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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

<<< Previous / Next >>>

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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.

<<< Previous / Next >>>

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.”

<<< Previous / Next >>>

1.1: Busy Child

This scene contains violence and brief verbal expression of racism.

Minerva Orizaga sensed trouble the instant the Professor walked through the door with a big leather bag under her arm and a lesson planner in hand. It was early Thursday, the clock struck nine and suddenly there was Professor Kolsa smiling at the assembled students, waving; she breezed past Minerva to take the stand in front of the class.

Unceremoniously she dumped everything she was carrying onto the lectern and then started to fiddle with the stand, setting up her notes. That Beatrix had shown up to class was surprising enough. That she appeared to have material with her was ominous.

Minerva watched in silence as Beatrix stood up her lesson planner and turned to class.

“Good morning, dear students! I see everyone’s here!” she said, clapping her hands.

In the front row, a young woman with glowing pink fox ears poking out of her head pointed sharply to the seat next to her. It was quite well bereft of any assumed students.

“Jennifer’s out, Professor. She asked me to hand you– well, to hand to Minerva–”

Beatrix Kolsa cheerfully cut her off. “I see almost everybody is here!” She declared.

Minerva covered her face in her hands.

It didn’t take divination to tell that her day was about to take a turn for the worse.

“Minerva? Oh, where’s my handsome assistant?”

Beatrix stared sweetly at her, and Minerva wanted so dearly to hide somewhere.

At the Professor’s insistence, however she approached the lectern.

Beatrix threw an arm around her and pulled her close in a friendly embrace.

“Come here, pal! It looks like you’ve gotten everyone pumped up for unit three, huh!”

Minerva mumbled. “We’re starting unit two, but okay.”

At this point the front of the room was a study in contrasts. There were the students, the bright young minds of the Otrarian National Academy For The Esoteric Arts, in their blue and gray blazers, suit pants and dress skirts, business-like and proper; and then there was Professor Kolsa, in a tanktop and yoga pants, a flower crown perched atop her long chestnut hair. Everyone was staring; some of the boys and girls were practically drooling. Minerva stared at the bra straps exposed on Beatrix’s shoulders and sighed. She was only a little better in her old coat and jeans but she was at least clothed — she even had a button-down shirt, and all of it was buttoned down. She even did her hair up!

There were eighty students in attendance, crowding the lecture hall’s tight rows of seats. This wasn’t the first lecture, or the second or the third or the fourth of the semester, but the students stared quizzically as if they were bleary-eyed freshmen ripped from orientation. To them Professor Kolsa might as well have been some kind of cryptid.

For a moment the Professor stared at the class as though she expected applause.

When she and Minerva failed to elicit any response, she seemed taken a little aback.

“Perhaps I should introduce myself! I’m Professor Beatrix Kolsa, and this is Introduction To Magical History! It’s my course! Three credits, anthropology deparment, etcetera–”

There were glances exchanged all along the room. Some students had seen Beatrix before. She was at the office, and they talked to her about their grades, confusingly enough, and not to Minerva instead. But the Professor had taught nothing to them.

“My assistant here, Minerva Orizaga, has done a fantastic job, and I would not entrust the care of your education to anyone else! But this morning, I had a flash of inspiration!”

Minerva thought there were good reasons why Beatrix did not teach this class often.

She was busy; she was an important researcher; and she was bad at it.

Nevertheless, the bubbly Professor seemed determined to lead lecture this time.

She stuck her hand in the bag, and Minerva saw something inside glinting.

When Beatrix pulled her arm out she held out a gilded treasure in her fingertips.

All of the students gasped and traded glances. Beatrix held aloft what looked like an old wand, but it was made of silver with a gold pattern of veins across its surface, its shape long and tapering but thicker at its base, held on a thinner, jewel-studded handle.

“You all probably asked yourselves, ‘what is the point of learning magical history?’ And I thought I would show you all a practical example of our knowledge and skills. When I am not working on your grades, I research historical artifacts; I borrowed a few pieces I have been working on, so that you can try your hand at doing my job! Isn’t it exciting?”

There was certainly excitement; the kind of excitement that caused one to choke, and to feel terribly anxious. There were students staring as if an illegal act was in progress, and certainly one could have been; Minerva was almost expecting Academy security to show up through the door and tackle the Professor to the floor (and arrest her by association). These artifacts could have been worth unmentionable amounts of money, and she waved them in front of an introductory history class like they were toys, giggling throughout.

“Now, let’s see, who should come up first? How about miss Kholodova?”

Beatrix stuck her arm out straight, pointing a finger at a set of purple-streaked black twintails peeking out at the back of the room, just over the head of a slightly taller classmate. From behind the student, a pearl-pink face with bright amber eyes stuck out into the aisle, blinking; Kholodova, first name Lyudmilla (everyone called her Milla) pointed at herself in confusion and looked around. But she was the only Kholodova.

Minerva had to believe it was deliberate on Beatrix’s part. Milla never sat up close.

Maybe Beatrix was trying to get her to break out of her shell with this stunt.

Or perhaps it was her grades? Those weren’t quite good–

Whatever the reason for it, Milla Kholodova obediently stood up from the back of the room and walked down the aisle as requested, the ends of an undone ribbon tie swinging around the disheveled collar of her shirt. Her blazer was a little shabby, her skirt a bit frayed; and her socks were different colors. Minerva had to believe that was deliberate too. Her long twintails trailing behind her, Milla strode with a skeptical expression to the front of class. She stopped abruptly in front of the lectern and looked at the bag.

“Should I get out my casting tool?” Milla asked, hands fiddling around inside her coat.

“No need! You see, this itself is a casting tool. Can you tell me what it is?” Beatrix asked.

She held out the gilded wand, and Milla took a step back as if it would jump at her.

“It’s a wand?” Milla replied. Her voice had just the slightest hint of an accent.

“Yes! But what kind of wand is it? You should be familiar with its origin!” Beatrix said.

She happily and gently pushed the wand closer to Milla, who averted her gaze from it.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you, Professor.” Milla said. She didn’t seem to want to catch even a whiff of the wand, and Minerva couldn’t blame her. If there was one thing instilled into magicians from birth it was to beware the magical objects you did not own. Whether you got cursed, or simply broke something and now owed a replacement, it was never good.

Professor Beatrix Kolsa was not the norm for wanting to be so hands-y with magical trinkets from ancient civilizations. She was the exception to the legendary caution endemic to the Otrarian mage. The rest of the room was properly terrified of it all.

