Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XVIII

This chapter contains violence and death and mild misogyny.


??nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

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

Byanca Geta awakened in a thick darkness reminiscent of sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was cold and sweating colder still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedicite,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimus shook his head and waved his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

Byanca was almost shocked to hear the casual compliment.

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

“Mercenaries? Good lord.”

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

“How are you holding up?” Byanca asked.

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

“You weren’t, quit being a baby.”

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

Byanca grinned. Her redcoats grinned back at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Minimus–”

“I’m doing this because it’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You throw a mean punch.”

Byanca felt a little grin forming on her lips.

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

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

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

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

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

Minimus shook his head and sighed again.

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

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

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

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

“Join us or die?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a knife?” Byanca asked.

Minimus searched his pockets and found a scalpel and shrugged.

“I’m a doctor!” He whispered.

Byanca took the scalpel. It would do.

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

Listening for footsteps, watching for the beam of light.

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

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

She felt momentarily a little sick.

Were these the hands of a knight who rescued princesses?

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

Byanca felt a moment of panic.

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

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

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

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

Everyone quickly reconvened before the series of shutter doors.

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

Byanca pushed open one of the shutters.

Dozens of eyes seemed to turn her direction at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wet gurgling and choked screams followed in its wake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byanca looked over her shoulder at him, incredulous.

“How do you know?” She asked.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

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.”


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

 

 

 

Salva’s Taboo Exchanges XIII

This chapter contains mild sexual content.


43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Town of Palladi

Though the town of Palladi had grown dramatically in the shadow of the nearby Academy, the crying of roosters still heralded the morning, just as it had done when farmland dominated the landscape. Moments before the sun began to rise over the old province, dozens of stout birds presiding over several family coops kept on the town’s outlying lands stood under the clearing sky and competed in voice to bring in the dawn. Regardless of the electric lights in the town square or even the old mechanical clock tower in the northern urbanization, the roosters would cry across town.

It was with the roosters that the old townies woke. No more than six kilometers from the ultramodern home where Salvatrice and Carmela partook of each other, a small cafe opened its doors, admitting the single customer that the shop owner had always come to expect. However, they soon found, together, that the man was not alone. He had been followed.

Byanca Geta approached from behind the older man and the cafe owner just as the door opened. She slipped in with them, ignoring the icy glare from the owner, a woman older than her but younger than him. Though she gave Byanca a long, wary and appraising glare, she would not dare close her establishment to a legionnaire who had yet to speak. Meanwhile the old man, a certain Giovanni, merely glanced at her without a word.

Inside, the cafe was small and homely. There were potted plants near every table and corner, and the tables were small and circular with high chairs. There were eight tables, and a few seats on the counter, behind which the owner stood and took to staring at Byanca some more. Byanca paid her no mind. She waited a moment for the old man to take his seat, and then promptly moved to the end of the front row of tables, set behind the long front window of the cafe, and sat right across from him.

“Giovanni Martino?” Byanca said.

“Doubtless you already know.” He replied.

From the center of the table he picked up a rolled-up newspaper, freed it from a paper ribbon around its center, and unfurled it. He started to read, and his view of Byanca was completely blocked. She was unfazed by this. She expected he would try to shut her out. Cooperation with the Legion had always been low among the civilians, and it was an all-time low now.

“I bear you no ill will, nor do I come to detain or question you on behalf of the Blackshirt Legion. I’m here as a private person.”  Byanca said.

“Your uniform says otherwise.” Giovanni casually said.

“I have nothing else decent to wear.”

“No. You could get clothes. I got clothes when I came back. But the uniform is convenient, isn’t it? It starts to feel like your good skin.”

He turned the page as if he had said nothing much at all.

Byanca blanked for a moment on how to reply.

There was nobody outside the window, nobody walking the streets. Aside from the owner there was nobody there but them. She felt that coaxing Giovanni into the subject would not work. Byanca still had to be careful, but she could partake in a mild indiscretion to bring him out of hiding.

“I’m here because of Salvatrice Vittoria.” Byanca said in a low, calm voice.

It was a name both of them knew; one with many portents attached.

Giovanni promptly laid the newspaper down on the table.

He adjusted his hat and turned on Byanca a sharp glare.

“I’m not keen to threaten neither women nor kids; but little girl, if you intend to march upon the young Vittoria, we are going to have problems.”

His own tone of voice matched hers, save for the threat.

While he spoke, his fingers snatched the fork and spoon on the table and began to toy with them, twirling them around. It was perhaps a nervous tic, though it could also be a display. She got the impression that were he to reach for a knife or gun he would be even more dexterous than with the utensils. Certainly if it came down to a draw she thought he could draw much faster than her. Giovanni’s every movement spoke of an intensity often unseen in his age. He was very deliberate in every turn of the hand.

And yet his face betrayed no emotion in its hewn and worn features.

Byanca raised a hand in her own defense. It contained her identification.

“I intend no such thing. I am her new bodyguard. Centurion Byanca Geta.”

Giovanni’s expression was unchanged. He still regarded her coldly.

“I see. I was informed about your presence, though were never introduced formally. In fact I put it out of my mind; I never thought that we would have cause to meet. Your business and mine ought to remain separate.”

“Salvatrice cannot afford that. Not with the danger she faces.”

“It is precisely because of the danger that you should be away from me, and alongside her instead. I work for that child from afar. She trusts me with her correspondence and I deliver it. No more.” Giovanni said.

Byanca smiled. “How did you chance upon such a golden opportunity?”

Giovanni shook his head, seeming more disappointed than offended.

“You mistake me and the Princess both if you think this role is lucrative.”

Byanca did not need much convincing of that. After all, she had served the Princess for some time now and all she had come away with was injury. It did not pay to serve Salvatrice Vittoria. It could only be done out of love.

“I need to know how you met and why you serve her.” Byanca said.

“Nothing in your reports about that?” Giovanni asked.

“No.” Byanca replied. She felt for a moment like she had come under attack from him. It was the same disdain Salvatrice had shown her before. Both were justified in their anger. She had too much information at her disposal and too much reason to employ it — none of it was right.

But like her attitude in this conversation, she found it necessary.

“Salvatrice has told me about you, much like she has told you about me.” She said. “But I still have no reason to trust you. I would like to dispel my doubts. Please enlighten me as to how you came to serve Salvatrice.”

