1.8: The Fire That Consumed Canaan

This chapter contains disturbing imagery, violence and death.


Supplicant: The Servants of a Tyrant. They are created from the demesne and serve the function of worshiping the Tyrant. Like blood cells carrying oxygen throughout the body, supplicants grant the Tyrant easy access to the magic of the demesne. Should a Tyrant lose its demesne, it can survive so long as it is worshiped, and its Supplicants can survive by continuing to worship, or by constructing a new demesne for the Tyrant to occupy. Their power and appearance and their number reflects the state of the demesne and the Tyrant.


Lyudmilla’s ‘autopilot’ mentality crumbled as she soon as she found herself faced with the dreadful creature of girders and gears and cables that Moloch had become. Despite the difficulties she found doing magic with the so-called limiter off her homunculus, she had managed to keep a semblance of cool. Compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety, she managed to outwit the monster and aid Minerva with a bit of luck and good timing.

It was a fight, a battle; she had fought those before. Fighting wasn’t easy, but she could.

But she’d fought people. She froze at the sight of a monstrosity dozens of meters high, towering over her. Its shadow could have been its own separate malignant beast.

Milla felt as if she had been thrust into a completely new reality, as if pushed through a mirror into another world, and the glass had cut her, and her face and chest had felt the impact of crashing through the barrier. She struggled to stand, craning her head up as high as it would go and still not seeing all of the monster that stood in front of her.

Something had gone terribly wrong in the world around them.

Things had stopped making sense. Everything had gone stark mad.

She heard Minerva say, in a low, breathless voice, “is this his legend?”

She didn’t understand it.

Milla had seen magical creatures before. One could not avoid them! There were commonplace things, like kobolds, gnomes; and there were all kinds of videos on the internet about bigger things. Army camera footage declassified after a decade by activists that showed men firing rockets and guns and wand blasts at Mother Hydra before the peace had been brokered; cryptid style videos of blurry beasts in dense jungles far away; quickly cut news footage of academy diplomats meeting with ancient things; and so on.

And yet here she stood face to face, in the dense, hot atmosphere of this demesne, in the presence of a real Tyrant. Those beasts whose history ran parallel to all of humanity, who when mindless threatened to destroy the world and when sentient threatened to rule it. Those primordial beasts who were magic in natural form. Moloch, Lord of the Wildfire!

She was nothing in its presence. She was reduced to quivering, aware suddenly of death.

Everything was insubstantial. Under her the floor felt hollow. Above the sky was gaseous.

“Lyudmilla?”

Minerva looked over her shoulder briefly, standing before Milla like a guardian.

Ahead of them, the looming fleshless cow head of Moloch unhinged its jaw by the turn of a gear, and smoke billowed out from a dark orifice between the bones. He raised with much effort one of metallic skeletal arms, and flexed the scissor-blade claws at the end.

Minerva whipped back around to face him and raised her wand.

Her homunculus lit up and rapidly processed the gestures for her spell, a globe of vibrating, unstable force that flew from the tip of her wand and struck Moloch right in the jaw. She waved her wand as if conducting instruments, and from the tip several more of these globes peeled off and hurtled toward the monster, crashing into its jaw and eyesockets and shoulders. As Minerva’s waving grew faster the barrage became more intense, like a machine gun of thick magic bullets. All the while Minerva mumbled the maintenance chant, continuing to channel the spell alongside her homunculus.

Not one of these missiles left a mark on Moloch save for thin trails of smoke.

As the projectiles crashed and sputtered on its metal surface, the monster’s arm lit up in red. Seemingly hundreds of vein-like, pulsating, glowing orange and red lines traced and crisscrossed the length of its gear-studded shoulder and down the cable-laden forearm. Steam and smoke billowed from the gaps in the elbow and from the joints of the claws.

“Target is concentrating heat in the left arm–”

Minerva’s homunculus aired its warning as Moloch’s claw descended upon them.

It shot toward the platform like a rocket and Milla was sure she would die.

Her limbs felt as heavy and immobile as stone.

She shut her eyes, and turned her head as if about to be slapped.

A wave of hot air blew past her and she heard an ungodly metal on metal screeching.

She felt the ground rumble.

Soon Milla realized her body was left untouched and she opened her eyes.

Moloch’s metal arm lay twisted and smashed palm-up against the metal floor.

In front of Milla, Minerva stood, her hands glowing brilliantly red.

She had grabbed hold of Moloch’s arm, her claws (claws?) digging glowing orange holes into the metal. She looked as if she had taken both his hands into her own in an arm wrestling contest, and smashed aside the defeated arm in the process. Moloch’s body, suspended in front of them, seemed unaffected, and its cow-skull head did not emote.

Red smoke blew from Minerva’s hands as she pulled her claws loose from the metal and then vaulted over the jagged wrist of the mechanical arm and onto the forearm.

Milla watched in awe as Minerva ran up the arm without the impediment.

Moloch started to raise its right arm but could not do so fast enough to stop her.

Soon as her feet hit the creature’s shoulder she leaped easily onto the cow-skull head, standing with a foot on one horn and another on its crown. Smoke billowed from the creature’s eyesockets, mouth and its open chest. Glowing red veins streaked across both its broken and functioning arms and the gears all over its body grinded violently.

Moloch was struggling to counterattack, but it was far too slow to respond.

Atop him, Minerva raised her hand skyward, holding her wand, cried out “Barik!

A massive black and red aura collected around her, thicker than any Milla had seen.

She was brimming with power. Her whole body lit up as bright as her claws had been.

Suddenly several points on Moloch’s body started to light up.

Milla realized it was everywhere Minerva had shot a missile before.

She must have done as Moloch had before and hidden something in her projectiles!

Sudes!” Minerva cried out.

At her word, from each of the glowing points a thin, small metal prong surfaced.

Her purpose became obvious when, from the seething, smoking sky overhead a dozen bolts of lightning descended on Moloch’s body. Minerva leaped out of the way as the lightning smashed Moloch’s crown open and spread across the metal, striking every glowing point along the surface. Gears blew out, cables burst; high-pressure jets of smoke escaped the joints of the metal body and split apart the metal linkages in the frame.

Moloch thrashed in front of Milla like a puppet jerked about on its strings.

High above them the metallic supports and cranes and manipulator arms holding the monstrosity aloft tore with a terrific noise. Unceremoniously the metal body broke free and fell, its jaw clapping, its arms flailing. Milla nearly took a tumble, the floor shaking under her as the creature smashed into the platform and slid off into the abyss.

While Moloch was in the midst of vanishing, Minerva dropped back onto the platform.

Her hands, wreathed in a furious red aura, looked as big as her torso for an instant.

Then without transition they were simply back the way they always had been.

Almost as if Milla had hallucinated the whole thing. She blinked rapidly in confusion.

Minerva looked at her, and gave her a thumbs up with a sweet little grin.

Milla stood silent for a minute, sweat trickling down her nose and over her dry lips.

“Is it gone?” She asked.

Minerva sighed. “God, I hope so–”

Temperature spike detected,”

Minerva raised her wrist up to stare in shock at the homunculus’ screen directly.

Milla however read the Alternate-Reality text overlaid in air by the homunculus.

It had started at forty degrees, simultaneously very hot but not convincingly hot at all for a place surrounded by fire and made largely of metal. Milla thought in a place like this her shoes would be melting and her hair would have caught fire. Then the number started to climb so quickly that it made no sense. Surely Milla would have been a desiccated corpse in those kinds of temperatures, but she only felt a little bit hot.

Hot enough to sweat, to have a little trouble breathing–

Sweat started to dribble down her forehead. Long rivulets of sweat, trailing down her face, down her neck, between her breasts. Sweat streaking down her thighs.

Each breath she took ripped down her neck like a cloud of pepper.

“It’s the furnace! The furnace was the Tyrant all along!” Minerva realized.

Milla stumbled toward her, and grabbed onto her arm, coughing.

Minerva’s face seemed to go pale. She was sweating also, though not as badly.

“Lyudmilla!”

Her hand turned red again.

She pressed it down on Milla’s forehead.

For a split second Milla remembered an unpleasant feeling.

A child, drowned in the baptismal water–

But this was fire, a great fire enveloping her and for the most minute possible instant, the smallest unit of experience that could still pass off as a lived and breathed feeling, Milla felt pain. An unimaginable pain like burning to a crisp from head to toe.

It was there and then gone and yet,felt so thoroughly that it shocked her.

She gasped, and screamed, and ripped herself from Minerva’s touch.

Sweat dripped off her body like the thin rivulets of water following a fresh shower.

But she could stand, she could move and breathe. It wasn’t getting any hotter.

“Please, I’ll explain everything when we’re safe, but right now, I need your help.”

Minerva looked at her with a curious expression. Concern, probably. But visibly, it was shame. Her defiance and confidence was gone for a small moment, and she looked deeply, awfully ashamed, in the way Milla herself, often felt ashamed. When she was caught smoking or asked about her childhood or her parents; when she hit too hard with a ball at the sports club; or when she looked away from a girl who was too pretty–

In those fiery, eerie eyes, there was so much pain and shame and helplessness.

Milla couldn’t help but feel that she had to help Orizaga now.

She couldn’t look at that vulnerability and not feel ashamed of her own cowardly self.

She spread open the pages of her grimoire and held it by the spine.

“Tell me what to do, Professor.” She said.

Spared from the heat of the arena she felt it much easier to keep her wits.

Minerva smiled a little. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

On the edges of the arena, smoke belched into the sky from unseen chimneys.

Around the demesne the fiery pit burned brighter and redder than it ever had.

Once more the platform began to rumble under Milla and Minerva.

All of the gears and mechanisms hanging in the air around the demesne, seemingly attached to nothing, turned with noise and violence, suddenly alive. Though their positions correlated to no rational device, turning and pulling on nothing, the machine seemed to have some effect on the platform. As they cranked away at the air the platform shook more and more strongly, until from the abyss the smashed Moloch machine started rising. Two interlocking pieces extended from the platform, attaching the Moloch animatronic to the platform furnace and supporting him, and more cranes and arms descended and attached a mess of cables, pipes and pumps to the machine.

Grimly, several arms twisted Moloch’s head into place and snapped its limbs together.

It was like they were building up a toy. A figurine of what the God should’ve been like.

“Wyrm.”

Its call hissed out into the air and sounded filthy. It seemed to come from under them.

You stole my fire to begin your journey to the throne of the world, and yet, you stand before me now so feeble, so alone, not one supplicant to your name!”

Suddenly the Moloch machine began to smoke and turned an offensively bright red.

“I’m insulted! I’m offended! I’m vexed! Return my flame so I can be king!”

Red-hot gears on the cow-skull’s cheek turned its mouth open.

Red particulate aura traces, and smoke, and fire, all began to collect in its mouth.

It was as if the creature were vacuuming the surrounding heat and shaping it.

“Witness the Doom of Canaan!”

Jets of smoke burst from the back of the Moloch machine’s head.

Its mouth erupted in a stream of red.

Milla leaped away in one direction and Minerva in the opposite.

Pure heat swept past them like a hurtling comet, a red wall slicing across the platform.

A sudden wave of gas followed the attack, and threw Milla back in mid-air.

She landed ungracefully, crying out as she slammed into the metal floor.

Had it been any denser she would’ve been broken upon it.

But she felt almost like she had landed on a sheet of foil rather than a sturdy floor.

She raised her head from the ground.

When the fire subsided, there was a residual slag, glowing red, bubbling across the floor.

This substance formed a line at every point stricken by Moloch’s attack.

It was as if Moloch’s attack was not a beam or laser at all, as it seemed to Milla from the fanciful things she had seen in popular fiction. Instead she started to think he had sprayed molten metal at them so fast that it just seemed like a giant stream of heat.

In a sudden panic, she looked around for Minerva and thankfully found her on the opposite edge of the platform, doubled over, breathing heavily. Minerva raised her own head and she and Milla made eye contact. Minerva waved; she gestured off the edge of the platform, and then to the Moloch Machine, which was hunched over and steaming.

“I’ll distract him! Jump down into the furnace! That’s the real Tyrant!” She shouted.

Milla blinked. She looked behind herself, over the edge of the platform.

There were all kinds of pipes and devices and chutes but no clear way inside.

Eyes open wide, mouth hanging and quivering slightly, she shook her head at Minerva. Her twintails swung this way and that with the effort. She started to feel hopeless again–

There was a terrifying, dominant sound, the shearing of metal, the grinding of a gear.

Heat began to pump into the Moloch machine once more.

Again the cow-skull head on the animatronic swung its jaw open.

“You’re protected from heat Lyudmilla! Go!” Minerva shouted.

She then stood up straight and swung her wand at the machine.

From thin air in front of her a stake flew out, as fast as a professional baseball pitch.

Flying without resistance, it stuck in one of the Moloch Machine’s ribs.

Barik!”

Minerva summoned another bolt of lightning and this one launched out of her wand.

The bolt struck the stake and lashed across the Machine but could not stop its attack.

All of the arms and cranes reoriented the monster, jerking it toward Minerva.

Even as the lightning tore through its body, the heat around it grew fiercer.

It was her she wanted; it didn’t even care about Milla at all.

This is the fire that consumed Canaan!

A second blast of heat and molten metal erupted from the machine’s mouth.

In an instant it sliced through the air, a cannon shot to Minerva’s mere fastball pitch.

Minerva leaped.

She thrust skyward, stirring the air in her wake as if she had flapped massive wings.

Milla saw her form disappear inside the mass rushing her way.

Her heart sank–

Within the gas billowing up after the shot, Milla saw a speck of something.

Minerva shot out of the cloud toward the machine, dashing in the air.

Before she could cast anything the Moloch machine spread its mouth once more.

Milla realized Minerva, for all that she could dance in the air, could not stop it shooting.

Following the teacher’s body, leaping around as if from cloud to cloud, she also realized what she herself could do. Her eyes settled on the Moloch body and the pipes and cables.

She held her grimoire by the spine, with a thumb inside the pages, and took off running.

Moloch fired a third blast from its mouth, its breath attack sweeping across the sky. Minerva continued to dash to and fro around its head, getting in a kick here and there as she used the machine as a platform to take off again. She was a mere nuisance, but she was a great distraction. Without resistance, Milla ran the length of the platform, to the edge where the machine was connected. It grew larger and larger as she approached it, until she had to crane her head up high as it could to try to watch the fighting play out.

Milla looked down off the edge of the platform, breathing slowly and heavily as an unimaginable heat emanated nearby. It was as if she stood steps away from a star. This must have been what standing on the sun felt like, she thought. Looking down she could see where all the pipes and cables and metal supports reached out from the furnace, like a replacement spinal cord winding up into the hovering Moloch Machine from below.

Taking in a deep breath, and swallowing hard, she leaped down toward the pipes.

She morbidly expected her whole body to melt and end up a puddle atop the monster’s makeshift spine; though she landed clumsily and hit herself again, she found herself surprisingly whole. Her hands, touching the metal, did not sizzle or hurt. It felt eerily room temperature, no hotter than anything else. Bolting up to her feet, she looked around for a way into the furnace. Far overhead, Minerva and Moloch dueled mightily.

Milla did not need to look very long.

Right in front of her, the platform bore a massive, bull-like face. Those smokestacks Milla had seen sticking out resembled horns when viewed from this angle, and the mass connecting the Moloch Machine to the furnace stuck out of the bull’s cavernous mouth like a tongue. She could easily run across the spine and into the furnace’s interior.

There was a plan hatching in her head but it depended on what she found inside.

She made for the gaping maw only to stop a few steps short.

Several pairs of glowing eyes approached from inside the furnace.

Intermittent flashing from inside the furnace revealed many of the kilnling creatures that had been trying to harvest Cheryl and the others. They dragged themselves forward, their exposed ribs snapping open and closed like jaws. The Kilnlings lurched out of the furnace in clumsy stopping-and-starting movements, as if their locomotion went on and off the way the burners inside the furnace did. They were very large and solid, however, and their size and presence alone was enough to put Milla on the defensive.

She took a step back out of the furnace’s shadow and grit her teeth.

She remembered an old commander who admonished her for cowardice.

Tightening her grip on the spine of her grimoire, she swept her hand over the pages.

Kladenets!” She called out.

Her grimoire left her hand of its own accord and hovered off the ground.

Standing between her and the approaching monsters, it produced an image of a sword.

It seemed an ordinary sword, the butt coming to rest a few centimeters off the pages.

Milla thrust her hand forward with the palm to the enemy.

Her grimoire launched toward the kilnlings, and the glowing sword swung at them.

No arm held it, and it appeared to have no mass, but the blade nonetheless swept across the head of one of the kilnlings and battered the monster aside. Rather than slice through them the sword rang aloud on impact, screaming metal on metal as it clubbed the monsters. Despite its visible position atop the grimoire, the blade had deceptive reach. It struck as if held on an arm that could stretch, twist, and handle a blade deftly.

From head to head the blade turned, striking in turn each kilnling as they approached, and rattling their skulls with every hit. When stricken the beasts toppled off their legs and onto their sides, reacting as if concussed. No sword could have rent the metal on them, not even this one, but a good clubbing made an effective deterrent instead.

Milla rushed forward, and again by itself the grimoire charged with her, and the blade threw its terrible weight every which way. Dazed kilnlings fell aside and Milla charged past them, never staying long enough to pick a real fight. They were big and she was not terribly damaging them, but it was not her intention to brawl with them at all.