“Well, you need to study your history, Ms. Kholodova! It’s a wand that belonged to an ancient court magician, one of the Rus of the country of Moroz! Our northerly neighbor!”

“Beatrix we won’t even hit that unit for months! What is your problem?” Minerva said.

The Weave-Magic of the Old Rus was part of Unit Seven. Even Minerva could not identify that artifact just by sight alone. Wands did not even differ that much among the peoples of the Old World. Beatrix frowned and stared at the wand with disappointment.

“I’m getting out of touch, it seems.” She said wistfully. “But no matter!”

“Can I sit down now?” Milla asked.

“Not yet, Ms. Kholodova!” Beatrix turned the wand over on her fingers, now holding it properly by its handle. “We’re going to do a bit of research work on it, as I promised.”

Like a smiling demon of temptation, the Professor offered Milla an evil bargain.

Beatrix turned the wand on her fingers once more, holding it by the tip and offering Milla the handle. Milla almost seemed like she wanted to jump back, as if Beatrix was trying to throw a tarantula at her and not just hand her a wand. But the Professor made no move to withdraw the object or to accept any compromise; after almost a minute of silence in which she stared between Professor and relic in anguish, Milla sighed audibly and picked up the wand by its handle. She took great care not to swing it around.

“Ms. Kholodova, what spells do you have loaded for today?” Beatrix asked.

“Huh?” Milla looked up from the wand as if waking from a dream. “Oh, just, normal stuff. I slotted the stuff in the class packet. Um. I guess I’ve also been practicing with–”

Beatrix raised a finger over her own lips and winked at Milla, who quieted abruptly.

“Don’t give away all of your secrets, dear. You’re fine.” Beatrix said.

There was chortling from the front row of class that clearly made Milla upset.

“What are we doing next?” She asked, growing impatient.

Beatrix looked away from Milla and address the class as a whole again.

“As magical historians and researchers, there is an additional dimension to artifacts such as these that is extremely valuable to us.” She said. “Someone studying the ancient Kumari could find a mace, and say, ‘well, this was a mace and it was used for beating people to death, as all maces are’. It’s that simple. For us, however, there is always the question of what exactly was done with an implement such as this. When you find a wand, you must ask yourself what magic it has cast. And there’s ways to find out!”

Milla looked down at her own wrist. She pulled back her sleeve, and there was a device clipped to her arm, like a stopwatch with a thick band supporting a much wider, thicker face with a sizable and bright touchscreen surrounded by a few ports, common to any modern digital peripheral. She slid her finger across the face of the watch, pushing and pulling away a few menus. Finally the device, a homunculus, was ready to assist her.

Around the rim of the watch face a faint light glowed. It emanated a low, eerie sound.

“It’s ready to go. What do you want me to cast?”

“Anything you want!” Beatrix said. “But from the class packet, try Kyra’s Force Bubble.”

“You heard her.” Milla said dejectedly into her sleeve.

On her wrist, the homunculus’ screen lit up with a message.

Minerva braced for whatever happened next.

Milla began to twist the wand, as if trying to draw tiny circles in the air. From her wrist the homunculus made a barely audible digital noise, like the struggling of an old modem trying to connect. As she moved, the rim of the device cycled through various colors that shone brightly through her sleeve. Her eyes dilated; she seemed almost to enter a trance.

In an instant, Milla was not merely weaving invisible circles in the air, but trailing a film of glowing particulate energy that was at once dusty and slimy and wet, and it expanded, bloating up into a bubble that escaped from the tip of the wand and floating before her.

“Kyra’s Force Bubble.” Milla said.

Soon as she did, the misshapen, oozing bubble popped with a tiny bang, like a firework.

All the girls in the front row shielded themselves as the bubble’s flowing blue energy washed over them like a sudden wind. Their reaction was irrational. Minerva barely even blinked and the bubble hit her like a gentle breeze. It was barely cold, barely wet.

Milla covered her lips with her hand, stifling an impish giggle and grin.

Beatrix was delighted by the result, while the girls in the front row glared.

“Alright, we know the wand’s core is intact! We can prize its secrets from it now.”

Milla started to twisted one of her twintails around her finger nervously.

“Are you excited, Ms. Kholodova? You’re about to expose historical truths for all of us!”

“I guess.”

Milla seemed entirely over what was happening and Minerva couldn’t blame her.

“Why not let another student participate?” Minerva whispered.

“There’ll be plenty of opportunities.” Beatrix cheerfully whispered back.

She then pointed subtly at the bag, and Minerva quickly peeked inside.

Minerva then closed it and pushed it away from her as if it was filthy.

And it was: filthy with stolen objects from the history department.

“Now, Ms. Kholodova! From the class packet, cast Rickard’s ‘Object Memory.'”

Milla flicked her wrist and turned her fingers over on he wand, and held it facing the tip straight up with one hand. While her homunculus sang its stimulating chorus, and her pupils went wild, Milla turned her other hand over the wand as if shielding it from the wind, her hand drawing closer and closer until a single finger slid down the shaft.

As if reacting to the stimulus, the gilding across the wand glowed red.

Minerva felt another breeze blow, but this one was fouler than the last.

Milla’s fingers slipped.


In her hand the wand gained a life of its own and she struggled to hold it.

It was shaking in her grip.

Beatrix raised fingers to her own mouth in a gesture of gentle, aristocratic shock.

“Oh my, oh me!”

Still she seemed much more interested in watching the effects than helping her student.

Minerva withdrew a wand from her coat, but she was too late in intervening.

As soon as Milla grabbed the shaft of the wand with both hands to control it, something blew out from the tip of the wand like a blast of smoke. A blurring being of smoke and colors like a living picture from a busted television slammed into the roof, dimmed the lights in the room, bounced to the back of the class and back, and hit the blackboard.

Milla fell to the floor, dropping the wand.

Beatrix turned around to meet the entity, while Minerva gripped her own wand tightly.

Students stood up from their seats in shock. One boy near the door bolted out the hall.

In moments the thing in front of the class achieved a coherent shape.

Still fuzzy with intermittent gray static and warping color, but with a thick and defined outline that gave it an alien personhood; it was a ghost or a spirit of some kind. It was, more precisely, a man in armor. His armor and helm were decorated with strips fur around the neck and shoulders and along the top. He pushed up his visor, and a deathly pale face, gaunt and grim with burning red eyes, stared with fury at all assembled.

