The Iron Circle Ch. VI

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The Iron Circle Chapter VI: Skitarii

"Well...I've certainly seen better performances, novitiate, but I guess for your first time you didn't do so bad."

The combat simulator disengaged, bringing Honoka out of the world of cybernetics and back into the world of flesh. Her recliner-chair hissed as it moved back into the upright position.

Honoka found herself back in the rounded training chamber of the Toxotes, the Fourth Officio's Order of Vindicares. A row of simulators lined the walls, while a fully equipped shooting lane dominated half of the room. A training course, mocked up to look like an urban combat zone, occupied the other half; a dozen Magical Girls were busy using it, adding their bellowing guns and stamping iron feet to the general din of the Toxotes hall.

The red-haired Vindicare groaned as she pulled herself out of the simulator. Today, she was out of her exoskeleton and was wearing a sports bra and spats. Several dozen electrodes--designed to simulate concussive impacts and pain inside the VR world--snaked away from her worn and beaten body as she chugged from a water bottle.

"'Better performances'?" she said, breathless. "Strike Leader, I-I'm not really sure what I was supposed to do there! Who were those guys, Spetznaz? SEALs?" She paused to take another drink. "I couldn't use magic, I couldn't leave the designated mission area, and I only had a rifle, a pistol, some ammo, and a suit of armor I barely knew how to use. How was I supposed to take on fifteen spec-ops with armored support?"

A pause.

"Er, ma'am," she added hastily.

Strike Leader Lau loomed over her like an iron effigy. She stood in a Light chassis, a somewhat stocky, bulky form painted blue-on-black and built with a smooth, bald head. Her arms were crossed across her chest while her red eye-lenses steadily regarded Honoka. The red-haired Vindicare had read up on the Vindicare squad leader before the training session had started: three year veteran of the Fourth, promoted to Strike Leader six months ago. Sterling track record, reputation for iron discipline and steely nerves in combat.

"The goal of this test wasn't so much to see if you could kill fifteen elite soldiers and an IFV," said the Strike Leader, "as much as it was a test to see how you'd perform in that armor."

The Strike Leader leaned over and poked Honoka in the shoulder. She had plenty of strong muscle there, along with puckered, ragged marks of tough scar tissue—proud badges earned through years of hard, dangerous service—yet Lau's steel finger easily pressed into her shoulder as though the meat there was just skin and fat.

"Powered armor isn't just a fancy suit that makes you run a little faster and punch a little harder and has some sweet gadgets built into it. When you wear it, you're stepping into a whole new world of tactical possibilities. Wall in your way? Run through it. Need a higher vantage point? Just climb up a building, no need for stairs. Someone shooting you with peashooters? Just walk up to them and punch them out, they can't hurt you."

Lau unhooked a tablet from her belt and started it up. "Which is good, because we're one of the smallest Officios out there, and most of us are too busy with R&D to go out on missions much. That means it's once in a blue moon when we're NOT badly outnumbered. All we've got is marginally bigger guns and an edge in the 'fancy gadgets' department; we better exploit that as much as we can, or we're fucked."

She thrust the tablet towards Honoka for her to see. A tap on the screen showed Honoka a video; it was footage taken from another run on the VR trainer, using the same scenario Honoka had just finished.

It was like watching a summer blockbuster action film. The armored girl bounded up buildings like a simian beast, barely slowing down as she bounded across the closely packed rooftops. She punched people through walls, either sending them crashing through a house or or ramming her mailed fist through a barricade and into a man's head. At one point, the girl seized a downed soldier by the leg and hurled it at the rest of his squad, sending them hurtling back in a heap of broken bones and limbs.

It was the sort of thing, thought Honoka as she watched the girl slowly pry open an IFV's hatch with her armored hands, that the really crazy Magical Girls she knew would try to do., she realized. Not crazy. Crazy would have involved laughing, cackling, drinking the blood of your enemies along with their pain and fear. Crazy would have meant killing for the sake of killing, destroying for the sake of destruction, thirsting for an orgy of death and ruin.

This, she thought, was too measured and precise for crazy. This was simply power granted by ingenuity and engineering. This was the product of an Officio that brooked no weakness and demanded every one of its members be stronger and better than they were. An Officio armed with some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world.

This was the Fourth Officio Assassinorum.