Leaping and dodging her way past the monsters, Milla penetrated the mouth of the furnace and instantly found herself faced with its immense interior. A short hallway, guarded by kilnlings, led to a massive set of interior works that funneled metal to burners, which fired off every so often to melt the metal instantly. Then the metal was dropped into a massive, glowing red pit recessed into the ground in the center of the furnace, where it was siphoned through red-hot pipes out to the Moloch Machine.

Everything was decayed, eroded, rusted, sharp and haphazard, like the kilnlings were.

Every surface in the demesne wore its armor like moth-eaten clothes.

Behind her the stricken kilnlings began to get back on their legs, and in front of her, several more started to close in from the furnace interior. She had surrounded herself.

She was not driven to panic despite this. In fact, she smirked instead.

Milla had figured there was something important inside the furnace, after fighting on top of it. She could not have been entirely sure, not being a student of engineering, but she knew it was not just a hunk of metal as it had been prior to Moloch’s transfiguration. She knew it was home to a lot of those pipes and cranes that she saw everywhere on Moloch.

Even so, she had no ordinary means to affect such a massive thing. She knew no spells that could launch an armor-piercing rocket or set off C-4 inside this furnace and damage its works. Mages could throw around lightning and fireballs and cast massive reavings and disintegrations at people and things but the larger and sturdier the affected object, the more raw power had to go into it. She could batter kilnlings, but she could not tear down this massive edifice by herself. Lyudmilla Kholodva did not have raw power.

She was tired, too.

Even at her least tired she might not have been able to tear down the furnace. She did not even really know many spells. She figured the basic packet from the Academy did not include a full combat suite; so she was relying on things she picked up here and there.

Lacking in options and in the raw strength to execute them, Lyudmilla substituted a bit of inventiveness. She was not surrounded; she had the kilnlings where she wanted them.

Sometimes, physics alone could be a force multiplier for a dynamic magician.

“Lets hope this works!”

Closing her fist, she caused the sword atop her grimoire to dissipate.

In a blink the book was back in her hands.

She held it by both covers and thrust the pages forward, trying her best to copy Minerva.

She had read her lips as she cast, and seen something of the gestures.

As for mnemonics, Milla just tried to focus on stakes and hoped for the best.

Sudes!”

A metal stake; a metal stake; a metal stake–

It was crude mnemonics, but it had an effect.

Like Minerva, her spell conjured a metal stake that flew out from between the grimoire’s pages. Lacking the precision of a wand or advanced knowledge of the spell, Milla’s casting went wild. She felt the metal portion of her very human, mixed metal and fire aura, suddenly peeling almost right off. Her whole body glowed black and red and the black burst out of her into a wave of particulate aura, lost magic consumed by the spell.

Some of this particulate, but not all, attached to the stake in the instant of conjuration.

Instead of a clean shape, it became irregular, lumpy, its weight poorly distributed.

When the stake exploded into being out in front of her, Milla felt like it not only ripped up her aura and took it with it but also ripped the breath from her lungs.

She nearly doubled over in pain, but she retained enough composure to watch.

Flying haphazardly with the speed of an artillery shell, the stake bowled past several kilnlings in front of Milla and sailed over the red pit and embedded into a gear.

No one spell could stop the machines from turning. Though there was a stake clearly stuck in the gears, the conveyors continued to turn, the burners continued to blast, and metal continued to be fed into the Moloch Machine. They had no physical logic after all. Many were not even attached to anything, and operated in an almost metaphorical way.

Milla never intended to target the machines themselves.

She was gritting her teeth from the reckless exertion, but still managing to grin.

Behind her, every Kilnling struck by her sword glowed momentarily.

Instead of following the initial taps with the Alwi spell Barik, as Minerva had, she instead reached for a trick closer to home. One that would not cook her alive from inexperience.

Taking in air, calm even as the remaining kilnlings started to close, Milla shouted:

“Lord Pherkhan, we become to metal as Earth is to the Moon! Pherkhan’s magnetism!”

As she pronounced each word a little bolt played about her grimoire and hands.

She needed all the focus she could get. A full incantation gave her time to gather energy.

Milla locked eyes on the stake and reached out mentally.

It was her favorite spell of the suite developed by the Rus War-Mage, Pherkhan.

At first the little bolts extended from one end of her grimoire to the other like the poles on a horseshoe magnet, suspended between the open pages. After receiving the full command, they traveled up the grimoire and left the pages altogether. As soon as the bolts leaped off the metal-bound corners of the grimoire they extended across the entire furnace in an invisible instant, connecting the numerous kilnlings behind and around Milla with the stake she stuck to the interior of the furnace. Dozens of tiny bolts of lightning danced between the kilnlings and the stake like blurry, flashing strings.

For a moment the kilnlings were given pause, but their relentlessness soon returned.

When the kilnlings resumed their advance, the bolts sharply, suddenly contracted.

Had they exhibited any kind of magical talent that instant could’ve been crucial.

The Kilnlings did not cast spells; so Milla’s sloppiness instead had a devastating effect.

Dozens of the metallic monsters all around Milla and in the interior of the furnace works launched into the air as if their weight meant nothing. They bounced as readily as rubber balls, drawn toward the stake as if lassoed by the strength of a giant. Milla ducked and covered her head with her grimoire. Chunks of metal flew off their bodies as the kilnlings collided with the walls and with each other hundreds of times on their way toward the stake. For a moment the hallway into the furnace works was a churning, vibrating mess of ricocheting metal. Once free of the confines of the hallway, the kilnling mass slammed into the stake faster and harder than Lyudmilla could’ve ever imagined.

Boilers cracked and burst under the violence, cranes were smashed into the furnace pit, gears knocked out of place fell heavily upon the conveyors and other works and battered the whole mechanism apart. The furnace roared and quaked as great masses of metal rained down into the pit, clogging up the lifeline to the Moloch Machine outside. Molten metal began to rise out of the pit and spill over into the corridor. Around Milla the walls started to crack and glow red, and to bleed molten metal as if grievously wounded.

That’s as far as she had planned for. It was time to run!

Milla turned around and bolted for the exit, a wave of molten metal rushing after her.

Crawling up the walls as if chasing her, the cracks in the furnace spewed and sputtered with fire and gas and searing red metal that landed around Milla in fist-sized globs. She ducked and dodged the streams, swatted away the metal with her grimoire, all the while running as fast as she could, and breathing in less and less air as it seemed to burn up.

Her vision started to waver, and the tunnel felt endlessly long, the outside world too far.

Struggling for breath, she screamed as loud as she could, “Sudes!”

In a flash of light, some of the metal flying around her collected itself into a stake.

Once fully formed the lumpy, misshapen stake shot off into the distance like a rocket.

It ate up almost all her remaining metal aura, but she had purposefully held back.

She only needed a small stake this time.

Milla pulled a chain from her blazer pocket and wrapped it around her arm.

She shut her grimoire on the end of the chain as her legs gave out on her.

Falling, she mumbled again the name of the great Pherkan and prayed.

Blue bolts of energy trailed up and down her body.

She jerked forward, and back and suddenly launched out of the tunnel.

Screaming, Milla leaped clear over the ever-burning pit.

Behind her the mouth of the bull-head furnace choked with molten metal.

All around the demesne the fires started to go out, the gears stopped turning.

Fuzzy lines like the static on a busted television started to divide the walls, the seemingly endless pit and the skybox of the demesne, and once those cleared more of the outside world, the real world, became visible again through the distortion of the demesne.

Sailing off into nothingness, Lyudmilla watched with a self-satisfied little grin as the Moloch Machine began to choke, its cow-skull head leaking molten metal from the eyesockets and from the pipeline inside its jaws. It spewed its red-hot pyroclastic attack into the air at random, vomiting up metal with no target, screaming and out of control.

As she fell she saw Minerva, briefly, and saw her light up brighter red than ever.

Wyrm!” Moloch screamed. “Wyrm!

Minerva’s voice responded, deeper and richer and more beautiful than ever.

I’m, Minerva Orizaga. Wyrm isn’t here. Thanks again for the fire.

Something like a massive whip (a tail?) lashed out from Minerva and cleaved Moloch.

Just as she watched Moloch break apart, she heard Minerva’s homunculus again.

Entity MOLOCH unstable. Temperature drop exponential. Containment successful.”

Next thing she knew, Lyudmilla Kholodova hit the ground. It was dirty, dusty.

She felt as if she had been dunked suddenly in freezing water.

Hugging herself, Milla squirmed and twisted herself onto her back.

There were trees. A canopy; she could see the blue sky and the stars.

Nothing was burning anymore.

Milla pushed herself up from the ground, to her knees.

How much time had passed? She scanned her surroundings. It was still dark.

Suddenly she heard a scream, a girl’s scream.

Milla struggled up to her feet, stumbling and swaying, a little dizzy.

She managed to maneuver herself through the trees and found herself back at the clearing where the Moloch statue had first been unearthed. She arrived in time to see the crumbling statue, Phillip struggling to stand and trying to snake away, and that armored man, Ajax, menacingly approaching Amber, Jenn and Cheryl. The girls squirmed away from him on the ground, crawling on their backs until they hit the treeline again.

“Let go of that.” Ajax hissed. His voice was eerie. It sounded as if it was coming from a broken radio in his helmet, hissing and scratching and becoming inaudible for a second or two in the middle of this syllable or that. It made it difficult to understand him.

He was dragging one of his feet, and his hands were limp at his sides.

Milla summoned her grimoire to her hands, and stumbled out of the forest.

“Get away from them!” She cried.

He turned his head partially over his shoulder. His eyes glowed on and off, sparking.

Ajax stared at Milla, and then at his own feet, where his two subordinates lay beaten.

He stared at the Moloch statue, broken, its once incredible aura sputtering away.

He charged without warning–

But in the direction of the treeline, to escape!

Milla grit her teeth and made to follow. Could she get him?

Ajax did not get far; in the next instant he bounced back into the clearing and hit the dirt.

From the wood, Minerva appeared.

Vorra leaped down from the canopy, visibly wounded, but alive and seemingly mobile.

“Milord, he is faltering.” She said.

They had Ajax surrounded. Judging by his last attempt, he was on his last legs.

Ajax picked one of his subordinate’s clubs off the floor.

“Alwi trash– you–” His voice broke up. “Undone– I’ll–”

He threw himself forward and swung his weapon.

It stretched to cover the gap and came at Minerva’s side like a whip.

She held out her wand at her side and the metal bounced off of it.

Ambling casually toward Ajax, Minerva then swung her wand at him wordlessly.

A wave of force blasted the weapon off Ajax’s hands, and took several fingers with it.

Surprisingly he did not whimper, did not cry out, despite this brutal amputation.

He was clearly done fighting but he continued to try to escape.

Minerva would have none of it.

Ajax struggled to stand; a second blast from Minerva’s wand threw him back to the ground. Her eyes were fixed on him with a cold, steely hatred that shook Milla in its intensity. Each step she took, Minerva swung her wand, and Ajax was blasted in his chest, and thrown back; blasted in his legs until the armor was pummeled off them; and blasted in his head, jerking his neck left and right until his battered helm fell off.

Beneath the plate legs, there was nothing. Beneath the breastplate, nothing.

There was nothing beneath the helmet either.

Ajax had been nothing but a construct. Had it been the entire time? Had he swapped?

Minerva disregarded the empty suit of armor and walked over to the girls.

She knelt beside them with a smile. “You all have been through a lot. It feels silly to ask this, but are you ok? Are you hurt? Do you need a hospital? Can you talk to the police?”

Amber and Jenn stared dumbfounded at Minerva for a second before throwing themselves at her, hugging her and crying, shaken thoroughly by their experience. Minerva seemed to not know what to do other than stand there and allow herself to be thoroughly grappled. She eventually started rubbing their backs in a motherly way.

Vorra hid in the wood, sitting solemnly with her back to a tree, breathing heavily.

Cheryl sat at the edge of the clearing, staring at the Ajax armor, empty-eyed. In her hands she was turning over the orange-red orb that had come out of the Moloch statue’s head.

Somehow despite everything, they all had survived that mess.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She nearly dropped her grimoire out of exhaustion.

She managed to keep a steady grip on it.

So she was ready when she heard the dirt sifting.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

She turned her head and fixed a murderous glare on Phillip, his face caked in his own blood, weeping, gritting what was left of his teeth through a broken mouth. He had been trying to crawl up the steeper side of the clearing and out of anyone’s sight. He said nothing, and merely stopped where he had been. Milla pointed her grimoire his way.

“Sit down or I’ll sit you down.” Milla said.

From across the clearing, Minerva let go of Amber and Jenn, who then clung to Cheryl.

“Yes, Phillip Theimer, we’ll need to repair your face so you can talk to the police.”

Minerva spoke, and Milla thought she saw Phillip shake. He knelt down, giving up.

Whatever glorious night he thought he might have was now over.


Next morning, having gotten no sleep and talked to too many different uniformed persons, Lyudmilla Kholodova and Minerva Orizaga found themselves in the office of Miriam Hirsch, who was disheveled, having had to dress quickly and arrive at the Humanities’ main department very early to deal with the ugly situation. Word was getting around about what happened. Police were investigating, the students were variously in hospital care and out of it, and the Department itself was in a furor about it.

Minerva rarely spoke to Miriam Hirch without Beatrix around. Her office felt empty and oppressive. There was nothing separating Minerva from Miriam, nothing shielding her.

Miriam had an intimating expression, full of barely restrained anger.

“University Police tried to explain it to me, and I couldn’t believe a word I was hearing, so I would like to hear it from you instead. What the hell happened last night, Minerva?”

Minerva was annoyed by everything, but she tried to keep things matter-of-fact and she spoke so quickly and in such a tone that Miriam, try as she might, couldn’t interrupt.

“It is my understanding that at around midnight three boys identifying themselves with the Otrarian nationalist group ‘Iron Flags’ cooperated with Phillip Theimer to lead several girls to a clearing in the Whispering Wood with the intent to perform a dark ritual to summon the Tyrant Moloch. They intended to make sacrifices to a statue that had been popularly mistaken to represent Baphomet that had appeared suddenly some time ago in the woods. This statue had a carved orb of Agnicite that was sealing some of Moloch’s demesne, and upon its release, the Tyrant was unleashed. However, it was severely weakened from having to express his main element of Fire through its antagonistic element, Metal. With Lyudmilla Kholodova’s help, I contained the Tyrant and detained Phillip, Trent and Arnes. Ajax, the fourth conspirator, was piloting a construct from afar all along. I called the authorities and an investigation is underway.”

At several points in the story Miriam Hirch seemed to want to interrupt as if it was inherently a ridiculous thing to say. Minerva talked over her enough times to keep her quiet and get her whole message across. At the end of it, Miriam sat dumbfounded.

“You contained a Tyrant?” Miriam asked at last, regaining a bit of composure.

“Yes.”

Minerva reached into her coat, withdrew the fire orb and put it on Miriam’s desk.

“Put that under the tightest security you’ve got, ma’am.” She said.

Miriam picked up the orb and instantly shook with goosebumps and dropped it.

“My word!”

“It’s not something to take lightly, that’s for sure.” Minerva said.

Miriam looked momentarily offended. She left the orb on her desk.

“Setting all that of that aside for later. I want to know about the facts I can confirm right now. What happened to Phillip Theimer? He claims you injured him.” Miriam said.

She had seemingly ignored the part where Minerva implicated him in the crime.

Of course, the word of a white Otrarian boy with a donor father carried a lot of weight.

Minerva sighed. “He was attacked by the leader of the Flags, nom de guerre Ajax. Ajax had manipulated him into providing his own girlfriend, Cheryl von Schutzherr, as human material for the ritual. Whether he intended to seal Moloch in her or otherwise–”

“You realize how ridiculous that sounds?” Miriam said. “The Theimer family have been supporters of the Academy for generations. They’re a completely above-board family.”

She sounded strangely and specifically outraged about this.

“I say nothing of the family; only what I collected at the crime scene.” Minerva said.

In truth she hadn’t been there at the time, but she had Lyudmilla’s testimony.

Miriam sighed heavily and rubbed her palms over her own face.

“Minerva, I support the teachers under my direction, but to engage in such unserious he-said she-said talk, and where it concerns a student claiming you assaulted him–”

Lyudmilla cut Miriam off and spoke, her accent thicker owing to her anger.

“Ms. Orizaga did not hurt him at all! I’ll testify to that. I smacked Phillip in the face!”

“You’ll speak when prompted, Miss Kholodova!” Miriam shouted. “Tread lightly!”

Lyudmilla scowled at her, squeezing her own knees as she sat on the couch.

Miriam sighed and rubbed her own forehead and started sifting through some papers.

Minerva’s heart beat faster. What was going on here?

She had contained a Tyrant and saved the lives of those girls.

Did she not care? Was she ready to ignore all of that as a fabrication?

This was so ridiculous, unfair and unjust to an unrealistic degree, and yet, possible.

A fleetingly possible thing that somehow happened all of the time.

Miriam was just outright ignoring her words and defending Theimer.

Minerva was an Alwi, a person hated in this society. She had this etched in her skin.

Was Miriam trying to frame her for the entire situation right now?

“Ma’am, I’m not sure I understand what your point is. Please speak plainly.”

 

“Fact of the matter is, Minerva, Lyudmilla Kholodova is not exactly a trustworthy prospect in a situation like this. Phillip Theimer claims he is innocent and a victim. I can believe Trent and Arnes were implicated in something, though goodness knows what, but I’m struggling to believe stuff about rituals and tyrants and a mysterious fourth man.”

Minerva couldn’t tell if Miriam was really so tortured over this or faking all of it.