He drew a ghostly sword and pointed at Milla.

“A witch of the enemy Rus! Surrender to the might of the Volker! Our empire–”

“Ah! Oh my! Oh my!”

Beatrix interposed herself in front of Milla, laughing and smiling, much too delighted.

“It’s a centurion from the first Volker Reich! Incredible!” She said.

Minerva blinked and grunted. “Beatrix, now is it not the time–”

“This wand must have delivered a killing curse and sealed him up–”

“Beatrix, exorcise him!”

Minerva’s shouting was not heeded, and before Beatrix could even so much as draw a casting tool or attempt anything freehand, the Centurion put down his sword and lifted his fist. Beatrix was shoved aside as if pulled away by invisible hands, and a dozen lengths of ghostly chain bound her up against one of the walls. Milla was once again visible, on the floor and in shock, crawling away from the ghost. He raised his sword.

“Out of my way peasant child. It takes noble blood to be a steward of Magic!”

Beatrix looked down at the chains, clearly stumped, but still jovially amused by it.

“Oh right, Volker nobles cast silent and freehand. That’s how they conquered–”

Ugggghhhh. Minerva wanted to be swallowed by the earth.

Once more the ghost set his sight and his sword on poor Milla Kholodova.

“For every hand of a witch, the Emperor gives a prize! I shall collect well today!”

Minerva would not have time to jump in like Beatrix did; and could not expose herself to Volker spellcasting in such a way, if she wanted to save Milla. She had an idea instead.

“A pox on Altair II!” Minerva shouted. “May his balls rot and his tongue bloat!”

Never before had Minerva seen a sword swing so fast from one side to another.

In an instant the ghost swung around to meet her with unmatched hatred in his eyes.

“How dare an animal speak against God’s greatest! Alwi devil, I will punish you!”

He made to raise his fist and Minerva made ready. Her timing had to be perfect.

Right in front of her, on the display hidden in her glasses, she saw is aura glow.

For a split second, she focused her thoughts on the mnemonic for silent casting.

A swan, beating its wings and making streaks in the great lakes.

She felt the chill of the ghost’s spell beginning to affect her, and brought up her guard.

In a split second something glowing and blurring bounced off her, back at the ghost.

He found himself thrown back and chained by his own spell.

Minerva ran to him and stood over his chained-up chest as if he were physical.

Her vision wavered between the esoteric and the material world, both because she was casting silently, which took a lot of effort, but also had her leg in a ghost now too. She felt a creeping chill, her skin beginning to turn from brown to grey as the unearthly, furious energy from which he was made started dragging the life from her into himself.

But she needed the connection.

She focused on the mnemonic technique once again.

She saw a vase, like one of those Beatrix brought in her bag, and she saw it shatter.

With her wand she launched a disintegrating spell right into the ghost.

His touch and connection, his sapping of her life, gave him enough life to be affected.

Streaks of awful black energy coursed through his ghostly sinews.

There was a terrifying flash.

Where there was once a ghost, the spell left nothing but a mound of salt over her foot.

Minerva dropped her wand, and coughed violently after her exertions.

Milla sat up on the floor, gasping for breath.

All of the students were speechless.

Beatrix’s chains also turned to salt, and she was freed of the wall.

“That was exciting!” She said, turning to the class. “See? History is a very dynamic field.”

She picked up the discarded wand and lifted it up and everyone in the classroom gasped and stepped back from it, as if they expected another ghost to jump out. Milla was struck dumb and had no response as Beatrix, wand in hand, approached and helped her up.

“Here, you can have it!” Beatrix said. “We’ve extracted all its research value now.”

It was black and dull, the expulsion of the ghost having tarnished its surface utterly.

Milla blinked, stared at the wand with wide, unbelieving eyes.

She then threw it right into the garbage can beside the door and stormed off.

Beatrix watched her leave and smiled helplessly.

“That’s completely fair.” She said. “Let’s see, what next?”

<<< Previous / Next >>>

Average Wednesday

this chapter contains violence including brief graphic violence.


Between the earth and firmament she could see nothing but fire.

Amid the ruins of the old ghetto she stood, like a gnat entranced by lamp-light.

There was screaming and running and cries for help and cries for deliverance.

People begged of unlistening gods to explain the events of that dire night.

Around her the Catastrophe unfolded, its fires sweeping across the meagerness that they had been given and now denied. She saw the old church burning, and the housing projects burning and crumbling, she did not even know cement could burn, but it was. Fire swept across splintered streets, and it engulfed the play park, and it melted the bus stop into an amorphous blob of plastic. Power lines and telephone lines flashed red, frayed by some unseen pressure as their poles wildly burned and their boxes sizzled.

Stunned, shaking, her eyes drawn wide enough to tear from the smoke and heat, she saw it, at the epicenter, the thing that had come in the blink of an eye like red thunder.

Beneath the Dragon and its fury, a woman walked, standing tall, proud even.

When the woman turned her head over her shoulder to look at her, she wept.

She reached out a hand, but the woman was gone, yet standing, and still, gone.

“You’ll be fine.” She said, with a gentle, careless, selfish smile.

The Dragon bellowed hatred, all eyes and horns and scales and wings.

The Woman turned to face it, and produced a hunk of purple, cubic rock.

“I want you out of our home.” She said.

There was a flash, and Minerva choked, and the dance of dreams was done, and the things that could not be changed settled, planning to haunt her life instead of her sleep.



“…and that was the weather! Now, for all you holiday travelers out there, be advised that the Charibdys has been spotted over the skies of Kalghatha and the government there has grounded all non-military high altitude flight in the area as a result. So if you were looking to build some water association in the sacred river, either put it off until they sound the all-clear, or try to find a private, low altitude flight to get where you’re go—“

Minerva reached a hand out and struck the radio-alarm clock to quiet it down.

Her hand was shaking, and it crawled over the radio and back onto her mattress on the floor, before gripping the bedsheets in cold despair. She breathed in, deep and fast, and she breathed out with a sputtering sob. She had traveled back to the ghetto, ever so briefly again, just in time for the Catastrophe. She had the six eyes of the Dragon and its oil-slick skin and its alien maw burning in the back of her eyes like the discolored haze left on an old, overused box television. It was enough to drive anyone with a soul to cry.

So she gave herself some time to cry and to think and to decompress.

She had no classes to teach or to sit-in on Wednesdays.

