This chapter contains some slightly sexually suggestive content.
The National was drowning, and it drowned those who lived and labored within its halls.
A Magician alone with her thoughts could sense the despairingly cold, despairingly thick aura of Water magic that permeated the surroundings. Water was colorless, faceless, it was dark, it was concealing. Water was secrets, water was an agenda that moved with an unfathomable purpose, rolling waves and building storms that swept, swallowed and destroyed. Water was natural, was it not? Water existed and moved unchallenged.
There was no aura more fitting for the National. Otrarian Magicians lead their lives around this institution, and it was natural that they rolled, natural that they swept and natural that they destroyed. Magic itself was the moon that turned their tides. Discovery.
Humanity was fire and metal. Towns and cities full of life and full of passion, pleasure and despair, an air thick with dreams and labors and discoveries. Metal was what humanity made and surrounded itself with and coveted; Fire was what dwelled within their hearts and minds. Minerva could with some effort render her own aura visible and she would see it, burning red with the faintest streaks of grey-black. Fire and Metal.
Where Humanity ceded space to the wild, one would feel the element of Earth, the fading ruler of the primordial Aer, at peace in its remaining domains. In the mountains and up in the sky, the element of Air dominated, wild and free, a vagrant magic unrestrained by the logic of the world. In the places humans could easily touch, Water was a secret and sequestered magic, existing in small pockets cut into the land. Its domain was the ocean, the last frontier of land-bound humanity, and it guarded it violently, jealously.
That the National reeked of Water so thoroughly and awfully was very deliberate.
Nobody ever felt ‘ok’ at the National. Living there, working there, was a great effort in itself, a draining labor that never seemed to ease. That was the existence of humans in a web of water that drained their air and squelched their fire. That was the sacrifice. This discomfort was the price of power. Those who couldn’t stand it weren’t worthy of it.
It was an ancient law that carried itself out well beyond anyone who supported it.
Minerva shut her eyes, her head dipping against the window of the bus. She could feel it.
That was the esoteric world of the National, the metaphysical atmosphere of it.
Physically, the Otrarian National Academy For The Esoteric Arts was a vast, sprawling entity, a city onto itself. Deep in the center was the Old Campus, where Anthropology and its quietly irrelevant ilk had their old, red-brick buildings that were square and stoic, with grim facades and faded stone streets. There was a splash of living color offered by Turrington plaza and its park, on all sides flanked by vast rainbow beds of flowers.
North of the Old Campus the vast Main Street of the National dominated the new campus, with its dynamic architecture, glass facades and modern flair. Rather than a square plan, the new campus seemed to sprawl off the main street in long veins, buildings sprouting everywhere they could. Classroom facilities, housing complexes, businesses of all kinds of sizes, hospitals, service plazas, fitness centers, laboratories, everything one could think of could be found somewhere in the city’s sinews.
There were buildings like modern art pieces, with domes and planispheres and pyramids coexisting with utilitarian structures. Square buses shared the road with sleek prototype cars that ran on agartheum and other esoteric matter. Holographic and alternate reality billboards appeared along the road beside overbearing state propaganda and a variety of pinned-up flyers and signs advertising political meetings on both ends of the spectrum. On the street Minerva saw high fashion, casual dress, the business-like uniforms of the students, and the austere garb of wizened old magicians all in the same places.
Minerva watched the crowds around the Main Street, trying not to doze off in the bus. She, too, was a citizen of this odd city. She wondered how many were students, how many did magic; there were tons of people here to support the students and teachers and each other and not to do magic. Not every nurse or policeman or food worker did magic.
Maybe they cast a spell or two, but they didn’t do magic. You didn’t really need it.
Outside the National and a few other little oasis, Magic was starting to fall by the wayside. Humanity was a species defined by Metal: technology now rendered the service of physical transportation, digital communication and even the transformation and improvement of the human body. War was waged with effective, rational weapons. Human ingenuity and technology built the cities, the skyscrapers. All without the fickle whims of the esoteric and the years of commitment and unique psychology and physiology required to truly master it. Similar magical abilities to the car, the plane, the telephone, the scalpel and bandage, and even the firearm, were growing rarer and rarer.
Magic had to innovate as technology had in order to reassert itself. And it simply hadn’t.