She certainly sounded and acted annoyed and uncomfortable but it seemed all too easy for her to abandon Minerva and Lyudmilla at this juncture for well-moneyed words.

“And all this talking about Tyrants– yes you have that orb, but it’s just, it’s too much! I cannot believe that a Tyrant was summoned, that it attacked, that you contained it–”

“I’ll give you the data collected by my Homunculus!” Minerva shouted at her.

Miriam glared at Minerva, clearly offended now at her tone. “I don’t want it! Ugh. It’s not enough I have to deal with Beatrix now you’re also making problems. At least when Beatrix comes up with some scheme to endanger students she owns up without excuses!”

“Now it’s a scheme? Nationalists attack your students and suddenly it’s my scheme?”

The Department Head was taken aback by this and quickly retreated from her rhetoric.

“I’m not saying that!” Miriam said. “I’m not accusing you! Goodness. You’re clearly giving in to emotion, Minerva, we can’t have this discussion and I can’t defend you if you’re showing this kind of attitude! It’s Academy policy to first side with the students–”

Minerva intended to shout ‘you were never going to defend me,’ but then someone did.

Bursting through the door into the office was the blonde-haired, starry-eyed, and clearly furious young lady known only as Cheryl, but actually named Cheryl von Schutzherr.

She stormed into the room and charged right up to Miriam’s desk, her eyes afire.

Behind her, Beatrix Kolsa ambled in with a bewildered expression, and shrugged.

“You’re the Department Head? What the hell is this?” Cheryl said. “Why did you summon Ms. Orizaga and Milla instead of that no-good piece of shit who just tried to kill me!”

Miriam blinked, taken aback. “Language! Ms. Schutzherr, I’m just, I wanted to–”

“Minerva Orizuh– Minerva saved my life! Milla Khalod– Milla saved my life!”

Minerva and Lyudmilla both wilted. Cheryl couldn’t pronounce their surnames.

“That’s–” Miriam seemed to shrink in her chair. “That’s– well– Phillip Theimer also–”

“I’m sure that fucking rat has something to say too! Then he should say it to my face! To all our faces! To us and to Amber and Jenn, he tried to get us all killed for his buddies in the Iron Whatever! Instead he’s trying to hide behind you, isn’t he? You’re covering up for him! He should be in this room so I can shout his face off along with yours!”

Miriam turned bright red and nearly fell over with her chair. “Why I– I never–”

“You listen to me! I’ll tell the cops, I’ll tell the courts, I’ll tell the tabloids, I’ll talk to anyone! I’ll vlog about it! I got 3000 followers! I’ll tell everyone that Phillip Theimer is a sick, lying freak who seduced and led me along so he could literally kill me! And I’ll tell my daddy to donate all the money you dirtbags get from him to animal shelters! I’ll call him right now!” Cheryl, breathlessly shouting at the top of her lungs right in Miriam’s face, produced a cellphone and shoved that right into Miriam’s face too. “I’ll make these rickety walls come right down on you if you think you can get away with hiding this!”

“Please– I wasn’t– I didn’t mean to–” Miriam, a grown woman, was almost in tears.

Cheryl continued to shout, at the top of her lungs, her voice bravely holding out.

“Minerva and Lyudmilla better leave this room with medals! Medals! You, and your cops, and your stupid department, you didn’t do shit to help me! I was nearly killed by a bunch of LARPers and a big ugly metal bull! KILLED! You didn’t do shit about it! I was nearly killed! A bunch of lunatics go to this school planning to kill innocent girls and you didn’t know, you didn’t do anything, who knows how many girls have been victims here?”

“Of course not– Our school– we pride ourselves– we’re very safe–”

Are you going to do something?” Cheryl put her face to Miriam’s, baring her teeth.

Miriam backed her office chair up to the wall behind her in fear.

Cheryl’s eyes watered, her nose ran, and her face was beet red. She was shaking.

The full force of everything that had happened to her, and of everything that could have happened to her, hit right there like a dam bursting. She had screamed out as much of it as she could, but now she was shivering, hugging herself, weeping openly, sobbing loud. Her knees shook. She looked to be in agony, unable to contain herself. Lyudmilla made to stand but Minerva shook her head and put out an arm to stop her. She had to be delicate.

Beatrix moved closer to the desk and took Cheryl by the shoulders, giving her someone to cry on. For once she looked almost like a responsible adult, comforting Cheryl.

“There, there.” Beatrix said.

Miriam Hirch, nearly weeping herself, glared daggers at Beatrix, who smiled in return.

“Miriam, I caught wind of what happened from the university police when they came to the Department last night. I predicted you’d handle this situation very poorly. I want to believe you’re just trying to get out of doing paperwork, because you are lazy. At any rate I felt that, out of everyone involved, this girl deserved to have her voice heard, and I wanted to make sure that she did.” She turned her head a little and winked at Minerva.

Minerva allowed herself a restrained smile back at Beatrix.

“Yes, very– very well.” Miriam stuttered.

“If I remember correctly, the von Schutzherr grants go directly to the Humanities, do they not? It’s twice the Theimer grant money too.” Beatrix mused aloud. “As someone whose research depends on things like that, I also felt my voice mattered too.”

Miriam sank atop her desk.

“I’ll– I’ll take care of things. It’s fine. Everyone please. Go.”

Beatrix led Cheryl away slowly, rubbing her back and wiping her tears, smiling at her.

Before she could be taken through the door, Lyudmilla turned around on the couch.

She shouted, “Cheryl! You’re really cool, you know?”

And Cheryl held a shaking thumbs up in response, before vanishing out the door.

With Beatrix and Cheryl gone there was a sudden silence.

It dropped between everyone like lead walls.

“Ms. Hirch, perhaps I should take this orb for safe-keeping.” Minerva finally said.

Miriam sighed. “Yes. Yes. Please leave.”

Nodding, Minerva quickly swiped the orb from Miriam’s desk and left the room.

Soon as the office was vacated Miriam slammed the door.

There was another sudden falling of silence. It was as if the world itself, having held its breath throughout that entire drama, could finally breathe and take stock in things.

Everything ended up working itself out somehow.

Out in the halls again, Minerva checked the time on her homunculus and sighed.

The National waited for nobody. Life, outside oneself, had to keep going.

“I’m gonna be so late for my office hours.” She groaned.

“You’re gonna hold office hours? After all this?”

Behind her, Lyudmilla Kholodova approached with a questioning expression.

She looked mightly disheveled, her blazer frayed and spotted, her hair messy, a distinct ashen pall over her otherwise fair skin. Probably owing to the smoke and the fire. Minerva wondered what was going through her head now. She didn’t look tired or shocked or vulnerable, like she had been in the demesne a few times. She seemed well.

Minerva turned fully to meet her. She recalled Lyudmilla’s heroics in the demesne.

This girl had potential, and some hidden depths to her. Minerva kinda liked her.

“Well, the students need my help whether or not I was nearly killed by a monster.”

Lyudmilla seemed amused by the answer.

“And whether or not your Department nearly betrayed you.”

“That’s not the student’s fault. They have a right to an education you know.”

“That’s dedication. I’m straight-up blowing the rest of class this week after this shit.”

Minerva grinned a little. “That’s honestly fair. I’d encourage you to show up though.”

“Yeah, you would do that, Professor.” Lyudmilla grinned back at her.

“It’s just Ms. Orizaga, please.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla then reached into her blazer and pulled out a letter for Minerva.

“I got this in the mail. Just uh. I guess I want you to know, that I got it.”

Though she seemed conflicted at first, she made up her mind quickly.

Minerva took the letter and unfurled it. It was the notice of apprenticeship.

Officially signed by Miriam Hirch and dated about a day before Minerva was told.

“How do you feel about it?” Minerva asked.

“Well, I can’t say no now. This is too cool, you know?” Lyudmilla bent forward, her arms stretched behind her with the fingers interlocked, rocking. She had an air of mischief.

She spun her finger idly and one of the hair bobbles on her twin-tails spun with it.

“I won’t tell anyone you’re some kind of superhero if you teach me your tricks.”

Minerva sighed. What a little devil she had on her hands! She should’ve known.

“I’m not a superhero.” Minerva said. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”

“Yeah, and I’m just an innocent maid, never smoked a joint, never touched a boob.”

Lyudmilla stuck her tongue out at Minerva.

“You’ll find I’m far less impressive outside of a fire-rich demesne.”

“My standards are very, very low.” Lyudmilla said, cackling.

“You’re a handful.” Minerva said. “Listen, if you’re fine with this arrangement, then I’m glad. I know I promised I’d explain everything to you, and I will, but right now, I really need to work. So lets meet somewhere private later and we can discuss all of this.”

“Fine. But I’ll tag along for today anyway. No discussion necessary.”

Minerva nodded. “It’s gonna be boring you know. I plan to act like nothing happened.”

“Me too. It’s too early for me to have a big cry and scream like Cheryl did. I’m too icy for that. Anyway. I’m here at your service for both mundane and magical tasks, master.”

“Oh god no. There’s enough people who call me master. Just, Minerva, or something.”

Lyudmilla grinned. “Ah, yeah, how’s that subby dragon of yours doing, Professor?”

Nothing happened.” Minerva said dangerously.

“Ah fine, fine.” Lyudmilla replied cheerfully.

Together they got going to Minerva’s office.

 

At least, regardless of everything, her job always gave her something else to do.

Right now, the only world she knew or wanted was her students and a pile of papers.

She was the first Alwi magician of the National! She had to keep performance high.

“If I’m your apprentice, can I look at the quiz keys?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Yes you can. They’re all there in the textbook if you read it.” Minerva said.

Lyudmilla started to whistle intermittently. “I guess I should’ve expected that.”


That night, Minerva arrived at her home just off the edge of Lake Bratten and the Whispering Woods, feeling exhausted, and like the feelings she had been damming for the sake of the world were about to burst through the wall of her heart. Still, she made herself smile for the little girl at the front desk, and waved at her when she passed.

“Oh, Minnie!” Laksha called out. She looked sad. “Your girlfriend came in this morning looking a little, bad. Did something happen to her Minnie? Is she going to be okay?”

Minerva continued to smile. “She did a big heroic thing, Laksha. But she’ll be okay.”

“Wow! I’ll get her some meat sometime to thank her for being a hero.” Laksha said.

Her frown had immediately turned into a starry-eyed smile.

“Thank you. She’d love that. Good night, Laksha.”

Upstairs, Minerva practically fell through her front door. Using the back of her foot, she shut the door behind herself and practically crawled up to Vorra’s mound. Sitting atop the pile of magazines, again dressed only in one of Minerva’s ill-fitting button-downs, Vorra sat, looking out their window to the lake and the moonlit, cloudless night.

She turned her head over her shoulder and gazed fondly at her arriving partner.

Her tail wagged slowly and gently. She had bandaged her sides up, but there was damage to hidden things, like her wings, and her ribs, that would take time to heal inside.

“Milord, good to see you. This Academy ill deserves your tireless effort.”

“Yeah, it sucks, but it’s good to have on the resume, you know?”

“I do not, milord, but I am pleased that your efforts fulfill you.”

Minerva got herself up to Vorra and sat by her side. She kissed her on the cheek.

“How are you?”

“Milord, of course I am on the mend. I am a dragon. I am power itself.”

“It’s really been a day.”

“It has been a day, as you say, milord.”

Vorra rested her head on Minerva’s shoulder and vibrated, with a slight hissing purr.

Tears built up in Minerva’s eyes and feeling Vorra at her side caused them to spill.

“Vorra, Wyrm was a monster, wasn’t he? Am I a monster too?” Minerva asked.

She clutched her chest, where, in her deepest nightmares, she felt Wyrm exist.

Everything that she had seen and heard in Moloch’s demesne, all of the horror and power and hatred, seemed to fall upon her at that very moment. It hit harder than the craven cowardice of Miriam Hirch or the abject cruelty of Ajax. Both of those things were evil, but they existed outside of her as verifiable lies. Neither of them could say truthfully that Minerva was a monster, that she was abominable and inhuman. But then Moloch–

“I say milord, with the utmost certainty, that you are you, and whatever you desire.”

Vorra turned to Minerva and kissed her briefly on her lips.

“Wyrm would have never accepted me as a Queen because I was not born one.” She said, staring directly into Minerva’s eyes and centimeters away from her face. “Denounce me for my bias, but I prefer you as King.” She laughed gently. “I love you, Minerva.”

“I love you too.” Minerva said. Those kinds of sentimental things were a bit hard and almost felt embarrassing to say, but Minerva really felt it at that moment. It was not at all what she expected as a child, that she would be the beloved of a dragon staring at the moon from the National Academy just a day after containing the evil of a Tyrant.

“Minerva,” she was pointedly not saying ‘milord’, “You possess the bravery to transmute all that you once thought fundamental, and to struggle against that which you are told you are unfit to change. I admire that about you. It draws me to you. Truly, I believe you can become anything you desire. I believe even by desiring it alone, you will become it.”

Minerva felt fresh tears coming up, and she clung to Vorra with a smile. “Thank you.”

Vorra purred at her side. “I was discarded, alone, unwanted, without future. Now I am here. To me, that is the greatest portent signalling that anything is now possible.”

Whatever it was that lay ahead, surely a series of hardships; Minerva felt she could do it.

She had made it this far and changed so much. There would be more change coming.

All of those tyrannical things that had once chained her up — she had wounded them.

“God, what am I even going to say in my report to the Party. This is really a lot.”

“It is, as you say, a lot, milord.”


Bright blue waves filtered into the elevator through glass panes.

When the doors opened at the bottom floor, Miriam Hirsch walked through a hallway of glass, reinforced by titanium supports. She followed a long carpet to a dead end with a wide, unobstructed pane of glass with a view into the massive aquarium all around it.

“I requested an audience, headmaster.” Miriam said, her voice trembling.

All around her, a cold voice reverberated through the water and glass.

I am listening.

“Phillip Theimer has been taken into custody. The Theimer fund has pulled from the Academy. I thought you should be made aware. It’s– it’s rare for this to happen here.”

Theimer deserved his fate. He aided the heresy of summoning a Pretender God.

Miriam was surprised to hear the headmaster already knew.

Then again, the headmaster was a strong diviner. His water aura was massive.

All of the water around her was like a scrying glass. He could see her.

He could see through her.

And yet, it was in her nature to lie, to conceal, to conspire, and so, she did.

“Yes, headmaster. I felt compelled to seek your input. Our elite families are valuable–”

I am aware of what has happened. I am aware, that you thought to shield him of his crime. I am aware of your connection. I am aware of your small mindedness.”

Miriam flinched and drew back a step.

“I– I simply couldn’t believe such a thing could happen at our school.”

I care not about the the Iron Flags; I care not about politics. Summoning Pretender Gods is becoming quite a trend again among you. I care about that. It is a heresy.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

In the next instant the water outside the glass became obstructed.

In its place was a massive eye, more complicated than that of any human being.

Miriam nearly fainted from shock. The depth of that eye felt like it might suck her in.

You are all forgetting the purpose of humans to me. Call me by name, human.

Miriam choked up, nodding her head. “Yes, Great Lord Leviathan.”

Slowly the eye retreated from the glass, and became smaller, until it was clear that it was one of many along the side of a sleek serpentine head adorned with many-colored crests.

I desire to meet Minerva Orizaga. Teaching, is valuable. Learning, is valuable. Discovering, is valuable. As long as they remain valuable I will not interfere. Minerva Orizaga, might be valuable. I desire to confirm that.

Leviathan, the God of Water, surged forward again until his eye covered the glass.

Do not forget what is valuable to me. Do not confuse it for what you value.

Miriam, feeling suddenly the weight of the plutocratic kickbacks that got her into her position, that got her clothed, that got her respectability, bowed her head to Leviathan.

“Yes, headmaster, great lord.”


Story 1 — Lord of the Wildfire, END


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Election Year (73.2)

This scene contains violence, verbal abuse, vomiting and severe mental distress.

44th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E.

Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Junzien, Hotel Reich

War had made the Nocht Federation a sickened place.

For the Unionists, however, this had become an opportunity.

On the week of the 44th, polling showed that Union candidate Bertholdt Stein was up on Achim Lehner by three points in the Burns poll — the first time an opponent outscored Lehner since his first entry into politics in 2027. Burns had correctly predicted Kantor’s victory in 2024 and his defeat in 2028 to Achim Lehner. For the first time in years, it felt like the Union party had regained some semblance of an identity in Northern politics.

At the Hotel Reich the Union party held a fundraiser for Stein’s presidential campaign. It was a room that boasted an energy similar to that of the Liberty party’s 2027 hopes. It was a gathering of hotshot stars, glamorous models, up and coming intellectuals, and most importantly, war heroes. Older men, and yet men not that old; all wearing their medals and uniforms, awkwardly chatting with the heiresses, the actors, the nouveau riche. There were some military women too: artillery computer veterans of Cissea.

Beneath the gilded lights of the grand ballroom, the assembled crowd drank politely, debated gently, and waited for midnight, when the star of the show appeared.

Bertholdt was just young enough to run for President, and no younger than that. For a candidate, however, he was sleek and energetic. In the world of politics he seemed a boy, and it was this freshness that allowed him to challenge the slightly graying Lehner as Lehner had challenged Kantor before. Bertholdt was tall, broad-shouldered, his blond hair still cut close and sharp, in the fashion of pre-Ayvartan war. It made him look serious. His hook nose and squared-off profile made him seem tough, but his eyes were gentle and friendly. Overall he had a useful flexibility in posture and fashion.

