The Waters that Cleanse
   Nuclear weapons are a great paradox, they are the singlest-most powerful type of device known to man, yet they are rarely used. For to use one, would invite one's own destruction. Instead, they are pointed at your enemies for the sake of power and idle threats, and should your enemy decide for some reason to use them, rest assured that you can send him into the firery depths of oblivion as well. They are a weapon ill-suited for invasion in or defense of one, in fact there is little good about them, but there is much evil. Dread the day, therefore, when a person who can no longer distinguish between good and evil has such weapons at their command.

   The heavy wooden doors, inlaid with gold and other precious metals were swung wide by the two guards as Grand Stratagem Kur'or and his young aid entered the daunting room which contained the sacred throne, and upon it, Lord Ensombray ruler of the Kingdom of Hedantheia. As the doors swung into the chamber they caught the mid-morning light from the sun climbing between the two peaks, and cast heavy shadows across the polished stone floor. The weather outside was beautiful, and serene, save for the faint smell of smoke upon the air and the unseen flashes beyond the rocky summits.
   The ageing Stratagem strode confidently though slowly across the long gallery, past the pillars adorned with stories of great military and civilian heroes, many dating back centuries into the ages before the industrial enlightenment when Hedantheia ruled the seas with its wooden ships and its many colonies. Many of the military heroes were placed in poses of both power and prominence, in the midst of some glorious war whose reasons were re-written by the victor. Like all past heroes, their role was no doubt inflated, the Stratagem thought, for all war was hell and a waste of both people and resources. So much could be gained through war, yet did the price of that technological gain outweigh the cultural losses? Often the victory of wars in the ancient times would murder the scribes of the defeated, and burned their libraries and silence their philosophers, as if to erase their very consciousness from the world.
   War was wasteful, how ironic then that this ailing man would choose the military as his career and rise to such a rank as the Grand Stratagem. No matter his thoughts on war, he knew that it was inevitable. He hoped to defend the consciousness of his people, from those who would hope to replace it with their own.
   The Lord Ensombray sat hunched over in his throne, dishevelled hair covering his lined face as he concentrated on the right arm of his throne. Frail uncertain hands with dug with their long nails into the ornate wooden through. Many of the pale digits now bloodied by those splinters they had torn free. The other hand lay across one knee, with a finger or two twitching nervously. From the twenty feet that separated them, the Stratagem could just barely hear the low repeated murmurs above his own footfalls. The Lord was a stark contrast to the two stone-faced guards that stood at either side in their traditional purple and gold dress. In one hand they held a gold-plated halberd, with the other hand at one side, free to draw the curved swords affixed to their belts.
   Neither of the three reacted to the Stratagem's approach, or the steady footfalls of his military boots upon the polished stone, nor to the light treading of the Stratagem's young aid who like a whimpering dog followed closely and tentatively behind him. Kur'or approached until he was some ten feet from the throne, yet if the three had noticed his approach they certainly did not reveal it to him. The two guards he knew, were trained for such impassive statue-like poses. Though their eyes remained fixed straight ahead, he knew that they had become more ready to move with his approach. Whispers of a coup d'etat had fluttered in the cold halls of the palace, and they were certainly not oblivious to them.
   "My Lord," yet the man upon the throne continued to scratch upon the arm with increasingly red fingers.
   "My Lord, you do disservice to your predecessors to deface that throne as you are," the Stratagem offered, and with that Lord Ensombray's snapped up towards him, the bulging eyes dancing across his form though never quite catching him completely. The Stratagem's young aid, as if terrified to be caught within those dancing eyes slip to the side and behind his master, his bundle of files and papers resting unsteadily within his arms.
   "You dare," he spat, "you dare to, to, question me?"
   "I come with news of the invasion my Lord, as you had requested."
   The rage that had been swelling within the glassy eyes seemed to subside into confusion, as they began dancing again, not outwardly but into his own jumbled mind, "the invasion? Invasion?"
   "The Empire my Lord."
   "The Empire? Ah yes, the Empire, curse their souls," the dishevelled and worn man sprung to his feet with near unnatural speed, and began to pace near the throne with hunched back and a noticeable limp. "Let them burn in the fires of impurity, let their, their children become orphans who fester with disease upon the streets, and, and what news of the invasion, Grand Stratagem Kur'or?"