Like the precious Water that shielded their elite, the magical societies and their arts were consigned to small, exclusive places, dotting the landscape but no longer owning it.
There was one place where Magicians were still very strongly represented, however.
It wasn’t like it was before the Upheaval, over a decade ago. Nothing was like that.
But Magicians still largely governed Otraria, just as they did during that scarring time.
Minerva’s bus took her out of this organ of conspiracy and into the green hills skirting the edge of the Whispering Woods. Here there was green country, thick with trees, and the great Lake Bratten, a blue slice taken out of the earth that seemed to shimmer distantly behind every pine. It was a popular destination for Academy-goers looking to get away from the tension. Here the Water aura quietly receded. Even at the lake, the magic was overwhelmingly of Earth — this suited Minerva fine, and so, she made it home.
Among the final stops for this particular bus was a three-story wooden building on a small wooded hill with a breath-taking view of the lake. This was Wurmbacht Rent House, a housing complex about 45 minutes from Anthropology and Turrington plaza. Tacking on nearly an hour commute both ways wasn’t a problem for Minerva when the rent was manageable, with perks. She could go to the lake whenever she wanted, she had a private and comfortable third-floor apartment, and she could breathe easily here.
They even had Wi-Fi, and the connection was basically fine. Not much more to ask!
At the top of a small set of stone steps, Minerva withdrew her resident’s card and slid it through the card reader on the front door to open it. She slipped quickly inside and closed the door behind her. She was always a little on edge opening card reader doors.
From the door there was a short hallway that branched, leading to the kitchen, to the staircase up to the second floor, and to the back of the first floor where the landlord and his daughter lived. There were some vending machines installed along the hall and a carpet. Just off off the door was a glass panel with a slot, a window into a little office that mostly went unused. When Minerva walked past it this time, however, she found a young girl sitting on the chair, playing with a computer tablet on the front desk.
“Do I need to check in, Laksha?” Minerva asked sweetly.
Laksha looked up from her tablet and smiled. She was swinging her legs under the desk.
“Hi Minnie!” She said. “I’m at the desk today!”
“You are! Here’s my card.”
“No! You don’t need to! I know you live here!”
“Ah, well, thank you!”
Minerva turned around and walked over to the vending machine. She slid a bill into the cash slot and input the number for a candy bar. She brought the bar back to the desk, and with a sweet smile she offered it to Laksha through the slot in the glass panel.
Laksha looked up again from her tablet and beamed brighter than the sun.
“Thank you!” She said, unwrapping the candy bar. “You’re the best, Minnie!”
“I know I am.” Minerva said. “How was school today?”
“It was fun! I learned to do this!”
With her free hand, Laksha withdrew a little silver-lined safety wand from the pocket of her jeans and raised it to the glass. On her wrist, a small provisional homunculus began to whirr and make a little noise. She whirled her wand about, and then dropped it, and it started to float around by itself. Wordlessly, Laksha moved the wand around her head like a toy plane, and at one point slipped it through the neck of her turtleneck sweater. It came out again from one of her sleeves, all the while she casually munched on her bar.
“Isn’t it great? Teacher said it was an example of ‘Applied Energetics’.”
“It’s impressive!” Minerva replied, clapping her hands.
Minerva was a grouch most of the day because she had to save up all her kindness to spend on Laksha. She was a terrifically sweet child, and as a fellow Alwi Minerva felt a sense of protectiveness toward her. She reminded Minerva of herself, and it was more than just skin color and hair color that bound them, but a sense of hope. Laksha was being raised in a world where she was breaking a boundary without knowing it.
“Oh, your girlfriend got a lot of packages today Minnie.” Laksha pointed out.
“My girlfriend did what.” Minerva replied. Her heart rate must have tripled then.
“She got a few deliveries. I was home most of today and saw it. She looked really happy!”
“Well, I, need to go to talk to her!” Minerva said hurriedly. “Keep practicing!”
“Someday I’ll be as good at it as you, Minnie!” Laksha said, waving her wand goodbye.
“You’ll be better.” Minerva said.
She then turned around and took off up the stairs to her floor.
