the wood until they reached the maw of the woodland. Everyone vacated the truck bed to give Clarissa some privacy. When she emerged, she was dressed in a jacket, long pants, boots and a newsboy cap. Byanca was reminded of disguises she found a certain other princess wore.

“Do you know how to use this?”

Byanca approached Clarissa with a pistol in hand.

“I do not.” Clarissa replied.

Byanca put the gun in her hands and stood behind her, showing her how to use it.

“Trigger, safety, slide,” she said, showing her the parts, “pull this to get ready; bullets come out of here when you press here. Keep your finger off here until you’re ready to shoot. You’ll feel a bit of pushing force back on you each shot. Aim like this.”

While Giuseppa, Torvald and Sylvano stood guard, Byanca quickly trained Clarissa.

After a few minutes of instruction, Clarissa aimed into the wood and pulled the trigger.

When the gun went off, she let out a little screech, at first, but quickly calmed.

A little smile played about her face. “Oh, my. I think I liked that.” Clarissa said.

“It’s not a toy.” Byanca said. “Be very careful with it. Now, you should be going. We’ll wait fifteen minutes to see that nobody follows you closely and then we’ll turn around.”

“Understood. Thank you for taking me this far, comrade.”

Byanca’s eyes nearly twitched hearing that word out of this woman’s mouth.

“I hope for your sake you find someone in there, or you’ll starve otherwise.”

Clarissa silently nodded her head and tipped her newsboy cap with a grin on her face.

She turned her back on the group and ambled casually toward the wood with her hands in her pockets, one bulging with the firearm inside. She moved with the confidence of one practiced in clandestine activity — it was casual to her, another escapade, another little adventure. For all of her life she had been immune to consequences for her actions. Byanca had to wonder whether the dealings with Cesare were her only past sins.

Sylvano stared helplessly into the forest, watching the Princess disappear.

Once she was far enough away, and enough time had passed, Byanca climbed into the back of the truck. There she found Clarissa’s discarded clothing in a pile. There were no extraordinary effects — just her habit, dress, and shoes, along with a crucifix she left behind. Her dress didn’t even have pockets, so she couldn’t have taken anything. Everything Clarissa carried with her now, they had given. Less unknowns to worry about.

Satisfied with her inspection, Byanca seized Clarissa’s habit and thrust it into Terry’s snout. The dog sat stoically in a corner of the truck. When given the habit she snarled for a moment before begrudgingly sniffing the piece as she had been trained to do. After sniffing the habit, Byanca let Terry loose on the pile, taking in all of Clarissa’s scent from her full attire. Steeped in the Princess’ various odors, Terry would be able to track her.

“Follow her very quietly, Terry. Attack only to defend yourself.” Byanca said.

She pointed into the forest. Terry hopped off the back of the truck, and thrust its long snout into the soft, damp dirt of the forest path. Navigating by nose more than eyes, the dog started off into the ever-darkening wood with its tail up high and its legs tense, moving with a restrained, careful gait that seemed unnatural to its species.

“So that was your plan all along? Following this dog?” Sylvano said.

His voice was struggling. It was lapsing with emotion, back to its princessly state.

“Well, we don’t really have any other choice. We can’t go in with Clarissa, because we’re not really anarchists. And if we try to make Cesare come to us, his people will have made preparations and contingencies. So we have to let her return to them alone, in their base area, and then we need a way to follow her that won’t arouse suspicion. That’s Terry.”

Byanca had gone through various possibilities in her head. This was the best way. Any rebel cell that had survived this long would have measures against bugs or spies, but nobody ever really prepared to counter dogs because the Legion never employed any. Dog tracking was an ancient, low tech solution overlooked in a high tech world. It satisfied the condition of finding the anarchists. But to truly infiltrate them, to render them vulnerable, they needed someone that the anarchists trusted or needed. Clarissa was hopefully both, but she was at least the latter. She was valued; she knew how to contact them and knew their secret base. They would accept her even if only to dispose of her or to close the informational loop. Clarissa had gone to them of her own accord in the past, if the Queen’s intelligence services could be trusted. Clarissa could therefore lead the Redcoats to Cesare.

“How do we know Clarissa can find these people?” Sylvano groaned.

“Well, she picked to come to Cuvenen of all places. There’s no reason to do that unless she wanted to die alone in the woods, or she knew that she could find help in this place.”

“What if she can’t find anything? What if she’s just trying to run away?” Sylvano said.

“Then she picked a terrible spot to run away in. Listen, if you want this to work then you have to trust me. We have no leads except this one. We will make it work somehow.”

“Somehow?” Sylvano sighed. He crossed his arms. “Fine. Just make me one promise.”

“Okay?” Byanca asked, blinking her eyes in confusion.

Sylvano rubbed his hand over his mouth and chin, and he sighed again.

“Please try to keep her safe, whatever happens.”

In Sylvano’s eyes, Byanca could see the princess that she loved so inconveniently much.

“I will keep her safe.”

To see that princess-like smile, Byanca would say even the blackest, vilest lies.

It remained to be seen whether this would be one such lie, or an honor upheld.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

The Battle of Rangda II (54.1)

52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

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

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

Gulab pulled up the microphone speaker attached to her headset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many do you see?”

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

“Okay. Estimate.”

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

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

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

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

She heard a clapping noise over the radio and giggled.

Humor was a balm in perilous times.

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

She felt a dark impetus to examine the green uniforms.

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

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

Why were they fighting her?

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

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

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

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

She could not afford to have that happen.

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

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

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

Gulab hailed the Sergeant over the radio in a hurry.

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

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

“Are you sure, Gulab?”

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

Again there was a pause on the radio.

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

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

“It could be a trap.”

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

“Also true.”

Charvi seemed to ponder the implications.

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

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

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

“Come down quickly.” Charvi finally said.

Gulab hastily complied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Sergeant Krima?” She asked.

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

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

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

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

“Of course I can.” Gulab said.

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

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

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

She, Gulab, would be making a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was all on the turret front.”

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

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

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

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

Danielle blinked. “Um–”

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

“One second.”

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

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

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

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

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

Gulab would count on this; she would use it.

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

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

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

Danielle patted Caelia in the back, smiling nervously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle shook her head and marched toward her front hatch.

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

But she ignored both those minor annoyances.

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

“Yes ma’am!” Gulab replied.

Charvi ran her through the situation as everyone formed up.

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

“Are you ready?” Charvi asked.

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

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

“Gulab, please be careful.” Charvi said.

“I’m invincible! You’ll see!”

With a quick clap, Charvi’s voice quieted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How fast is that?” Gulab pressed her.

“Pretty fast.” Caelia added.

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

Gulab held on much more tightly.


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