When he took the podium he smiled gently and he waited out the clapping.

“My friends and colleagues, it is wonderful to be here tonight. When I left the forests of Cissea behind, got on the boat and put down my rifle, never could I have imagined that I’d have the fortune to be at a place like this. I couldn’t see a future back then, fearing as I did for the direction of this country, but today, my friends, I have a vision of a better world. With your help, we will articulate this vision — and then we will make it real.”

There was thunderous applause.

“Liberty thinks they can scare us all so bad, we’ll bend the knee to them and their anti-democratic agenda. For a while, they thought they’d run unopposed in this election — can you believe that? But that shows just how weak they are. In this room, we’re not afraid of terrorists from without, and we’re not afraid of thugs from within. We will meet every threat, and we will triumph, because we’re doing what’s right for the Nochtish people!”

Once more as if on command the crowd applauded fiercely.

The Federation of Northern States was a two-party system. Its oldest party was Union, the party of Gunther Von Nocht, father of capitalism, founder of the free market republic that they all hailed from. He who fought against the Elven Empire and its Frankish monarchist proxies and carved out, in this wild, frozen and forbidding land, a place for people seeking opportunity and self-determination. Union had fought many political battles in the growing Federation, but all of its opponents had fallen to history. That had been their identity. Elder statesmen of inexorable power and history who created Nocht.

Liberty was founded scarcely a hundred years ago. Since then they had traded the Presidency and Congress and their own political identities back and forth. Union was stalwart, old, wise; Liberty was fast and loose, the party of farmers then miners then strikers then bankers. Time flattened the differences and the parties lost any semblance of ideology. But then the Presidency of Achim Lehner broke Union. It was not the first hammer blow — the chronically moderate Kantor’s unexciting primary victories and historically low turnouts had made the cracks. But Lehner shattered the remains.

Lehner gave Liberty a striking and bold identity. He and his “technocrats” seemed to come right out of the technical colleges and swept into office. All the partisans and staffers styled themselves Libertaires after the revolutionaries in Franz who aided Nocht in bringing down the king. It was their vow to destroy the decrepit establishment of mediocre political dynasties and create a smarter, leaner, faster, stronger machine. They knew statistics, they knew processes, they spoke with an authority that the mass of voters craved to bow under. And though they breathed fire and promised devastation to the feckless elite, they also weaved a beautiful pageantry before the public that made them proud to be Nochtish, proud to stand atop and ahead of the world. Populism, nationalism, utopianism, technocratism, all of it synchronized, primed for victory.

Union was everything Lehner said it was. Old, spent, unmoving, with no idea what the world could, should or would look like in the next four, eight, twelve or twenty years.

Then Lehner’s perfect, inviolable Nocht Federation, a sleek train hurtling down its fated tracks to glory and leadership of the world, met a wall at the foul little nation of Ayvarta.

Now Union had an identity again. It was the party that stood for ‘no more of this.’

Bertholdt Stein had more to say than that. He was a veteran. He knew first-hand how the army mistreated and disposed of its personnel. And he had come to know more after leaving the service. How the vision of the world Lehner gave the public was censored and artificial and manipulative; how the economy struggled, its factories and workers dehumanized into ‘flows of production’ and ‘expected outputs’ and the like; how the police brutally rounded up Lachy and Ayvartans and queers and other low folk.

He had learned how to fight Lehner on his policy terms, and on territory he created.

“We have a man in power, who thinks he’s better, smarter, than all of us. No experience in the military, no previous experience in governing. Rode his father’s name and the names of a few stars to the top. He’s in over his head. I’ve fought wars, I’ve seen what’s out there. I promise you, tonight, that I will get this war sorted out, so we can bring our men and women back, and put everybody to work, building us the nation we deserve. And for our veterans who are here, who didn’t fight Lehner’s war, I won’t abandon you like he did. I’m here for all our veterans, young and old, deployed and reserve. I know how Achim Lehner treated you, because I know how he treated me. This is no way to treat our war heroes! Tonight, I pledge to build the nation these heroes fought for!”

Once more, applause, the greatest, loudest applause of the night.

It would be a long night for Union and for the Federation.

A night that would not end even with dawn.


Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Junzien, Eisern Station

Late into the night the first train that had left the ports at Tauta finally made its journey through to the city of Junzien. There was no celebration at the station. None of the banners had been hung yet, and the only courtesy was a table with mugs of hot chocolate that would have to be rewarmed and wrapped sandwiches exposed to the cold.

There were a few employees of the station working far into their overtime hours to handle the train but not the passengers. Nobody seemed to care for the passengers.

And all around them the wintry winds blew a gentle dusting of snow.

When the train finally arrived, the platform was a depressing sight. Almost nobody was there to greet the soldiers of the 13th Panzer Brigade as they set foot in a Nochtish city for the first time in many months. Their families had not been contacted. Nobody seemed to know who at all would be arriving. It was a mess. When the soldiers started departing the train, it seemed almost like they would have to ticket themselves!

But after all, these weren’t really war heroes, and the war department had little consideration for them specifically. Even this grant of leave was a burden on everyone.

The 13th Panzer, even in the climate of censorship in the Fatherland, was followed by a feeling of disappointment. They had been the pride of the Federation until Bada Aso. That was the first blow reality dealt to the Nochtish campaign, and it seemed nobody would let them forget it. Then, to add insult to injury, after their near-destruction in Bada Aso the unit went on to struggle in the Battle of the Ghede Rivers and was one of the last to break out into the Solstice Desert. From a strength of 10,000 soldiers and 250 tanks they had fallen to 1500 soldiers and 38 tanks. Complete and utter combat ineffectiveness.

Naturally they were pulled off the line, and ultimately, sent back to the Fatherland.

As far as the news was concerned, they were demobilized, pending reorganization.

News of their redeployment was not spread. It was as if they wanted them to be ghosts.

To Helga Fruehauf, it was only natural the platform be empty, the sandwiches cold, nobody around to take their tickets, and none of their loved ones to greet them. There was not even a security detail. All of the actual heroes were being carted in tomorrow, on the day declared for such things. Heroes had been carefully selected to insure their pristine quality. The 13th were not the heroes. They had been the first to fail everyone.

Fruehauf felt awful.

Her head was pounding, she desperately craved a smoke but couldn’t do it packed up tight as she was in the train car, and she hated having to think about what she would do the next day, let alone the next week or however long it took to get back to war.

This was not how humans lived, or how humans thought, she told herself.

She wasn’t human anymore, she told herself. She had been made inhuman.

Everyone had abandoned them, because they knew too much about Nocht’s failure.

Rather than kill them, which would be a step too far, everyone decided to ignore them.

Soon as she stepped off the train and looked around in bewilderment with the rest of the soldiers, she sighed and she reached into her pocket for a cigarette. Shaking hands grabbed hold of the lighter and the cigarette, and it was a struggle to light it, both because of the cold and her own poor condition. She had dark circles under her eyes and her skin was clammy. Her makeup was poorly done, and she had lost weight in the worst way possible — by simply not eating well, or not keeping down any of her food.

This sickly state made everything in her line of sight shake and shimmer. It was as if she was looking at things through a trick lens. Everything was dream-like, unreal. She was sick, dying of sick, and she wanted a cigarette so badly. A cigarette and a hard drink.

From behind and around her more and more confused soldiers stepped off the platform like cats being introduced to a new apartment. Everyone was stumbling around, glassy-eyed, buckling under their winter coats. All of their humanity had stayed behind in Ayvarta, where a shouting officer or a dismayed radio girl or the report of enemy guns could signal to their bodies what was to be done that hour or minute or day. When the train whistled again, everybody, herself included, made as if to duck gunfire or shells.

This could not have been reality. Nothing about it felt good or made sense.

It was hollow, artificial. It was something forced on all of them.

Whatever.

Fruehauf herself knew nothing anymore except her immediate, base desires.

She raised the cigarette to her lips; someone pushed past her.

She nearly dropped the cigarette; she managed to catch in time.

Nothing had made her so angry in what seemed like months, as that action did then.

Taking a drag, she watched with contempt as Anton Von Sturm, their so-called leader, tried to make himself scarce as quickly as he could muster. Surely if one of these zombies caught him they would rip him apart, but nobody noticed. Her eyes were locked onto the back of his little blond head. She felt like picking up a stray bottle and cracking him over the head with it. Everything had been his fault. Their utter ruination as a unit; her personal ruination as a professional and sober woman; maybe even the nation’s ruin.

And despite everything he could still walk with his head high and push past everybody like he meant anything. Something inside her seethed so thoroughly watching that little worm flounce away, that she started to move after him. If nobody else would do it, she would. She would dash that little worm’s brains against the street, if none of these men were men enough to do it. Between the cigarettes, the alcohol, the drugs, something made her braver and madder and more bloodthirsty than ever! She’d kill him tonight!

She followed him, staying many meters behind but making no other attempt at stealth.

For Fruehauf, she had nothing to her name anymore. She had no family she wanted to see in this state; no boyfriend or lover or anyone to hold or touch her or make use of her in any way; no place to stay, save maybe hitting up some old friends and seeing what happened. She followed Von Sturm out of the station, feeling both impotent and yet empowered all at once, by his obliviousness and his arrogance and his foolishness. What did he think of her? Did he think anything at all? Last she knew of him he was just judging her for drinking herself stupid as they neared the end of their deployment.

Nothing mattered because everything was fake. This was all fake. She was free here.

More and more as she trailed him down the streets, deeper into the concrete and steel jungle of Junzien, she thought to herself that she would kill him. She would push him into traffic, or smash him into a light, or pick up glass from a waste bin and rip open his throat. Her head was hot and pounding with anger. She barely recognized the streets, she barely knew where she was going. There was no one out. Von Sturm wasn’t trained to fight a woman trying to claw his eyeballs out. She could absolutely win this one.

And Von Drachen was back in Ayvarta with his “Dragon” unit. No one was here.

Except there was someone. She saw Von Sturm turn a corner suddenly and crash into a man that came stumbling out from the other way. Both fell to the ground. Von Sturm cursed, while the man was almost weeping with regret. He had a shabby coat, and a little black hat. He was tall and lean, built like a factory worker, and perhaps even covered in the soot of one. She saw something on his chest, clipped on like a medal. A frog pin.

Fruehauf froze up suddenly. They weren’t alone. She had missed her chance.

Was she going to do it anyway? Was she ever going to do it? It was a nice fantasy, to rip Von Sturm’s head out for revenge and then have a warm place to sleep and food and a predictable routine in a woman’s prison. But she knew she wouldn’t have done shit. She was useless, broken, with no hope of doing anything, if she had hope to begin with.

“You giant oaf! Do you know who I am?”

Von Sturm shouted at the man and hit him with his cap.

Perhaps the man was drunk. He was reacting with a dire, exaggerated pain.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry; I respect the troops, I love the troops! My brother was the troops. My brother! Little brother! I’m so sorry mister troops!” He cried.

He tried to reach out to Von Sturm and pat the snow off his coat as if to apologize.

Von Sturm smacked his hand away with his cap.

“Ugh! Don’t touch me you god-damn ape!”

“I love the troops! I voted for Lehner! I’m sorry! I lost my job! I’m sorry!”

Again the man shrank back, immensely hurt. Fruehauf almost wanted to cry watching this injustice play out. It was this pitiable sight that typified their nation now — a weeping peasant whipped for a lack of reverence and whipped for having too much, whipped by the sniveling, whining nobility made by money and war. That was the Federation now. She hadn’t been drunk and drugged enough to see it before, but she did see it now.

Right in front of her. An incompetent, a worthless man whom everyone hated, but here, put beside some regular nameless man from the street, he was elevated to a god.

Suddenly everything seemed too real. It was a whiplash of emotion, going from cold and dead to hot and emotional; too emotional, too soon. Someone lit the candle in her chest, and the wax was the tears that ran down her face, as she watched this all helplessly.

“You say you love the troops so much? I’m a Colonel, a Colonel you horrid drunk! I’m Colonel Von Sturm! I’ll call the police on your beer-addled arse if you don’t leave my sight this instant! I wouldn’t care if your entire family lost their jobs!” Von Sturm shouted.

Sobbing, the drunk man staggered back a step. His jaw unhinged a little.

His eyes, still weeping, closed, and settled, and seemed to see Von Sturm now.

Fruehauf thought she saw his face darken. He started to clench and unclench his fist.

“Von Sturm? You’re– the 13th right? Little brother– he was– he sent letters–”

Von Sturm stared quizzically at the man and exasperated, gestured for him to move.

Fruehauf could hear the man’s breathing even where she stood. He was gasping for air.

He was looking around, covering his face with his hands, well and truly having a fit.

“That place– over in the ‘varta. Bada Aso. Little Brother– he was there–”

His sentences became more and more fragmented as his breathing accelerated.

“Will you shut up and move! I’m done with you! Just leave!” Von Sturm shouted at him.

He clearly was paying no attention, listening to nothing the man was trying to say.

He was so beneath Von Sturm’s notice that the Colonel had on his angry, arrogant expression right until the very second the drunk’s fist impacted with his nose.

Fruehauf covered her mouth with her hands and shrank back behind a mail box.

“You piece of shit.” cried the drunk. “You got him– you got him killed– you–”

In the next instant the drunk lunged at Von Storm and knocked him flat to the ground, beating him against the pavement with fists that seemed like they would break the stone. Von Sturm’s arms thrashed and clawed against the man but did nothing to stop him. Shouting about his brother and about Lehner and about his job and how he failed the troops, the man smashed Von Sturm again and again until Fruehauf could stand it no more and fled into the alleyway, her hands grabbing hold of tufts of her own hair.

She put her head to the wall and wanted to scream, but she also wanted Von Sturm to be beaten to death, and so the sound was restrained by something vengeful and primeval.

“Um, are you okay?”

Fruehauf looked up.

There was a fire escape above her, and there was a woman on it, brown-skinned, dark-haired, dressed in a coat over a nightgown. There was light coming from behind her.

She gave a friendly little wave.

“Is something wrong, ma’am? Let me go get my girl– my friend, we’ll help you!”

Staring up made Fruehauf dizzy, and she doubled over, vomiting.

Her eyesight started to leave her, the world going black.

She heard shouting, and the slamming of a steel ladder in the alley.

Everything felt unreal and dreamlike, and as reality collapsed, so did she.


Previous Part || Next Part

1.7: The Lord of the Wildfire

This scene contains violence, death and body horror.


Demesne: Where humans possess simple auras reacting to ambient and absorbed magic, wild Tyrants create vast, warped otherworlds of magic known as ‘Demesne’ that a Tyrant can project onto the material world to stake territorial claims. A Tyrant’s demesne warps reality into a shape suitable for the Tyrant’s preferred magical profile. In response, humans have historically developed many spells, strategies and equipment to Contain the demesne.


Before Minerva and Lyudmilla the statue seemed to bloat into a bubble of what seemed like liquid cement. Seams formed on its surface that oozed a slick, oily substance, vividly colored in the light of the wild flames around the platform. Minerva raised a hand in defense, sensing movement. From the seams, metallic digits burst through like the arms of an insect, breaching a cocoon. Clay sloughed off the mutating structure.

Once enough material was shed, there was a creature, its skin baking in the heat, large and misshapen, a bull-like head melded into its thick shoulders. Its attached arms were meaty, ending in clenched fists. There was a massive wound on its chest, dripping clay, and out from within it a series of metallic ribs and a large metal spine stretched to the ground like the legs and abdomen of a horrifying insect. Somewhere deep inside the churning, chittering mass of metal amid its clay-sloughing chest, was a heat source, like a pilot light. Thin trails of smoke wafted out from a red glow in the creature’s center.

“Wyrm!”

Now the voice was not booming from seemingly everywhere like a surround-sound system; Moloch’s challenge came from his physical mouth, on his corporeal head.

Somehow the sound disturbed Minerva more than before.

“I will rip the fire from your false body as you ripped it from mine.”

Moloch’s mouth made a wet, slapping sort of sound. It seemed to melt and solidify and melt more every instant, dripping globs of clay that hardened and burned onto its chest.

Everything was heating up. She only barely felt it, because of how she was.

Minerva did not answer to his provocation. She controlled her breathing. She felt her body reacting to the Demesne. Her chest was hot, and she felt Wyrm in the back of her head: its disdain, its hatred. Most of all, its hunger. In the presence of so much wild and uncontrolled ambient magic, she lost her cool. Anyone observing her closely would’ve seen her eyes, red with throbbing veins one seconds, and dark and collected the next. Dilated, weeping; focused and dry. It was a struggle against an atavistic other self.

Self.

Though she told Moloch otherwise, she feared some part of her was Wyrm indeed.

Minerva felt a hand at her back, and looked briefly over her shoulder to see Lyudmilla with her grimoire out, and her eyes steeled. She was acting calm, at least. Minerva had no experience with grimoires, but Lyudmilla survived Ajax. She could survive this.

“Miss Orizaga, please protect Cheryl.” She asked.

“Already on it.” Minerva said. “Vorra.”

Vorra nodded and muttered something under her breath.

Smoke briefly played over her lips, swirling with her speech.

Minerva glanced at the sacrificial poles around the edges of the platform and saw them disappear instantly, absorbed through the walls of the demesne in a puff of smoke.

Lyudmilla looked around in confusion.

“I have separated the children from the Demesne, milord.” Vorra said.

“Hear that, Lyudmilla?” Minerva said.

“Yes.” Lyudmilla replied, sighing with relief.