Her apartment was on the third floor, facing the lake, so she had to go up the stairs and round two corners before finding her door. Her skin brimmed and her lungs struggled with the urgency of the situation. She imagined something awful must have happened! She withdrew her key so fast she nearly threw it at the roof, and she practically burst through her own door, into a small, square apartment with a big window, a single room that was bedroom, kitchen and living space all in one, and a small adjoining bathroom.
“Vorra, you had better not–!”
In the middle of the room on a futon set atop a small carpet, Minerva found her partner reclined atop a stack of magazines and biting down on what seemed to be raw steak. There were a few other meats lying around her little hoard: a few links of sausage, a pack of bacon, some more steak, what seemed to be a loaf of white pork fat, and more.
Her partner swallowed up the rest of the steak with disturbing haste and smiled.
“Ah, goodness! You return, milord!”
“Don’t call me that! What are you doing?”
“I am preparing my body to become one worthy of a ‘Wyrmqueen’.”
Minerva realized her room was exposed and quickly closed the door behind her.
It would’ve been quite a sight for anyone out in the hall. Not just the mess but the woman carelessly in the middle of it. Vorra was a looker, with a lithe, long-limbed body, ruddy brown skin, and bright green eyes. Her neck length hair was tidy, and her swept bangs gave her a more elegant appearance than she cultivated otherwise. She was dressed exclusively in one of Minerva’s shirts, barely-buttoned, barely covering her. Minerva was horrified to think that she had met a delivery man this afternoon dressed in this way.
Though she certainly looked like a comely human, Vorra had a few things off about her.
Most distressingly, a pair of horns curled back around her head from just over her ears.
She had a tail to match, thick, half as long as her legs, and covered in golden scales.
“Where did you get all this? I told you we don’t have the money for red meat every day!”
Vorra sat up on her hoard of magazines, all of which she acquired as free samples. Dragons needed to maintain a collection of some sort for proper psychological health. Minerva wished it could’ve been something like stamps or postcards, and not a pile of papers. Still, Minerva expressed her willingness to stand on equal terms with her partner by approaching the pile of magazines and sitting down on it along with a joyful Vorra.
“Milord, I am both aware and understanding of your currency situation, which is why I researched alternative avenues for acquiring meat, after you also forbid me to hunt.”
“I feel like you’re accusing me here! You were eating dogs.” Minerva said disdainfully.
“All lesser beasts are possessed of the same flesh and blood.”
“No they aren’t; some are possessed of pet flesh and pet blood.”
Vorra waved her hand dismissively. “Regardless I paid not one coin for this meat.”
“Okay, then how did you get it?” Minerva asked.
‘Paying not one coin’ seemed to rule out both using Minerva’s money and also stealing money from other people to pay for it, both things Vorra was quite capable of doing given her general disdain for law as applied to herself. It was only Minerva’s words and commands that she heeded or respected, but she found loopholes where she wanted.
“Milord,” she began again, despite Minerva’s distaste for it, “I became aware, through perusing the World Wide Web, of various Web Sites that specialized in delivering boxes of assorted food and goods to the houses of their customers. I felt that these services were my most convenient avenue to acquire the meat I needed, but I lacked the currency to make use of them. So defeated, I decided to recline and listen to some ‘Pod Casts’.”
Minerva used to be puzzled by Vorra’s vernacular but was by now used to it. This was the normal tone of their conversations. Clearly she was into buying junk online now. Minerva had gotten her a tablet so she could listen to music and play around on the internet and convinced her to stay in the apartment as much as possible. While Vorra could disguise her draconic features easily, she was very socially conspicuous.
“I’m with you so far. So how did you get all this stuff for free then?” Minerva said.
Before continuing her story, Vorra’s lips curled up into a grin that was full of pride.
“I thought I would soothe my disappointment with the buffoonery of the brothers three, but instead I was made aware of a powerful passphrase that I could deploy to my purpose. It came to light that a way to bend the will of the online meat automatons was available, and thus upon wielding the words ‘My Brother’ against them, they were forced to bequeath to me a box of their delicious meats absolutely free.” Vorra said.
She clapped her hands and broke into a delicate laugh, clearly feeling herself superior.
Minerva covered her own face with her hands. “You got a free sample from a podcast.”
“Not merely one free sample milord. For I circumvented the limit of one delivery of goods per person by requesting the aid of the human child, and thus received–”
“You took advantage of Laksha for your scheme!” Minerva shouted.
