Lyudmilla Kholodova turned her head from her master to the uniformed newcomer with confusion in her eyes. She felt a faint power from the woman’s hip pack that concerned her. It was not something she had ever felt before. Not the sensation of magic, but something close to it. And it was ambient; though the pack was clearly turned off, making no noise and doing nothing that could be seen by those responsive to auras, it was still giving off something. It was like a smell with no scent for the nose.
All that one felt from it was tingling and burning with no distinct texture to it.
Von Drachen’s previous statement, asking Minerva about Moloch, had been worded like a challenge. The agent’s face and body language made it clear that she relished the power and authority she carried. Her mouth curled slowly into a self satisfied smile. She seemed on the verge of licking her lips, as if she had taken a delectable bite.
“I feel I am still in the dark as to the nature of your presence.” Minerva said. Lyudmilla noticed that she carefully avoided answering the question at hand. She herself kept quiet while Minerva and the agent talked. She felt an intense pressure in the room.
In response to Minerva throwing the question back on her, Von Drachen crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, still smiling. “I know you’re a migrant, so maybe you don’t really know this all that well. But ten years ago we Noctean people allied with your country as part of the Roterosz Agreement to enact a suppression campaign against the primordial Etherian called ‘Mother Hydra.’ Of course, Noct quite handily defeated this monster for all your sakes’. Part of this agreement afterward was that Otraria would investigate and suppress Summoning magic and the summoning of Etherians, or allow Panopticon to do so. Now, a Summoning occurred; so Panopticon is here.”
“Forgive me, and no disrespect is intended to you, but Otraria is not my country.” Minerva said. “I live and work here, but you presume too much saying any more.”
She said this in a controlled, almost glib tone of voice. But Von Drachen was unfazed.
“Regardless, Ms. Orizaga, as someone who Iives and works here, in a University meant to turn out dabblers in the chaos of magic, you are as responsible for the quelling of forbidden powers as any one of your similarly-endowed peers.” Von Drachen said.
“Indeed, and quell the forbidden power I did. You likely already have access to all of my statements, so there’s no need for me to be subjected to your circular questioning.”
Lyudmilla was flabbergasted by the way they talked to each other. Both were perfectly calm, their voices and sentences completely controlled. They were like snakes coiling around each other, but neither had launched a bite. She had never felt such passive aggression coming from two souls. She was much more used to open insults.
Minerva’s face was neutral, inexpressive. Von Drachen continued to smile.
Their eyes locked together. Von Drachen split her crossed arms to put one on her hip and raised her remaining fingers to her lips, delicately laughing at no one in particular.
“Forgive me, I perhaps came off the wrong way. In fact, I am an admirer of sorts, you could say. I don’t want to know the bare facts of the situation. But rather, I’d love for you to demonstrate the power that allows a teaching assistant from an oppressed ethnicity, alienated from halls of magical knowledge for generations, to defeat an Etherian single-handedly. Anyone who kills Etherians is a friend to the Republic.”
“For as much as you hate magic, Ms. Drachen, you don’t understand it very well.”
Minerva’s face was perfectly composed, but Von Drachen’s lips curled slightly down.
“Please do refer to me as ‘Von Drachen,’ you misunderstand how our honorifics work.”
“Apologies.” Minerva said. “At any rate, frau Von Drachen, the study of magic is at an all time low point. Most magicians haven’t the learning, motivation, skill or willpower to perfect even the simplest magical practices. As a teacher of magic, I’m already far above the average magician by the very fact that I have mastered anything at all.”
“Could your fellow teachers have defeated Moloch then?” Von Drachen asked.
“Some could have.” Minerva replied. She might not have been lying, Lyudmilla thought. Certainly, Beatrix Kolsa gave off an aura of strength and confidence that rivaled even what Lyudmilla had seen of Minerva. But she was one of the few good ones in the young student’s estimation. Minerva was right. Most magicians today, were hopeless.
Of course, Lyudmilla herself was quite good at it, she thought.
It was just the darned exams and essays that were a problem.
As Minerva spoke, Von Drachen’s little orb flew about, its central eye expanding and contracting like the lens of a very high-tech camera. They were being filmed, maybe even cross-referenced in some kind of way. Could it perhaps see their auras? Was it transmitting information to Panopticon? Maybe that’s why Minerva was tight-lipped.
Lyudmilla’s eye was then drawn past Von Drachen and to the doorway behind her.
