I’ve been running through these empty office spaces for a few blocks now, gaining ground against the imperial march on the streets below. For a second, I thought I’d make it to the bridge easily, but I’ve finally come across a roadblock.
Battle. An actual battle is laid out before my eyes. Peldak soldiers, the police, SWAT teams, the Monsoo military, and armed militiamen taking a stand against the gurant’s forces. When I carefully look out the window, I can see them in the buildings, shooting into the streets, and fighting close quarters inside the lower levels. Far down the road, I see a barricade made of burnt-out cars, buses, and rubble.
Standing between those Protectorate forces and myself is at least a hundred imperial soldiers, probably more, with that small parade of them on the way to help. From my limited perspective only just poking around the side of a broken window, I see some imperial soldiers in plain clothes, without body armor. What’s going on with that? Why did they invade without armor? These might be mercenaries or something. I’ve heard there’s a lot of mercenary bands and pirates across Monsoo.
Regardless, it seems my fervor to hurry ahead of the marching imperials was unneeded. The Protectorate is holding this street and it doesn’t seem like the gurant are getting through that barricade anytime soon. Why don’t the gurant just go around? Well, there’s no reason to think the Protectorate wouldn’t have set up similar defenses on other streets. If I’m where I think I am, just behind the Protectorate’s line sits a major intersection. The Protectorate is probably defending chokepoints like it in a wide perimeter around the bridge. If the gurant want to take that bridge, they’ll need to punch through one of the chokepoints, maybe all of them at once.
Which means there’s no going ‘around’ the battlefield. I have to somehow sneak through the battle line.
…How the hell am I supposed to do that?
I think my best bet is to continue through this building. The power is off, so it’s dark as long as I stay away from the windows, and this building row seems to cut through the battlelines. If I take it slow and play dead when the imperial troops walk by, nobody should notice I’m here.
I crawl to the door that separates this building from the next, and slowly open it. The fifth floor on the next building is a single large room with no internal walls, looks like an administrative area where files and documents would be run back and forth. There’re overturned desks, tipped over chairs, trash everywhere, and busted or ripped out phonelines. The lights are off, and backlit by the sun pouring in from broken windows, I see two soldiers on the left side of the building, shooting down the lane. Wind pours through the openings and kicks around dust and loose papers.
Crawling inside and silently closing the door behind me, I circle around the right side of the room. My head stays down, and my gun stays ready at all times. If anyone spots me, my best chance is to try and shoot them before they have a chance to react. But it’s best if I’m not spotted. The two soldiers seem preoccupied, and they’re shouting to each other in a language I don’t recognize. There’s only one Monsoo language, so it must be the gurant’s speech.
I make it to the next room without an issue, another office space with cubicles and desks, but there’s more soldiers here. All the gunfire is starting to hurt my ears.
Just crawl under a few desks and avoid anything that makes sound, should be simple as long as I take it slow.
I continue on like this, slowly but surely making my way through the building, getting closer to the front line. But the closer I get, the more dangerous it is. Bullets suddenly start hitting the building, I hear them plink off the walls and ceiling as the peldaks work to suppress their targets. I’ll need to think of some way to keep the peldaks from mistaking me for an imperial soldier, but that’s a problem for later.
I reach the door to the next building and open it just enough to peek through. The guns obscure the sound of the doorknob being turned. I see a makeshift medical facility to help the wounded imperial troops, it dominates the whole room and it’s well-lit with bright emergency lights. No way I can get past that, so I close the door and sneak to a nearby staircase, heading down to the fourth floor to sidestep it.
The fourth floor in the next building seems clear, I don’t hear or see anything. My pistol held tightly between my hands, I keep low as I walk in, alert to anything which could be a threat. This floor is much of the same. Office space, cubicles, filing cabinets and desks, but there’s a walled break room to the right.
As I get further in the building, almost to the next door, I find dead bodies. Civilians. In a pile on the right side, away from the windows. I’ve grown a little numb to it, which is probably a bad thing. They’re clumped together, only one or two bullet wounds each, like they were executed. Some still have their eyes open.