“All I will say is I traveled with her for a time and grew attached”

Giovanni pulled open his coat and withdrew a cigarette and lighter.

“Care for one?” He asked.

It was the almost instinctual courtesy of an old gentleman, nothing more.

Byanca was well aware that he still kept her at arm’s length.

This was perhaps even a ploy to quiet her for a time.

“I don’t smoke.” Byanca said.

Shrugging, Giovanni lit his own cigarette and took a drag.

Behind the counter the owner watched the two of them talk. She did not come to take their orders or otherwise make any overtures. It was clear they had this time to themselves. Byanca was simultaneously glad for a touch of privacy, but also annoyed at how little the legionnaire badge and shirt was worth. It was that annoyance in part that brought her here.

After blowing a cloud of smoke, Giovanni turned to Byanca once more.

“I will not answer any more questions, Ms. Geta, until you state your intentions clearly. Have some respect for an old man’s fading time.”

“I was planning to come clean now anyway.”

Byanca leaned forward.

“I am looking for recruits.”

Giovanni raised an eyebrow. “For the blackshirt legion?”

“No!” Byanca said, shaking her head. “To serve the princess as we do.”

For a moment the old man’s eyes seemed to soften on her.

“I’m listening.” He said.

“The Princess is in grave danger every single day.” Byanca said. “Both the Legion and the anarchists have become her antagonists. There is no side that she can join. Salvatrice has to become her player in this game. I want to create a group that answers only to her and that does only her bidding.”

“You mean you wish to raise mercenaries to protect the Princess?”

Giovanni seemed at once intrigued and outraged by the proposal.

“Plenty of nobles have bought extra bodyguards. It is only fair Salvatrice do so as well. I’m not ambitious; even one man would suffice right now.”

She put an obvious inflection on her last few words.

“So that is why you’ve come to me then? I’m your man?” He said.

She had his attention now. She could tell; he was emoting more now.

Byanca turned a smile on him and tried to engage him with more charm. “You served in Borelia, didn’t you, Giovanni? You were a soldier. You left the colonial forces due to your principles. And the Princess trusts you.”

Giovanni crossed his arms. He looked her over with a wary gaze.

“I’m sure the Princess would love to have you as part of her defense.” Byanca continued. “We will no longer rely on the Legion. After this affair I’m turning in my black shirt for a red coat. Would you help me, Giovanni?”

There was no longer anything to hide. Byanca spoke earnestly and honestly. She could only throw herself on his mercy and hope that he saw beyond the shirt at the desperate fallen knight who longed for her princess. Or at the very least, hope that he saw a dragon who loved her.

In return, Giovanni snorted. He looked out to the street, away from her.

“A reference to the uniform of the old imperial guard does not sway me. I do not romanticize it. That being said, I know a few soldiers younger than me who could use the work. I will send them to you. You’d best have the coin for them, however. Mercenaries do not hold your pretty ideals.”

Perhaps he had seen neither knight nor dragon, but a desperate girl.

Despite this, he had given her some hope.

Byanca smiled. “We have more dinari than we know what to do with.”

At the moment it was not necessarily true, but it soon would be.

“Hmm. Redcoats, huh? What will the Queen think of this, I wonder.”

Giovanni grew pensive. Byanca gave a fiery retort. “To hell with her.”

To her surprise, it was well-received. For the first time, Giovanni grinned.


43rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Town of Palladi — Sabbadin Homestead

Atop the brick wall surrounding the rear portion of the Sabbadin estate, a questing rooster paused momentarily to peer at the dawning sun and give its characteristic cry. Through the upper hallway, and into the heiress’ bedroom the cry wound its way, until it reached a pair of blunt elven ears.

Salvatrice Vittoria slowly awoke, sitting up against the bedrest.

There were all kinds of scents and sights in the room around her.

She found herself giddily immersed in the sensations.

At her side she found Carmela asleep, snoring softly, pushed against her. Her chest rose and fell splendidly, and she glistened with a layer of sweat. Salvatrice felt a delectable shiver in her skin as her hip touched Carmela’s back. Her lover groaned slightly in protest, smiled and shifted her weight.

As she did so, Carmela pulled the blank off both of them.

Finding her breasts suddenly bared, Salvatrice pulled the blanket back.

She could not pull it over her chest and soon gave up the tug of war.

Carmela remained asleep, arms spread, her naked body fully in view.

Her lipstick was smeared, her pigments running, her hair frayed. Her voluminous dress was in parts all over the bed, her skirt and leggings hanging over a column, bodice thrown at their feet, her lingerie dangling off her ankle. Her warm olive skin was still red in the places that had been sucked or smacked or squeezed or otherwise performed upon in love.

Salvatrice glanced askance at one of the mirrors in the room and smiled.

She also looked as if she had a wild night. Her hair was tossed around, her nice dress was wrinkled and discarded like a rag, and she was still feeling stiff between the legs. All of her once brownish skin was an off-red color from the heat in her blood. Most notably her makeup was a fine mess.

From the first seizing of lips she shared with Carmela she had become smeared in lipstick. As her lover aggressively explored more of her body the red marks spread like a haphazard tattoo. She had bright red marks on her small breasts, on her buttocks and thighs, and in places between. Her own lipstick had smeared as well when her turn came to kiss and tongue where she desired, but the color was subtler than Carmela’s bright red.

In the mirror, Salvatrice resembled a horny clown. She started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” Carmela said, her voice a luscious little purr.

Her eyes half-opened. She had a naughty look on her face.

“We’re completely disheveled.” Salvatrice said.

“We don’t have to clean up for anyone, do we?”

Carmela sat up in bed and tossed her wavy golden hair with a coquettish grin. She did not care to cover herself with the blanket, and her breasts seemed to rumble right before Salvatrice’s eyes. She exuded a confidence in her own body that sent another jolt right between Salvatrice’s legs.

“Well, not right now. But I must soon be going.” Salvatrice said.

“Will you at least stay for breakfast?” Carmela asked.

“Yes, I promised that much.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s impish grin returned. “It is a two-course meal.”

After that cryptic whisper she pounced on Salvatrice.

Salvatrice barely had time to moan in pleasure.

Perhaps an hour later, disheveled ever more, the two finally left the bed.

