The Iron Circle Ch. II

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The Iron Circle Chapter II: Dodekatheon

Honoka lay alone in the cool gloom of her quarters. Her sheets were thin, her cot was hard, her room felt more like a cell, and her dinner consisted of nutrient bars with the texture and taste of paper mache. The Fourth, decided Honoka, weren't terribly used to having guests.

As she lay there, wresting sleep denied her by jet lag, she reflected on the day's events.


Things had started with the Warmaster.

“I'm Petra Dammekos, Warmaster of the Fourth Officio Assassinorum; the Fourth calls me the Warsmith. Welcome to the Olympia.”

Like Barbara's, the Warmaster's body was of metal, but where Barbara was shaped in the image of a lithe girl in her mid-teens, Petra was an armored warrior from ancient times.

She was tall, towering over the red-haired Vindicare. Her torso was a solid, heavily armored plate of jet trimmed with iron-grey, a modest bulge at the chest the one concession to femininity. A large set of pauldrons further bulked out the figure, as did the pteruges-skirt of long metal strips that armored her thighs and hips. The head was reminiscent of a samurai's helm, bearing a wide metal neck flap that seemed to open like a cobra's hood.

Warmasters, Honoka found, had a way of inspiring some mixture of awe and fear in their lessers. Petra Dammekos was no exception.

Honoka couldn't help it. 'What a beautiful machine...'

Awe overrode reason, stifled propriety. Her trembling hand reached out to touch the metallic form of the Warmaster, aching to caress the cold iron shell. She had to know how they made it, to look at the iron guts beneath the plates and see how the walking, moving expression of mathematical and engineering perfection before her worked—

“Why are you trying to touch me, Vindicare Iwakura?”

The booming voice shook her awake. It held no disgust, nor did sarcasm taint it; it was a simple question asked out of legitimate curiosity. Honoka found herself flinching back as if struck.

She glanced at her hand, then at Petra, then at her hand again. She saw Barbara staring at her in the corner of her eye.

“Oh...oh. Erm.” Recollection flooded her mind, followed swiftly by embarrassment, and she bowed to the Warmaster in apology. “Uh, I'm-I'm terribly sorry, Warmaster Dammekos, I didn't mean to be rude—”

Barbara cut in smoothly. “I'm afraid she's had a long plane ride, Warsmith, and she is still recovering from seeing the Olympia in full view—you know how visitors can be whenever they see our headquarters...”

Petra simply stared back at Honoka. Whether she took the statement at face value or simply didn't care, Honoka couldn't tell, but the Vindicare felt she was being studied intently.

It was only after an uncomfortably long moment that the Warmaster spoke.

“I'll give you a tour around the Olympia before we bring you to your quarters.” A pair of squat, boxed-shaped machines trundled forward and hauled away Honoka's luggage as the Warmaster strode forward.

Then she paused, as if to reconsider, and addressed Honoka before moving off. “And call me Petra. Or 'Warsmith'. That's what the Iron Circle calls me.” Each of her steps was heavy, emitting a dull thud that echoed through the grey halls of the Olympia, and each of her steps was filled with purpose.

As Honoka followed the moving Warmaster, she muttered to Barbara. “The 'Iron Circle'?”

“Formally,” said Barbara, “the Iron Circle refers to the Warsmith's cadre of bodyguards—six of our most combat-capable Eversors sworn to keep the Warsmith safe.” As ever, the liaison's voice was smooth, like a mirror's surface. “However, depending on the context, it can also refer to our Officio as a whole. This latter meaning was the one the Warsmith was referring to.”

As Barbara spoke, Honoka threw Petra another glance. She saw a weapon mag-locked to the Warmaster's back, a golden sledgehammer about as long as Honoka was tall, with a head the size of her own. It reminded her, in a chilling, discomforting way, of the mysterious golden katana the former Eversor Rank Leader used to own back in the Ninth, back before she got retired.

With such a weapon, wondered Honoka, who needs bodyguards?


“You're better with words, Barbara, so I'll let you do the talking.”

“Of course, Warsmith.”

The three of them made their way down to the bowels of the Olympia. Each hall they traversed, each chamber they passed was well-planned and finely-built, with every scrap of space devoted to something functional. They weren't pretty, per se, made as they were by shaped and stamped corrosive-resistant metal—no exquisitely carved walls of marble and gold here—but in their mathematically-guided precision Honoka found a stark beauty.

