The Vainasse Principle: First penned by elven researcher Antonio Vainasse, it is the idea that magic which reproduces a physical phenomenon does not ipso facto behave like that phenomenon. Magic can make fireballs that don’t “burn” the way that a real physical fire would “burn” an object. Magic does not necessarily obey the laws of physics which apply to “physical” phenomena, even when such phenomena are reproduced by magic. As such magic can be rated by its proximity or distance to physical realism, in gradual steps; but unreal magic is not necessarily weaker or less complicated than realistic magic. A completely accurate representation of a physical object or phenomena generated entirely by magic is said to be “Vainasse Perfect.”
In the modern era, many pieces of magic once thought to be Vainasse Perfect have been found by science to be missing something in physical law, and been discredited. No magic is currently believed to be Vainasse Perfect under serious scientific scrutiny.
Lyudmilla and the Samaritan bumped fists to seal their compact.
“I’m no ‘concerned citizen,’ but if it’s these guys, I’ll kick their asses pro bono.”
“Whatever your intention, a donation is a donation. I appreciate it.”
Lyudmilla did not quite know what she was getting herself into at the time.
She had stalked evil men in the night before and made sure they never got home.
She had seen, and done, so much more than she sometimes even comprehended.
Whenever she remembered it, it was all so selective, so out of control.
It was like her whole life had happened to her rather than under her direction.
A different place, different world; maybe even a different her. All she had were flashes.
There was no use thinking about it at such a level. She shook her head; it was actually simpler. If she didn’t want to walk away with a black eye, then she had to give one. That was easier than contracts and targets; that was easier than wars and soldiers. When you walked into a dark alley, sometimes you punched your way out, and that was it.
It was the fascists who had come out in this alley, and they would leave without teeth.
“Lets get moving.” The Samaritan said. “They have a bunch of guys all around here.”
“Are they communicating?” Lyudmilla asked. “Will they know about these losers?”
She pointed at the men dropped face-down around the fountain and hedge.
The Samaritan shook her head. “I don’t think they’re talking. We can’t be sure, but these guys aren’t very organized, or at least, they haven’t been in the past.”
“How are they not organized? They’ve got uniforms, patches; a flag!”
“In my experience, all they’re capable of is ganging up and terrorizing helpless people.”
She turned from Lyudmilla and started walking out of the fountain square.
Lyudmilla felt that maybe the Samaritan wasn’t getting the changes in the fascist modus operandi that seemed to be evident here, but she did not push it any further.
Ahead of them, the expanse of the park seemed to loom large and oppressive.
Though she had come here in the past, Lyudmilla had never had cause to examine Eisenbern park with any degree of detail. Hedges a little under two meters tall walled off the breadth of the park space, encircling the area save for a few entrances and exits, beyond which magic walls likely laid now. A winding white-tiled path flanked by flower beds, bright green grassy fields and great lumbering trees, connected statues, gazebos, benches, fountains and concrete podiums into one continuous space.
And yet, as far as Lyudmilla could see from her vantage, she also felt like she couldn’t possibly know what lay ahead. She could not see a soul walking in the park, despite her awareness that there were Iron Flag thugs patrolling it. When she tried to focus on the space ahead of her, there was something elusive about it in her vision, as if she was staring into a mirror that had gotten just fogged enough after a quick hot shower to distort the picture ever so slightly. Something was wrong; something was hidden.
“I don’t know what kind of spell they put in place.” Samaritan said. “But we should–“
“It was a labyrinth.” Lyudmilla said, cutting her off.
“Oh! You’ve done some homework!”
The Samaritan did not seem disturbed or put off by Lyudmilla’s interruption.
Behind her mask, Lyudmilla could tell she was smiling again.
She raised a finger and spoke in a matter-of-fact sort of voice.