There were students coming and going to class, and all of the ones crossing past their door threshold seemed anxious and casting glances at the wall just off to the side of the doorway. Lyudmilla thought then that someone else must have been out there. None of them were looking through the doorway, so it was not just Von Drachen.
In the next instant, Lyudmilla’s master must have thought the same.
“Tell your partner to come in and stop scaring the students.” Minerva said.
Von Drachen played cute for a second. She grinned and clapped her hands together.
“I’ll introduce you then. Catalina, you may join me.” Von Drachen said.
A second figure entered the room in response to these words. She wore the same tri-color style uniform, but she was taller and had a pronounced figure compared to the slimmer Von Drachen. Her long dark hair and perfectly blunt bangs gave her a manicured, princess-like appearance, and she had a placid smile. Unlike the pearl-pale Von Drachen, this agent’s skin was a honey-colored tan, with eyes fiercely orange.
Her expression, however, was similar. She was smiling, and seemed quite amused.
“I did not intend to scare the students, Ms. Orizaga. You will hopefully forgive me. I’ve a presence that some have referred to as ‘unsettling.’ I’m Catalina Pedros-Robles.”
Lyudmilla could immediately tell what she meant. That foreboding feeling that she got from Von Drachen, she got three times as pronounced from Pedros-Robles. Whatever their auras were made of, Pedros-Robles had a thicker, far more violent version of that aura. Lyudmilla understood that people from Noct were unable to do magic, so she wondered what it was that she was feeling from the two of them, if that was the case.
Pedros-Robles extended a hand to politely shake Minerva’s.
Minerva abstained. She cast a callous glance over at Von Drachen.
For her part, Von Drachen grunted, but retained her smiling demeanor.
“Well, Ms. Orizaga, this conversation feels like it has become unproductive. So let me just be blunt. Whenever I call upon you, I will expect you to drop everything and come to the aid of my investigation. That is the true objective of my visit. As one of the first persons of this esteemed Academy to come into contact with an Etherian in years, you are a crucial piece of this puzzle. I will have you, whenever I desire. Understood?”
She extended her own hand in place of Pedros-Robles’ hand.
Lyudmilla was scandalized at the rather dubious wording of Von Drachen’s demand.
She turned to Minerva to see what she would do.
Her master was still unshaken by any of the agent’s provocations.
Once again, Minerva left the Noctish officers hanging. She refused to take the hand.
“I am more than willing to follow all appropriate law and policy to resolve this matter.”
That was all Minerva said. Von Drachen withdrew her hand.
“Hmph. Let us to see to that then. Catalina had a curiosity earlier, which I share.”
Von Drachen nodded her head at Pedros-Robles, who metaphorically took the stage.
“Ms. Orizaga,” Pedros-Robles began, “is it not true that the summoning site of the Etherian is now tainted? Is it not true, that all persons that came into contact with it are tainted by its touch? That the object that summoned it, which remains in this Academy, is tainted by its influence still? What’s stopping this catastrophe from simply unraveling the same way again? Should we not, say, quarantine all involved?”
As Pedros-Robles spoke, the violent grin on her face grew ever wider.
Minerva chuckled, in a quite obviously mocking fashion.
“Lyudmilla, how much do you know about associations?”
She turned to her student, who had so far never spoken once. Her eyes had fully disengaged from Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles as if ignoring the both of them. A smiling, inquisitive, cheerful face had taken the place of Minerva’s vacant expression of the previous conversations. Lyudmilla was taken aback, having been put on the spot so suddenly. She glanced at the officers and found them suddenly less amused.
“Uh, can you refresh my memory?” Lyudmilla asked.
At that point, Minerva turned back to their guests, both of whom grew slightly sullen.
“What about you, officer Von Drachen? Do you know?”
Von Drachen pursed her lips slightly.
“I’ve an inkling of it.” She said. “But go on, elaborate for your student.”
Minerva nodded. “I shall elaborate for all. I think you two have the most to learn today.”
She stood from her desk, and slowly picked up an object from it. It was a horn, as if pulled from the skull of a cow, or more like a ram. It was curved and brown-black.
Minerva was careful to pick it up without it seeming like a sudden movement.