“As I explained on the plane,” said Barbara, “the Iron Circle is divided into twelve organizations, or Orders. The purpose of each Order is two-fold; the first is to provide support services necessary for our Officio to function, the second is to provide a place for the Iron Circle to test one another and improve upon our skills. Each Magical Girl in the Fourth is a member of one and only one Order, but we are permitted to participate in the activities of other Orders. Our first, and so far only, Warsmith created this system when the Fourth Officio was first formed.”

“Quartus was the one who came up with most of it,” grunted Petra.

A few minutes of walking and a short ride on an elevator brought them to a set of double doors, deep in the “shoulder” of the Olympia. Beyond it was the muffled roar of heavy machinery.

“Here,” said Barbara, “are the primary testing and manufacturing facilities of the Lyssatra, our weapon and armor manufacturers.” She strode towards the double doors, where a relief of an armored knight--a sword in one hand and a rifle in the other--loomed down on them.

“I would like to warn you that the Lyssatra manufactorum is very noisy. Ear protection is advised.”

Before Honoka could tell her she didn't have any ear protection, Barbara opened the doors. That meant Honoka had less than half a second before it hit her.

The roar of pneumatic presses, stamping machines, grinders, cutters, fusion torches, and smelters struck her like a shockwave. Such was the din of industry that Honoka felt herself staggering backwards, wincing at her battered eardrums.

Petra glanced back at the reeling red-haired Vindicare and, producing a pair of earmuffs from a hidden compartment, tossed it towards Honoka, who gratefully put them on. The din died down at once to tolerable levels.

Now that she was spared from the audial assault, Honoka had a chance to take in her surroundings.

Packs of Magical Girls milled about the chamber: some of them had metal bodies similar to Barbara's, though with differing shapes, sizes, and colors. A taller girl with a pair of metal pigtails poked away at a tablet, while a shorter one with bobbed hair-decals and a busty chestplate shouted at the strawberry and white painted girl in front of her. Another pair of girls had bodies that were larger, barrel-shaped torsos with trunk-like legs—they set about doing heavier work, hefting a small artillery cannon to prepare for welding.

Barbara's voice came in through a vox in the earmuffs. “I do apologize for the noise, Ms. Iwakura," she said with polite sympathy. "The Lyssatra is one of the most critical Orders within the Fourth—the vast majority of our Officio's funding comes through the sale of weapons and armor, and we must constantly manage a sizable number of orders. This means the production facilities must be kept running day and night.”

Barbara turned as she noticed something. “Ah, Forge Master Thematica.”

The one Barbara called “Thematica” strode towards the trio, a gaggle of robotic Magical Girls parting before her. “Petra!" came the jubilant voice, "Hello, hello, just noticed you coming in, how can I—oh? What's this?”

Her iron body was very similar to cannon-haulers', albeit with a bronze-red paint scheme and a head resembling an armet helmet, set in the center of her wide-shouldered torso, sitting on thick, pillar-like legs. Her hands were a riot of every machinery tool imaginable; clamps, pliers, cutters, and drills jockeyed with one another for space, each sitting at the end of arms made of thick bundles of cable. More cables snaked out of Thematica's back, each of them prehensile and ending in a trio of dexterous claws, giving Honoka an impression of a large metal octopus.

Said octopus wasted no time moving right into Honoka's personal bubble, inspecting every inch of Honoka's prized exoskeleton.

“Hmm. Powered exoskeleton. 85% high-grade steel, 14.99% titanium-aluminum alloy, .01% miscellaneous materials; ceramic-plate armor, joints and actuators made from—”

“This is Forge Master Felicia Thematica,” said Barbara over Felicia's muttering. “As you might have already inferred, she is the Master of the Lyssatra Order.” Honoka tried her very best to focus on Barbara and not on Felicia's ruthlessly thorough examination.

To Honoka's relief, the myriad probing devices drew back after an uncomfortably long minute.

“Hmm,” said Felicia. She was gazing at Honoka as though she were a defunct specimen, scratching her chin with one of her prehensile metal cables. “Marginal increases to strength and speed, exposed actuators vulnerable to damage. Ceramic-plate armor only rates to Armor Class II. No auxiliary systems installed.” She tutted and shook her head.

“You poor, poor dear..." she cooed. The prehensile cables lashed out and dragged the bewildered Honoka closer, dismantling her exoskeleton piece by piece. "Here, let me get you something much more you.”

“Wait what—”


Back in the gloom of her cell-like quarters, Honoka reflected on the memory and giggled. She looked at her beloved exoskeleton, stowed away in a rack, then at the brand new suit of Fourth Officio powered armor that sat in the corner.

