District of Carthage – City Streets

After the last of the rockets had fallen, and after the initial shellshock had begun to subside, the city had taken on something of an eerie ambiance. Thick clouds of dust and smoke swirled underneath the cyan streetlamps, staining them with a murky veil of amber. The throngs of people had all gradually aligned into specific movements; some fled through the streets toward their designated shelters while others used the wreckage itself as fortification. To the witch Akantha, all of this was certainly a sight to behold, but it did nothing at all to surprise her.

The great folly of mankind – from her perspective, at the very least – was their indescribable attraction to the places in which they lived and worked. She couldn’t understand why anyone privy to the approach of a great disaster would cling so desperately to a patch of land that they risked their very life for it. Yet this phenomenon had persisted for as long as she could remember.

Nor was the phenomenon limited to periods of war. Great fires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes did nothing to deter the stubbornly foolish from hunkering down wherever it was they called home. Akantha had walked the globe many a time throughout her life and simply watched from on high as these events would play themselves out again and again. The loss of life, no matter how avoidable, was often inevitable.

She herself wasn’t all that keen on sticking around, but she unfortunately had a job to do. Turning to Cynthia, she asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have brought your phone with you, I take it?”

“That would be a negative, Ghost Rider.”

“It can’t be helped. I remember there being an electronics retailer about half a kilometer from here. We should probably get over there while the getting is good.”

“Roger that!” Weaving behind the cover of abandoned vehicles, the duo began their methodical jog down the avenue. The first of the recovery squads had finally arrived on the scene and were tending to the wounded in earnest. Their second order of business would be to establish checkpoints along the primary transportation routes, but that would take significantly more time than could be afforded what with the Adriatic Conglomerate moving ever closer to the city core.

One of the inspectors had caught a brief glimpse at them and, recognizing their faces (as well as Cynthia’s unique outfit), rushed toward them. “Faciliganto Lazarukh! Thank god the two of you are alright! We feared the worst when your IFF signals went down.”

“That wouldn’t have happened if somebody had remembered to bring her cell phone.” Akantha shot a teasing look at Cynthia, to which the other stuck out her tongue. “Anywho, the Oceanside Hotel is no longer with us. Think you can find us a place with extra gear?”

The inspector shook his head. “I gave my men first pick, so I’m not sure if what’s left will suit your needs. We did, however, secure a nearby electronics store as a temporary command center. It might be worth your while to head there.”

“Glad to see my intuition was on the money. You all have done great work for the cause. See to it that the enemy does not make it past this spot!”

“Ma’am!” As the man returned to his assigned tasks, Akantha and Cynthia picked up the pace in the direction of their destination. It was a glittering prism of glass and metal, a mirror for the cloudy yet fiery maelstrom which surrounded it. Tempered to resist the harshest of elements, it had managed to hold out against the scattering debris with only the most minor of scratches to its surfaces.

Cardboard boxes had been piled up near the entrance, their contents spread out across the showroom floor to create a wall-to-wall telemetry of the current battle. Akantha glanced toward the monitors closest to her. It appeared that the invading force had already taken La Marsa. In the worst case scenario, over half the city would fall to the enemy in as little as four hours, unless…

“Odd, or even…”

“Whatcha thinking about?” asked Cynthia.

“There are two arterials which circle the airport. Forcing the enemy into one of them might make for a nice feint, I think.”

“Arterial ten is longer and would buy us more time; that said, arterial nine is a bit more fortified at the moment.”

“Route nine it is, then. It will be just you and me out there. Are you okay with that?”

“A family that slays together stays together,” Cynthia winked. They would need a bit of gear, so the two of them made their way into the stockroom. As was the case out front, most of the good stuff had already been taken. The younger woman scoffed when she saw the section of cellular devices had been raided outright. “Celica brand? Selfish bastards know how to play a girl.”

Akantha reached for a package at random and began prying it open. “What do you mean? These all look the same to me.”

“The Celica corporation is notorious for marking up average-level hardware and then slathering that much in a sea of bloatware. The newer models have entire gigabytes of garbage from the moment you take them out of their box!”