Minerva was a very regimental sort of person, so she gave herself fifteen minutes.

Sitting up after this moment of personal kindness, Minerva stretched out her other arm and pulled open the curtain on the other side of her mattress. She looked out the window of her second story room; though it was humble in amenities, it boasted a commanding view that still inspired awe in her. She saw the pristine waters of the lakefront, and the sweeping green patches of trees dotting the landscape, and the streets straddling the water and shore, packed with students coming and going to class and to life in general.

She saw the National out the window and the National saw her.

Lake Scio was a popular spot, and there were many lakefront apartment buildings, small shops and a food court servicing the radius of the water. Minerva felt calm staring at the water. There was beauty and balefulness both in this sight, in this place she was in.

She had been dealt some blows in life, but things were no longer so bleak.

Reaching again for the little table beside her mattress, Minerva stretched her arm past the radio-alarm clock and seized upon a glass of water. She drank it in one gulp. Then, she took a pill-holder from the same table-top, and popped open the little cap in the middle, labeled “Wednesday.” From there, Minerva took a little violet pill up to her mouth.

Another object began to ring and buzz and shake around atop her bedside table.

Before Minerva could take her pill, her homunculus received a call.

She seized the chunky little wearable, its armband straightening out as soon as the call was received, for ease of holding. Minerva put the thing to her ear, hearing through the side of the crystalline touchscreen, and speaking into a microphone hidden in the armband.

Displayed the screen, without an associated picture, was the name “Beatrix Kolsa.”

“What do you want?” Minerva asked. “Talk fast. I have to take a pill sublingually.”

“Can you do that while you come in, dear? I’ve got a special project for you!”

On the other side of the phone Beatrix Kolsa, Professor of Ancient Magical History, replied with a bubbly and unrestrained voice that irritated Minerva both in tone and content.

“Oh my god, I’m off today. I do not work today, Beatrix.” Minerva said.

“Would you work for me?” Beatrix replied in a pathetic tone of voice.

Minerva sighed. “Absolutely not! I’m sure the Department isn’t paying for it.”

There was a pause, a knowing silence, while some mischief brewed.

“What if I paid you? I just need a little help casting a spell.”

“You could not pay me enough to work today, Beatrix.”

“Would you work if I gave you a piece of uncut Alpanite?” Beatrix said cheekily.

Minerva sighed ever more deeply. She rubbed her hands over her face.

“Ugh! I’ll be there in an hour.”

She slashed viciously with her finger across the screen, cutting the call.

Minerva collapsed back onto her bed and popped the pill in her mouth.

Beatrix sure knew her to a frightening degree.

Alpanite was a stone of pure concentrated Fire.

Minerva closed her fists and kicked her legs.

She felt excited about it, and she hated how excited she was.

In a fit of mixed frustration and elation, she decided to just swallow her pill instead.

She finally stood from her bed, slipped out of her pajamas and picked up her glasses.

Wrapping her long, messy black hair into a ponytail, Minerva quickly assembled an outfit from among the very limited choices in her closet. She donned a cheap green button-down shirt, a black hoodie and a frayed pair of pants, and clapped her homunculus to her wrist. As it did whenever she wore it, the homunculus informed her that it had 92% of its storage space free. There were barely any spells downloaded to its memory.

After one last look out the window, Minerva left her room.

She had seen a bird, and it was worth noticing.

Outside her room was a hallway. There was one other door on her side of the hall, and two on the opposite side. Downstairs, the humble two-story house opened up, with a kitchen, a larger bathroom, laundry room, and a common hall. Minerva shambled into the kitchen, seeking with blurry, drowsy vision for the cupboard with her name on it, which contained her own food. Her eyes drifted; she found a note, scribbled in crayon.

Atop a bowl sealed with tin foil, standing out on the kitchen island, the note read:

Minnie! I made Oatmeal!! It has blueberries and cinnamon!

Around the letters were various hand-drawn emoji hearts and clapping hands.

Smiling, Minerva picked up a spoon, carefully removed the foil, and ate the oatmeal while drinking orange juice from a carton. It was warm, sweet, wholesome; much like the little girl that had made it and left it. Filled up and smiling, she supposed there was no sense in putting it off any longer, and finally departed her home for the lakeside road.

Outdoors, it was mid-morning. The sun was rose diligently and the wind carried the scent of the lake water and the dust from the shore. It was refreshing weather, but for those who could feel it, the auras were off. They were always off. But there were days where, if one could feel it, one really felt it; days where the overbearing Water-aligned auras of the National Academy of Esoteric Arts pushed down like a layer of emotional gravity. For one with as strong an aura of Fire and Metal as Minerva, the National was at its most antithetical.

With the knowledge she wielded now, came a perception of a world that was beautiful but could easily be unkind. The National by its very nature did not want her.

But she stayed.

She tried not to let it get her down as she walked.

Hands in her pockets, face up and eyes ahead, she walked, without concern. At least, until someone passed, paying too-close attention to her on the roads. Then her eyes turned the other way as to avoid their gaze, and she felt their sight meeting her form as a passing discomfort. It was an almost instinctual behavior, something she had learned from years of being too-different in too many ways from the common Otrarian on the streets.

From the uneven old stones along the lake, she made it to the polished concrete roads of the National, where buildings clustered, and grew toward the sky, and shadowed her.

She walked, an ant amid these monuments. After the war, the National became the foremost academy of Magic in the world, they saw the esoteric as Power more than knowledge. Everything in the National was a display of power. She walked past the plazas and gardens, where students congregated under gazebos around statues of powerful men, void of history, known only for the money that made the selfsame statues. She walked along streets laden with plaques and commemorations. Past great glass domes and massive steel cubes and pyramidal shapes all housing classrooms and labs. She walked past men in suits and ties, girls in blazers and pencil skirts, past the only casual crowds all wearing high fashion, past the money and extravagance and the sort of beauty only wrought with gold.

She walked past a man in a severe uniform and felt trembling inside her.

Her eyes caught him and his seemed almost to take her apart.

In his black coat and pants, with an armband bearing a shield-shaped, arrow-perforated heart as a badge of honor, this leaguer laid a long scornful gaze upon her like a curse.

Her skin, honey-brown and darker than his, was all he saw and all he needed to see.

Dark eyes and hair certainly did not help, they were markers too. Neither did the features of her face, gentle though they were, soft and unpronounced. Perhaps he even took issue with her body, too angular and lean, untraditional, unlike the women he knew.