   The Stratagem stood at attention, facing the empty throne as the Lord passed back and forth before him, "The defence, my Lord, has not gone well. The Empire's armour brigades have swept through the Eastern provinces. We are effectively land-locked and encircled by our enemy, and have no access to the ocean. Our air forces control the skies over the capital and the surround, but the enemies ocean-going carriers are just beyond our shores and do not permit travel of any distance. Any trans-atmospheric flights are likewise intercepted by the enemy above our skies."
   "Above our skies? Above our skies?" he stalked a few paces off, and pointed to one of the ornate pillars nearby, "do you believe that such ships, as these, can travel above our skies? What insanity, what nonsense do you speak?" he spat.
   "The enemies ships are more advanced than those my Lord, they are metal ships capable of travel between worlds."
   "Really, Grand Stratagem?" he boomed, with condescending voice, "and where, pray tell, are our other-worldly ships?"
   "Destroyed, my Lord."
   "Destroyed? And what of our 'ocean-going' ships, where are they? Why do they not fight for our, glorious cause against this plague of an Empire."
   "They are all destroyed, my Lord."
   "Destroyed? DESTROYED? Oh yes, you are right, they are," he said with a sudden burst of recollection, "so we are, as you say encircled and trapped, now what? What great plan have you to save this realm of mine from such total destruction against these, these, soulless vermin?"
   "There is little which will save us now my Lord, save external assistance. Our forces are entrenched, and we hold the high ground but without the food from the low-lying provinces it is likely we will be forced to surrender in some six months."
   "What manner of plan is that? Defeat in six months. That is no plan, we need a plan, something that will ensure victory. Yes, victory, that would be the best course of action."
   "Victory seems unlikely given the enemy's numbers my Lord."
   He suddenly turned to the Stratagem, with eyes full of rage, "it is because of your, cynicism that we are losing! Because of your, blasted incompetence!" For a moment, it looked as though the Lord would strike him, but abruptly he turned away and began pacing once again. He began gnawing on his thumb, biting so hard as to draw blood between his incoherent mumblings.
   "We could use the fleet to bombard their positions, no, no, that won't do, the fleet is defeated. Destroyed, he said, no something else, we need something else to seize final victory over this Republic,"
   "Empire, my Lord."
   "Empire, yes, Empire, we need something to seize victory from the throes of defeat. Tell me, my Stratagem, what forces have we left?"
   "Forces, my Lord? Well, we have several regiments of infantry, the civilian militia, remnants of the armour corp, about eighteen percent of our air force-"
   "No, no, NO. You talk of nothings, of ragged soldiers with guns and knives and a few, armoured contraptions with cannons upon them. What real, weapons do we have remaining? What do we have that could, could, hurt the enemy or even destroy them in one fell swoop."
   "We retain the majority of our nuclear armament, nearly three hundred missiles. Potentially as many as four hundred and fifty, if the facilities in our outer provinces remain un-taken. But any attack-"
   "What if, Grand Stratagem, we were to launch our missiles, our full quantity at the enemy's home. What then, would not that be a great victory?"
   "My Lord, the enemy has such missiles as we do, they would only return in kind and destroy us."
   "And what of the encroaching army, let us fire these missiles upon them, and with one sweep cleanse them from the provinces! Yes, a marvellous idea."
   "Such a strike would devastate your kingdom by Lord, and poison all of us with the deadly after-effects of the attack."
   "You fool," he spat, still pacing. The blood from his thumb now running down the inside of his arm and into the depths of his sleeve, "what is death where victory is concerned."
   "There is no victory in death, my Lord."
   "Yes, of course you're right, my wise Stratagem. That's why you're in command of my great armies, my, once-great armies which your incompetence has reduced to ash. No, your strategies are of no use to me, I must formulate a plan myself."