Lyudmilla, who had dealt with police in the past, knew the kind of way Minerva was moving at that moment. And yet, she saw none of the twitchiness that an ordinary pig would have if someone like Minerva reached for a mysterious object while under scrutiny. Both Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles remained perfectly still, and Minerva’s movements were unacknowledged by them. It was as if they were fully confident they could not come to harm in her presence, no matter what she tried to do to them.
Von Drachen’s orb dilated its central eye, but made no sudden movements of its own.
“Trying not to get too far into theoretical metaphysics, but all magic is built on association.” Minerva said. “This horn, for example, I simply pulled from the old bones of a dead animal from the Agrimancy building. It is associated mildly with the Earth.”
Minerva held it up. “Concentrate on it. Can you see it?”
Von Drachen scoffed. “I can’t see a thing.”
Pedros-Robles concentrated. “I see something, dimly.”
Lyudmilla squinted her eyes at the horn.
When she concentrated on it she felt like a filter had gone over her eyes.
There were dim tongues of light that moved like fire, or perhaps like a gas bleeding off of the horn. Lyudmilla could not explain it precisely, but it was aura. There was an aura around the object, and if she concentrated, she could see it as the color of soil and sand, and she could feel its texture. Gritty, rough; particulate like dust through fingers.
“You can say magic is the power of imagination. When we look at something in just the right way, when we feel something is correct, or that it makes sense, it can become magic to us. That’s the power of associations. It’s a basic word we use in magical studies to describe the relationships that worldly concepts have to each other in a magical context. Because we believe in them so strongly as to be subsconscious, and because they make so much sense to us there, they make it easier to do magic.”
Minerva withdrew a wand from her jacket.
“May I demonstrate, agents?” Minerva said.
Von Drachen shrugged. “I abhor the use of magic, but you people do what you must.”
Minerva smiled, and swiped the wand over the surface of the horn and intoned a spell.
“From death, make life anew: Prithvi’s blossoming!”
After her incantation, a tiny sliver of green vine began slowly to grow out of the cracks in the bone. A thin trickle of dust and earth seeped out of the crack as the vine curled.
“Calcium, bone, meal for plants.” Minerva said. “Plants are life associated with the Earth. Plants are associated with soil. They are associated with death, with bones, with carcasses. They are associated with life because they can grow fertilized off ‘death.'”
She put the horn down on the table. Lyudmilla hardly understood the gesture.
A tiny, limp little vine growing out of that wasted old horn. What was so special there?
And yet, Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles seemed curious about it.
“Creating life with magic is extremely hard.” Minerva said. “But if you think about it in just the right ways, and if you temper your expectations, it is not outright impossible.”
“Fascinating.” Von Drachen said, sarcastically. “What is your point, professor?”
Minerva nodded. “Such impatient students these days.”
She picked up the horn again and gave it a wan look. The vine that had grown from it was already parched and started to curl up and turn yellowed. It was in a sorry state.
There was a look in Minerva’s eyes almost like she felt responsible for it.
Lyudmilla could see that concern.
She’d seen that paternalistic expression directed her eye from others before.
And yet Minerva was just looking at a tiny insignificant vine she conjured up.
She continued the lecture, turning the horn over in her hands.
“Because the ambient magic of the world stirs for human thought, human thought controls reality. But we have a very incomplete understanding of our minds, so magic and spellcasting are very abstract. And yet, the way we learn, is by associating concepts together. We associate glyphs with specific sounds and words. Words associate with concepts to form our understanding of reality. In a way, every spell is just a really powerful Association between numerous concepts: it’s a shortcut, let’s call it, that tricks your brain into believing without a doubt that magic can happen. We call this field of study a fancier name, Metamagic, but it’s actually very philosophical.”
Minerva put down the horn and pointed her wand at it.
“But associations work both ways. They can be positive and negative,” she began to transition then to an incantation. “Otar’s Torch, lend me a day in the light of Sol.”
From her wand a beam of gentle warmth suffused the vine growing around the horn.
For a brief instant, the vine jerked; Lyudmilla thought that Minerva desired the vine to grow again by giving it light for photosynthesizing. However, the plant’s health took no better turn. Beyond that initial spasm, it would not grow nor become any more green. In fact, it seemed to be curling back in, withering around the bone that had borne it.
“This light is associated with Fire. Earth is resisting it, and the plant wont recover.”
Minerva lifted her wand, and put down both the horn and the instrument.