Vorra shrugged. “She does not consume meat and so I saw no harm in her giving me the box that is her unwanted birthright. It meant I would have twice as much meat.”
“Okay, whatever.” Minerva said. “It’s fine. I’m fine with it. I was just worried.”
“Milord’s concern for me makes my heart flutter like a growing flame.”
“Why are you so adamant on eating red meat anyway?”
Vorra’s face flushed a little red and she looked fondly at Minerva.
She reached out a hand and scratched across Minerva’s palm, kind of like a cat.
“I require substantial protein to transform my body, you know?”
Vorra spread her arms (and with them her shirt) as if to show Minerva her progress.
She had indeed changed a little bit since Minerva had come upon her. Vorra was a young dragon, and so her forms both human-like and not had a lot of elasticity. She had been just a little bulkier, just a little harder; she was now softer, lighter. Her hips and chest had begun to change as well. Her hair was a little longer than before too. Her voice was still as rich as ever, however. And surely her lizard-like dragon form would have changed since Minerva last saw, too.
“Do Dragons really do this sort of thing for– umm, their mates, I guess?”
Vorra could easily tell Minerva’s discomfort; they had talked like this before.
“Nothing I’m doing is irreversible if I don’t like the end result. I am very pleased with everything and as I stated in our covenant, your role in it is not coercive whatsoever. This is simply how partnerships between Dragons work. One of us must manage this responsibility.”
Minerva was not entirely well versed on dragon customs, and she had been hesitant to research it for fear of finding some terrible thing about Vorra and her kind and the ‘covenant’ they made. Talking about the fact that Vorra was trying to become Minerva’s “Queen” was a little awkward and a little unsettling, but also sweet in a strange way.
“Beside which, I’m not doing it just for you! I merely had no reason to change prior.”
“Does it hurt?” Minerva asked sheepishly. “Changing your body like that, I mean.”
There was something about the concept of a dragon having to eat a lot of meat to reconfigure her fat and bones and organs little by little that felt just a bit, extreme.
Vorra smiled and rubbed her head against Minerva’s. “Did it hurt for you?”
Minerva sighed. She felt talked down to. “I mean– some stuff hurts.”
“Well, if you can call them that, my tits can definitely hurt.”
“Then you’ve experienced this before, you shouldn’t worry.” Vorra said, laughing gently.
“I’m experiencing it right now.” Minerva mumbled, patting down her chest.
For Minerva, perhaps this discussion shouldn’t have been so strange and uncomfortable. She certainly had experience in changing her body, but her changes felt much more controlled and gradual and natural (despite the medical source for them). In a way, she feared that she had tricked or forced Vorra into mutating herself out of shape through the use of magic. It was perhaps a grievous misunderstanding, borne of the magical origin separating them. Vorra kept saying she wanted it; so maybe it was all fine.
Minerva thought, perhaps she should endeavor to trust Vorra more about this.
“I’m humbled to receive your concern, milord. But it is misplaced.” Vorra said. “I am a being of great and ancient power and I was born to become a majestic wyrmqueen.”
In a way, just as she helped Vorra become something, Vorra had helped Minerva to accept in a healthy way a very dark and dangerous thing that she was becoming too.
Minerva smiled, and dropped back onto the pile of magazines, looking up at her ‘mate’.
“I suppose when a Dragon gets to be that age, the urgency to make nest starts to–”
Vorra blew a little smoke from her human nostrils in response to Minerva’s teasing.
“I’ll have you know, Milord, I’m within several decades of my prime, thank you.”
Minerva supposed there were worse things for the school to find out about her than that she was the possessor of the Tyrant Wyrm and that she was shacking up with a Dragon.
They could discover that she was a communist spy instead.
“Now then, with the misunderstandings sorted, how about a steak, milord?”
Vorra lifted a floppy piece of meat from the edge of the magazine pile, took a deep breath, and blew a puff of fire and smoke at it that seemed to instantly char it black.
“I’ll pass.” Minerva replied. “By the way, I need you to deliver something.”
“I shall endeavor to treat milord’s mission as my own.” Vorra replied.
Minerva grimaced for a moment, thinking of potential fallout.
“Don’t eat any dogs along the way.” She said.
Vorra smiled and pushed the charred steak into her human mouth, to swallow whole.