The Iron Circle Ch. VII

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Chapter VII: Siege

Site Secundus-Two-Nine was one of several construction projects the mundane world had contracted the Fourth Officio to complete. It was a fortified summer palace for a local warlord, a castle and pleasure house both, from which the petty tyrant could enjoy his wealth and assert his power.

In its design it exemplified Fourth Officio mastery over both art and war. The outer walls were thick slabs of ferrocrete, bristling with guns and crowned with barbed wire, while the inner courtyard featured 18th century French architecture, mirroring the commissioner's own opulent tastes. The palace at once held enough firepower to lay waste to any rival militia and more wealth than what the warlord's subjects would ever hope to see in their entire lives.

And here, in the land where luxury met death, stood another watcher. Like its brother observing the Olympia amidst the desert sands, this one too watched the girls of the Fourth readying for war.


“What a pain in the ass,” grumbled Andrazia. “They didn't even have the decency to With Out somewhere else.”

Honoka looked up from polishing her rifle, searching the Ironform's faceplate for a hint of irony. “Sorry?”

Andrazia continued. “And it had to be an Alpha-class, too. You know how annoying it is to take one of those down?”

“I do, actually,” said Honoka. “I've only fought one before, and almost half of us died, but Rank Leader Rea A—”

“Fucking renegades.” Honoka opened her mouth, closed it, and opted to just go back to her polishing. “We spend months building this gaudy piece of crap for this local bigwig, then the renegades pop up out of nowhere, try and trash up the place, and now they leave a proverbial shitstain behind for US to clean up.” A sigh. “I was almost done with my painting, too, but nooo. Tell me, novitiate,” she asked Honoka, “Are all meatbags like this?” Honoka decided not to point out that Andrazia herself was a “meatbag” only a few years ago

The Fourth Officio girls were making last-minute preparations, girding themselves before entering the wound in reality that would take them into the Witch's Barrier. There were eight of them: Lau and the two members of her Strike Team, Andrazia and Kora; three girls of the Litholoyos Order who had initially constructed the fortress; one of the Xiphos Order who had been part of the construction site's security; and Honoka herself. The rest of the site's security detail had been rotated back to the Olympia in favor of Lau's fresher and more experienced team.

Honoka threw a glance at the Witch portal, the second time in as many minutes. Like dozens she'd encountered before, it was a swirl of colors and shapes, reflecting light in such a way that it seemed more like an impressionist's view of thoughts and emotions as carved into the real world. The sky seemed to fade into something altogether different—-and horrifying-—in that area of space, no true, distinct border dividing nature and Barrier though the two could not be mistaken for one another.

In contrast were the defenses the Fourth had erected, surrounding where manifest despair bled into reality. The three Litholoyos architects, who had spent the last few months building and perfecting the warlord's “humble” abode, had set up a ring of battlements around the portal—a prison of metal and artificial stone the Fourth girls called “the Cage”. Automated guns pointed inward, ensuring that no familiar or abomination would make it out of the portal alive, while one of Lau's Strike Team kept personal watch in case of any major incursions. Every so often, the bark of gunfire would join the chorus of heavy machinery whirring to life and Ironforms stomping about.

Where the Barrier was indistinct, the Cage stood in sharp contrast to it surroundings. Where the Barrier was a murky pool of emotions and memories, the Cage stood as a brutal symbol of iron might.

Two of the Litholoyos were overseeing the loading of the gunship that Honoka rode in on, while the third was undergoing final maintenance on her hulking Dreadnought Ironform. Lau, Andrazia, and the rest of the Strike Team were busy performing last-minute weapons-checks or calibrating combat drones.

This all seemed less a Witch-hunt, thought Honoka, and much more a siege.

With the Ninth, she mused, Witch-hunts were faster affairs; depending on the mission commander's tastes, slaying Witches with the Ninth had the exhilarating rush of storming a building or, with more aggressive girls, the thrill of a hunt—the primal satiation of bloodlust by tracking dangerous prey and tearing to pieces.

Here, though, everything was slow-paced. Methodical. Measured. Every action planned out and carefully considered. It was as though the Fourth refused to take a single step anywhere without a thorough scan from their recon drones and a heavily armed combat drone on point.

Lau's synthetic voice interrupted her thoughts. “Andrazia, novitiate, get over here. We're about to start final briefings.”

Honoka stopped polishing her weapon and took a moment to gaze at its craftsmanship. It was a heavy marksman's rifle, almost as long as she was tall, blocky in make and mounting a large scope for long-distance shooting. It should have been burdensome in her hands, but her new armor's enhancements let her bear it easily.

She couldn't help but admire it—the skill that went into its craft, the considerations that went into its design, its bold, heavy aesthetics, the surety of the long-ranged death it would doubtlessly bring. Yet, it also felt alien in her grip. Not merely the discomfort of unfamiliarity but a quiet sense that the rifle just wasn't right for her and it never would be. Honoka had asked to bring along her old weapon, but they'd denied her that right—it was too weak, they said, not enough firepower. Too sub-optimal for the Fourth's purposes.