Laughing, Carmela pushed Salvatrice out of the room and down the halls, barely wrapped in sheets pilfered from the bed. Thankfully there were no servants there to witness the two naked, giggling young women cavorting sensually down the hall and into the bathroom. There was a grand and dire bath tub in the center, like an obsidian coffin. Soon it filled from the hot water faucet, and Carmela and Salvatrice lay down side by side within.

All of their pigments and oils washed into the water and danced on the surface, coloring and obscuring the shapes of their bodies below.

Carmela leaned her head on Salvatrice’s shoulder.

“How are you finding the accommodations so far?” She asked.

“Quite stimulating.” Salvatrice replied.

Carmela looked up at Salvatrice, craned her head and kissed her.

“Salva, I love you.” She said.

“I love you.” Salvatrice said.

Turning her head again, the heiress gazed into their obscure reflections on the water. She smiled, swirling her finger over her own face in the surface.

“I am incredibly happy that we could meet and touch and delight one another. But I want you to know if I could only love you through letters and at a distance for the rest of my life, I would be happy.” Carmela said.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Salvatrice replied. She was a little taken aback.

She had never thought of it in that way before. Certainly she had imagined she would lose Carmella, on that fateful day when the responsibilities of the kingdom finally snatched her free life from her. But she never thought their romance could potentially continue even if from afar. To Salvatrice, the exchange of letters had simply staunched a wound until she could have a fleeting glimpse of her beloved, as a stitch to stop the bleeding.

“I love everything about you, Salva. What I first fell in love with was that sharp tongue you turned on unsavory guests at the few parties where we could arrange to meet; what I next fell in love with was that sharp intellect and the kindness and vulnerability behind it. When I learned about your body I loved that as well. But I will always love you; it might be a different love than what the commonfolk share, but it will be love, at any distance.”

Salvatrice herself felt compelled to lay her own head on Carmella then.

“I’m so happy to hear it.” She said. She felt the warmth of those words in her chest and across her cheeks. She knew it was not the bath that did it.

Carmela bowed her head, smiling with eyes averted like a shy schoolgirl.

“Whenever I craft a letter to you, and receive one back, I feel so relieved. Because I know my feelings reached you and perhaps brought you a smile. I send you my strength and my love in each stroke of that pen, Salvatrice. It’s the one place in the world just for us. We can do anything there.”

Guilty thoughts started to bubble under the warm and happy surface of her mind. She never realized how powerful were the feelings contained in those letters. For stretches of time she neglected them, thinking that Carmela would worry but ultimately understand. Now that she thought of it, those letters were a hand stretched from across a lonely darkness. Carmela had nothing to truly love in between each letter. She had said it before: Salvatrice was the first and only person she had ever really loved.

To Salvatrice they had been letters, a bridge to communicate and keep in touch with Carmela and plot until they could truly love again; but to Carmela each of those letters was an act of love and devotion the same as holding in hands in public or kissing or maybe even sharing a bed.

No matter the distance; even if they never saw each other’s faces.

Carmela could still love her.

In a way, it heartened Salvatrice. She could love her back too, then.

No matter the distance. So long as there was pen, paper and ink.

“I will write more. I can also call on the telephone.” Salvatrice said.

Carmela’s eyes drew wide. “Are you sure? It won’t be dangerous?”

“I’ll insure that it isn’t. Even if we can’t trade kisses in ink, you will hear my voice. We will never be apart. I promise you.” Salvatrice said.

No matter the distance; it was still love. It could still be shared.

Once their skin started to wrinkle with water, the pair rose from the bath, and scarcely dried, returned to the bedroom and donned their disguises. Carmela was once more the lovely, curvy young maid; Salvatrice was the slender, angular young courier or paper boy in a cap, shirt and pants.

There was one part of their promised meal they had not yet eaten.

This one they would not have as a breakfast in bed.

Down in the kitchen, the two of them set together to the task. Carmela withdrew various items from cabinets and drawers and boxes. She cut cheeses and tomatoes, while Salvatrice assembled plates of pre-cut hard breads, and skinned tangerines with her fingers. They set a pot of tea on the stove and waited for it to whistle. Many a time they bumped into each other in the kitchen with a giggle as they set about their work.

From the back garden they plucked plump grapes and gathered flowers, and soon they sat together on a brown wooden table under the mid-morning sun and picked at their spread while basking in the glow of this delightful domesticity. To the outside world they would be commoners: it was not unheard of for a salacious maid to invite a local boy for a tryst while the mistress was nowhere to be seen. Salvatrice enjoyed the fantasy.

They were not commonfolk; love for them was more difficult than the archetypes of bawdy romances. Last night was a dream world that had taken time and planning to construct. They would be unlikely to see each other again, let alone have sex, for quite some time. Love was a struggle.

But not impossible. Over the wires, over the surface of stationary.

Just as she dropped a grape into Carmela’s mouth over the table.

Just as they traded sweet little kisses between bites of glazed ham.

They would have that love no matter where they went.

With this in mind, Salvatrice was heartened for what she had to do.

“Carmela, I will confide in you what I am planning.” She said at last.

Those words would set everything into motion. She was ready now.

To her own raging battlefield she could now depart without regrets.


Last Chapter |~| Next Chapter

 

 

 

 

LORD OF BRASS (49.1)

This scene contains violence, graphic violence, graphic descriptions of injury, death, body horror and disfigurement. Reader discretion is advised.


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

“You employed the foul timbre. I do not understand.”

Standing before Madiha and Von Drachen, the Brass Mask turned its four gore-strewn snouts toward the hole left on the ground by Mansa’s trinket. Madiha’s mind was slowed by the weight of the creature’s presence. She tried to think of where this creature could have come from and what its relation was to the Majini that she knew. Those beings were just bodies with masks and cloaks, or so she had thought. Were they all like this?

She felt the monster’s every move like a throb within her head.

“We did nothing. Mansa unearthed you.” Madiha said.

At her side, Von Drachen glanced at her with a startled look.

“Are you talking to it? What on Aer do you hope to accomplish with that?”

“To escape with my life, perhaps?” Madiha snapped back.

“I can assure you that thing is unlikely to respond diplomatically!”

Judging by his attitude, Madiha intimated that Von Drachen could not understand the Majini. It was either speaking only to her or she was the only one present who could hear. Perhaps only those with “ESP” could hear it. Madiha would operate with this idea in mind; she did not desire to ask Von Drachen whether he could or not. He was still her enemy and any information she could withhold from him might have a later use.