They crossed within meters of one another, enough to throw a punch.

For him, she would not avert her eyes or cower.

She stared at him, and he stared back.

She stopped, and held her ground, daring him to do the same.

He seemed to flinch first, to flinch right into his filthy little copper heart.

He kept on walking. She kept staring into his back, as if in challenge.

When he was gone, she kept moving.

For a second, she had seen the crowds around him stop to look.


Let them know that the fingers that carried out their hidden hate would be broken.

Satisfied, with her head held high, Minerva walked through the National.

She did not teach on Wednesdays, but she had work to do.


The Anthropology building was not a monument.

It was one of the original buildings, before the war was won and the money and interest came pouring in. It was a block, a pillar, lean and tight, three stories, all chalky stone. It did not shine and glimmer in the midday sun the way other buildings did. No arcane geometries went into it. This was just some halls and classrooms, and that’s what it looked like inside and out. Isolated in the old Academy’s Terrington plaza, the building was dedicated to a historical magician and to actual historical magic, those things forgotten in the post-war remembering. Students walked around it and very few seemed to delve inside.

Minerva walked up the steps and plunged into its gloom.

Around the corner of one lonely hall was the office of Beatrix Kolsa. It was open for office hours nobody would attend, and it was a mess. There was barely space for three people to stand side-by-side, not only because it was small but because it was littered with junk. There were stacks of books and documents, stuffed animals, a pile of knick-knacks like mushroom threaded necklaces and clay bangles. Beatrix’s desk and the shelves at its side dominated the space. Both were full to burst with things out of their places.

Behind the desk was the only thing its place. Beatrix was a lovely-looking older woman, tall and photogenic in face and form, with long, light clay-brown hair, peach-pink skin. Her fashion had taken an odd turn lately. She wore a flower crown; and over an immodest tanktop and a pair of sweatpants, looking more like a slacker than her students, she wore an eccentric brown coat. It looked like a fur coat, at first glance, but Minerva knew that the fuzz was fungus, and the texture was leaves and grass, and that it smelled.

To cover up the smell, Beatrix wore an even more aggressive cinnamon perfume.

When Minerva strolled into the office, she found Beatrix applying makeup.

“Let me guess,” Minerva said, “that’s some kind of natural oil, mineral crap, right?”

Beatrix applied a gentle coat of glossy brown on her lips, and kissed into the air.

“Every little bit helps.” She said.

“Just how much Earth association do you need to build?”

Beatrix smiled. “As much as possible. Which is why I need your help, coincidentally!”

Minerva figured that was the case. She crossed her arms and sighed.

“Are we finally going to cast the spells today?”

“No. If I were to do it now there is still a chance that the relics could be compromised. It’s hard for me to describe how fragile these things are. If there is even a miniscule chance that they will crumble under my care, I cannot risk it. So I’m still building association.”

Beatrix’s research was more important than teaching; that was a small part of why Minerva was there and taught classes. Her current project was of special importance. Her colleagues in Archeology had uncovered magical relics from civilizations dating back thousands of years. They were kept preserved in suspended animation, but to be studied, they had to be mended enough to withstand scrutiny. Reversing thousands of years of decay was a daunting task, and to cast the appropriate spells at their maximum expression would require a magician steeped in the aura of the Earth schema. These days, that was rare.

So Beatrix took it upon herself to volunteer for the task, and build enough Association with the Earth. Strongly associated spells were smoother, easier to control, more effective. Minerva could have cast a mending spell on those relics right now, but none would survive the force of the magic across their surfaces. Just the release of energy would crush them.

“So why did I come in? Do you have that alpanite around?” Minerva asked.

Beatrix opened a drawer, withdrew a fist-size rock, and laid it atop a stack of papers.

Minerva leaned in to look at it through her glasses.

Rough, ashen-black stone mixed with veins of what seemed like red glass.

When looked at closely, the veins pulsed with orange light in a specific sequence.

“You’ve been holding out on me all this time!” Minerva said, amicably.

Beatrix smiled. “I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to hand it to a pretty girl.”

Minerva frowned and glared. Beatrix chuckled.

“At any rate, it’s yours once you help me with a very menial task.”

Beatrix stood up from behind her desk, squeezed around it, and kicked over the pile of knickknacks in the corner. Minerva stared quizzically until the heap of junk fell away, and unveiled a cheap red clay planter pot the size of a small garbage can, containing a brown, knobby lump of something topped with a big violet flower. It was growing in black earth.

Minerva got a shiver just looking at it. She pointed a shaking finger at it.

“Beatrix, is that a mandrake in there? Did you smuggle in a mandrake? Did you hide a mandrake under a pile of garbage and leave it in your office all this time, Beatrix?”

Minerva’s voice grew to an increasingly odd pitch as she made herself more anxious.

“Yeah.” Beatrix calmly replied.

“I thought I was supposed to be the criminal!” Minerva whimpered, hugging herself.

“Oh, honey, it won’t kill you. That’s superstition. You’re a healthy young woman. You’ll probably black out and foam at the mouth. Most of the deaths are from choking during the coma, you know? That is, if you hear the scream at all, which we won’t!”

“You’re pulling it out?” Minerva screamed.

“That’s the idea. I’ll pull it out and you stun it. Use your preferred method for it.”

Minerva put a finger over her own lips, and quietly shook her head.

“This is crazy.”

“Do you not know any stunning spells?”

“I know plenty of ways to stun something! But why a damn Mandrake!”

Beatrix crossed her own arms and looked petulant, almost childishly so.

“I read an old Hortuchemic book that said grinding a Mandrake into a drink with some yak milk and spices produces a potion that improves one’s Earth auras.” She explained.

“I read in a new Hortuchemic book that Mandrakes will kill you!” Minerva replied.

Though the last thing Minerva wanted was to be seen as a coward, this endeavor was hazardous, unnecessary and irresponsible. Beatrix was important not only to the Academy, and to Minerva’s job, but also to Minerva’s general well-being and future, in a variety of ways. For Beatrix Kolsa to be killed by a mandrake in her own office, would be a tragedy of unspeakable proportion, especially if Minerva survives to be blamed for it all.

She was an Alwi and had to tread lightly. Also, she could potentially just die herself.

Mandrakes were not to be toyed with. Even their medicinal properties were largely untested, mostly because of their potential to murder whenever handled in any way.

“Do you want that alpanite or not?” Beatrix said, frowning pointedly at her.