“Hang in there.” Minerva said. “Containment strategy is way too complicated for an introductory course, but you can get behind the basic principle: surviving.”

In truth, Minerva herself was untested at containment, but she, too, could act calm.

She had known since she was young that she would confront a Tyrant in the future.

“Did you install that thing I gave you.” Minerva asked.

Lyudmilla silently raised her hand. Minerva saw the memory card in her homunculus.

“We’ll get through this together.” Minerva said. “Just watch your casting. Limiter’s off.”

Lyudmilla moved closer to Minerva, and muttered near her head.

“Miss Orizaga, I was–” She hestiated, “when I was younger, I was sworn to an oath–”

Minerva felt her heart rise briefly.

“Don’t use it.” She cut in immediately.

She felt Lyudmilla tremble behind her, confidence suddenly shaken.

She raised her voice.

“Are you for real? Listen, I can–”

In front of them Moloch sneered, and the fire in his chest burnt brightly for an instant.

Smoke poured out from his back and he laughed at them.

His eyes were glassy and pale. He looked as if he was staring past them.

“Don’t debate this here.” Minerva warned. “I need your help. He’s weakened.”

She could almost imagine Lyudmilla’s stunned expression.

But she had to keep her eyes forward now. It was about to start soon.

Moloch raised, with difficulty, one of his arms. It looked as if it weighed a ton.

He had much less difficulty plunging it into his own chest.

Warning, Entity temperature rising sharply. Fire magic channeled.”

Minerva’s homunculus gave a sudden warning, as processed by the illegal M.A.G.E. military spellcasting system installed on it. On the accompanying headpiece, an alternate reality display in front of her eyes overlayed the creature with a temperature gradient that saw its chest turning sharply redder, and the arm inside burning as much.

His aura was very thick; he had focused it around him. She would have a hard time penetrating his defenses with any sort of magic until he opened himself up to it.

She had to respond to an attack; he’d be vulnerable then.

“Don’t do anything yet.” Minerva whispered.

Lyudmilla nodded behind her.

“Wyrm!”

When Moloch pulled his arm free of his own body, it was red, covered in leathery skin, and seemed much easier for him to move. Flames danced around his fingers and nails.

“Wyrm, you come to me in this body, full of delicious skin and oil and hair that burns. You’ve no advantage here! No scales to block me, no wings to deflect my wrath!”

Around his one newly-rejuvenated arm the flames grew denser and collected into orbs.

“Milord!” Vorra warned.

Moloch’s fingers wriggled and the orbs went flying in different directions.

“Scatter!” Minerva shouted, pushing Lyudmilla back and stepping forward.

Lyudmilla responded swiftly. She made a pulling motion on the pages of her grimoire and rapidly blurted out the words to the lesser-known Kabukov’s Cossack’s Flight; this obscure spell coupled with the homunculi limiter being removed caused Lyudmilla to blow herself skyward without control, spinning out and flying away from the platform.

It was enough; the fireball meant for her passed just under legs and careened away.

Two more swerved around Minerva and Vorra like circling hyenas.

Lyudmilla’s was a feint. Moloch grinned, clearly controlling the latter two directly.

“Milord!”

Both orbs moved closer, and then pivoted away at sharp angles before driving back in.

Minerva made to move and deflect the magic; but Vorra leaped in front of her.

She sprouted a massive wing that wrapped around the bewildered teacher.

Inside the wing Minerva couldn’t do magic without risking Vorra’s safety; and Vorra, standing Sentinel a few meters away, had put herself in an awful position now.

“Milord, this subservient flesh stands in your defense.” She declared.

“Vorra, no! They’re–”

Minerva felt a brief wave of heat wash over her as the fireballs collided with Vorra.

Wrapped in the wing, she saw two terrible flashes and a shadow standing before her.

Slowly the wing unwrapped and dropped Minerva on the floor.

Vorra fell to one knee, struggling to stand. Her other wing stretched front of her body, smoking. It too fell, wilting before her like a dying flower and crumpling on the floor.

It had been pierced by two metal balls, both of which rolled off Vorra’s body to the floor.

One massive bruise on her exposed shoulder and neck attested to the impact.

Vorra’s sweater covered up the other wound, this one to her rib and flank.

Behind them, the third bullet had smashed a dent into the edge of the metal platform.

“Damnable cheat.” Vorra cursed, visibly in agony. “Blackguard. Hid bullets in them.”

“This is why I said scatter!” Minerva shouted, nearly in tears.

Had she not trusted in Vorra’s constitution she would have been beside herself with grief.

“Kilnlings, collect the dragon concubine, she shall be fuel!” Moloch shouted.

Around Moloch the skeletal metal creatures became excited.

They moved with a suddenness that shocked Minerva.

A dozen of them once holding court around the Tyrant came to life and pounced.

Vorra was well aware of them, but she winced and wobbled trying to move.

Minerva raised her wand–

Before her eyes the AR display showed Moloch’s legs heating up.

That same suddeness was not exclusively to his minions.

Moloch joined the charge, cutting the distance as if propelled by a jet.

In that instant Minerva knew not who to save or how.

Kilnlings jumping on Vorra; Moloch, his arm reared back for a swing at her.

Her brain froze, an infinity of fear colliding with a primal voice screaming at her to devour the enemy in front of her, no matter the cost to her or to those dear to her.

“I’m coming!”

Lyudmilla Kholodova’s words reached Minerva at the precise, final second.

Minerva warped the floor in front of her for defense.

Wordlessly and without motion she raised a wall of metal that Moloch’s arm half-melted through and became trapped in, his glowing hot claws inches from Minerva’s cheek. His body came smashing down against it, and his limbs thrashed atop its surface.

In that very same second Lyudmilla dove down, snatched Vorra and leaped again.

That dozen Kilnlings so sure to kill her lover instead crashed together in a broken heap.

“I’ve got her! Do what you have to!” Lyudmilla shouted from the air.

Somehow that girl was really holding her own. Minerva had to wonder about her.

Still, she was relieved momentarily. She’d have to talk sternly with Vorra about all this.

“Wyrm!”

Moloch pounded his free, clay-like arm into the metal with horrifying force, denting it.

Minerva thought it time to display some uncharacteristic swiftness of her own.

She rolled out from behind her shield and in the same sweeping motion she dragged on the metal. Her motions were accompanied by a red glow and a vacuum pull, and the metal shield she had raised from the platform melted into a white-hot bubble of goo that she suspended in the air before her, held in a tenuous balance between hand and wand.

Seconds later Moloch realized what had happened and he let out a massive roar.

He stared down in disbelief at the gory stump left of his renewed, good arm.

“Wyrm!” He shouted, “This magic! This magic!”

Minerva had pulled his arm in with the metal as she tore away from her shield.

“It looks better on me.” She said cheekily.

 

Moloch blinked, his open, gaping mouth slowly closing itself as clay melted off it.

M.A.G.E read Moloch’s aura dispersing. A Tyrant was a thick, dense concentration of magic held together by a sharp, focused will and intellect. A Tyrant at the height of its power looked like it wanted to: its ideal conception based on the magic it embodied. Moloch was a remnant, kept alive by its legendary rage and apparently little else.

She had seen Tyrants at their peak before. She had seen them brought low too.

To prevent the repeat of that horrible massacre, Minerva knew this day would come.

Minerva would end him.

Throughout history humans challenged Tyrants. There were all kinds of myths, all manner of ways; magic items, special spells, rituals, even environments designed to stop or trap them. Minerva knew Containment, the modern, militarized paradigm.

She challenged a Tyrant in its demesne and now she would prevent its spread.

Minerva pushed one hand closer to the orb of smelt and spun her wand around it.

She blinked, and the hot goo became a solid metal orb once more. Such a spell would have spent her, normally. Magic took a lot out of a human body, it drained stamina, it taxed muscles and brains alike, especially when affecting high volumes of material or large objects like the orb of metal. However, Wyrm luxuriated in the fire magic of the Demesne, and unbidden but not unwanted, her body had been absorbing some bit by bit.

Some of Wyrm’s lust for violence rubbed on her for a second too.

Grinning viciously, she flicked her wand and launched the ball at Moloch.

It struck him dead center like a massive cueball.

Flailing his arms and legs, Moloch bounced and skidded brutally along the ground.

Moments later Moloch smashed into the pile of kilnlings and sent his supplicants flying every which way in pieces, chunks of metal ribs and claws sticking to the soft, melting clay parts of his body as he rolled and thrashed and bounced across the platform.

Pieces of clay and skin and bits of metal shed from him as he crashed up and down.

Moloch screamed and raged impotently as it tumbled off the edge into the fiery pit.

His screams began to crescendo despite the distance, but then finally died down.

Minerva turned her head around, scanning the Demesne for signs of magic.

At that moment, Lyudmilla finally dropped from the sky, landing on her feet.

In her arms, she carried Vorra like a princess — a struggling, ungrateful princess.

“Unhand me, peon!” She said. “This skin is for milord’s touch exclusively! Put me down!”

Lyudmilla unceremoniously dropped Vorra onto the ground.

“Here’s this thing, I guess.” Lyudmilla said, a look of exasperation on the student’s face.

She twirled her hair bobbles around while examining the surroundings.

“Is it gone?” She asked warily.

“Maybe.” Minerva said. She was still scanning the auras.

“I can’t believe this limiter stuff. I was flying!” Lyudmilla said, looking around herself.

“That’s not just your homunculus being unbound. It’s because of the demesne too.”

“So what will my magic look like outside?”

Minerva raised her hand. She saw something on the edges of the demesne.

There was a brief silence just as briefly broken.

Warning, demesne temperatures rising sharply.”

Lyudmilla stood bolt upright with shock; Minerva grit her teeth.

Around them, the “walls” of the demesne flared up, great columns of fire superimposed over the fleeting image of the forest outside the demesne. They thickened and burned and spread until the fire seemed to consume all of the outside world, creating a dimension of endless red and orange flames dancing around the isolated metal platform.

“Oh no, the forest! Cheryl!” Lyudmilla shouted, hands to her chest with fear.

“It’s just the demesne! If we stop Moloch it won’t spread.” Minerva cautioned.

Around them, that deep, booming, omni-directional laughter sounded again.

Wyrm.”

It sent a chill down her spine. All around her the aura thickened.

Somehow its power was increasing.

“Vorra, leave the demesne now.” Minerva said.

“Yes milord.” Vorra said sadly. “I’ve disgraced myself.”

She coughed, and spat a fire that expanded into a cloud of smoke around her.

Her shape sailed on the hot wind through the demesne walls and out of their sight.

Minerva sighed with relief. Vorra at least would be safe.

At her side, Lyudmilla was stunned to silence, terrified; she was sweating, shaking.

“I’ll need your help, Lyudmilla. I’m sorry. Please be strong.” Minerva said.

She was a truly terrible teacher, but this was what things had come to.

Lyudmilla nodded, but she was breathing very harshly.

Around them the fires reached a fever pitch.

Then, gas began to creep up from below the platform. Thick, awful smog.

Mechanical limbs reached up into the sky from within the fire.

Indistinct and segmented, bolted together with gears and drive belts.

Unholy machinery began to pull something massive as if from hell itself.

Two enormous claws grabbed hold of the platform’s edge and pushed up.

An indistinct hulk at first, when the massive machine rising before them started to untangle itself from its own supporting cranes and conveyors, they could see its arms, its rib-cage, its horned cranium, long and beak-like with a bare jaw and empty sockets. Like a cow skull stripped of any flesh; but it was all metal. Moloch had risen in a new form, its body massive, and driven by gears. Gas pipes ran over his form like exposed sinews, all attached to the smoking, burning hole in its center, still guarded by limb-like ribs.

Minerva was reminded of an animatronic animal, stripped of its outer covering.

Held up by chains and belts and cranes attached to its back, it floated before them in a sky of fire, the platform seeming so small when compared to the Tyrant it served.

Moloch’s jaw slowly unhinged. Minerva could see the gears struggling to move it.

Wyrm, your short-sighted disdain for humanity and their metal will be your undoing. You stole the fire and left behind the hearth. Now you will burn in it!


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E.S.P (72.3)

This scene contains violence, death, coercion and acts of misogyny.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — South Wall Defensive Line

Wave after wave of Nochtish infantry, sappers and armored vehicles hurled themselves at the walls of Solstice. The staggered marching ranks that appeared so clean over the hills broke into irregular masses as they approached the wall. Every incoming column lost scores of men and machines to an endless barrage of machine gun fire, howitzer shells and soon, the howling secret weapon of the Supreme High Command: rockets.

Blood, by the metric tonne, stained the white sand the color of wine. Piles of bodies choked up foxholes and makeshift trenches made by the previous barrages and exposed the new columns to more gunfire with less hiding places. Smoke from the shellfire and overheated machine guns lingered and turned the day dim; but the endless gunfire was a blessing, because the stench of gunpowder and fire and the unending din of the barrages and roaring of cannons drowned out the sheer absurd reek and riot of death.

Standing at their walls, the Ayvartans quietly manned their guns, every minute of shooting at least eroding their minds less than the bullets eroded northern flesh.

For some, it was a sight they were desensitized to, and with eyes wide and unblinking, they bore witness to a blur of indistinct violence. For others, it was justice, and they howled to their comrades that the imperialists were serving their time for their sin. These folks were welcomed, because the validation kept the rest a little more sane.

For a very select few, it was a disturbingly joyful chaos that they outright enjoyed.

Sometimes, over the endless cacophony of machine guns and howitzers, Brigadier General Nadia Al-Oraibi could hear the cackling of her colleague Brigadier General Gazini as she watched the unfolding carnage. Her expression was rapt, bright green eyes following the bombs across the sky and then twisting with laughter once they splashed fire and metal on some unsuspecting Nochtish unit, wiping it from the sands. She raised a machete into the sky and pointed out enemy units for the nearby wall gunners to attack, who then tried their best to oblige their superior. Gazini was easily pleased.

Bravissimo gunnery crews! Splendido! Carve up the earth and drop them to hell!”

While the slightly out-of-place elf cheered on the gunners, the calmer General raised an eyebrow at the sight of the last ammunition truck parked behind the wall, its stores rapidly depleting. It had arrived an hour ago and none since had come to replace it.

Despite the volume of fire and the loss of life, this situation was untenable. They were unprepared for such a sudden attack; Nocht should have been 50 kilometers from Solstice, and any penetrations through the desert should have been no bigger than company-sized. Nakar had warned of deep strikes from the open desert, but who listened? Nadia had thought the probabilities too small. Now she was enacting a plan that required days of preparation with hours instead. Everything was a mess.

They had to break the Nochtish forces, to destroy their will to fight, and soon.

It would at least buy time to figure out what the front line looked like anymore.

Nadia pulled back the sleeve of her uniform to check her watch, and turned to the radio man at her feet, huddling behind the thick stone ramparts for cover. She arranged a few locks of sweat-drenched black hair behind her ear and cleared her throat. Even fully prepared, she found it difficult to speak, and the radio operator was forced to wait a moment with the handset to his face and his eyes staring up at the commander. She wondered what he saw: a stout and confident commander, or a skinny, sweaty bespectacled girl pulled from a basement office, stuffed in a coat and medals.

“One minute until the Prajna are ready to fire. I want Corps artillery on the line.”

“Yes General! Will do. And um; I know what you meant ma’am, but Prajna are controlled by the High Command, not Corps, so it’ll take me a moment to reach them.” He said.

“Thank you, Specialist.” said the General, her hands shaking ever so slightly.

Nodding and smiling gently, the young man returned to work on the radio.

Nadia felt foolish and she almost wanted to be buried in a hole, but it was to be expected. This was the front line and she was nervous. She was so unused to speaking, and especially to speaking loud enough to be heard over the sound of front-line fire.

“Never thought I’d hear ‘the Genius of Defenses’ stuttering like that.”

At her side, she saw the sleek, smirking face of Eleanora Gazini lighting up with mirth, and she turned the other cheek and surveyed the battlefield instead. And yet there was an impression of the woman left in her eyes, radiant despite her years and her filthy brain and soul. Elves were infurating; who knew how old any of them were, perpetually frozen in their mid-thirties or early forties at some point or other. Gazini was old enough to have served under and been jailed by three separate administrations in one war each. Yet she was rather beautiful, with one vibrant eye, a slender figure, flowing golden hair falling from under her cap, and a lovely complexion only marred by a scar or two.

She could hear Gazini moving closer by the ringing of the bell on the bright red dog collar around her scarred-up neck. Her fellow General swooped in closer and threw an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close with too much presumed familiarity. When Nadia stared at her sidelong, she caught a glimpse only of the black eyepatch.

“Al-Oraibi, you’re not a scholar anymore! You’re a General! And in this degenerate age of impersonal machines, you’re a General who gets to watch the front, like the Cavalry of old! Take it from this spent old bitch, the youth need to stand straight, and be merry!”

Though she had written extensively about what happened in theory in these situations, actually acting out the plans that she crafted as “The Genius of Defenses” was a new challenge. Especially with “The Cannibal Hound” as her neighboring commander.

“Your brand of merriment will just land me in prison.” Nadia shot back.

“It’s not bad! It builds character. You meet many interesting women.” Gazini shrugged.

On her arm was an iron shackle, worn to denote her status as part of a penal troop.

Nadia stared at it with disdain.

“Ma’am!”

The radio operator called to her from below and Nadia was grateful for the attention.

“Are the Prajna crews taking suggestions for targets?” Nadia asked. “I have a few.”

Gazini covered her mouth to stifle a little chuckle while Nadia gave the coordinates.