“Large and complicated spells usually have focal points, like wi-fi extenders in a big house, that project the spell through the space. A maze spell like this usually has specific dimensions, like walls and rooms. In this case, a maze was superimposed on the park, so the walls are invisible. I’ve been running into a lot of walls, which is why I can’t progress. If we move carelessly, we’ll touch a ‘wall’ and end up back at this fountain. So we need to find the path that will take around the maze’s focal points.”
Lyudmilla simply nodded her head. She had no experience or learning in this arena.
“Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, so you lead.” She said, shrugging.
Behind her mask, the Samaritan was smiling cheek to cheek once again.
“I’ve done this before, you could say. Though not at quite this scale.”
“Yeah I’m sure you’ve had tons of adventures.” Lyudmilla shrugged.
“Plug these numbers into a browser page on your Homunculus while we walk.”
She handed Lyudmilla a piece of paper with what looked like an IP address.
Then she started forward, toward the white-tiled path.
Suddenly, the Samaritan vanished from Lyudmilla’s sight for a few seconds.
“God, it’s so granular. Everything is a wall except really narrow paths. Whoever put this here is, beyond being fascist, a fucking a-hole. We can’t just brute force our way here.”
She reappeared behind Lyudmilla, back at the fountain. One wrong step was all it took.
Nodding, Lyudmilla input the numbers into the homunculus’ built-in web browser.
A bare-bones page came up, basically a bulletin board style list of messages gathered up in a white text on black background four-celled table layout. Each line had the title of the thread in question, a username, and two timestamps for when it was created and responded to. There were only a few threads, each of them asking for some kind of help. Most of the requests were simple and harmless, but there was one thread at the top of the forum that caught Lyudmilla’s eye: “Girl chased to Eisenbern Park!”
A picture was attached, blurry, but clearly depicting a girl and several pursuers.
“Someone reported this?” Lyudmilla asked. “And you answered?”
“Yep, that’s how the Samaritan Network works!” said the Samaritan. “One of our posters saw a girl being attacked and made a thread. I responded to the call.”
“How many people know about you? There’s not a lot of posts on this board.”
Lyudmilla felt a bit silly asking the question; she herself had not known about them.
Again the Samaritan seemed to smile behind her mask. “We’re kinda indie.”
“And how many people are helping?”
“It’s never enough.”
There was a hint of helpless embarrassment in the Samaritan’s voice.
“Well, we better get moving. The victim’s probably running out of places to escape to.”
Lyudmilla turned around toward the park, and feeling bullheaded, she charged toward the white tiled road only to immediately find herself back at the fountain with the Samaritan again. There was no transition, no feeling in her body, and she retained all the momentum she had picked up running. It was as if a door had opened that just took her back to where she had been standing — seamless transportation.
“It’s no good to just keep running at it.” the Samaritan said.
“Ugh, I don’t care! I’ll just charge at it again and again until–“
“Wait a moment. I have an idea. Hopefully a big enough bang can still alert the patrols.”
“A big enough bang? Why would you hope for that?”
From her hoodie pocket, the Samaritan produced a gun.
Lyudmilla immediately saw it as the sort of gun that she knew. Sleek and black, concealable, deadly when pulled in one fluid motion right to the target’s skull and unloaded there– but it was not. It was rounded, bulky and orange and the barrel was covered in a nuclear yellow safety tape. It was a break-action flare handgun.
“What are you planning to do with that?” Lyudmilla asked.
“Draw attention to myself.”
With an impression of a smile under her mask, the Samaritan lifted her arm to aim the flare gun overhead and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp bang and a smoking canister soared skyward and exploded flashing and burning flare that slowly arced down from the black, cloudless sky overhead. Lyudmilla’s body was suddenly cast in bright red light, and her shadow became a thin strip of black directly behind her.
All of the park seemed to have been illuminated by the flare.
“To yourself? I’m here too!” Lyudmilla shouted.
Long shadows cast by the trees and the hedges seemed to stretch forever.
“Look, I know you’ve done this before, Hoodie, but is this a good idea–?”