“Of course, I contrived that whole scenario. If my objective had been to try to grow a tiny vine that can be nourished by the sun, I could have done that with a different sort of effort. But I wanted to demonstrate to officer Pedros-Robles that ideas like ‘evil magic corrupting the land’ are more complicated than she thinks they are.” She said.
“I’m unconvinced, unfortunately.” Pedros-Robles replied. She shrugged.
“How about a more common example?” Minerva said. She seemed to smile even brighter at the challenge. “Say you’re trying to use magic to start a campfire. It obviously helps if you have flammable material; but not just because of the physical properties of, say, a pile of dry wood. Because even if you had wet wood, and even if you had a brick, you could use magic to set it on fire. But Burning has a strong affinity to Wood; there is strong positive association to the idea that you can burn wood, no matter the state the wood is in. So if you have wood, it’s just easier to cast fire magic on it than it is to cast it on a brick or on a rock. You could burn a puddle of water, if you tried hard enough, but there’s a strong negative association to the concept of burning water, so it would be a lot harder, maybe even impossibly harder, for a normal magician to burn water than to burn wood. Does that make sense, Lyudmilla? Officers?”
Lyudmilla felt like she was losing the plot at this point. “Duh? Obviously?”
Von Drachen shrugged. “I feel as if I’m being treated like a child.”
“Then let us end the childishness.” Minerva said.
In the next instant, Von Drachen’s orb stood dead still in the air as Minerva spoke.
“Calling upon Tyrants is a form of magic you call ‘Summoning.'”
Out of nowhere and quite bluntly, she said the exact words to get everyone in the room to draw their eyes open, where before they had been halfway shut by then.
“Summoning,” Minerva continued, without skipping a beat or letting anyone recover from her previous statement, reciting the facts as if she had been reading from a very forbidden book, “is essentially, an altered form of Conjuration that breaks the rules of Conjuring. Instead of creating a copy, you bring in an approximation of the real Tyrant, a vessel, that can spread its demesne and gradually become fully realized. It has life, agency, a personality; in fact it can have many of the original’s characteristics, even if you don’t know those powers or are aware of that personality yourself. This is because Tyrants are made of magic, and any magic that makes them will make the original in some form. In essence, any copy will become the original eventually. However, by its very nature summoning is chaotic. You can only barely control the form that the being will be summoned in, and which of its characteristics and personalities will be called.”
As far as Lyudmilla knew, Summoning was forbidden. While it was possible, perhaps, to know about Summoning, to know Summoning was illegal, evil, anarchic, a threat to civilization. Minerva must have known as much as she did in her capacity as a teacher to teach the vile-ness and degeneracy of Summoning. But Lyudmilla had seen Minerva do incredible magic before. Perhaps, could Minerva know how to Summon also?
If she did though, why would she be telling officers from Noct, the anti-magic nation?
At that moment, the orb was dutifully recording her.
Who knew who else was watching?
“Like any spell, it helps if you build powerful associations to help you Summon a Tyrant.” Minerva continued, again pausing for no one. “So having an object that is associated with it, or being in a location associated with it, or performing rituals that are strongly associated with it; all those things could possibly help a magician carry out a Summoning. Maybe not the fully formed or complete version of the Tyrant, but the Tyrant can piece itself together once it’s been summoned, since its Demesne will eventually spread and start gobbling up all the magic around it no matter where it shows up or in what form it appears. A Tyrant’s original will always be recreated.”
Von Drachen cracked a little grin. “Minerva Orizaga, are you trying to make me suspicious of you to deflect from your students? Is that your game now?”
“No.” Minerva bluntly and simply replied. “Only someone who knew nothing about magic would think that I am capable of Summoning by merely knowing those facts. What I just told you, is told to Otrarian schoolkids when they enter their first magic schools, to dissuade them from walking a path we view as evil and degenerate.”
Von Drachen’s face turned mildly surly once again. She closed her hands into fists.
Lyudmilla had not had formal magical education, so she had not received that same spiel. Her mind was also fuzzy on this concept of ‘Associations’ that Minerva was so fond of; but she knew Summoning was no good. She also knew maybe Otrarians spoke too soon when they considered themselves to have eliminated Summoning, as recent events had proven. Regardless, Minerva had just called Von Drachen a child.
The agent was visibly not taking it as well as she had past instances of disrespect.
Pedros-Robles interjected. “Wherever your knowledge came from, and whatever you’re capable of, Minerva Orizaga, you’ve made it clear to us that we are correct. You agree that the clearing in the forest is now associated with the Etherian, Moloch.”