In the moment this discovery provided no succor or advantage. Madiha, in fact, felt ever more alone and trapped. Though she had Von Drachen’s tenuous support during this standoff, in reality it was only she and the Majini who could affect the ultimate outcome. Her exhausted mind and weary body shook with indecision. Nobody dared move and possibly prompt an attack. The Majini continued to ramble to the air, unvoiced, unheard.

Ayvarta enslaved me. Did he use me to rekindle the human flame– no! He already had power! Even as I stood, a wall casting shadow o’er man, man created sparks. Four sparks on the four corners. And yet you employ the timbre too?”

She saw the eyes within the Majini’s slimy, fleshy face spinning every which way. Its black and purple, slimy gums and teeth seemed to expand and contract, as if taking in breaths of air without any visible nostrils.

Madiha glanced over her shoulder very briefly. Chakrani was still dormant in the far corner of the room. She had thankfully survived the shooting and the strange detonation that killed Mansa, and though unconscious she was unharmed. She was at least presently removed from the standoff.

It was imperative to keep Brass Face occupied and away from her.

I do not understand. Too much time has passed. But my purpose remains.

In a flash the Majini made the first move.

Madiha saw an inkling of its movement, like a glint in the air and a shuddering in her spine that warned her of danger, but her body could never react as fast as her mind. In the next instant the Majini had shifted its entire bulk behind them and with one massive hand seized Von Drachen’s companion and lifted him by his head. Frost-covered claws clamped down over the man’s face and neck. He kicked his legs and screamed and pulled on the digits but could not get free of the beast.

Von Drachen calmly raised his pistol and opened fire on the monster, squeezing rounds into its abdomen and legs and face, at every bit of its figure not blocked by the body of his own flailing man. Madiha’s reflex was to join him, but she lowered her pistol right after first raising it. Every shot seemed to go through the Majini without any effect except raising wisps of vapor that dissipated into the air after a second or two.

Unflinching amid gunfire, the creature tightened its grip on the man.

I will borrow this flesh.

Trails of white vapor blew from the man’s skin as the claw bit into him.

Madiha found herself paralyzed with fear at the sight.

Von Drachen stopped shooting and stared, mouth agape.

The Cazador screamed and wailed in desperate agony as his flesh sloughed.

Through the transformation his voice distorted and eventually muted.

They were spared much of the sight, but between digits of the gruesome claw Madiha could see an eye moving wildly within its socket, turning a copper color and becoming slitted as the lids fused together save for a thin line in the middle. Around the socket the skin discolored, liquefied, shed, bubbled and then set anew, bleached white, smooth, and solid. The man’s limbs turned black, indistinct and gelatinous. The Army uniform over his body began to sink in places as his muscles rapidly emaciated. He became too thin, too long, unrecognizable as human. Rags of slimy skin over bone.

From behind the Majini’s back its second arm reached for the window and ripped a curtain from its bars. In an unnatural flurry of movement, it draped the cloth over the man and wrapped him in it before the changes to his body had fully set, and then it released the corpse on the floor.

It should have hit the floor, limp and dead from the horrors done to it.

Defying all natural logic, it fell onto unseen feet and stood solid.

Hard all-white faceless head, like a mask, and a thin, tall cylindrical body in drapes. Long limbs that seemed to protrude and retract when needed.

The Brass Face had made something that frighteningly resembled a Majini.

And somewhere beneath all of that was the tormented remains of a man.

All who cannot be turned will be killed. Until the timbre is forgotten anew.

Von Drachen stared at the monster, and then at the monster that had once been a man. He raised his hand to his mouth, his teeth chattering.

“Shooting that cube was a mistake.” He mumbled to himself.

Madiha swallowed and it felt like she was forcing a stone down her throat.

Though the “newborn” Majini presented a problem, it also gave her an idea. Her overwhelming fear did not completely smother her tactical mind. Indeed, only in the desperate rush of emotion did she find her way.

There was something bundled deep within that cloak that she could use.

“Hit the dirt!” Madiha shouted.

She had no time to confirm whether or not Von Drachen was following her order, and she could only pray that Chakrani would be spared the violence.

There was no other choice.

Madiha set her feet and drew in a deep breath.

Both the monster and its master recognized the danger.

Madiha was an instant quicker than them.

She thrust out her least injured arm and her mind flashed the image of an old Territorial Army stick grenade, hanging from the belt of the disfigured man. Thinking faster than the enemy could move she lit a spark within the high-explosive blasting cap and ignited the TNT inside.

Unthinking, the new Majini reared back for a charge.

It made it two running steps from Brass Face before detonating.

In a burst of violent light the Majini disappeared, and a wave of heat and pressure tore suddenly across the room. Madiha had less than seconds to act. Out of pure defensive reflex her mind pushed against the blast, deflecting the concussive force screaming toward her. Her arm flared with intense pain, and she fell onto her back, the wind knocked out of her instead of the viscera. Brass Face recoiled violently from the blast and struck the nearby wall, smashing through the cement and falling under a heap of rubble.

Madiha could not tell whether it had tried to flee or whether the blast flung it away. She struggled to force herself upright, both of her arms functional but sounding a painful alarm with every movement. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she made it up onto her knees to find the vicinity caked in wet black and purple viscera and ashen jelly. This filth had spread across the room, save for a clean halo around her where she had pushed the blast and its byproducts and blocked their effects.

With Brass Face’s bulk removed from her sight, Madiha could again see Chakrani tied to her chair against the corner of the room. She could run for her– but there was no telling whether she had the advantage yet.

As she stood from the floor she scanned the room for Von Drachen.

Near the collapsed wall, she found him lying under the corpse of the soldier Jota took from him. He looked scuffed but relatively unharmed for the events that transpired. Von Drachen had hidden under the corpse; mutilated and burnt, the body had shielded him from the brunt of the blast. Luckily for him, he had managed to take the man’s grenade and flung it across the room before the violence erupted around him.

Soon as Madiha made eye contact with Von Drachen, he pushed the body off himself and stood on unsteady legs, dusting some of the alien jelly from his shoulders and arms. An enthusiastic smile played about his lips.

“I commend you on surviving to the end of this madness, Colonel Nakar!” Von Drachen said. “Now, allow me a few words about the dissolution of our truce.”