Below them the scattered remnants of another wave of Nochtish infantry coalesced into a dreadful mass and made a push for the wall once more. On their backs were large bags of explosives that Nadia had witnessed going off in isolation before, detonated by shells and fire. They were powerful bombs, more powerful than any Nadia had seen carried by infantry before. It was the objective of their attacks to blow a hole in the wall using the explosives, Nadia quickly surmised. She had since had her units target them specifically.

However, Nadia had her own powerful explosives available.

Within minutes of her request, she felt the ground beneath her, the wall upon which she stood, quivering with a force originating from the city center. Overhead the massive shells of the Prajna cannons soared skyward in an acute arc, rising into the clouds completely out of sight before careening earthwards. Nadia and Gazini watched the super-heavy shell as it crashed to earth amid the teeming mass of the enemy in front of them and exploded widly, detonating their bombs and consuming the enemy charge.

White fires spread across the desert in front of them. Gazini stared, bewildered.

From the initial explosion flew a cloud of burning fragments that clung to bodies. Sticky, flashing white-and-red fire spread throughout the corpse-choked trenches and foxholes and sandbars, consuming the bodies as fuel and leaping atop any survivors like hissing imps, grappling screaming men to the floor and twisting them into horrific shapes. A smell, a smell more terrible than the gunpowder and carrion, rose from the sin below and up to the wall, where Nadia caught a whiff. She recoiled. It was chemical, awful.

“Tell the Prajna crews the experimental white phosphorous super-heavy incendiary worked. Nocht should not have exposed Madiha Nakar to such weapons.” Nadia said.

“It’s beautiful!” Eleanora Gazini cried out, clapping her hands, the inferno below reflected in her eyes, burning figures dancing with the flames. “Oh, what a sight!”

Nadia thought Gazini might shed a tear, but instead she picked up a radio from off the backpack carried by another man who had a shackle around his lower arm. Her voice lost is cheery, girlish tone as she addressed the men on the other end of the cord, barking at them like a mother or a teacher giving pitiless discipline to some misguided flock.

“Hey you laggards, isn’t it about time you made your appearance? You’re making me look bad! Such a beautiful battlefield and you haven’t the dignity to seek glory in it? Go!”

From somewhere below the wall, trap doors opened, and from them emerged men in fireproof hardsuits and welder’s masks, with machetes, trench shotguns, and pistols in hand. Screaming like the berserkers of the northern legends, they stormed out to meet the remaining Nochtish forces. Amid the white fires, the field of corpses and the blowing sand of the khamsin, they must have seemed like demons. Nadia saw the incoming fresh wave of Nochtish men crest the sands toward the killing field, and upon witnessing the horrors ahead of them, they broke before they even set foot into gun range, and fled.

“Pursue!” Gazini shouted into the radio. “Your heroism in defense of the capital in these desperate times, will be rewarded! You do well and we’ll be made a real rifle division!”

She sounded almost giddy at the prospect.

Nadia, already in a real rifle division, knew not why.

She sighed, and laid back upon the wall, sweating profusely, breathing heavily.

War was just a mathematical equation, or so she had thought.

She solved this one, at least. But there would be more. And today wasn’t even over yet.

“We need to convene with Nakar. How’s the Conqueror’s Way holding up?” Nadia asked.

Below her, the radio man made the relevant call out to his counterpart across the city.

“I’m getting interference ma’am.” He said, confused. “It’s like there’s a storm out there.”


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Conqueror’s Way

Yanyu Zhuge waited for a little bird, but none would send a pity chirp her way.

She withdrew her own pistol and took aim at Aatto Stormyweather, who in turn pressed her own pistol harder against the temple of Madiha Nakar. Aatto struggled to hold the general, who was severely weakened by her recent traumas but strong enough to be a nuisance. The two of them were each screaming all manner of things at Yanyu.

“Shoot her! She’s too dangerous to be allowed to escape!”

“Shut up! I’ll really shoot, you know! Don’t fuck with me!”

It made the grimness of this scene almost subtextual. Everything looked an utter farce.

Yanyu felt the stupidest of the three. She had relied so much on the little birds, on the whispers in her brain that told her what to expect, what would happen, what should happen. It was hard to stand on her own two feet with the kind of confidence she once had. How did one respond to one’s own complete failure? She stood with her pistol up, paralyzed with indecision. Everything felt surreal and heavy and impossible now.

“Fuck this! Listen you! I demand all the Nochtish prisoners be released right now–”

“Don’t listen to her! Shoot me and I’ll use the spark to blow her to pieces!”

“What? Are you crazy? You don’t even know if that will work! Just shut the fuck up!”

“Both of you shut up!” Yanyu shouted, suddenly shooting her own gun.

Her bullet landed at Aatto’s feet and the dog-eared woman nearly leaped with fear.

She barely managed to retain control of Madiha, who tried in vain to escape.

Aatto pulled her back by the neck and aimed her pistol at her head once more.

“Hey! You think I won’t do it? Stop this crazy bullshit and start a prisoner exchange–”

“Oh, no need, I’m here! I’m the only prisoner!”

Before Yanyu’s temper could snap again and cause an even more grievous mistake, all three of them were drawn to a shadow walking in through the clouds. He approached amicably, his hands raised over his blond hair and a mirthful expression on his face.

“Von Drachen!” Aatto shouted.

Yanyu moved as invisible and instant as a gust of wind.

In the blink of an eye she had Von Drachen on the ground, one arm twisted behind his back, his bent legs controlled by her own, and her gun behind the man’s neck. Both the speed of her attack and general shape of the contortion she had put him in seemed utterly beyond human, and Aatto stared in astonishment at the scene. Her gun trembled against Madiha’s head. She was clearly unsure of what to do in this situation.

“I’ll shoot him.” Yanyu said. “Free Madiha this instant.”

“God damn it! You fucking idiot!” Aatto shouted, hurling abuse at Von Drachen.

“Everything is fine.” He said in a choked voice, wincing as Yanyu applied pressure.

“You escape from the Ayvartans and get captured again? And you call yourself a man? You’re a garbage little boy playing soldier! I should shoot you myself!” Aatto yelled.

“I’m doing my best.” Von Drachen replied. “I still have options. Let me think.”

“Think fast.” Yanyu said.

She seemed to press her knee somewhere uncomfortable, and Von Drachen gasped.

“Any ideas?” Aatto shouted.

“She has beautiful, powerful legs, Stormyweather.” Von Drachen muttered.

Aatto grit her teeth. “Ugh! Fine, we’ll free our prisoners together. Let’s just break even.”

“I agree. Clearly this is not the destined hour of our deaths.” Yanyu replied.

Madiha seemed to then regain the manic energy she lost while struggling.

“Don’t do it! Von Drachen is extremely dangerous! We can take both out–”

Aatto smashed the back of Madiha’s head with the pistol and knocked her out.

She threw the body on the ground. “I’m walking away. Let that guy go, you hear?”

Yanyu watched Aatto intently as the dog-eared woman started walking back, cycling her aim between Madiha and Yanyu but retreating as she had promised. Yanyu slowly released Von Drachen from her grip, and the humiliated General stood at an anguished pace, as if collecting the bones he was using to raise his arms and legs one by one.

Soon, he vanished in the fog alongside his psychic companion.

And when the fog started to vanish with them, Yanyu sighed with relief, and awaited rescue from the walls. The Gate went miraculously down, tanks and infantry came rolling out, but the battle was over long before the reinforcements arrived. Yanyu propped Madiha up against a wall and tried to make her look dignified as her subordinates approached. Despite wavering at the end, she was still a hero today.


50th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Field Infirmary, 1st Guard’s

Madiha dreamed of evil, thrashing emotions.

Her slumber had no coherent designs, no poignant imagery.

It was all fire and rage, loud directionless sound. There was shaking cold that traveled through copious sweat that tore across her body like razor blades. There was violence, a horrible dehumanizing violence of the senses that ripped her brain in half. Violence unrelenting upon her body. It was an indescribable, formless pain upon herself, from all sides. There were bullets from without, and a brutal slashing coming from within.

Unbeknownst to her she was moaning, screaming.

There was no sense of time. She could’ve been suffering a million years.

Then without warning, she bolted upright, coughing and choking when suddenly the need to breathe returned to her. She felt a sharp pain shoot down her body from her head. All of her senses turned on at once. What little light was coming into her space was too bright, and what little sound she heard was too loud. Her skin was clammy, and her whole body heavy and hurting. Her stomach burned, a cauldron empty save for acid.

“Madiha! Take this.”

She heard the familiar, supportive voice of Parinita Maharani, her lover and confidante and deputy; she felt her warm, soft hands thrust something into hers that was cold to the touch. Parinita helped Madiha lift the drink to her mouth, and Madiha drank. Once she got used to the sensation of drinking, she downed the entire cup of soda water.

“Parinita.” Madiha said, breathing heavily.

“I’m here.” Parinita said. She held Madiha’s hand.

When her eyes finally got used to the lights, Madiha could see her lover’s eyes, her bouncy strawberry hair, her peachy skin and her red-painted lips. She smiled, weakly, and still breathing heavily, but feeling safe and at home with the one she loved.

“I’m sorry.” Madiha said.

“Oh you will be!” Parinita replied, weeping suddenly. “When you get better I’m going to make you watch the most cringe-worthy theater adaptations I can find on film, I’ll punish you thoroughly for being so reckless after you told me you wouldn’t!”

“I’m really sorry.” Madiha said, weeping herself. “I’ll accept my punishment.”

“Ah damn, now I’m gonna cry even harder.” Parinita said. “Ugh. I was useless again.”

Before Madiha could say anything to assuage her lover’s anxieties, the flap of cloth that covered the entrance to the infirmary swung open, and the two of them had to quickly stifle their tears and try not to look too lovey-dovey in the presence of whoever had just entered the room. Madiha was nearly blinded again by the sudden intrusion of more light into the room, but she did see a pair of figures in uniform trenchcoats walk in.

“General, I’m glad you’re awake. Congratulations are in order.”

“Hah! I knew you’d bounce right back. You’re unkillable, they say.”

Madiha knew both of the visitors. She knew the first one to speak exceedingly well: it was Nadia Al-Oraibi, the General known as ‘The Genius of Defenses.’ A young woman with a tired, loveless expression on her face, her body thin and long-limbed, her sweat-slick skin the color of desert stone. She arranged her black hair behind one of her ears, fidgeting with it. At her side was the wildcard known as ‘The Cannibal Hound’, Eleanora Gazini. Though she ruthlessly self-flagellated her own age, calling herself a “spent bitch” and an “old harpy” far more often than tasteful, Eleanora looked as vibrant as an elfin girl half her age, blonde-haired, emerald-eyed, fair-skinned.  Though she was scarred up, especially around her neck and missing eye, she was tall, sleek and quite sparkling.

Gazini used to be a prisoner of war before; Madiha was still hazy on her promotion.

Both of them approached for handshakes. Al-Oraibi gave her a proper and very quick shake, while Gazini seemed to want to rip her arm off, drawing a predatory glance from Parinita. After exchanging pleasantries the arrivals sat across from Madiha; Al-Oraibi properly, and Gazini backward, pressing her breasts against the back of the chair.

“General Nakar, as I said, congratulations are in order. We believe that, unknowingly, you endured the main objective of the Nochtish attack. Your destruction of the Nochtish secret weapon prevented a breach in our most vulnerable sector.” Al-Oraibi said. “And with the western desert thrust scattered, Nochtish forces have retreated back to their main lines 50 kilometers away from the city, out of artillery range. Though their forces are likely extending slowly northward and eastward in the deserts, the city is safe.”

“Yes, well done! Our work isn’t over yet, but you really sent those goons packing. As far as the desert is concerned, I sent some of my undesirables into the sand in pursuit.” Gazini said with a vicious little grin. “If they come back, we might get something to work with on how far the Nochtish lines have stretched out and how thick they’ve gotten.”

Al-Oraibi stared at Gazini with consternation. “Our recon aircraft will do that work.”

“Our air recon is amateurish and you know it. They’ve given us the wrong coordinates to everything except the most intimidating rocks and sand pits in Solstice.” Gazini replied.

“And you think a bunch of inmates on horseback can do better?” Al-Oraibi snapped.

“I don’t think anything about those scum, but for their sake, they’ll find something.”

Al-Oraibi turned away from Gazini and started to very obviously ignore her. “General, once you are up and about, we need to go over any actionable intelligence together. As our mechanized element, the defense of the city beyond the walls will fall on you.”

Madiha nodded her head silently. Al-Oraibi’s unit was largely infantry and relatively static, with their motor vehicles in use as artillery and ammunition transports. Gazini’s unit had some motor transport but as a penal unit, were not allowed to use it freely. Most of the motor and tank power in the city lay in Madiha’s hands, with only a few other, smaller tactical units given to the southern defensive army. Outside the city, the rather green northern and eastern armies had motor and tank units, but they were raw, and untested. High Command was cautious about committing them so soon after formation.

For better or worse, the SIVIRA had adopted a posture that Solstice should be self sufficient as possible in its own defense, and the industrial might of untouched North Ayvarta was being hoarded and accumulated cautiously. Though the new armies were theoretically powerful, the High Command was saving them for when an opportunity arose for a massive counteroffensive. Everyone had the mindset that Solstice was still in the defensive phase, and so the new armies shouldn’t be wielded. After all, many old officers had been court martialed or shot in grim 2030 for wasting good armies on pointless attacks when they could’ve been defending strategically and saving themselves.

Madiha knew the southern army was in a bad way from defending Solstice for so long.

It was not in any state to counterattack, not by itself.

But Madiha had other ideas about the state of the army as a whole.

“I’m recovering fast.” Madiha said. “Once I’m back up, I will be heading to the SIVIRA to propose that a counteroffensive be planned in the northwest and eastern desert.”

Al-Oraibi and Gazini stared at one another; Al-Oraibi in horror, Gazini in awe.

“You splendid nutcase!” Gazini said. “I will give my full recommendation!”

“Your word means nothing, you chained-up dog.” Al-Oraibi said. “Nakar, this is crazy.”

“I know.” Madiha replied. “It’s a gamble. But we have to do something.”

Parinita smiled from the side of the bed, and sighed fondly, shaking her head.

“I cannot support this. And furthermore, we should also consult our new comrades.” Al-Oraibi said, reaching for any out. “The Helvetians and the Kitanese might not consent–”

Behind them, the cloth covering the entrance flapped up once more.

Yanyu Zhuge arrived then, dressed in a lovely, form-fitting, long-sleeved silk gown.

Madiha averted her gaze, but the Kitanese woman seemed to harbor no ill will.

She was smiling, and she spoke as if she had heard the entire conversation.

“A little bird told me our comrades are ready to attack.” She said, winking one eye.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Nocht FOB, “Ostlich Wüste”

After the punishment received at the hands of the Ayvartan superguns, the remains of the forces sent against the walls hastily retreated to the 50 kilometer “safe zone” in the desert surrounding the city. Their own gamble had failed: sneaking in units through the desert gave them access to the city past the South Solstice Front, but they could not move enough firepower to be decisive. Almost all of the Corps that had made it through was infantry and light tanks, and almost all of it had been destroyed. Now the remainder risked being trapped between the Solstice garrison and the South Solstice Front.

Progress along the coasts was slow but it was happening, but the city and the armies in the desert around it still represented a massive bulge against in the Nochtish lines. In order for the Fennec group of forces to survive, they would have to link up with either the elven coastal forces, many hundred kilometers away; or sneak back through south.

Right now, however, Von Fennec was preoccupied with assigning blame instead.

Far in the background, the tank transporters lumbered away despondently and the remaining infantry marched away alongside them. Von Fennec ordered Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather and Petra Hamalainen Happydays to follow him out behind a large boulder jutting out of the sand, and he stood them between himself and the stone.

He then started to shout at them, at first incomprehensibly. For the past few days they had been marching he had been quiet, but now he seemed to be letting it all out.

“I blame this on you, witch! We lost the superweapon, we lost massive amounts of men, we lost our shot at the wall, and all because you fell asleep on the job when you should’ve been our secret weapon! You’re nothing but a trumped-up fog machine!”

Aatto grit her teeth and closed her fists, and Petra rubbed a gentle hand across her arm as a gesture of sympathy, and to try to calm her down. Around them the air grew colder.

“General–”

“Quiet, radio girl!” Von Fennec raised an index finger just a hair’s breadth away from Aatto’s face. “Us Louplanders, we’re treated as the scum of the Federation, because of people like you! Those of us who work hard and uphold the Federation’s values keep being brought down into the dirt by barbarians like you, Stormyweather! You are the reason that our kind will never make it! You disgust me! I made General in this army, the only Louplander General in the regular forces, and now look at what you’ve done to me! I will go back to the Oberkommando and be humiliated and demoted, my work undone!”

“I don’t give a shit about you or your precious Federation! Fuck you!” Aatto spat back.

“You had better start caring! Our homeland will never become anything without the Federation! That’s the work I’m trying to promote! And I thought I could have an ally in you, but you’re content to be another drunken, hedonistic bitch in my way instead!”

“General!” Petra shouted, scandalized. “Aatto’s done everything she could–”

In one brutal snap Von Fennec put his hand across Petra’s cheek, knocking her down.

“Don’t raise your voice to me!”

Aatto’s calm finally broke and the subtle cold around them became a wintry gust.

Von Fennec gasped as his throat closed. He struggled as his body raised off the ground.

“Aatto no!” Petra shouted from the ground, weeping, rubbing her cheek.

Aatto’s eyes burned with blue vapor.