Felicia had dragged her to a storage facility, where a dozen or so suits of powered armor sat in racks. With disturbing speed the Forge Master disassembled Honoka's suit and started fitting her new ones, like a fussy dressmaker with a hapless customer, mumbling about how “the 'Aquilas angles really brought out her curves”, or how “the 'Errant' wasn't really her thing”. Thematica eventually settled on a slick-looking number she'd called the 'Maximus' and had it shipped to Honoka's quarters.

She looked at her new gift again. A goggled faceplate packed with sensors; blocky, interlocking plates of armor that could stop rifle bullets dead; advanced actuators that let her run, jump, and lift beyond even what her magically-enhanced flesh could achieve. Armored hands that could punch holes in solid concrete. As much as it irked her to admit it, it really did blow her old exoskeleton out of the water.

Settling back in her cot, she reviewed the rest of the day.

The next incident, she thought, hadn't been quite as pleasant as the rest.


The Warmaster, the liaison, and the Vindicare continued their tour, moving ever deeper through the walking god-machine.

The more she saw of the Fourth's infamous mobile headquarters, the more Honoka understood why the Olympia was so unfathomably huge: foundries, repair bays, cargo holds, barracks, training facilities, on top the subsystems necessary for keeping a 2000 foot machine operational, all of these were contained within the Olympia's metal frame.

After an hour of walking, the three passed a room similar to the weapons foundry, where magical girls were at work maintaining a variety of vehicles. A handful of motorcycles here, an armored APC there: one gargantuan tank, with a main gun barrel that seemed almost comically large, dominated the vehicle bay.

“This is our land-based vehicle hangar, where the Apeia makes its home,” explained Barbara. “The Order of Mechanics is charged with keeping the Officio's fleet of ground vehicles functioning. It is their duty to ensure that any Officio sortie has adequate ground transportation and effective ground-based extraction. It is also one of the more popular Orders, though perhaps not quite as much as the Mechanicus, our Order of Cybernetics--”

“Still more popular than your pathetic little Emmeles, Falko,” came a voice from behind a, not one voice, realized Honoka. Two in perfect snych, down to the dripping contempt they held.

The pair of figures before them were humanoid, each roughly five feet and two inches tall. They looked remarkably similar to one another in Honoka's eyes—identical basic chassis, down to the height and body proportions with the difference laying in the decals. The one on the left was painted black with a prominent teal chest plate and teal cheek guards, with a pair of flexible metal protrusion imitating a set of twintails. The one on the right, sported a black paint scheme with sizable red leg reinforcements, red shoulderpads, and a long, high ponytail.

Despite their superficial differences, however, the body language of the two was almost the same—leading with one foot while putting their weight on the other, one hand placed on a jutting hip, for the same sneering, cocksure stance.

The girls bowed to their Warmaster, and barely a nod of ackowledgement to Barbara. “Warsmith, Speaker Falko,” they said in unison.

“Yda, Ach,” said Petra in acknowledgment.

“Chief Mechanics Yda Stradale and Ach Stradale, also known as the 'Speed Freaks',” said Barbara to Honoka, her tone even. If she'd taken insult from the two about her Order, she didn't show it. She turned back to the twins. “I was merely explaining—”

“Who's this?” interrupted the red one. “What's a meatbag like her doing in the Olympia?”

Honoka's Vindicare-trained eyes didn't miss the subtle clenching of Barbara fist. “This is Honoka Iwakura, a Vindicare novitiate from the Ninth—”

The teal one spoke this time. “Oh, so it's one of the Murderers?” she said in a mocking sing-song. Both twins began circling around Honoka, like a pair of metal vultures. “How's old Valnikov doing? She fucked any more blondes, yet?”

Barbara stepped in before Honoka could protest, her tone taking up the slightest hint of steel. “Chief Mechanic Yda Stradale, that is no way to speak to a guest.”

The tension in the air tightened, like a metal string under strain. Honoka glanced at Barbara, then the twins, then at Petra. The last of the three she watched the closest.

In her four years with the Ninth, Honoka had served under three Warmasters; Kharn, Chiaki Matsuda, and a third whose name she could barely remember. Kharn had her own ways of dealing with things when Officio girls would squabble, which boiled down to sicking Equerry Malal on them until they shut up, egging them on until they shut each other up, or dragging them back to her quarters and “taking their other skulls”, so to speak, until they couldn't shut up. As for the most recent Warmaster, the infamous Murderface hadn't been at her post for long, but Honoka could easily imagine the surly, noodly girl either slinking away for a drink or kneecapping everyone in sight until the problem solved itself.