Minerva bit the side of her thumb anxiously.

Beatrix stared at her through narrowed, impatient eyes.

“Fine. Fine! I’ll do it.” Minerva finally said.

She really wanted that alpanite. That was a few months’ salary for a T.A.

With the right buyer anyway.

Still, even the most meager hope for some added income was enough to tip things over.

Beatrix and Minerva set the pot gently in the center of the room and made as much room around it as they possibly could. They had no protective gear, and regardless most protective gear would not fully prevent a mandrake’s scream at such close ranges. So they had to give themselves the room needed to execute their tasks perfectly the first time.

“I’ll pull, you stun.” Beatrix said.

“I don’t keep a stun downloaded to my homunculus.” Minerva cautioned.

Beatrix put her hands on her hips and leaned into Minerva’s space.

Minerva held out her hands in defense. “Listen, I can cast a bunch verbally, its fine.”

“If you say so!” Beatrix stepped back into place. “What will you cast?”

“I’ll use Pherkan Smoke Dart. Fire magic will stun it more effectively.” Minerva said.

Across the planter, Beatrix looked at her with a mix of confusion and awe.

“I’ll be frank, I’ve never seen that spell cast. I do not know the timing.”

“I can draw out the incantation to take three seconds. So count down from three in your head and then pull out the mandrake, and I’ll be ready to stun it.” Minerva said.

Beatrix tapped her feet and rubbed her own chin.

“Three as in, one-two-three, or three as in, one-otraria, two-otraria—“

“Oh my god; hell if I know, Beatrix!” Minerva shouted.

Was she talking to an adult, an actual grown-up serious adult?

Beatrix sighed. “It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine. Let me know when you’re gonna go.”

Minerva breathed in, shaking a little. “I’m going.”

Her voice came out trembling, but its power was palpable.

I sweep at the fire on Iomagn’s back–”


“—and at my enemies I cast his ash of stars—“



Beatrix pulled on the violet petals and out came the bulbous body of the mandrake and its almost cartoonishly miserable face, with its enormous gnarled mouth forever trapped in a depressed grimace, and its downcast black slit eyes, and its four tentacle-like root legs that danced in mid-air as the woman held it, wriggling and struggling, curiously unstunned.

Black earth peeled off its body, and it was clearly very distressed.

Everything had happened a little too early. “Oh—“

Before Beatrix could say anything and before Minerva could cast anything the Mandrake spread out its maw, vacuumed in air, and screamed a scream that shook the world. It sent everything on Beatrix’s desk flying, save the chunk of Alpanite, and it shattered every bauble in the room, including Minerva and Beatrix’s delicate brains.

Minerva fell and blacked out, robbed of all senses but the immediate sensation of foam bubbling in her mouth, and the sudden thud of her own head striking the ground.


A jolt of electricity coursed through the darkness and into her body.

“—come on, show me that pretty smile!”

Minerva felt something gently striking her cheek and sat up suddenly.

She looked around in fear. Beatrix was in her personal space; and Beatrix’s own space was completely destroyed. The office was a mess, the wood of the desk was cracked, there were papers everywhere, the bookshelf had fallen over Beatrix’s chair, there was glass and gel and water from all the shattered baubles of various kinds scattered on the floor.

There was no Mandrake in sight. It was completely gone.

Close at her side, Beatrix crouched to her knees, and reached out a wand to poke her.

“Stop that.” Minerva grumbled.

“Ah good, you’re awake enough to be surly.” Beatrix smiled.

Minerva groaned. “How long has it been?”

“Only a minute or two. I cast an enchantment on myself to wake me up in case the Mandrake put me in a coma. And then I cast some spells at you until you woke up.”

Only a minute or two? It had felt like an eternity of sleep in Minerva’s head.

Dreamless, wonderful sleep. No sign of the Dragon in the Mandrake’s night.

“And you didn’t cast it on me! You selfish—“

“I didn’t think it would be necessary! Please don’t hate me!”

She sounded and looked so pathetic she was impossible to hate.

“Where’s the Mandrake?” Minerva asked.

She struggled to stand, but felt herself slowly regaining control of her motor functions.

Beatrix pointed out the door. “It ran out.”


“Mandrakes who have been unearthed by humans will go look for tall grass to hide themselves in. Their hope is that planted among the grass they will throw off pursuit.”

Minerva felt her heart sink and her brain seize up with anxiety. That Mandrake would be running cross-country, screaming at anyone who got in its way, potentially killing hundreds of people across the academy. If it ran out of the old Academy district and into the crowded streets around the monument buildings, there would be mass slaughter.

Granted, the Academy was full of horrendous individuals—

But there were at least a couple of her students Minerva would dearly miss.

At any rate, even if she would not weep for some of the dead, she would weep for the fact that the blame would fall on Beatrix and then herself. Beatrix would try to defend her, probably, but it would become a scandal, it would be blown out of proportion, Minerva’s ethnicity and her origins and her gender and all of it would be scrutinized and exploited.

Minerva’s political leanings and affiliations might come out as well.

Her life would be ruined! Worse, her career would be ruined!

“You go left, I’ll go right!” Minerva shouted.

She seized a wand from among Beatrix’s belongings and ran out of the room.

Whether or not Beatrix was following her, Minerva had to get that Mandrake back!

She ran out into the hall and saw trails of four little dirty dots along the ground as if a muddy die had landed on a four every single time. She followed the trail around the building and down the steps to the front courtyard, where she spotted the little despondent lump standing frozen in the middle of the stone path out to the street, flanked by trim grass.

In front of it, a young woman kneeled and gushed over it like it was a potential pet.

“Aww, what a cutey! Are you a familiar, little guy? Did you get lost?”

She hovered over the Mandrake, while its face grew ever more miserable-looking.

Minerva recognized the girl and felt cold and desperate.

“Jennifer, stay away from it!”

Jennifer turned to look, and the Mandrake shifted a little on its legs.

Spotting Minerva, whom it probably recognized, the Mandrake sucked in air.

Upon the winds flies a great challenge—“

Minerva had taught herself to speak incantations with incredible alacrity and in a quiet whispering voice. Just as the Mandrake launched its scream, Minerva launched a globe of force from the tip of the wand. Channeled by the wand the magical energy took a much more coherent and directed shape than if loosed through one’s hand. Unlike her previous stun, this one was quick as a bullet, and it struck the Mandrake in its mouth and sent it tumbling backwards, the force of its own silenced scream launching it meters away.