The atmosphere around her was dense with power.

She had her hand outstretched, her teeth grit. She growled, and squeezed her hand as if struggling with Von Fennec’s physical throat. He thrashed and coughed in the air before her, helpless against her attack. Petra made it to her feet and grabbed hold of her, and she shouted and pleaded, but Aatto would not acknowledge her and pressed her attack.

Von Fennec’s fingers wildly struggled against his belt.

He seemed to finally shake something loose and brandished it at her.

Aatto’s eyes dimmed, and the cold dispersed from around her like a popped bubble.

Von Fennec fell to the ground, and raised himself back up, gasping for breath.

Aatto was suddenly stunned, and she moved as if in a trance, trying to raise her hands to attack Von Fennec again, but doing so too slowly and limply to have any effect.

Petra, still holding on to Aatto, looked at Von Fennec in horror.

In his hands there was a small purple cube attached to some sort of horrible little mechanical stand, like a compass with a skeletal claw set on top, clutching the cube. Every so often the little metal fingers would turn the cube on its axis, one rotation, and there would be a tiny, almost imperceptible spark of some dim, purple-black energy.

Could Petra see it because she was a little bit psychic herself?

She could feel something dreadful from it, but it didn’t have the effect it had on Aatto.

“You absolute dog.” Von Fennec gasped. “Not so mighty now?”

He struggled to walk up to Aatto and smacked her with his other hand.

“No!” Petra shouted, but she was too scared to stand up to Fennec herself.

Von Fennec ignored her, focused entirely on Aatto with a cruel, cold gaze.

“You think this wasn’t foreseen? You belong to the Federation, witch!”

Von Fennec raised the device to Aatto’s face, and the catatonic Aatto stared at it.

“This wasn’t the protocol, but to hell with it. If you won’t be an ally, you’ll be a tool.”

“Please stop!” Petra shouted.

“I said shut up, you worthless peasant!”

Von Fennec raised his hand again.

From the desert, a gunshot rang out.

Von Fennec’s fingers flew from his hand before they could come down on Petra.

Blood spurted down on his face. He brought his wounded hand down and stared at it.

He looked up at the rock; Petra looked over her own shoulder in disbelief.

Gaul Von Drachen emerged from around the stone landmark, brandishing his pistol.

“You should show a little more respect for women, Von Fennec! Do you not know the sort of things they go through? Aatto and Petra experience your oppression twofold.”

He walked nonchalantly up to Von Fennec, and kicked him in the knee.

Von Fennec fell back, screaming and thrashing, dropping the device.

“Von Drachen! You traitor! You’re turning against us! Just like you turned against the anarchists! I knew you would!” Von Fennec cried out, making as if to try to crawl away.

“Ah, you have me all wrong. I think you’re the one who betrayed our values.”

Von Drachen picked up the device he dropped, and threw it into the desert.

It struck a rock, and shattered.

At the site of the impact and upon the very second it was struck, the device issued a wave of purple-black electricity, lightning, energy — whatever one could call the effect — that surged and grew into a perfectly circular blast, a hole in reality, consuming everything. A few meters in diameter across three dimensional space, the blast seemed to sink into itself after a few seconds, and left behind a perfectly circular hole in the ground.

For a moment, it was as if it had left a perfectly circular hole in the wind too, a spot where the gently blowing sand of the desert had been consumed in mid-air.

“Huh. Interesting. Anyway, I do this for the Federation and all of that.”

Von Drachen nonchalantly aimed his pistol at Von Fennec and shot him in the head.

Petra screamed with horror.

Aatto blinked, and looked around herself in confusion.

“Oh shit, I must’ve killed the old fuck. Damn, ugh, I really did it–”

She noticed Von Drachen then.

“Wait–”

Von Drachen shrugged for an instant.

He then shouted. “Snipers! Snipers in the desert! Double time! Double time!”

He pushed Aatto and Petra by the shoulders away from the site.

“Let us agree,” he whispered, “that Von Fennec was just a regrettable casualty of war.”

Petra was speechless and upset by everything, and merely sobbed and clung to Aatto.

Aatto, meanwhile, grinned viciously. “I won’t miss him.”


Previous Part || Next Part

 

 

1.5: Pretenders

This chapter contains strong and suggestive language, violence and  xenophobia.


Aside from buses there weren’t that many cars around the National. Few people owned their own car anymore. There were a few students in scooters and motorbikes; but Phillip’s sports car was the only one on the road. By herself in the backseat, with the window rolled down and the wind tunneling through, Milla felt herself drifting. On the front seats, Cheryl and Phillip flirted and laughed and got handsy with each other.

Milla leaned against the side of the car, staring out the open window, her eyes heavy.

Didn’t VIPs ride in the backs of fancy cars? She couldn’t even muster a little fantasy.

Outside the streetlights and the lights from the fronts of buildings melded together, a mess of color sweeping past her eyes. Her eyes would close, and the lights would dance inside her eyelids, and briefly she would open them again and see the world nearly unchanged. She felt the night as the combined weight of the day, bearing down on her.

Even here, just sitting, just being driven somewhere, she wasn’t relaxed. She felt like the whole world wanted her in chains. All she had were obligations and uncertainties. Her thoughts were all fragmented. Ever since– why couldn’t she– maybe if I had just died–

“Milla, you know anything about Minerva Orizaga?” Phillip asked.

Milla looked up from the backseat at the rearview mirror and saw Phillip’s eyes.

“Not to sound pessimistic but you probably aren’t getting out of that apprenticeship.”

“I don’t know shit.” Milla replied in a grumpy tone of voice. Phillip paid it no mind.

“She came here recently, kinda like you.” Phillip said. “Right Cheryl?”

“She wasn’t here last year, yeah.” Cheryl said. “I dunno, I think she’s cool.”

“My old man hates her guts.” Phillip said. “Thinks its a bad look for the school.”

“Why would he think that?” Milla said.

“Because he’s a fucking asshole.” Cheryl replied, before Phillip could answer.

Phillip didn’t seem to mind his girlfriend trashing his dad, though he also didn’t overtly agree. Instead he answered as if nothing else had been said. “Minerva’s an Alwi, Milla. Maybe you don’t have ’em up in Moroz but down here it’s kind of a big deal she’s here.”

“I know they’re a group of people, we’re not so insular in the north, you know.” Milla said. “I just don’t know why it would make anyone upset that she’s a Magician.”

“Lot of Otrarians don’t think they should be.” Phillip said. “See, a lot of them came in from the South illegally. They came from the Theocracy of Uttara and from Harazad. None of them ever did magic. Over decades they practically made their own city in Otraria, called Alwaz; it was basically a huge ghetto on the edge of the capital.”

“What does any of this matter?” Milla said.

Cheryl looked between Milla and Phillip as if she didn’t get why they were talking at all.

“It burnt down.” Phillip said. “Like 20 years ago. They say the Alwi picked up on magic little by little, but they destroyed most of Alwaz. They caused some kind of disaster.”

“Did that have anything to do with your government collapsing?” Milla said.

She was supposed to be a history major, after all. Milla wasn’t the most well-versed in ancient history, but she knew enough about current events. Everyone would have heard about it, growing up anywhere in the world. Otraria’s powerful government, all mages of great skill, were overthrown and killed in 1980. Since then instead of the Greater Otrarian Republic it had been known as the Democratic Union of Otraria.

“It played a part.” Phillip said, a little more brusquely than before.

“Why are you two so intense all of a sudden? Who cares? That’s all ancient history.”

“Well, I’m just telling Milla, she ought to be careful around Minerva Orizaga.”

“Why? Ms. Orizaga’s fine.” Cheryl insisted.

“Even if she’s totally harmless babe,” Phillip said, “she’s drawn a lot of attention.”

“It’ll be fine, because I’m not going to be anyone’s apprentice.” Milla said forcefully.

What was his problem all of a sudden? Cheryl was right. Minerva was fine.

Whatever; it wasn’t her problem. It wouldn’t be.

A landscape dominated by LED light and concrete shadow melted away around them. A dirt road led them on their abrupt transition from the Academy’s cityscape to the surrounding wilderness. Trees replaced building, their jagged shadows creeping up their flanks and slowly forming a net overhead. Through the gaps Milla could see the lake, the moonlight glistening off the surface of the water. Though the car’s headlights were on, the beams of light seemed unable to part the thick empty darkness ahead of them.

“Almost there,” Phillip said. “We’ll get out and walk to the site.”

Phillip pulled over on the side of the dirt road. He shut off the car and with it the headlights; the forest felt like a pitch black room to Milla, unable to tell its dimensions or where she was in it anymore. She reached for her wrist, pulling off the screen from her homunculus unit and using it as a flashlight. She exited the car herself.

“Come on Milla, don’t get left behind! The faeries will take you!”

Cheryl laughed.

She walked hand in hand with Phillip and Milla followed a car-length behind, playing with her hair bobbles. She spun one set of them around the associated twintail, sighing.

Everything was quiet. Milla couldn’t even hear animals crying. One would think a frog or a cicada might have said something, but even they seemed to fear to speak on that night.

The environment was disgusting, lukewarm and moist. Every step Milla took, she felt as if she was standing on dung, the soft earth giving away under her feet. She was back on the farm in spirit, and she hated it at all. She could not imagine how anyone would want to make out or push boundaries in this kind of atmosphere. It even smelled disgusting.

They left the road behind and climbed over a little hill into the woods.

Coming down the hill they came upon a clearing of broken earth and overturned trees.

It was as if the statue in the center of had exploded out from under the terrain.

Or as if it had been exploded out, like in dynamite mining.

Milla knew Baphomet was a horned, cow-headed creature, and this statue was similar. However it did not sport the large, bare breasts Milla had also seen in many drawings of the idol; it was instead big bellied, and it had its arms raised. The creature’s bottom half was not very detailed at all in the statue. It was essentially a pillar with a large opening.

“Yes! There it is!” Cheryl laughed, delivering a couple light smacks on Phillip’s back.

Everyone walked down from the hill and onto the clearing, ducking under roots and climbing over splintered trunks from fallen trees. There were beer bottles and bags of potato chips and other snacks strewn about. Milla thought she saw condom wrappers, and maybe even the genuine article. Certainly the place had seen a party or three.

There was no one else around when they arrived, however.

“I thought it’d be livelier.” Milla said, looking upon the statue from afar.

“Yeah, where’s everyone at? I thought Amber and Jenn had gotten ahead of us.”

“I dunno.” Phillip said. “Trent and Arnes were supposed to be with them too.”

“They better not be fuckin’ around here somewhere. Gross.”

A sharp crack reverberated across the forest, metal on metal, as if in answer.

In front of them the opening to the statue burst into flame.

Cheryl screamed and jumped back, and Milla felt a shock run through her body.

Two slender shadows began to move in from the forest.

“You fucking bitches!” Cheryl shouted. “I hate you! I hate you!”

Cheryl assumed it was Amber and Jenn, and she was right.

They weren’t playing a prank.

Her two friends stepped out into the light of the fire, their hands clapped in irons.

Their mouths were gagged, and they were chained together around the legs.

Tears ran down their eyes.

“What the–”

Amber and Jenn seemed to plead to them to run.

From the darkness a chain flew out and wrapped around Cheryl’s leg like a snake.

She lurched forward, scrabbling at the earth.

Phillip started to move, but he was mouth agape, dumbfounded, and shifting in his spot.

Milla reacted; from her jacket she withdrew a small book and swiped it in front of her.

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

Her homunculus responded with noises and lights, and a wave of force blasted out of the swept-open pages of her grimoire and tore the chains from around Cheryl, freeing her.

Cheryl scrambled back to her feet and ran behind Phillip.

“What the hell is going on!” She screamed.

Milla thought to cast the same spell to free Amber and Jenn, but she saw more shadows.

She raised her grimoire in front of her, holding it half-open by the spine.

She held her hand over the pages, ready to swipe it across and cast.

From behind the statue two men appeared. They were wearing black coats and what seemed like sports helmets, with visors and mouth grilles. They had metal bars attached to chains on their hands, whether clubs or as casting tools Milla didn’t know. Tellingly, they possessed homunculi on their wrists. They walked slowly out, tentatively, as if they feared too. Milla could tell by the light of the fire that they were shaken up. They didn’t seem to know where to put their hands and they seemed to try to hide their gazes.

There was another presence alongside theirs.

He came down from the forest too; he appeared to leap down from somewhere high.

He landed atop the statue, standing on its raised arms. He was dressed in what seemed like a suit of armor, less improvised than the thick coats on the two other men, and his helmet was much less improvised as well. It bore the head of a dragon, and its horns. Instead of a short metal club, he had a long bar across his back like a staff or spear.

His homunculus looked much more ornate than those of the other men. Bigger too.

Cheryl cowered behind Phillip, while Milla tried to keep everyone in her sights. Her heart was pounding and her lungs working themselves raw. She smelled the smoke from inside the statue. That was not an illusion; that was a real fire in the clearing now.

“What the fuck is going on?” Cheryl cried in a shrill voice.

Phillip didn’t seem to move to console her. Instead he stared up at the man on the statue. He was standing as if he was ready to dive back at any moment, to twist around and run for his life, but something kept him anchored to the scene. He was pale, quivering.

“What the hell is going on?” He shouted. “This wasn’t– this isn’t what we agreed!”

Milla turned her head sharply toward Phillip. “Agreed? Agreed to fucking what?”

She thought she saw one of the men make a move and turned back to him.

He took a sudden step back, as if he expected to be shot at.

He was staring at her grimoire with fear.

Complete fucking coward, Milla thought. She could at least take one down.

To find herself in this situation again, in the supposedly safe and civilized Otraria–

It was infuriating, as much as it was horrifying.

She had never dealt with ghosts or monsters but she had certainly dealt with men.

At least you could kill those.

Whenever the man in the horned helmet spoke, his voice was concealed, distorted.

“Yes, Phillip, it wasn’t what we agreed. But you were the one who broke our compact.”

His voice was affable. This all sounded casual, just another day for him.

“Shit.” Phillip turned sharply, pleadingly toward Cheryl.

Cheryl looked at Phillip with horror and pushed him away.

Her own strength pushed her back closer to Milla, and she stumbled, on shaking knees, and fell near the other girl. She crawled back, staring at Phillip with tears in her eyes.

“What the fuck is he talking about Phillip? What is he talking about?” She shouted.

Milla took a step forward to stand in defense of Cheryl.

“So much money and so little sense.” remarked the helmeted man. “I don’t know what compelled you to bring that girl, or these, when I asked for only you and the girl. Had it not been for the fact that your boys report to me, it might’ve become a real mess.”

He waved his hands in front of him, as if pointing to Amber and Jenn below.

Phillip’s hands were shaking, even curled into fists. He grit his teeth.

“I knew you were going to do something awful to Cheryl.” He said, weeping, his voice breaking. “I thought, if I brought other girls then, you would leave her alone.”

Atop the statue the helmeted man slammed his foot on the horned head.

“No, that’s not how it works. You want our power, you follow our instructions. Just like your friends did before you. How could you ask them to sacrifice when you do not?”

Both of the men, presumably Trent and Arnes, kept quiet and anxiously still.

Phillip looked defeated. “Fuck, man, I didn’t know you guys were–”

At once the helmeted man raised his voice, sharply, horribly. “That was your mistake.”

Milla saw something move rapidly; but she just as quickly realized it was not for her.

She made no move to defend Phillip as the helmeted man’s staff whipped out at him like it was suddenly made of flexible leather and not stiff steel. It struck Phillip across the face, an iron slap to the jaw that smashed his nose like a bubble of blood. It retracted, and was almost instantly back in the man’s hands as if it had never been altered.

This was metal-element magic. Much like the chains that tried to catch Cheryl.

“Do not worry. I can fix your pretty face up. I need it. I also needed you to learn respect. We are all around you Phillip. You thought I would approach you without insurance? You are surrounded by my men because I sought you out. Because I want you in my ranks.”

Cheryl redoubled her screaming, horrified at what had happened to Phillip.

She clung to Milla’s leg, and Milla had to stifle her instinct to kick her off.

In a street fight, bawling and stupid shit like that got you killed. But Cheryl was a friend.

“Hey, shut the fuck up and let us go!” Milla shouted up at the helmeted man.

He turned from Phillip to her.

“Girl,”

Milla saw a glint of a red eye through the sleek, sharp, dragon-like mask.

He stomped his feet once more on the head of the statue.

Immediately after he started to bloviate in a high-and-mighty tone of voice.

“You’ve no business here. Neither do these two. I feel gracious tonight. Take them and leave. I only need that one.” He pointed idly toward Cheryl. “And the boy with no face. You can leave with your life, and you can even tell anyone your story of this night; I don’t care at all. I cannot be touched by you. I just don’t want anymore interference here.”

Amber and Jenn started to scream and jump in place, begging Milla.

“Fuck you.” Milla replied. “I’m taking ’em all, except that shithead. You can have him.”

Atop the statue the dragon helmet shook from side to side.

“Big-hearted of you. Kill her.”

Beneath him, the two henchmen approached. They had their clubs and chains ready.

Their legs, however, were visibly shaking. And she knew they were focused on her book.

“Hey, Amber and Jenn, those two were your boyfriends right?”

She winked at the girls to try to convey her intent.

Both girls shut their eyes and leaped aside, taking the hint.

Milla threw her grimoire gently overhead.

She reached into her coat, withdrew two of her hidden knives and launched them.

“That’s some shit taste you both got!”

She caught the boys clearly unprepared to defend against a physical attack.