And so Honoka watched the Warmaster of the Fourth. She noted that Petra simply watched the two squabble. It was neither hesitation born of indecisiveness, nor glum disinterest born of apathy; rather, Petra seemed to be content observing the liaison and the Chief Mechanics, like a biologist watching lions trying to establish dominance. Much the way, she realized, Petra had done when they'd first met.

Yda Stradale took a step forward. “A guest? Is that what we're calling them, now?”

“Yes, it is,” said Barbara, giving not an inch of ground.

“Get back to your little board meeting pow-wows,” said Ach, giving Barbara a little pat on her polished cheek, “and let rest of us handle this little meatbag. The way it should be.”

“Chief Mechanic, the Emmeles serve a vital function in the—”

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that—”

“This is most inappropriate—”

“*Ahem* So...what's a 'novitiate'?”

Barbara and and the twins whipped their heads towards Honoka. The redhead did her best to look innocent.

Barbara's shoulders drooped in relief. “A pertinent question, Ms. Honoka," she said, glad to be rid of a conversation rapidly going south. "'Novitiate' is the term we use—”

“—to describe outsiders like you who stay for a year, steal our precious resources and knowledge, then opt out on joining us despite everything we invested in them,” said Yda. “Makes you wonder why we even bother with meatbags, eh?”

Honoka frowned. “Wait," she protested, "I'm just here to learn, I didn't leave Japan and come all the way out here just to steal your things. And besides, -you- were the ones who approved my one-year transfer here.”

We didn't approve the transfer personally,” snarled Ach, “and if it were up to us, you wouldn't have stepped one foot into the Olympia, you and that deficient piece of scrap you're wearing as armor—”


“That's enough.”

All of those present whipped their heads in Petra's direction.

“W-Warsmith?” said the twins.

“No more insulting the novitiate. She's our guest. Understood?”

The twins looked around them: all around the chamber, Magical Girls were staring at the altercation before them, welders and cutters gone still. As one, the Chief Mecanics' belligerence became sullen sulking.

"...yes, Warsmith.”

“A-aye, Warsmith.”

“Back to your duties, then.”

The Stradales threw Petra half-hearted salutes and stalked off, pouting and petulant. Petra, meanwhile, ignored the Chief Mechanics and waved Honoka forward, deeper into the Olympia.

They walked in silence for a few minutes. If Petra had been embarrassed by the Stradales, she didn't show it; Honoka, on the other hand, couldn't help but feel shocked and a little numb.

She hadn't expected the red carpet to be brought out for her, certainly, nor had she expected the Officio nicknamed 'The Machines' to be the warmest bunch. But she hadn't expect such a cold welcoming, either. Such...hostility. She wondered how prevalent this attitude was going to be, how many more Yda and Ach Stradales she'd come across in the next twelve months.

It was at that point Honoka realized: being with the Fourth was not going to be all fun and games.

Barbara's voice startled her out of her brooding.

“My most sincere apologies for the previous...altercation, Ms. Iwakura.” The placid, diplomatic tone almost disguised the exasperation in the liaison's voice. “Some among the Fourth require a little time to warm up to new arrivals.”

The red-haired Vindicare let out a laugh, which she hoped would disguise her bitterness. “Ha ha, that's, that's alright, Ms. Falko, there's no need to apologize.”

Barbara shook her head and continued. “I'm aware that the Fourth has a reputation for being insular and hostile towards outsiders, and as much as it pains me to admit it, that reputation is not entirely baseless. One of the main reasons why the Warsmith created the Emmeles—our diplomatic corps—and the reason why I joined it was to help undo that reputation. But I'm afraid that our work is not yet finished.” She turned her metal head towards Honoka. “Regardless, please do not think our Chief Mechanics' attitudes are representative of the rest of us." The liaison placed a hand on Honoka's shoulder, a part left uncovered by her exoskeleton, a hand that felt remarkably warm despite its metal make.

"I, for one, am very glad you decided to visit.”

Later, Honoka would look back on this moment and note this was the first time a robot had ever made her blush and stammer.


'Yeah...I'm not going to be looking back on this one too fondly.'

Honoka tossed in her cot, drumming her fingers on the stiff fabric as she mulled on the memory. Not the best start to her first days in the Fourth, she decided. Probably could have gone better.

No use in dwelling on that bit, she decided, forcibly shoving the memory aside. A glance at her discarded exoskeleton made her remember what Petra had said, soon after leaving behind the Stradales:

“But you're not here for guns or armor or cars,” she'd said. “Your transfer request said you wanted to study our Ironforms.”

“Next, we'll take you to the Mechanicus.”