There’s a racket behind me. Shouting and trash being kicked around, and it’s getting closer, soldiers are approaching! I throw myself onto the pile of bodies and play dead. They’re cold, and the corpses are stiff. I feel blood soak into a few spots on my shirt and pants, and there’s the cold face of a dead woman staring back at me, a bullet wound through her left eye. Imperial troops flood into the office space. No matter what, I can’t move. They’re shouting, it sounds like cheering. Some run by the window and wildly shoot down range, others continue onto the next building, kicking the door off its hinges. They just keep coming, but nobody is paying attention to this dark part of the room.
Two men carry piece of a huge gun into the room. They set it down by the window, drag over a few filing cabinets and desks to form a barricade, then set up the gun, attaching all the bits and pieces. One man aims, the other loads bullets into it. He pulls the trigger, and the piercing screech of each bullet smashes against my eardrums.
But I can’t cover my ears. There are still soldiers running through and if I scream or move, they’ll know I’m alive and they’ll kill me! I can’t do anything but lay here and take it! My eyes water, my body shakes, I bite the inside of my cheek hard enough to draw blood, but I don’t move.
When the last soldier runs through the room, I finally curl into a ball and cover myself. My legs kick, I roll side to side, I wish I grabbed a pair of headphones before I left work… I wish I didn’t leave at all…
The pain does subside, slowly, but it’s replaced with a horrible ringing. I think the ring might be even louder than the gun was.
I want to walk over there and shoot those two in the back of the head, I’d like nothing more than to stop that noise which still thumps against my brain even as I hold my ears tight. But if I do, other soldiers might notice. They’ll definitely notice if that gun stops firing. There’s nothing I can do but crawl to the next building and try to get away. These stupid soldiers even kicked the door off its hinges, so there’s not even that for a barrier.
It doesn’t help that much. I still want to cry.
Outside, through the ringing, I think hear the gurant commander’s arm-mounted rotary cannons spin up and lay down a hail of gunfire on the Protectorate lines. It’s loud, and that’s the only thing big enough I can think of. I’m too deaf at this point to make out any specific noises beyond it, so I guess the gurant are winning.
The next building isn’t just office space, there are dark hallways and rooms. I think conference halls, storage closets, and meeting areas. This place is cleaner, I almost can’t tell there’s a battle going on. But that also means if someone runs in, I won’t be able to play dead, I’d be too out of place. There’s no reason to crawl or crouch, I stand up and run.
The biggest problem is my ears. I feel nauseous. I need my hands to hold them, or the pain just gets worse. Plus, I won’t be able to hear something subtle like footsteps.
My brilliant idea is to head into one of the side rooms and rip open a couch, harvesting the cotton inside so I can jam it in my ears. It dampens the noise a little, enough that I can keep my hands on my pistol. For good measure, I rip some leather off the couch and tie more cotton to the sides of my head, like makeshift headphones.
Waiting in here for a few minutes would probably be good for my ears, but I need to continue on. I don’t know the situation outside or how worse it’ll get.
I open the door just a crack and peak out into the dark hallway. Nobody to the left, nobody to the right. The building shakes as I close the door, and I think there’s more explosions outside, but it’s hard to signal out sounds at this point. There’s no need to go inside more rooms, I just need to continue north.
Into the next building, and… that machine gun has stopped! I don’t hear it behind me anymore! Either they ran out of ammo or, hopefully, a peldak put one right between their eyeballs! That’s good, makes my heart feel warm.
The next building features the same hallway and room structure as the last. I peek around a corner and see a nest of at least a dozen imperial soldiers huddling behind rubble, shooting into the building across the street. Gunnfire wizzes past as the peldaks return fire, and one bullet punches a hole through the wall just a foot away from my head. I have to sneak past them to get to the door for the next building, but that’s dangerous. I double back to find a staircase and climb back up to the fifth floor.
My legs nearly collapse as I walk up the steps. My body is running low on steam.
No option for retreat though, I have to press forward.
The fifth floor consists of a big room full of cubicles, and small conference rooms which line the outside wall. The door to one has been blown off its hinges, and that’s the only source of light pouring into the main room. I can’t see anyone around this dark space, and the door to the next building is open.
I run over and almost make it to the door, but in the other building, there’s flashlights coming from around a corner. Imperial troops are coming this way! I messed up. They’re gonna see me. Do I fight? I can’t play dead in an empty room with no blood, how do I get out of this? I can’t hide behind the cubicles since what if they start rooting through them?
My brain works a thousand miles a second:
I’ve seen many troops in plain clothes without armor.
I’m in plain clothes without armor.