One knife went into one’s shoulder and the other into a knee.

Both men shouted and grit their teeth and stumbled.

Milla caught her grimoire coming back down.

“Pherkhan’s Magnetism!”

Milla swept across her grimoire and the pages whirled with power.

In an instant the knives pulled both men screaming into one another.

They bashed into each other.

Milla then swept her hand across the other way, turning the pages back and forth.

“Pherkhan’s Shock!”

Neither man seemed able to tell where the bolt was aimed, and even though only stuck together by a relatively weak magnetic force neither of them seemed able to escape.

In reality, it struck the trailing chain held by one henchman and trod upon by the other.

Striking the metal, the bolt trailed up like a snake and shocked the two of them at once.

It was something on the order of twenty milliamps, and it hurt.

Both men fell screaming and choking, holding their own bodies, twitching.

It was grotesque and Milla was undisturbed by it.

She had her eyes up to the helmeted man and ready to cast another spell.

He clapped, unperturbed, and stomped his feet on this statue’s head once more.

“I am Centurion Ajax, of the organization Iron Flag.” He said.

She thought she had heard of that. It certainly sounded familiar.

Milla showed him no emotion. “Lyudmilla Kholodova. I’m not afraid of you punks.”

She thought she saw the helmet contort into a smile.

“Of course.” He said.

He raised a hand to the helmet, stroking its chin.

“Of course. Kholodova? I should’ve realized. Of course. Pherkhan, the great late Rus archmagus.” He said. “You do have the eyes of a Moroz savage. How disgusting. You northerners have always been the same. Brute force, all numbers and no finesse.”

He turned from her to Phillip.

She gazed out the corner of her eye as Phillip lunged at her.

“Good man.” He said.

Milla ducked.

Phillip, his broken face contorted in horrified desperation, swung over her.

She could’ve drawn a knife and stabbed him.

Instead, she closed her book, swung her arms around and struck him in the face.

Fresh blood drew from the gaping wound where his nose had been.

He tumbled backwards, and squirmed in pain on the muddy soil.

Centurion Ajax stomped his feet on the statue again, and laughed.

“Pitiful. I thought you wanted to escape your father’s shadow.” the Centurion said. He taunted them. “You don’t deserve it. If you didn’t have a sizable inheritance I would leave you here without a nose. Now If only I could feed that Moroz mongrel to the hearth; but it only accepts children, and that Kholodova is simply too old. Only little Cheryl will do.”

Milla grit her teeth. She was 21 years old; that must’ve been what he meant, if he knew.

She also knew that Cheryl was only 19. But what then did he mean by a hearth?

She realized then, all that time. Baphomet’s statue, the flaming gap in it.

“Amber, Jenn, get away from that statue!” Milla shouted.

She wished she knew a good water spell; but Pherkhan only traded in metal and fire!

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

She was still at the level where shouting names and making casting gestures was her only personal mnemonic. She wished dearly she could have cast faster and quieter.

Milla swept the pages back once more, and Amber and Jenn’s bonds burst apart.

She had the space to cast one spell and she had cast it to save the girls.

Unperturbed, her enemy made his move.

Centurion Ajax reached down from his perch and snatched something from the statue.

There was a gap in its head from where he ripped a chunk of its stonework out.

It was the thing he had been stomping on this entire time.

He crushed it in his hands, and the earth slipped from his fingers to reveal a red orb.

“You could’ve struck me down, Moroz, but you fell for taunts and wasted your chance.”

At once the fire in the statue’s stomach erupted. Amber and Jenn scrambled away.

“In a battle between mages every word, every step, has meaning! You’re still green.”

But the fire seemed to suck in, like a giant drawing in huge breaths.

Centurion Ajax reveled in it all. “Awaken for your feast, Lord Moloch!”


Minerva felt something hot and quivering. She was awoken in the middle of the night as Vorra tore suddenly away from her arms, rushing so quickly to the window that she sent the blanket they were sharing flying into the air. Minerva, bleary-eyed, stared from bed at her girlfriend’s naked human form clawing bestially at the window, bathed in moonlight. She shimmered, red lines tracing lean muscle as her aura became agitated.

Recognizing how exposed they both were, Minerva grabbed the blanket and ran to the window, and quickly threw it over both of them. She looked out upon the lake, confused.

“Livorra, what is the matter with you?” She said, briefly compelled to use her full name.

Her partner raised her hand to the window. Her eyes were bloodshot and dilated.

“Milord, I sense the foulness of a pretender God in those woods. I smell the kindling.”

Minerva blinked and stared past the lake at the dark, distant, nondescript woods.

Her own eyes started to warm up, and she thought she could smell something burn.


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1.4: Restless Girl

This chapter contains repeatedly vulgar and sexually suggestive language.


Tyrant: Spells made real; the wrath of nature; manifestations of faith, power, the elements. Gods. In short, Tyrants are entities that within certain parameters can perform magic beyond the bounds of human performance. The limits of their existence are not understood. Most Tyrants spread a territory known as ‘demesne’ that represents them and their claim on the world. Tyrants who have lost their demesne possess humans or objects instead.


All around her the streetlights went on as if acknowledging her presence, a tunnel of light that bisected the park. It was a white carpet spreading out before her, and for an instant, she reminisced like a child, about the feeling of eyes, about the wonderment that others might have had at the sight of her. She felt almost as special as she wanted to.

However, they were only streetlights. This was not a runway. Nobody was watching.

In this case, that was good and fine. She went to the meeting place and made the exchange. Money left one hand and a brown paper bag filled the other. She grinned.

Night fell quickly after, but Lyudmilla Kholodova paid the gloom no mind.

As she departed the park and made for the dorms on foot, she sparked her own light.

She withdrew a rolled paper cigarette from the bag and a pristine silver lighter from the pocket of her uniform blazer. She took a long drag from the cigarette; the taste was grassy, and the pull a little harsh and spicy on the tongue. It was of poor quality.

“At least it was cheap,” Milla said to herself. She laughed a little through the taste.

She put it out before approaching the dorms, but she’d light another up when she could.

Though she referred to her residence as “the dorms,” the National had all kinds of housing. There were inns and hotels with small rooms up for cheap. Whole apartments and flats were up for sale in town if you applied and the landlord thought you could keep the place together. Private places were the best, or so Milla had heard. There were fancy ultramodern flats going for thousands of thal that had hot tubs and parties going 24/7; Milla couldn’t have hoped to get something like that, given she was practically living on the National’s charity at the moment. Instead she was in the dorms; specifically in what was known as The Estate, a three-winged complex near the center of town. This was not a plebeian state of being by any means. The Estate was well located and rather fancy.

It was just not hot tub sex party fancy; not that Milla really wanted such a thing anyway.

Everything was clean and smooth and well-lit. These weren’t like the school dorms she’d slummed in at various points in her life. Seeing into open rooms there were computers and big bunks and mini-fridges and microwaves for the beer and noodles. There were students everywhere in the halls, chatting, grabbing stuff from the vending machines, making out; each floor had a bulletin board and there were posters and notices on the walls, messages left for people. Every hall was like its own little village, Milla thought.

When she made it to her room, the sixth door on the ninth floor hall, Milla found the door open and her roommate waiting on a desk chair, sitting with the backrest forward and leaning on it. She had been looking out the door with gloomy, expectant eyes.

“Hey Milla. Glad I got to see another human face before the end times.” She joked.

“Okay.” Milla replied. She looked over her shoulder at the door. “Waiting for someone?”

“Yeah, my dirtbag boyfriend and my shitty friends.” She replied, sighing.

“How late are they?”

“Ugh, they were supposed to be here an hour ago, and he should’ve been here all along.”

“Oh well. You’ve got the rest of the night ahead of you Cheryl, lighten up.”

“Uh huh.”

Milla walked past her and dropped onto the bed, and pulled off the screen unit from the homunculus on her wrist. While pretending to toy with the unit, she surreptitiously photographed Cheryl with it while she was still looking out the door and distracted.

It was a good photo.

Cheryl was rather pretty and flashy. Her luxuriantly long blond hair was studded with glittery pink stars, and her eyes had a magical glamour on them that superimposed a star in each. She had her uniform mostly on. Her shirt seemed like it had been tugged until the buttons burst open halfway down her chest, but the tie was still on and done up right. It had a striped pattern of lush pastel colors. Her skirt was a bit loose. She wore a pair of open-toed shoes with short heels and had her blazer tied around her waist.

Her homunculus lay discarded on the desk behind her. Its straps were pink, and there were a dozen little things hanging from it, like peace symbols, a tag that read sexy bitch and keychain cats and little figures of cute characters from animated shows.

“Can I borrow one of your ties sometime?” Milla asked.

She clipped the Homunculus screen unit back to her wrist.

Cheryl seemed to awaken from her previously single-minded focus on the open doorway.

“Yeah, sure. Go for it. Just don’t take the one I put out for tomorrow.” She said.

“Can I grab a bra too?” Milla said cheekily, spying one of Cheryl’s red straps and grinning.

“You wouldn’t be able to fill it.” Cheryl said. She fixed her shirt, tying a button up.

She was quickly back staring glumly at the door.

Milla burst out laughing. “I was trying to have a good time and I feel so attacked now.”

Cheryl sighed.

“Ugh, fucking, Amber and Jenn, I’m so mad!” She said. “How are they this late?”

“Maybe they got kidnapped. Maybe they’re getting bled for a dark ritual right now.”

“Eww, you’re so gross Milla!” Cheryl said, but she said it while laughing uproariously.

She reached a hand to the bunk and delivered a friendly smack to Milla’s stomach.

“Amber’s real mad at you, you know.” She said, wearing a little grin on her face.

“What did I do?” Milla asked, her tone dispassionate and largely unconcerned.

“You popped that bubble in front of her in class. She looked dumb.” Cheryl said.

“Tell her to stop being such a baby.”

“You can tell her when she shows up. I’ll have your back.”

“I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

“Aww, come on. We’re pals. You wear my clothes. Don’t be like that.”

“It’s true. I’m wearing your clothes right now.”

Milla patted the sides of her skirt, her lips curled in a demonic smirk.

“You’re gross.” Cheryl said.

“I’m kidding.”

“You were pretty cool today, y’know?”

Milla thought that came kind of out of nowhere, and she raised an eyebrow.

“You summoned a ghost out of that wand.”

“I didn’t summon anything.”

“I bet you did. I bet it wasn’t there before.”

“I’m not some kind of witch. I’m not even that good with magic.”

“You’re better than me.”

“It’s not hard.”

“You probably know some like, real fucked up dark arts stuff, don’t you?”

Cheryl giggled, clearly pleased with the glum look on Milla’s face. She loved to tease.

“I wish.” Milla said.

From her bag, Milla withdrew another cigarette.

Cheryl noticed her lighting it up, her eyes darting to it as if tracking it by GPS.

“Hey, open a window or something, I hate that smell.” She said.

“I guess you don’t want a taste then?” Milla asked.

“I extremely do not want a taste, Milla.”

“Pity, it’d take your mind off this nonsense.”

“Yeah it’s a real tragedy that I’m not high right now. But I’ll live through it somehow.”

Cheryl hugged the backrest of the chair tight against her chest.

She blinked for a moment and then raised her head.

“Oh, hey, right– you got a letter this afternoon. Sorry, I forgot all about it.”

Cheryl reached behind herself and picked up an envelope from the desk.

“It’s from the school. Can’t be about your grades this early, so I dunno what’s up.”

She handed Milla the envelope. Milla looked it over: it had the seal and everything.

From her pocket, Milla withdrew a knife, hidden as a pen, and cut the envelope open.

Cheryl gaped at the sight. “Oh my god, put that thing away. I’ll pretend I didn’t see it.”

Milla sighed internally, the cigarette still in her mouth. She pocketed her knife again.

Cheryl was mostly cool but she could also be dreadfully boring about certain things.

Inside the envelope was an average-seeming, very ordinary letter from the college.

Milla read it carefully, and stared at Cheryl as if she had any answer for the contents.

Cheryl stared back at her and lifted one hand up for a half-shrug, blinking rapidly.

Looking back down at the letter Milla felt her heart exploding in her chest.

“What is this crap?” Milla shouted. “I can’t– I don’t understand any of it!”

“Do you want me to read it? Is this a language barrier thing?” Cheryl asked.

“I read Otrarian just fine!” Milla replied. “It says I’m going to be apprenticed!”

“Huh. I thought that’s usually a thing you like, consent to.” Cheryl said.

“I know! I’m being apprenticed to Minerva Orizaga, effective immediately! There’s not even any explanation for it, it just says owing to my performance and conduct!”

“Oh, well, Ms. Orizaga’s pretty cool. She’s got that kinda ponytail butch look to her.”

“I don’t care! This is crap! I’m not going to be some teacher’s slave for no reason!”

“I mean, that’s not how it works, it’s 1998. We got like, laws. Your grades are probably not good and you weren’t showing up to office hours either so they probably wanna help.”

“I don’t need help with my grades! Or office hours! I am doing just fine!”

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” Cheryl said, wincing. “If you’re that mad, go talk to Ms. Orizaga.”

At that moment they heard a knock on the open door.

Cheryl’s face lit up as a young man let himself into the room.

“Hey baby, sorry I’m so late. My dad showed up to be a hardass at me.” He said coolly.

“Aww that sucks sweetie, I hope it’s all chill now.” Cheryl replied, all sugary sweet.

Her boy grinned at her. “I’m recovering. Maybe a kiss will make it better.”

Cheryl threw herself on him and practically started to rub up and purr like a cat. She was completely doting on him, and Milla watched with a detached humor. She almost wanted to say something about ‘dirtbags’ at that point but she figured that was the easiest way to make Cheryl turn from reasonably friendly to complete and utter enemy. Milla knew too well the kind of reactions one got from these girls where their boys were concerned.

Milla raised a finger. Quietly and magically she spun one of her hair bobbles around one of her partly-dyed twintails, bored of the romantic display happening in front of her.

After a long kiss, the couple paid her mind again.

“You look like you got the goods as usual, Milla.” Phillip said.

He looked at the brown bag at Milla’s with a knowing smile.

“Stay on my good side and I could share, Phillip.” Milla said, playing it cool.

Phillip looked like all the guys in the school looked. Blond hair, lots of gel. Cheekbones. Leggy, kinda big, but not too big. Button-down, jacket. Some kind of shoes. It was whatever. Cheryl saw something in him, Milla could not have imagined what it was.

Maybe it was football or something. At any rate, Cheryl was revitalized in his presence.

“I saw Amber and Jennifer with the guys.” Phillip said. “We should get going too.”

Cheryl’s eyes lit up and she smiled euphorically. She turned around with a hop.

“Milla, you should come with us!” She said. “We’re meeting a few friends to get a couple drinks and check something out. We’re going somewhere real cool, right Phillip?”

“Real cool?” Milla asked.

“Few nights ago a quake shook up a hillside in the wood. They say a shrine to Baphomet popped right out. We’ve been meaning to go hang out there.” Phillip said, grinning.

“They say if you offer blood to the shrine it’ll bring passion to your life.” Cheryl said.

That’s so gross.” Milla said, in a mock-Cheryl kind of voice.

Cheryl stuck her tongue out at her.

“What honest Magician doesn’t like a little devil worship, am I right?” Phillip laughed.

“Come on, this is so your scene, Milla. You love this weird shit.” Cheryl said.

Milla tried to cultivate something of an alt girl kind of aesthetic, this was true.

But she had other things on her mind than partying at some creepy sex god statue.

“I gotta talk to this teacher about this letter.” Milla said. “I gotta get out of this shit.”

Cheryl looked disappointed, while Phillip tried to play it off like he had no investment.

“Fine, I guess. Do you know where Ms. Orizaga could even be at this hour?” Cheryl asked.

She had that tone of voice like she was trying to dissuade Milla from being uncool.

Phillip looked at Cheryl for a moment and then back at Milla with a smile. “Minerva Orizaga right? She lives out near the lake. We’re going that way; you could hitch a ride.”

Milla had heard that Minerva Orizaga was big news around here before, being the first Alwi teacher and all of that, but she didn’t think people were on a ‘know where her house was’ basis like this. Still, it was good that this information got to her; she really wanted to get this situation sorted out. Minerva was a cool teacher, but not cool enough to become subordinate to. Above anything else, Milla valued her privacy and freedom.

However Milla also didn’t want to end up at Cheryl’s weird woods party if she could help it. Not that it wasn’t intriguing to see a demon statue, but, she knew there’d be a bunch of weird auras all over that place and she was not in the mood to be there all by herself. No gaggle of college girls and their boyfriends ever went somewhere for chaste reasons.

“That’d be convenient, but I’m not getting roped into bringing you weed.”

She had to register her discomfort, but she still had to be cool about it.

“Hey, relax,” Phillip said, “We’ll drive there, but you can leave whenever you want. It’s just a quick walk from the woods to the inn by the lake. Nobody’ll mess with you.”

“I’ll make sure they don’t.” Cheryl said.

He sounded almost insistent. Cheryl made eyes at Milla as if begging her to be cool.

Milla had no idea why anyone was interested in her company, but she finally relented.

“Fine, I’ll tag along. But I’m leaving real quick. So don’t get too attached.”

“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit.” Cheryl said. She grabbed hold of her boyfriend’s arm and looked up at him, giggling. “Milla’s real cool, Phillip. Cooler than Amber and Jenn.”

“Hey, I can tell just by looking at her.” Phillip said. “Glad you’re joining us.”

Milla averted her eyes. “I said it was only for a little while, you know.”


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