Minerva shook her head. “It has a weak association to Tyrant summoning in general, and a strong association to the summoning of Moloch specifically: but I wouldn’t worry about that though. It is not any more helpful than trying to summon an Ayvartan water deity by standing in the Baryat river. Summoning is extremely chaotic and complex.”
“If it’s as you say, though, a strong association with Moloch would help, no?”
Von Drachen tried to interject again, but was immediately made to feel put in her place when Minerva retorted. Her tone was perfectly akin to a schoolteacher’s scolding.
“Zero points, officer. Moloch has associations too, and they are both positive and negative! That’s what I have been trying to get all of you to understand. Yes, Moloch is associated with fire strongly, and that clearing is associated with him. But because Moloch is contained now, it would be difficult to summon him again. He is now strongly associated to being defeated, contained, dispersed, quenched. The orb he was sealed in is also drained, and similarly broken, so it won’t be of much use for a ritual either.”
“That’s nonsense.” Von Drachen said. “So if I were to lay a beating on you, Minerva Oriziaga, would you be associated with defeat? Would you be unable to do magic?”
Minerva smiled softly.
Despite her previous intensity, she not only held the strength and command that a schoolteacher possessed when scolding, but also had the softness and harmlessness of one when she was treating the children with motherly care. Perhaps this too was part of the lesson. Lyudmilla wondered if all of this could be an Association as well.
“I’m not an anarchic being made purely out of magic, so if you could defeat me, officer, the magical effects would be rather more minor than the violence you would cause to my physical body. And of course, the violence you cause to me, and the ignominy of it, might stick to you too. In life, karma cuts us every which way.” Minerva responded.
Von Drachen turned around, with a flourish of her arm and started out the door.
She showed them her back, and they could not see what her expression became.
“I’m satisfied. We’ll talk again, Minerva Orizaga. Come, Catalina.”
Her voice was terse, and her tone low, but she did not sound too upset.
Pedros-Robles gave a gentle bow of the head before departing with her superior.
Lyudmilla watched them go with a sense of glowing admiration for her master.
Minerva had stood so tall against such intimidating foes! She had dismantled them with logic, facts and reason! Despite the circumstances, she never lost her cool!
“Master, that was incredible!”
Her heart swelled with pride, and quickly deflated with it.
As soon as the officers were out the door and around the corner, Minerva instantly collapsed back into her office chair, her eyes closed and a hanging-jaw expression on her face. A look of such lamentation and wretchedness took over her powerful Master then; Lyudmilla almost felt whipped in the face by the suddenness of the change.
On her desk, dropping so suddenly on her chair made the bone shake, and the vine crumbled, sliding from the cracks in the horn. Lyudmilla spotted a little nub of matter in the biggest crack in the horn: like a seed, or a bean, or something like that, already in it.
In the next instant, Minerva put a hand over her face and started to moan openly.
“Ah, damn it, I really hope they won’t go to the forest. I really hope they won’t go get the orb. I really don’t want to do that paperwork. I really don’t want to tag along for any of that. I hope that hocus-pocus dissuaded them from bothering at all. I really do! It’d all be so annoying, you know? I’m already so busy, and this would take so much time–“
She descended into practically mumbling.
Lyudmilla put her arms to her hips and scowled. It was her turn to act the schoolmarm, her gushing replaced with a rising anger at her suddenly disgraceful arcane master.
“Get yourself together, I can’t believe all of this! So you’re telling me you just lied to avoid having to tag along with their investigation? Because you’re fucking lazy?”
Minerva lifted her hands off her own face to peek at Lyudmilla.
Her expression was blank.
“I’m not lazy. I’m working smart, not hard. And at any rate. Some of it was facts, but there’s a lot open to interpretation, you know? Metamagic is above my pay-grade–“
“Fuck you.” Lyudmilla said, in as blunt a voice as she could manage.
Minerva blinked at her.
“With all due respect, Master, you’re full of shit! I’m going back to the dorms!”
As unfazed by Lyudmilla’s anger as by Von Drachen’s scrutiny, Minerva shrugged.
“This is why everyone’s becoming an engineer now, I guess.”
By the time Minerva was through with her sentence, Lyudmilla was already stomping out the door with her hands balled up at her sides and her teeth grit. Her Master was mostly unconcerned, however. After all, they were strongly associated now too.