“Okay, but aren’t you able to delete stuff like that like you would on a computer?”

“It’s somewhat different with phones. Sometimes you need a hack or modification to access system-level partitions, and then you…”

It was at this point that Akantha chose to stop listening. She honestly had no idea what the hell her friend was talking about; then again, the most she ever used a smartphone for was to check e-mail. She would have much preferred an older flip-phone to the wonkiness of the modern touch-screen, but even that was sometimes too high-tech for a traditional woman like her.

The one she had grabbed randomly looked particularly fancy. There were two large camera lenses on the back and two more on the front. There were even LED flashes on both sides, and she had to wonder a bit why anyone would subject their poor eyes to such a thing. The screen illuminated instantly before transitioning to a series of prompts that the witch couldn’t quite figure out how to navigate. “Hey Cynthia, how do I do this again…?”

“Seriously? It’s not that complex! Here, allow me…” Once both of their devices had been registered to the city network, Cynthia began reprogramming their IFF codes. The telemetry in the showroom confirmed their locations in real-time. The two snatched up some portable battery packs and stuffed everything into a leather bag which Cynthia then draped over her shoulder. “That should do it. Now, let’s move out!”

Night brought with it a steady drop in temperature, but it appeared that the dust and the smoke had largely dissipated. Constellations of stars fanned out across the heavens invoking a much calmer sensation – a calm before the storm? Akantha certainly hoped not. The night was far too young; it would be a firm ten hours yet before the dawn would break. Literally anything could happen.

The arterial highways had thankfully remained intact amid the earlier barrage of rockets, lending confidence to the witch’s calculations. Traffic was minimal, so it was easy enough for the duo to make their journey on foot. Two hours and eight kilometers later, the runways of the international airport were in sight. Staff in hand, Akantha turned to her partner and declared, “Now would be your final chance to call it a night.”

“Did you think I would leave you to have all the fun?”

This lighthearted banter was just enough to reassure her. She knelt down upon the asphalt and pressed her fingers to its textured crevices. The vectors of her magic had a peak span of roughly eight hundred meters long and two hundred across, which was a fraction of what they would need to cover. Considering her options, she opted for the worst-case scenario.

“Cynthia, at the three-hundred meter mark, the enemy is going to fire. You have to find a way of shielding me.”

“Roger!”

“Ring out for nearby forces to divert the enemy onto this strip; and whatever you do, make sure nobody on our side is anywhere near the asphalt.” Akantha closed her eyes. She felt the subtle vibrations of the ground, the resonance of the enemy which was steadily closing the distance. Beads of sweat trickled their way down her skin, both from the exertion of the jog and from the sudden realization that she herself might end up becoming the city’s last hope.

All she could do now was wait for the enemy to come to them. Eventually, Akantha felt it – the stomping of boots en masse as the horde made its approach. Her phone vibrated in her bag, an indication that the enemy was within five hundred meters of her IFF signal – a warning that she did not need. Calling upon the ancient syntax, she whispered the spell which would quickly turn the asphalt in front of her into a sticky tar prison.

The enemy force had not seen it coming. Though cautious of a woman whose original claim to fame was the sinking of a whole nation, there was implicit consensus among the lot of them that numbers alone might be enough to overwhelm her. Staggering their ranks so as not to hit each other, they began to fire with reckless abandon.

It was time for Cynthia to make her move. From atop the nearest overpass, she kicked loose the bolts holding up the metal signage so that they folded down over the highway like a pair of hinges. As the bullets made contact, the force was distributed evenly to the point that not even a single round could pierce them. With the ruse completed, she then flung herself off the overpass and into a thicket of bushes below, away from the asphalt.

Akantha chanted and chanted until the asphalt in front of her had swelled with an aura of red. No longer able to maintain its integrity, it melted into a river of gooey muck more than ten centimeters deep. The sounds of gunfire were suddenly overshadowed by shouts of confusion as the enemy soldiers struggled with their new, unorthodox predicament.