Madiha felt a fresh jolt of stress in her chest. “No! You idiot, it’s not–”

“Now, now, madam, I’m talking.” He raised his pistol to her.

Before Madiha could shout, a soundless roar psychically drowned her out.

Behind them the rubble shifted, and Brass Face stood from the mound.

Dust and masonry sifted off its shoulders. It appeared almost unharmed.

Rotating as if independent of its neck, the creature’s head stared at them.

Its grotesque snouts and teeth reformed into a mask.

Along its clean brass center, the wave-form symbols furiously oscillated.

With its grotesque head hidden again, Madiha felt the weight of its presence lessen. A burden lifted from her mind. She could almost think straight again. Her breathing still quick with stress, she took a guarded stance and waited. Running away in a panic would only get her killed.

And it would abandon Chakrani to an unimaginable fate.

“Truce?” Von Drachen asked in a strained, sickened voice.

“Move only in reaction to it.” She warned. “It’ll take advantage of any mistake.”

Von Drachen frowned. “I suppose that precludes running away?”

Brass Face turned to face them, slow and deliberate. It did not pounce or charge or blink behind them as she had seen it do in the past. On its lower body she saw trails of chill air seeping through a frayed, burnt patch of cloak. There was a wound there but it was as if her eyes refused to recognize it. Blurry flesh seemed to roil and bubble and shift upon this surface.

Von Drachen’s lower lip quivered. He raised his hand to his mouth to gag.

Perhaps he had seen it; maybe even more of it than she.

Madiha said nothing, too transfixed by the monster to speak.

Once its head fully turned to meet them, the rest of its body began to twist to match, turning thin and long like a snake but with the suggestion of shoulders atop its upper section. From the midsection pieces of cloak rustled and separated. An arm lifted as the upper body twisted into the room; Brass Face suddenly raised its gnarled claw as if aiming for Madiha.

Madiha felt the air in the room turning very cold and dense.

It became suddenly hard to breathe.

When she gasped for air her breath was visible, white as snow.

“Outside, now!” She shouted, her voice dwindling.

“I thought you said–”

“Forget it! Now!”

Von Drachen quickly turned and ran for the door to the meeting room.

Between the fingers of Brass Face’s claws, frost and ice started to form.

Crackling and crunching like falling glass, the frost swirling around its fingers compacted and lengthened into a long shaft in less than seconds.

Madiha tore herself from the sight and ran out behind Von Drachen.

She felt a force strong as a hurricane gust and cold as a blizzard sweep past.

Behind her the lance of ice shattered and thundered like an explosive.

Over her shoulder Madiha caught a glimpse of the wall turned mirror-like with ice.

She ran out into the broad, enclosed hallway connecting the meeting room and felt both trepidation and relief when she found it deserted, save for Von Drachen. Any more people around could have become new Majini. She put her back to the empty hall behind them and aimed her pistol at the hole in the wall. She saw some of Brass Face’s cloak trailing from it.

“Come out of there and fight us seriously, you animal!” She shouted.

“What are you doing?” cried Von Drachen.

She hoped the monster could understand her at all. It never seemed to reply to her; it only spoke at her. She had to taunt it away from Chakrani and out into the hall, where she had more room to avoid its projectiles.

Her worry was short-lived. Brass Face understood.

It slowly turned itself back around to face them anew in the hall.

Incarnation of Ayvarta, without the prism you are vermin to me.”

It shambled farther out of the meeting room through the hole in the wall.

Von Drachen hurried from the middle of the hall to Madiha’s side.

He raised his pistol alongside hers and gulped hard, shaking.

“Why isn’t it charging anymore? It was awful quick a second ago!” He asked.

“I must have hurt its feet.” Madiha replied. Her breath was quick, her heart struggling and her lungs raw, but she managed to keep a strong front.

“It isn’t even moving closer.”

“It must be focused on defense now that it can’t charge us.”

“God. At least you’re still thinking. Do you have a plan of attack, Nakar?”

“Do you?”

“Out of respect for your great intellect, I shall allow you to lead us.”

Von Drachen cracked a nervous grin without looking at her.

Madiha would have rolled her eyes in any other situation but this.

Meanwhile their enemy waited, clicking its claws together.

Brass Face’s mask waveforms gently rose and fell as it stared them down.

Incarnation of Ayvarta.” It mumbled soundlessly.

Was it sizing her up? Comparing her to the old Emperor before striking?

Madiha felt a chill whenever it spoke those words. It treated her like an extension of the Warlord that it had encountered, and not as her own person. The First Emperor, Ayvarta I, who set out to conquer the four corners of Ayvarta and unite its disparate ethnicities and civilizations. He accomplished this task using the power that she had been cursed to hold.

Had Ayvarta been the first, the original? Or just the one Brass Face knew?

It was eerie. To Brass Face, she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.

Another in a long line of half-lives tainted by the man’s conquests.

Perhaps even linked to the ancient tyrant by blood.

Incarnation of Ayvarta.

There was power behind that statement, the unknowable intellect of something that was ancient to an extreme Madiha could not imagine. Was it right in the way that it thought of her? She felt as if all of her fears about herself, all of the existential suffering she felt, was confirmed in the words of this beast. Maybe she was nothing but an Incarnation of Ayvarta.

Maybe Mansa was right and Madiha Nakar was nothing at all.

Von Drachen glanced at her nervously. “Colonel, are you–”

“I’m thinking.”

She could not dwell on that. Madiha might not exist; but she could die.

For Solstice’s sake she had to survive to make something of Madiha Nakar.

For Parinita’s sake the most. She wanted desperately to see her again.

Her mind quickly refocused.

In the monster’s own words, Ayvarta once had control over it.

Did Ayvarta capture Brass Face to use it; or because he couldn’t kill it?

Could she kill Brass Face in modernity, if Ayvarta failed in antiquity?

She had to believe he wanted to use it; and that the prism was a way to contain its powers without having to kill it. And therefore that it could be killed and that Ayvarta could have killed it. She had killed Majini using the flame before. Once lit on fire their parched bodies went up like torches.

From a distance, they could avoid the darts. But if she got close enough–

She started to visualize a way forward.

Hopefully she had inherited more from Ayvarta than just his powers.

“Are you ready?” She whispered.

“Of course not. Nonetheless: how do we stop it?” Von Drachen asked.

“I need to get close to it.” Madiha said.

“And then what?”