"You see?" asked the Strike Leader. "This is how a Machine fights. This is how we fight. When we pick up our weapons and deploy to kill some poor pack of idiots, the usual rules go out the window, because there's going to be just a few of us against a lot of them, and we'd be stupid if we play the game the usual way." She took the tablet away from Honoka and set it aside. "So...”

Despite Lau's impassive expression, the red-haired Vindicare could hear the smile in her voice. “Now that you've seen what you're actually supposed to do: you up for round 2?"


Hours later, Honoka stumbled out of the training room, panting and utterly spent. Lau walked behind her to ensure she didn't trip and crack her skull open.

Her entire body felt sore. Bruised, even. It was like she was back in Basic again, puking up her breakfast into the dirt as she crawled under barbed wire, trying not to piss or shit herself from the fear and exhaustion. Repeated jolts from the VR simulator left her feeling like a pack of Eversors had worked her over with sticks, but then there was also the mental fatigue. It was difficult to think clearly; forming thoughts through the tired, muddied waters of her mind felt like a herculean task.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" said Lau. "I remember being stuck in one of those for my first test, back when I was a greenhorn. Threw up all over the instructor's feet, had to mop it up afterwards. Ha!" She glanced at the flagging Ninth Vindicare. “Hanging in there, novitiate? You look dead on your feet.”

Honoka managed to wheeze out a weak laugh. “Ha ha, well, I've had worse...”


“Yes. 'Just a 9mm with two magazines against a Witch' worse.”

“Heh. Well, just you sit tight, the fun's just started.”

A cargo drone ambled by, and Honoka had to resist the urge to hitch a ride on it.

By now, it was past evening in the Olympia. Its cool halls were almost quiet, with the majority of the manufactories chugging along at only half-power, rendering the usual dull roar into something more of a sedate rumble. Honoka could hear her and Lau's footsteps clanging against the steel floors, echoing, reverberating through the mobile headquarter's iron bowels.

As she trudged down the long corridors, she mulled on the last several hours of grueling VR training, and felt a pang of disappointment at the memory.

There was no other way to put it—Honoka simply couldn't beat the simulation. It was one thing to realize you had an entire new set of stratagems at your disposal; it was another thing entirely to actually employ them in the heat of battle, even one simulated in a silicon world.

The worst part was that her own instincts were her greatest enemy. Four years of habits and training, hammered into her brain through mission after mission after blood-drenched, sanity-tearing mission, didn't just go away on a whim. She kept hesitating at important junctures, unable to bring herself to go up a building or bust down a wall—the little voice in her head wouldn't stop screaming about how stupid an idea it was, how she wasn't an Eversor and shouldn't act like one, throttling her brain until she stuck to the tried-and-true basics that had kept her alive for four violent years.

One thought in particular made her grimace. Was that disappointment she'd heard in Lau's voice as the Strike Leader adjourned for the day? Honoka wasn't sure: on one hand, Lau did mention she had markedly improved by the time she got up from the VR chair...on the other hand, the Strike Leader hadn't been terribly ecstatic either. Her tone was dry, almost apathetic. Maybe she was being sarcastic But at the same time, Lau wasn't a terribly exictable person—maybe that was just her way of being nice.

That was the trouble with these Ironforms, thought Honoka. So many of them went around with a poker face. At times, it felt like she was in an entire room filled with...well.

With emotionless robots.

Lost in thought, the red-haired Vindicare barely noticed the figure standing in the hall before her.

"Hmm? Oh, didn't see you there, Skitarius,” said Lau. “Back to your duties, bint Dammam.”

A vaguely humanoid shape, swathed in a billowing red robe, the crimson standing out brightly amidst the endless grays of Olympia's iron corridors. It jolted at the sound of Lau's voice, and the quiet whimper coming from the figure told Honoka that it was a girl.

A metal hand erupted from the mass of cloth and parted it, revealing a face.


"Oh. Uh..."

The girl before her was small: petite, even. She had a shock of short, unruly grey hair, while her large, innocent doe-eyes were a warm honey brown, hiding behind a pair of circular eye glasses framing dusky skin. The rest of her was mostly obscured by the voluminous red clothing, with her curious metal limb grasping at the robe's hood.