   "My Lord-"
   The pacing monarch raised his hand in silence, "no, no I have patience for defeat, for anything less than victory. While we hold the high ground, there is hope, yes, the high ground, the high ground?" The Lord bent over his throne and supported himself with one arm. He slammed his fist into the throne's arm once, before bringing it to his temple, the soiled hand smearing blood across his face, "A plan, yes a plan, is forming in my mind, forming in my brilliant, divine mind, yes the high ground. We will hold the high ground, and they the low. And four hundred, four hundred soldiers, no, not soldiers, missiles, four hundred nuclear missiles at my command. Yes, the soulless vermin, they should burn, burn in the nuclear fires at my command. But no, we will be burned as well. This, perfect capital will be burned, and all my citizens and my army, I have no army, but my citizens, yes they will run screaming, on fire, and burning. No, no we can't have that, who will worship me? Who will hear my clear, steady voice in this turmoil that is war. No, not fire, fire won't do, we can't wash them in fire. Wait, I've got it, the salvation of my kingdom, yes, my kingdom."
   "My Lord, our best course of action is to accept defeat and surrender. With luck, we may maintain some autonomy and in time, we can rebuild."
   "Rebuild? No, no, we don't have time for that, I have a much better, idea. We will use our fleet to bombard, no wait, that wasn't it, what was it. Ah, yes, the missiles."
   "My Lord-"
   "You, Grand Stratagem will use our nuclear missiles to destroy the enemy," he ordered, suddenly approaching him.
   "I have already stated, my Lord, that such actions would only lead to our destruction."
   "Yes, yes you did, but the problem is, you're not smart enough. We hold the high ground Stratagem, the high ground."
   "That is true my Lord."
   Then with a face, which for a moment, defied all mannerisms of the underlying madness focused its two eyes into the Stratagem and dictated orders with a clearness he'd not heard for the longest time.
   "You, Grand Stratagem with target and launch our missiles, all, of our missiles not upon the enemy ranks, no, because such would poison us. And not upon the enemy's home, no, as that would only incur retribution. No, you will target and blank the polar region with all of our missiles and destroy it in one fell swoop. And the resulting waters will wash over our enemy and destroy them, like the divine flood of creation that washed over the unholy world of ages past."
   Few things had surprised the Stratagem, since his Lord's descent into madness he had become accustomed to many outbursts of anger and machinations of a demented, fragmented mind but for the first time, in a long time, Kur'or was dumbstruck. He took a step back and for the first time during the meeting, addressed his Lord directly.
   "My Lord, such a plan is folly, the global implications alone-"
   "But it will smite our enemies, will it not? It will accomplish what you have for so long, failed to accomplish. I the ruler and now the saviour of our kingdom will cleanse this land of its foes, and I-"
   The Grand Stratagem stood speechless as his Lord continued to pace, babbling on to no end, moving back and forth until he stopped, and turned with his robe whirling behind him, "you, Stratagem. Why are you still here? Why have you not left, to effect my plan and launch our armament?"
   "My Lord, I will do no such thing. Such a plan is folly, I will not be responsible for the death of this world,"
    "What? What good are our missiles if we don't use? Our kingdom did not spend fortunes on such weapons for the simple sake of satisfying the needs of the underdeveloped! You will fire those missiles within the hour, Grand Stratagem Kur'or!"
   "I will not, my Lord."
   "Damn you!" he screamed, whirling away as he stalked away a simple gesture signalled one of the throne guards into action. Kur'or had only a moment of realisation before the golden blade caught the sunlight amongst the blur of purple and gold. Before the discarded halberd reach the ground with a clatter, the head of the Grand Stratagem was already severed from its neck. The body, without collapsed at the legs and nearly toppled towards the now-terrified aid before finally falling forward spraying blood all over the gold and white robes of the Lord Ensombray. The body hit the ground with a thud, as the Kur'or's young aid began to pensively withdraw, the papers slipping from his hands near the ever-growing pool of crimson. The palace guard withdrew, quickly wiping the soiled blade upon the sleeve of his uniform before sheathing it again and taking his place beside the throne.
   "You, young man!" the bloodied Lord said to the young aid, "come here." He commanded pointing to the floor.