The Samaritan did not hesitate; after shooting the flare she stowed the gun back in her coat, and put her hands down onto the soft earth near one of the hedges. She squeezed into the dirt, chanting something while her homunculus projected noise and light to fill in the gaps in her spell. Around her arms the ground glowed a dim green.
Stirred to life by her magic, the soil began to crawl up over her hands.
“Armor of Soil, may I never be disarmed!” She shouted.
When she pulled her arms back up, they were covered in compacted earth. Like a pair of big brown boxing gloves, but with a moist and uneven surface, the soil covered her fists. Now upright, she threw a couple of exploratory punches as if to test the weight.
The Samaritan then turned to face the path out to the interior of the park.
“Wait for it–“
In the next instant, the upper body and part of the leg of a young man appeared before the Samaritan and Lyudmilla, as if walking through a gelatineous membrane in the air, initially missing the rest of the body. Space rippled around him as if there was a flat plane of water right in front of the girls. He was moving through the labyrinth “wall.”
Before more of his body could come through, his face met the Samaritan’s fist.
A visor on his helmet crunched against his eyesockets and brows, and his nose spurted a great gout of blood. A tooth flew out. The Samaritan’s fist was barely dented. Her punch had flown out like a missile and struck like a wrecking ball. The fascist was on the floor with no further protest, his body half in and half out of the illusory plane that had been cast in front of them. The Samaritan stepped on him.
“Here’s our guide. Just walk over him to get past the first displacement. Hurry!”
“Ugh. Now who’s being bullheaded? Just shut up, I’m coming–“
“Someone’s in trouble and needs our help Lyudmilla! Come on, be a hero!”
With a clear cheer to her voice, the Samaritan called out while vanishing through the portal. Lyudmilla blinked, momentarily speechless. She withdrew her grimoire from inside her jacket and held it open with one hand. Sighing, she wondered for an instant what Minerva would do– but it was an easy conclusion. She followed the Samaritan.
“It’s not like I don’t want to be the big hero. Ugh. Here goes nothing.”
Lyudmilla stepped over the wheezing, blacked-out body of the fascist.
She saw her arm, held just slightly ahead of her body, sink into the air in front of her first. In one fluid motion the rest of her body followed, and there was barely any transition. It was just like walking through Minerva’s doorway and feeling the thrum of magic over her skin from the cleaning enchantment. There was no technicolor dreamscape as she traversed the portal; she was just in and out, appearing in another part of the park in less time than it took the brain to realize she had moved at all.
Now the fountain and the hedges were gone. She was standing in what seemed like the foot of a large stepped pyramid, with each tier consisting of flowerbeds flanked by paths and connected by steps up and down. At the top of the romantic pyramid was what remained of the peak of the hill that the park designers had built around, a mound of grass and earth that played host to a single, massive tree that shaded the entire upper half of the structure. It would have been the perfect place to take a particularly sappy girl to for a kiss among the roses and a tumble in the grass.
Now however it was occupied by a group of five or six boys in grey uniforms. They stood in bewilderment, looking every which way for intruders. There were implements in their hands that were meant to be weapons. Baseball bats, hockey sticks, golf putters; nothing as standard as the uniforms they were. To Lyudmilla, who still remembered the lectures of her old commanding officers, she realized a few things about the Iron Flag movement from seeing these guys, and what they had available.
Uniforms without weapons; maybe that also said something about their brains.
“Strong energy readings, overwhelming the vital readings, suggest that the tree detected ahead is part of the labyrinth’s displacement.” said Lyudmilla’s homunculus.
She had not expected it to speak as loud as it did.
Almost once, every one of the men turned around to look their way.
The Samaritan raised her fists in defense.
“After we kick these guy’s asses could you please mute that?”
Lyudmilla sighed and assumed a casting stance, holding out her grimoire while her other hand hovered over the pages, fingers ready to make spellcasting gestures.