Unlike the smooth plating of Light Ironforms, the girl's hand was like the inside of a machine; gears, springs, pistons, and a dozen other different mechanisms moved and played their delicate dance inside the limb. Its construction—and the entirely natural constitution of its owner's face—made Honoka suspect that it was an advanced prosthetic, rather than part of an Ironform. The girl seemed to have noticed Honoka's staring, as she hurriedly covered her arm back up and clutched it to her chest. Her doe-eyes were strained, trying to look at anything that wasn't Honoka and Lau, and she seemed eager to do as Lau said and leave.

Honoka offered a hand and, despite her fatigue, managed to put on a smile. "Hello! I don't think we've met? I'm Honoka Iwakura, from the Ninth. I'm new here."

The girl eyed the proffered hand warily, as though it were some sort of trap. At last, she replied with a murmur. “H-h-hello...”

Her voice was soft as a feather, made all the weaker by the burdens of nervousness and anxiety. The dull background thrum of the Olympia's beating heart, quiet as it was from its resting state, still threatened to swallow it. Her metal hand clutched at her robe-like clothes and drew them closer, as a child would a security blanket, leaving Honoka's own hanging awkwardly in the air.



'Well...' thought Honoka. The trembling girl's gaze was frenetic, flickering to Honoka, then to the floor, then to the ceiling, then to Lau, then back to Honoka again. 'Alright, then...'

To Honoka's relief, Lau chose that moment to step in. Her voice was cold and carried the hint of reprimand. “Ahem. As I said, Skitarius bint Dammam, back to your duties.”

Bint Dammam flinched as if struck. “I-I'm sorry, Strike Leader, I was just trying t-to say h—”

Now, Skitarius.”

“Yes!” squeaked the girl. “Right away, I'm s-s-so sorry...” Without another word, the petite girl made a quick bow and scurried off, stumbling every so often over the hem of her long robes.

Honoka threw a glance at Lau. The Strike Leader was as impassive as ever, but something...something in he posture added a hint of tension to the atmosphere. Lau's face-plate was unmoving—customized, as it was, by a pragmatic combat veteran, it wasted little space with the fine facial-expression servos girls like Barbara put on their Ironforms. But from where Honoka was standing, Lau seemed to be glaring.

At last, the red-robed girl finally turned a corner and disappeared from sight. Lau stood for another long moment, watching, until she finally started to move.

“Hmph. Sorry about that, novitiate,” she said. “Let's get going. We're sending you on an outing in a few days and we've got plenty more training to do, so I need you fully rested.” She beckoned as she strode forward. “Back to your quarters, now. Hurry up.”


The rest of their sojourn to Honoka's room was without incident. Honoka rathered that there was; anything would that broke the uncomfortable silence would have been preferable. Alas, nothing was forthcoming, so she broke the awkward quiet with a question.

“I have to ask...” she said, her voice hesitant, “who was that? And what's a 'Skitarius'? I don't think anyone ever explained what that was.”

There was a noticeable pause, a moment's hesitation in her stride, before Strike Leader Lau replied. When she spoke, her voice sounded as though it had to be drawn out, fettered by reluctance and, from what Honoka could puzzle out, a hint of shame.

“Amal bint Dammam, one of our newer members of the Skitarii. The Skitarii are where we put our...hmm.” Lau paused, considering her words before plunging on. “To put it bluntly, it's where we put our rejects and failures.”

She continued, heedless of Honoka's startled expression. “The...transition process of changing your flesh-and-blood body to an Ironform isn't always successful. It's stressful on the Soul Gem to have it go from controlling an organic body to an artificial one, you see,” she said, tapping her metallic head, “since Soul Gems weren't designed to be stuck inside a metal shell. This is why transferees start off by getting augmentations—replace bits of your body with prosthetics, get the Soul Gem used to controlling artificial body parts. But, even after acclimatizing their bodies with augmetics, not all subjects can get through the Ironform process. Simply put; it's traumatizing. It's just how it is, and we can't figure out a way to make it any more pleasant. Not everyone can withstand what their Soul Gems have to go through to take the final step.”

In the hallway, the bulky form of a Heavy Ironform thudded past. The girl nodded in greetings as it passed them, and Lau nodded back.

“Most make it through and fully join our ranks; out of the rest, some either die or start to Witch Out in the middle of the process—though we have failsafes for so the latter doesn't cause a shitstorm right inside the Olympia.” Here, her tone made a turn for the dark.