   The aid for a moment, looked as though he would turn and run out of the throne room as his face had become pale and his whole body was trembling, though not for reasons of madness. Slowly and he tentatively moved past the lifeless body of his commanding officer, eyes not daring to look at his Lord nor at his former master that he nearly tripped across its form.
   "Young officer of the kingdom, come, speak, what is your name?"
   The officer began to bumble out his name, but was finding the first syllable insurmountable, "no, nevermind," Ensombray interrupted, "your name is irrelevant, it doesn't matter, no, doesn't matter. Your title, it does matter. You are to be promoted, yes, promoted to Grand Stratagem of the Kingdom!"
   "M-m-m-m, me? Bu-bu-bu-bu-"
   "Yes, Grand Stratagem, congratulations and all that, all that uh, nonsense, yes nonsense. Anyway, Grand Stratagem, you were listening to my grand plan were you not?"
   The young officer, half-transfixed in both horror and surprise took a moment to realise that his Lord was addressing him, he stole a glance at his bloodied face before lowering his eyes and nodding anxiously.
   "Good, good Grand Stratagem. Now go, enact my plan, launch the missiles!"
   "Me?" he asked flabbergasted, and turning paler by the moment, "but, I-"
   "You do, you have the authority. I have given it to you, they will be notified, they will follow your commands, now leave my sight and do as I command."
   The young Grand Stratagem stood for a moment, somewhat unbelieving as the bloodied Lord focused on his face and began to sink into rage, until finally the one-time officer turned and began walking away briskly until nearly breaking out into a full run. The Lord turned away, waved a hand towards the still bleeding corpse and slouched down into his throne contemplating the future.
   "Commander, we've got contacts from recon sat 47."
   "Contacts? What kind of contacts . . ."
   "Multiple launches, sir, hundreds in fact from the southern continent of Hedantheia Kingdom. They're all on approach to the southern polar region."
   "Hedantheia? What in the hell are they doing? Can you determine their exact target?"
   "Negative, but a sub-polar launch could only have one purpose, Commander."
   The slightly-greying Commander nodded, "the mainland."
   "But why, what the hell-"
   "That's irrelevant officer, put all forces on Alert Status Nova," instantly the operations room turned to dark, as emergency red battle lights came on. As the signal was given out, it would quickly disseminate down the command chain. All forces would be on full alert, prepared for a state of war. Guns would be assembled and loaded, fighters would be prepped and launched into the sky on defensive patrols, armour divisions would take up positions along all major borders and in the port cities, prepared for invasion. The head of state, and the command council would be whisked away along with countless military generals to secret hardened bunkers and underground command posts fortified against orbital bombardment, or nuclear attack. And the non-conventional forces would go on the highest alert, the inter-continental missiles prepped in pre-launch sequences to wrought untold destruction on a target of their choosing.
   "Orders, commander?"
   He paused, considering the course of his actions but he knew his orders and the emphasis on retaliation no matter how futile and pointless it may seem. He would carry out his orders and duty until his dying breath for the good of the state. "Target sub-continent and respond in kind, fire when ready."
   The young operations officer, quickly becoming drenched in sweat looked up towards his Commander, "how many sir? How many missiles are we going to launch?"
   "Enough to turn that continent into glass."

   The mid-morning sun was nearing mid-day when the great doors of the throne room burst open into the now dim gallery. The young Stratagem ran doggedly down the gallery's great length, a paltry comparison to the great heroes adorning its many pillars. The Lord still sat upon his thrown, rubbing his blood-dried temple with trembling fingertips. His sight transfixed upon the floor, dwelling on a multitude of shifting thoughts and emotions.
   The Stratagem nearly fell as he neared, as he again recalled the events of hour's past. His predecessor, the late Kur'or's body was dragged feet first to one side and merely discarded to the side. The detached head, was some twenty feet from the throne, seemingly kicked in a haphazard fashion. As he approached the throne, the Lord broke from his thoughts and look up, a face of confusion fading into happiness and he clapped his hands together and smiled.
   "Ah, my young Stratagem. What news? Have you effected my plan?"
   "Yes, my Lord. I-," as he struggled to catch his breath, "I, well, we launched all the missiles but-"
   "Good, splendid. What wonderful news."