Stepping back in shock, the bubbly student was appalled at this behavior.

“Huh? Miss Orizaga, that was so mean! How could you—“

Shut up and go do your homework Jennifer!”

Minerva charged past the astonished girl waving her wand for another spell.

In the next instant, the Mandrake leaped back up onto its feet.

Without sucking in air, the Mandrake spread its mouth and stuck out its gnarled tongue.

“God damn it.” She tapped the side of her head briefly and whispered. “Mage.”

Minerva’s glasses dimmed suddenly, and the Homunculus on her wrist glowed briefly.

Initiating M.A.G.E. military spellcasting system.

Through a gloomy, amber filter before her eyes Minerva saw the Mandrake’s aura.

Large-scale rotation of energy was briefly evident before its mouth.


By the word of Nodun, who climbed the celestial mountain—“

Again the Mandrake screamed, though it was not its killing scream this time.

Instead it had cast some natural magic, launching a wave of force Minerva’s way.

Minerva was ready, and she intercepted the wave, and broke it with a counterforce.

In the M.A.G.E display she saw the energy dissipate harmlessly around her.

She moved quickly from one incantation to the next.

I sweep at the fire on Iomagn’s back—“

Never had a Mandrake’s face looked so utterly terrorized.

Rather than fight, it turned tail and ran as fast as its little legs could carry it.

Minerva raised her wand and flung spell after spell after it, casting so quickly she felt like she had become a gun instead of a human. Her bullets slammed into the stone around the fleeing Mandrake and kicked up pillars of smoke and geysers of unwound energy and bursts of flashing light, but it was hard to score a hit on the frantically moving creature.

Gritting her teeth, Minerva deactivated M.A.G.E. and chased after the creature.

At the time of the Mandrake’s escape the old Academy was only mildly traveled compared to the lavish new Academy grounds. There was a clock tower and a series of small parkways around the Anthropology building and Terrington plaza, and ringed by the Otrarian Culture Department, Hortuchemy, the old archival Library and a small food court. That was enough space and with few enough people around to give Minerva some room for error. It was still class time, which helped limit the amount of foot traffic, but the noon period would soon end, and there would be a modest but dangerous lunch rush even here.

Minerva would have only one more chance to catch the Mandrake safely.

She spotted the little monster dashing across the street and into one of the plaza’s gardens, sweeping over the concrete with its legs as if whipping the ground to move. Students made way for it, more amused than scared, and stuck around to watch it run.

They were lucky it didn’t accidentally bump into them and get frightened.

Scrambling past the students, Minerva charged into the gardens, little cobblestone squares surrounded on three sides by smooth stone flowerbeds containing a rainbow of plant life. She found her target almost immediately. The Mandrake ran through the center of the garden, rushed around a bench seat and leaped like an olympian onto a flower bed.

It turned its odd frozen little face toward her and hesitated for a moment.


That momentary pause gave Minerva enough time to attack.

Pherkan’s Smoke Dart erupted from her wand like a gaseous arrow.

Standing perfectly still amid the myriad colors of flowers around it, the Mandrake groaned as it finally realized it was too tall to hide among them. With grim resignation it absorbed the stunning spell, and bounced backwards like a football off the flower bed. Now it was truly out of sight. Minerva ran toward it, climbed atop the flowerbed, stomped through the flowers and found nothing on the ground on the other side but dirty root-prints.

She raised her head to the path and found the Mandrake running off again.

“God damn it!” She shouted.

Brandishing her wand, she slung another dart into the air.

The Mandrake leaped, and it struck under it, and sent it bouncing away once more.

Minerva cursed, leaped over the edge of the flowerbed and continued the pursuit.

Somehow this Mandrake was resisting a stunning spell it should’ve been weak to.

Perhaps it was a particularly old (ripe?) Mandrake?

Maybe she was too anxious? Channeling improperly?

She grit her teeth. Whatever the reason, she was running out of time.

Running her legs raw, Minerva raised her homunculus to her face.

“Beatrix, where the hell are you? It’s getting away!”

There was no response. The Mandrake crossed the gardens, passed the street, and cleared the car road, mantling over a bus stop bench and diving into a low hedgerow as if into a swimming pool. It was almost to the Hortuchemy building—inside which there would be a tragic number of victims trapped with it, or, even worse, many witnesses.

“Beatrix! Come on, answer me!”

Minerva crossed the road and cleared the hedgerow.

Scrambling up a small, grassy bump of a hill toward the Hortuchemy greenhouse, the Mandrake leaped between several freshly-planted saplings, bearing the pink and black ribbons of the Beautification Society, using its tentacles to clamber around them like a monkey. It was getting away fast! Minerva raised her wand, but then stayed her hand.

Would there be trouble if she tore up this lawn?

Would there be trouble for the flowers too?

What would people think of her, specifically, running around making messes?

The Mandrake hit the top of the hill and barreled toward the steps.

Minerva cried out in frustration and ran past the saplings to the top of the hill.

As her sneakers hit the white stone tiles leading to the Hortuchemy greenhouse, the Mandrake was almost to the door and ready to burst through the glass. Through the panels Minerva could see students, diligently working on rows of plants with schematic properties.

“Beatrix, do something already!” Minerva cried, raising her wand to take a final shot.

The Mandrake leaped headfirst to bash into the greenhouse door.

Minerva started to chant— Beneath the Mandrake the ground trembled.

A pillar of dirt, tile and concrete spiked suddenly up like a piston.

Stricken in its rotund face the Mandrake flew up and backward into the air.

From around the greenhouse, Beatrix appeared with a grin on her face.

She raised a wand into the air, and on her wrist, her homunculus flashed.

Droning noises issued from it that stirred the world around Beatrix.

Swiping her wand like a conductor’s baton, Beatrix shaved off a chunk of the pillar and launched it like a cannonball at the Mandrake as it began to lose altitude.

Again the stone smashed into the creature’s face and sent it hurtling away.

There was such brutal, palpable force to the attacks that Minerva flinched.

She watched it fall, and turned and ran toward where she thought it would land.

“Wait for me, little guy!” Beatrix shouted.

She swiped her wand toward the hill and turned a slice of it to mud.

Taking a running leap, she hit the mud like a skateboarder on a rail and rode it.

In a flash, she made it to the Mandrake before Minerva was halfway there.

The little monster hit the ground and bounced in the same undignified fashion.