“Some, though, either quit midway or don't try at all, and to them we give the option to transfer out. Those who elect to stay—those are the ones we put in our Skitarii division.” She all but ground the last words out. “Most choose not to transfer.”

Honoka nodded slowly, digesting all the information. “I'm sorry if I'm prying, Strike Leader, but, you don't seem...very pleased with the Skitarius division.” As always, the Lau's face was a leaden mask, but here, Honoka could easily hear the contempt dripping from her voice.

“They don't pull their weight,” grumbled Lau. “If they'd held out just a little longer, or weren't such useless cowards, then we wouldn't be babying them like we are now. The Warsmith goes out of her way to make them feel relevant, but, urgh...” She growled and rubbed her head, the metal of her hand and cranium squeaking as they rubbed one another. “All that time and money on the Tactical Dreadnought systems, just so the Skitarii can finally get off their asses and be useful in heavy combat? What a waste. They should have all transferred out when we gave them the chance—our Officio would've been better for it. We don't have time for deadweights in the Fourth.”

The remorseless cold of Lau's rant made Honoka shiver. It was like being back in front of the Stradale sisters again, in front of the harsh scorn the Fourth was infamous for but Honoka had hoped wasn't true. She stole a glance at Lau, and from twitching and clenching fists decided that this matter was no longer worth pursuing.


They at last reached the small cell that was Honoka's quarters, and for this the red-haired Vindicare was grateful. The door hissed as it slid aside, and Honoka hurled herself onto her small cot; despite the stiff fabric, to her worn-out body the cot might as well have been a luxury four-poster bed.

“Home, sweet home,” chuckled Lau as Honoka let out a sigh of relief—both at the opportunity for rest, and at Lau's apparently lighter mood. “Sleep tight, novitiate. You've got more armor training tomorrow. After that, we're sending you off on a mission.”

“About that...” Honoka managed to roll herself onto the side, facing Lau. “I've only been here for, like, a day or two. Isn't it a bit early for me to be sent out on a mission?”

Lau let out a grunt. “You're not wrong, and the mission we're sending you on isn't exactly going to be a milk run. But, the Logic Engines are forecasting a Witch not too far away, and you're not exactly new to the Witch-hunting business, yourself, so we figured you'd be able to handle yourself if we bring you along.” The Strike Leader turned to leave. “In any case, rest up. You'll get a proper briefing later.”

Honoka managed a tired, half-hearted salute. “Yes, ma'am.”

The door hissed shut as the Strike Leader left.


Heady stuff, this Skitarii business.

This was what Honoka thought as she lay on her cot, letting the gentle tides of exhaustion carry her into the deep waters of sleep. This was what Honoka continued to think, as days later she found herself sitting in the passenger compartment of a Fourth Officio gunship, surrounded by all manner of equipment and three girls in Heavy Ironforms. One of them was the blue-and-black bulk of Strike Leader Lau.

Something about the Skitarius division rubbed her the wrong way. No one had told her what it was, despite her hours-long initial tour through every inch of the Olympia. Not Petra, not Barbara, not Fiona. It was as though they didn't exist, and in the oblivion of non-existence they would have remained had Honoka had not stumbled upon Amal by chance.

Come to think of it, mused Honoka as she checked her safety straps, she'd caught glimpses of red robes here and there on previous days. She hadn't thought much of them at the time, since she was too busy being awed by all the wonders the Fourth had to offer, but now she realized she'd seen at least a few red-robed girls here and there, in just about every part of the Olympia.

All of them had kept their heads down. All of them had huddled together with other red-clad girls, either staying out of everyone's way on their own volition, or put there by the rest of the Fourth. Suddenly, Honoka wondered if Amal's behavior was simply shyness, or something else entirely.

Was this the price of failure? thought Honoka. Was this what it meant if you just weren't strong enough to score a slick robot body at the end of a year?

She wasn't completely sure if she wanted to leave the Ninth just yet. But it was sobering to think about, whether the Fourth was the right place for her. Honoka had always assumed she'd be a natural fit into the Machines, but after all the failures in the simulation room, after knowing about the Skitarii, after knowing what fate awaited her if the Fourth found her wanting...

Things no longer seemed so certain.