“That’s classified information.”

Von Drachen raised an eyebrow. Madiha made no expression whatsoever.


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The Queen Crowned In Tukino (26.4)

 

This story segment contains scenes of violence.

 

46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Afternoon

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.

A column of 15 or so Goblin tanks advanced in a large, amorphous clump down the middle of a hard plain ringed by light hills to the east and the edge of the Silba wood to the west. Their small hulls with flat glacis plates, obvious, pedestal-like turret ring, slanted tracks and over-large turrets with 45mm guns and sizable rear counterweights easily gave the model away — in addition to the fact of their ubiquity in Ayvartan tank divisions. These models particular models on a collision course to Silb had a curious addition: extraneous bolted plate armor along the front and around the gun mantlet, a sloppy up-armoring scheme.

They had likely plotted this route because it avoided the soft terrain and thus the mud as much as possible, but it left their flanks seriously exposed on both sides.

This group had advanced 5 kilometers south from the Sandari, likely after crossing a hidden bridge, regrouping, and then setting off in their thick, loose formation for defense, like a herd of gnus. Every so often a tank, somewhere random in the formation, would turn its turret around, but for the most part there was seemingly no thought being given to an active defense. Despite their initiative and subversion they were vulnerable.

“See that one tank with the ring antennae atop? Commander. Hit that one first.”

Noel watched the tanks from the wide-angle periscope of his M5A2 hidden in the wood. Seated alone on the turret, in the gunner’s position just beside the commander’s cupola, he had a lot of space to himself, though this was mostly because of his build — the turret was somewhat cramped. Below and further front, Ivan sat behind the sticks, awaiting the order to charge down the gentle slope at the edge of the wood.

“Wait for my signal, and aim for the commander with APCB rounds. Then rush in and keep shooting, even if you miss. Volume beats accuracy.” He said, using his throat mic. “I’ll use my M5A2’s gyrostabilizer and snipe at anyone troublesome while on the run.”

For their size, the Ayvartan Goblin-type tanks were not very quick. Noel believed they probably managed a measly 15 or so km/h off-road — half as much as that of his M5A2, without supercharging. He watched them patiently from around a kilometer away as they neared the dead center of the plain. He had a 1.5 kg APCB round in hand, sleek and light in its bronze case, its sharp black head cap hungry for armor.

“Ready guns.” Noel said. “Ivan get that supercharger ready.”

At their speed the Goblins covered about 200 meters a minute. Within thirty seconds the formation was well within the center of the plain with ample room on all sides.

Noel was sure he could cut the distance to them in about a minute.

He pulled the lever to open the breech, loaded the round and watched as it closed and shoved the shell in by mechanical action. Then he reached his feet down to the foot pads and felt them out. One press shifted the turret about thirty degrees right or left depending on the pad. Good enough for a start. Noel then reached his hand down and used the turret control lever to make minor, granular corrections to the turret direction as the tanks continued moving. He counted the meters–

In an instant everything aligned perfectly and Noel called out, “Attack!”

Three muzzles flashed in the wood, launching high-velocity, solid armor-piercing rounds downhill toward the Goblin formation. One shell went wide over the formation and crashed into the eastern hillsides; the remaining two, including Noel’s pierced the turret and track of a Goblin with a prominent radio antenna, leaving large holes. He had hit right through the side of the turret. There were no explosions — these shells were not explosive in nature. But no crew left the stricken tank, sitting immobile amid its allies.

It was likely that the spray of metal resulting from the penetrations had killed them.

“Ivan, we’ll rush in front of the formation! Bartosz, circle behind them and dash toward the eastern hills while Dolph rushes through the center! Keep shooting!” Noel ordered.

“Roger!” Ivan replied through the platoon intercomm. Despite the noise inside the tank, Noel heard him clearly through the radio headset on his commander’s helmet.

“Yessir!” Bartosz and Dolph replied. Noel heard a bit of whooping and cheering.

Engine whirring with life, the M5A2 charged out of the cover of the woods and down the hill at a low gear to control speed. On its flanks, ordinary M5s belonging to Dolph and Bartosz rushed toward the formation as well. Once they hit flatter ground the tanks sped up. Dolph and Bartosz broke toward their attack lanes; Ivan initiated the engine supercharge. Noel could look down and barely see the driver’s gauges from his position, the needles rising.

Noel’s M5A2 roared suddenly as the experimental engine booster solution took effect. At Ivan’s expert direction, the M5A2 bobbed and weaved toward the south to hook around the front of the column, rapidly picking up speed and cutting the distance. His driving was excellent, and Noel could concentrate on his forte, shooting and command.

Most of the enemy formation stopped dead to aim, turrets turning west toward the wood, but several others were moving in front of and around each other to get into position. There was little coordination without their commander. One at a time in belabored succession half of the Goblin formation’s 45mm guns started to answer, but the M5s swept away from the armor-piercing shots, each tank traveling down its sweeping, encircling arc. Noel briefly saw dirt and smoke rise in front and around him as shells fell short of his sprint. He saw trails in the air as shells flew aside and over him and around his men, making no contact.

He looked out to the battlefield, switching between his wide-angle periscope over the top of the turret and his gunnery close-in sights positioned just off the left of his 37mm gun. Thanks to the gyrostabilizers even in motion his aim down the gunnery sights was corrected for and kept reasonably steady. He watched, like an eye hovering beside his gun, as shells were traded between the sides, and left a webwork of smoke in the air.

The Goblins swung their turrets around like the heads of panicked animals trying to spot their predators; those with presence enough to fight shot wildly every which way.

Dolph and Bartosz turned their turrets to face along their tank’s sides and launched as many shots as fast as they could muster in reply. Solid shells smashed into the dirt, soared between tanks, and as the distance closed started to score hits, leaving ugly dents and scars on contact with bulging gun mantlets and rigid, slanted fronts. Much of the column had turned west. Noel’s subordinates were shooting at tough stacks of riveted plates.

As Dolph approached the center three distinct groupings of three or four tanks had formed with a few strays along the edges. All of the grouped tanks were clumping so close together that their guns fired over each other’s engine compartments and beside each other’s gun mantlets. Meanwhile the strays seemed to want to pursue their own agendas but did not fully break from the pack. Within the confused fighting, the result was that the Ayvartan column was without discernible shape and every tank was acting on its own.