So many have dark skin similar to monsoorai.
I’m an actual monsoorai.
I’m deep in their lines.
I have a gun.
My plan is set, it’s the best chance I have. I dive into the conference room with the blown off door. The inside is scorched, there are small embers in the carpet that the wind hasn’t snuffed out, and part of the outside wall is destroyed. I press myself against a wall for the most cover possible, and I start shooting down the street at the Protectorate barricade.
Of course, I’m not trying to hit them, and even if I was, there’s no way I could hit them from this distance. But it hopefully looks convincing.
The street outside is more of a mess than what I saw before. I don’t think there’s a single window left intact, I see fires pouring out of buildings and rising from cars, there’s a thin haze of smoke all over. That gurant commander is slowly walking up the road, shooting with arm-mounted rotary fire and even rockets from a tube that rests above his shoulder. He isn’t bothered anything the peldaks throw at him. The imperial forces are slowly pushing up, I’m not sure how the Protectorate will be able to defend from this onslaught.
I need to move faster. I need to get past the Protectorate lines and reach to the bridge before they get overrun.
There’s a series of crashes on the other side of the street. From the bottom floor, mighty gusts of wind rip through broken windows, tearing off what glass shards still cling to the frame. Deep cracks splinter across the concrete sidewalk, and one gust hits a car so forcefully that the bulky frame dents, and it nearly tips over. The building quakes under the strain of whatever’s going on inside. Even through the ringing and makeshift earmuffs, I hear the screech of metal tearing through flesh and steel. Desks, rubble, bodies, they get launched from the second floor and crash into the broken streets.
Another gust of wind erupts from the window, and a man leaps out of the second floor! His clothes are ornamental, with all sorts of medals and ribbons pinned to his chest, he even has a beautiful, flowing shoulder cape, and a glowing-red sword wrapped tightly in his right hand. He lands on a destroyed car, crunching the roof from the force, but then he stands proudly. His face is marked by a smile which conveys absolute confidence in his power.
He’s a sayran.
A sayran thought our little corner of Monsoo was important enough to protect.
I want to cry, though I don’t know if it’s from joy, or from the possibility that Mae Hiarin is in a far worse state than what I previously thought.
Naturally, all the imperial troops focus their fire on him, but the sayran spins to the point that his body is just a blur, and a tornado of red wind rises up. Bullets plink off an iron wall of air, and rockets harmlessly explode against his shield. He stops spinning and the wind dissipates, I see the metal of the car beneath him was warped from the speed. He raises his sword high.
“Brothers!” His scream comes through loud and clear to my wounded ears, but it doesn’t hurt at all, it’s soothing. “Fear not the gurant monsters, fear not their underlings! We are the guardian angels of the Protectorate, and these demons won’t take one further step into our lands! Join me! Steel your hearts!” He points his sword to the Gurant commander. “Watch as I, Hizan of the Mahidi estate, behead the monster which has terrified you so. Learn how there is nothing to fear, and burn the image of his head rolling from his lifeless body into your retinas.”
Hizan’s eyes dart around the imperial lines and, for just a second, he looks at me. It’s more accurate to say he glares through me, like a non-hungry beast eyeing a creature it’ll kill just for fun.
Despite the fear that runs through me thanks to his stare, this is a good thing. Everyone will be so preoccupied by him that they won’t be carefully checking around these buildings, I might be able to slip by easier.
The gurant, in response to this provocation, steps forward. He raises his gauntlets, and two long, hooked, jagged blades extend from each forearm. Hizan smiles an earnest smile, he’s looking forward to slaughtering his foe in front of an audience.
He leaps forward to attack the gurant, his sword a fine red sheen and his body emitting a brilliant red aura. Hizan is fast, and clearly an expert swordsman, but even I can see that each blow from his sword hits like a sledgehammer. Despite that, the gurant’s armor and blades can stand up to the assault. I expected the gurant to be too bulky for fine movements, but his armor makes him surprisingly maneuverable. So, Hizan is flipping around the street and swinging his sword with inhuman finesse, while the gurant is parrying most of the strikes, or angling his arms so the blade harmlessly slides off.
There’s a tap on my shoulder and my body jolts! I whip my body around, and it’s an imperial trooper.