   "No, but Sir, my Lord, the uh-"
   "What, speak up Stratagem. You are supposed to be a voice of authority, of reason, how has my plan transpired."
   "Well, my Lord, we launched the missiles at the southern pole as you said and they hit and everything, but now there seems to be, well, missiles heading towards us."
   "What? Who would dare such a cowardly act! Damn the Empire, damn them and their villanous ideology. What mean command their armies? Are they madmen! Is this what this world has been reduced to? Having kingdoms washed away by some insane general in the accursed Empire?"
   "No, my Lord, it wasn't the Empire, it was the- the uh, well the missiles are coming across the pole. We didn't even see them until not long ago, on account of the explosions. They'll be here in minutes!"
   "What, why would they shoot missiles at us? What have you done, you fool?" he rose from the throne, eyes narrowing into rage.
   "I'm sorry my Lord, I don't understand, I don't know why they'd shoot at us. I just don't know what's going on."
   "Well, what the hell are you doing here?" the Lord asked, again beginning to pace, now more anxious than ever his fists clenched and relaxed as he moved, and his eyes would dart towards the Stratagem every heartbeat though his head never moved, "go, go and shoot them down!"
   "Sho-sh-shoot them down? I-, I don't think we can?"
   "Well why not?"
   "I- I don't know, my Lord."
   The Lord Ensombray stopped and look at the Stratagem, as if trying to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or was merely an idiot, he decided upon neither and began again to pace, "Well, then shoot back. Launch missiles at them, let them feel the pain of nuclear fire!"
   "We shot all our missiles."
   "All of them? Don't we have any left?"
   "No, you told me to shoot them all."
   "You fool, I knew you were unfit for this position from the beginning!" Ensombray now began to yell, teeth bared as he seethed with rage, "I told him, I told Kur'or that you were unfit, that you were too young. But no, the damnable old fool insisted! He actually insisted that you be his predecessor! I debated and debated with him, I tried to reason with the old man, but he insisted! Damn it, he insisted upon you. What dementia was in his mind to suggest such a thing I wonder, where is he anyway? Kur'or? Where is the old man, where has he got to. I wanted to have a word with him, yes a word, I don't think you'll do at all for Grand Stratagem. No, too young. I must have a word with Kur'or about demoting you to your former rank."
   The eyes of the young Stratagem began to widen, and slowly he was beginning to withdraw as the Lord paced, but now and again the Lord would dart his eyes towards him and freeze him to his place. Ensombray would pause, as if contemplating his actions, whether he had in fact moved and what the meaning of that was, and then he would continue to pace and continue to speak about the folly of the young officer's appointment.
   "Stratagem Kur'or had a good plan, a decent plan, sue for peace he said. You should have followed it, but instead, you've gotten us all killed. Nuclear missiles! What drove you to such madness? What sort of man are you to wreak such ruin upon my kingdom!" he was screaming now. And again he turned away, as if to pace but then moved for the guard and pulled the golden blade from its sheath. The young Stratagem turned to run, but the madness of insanity can propel one to such speeds and strength, even in the ruined form of the Lord Ensombray. He caught the young Stratagem with a downward stroke of the blade, the young man fell screaming as the freshly bloodied Lord descended upon him, striking him again and again.
   When he finally stood, from the near unrecognisable form of the Grand Stratagem, his face was blank of expression and the dripping blade was still clasped in his hand. He turned towards the windows, as the mid-day light faded behind a screen of clouds.
   Then a flash, and the most brilliant of lights shone through the window. Had the Lord Ensombray been a religious man, the light may have seemed like the pivotal divine enlightenment which would cut through the darkness of madness and free the monarch from his own demented mind. The result would be a born-again monarch, with new purpose and mandate to rebuild his crumbling kingdom from the depths into which it had sunk. Such a man might even be so great as to adorn the pillars of the great palace, among the other great heroes throughout time who fought for and built the kingdom with their love and perseverance.
   But the Lord Ensombray was not a religious man, and the light was no divine revelation. It was the flash of an atmospheric burst, like many others that in quick succession had blanketed the sky. The Lord and his personal guards stood passionless as though stone, as they and the palace began to burn.