Reaching into the ammo rack, Noel seized a flat-headed High-Explosive shell, 1.5 kg and packed with 40 grams of TNT. He easily loaded the shell and set his sights.

As the M5A2 skirted the Goblin formation within 500 meters, he used the lever to keep his turret trained on one of the few tanks fighting seemingly effectively.

The M5A2 finally hooked around the front, and Noel hit the cannon trigger.

A 37mm HE shell soared between two Goblins and hit one on its side in the interior of the formation. There was a sharp, smoking blast, and two vehicles were pockmarked by dozens of hot shell fragments blowing right into the engine compartment. Smoke and then fire burst among the tanks. Hatches opened, and men and women rushed out.

Even the men and women inside reasonably unharmed vehicles abandoned them.

Noel grinned. With one well-placed shell he had taken out four tanks.

While Königin circled around the formation’s lower shoulder, Dolph burst down the center and Bartosz swooped in behind them, cannons crying as they tore through vulnerable track sides and engine compartments and turret flanks, setting many of the tanks helplessly alight. Noel’s obvious attack and charge down from the western wood had caused most of the column to face west initially and few of the Goblins had corrected the facing of their glacis plates as the M5s closed in. Those front plates, packed with bolted-on armor upgrades, were no good now. The M5s had passed them by and bit them in their flanks.

When Dolph came out of the center he passed by Noel who circled around the back, meeting Bartosz as he came around — thus they had fully cleared the vulnerable column and began to circle back around to kettle the remaining tanks, like sharks around a bloodied corpse. Tank-less crews fled the scene on foot, seemingly unarmed, having left any equipment when abandoning their tanks. One of the remaining tanks regained some level of initiative and took off from the scene as fast as its tracks could go, helping shield the fleeing crews.

“Don’t shoot the fleeing crews! We can capture them or follow them and either way find those underwater bridges. We’re here to stop their attack! Keep that in mind!” Noel shouted into the radio. Their machine guns could have ripped apart the soldiers filing out as they circled, but that would’ve been nothing but pointless wasting of ammo.

Dolph and Bartosz replied in the affirmative, without question.

“Anyway, it’s over now. Let’s wrap this up.”

Noel’s Jagdpanzerzug had done its job and scattered the Ayvartan column, sending the remnants running. They had blunted the attack on Silb, despite a numerical inferiority of 5 to 1 — in the middle of battle he had hardly even considered the odds.

Together with Dolph and Bartosz, Noel regrouped atop one of the eastern hills, called in their kills and watched the retreating enemies, ready to follow them further north. In all they had taken out 9 tanks through damage, captured 5 almost intact and forced one to flee — all within the span of a few minutes since the battle began to when it ended.

Noel expected the remnants of this force would be in the bag shortly.

46th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Early Evening

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari southern bank, Silba meadows.

Warlock close-air support craft soared overhead in groups of three and vanished north. Minutes after leaving the sights of the tank commanders sitting half-out of their turrets, the planes dove and dropped their deadly payloads. In the distance the booming 250 kilograms of TNT could be heard. Sometimes the tank commanders saw the smoke trailing up against the setting sun from their cupolas. Many watched the sights as they advanced, running up and down the Sandari to support the bridgehead operations as best as they could.

Noel called for Ivan to stop the tank, and he ordered him up to the turret. It was cramped, but they were slender enough to fit side by side out of the cupola atop the turret. They watched the sunset together, smoke and all, and saw the planes coming and going. Between the bombs and the artillery shells they heard the rhythmic snapping of machine guns and autocannons, so far in the distance they felt like the sounds of the forest.

They were alone — Dolph and Bartosz had gone ahead at Noel’s behest, while the Königin waited for a physical contact from 8th PzD Headquarters.

Together they soaked up the moment, the relative peace and solitude.

“Another day, another 12 rounds of APCB for das vaterland.” Noel said with a grin.

He leaned back onto the turret, hands behind his head, looking up at the darkening sky.

Ivan leaned back beside him. Noel turned over and ran a finger down his chest.

“We were really amazing Noel. Completely incredible.” Ivan said out of the blue.

A coquettish little smile appeared on Noel’s face. “Oh ho?”

“You should’ve seen those pressure gauges going. That supercharger is amazing.” Ivan said. “We were doing over forty! And consistently, even as the pressure went up!”

Noel burst out laughing. “Not a good judge of the moment are you? I’m sitting here doing my best pinup girl impression and you’re talking about the tank.”

He smiled his fondest smile a this companion, who looked away with a shy grin.

“Well, it looks like we won’t have time to do anything funny anyway.”

Ivan stared behind their tank. Noel turned his head over his shoulder.

A vehicle had arrived to join them — an M4 Sentinel with a fake gun.

As its headlight shone on them, they sat up on the turret sides. Noel flashed a v-sign with his fingers, rocking his legs back and forth as General Dreschner and Karla Schicksal climbed out of the turret hatch and ambled over to the Königin.

“Congratulations are in order, Captain Skoniec.” General Dreschner said.

“Thanks to you we have just secured a third bridgehead!” Schicksal said.

“Ah, so you found that pontoon bridge? Was it where I told ya?” Noel asked.

“Only a little bit off,” Schicksal replied, checking a clipboard, “in essence you had the right idea. Reiniger and Spoor managed to find it in the northwest, following your leads. The Ayvartans had a clever idea — the bridge was submerged, just under the surface. Once we found the enemy’s crossing, Reiniger and Spoor’s men fought their way across with some Warlock assistance and hunkered down on the hillsides on the other side, so we’re in a stronger position to resist the Ayvartan offensive. All thanks to you.”

“Yeah, see, sometimes it pays to scare the enemy off rather than kill ’em.”

“Perhaps it does.” General Dreschner said. “Captain Skoniec: your men have joined Reiniger across the river to defend the new bridgehead, but I came here personally to fetch you, because I desire for you to stay back until Wa Prüf 6 arrives to perform maintenance on the M5A2 prototype. Until then, we’d like you to go over doctrine with some of our reserve tankers, in Reiniger’s stead. They are excited to learn from a Panzer ace.”

Dreschner reached out and held aloft a paper folder that ostensibly had his new orders packed in it. Perhaps crew dossiers for the new training unit or something similar.

Noel yawned, swinging his legs like a child seated at the edge of a playground tower.

“Fine with me. I will mold them into wonderful little fire flowers.”