He… barks something at me, pointing down the building line then pointing across the street. I don’t know his language, but that’d be a dead giveaway that I’m not one of his comrades. I raise an eyebrow and motion to the cotton pads around my ears, trying to explain that I’m deaf at the moment.
He rolls his eye and motions it out with his hands. From what I gather, he wants me to head further up the building, go down the stairs, and continue fighting there. It doesn’t matter if I’m mistaken, I give him a thumbs up and quickly run out of the room.
I can’t believe that worked.
I head leave the conference room and head into the next building. There’s imperial soldiers coming my way, so I keep a serious look, with my hands on my pistol. They just run by, don’t even give me a second glance. I wish I thought of this earlier!
The duel rages on outside. I hear the high-pitched clang of metal against metal, the gurant’s rotary cannon suddenly shoots a quick wave of bullets through the building, tearing large holes through each floor and wall it passes. I stumble and fall, every instinct telling me to hide, but I have to push through it. The soldiers on both sides are still fighting, but it’s clear those titans are dominating the field.
As I’m running, the building suddenly shakes. The rumbling is so intense that I lose my balance and must brace against the wall. Loose trash jingles on the floor, dust falls from newly formed cracks in the ceiling, and I think I hear some terrible cracking up ahead. Like wood splintering? It’s hard to tell with how messed up my ears are. When it finally settles and the building stops quaking, I think there’s a lull in the gunfire outside, but it starts up again after a few seconds.
I glance outside a broken window, and a thick cloud of dust wafts by, obstructing what little light makes it inside the building.
The hell was that?
Did the gurant cause that with some type of missile, or did the sayran do it?
The ‘cosmic energy’ which our ships use to travel through space. It washes upon planets for a time before being collected and pushed back to space via updrafts. There’s cosmic energy everywhere, around all of us, around everything, even on a world thick with jungles like Monsoo. For a reason I never thought to understand further, the sayran can directly control this cosmic energy. Usually, they manipulate the cosmic winds of that energy to make our ships travel faster than any other method, that’s a good part of why our fleet has such an overwhelming advantage against the Gurant Empire’s fleet (the other part is the expert craftsmanship of monsoorai vessels, of course).
But the sayran can also manipulate the cosmic energy located on planets. I’ve seen firsthand that the power he draws from can push a million-ton warship into orbit, what could a single gurant do in the face of that?
I run through a building with a skip in my step. Reaching the door of the next building, I twist the knob and throw it open. The door immediately falls off its hinges and collapses into a pit below.
The next building, while not destroyed, has a gash in it. The gap is too far to jump over, and the pile of rubble at the bottom is full of jagged splinters. That quake from earlier must have been this, everything from the bottom of the first floor to the roof on the seventh floor was cleaved through. Looking to the right, the next building was damaged too, though not as severely. The thin alley between the buildings is blocked by rubble.
There’s a sudden CRACK of thunder that makes me jolt. I whip my head to the left and look through the wide gap in the outside wall. It’s the gurant. From a coil that’s extended from his back, he’s shooting bolts of lightning at Hizan, one after the other.
He’s desperate to dodge, he’s staying low to the ground and is throwing himself behind cars or tossing bits of metal in the air to take the electricity off course.
Cosmic energy is weak to electricity, causes it to destabilize and become unusable. We shipbuilders have to put great care into making sure our warships are fully insulated, so electrical wires don’t leak and turn the surrounding cosmic energy into a hurricane of wild, deadly force. It’s also why sayran have rubber jumpsuits under their clothing. I’ve heard that even a little shock from touching something metal can make a sayran nauseous, and something like a taser can make them pass out for days. For large bolts of lightning like the gurant is throwing, Hizan might instantly die if he gets hit.
Still, you can’t keep shooting lightning forever. Surely, the gurant’s armor must have a limited charge, Hizan just needs to hold out until it’s over.
Regardless of all that, Hizan’s actions have stalled the gurant’s advance, and I can see the Protectorate line, it’s so close! But I need to get past this collapsed part of the building. The only way to do that… is to get on the street, crawl past the fight, then crawl into the next building about 30 feet up the road.
I doubt any regular soldier will notice me with such a massive spectacle happening right in front of them, but I’m worried about the collateral damage. Either of those monsters could kill me without even noticing.
But this is the only way. I have to. My body feels sluggish, but I backtrack in the building a little until I find the staircase, then I head down to the first floor. I can make it, I just have to be careful, and lucky.