Recovering from the strikes, it opened its mouth a handful of meters from Beatrix.

She stood her ground, grinning at the thing.

The Mandrake screamed.

No sound issued from its mouth.

Minerva thought the maw looked a little vacant.

“You’d need this, I think.”

Beatrix, still smiling, kneeled down and picked up something from the ground.

Amid other displaced chunks of Mandrake bark splintered from the main mass by Beatrix’s vicious attacks, there was an object that seemed part banana and part potato.

The Mandrake stared at the piece, and comically stuck its twig legs in its mouth.

Its despairing little face spread wide in every way it could.

“Mandrakes need their tongues to scream, huh?” Beatrix said. She kneeled down again and petted the Mandrake on its violet bulb. “You learn something new every day.”

In response the Mandrake dropped on its back and squirmed around.

Minerva inched closer, perturbed by the plant’s behavior.

“Is it acting like it is dying so you won’t eat it?” Minerva said.

Beatrix shrugged.

“Are you really going to grind it up?” Minerva asked, wincing at the thought.

“Nah. I can’t eat this much mandrake. I’ll grind this up.”

She held up the severed tongue.

“So what will we do with the rest of it?” Minerva said, staring at the Mandrake.

It looked as if it was having a convulsion on the ground.

“We’ll take it back and replant it. I’ll take it somewhere safe when I can.”

Minerva sighed and dropped onto her rear on the hill, exhausted.

Though there were a few students and couples and small groups who had been around to witness the event, everybody seemed to quickly get on with their business. Perhaps for people who knew and grew up with magic, this was all just an average Wednesday. People just chased after mandrakes and shot up the campus and made a racket all of the time.

“Let us get back to the office, Minerva. I’ll let you have a taste!” Beatrix said.

She held up the disturbing mandrake tongue once more, wagging it in the air.

“Go to hell.” Minerva replied.

This was probably all the thanks she would get for saving the Academy.

Beatrix picked up the Mandrake and got moving.

Minerva eventually followed.

There were a few people staring, but not for very long, and not very seriously.

Back in the office, Beatrix practically dunked the Mandrake headfirst into its pot.

It offered a few sad little shrieks in protest, and wiggled despondently, but there was not much it could do for revenge now that its scream had been stifled. From the detritus of the office Beatrix produced a food processor, and dropped the Mandrake tongue inside.

“Could you dig out the cooler, it’s under those plush toys.”

Minerva kicked over the pile of plush toys. Her foot struck the mini-fridge beneath.

“Hey! Don’t kick them, those guys are precious to me! They’re collectible!”

Without a reply, Minerva picked up the only things inside: a bottle of yak milk and a small bag of seasoning mix for milkshakes. She laid them on top of Beatrix’s desk.

Beatrix patted her on the shoulder. “You can have this.”

She picked up the alpanite rock and deposited it on Minerva’s hands.

Minerva slipped the rock into the pockets of her hoodie with a deep sigh.

She stood around waiting while Beatrix mixed the milk and seasonings, which smelled almost as strongly of cinnamon as she herself did. Into the food processor they went, alongside the mandrake tongue. Beatrix pressed down the lid of the food processor and hit the button, grinding it up slowly until the grey-white milk had become chunky and brown.

Once ground down enough, Beatrix poured the mixture in a glass.

Minerva found the drink identical to mud from color to consistency.

Perhaps the only difference was the smell of cinnamon and the sprigs of mint floating atop the muck. Beatrix looked at the glass with a downcast expression, and sniffed it.

“Well. Down the hatch I guess!”

She tipped the contents into her mouth, taking a hearty swig of the shake.

Her expression switched in a flash from downcast, to strained and downright offended.

She held the glass out at arm’s length as if it was a living thing that had attacked her.

“It’s so sour and so thick! It’s sticking to my tongue.” Beatrix said.

She smacked her lips and tongue, and a shiver worked its way down her body.

“Do you feel any more connected to the Earth?” Minerva asked.

Beatrix took another long drink. This one caused her to bend and hug herself and shake.

“I feel like I’ve swallowed some Earth and I’m going to spit it up soon.” Beatrix replied.

Minerva shrugged.

“Yeah, I thought so. See you around, Beatrix.”

She waved half-heartedly, turned on her heels and ambled out of the room.

“Wait a moment.”

Minerva turned over her shoulder.

Beatrix stretched out her hand, holding a folded envelope between the fingers.

“Your friends sent you a suspicious letter. I opened it to ensure it was safe.”

“You opened it?”

Minerva snatched the letter out of Beatrix’s hands.

She spread it open and found the paper blank. It was written in magically encrypted ink and would require a specific spell as the password to reveal its contents.

“It could have been cursed. Tell your organization to send something more innocuous.”

Beatrix shrugged as if it had nothing to do with her.

She could afford to be that blasé; the Party trusted her implicitly.

Why they thought they could, Minerva didn’t know. All of it quite annoyed her.

“Anything else of mine you messed with that I should know?” She snapped.

Beatrix shook her head and nonchalantly took another hearty sip of her mud.

While she grabbed at her throat and retched, Minerva walked out, now definitively.


A primal scream tore through the forest.

“Child of Hama!”

Minerva stood frozen before a gigantic figure as it thrust a weapon her way.

“The beast in you hungers! Oh this will be a glorious yA gNAGH indeed!”

There were bodies around her, slain bodies. Leaves fell around her like razors.

She looked around but the environment was blurry, indistinct. She knew only that it was dark, and it was wooded, and ringed-off, and there were gravestones sliced to bits.

Behind her, she saw a lean, vulnerable figure tied to a post as a sacrifice.

“Miss Orizaga, please run away! Please!”

It was Jennifer.

Minerva reached out a hand to aid her student.

“You dare turn your back in an honorable clash?”

There was a flash.

Her hand flew from its wrist.

She stared at it disbelief until her vision itself was cut, and her breathing was cut too.

Her body started to fall apart where it stood.

There was blood.

She was dead.

Over her remains, the beast stood, and its laugh caused reality to tremble.

Minerva sat up in bed, choking.

She reached for the glass of water at her bedside and drank through trembling lips.

Her shaking hands spilled some of the water on her.

She was in her room. She was safe, alive. Her hand was still attached.

Her guts, were all still attached.

She had not dreamed of the Dragon and the Catastrophe tonight.

Though she felt terror, the dream itself was beginning to fade even as she wept for it.