Dreschner had no comment, while Schicksal crooked her eyebrows.

Noel reached down and snatch the folder with a flick of his wrist. He pretended to look it over while the bosses were still around, flipping pages and glancing at pictures.

“Shall we escort you back to Silb then?” Schicksal said.

Noel briefly looked over his shoulder at Ivan, who met his eyes for a moment and smiled. Smiling back, the Captain waved his hand dismissively at his superiors.

“Nah. I know the way back.” Noel said innocently.

48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, Outskirts

Calm rains fell from morning to noon and seemed poised to persist, making up for the time nature lost the previous day. Damp ground again turned muddy, and Schicksal wore a rubber raincoat with a hood over her uniform from the moment she woke. After lunch, she joined General Dreschner on the outskirts of the village. Silb’s main road wound out from between the trees and descended down a gentle slope to an ample grassy meadow, one of many shallow dips in the terrain that became long uninterrupted puddles whenever it rained. Together the General and Radio Officer tramped through mud and grass to the edge of the woods and pulled up their binoculars, watching for traffic on the submerged road.

In the distance they spotted the convoy, cordially on time, an eight-wheeled armored car and a pair of motorcycles leading several trucks, some covered, many not, carrying crates of precious, coveted food, fuel and parts — and men. Water displaced at their sides as they struggled through the knee-deep puddle. A vast column of vehicles headed north along the road, most bypassing Silb, but every so often a few split from the convoy and turned onto the grass. These struggled through water very slightly deeper than on the road and then took the muddy slope up into Silb. Panzergrenadier guards ushered them in.

“Those motorcycle troops are part of the 14th Jager. They made it all the way here. I guess Baumgartener’s doing us a favor again.” Schicksal said, putting down her binoculars.

“He ill deserved the treatment he received from me.” Dreschner solemnly said.

Several battalions of men were finally trickling up from Shaila, fully rested and reequipped to continue the fight. Among them were elements of the Grenadier divisions Spoor had his eyes on a few days ago. Though it had been spontaneous and sloppy, the new Ayvartan offensive gave the higher-ups the impetus to send whatever was ready to push out from the static bridgeheads along the Sandari. Though they did not yet have their whole Divisions available, these various battalions that now traveled up the road, in the tens and twenties of men on the backs of several-ton trucks, made up more than a Regiment.

For almost an hour under the rain they watched the string of vehicles headed north. Then they spotted the tail end of the convoy — a heavy-duty tank transporter escorted by some light tanks. The transporter was like a convoy onto itself, composed of a six-wheeled truck in front towing several connected beds in between, and followed by another truck in the back, helping push the weight. It was an arrangement known as a road train. Under the tarps covering each of the beds, Schicksal supposed that the road train carried crates of parts, covered benches full of necessary personnel, tied-up prototype hulls and weapons.

Everything was marked in big, clear letters, visible with the binoculars: Wa Prüf 6.

“Well, here they are!” Schicksal said. She felt a surge of excitement. Who knew what strange wonder-weapons they would get to field? Maybe even a ray gun like in the pulps?

Perhaps she was being simple, but the Wa Prüf 6 was a welcome injection of new complexity into the stolid routine Silb was settling on; much like its antecedent Captain Skoniec.

General Dreschner, however, was not so excited to see them swerving in.

“Let us pray we are worthy of pulling the sword from their stone.” He said.

Schicksal looked at the General in his sullen face and tried to smile.

“Are you feeling ill sir? Is the dampness getting you down again?” She said.

Dreschner shook his head. He dropped his binoculars, leaving them to hang from their leather strap, and got down to one knee, staring down the meadow with his own eyes. Schicksal knelt and drew closer to him, watching as the road grew silent again.

“I’ve been thinking about my conduct recently, Schicksal, and none too fondly. I have made mistakes and I am not sure if I have the right attitude to correct them.”

“I’m sorry to hear that sir. If it helps, I think you’ve got what it takes to fix anything.”

He smiled suddenly, and he even chuckled a little to himself at her words.

“It was you who prompted me to think this way, Mäuschen. Your way of being.”

“Me, sir?” Schicksal was taken aback. In her mind, she had always thought the General considered himself somewhat above her. Sure, he recognized her usefulness as an assistant and communications officer, and he liked to have her gather information in his stead for convenience. She knew that he liked to talk to her — he probably found it refreshing to hear easy words from someone uncomplicated and rustic like her.

“As much as I pay attention to the men, I have not been ignoring you.” He replied.

Her heart went into high gear; surely he wasn’t really evaluating her? He can’t have been looking to her in any way; he was a General! She was just a radio girl to him, she thought! She certainly didn’t have any expertise that could compliment his own. She knew how many vacuum tubes the FFA3 radio possessed but that was all rote memory from booklets. It was useless. What else did she know? She didn’t know anything but frivolities.

Dreschner let her stew in silence for a while. When next he spoke up, he looked directly at her first, and caught her glass-eyed in a fit of paralyzing self-reflection. She barely heard him at first, she was so out of it. “I value your humility; your level-headedness. You have a grounded perspective that a man in command too easily loses. When I first met you I thought you were aloof, but you are pragmatic — excuse me if I assume too much.”

It was strange for Schicksal to hear someone talking about her, from the outside-in. Someone who wasn’t her, appraising her, appreciating her. She couldn’t even tell whether she thought his words were true. She considered her own evaluations of herself suddenly unreliable. Her boss noticed her! He was talking so frankly to her!

“Thank you sir. I will try my best to keep being pragmatic for you.” She said.

Try my best to keep pragmatic? Agh, she sounded like such a crumb!

But Dreschner was staring down the meadow now, off in his own world.

“I have forgotten the humility, the curiosity, that I had as an enlisted man.”

He sighed deeply again and segued into a helpless, frustrated grunt.

“I’m sorry, it is my nerves, and probably this cold. I am rambling.”

“I’m always ready to listen to your rambling nerves, sir.” Schicksal said.

Dreschner nodded his head once. He stood from the mud and grass and extended a hand to Schicksal. She took it, and he pulled her up to her feet with a hearty tug.

“Keep learning, MäuschenI want to call on that learning some day.”

He doubled back to the village. It took Schicksal a few moments, rolling that statement around in her mind, before she realized she was being left behind. She rushed behind the General, wondering what he could mean by that.

 


 

 

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