Stinging from the memory, Honoka set her new weapon down and started to trot off to the briefing—

There it is again.

She paused as the nape of her neck prickled. She couldn't tell what, or who, or even why, but this was the second time she'd had this odd feeling since she'd gotten here—an instinctive, almost primal feeling, a sense that things were somehow wrong. An attempt to scan the area with her armor's advanced sensor suite revealed nothing unusual, and pestering the nearby Ironforms to perform their own scans also turned up nothing.

Honoka stared into the wilderness, before heading off to the last briefing.


There. The smaller target. There was heat radiating off its head, at approximately the same temperature as the average human body. That indicated a non-Ironform human.

The watcher searched through its records until it found a profile that matched the target's image—a process made easier by the fact that the target chose that moment to look directly at it. It made no effort to retreat from this, however. At this distance, and with its stealth systems engaged, the target could not possibly detect the watcher.

Somewhere else in the world, swathed in the dank gloom of her hideout, its master watched through the eyes of its slave.


The plan was simple and direct.

“One last review before we execute,” said Strike Leader Lau, standing in front of a holographic projection laying out a rough sketch of the Witch Barrier. The chaotic, ever-shifting nature of such a nightmare-realm, plus the fact that no recon drone could ever hope to survive for long in such a hostile environment, meant that the map was a crude one at best—it was more a visual aid in enforcing mission parameters than a true tactical layout of the battlefield.

“Strike Team Tyche—that's me, Andrazia, and Kora—along with Novitiate Honoka, Mason Chiyo, and Ursarax Diona, will be entering the Barrier Portal of Anomaly W-Alpha-4-6-3F-N, designated 'Griselda'. We'll be taking nine Myrmidon combat drones with us: Beta-Tertius-2 through 11. Redoubt-pattern entry, then Mason Chiyo will take point for Purgation-pattern search-and-destroy. Understood?”

“Compliance, Strike Leader.”

“Aye, Strike Lead.”

“Understood,” barked Honoka.

“One more thing,” continued Lau, turning her faceplate to Honoka. “Novitiate, once we enter the Barrier, you will be guarding the portal entrance along with Beta-Tertius-2 through 5.”

It took the red-haired Vindicare a few seconds to process Lau's order. “I-what? I'm babysitting the combat drones?” she sputtered. “Strike Leader, why—”

“Because this is an Alpha-class Witch and you're not equipped with an Ironform,” said Lau. “You won't be able to handle it. Now—”

“But I've already had experience with Alpha-class Witches,” protested Honoka, “I'm a four-year vet! Did you not read my files?”

Lau's voice was colored by irritation. “I don't care. You didn't rate high enough on the combat simulations—that means you won't be able to keep up with the rest of us, and I'm not about to compromise this operation by babysitting you.”

“Then why did you even bring me here?”

“Because the Warsmith asked me to show you how we conduct operations.” Honoka flinched at the ice in Lau's tone. “And it was either have you actually put your veteran experience to use, or have you sit outside the barrier twiddling your thumbs.” She stomped over to Honoka, towering over the red-haired Vindicare, and leaned downwards as she spoke. “Now, I've already marked you down for insubordination. So if you don't want me to send you back to the Olympia on the gunship, you will shut up, follow my orders, and keep the portal safe.” Servos whined and whirred as the gaping cannon's maw on Lau's shoulder leveled itself at Honoka's face.

“And if you fail any of the things I've just listed, I will personally send you back to your worthless Officio in pieces.”

Honoka looked at the shoulder-cannon, then at Lau's faceplate. It was a stony mask, betraying none of the cold anger its owner exuded through body language and the menacing cannon threatening to blow her to pieces. Honoka swallowed a retort and ground out a reply.

“...understood, Strike Leader.”

Lau strode off, barking further instructions to prepare for Barrier entry. The rest of the Fourth girls followed suit, but not before each gave Honoka an unsubtle, lasting glance.

Honoka found their faceplates emotionless and impassive, just like all the others. Here, though, she still felt the judging sentiment sitting beneath those iron masks. Scorn, mixed with curiosity and wonder.

She ignored them as she shouldered her rifle and marched after Lau's retreating figure.


At last, it was time for war.

They stood arrayed before the entrance to the Cage. Strike Team Tyche, along with three adjunct Magical Girls, two Litholoyos Masons, a phalanx of combat drones, and supplies to erect another Cage inside the Barrier, sat arranged in formation.

“Commence final preparations,” ordered Lau. “Weapons check:”

“All guns green, Strike Leader.”

“Weapons ready, aye.”

“Plasma conductors stable!”

“Munitions check:”

“Munitions full, Strike Lead.”