“Well, I’ll be damned; it worked, Akantha!” Cynthia could be seen running along the side. Her fall had caused a bit more damage to her latex outfit, but she was otherwise unscathed. “I thought you were crazy when you told me to rig those signs to fall like that!”

“It isn’t over yet, though! Let’s take cover in that building over on the far side!”

“I’m right behind you-”

*BOOM!* The echo of a high-caliber sniper rifle rang out across the heads of the struggling soldiers before making its mark on Cynthia. She didn’t feel a thing as her eyes closed, but once she opened them again, it suddenly dawned on her that the entirety of her right arm had fallen off at the shoulder. That’s when the pain began, an agony so intense that she found herself unable to utter a single word as she fell into the arms of her best friend.

“Cynthia!? CYNTHIA!!!!!!” The world around them ground to a halt within the witch’s mind. She frantically poured her magic into the younger woman, snatching up the remnants of shattered limb and throwing them hastily into some semblance of order. It wasn’t anywhere near pretty; clumps of blue latex had inadvertently melted into the skin, forming hard blotches. As Akantha watched the light fade out from her friend’s eyes, it caused something within her heart to irrevocably fracture.

The witch then turned her gaze back to the highway, to the soldiers who had caused all of this. Granted, these men and women of the Adriatic Conglomerate had only been following orders. All of them had lives outside of the job; many of them had families waiting for them to come home. They had ambitions and dreams to be pursued once their tours of duty were over. It wasn’t their fault that all of this was happening; they were merely conned into it by the Slavic Federation. Akantha no longer gave a damn.

At one point or another, the innocent would always perish. The guilty would live on under the weight of the knowledge that they had done despicable acts to assume their positions of power. She herself would no longer be an exception to that, or perhaps she never had been and had simply been kidding herself all along. Akantha no longer gave a damn.

Forcing every ounce of available magic into the liquid tarmac, she turned up the heat until the oily polymers began to spontaneously combust. A pillar of red fire exploded away from her, advancing headlong into her defenseless foes. She heard the terrible, blood curdling screams of men and women being burned alive. She kept her eyes shut, fighting the urge to gag from using her abilities for something so heinous. She knew that it was an act she could never undo. Akantha no longer gave a damn.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was all over. The embers died down as the fuel which precipitated them was exhausted. Akantha trembled as the last of her strength left her body before collapsing into the throes of anguish and heartbreak. It sounded as though a recovery force had finally caught to them, but no longer could she open her eyes to check. Everything was forgotten – how to move, how to speak, how to fight for the future. Akantha no longer gave a damn. Akantha no longer gave a damn – not about the Iberian Empire, not about the Slavic Federation, and not about herself.

Monastery New Babel, Iberian Capital City Accra

“Citizens of the Iberian Empire, it is with great sorrow that I address you all this morning. Our intelligence reports have indicated that a large-scale firefight had broken out in Carthage last night with significant casualties on both sides. We believe this attack to be a premeditated response following the recent detainment of multiple Slavic radicals who had been residing in a number of Iberian districts. These radicals have been accused of treason against the Empire with intent to trigger a civil war.

“The Slavic Federation has yet to claim responsibility for the attack; however, the motives are clear. This foreign power has by proxy declared war on us, and we bear a responsibility – for the sake of those who have lost their lives prematurely – to preserve our homeland. In doing so, we must also preserve our own adherence to equitable judgment, bearing in mind that individuals of any particular breed are not necessarily descendants of the same ideologue.

“The actions of Faciliganto Akantha Lazarukh are especially of note, as it was her tenacity which carried the city Carthage through its greatest trial. To the nominals who share her blood, the next step shall be yours to take. Will you lend your cooperation to our cause? The coming days are set to bring a storm of continued aggression, one to be felt in all major cities along the northern coast. Albiers, Oran, Rabat, Casablanca – these and others must raise the red alert with all Agency personnel to be placed on active military duty effective immediate. We ask of our nominals and all of our peoples who pledge love this great Empire, to show your support! Long live Iberia!”

TO BE CONTINUED…

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