“Fuel tanks loaded!”

Honoka quickly pulled out the magazine of her rifle one last time, checked that it was full, and slammed it back into her weapon. “Munitions ready.”

“Switch to Noospheric communications.” Lau's voice was one of total calm, total control.



The sensors in Honoka's helmet reacted to her neural impulses, letting her send and receive messages almost at the speed of thought. <Done, Strike Lead.>

<Equipment check:>

<Andrazia here, Ironform nominal.>

<Sensors at full power, thrusters ready.>

<Powered armor diagnostics green.>

<Final prepartions complete. Ready combat log.>

Honoka activated her suit's combat logs with a blink-command, loading a bevy of audio and visual recording software, the fruits of which the Fourth would later review and study. <All combat logs ready.>

<On my command, deploy bomber drones, initiate combat logs, and advance.>

Sucking in a deep breath and letting it out, Honoka tightened her grip on her massive rifle. What was only seconds before Lau's command felt like minutes, hours, eons, each beat of her racing heart feeling infinitesimally small in the eternity between now and Lau's order. Despite having having fought for her Incubator for four years, despite having killed so many Witches she'd lost count, it was the same feeling as always—heart pounding, blood singing in her ears, brain working furiously to keep herself focused—



The first to enter were bomber drones. These were simple payloads of high explosives on a set of treads, maneuvered by remote control and sent as the vanguard against unintelligent enemies such as Witch familiars. Their duty was roll forward and detonate, purging the portal's entrance within the Barrier and allowing the Strike Team a safe toehold within the nightmare-realm, and in this they performed admirably.

The shrapnel-storm had barely stopped ricocheting off the Cage when Lau gave the order. <Advance, weapons ready.>

<Advancing, aye.>

As one, they moved forward. The massive form of Chiyo led the way, the giant claws on her arms sparking with some sort of energy, the pilot-lights on her wrist-mounted flamethrowers burning bright. After taking twenty, thirty steps beyond the walls of the Cage, reality gave way into something altogether different.

It was as if someone reached into Honoka's mind and abruptly changed the channel. One moment, the crisp colors and textures of the real world; the next, the blurred falsehood of the Witch Barrier.

Honoka had left her helmet on 'open', meaning outside air moved freely through her helmet's mouth grille. That meant the stinking reek of formaldehyde almost overwhelmed her.

<Something wrong, novitiate?>

She coughed once and swallowed to clear the bile from her throat. <Nothing, I'm fine. Just kinda smelly in here, that's all.>

<Don't drag behind.>

Biting back a retort, Honoka turned her attention to the world she had stepped into.

It was the laboratory of a mad collector of specimens. Rows upon rows upon rows, shelves upon shelves teeming with glass jars, jars filled with indistinct, jagged shapes floating in cloudy fluid. On each container were labels—once white, now caked in grimy filth, with the distinct Witch runes scrawled on them. Nor were the walls bare, for they were covered by numberless specimen boxes, smudged glass covering cork backings where impaled creatures lay in repose. Where there were no beasts held captive, either in jars or on the wall, there were scientific instruments of all kinds strewn about. Above, swinging fluorescent ceiling lights strobed on and off in a maddening rhythm. The entire world was seemed faded and grainy, like a photograph from a time when such a thing was a novelty.

As a final touch on this realm of insanity, everything was scaled up in size, such that the Witch hunters were as small as insects compared to the rest of the laboratory—either that, or the world had shrunk them down.

The crackling *tink* of fracturing glass drew Honoka's attention.

<Lau, some of those jars are breaking open.> As if on command, something long and spindly broke out from one of the specimen containers, like a creature bursting forth from an egg. Scores more followed suit, until a literal swarm of vermin spewed out of their prisons and converged upon the hunters.

Honoka raised her rifle to fire, peering through the scope for precision. The scope's magnification revealed the incoming Witch familiars for what they were. <They're...they're insects?>

Beetles, ants, centipedes, mantises, spiders—every bug, every many-legged vermin within imagination and without, surged towards the hunters, ranging from the size of large dogs to fully-grown elephants. Most were chimeric mish-mashes of multiple species, some even entirely collections of limbs and mandibles, nothing more.

There was no time to simply sit and behold the abominations. Lau's message came in over the Noosphere. <Masons, deploy bulwarks. Strike Team, prepare to give covering fire, Wrack Pattern.>

The combatants fanned out, creating a wall of metal even as the Masons behind them began hurriedly erecting another Cage. Ironforms braced for fire, and a smell of ozone filled the air as exotic energy weapons charged to maximum output. Using Chiyo as cover, Honoka knelt and set her rifle to her shoulder.

She sighted down the scope, letting her new helmet's targeting systems feed her ballistic data. Her finger rested gently on the trigger.

Her breathing slowed.

She heard nothing but the beating of her heart and the blood in her veins.

Her finger tightened.

<Fire at will.>