“Hey, it’s useful, okay?” She grumbled. Nothing seemed to go her way tonight.
No one was waiting for their banter to resolve.
Without word the gang of boys rushed at them from the steps, heaving up their clubs, the bottom halves of their faces concealed by heavy chin-guards. Their eyes had a violent intensity, and Lyudmilla could see the anger and thrill reflect in their auras.
And yet their intent to kill, their willingness to withstand pain, all of that felt lacking.
As scared as she might have been of them, they were terrified of her.
Terrified of what they were being asked to do. She saw it in their wavering auras.
And so, all they could do was to make themselves monsters and charge furiously.
Running her fingers over the pages of her grimoire, Lyudmilla spread and closed them as if kneading something in mid-air. Sparks jumped off the paper where she scraped.
She had been in fights before. She had been in far scarier fights before. Lyudmilla had met people who wanted to kill her. She knew what that felt; she knew the aura of the kind of person who would end her life without her even being able to scream. There was a difference between people who could hurt her and people who would kill her.
In the back of her mind, she recalled that armored legionnaire, Ajax.
Was that the fear that stood behind these boys and pushed them to attack her?
Her hairs stood on end, and she felt a surge through her body; both adrenaline, and the electricity she was channeling through her arms, fingertips, and her grimoire. At first the sparks danced in flickering patterns that connected her fingertips to the paper like a trail of spittle after a deep kiss. Then the sparks trailed up her arm in the dozens.
Guys with sticks who weren’t even trying to do magic didn’t scare her.
And as the magic intensified, it was their fear of her that saturated the air.
“You take the left, hoodie, and I’ll–“
Before Lyudmilla finished the sentence the Samaritan had already ran in ahead.
Meeting the boys halfway down the steps, she threw the first punch and collided with one of their ribcages. Compacted mud and soil blew off her gauntlets in big chunks, and cracks formed in the remaining armor; the boy she had punched spread his mouth wide open as if to puke and slipped backwards onto his ass, clutching his chest and heaving with pain. Three boys descended on the Samaritan with their clubs.
A series of wild blows struck her armor as she held her hands before her in defense.
Two of the boys ran past her.
“Twintails, If you’ve got something up your sleeve–“
The Samaritan shouted, but Lyudmilla didn’t need to be told to use her magic.
She had been waiting for just this opportunity.
There were plenty of ways her imagination could have molded the lightning, but the sequence of men lined up before her was perfect for what she wanted to do.
“As Pherkan before me, I claim the furious sky in the name of man! Chain Lightning!”
She surprised herself with how effectively her invocation synthesized her lessons.
A spell that had once been cumbersome and exhausting to cast for her became far less effort, now that she had a better idea of how her spellcasting truly worked.
Calling on the great Rus arch-mage Pherkhan, and “associating” Lightning with Metal through the human race, who are most strongly associated to the metal they shape, and the metal she used, and wore.
Lyudmilla loosed a bolt of lightning that was like a coil of serpents dancing in mid-air.
From her outstretched, open palm it burst, as she lifted her hand from the pages of the grimoire. Her first bolt struck the closest of the men on the metal bat he carried. In an imperceptible the instant the screaming, writhing bolt burrowed through his stomach and then split. Her fell instantly to the ground, shaking, heaving with pain and shock, but bloodless. He had been penetrated without laceration, without trauma.
Chain Lightning moved through his body without impediment and split into a new bolt that then immediately bounced to the next man over. This bolt found the metal in the target’s armored knee-pads. It dug through his legs and caused them to crumple beneath him. He fell dramatically, face-first into the pavement as if dropped from the sky onto the ground. Chain Lightning raced up from his kneecaps through his chest, split anew and hurtled toward the next man in its sequence. It transpired in seconds.
Now it had jumped through both the men who had run past the Samaritan and leaped into the men she was attacking. Connected by the chain, the three of them were shocked one after the other within an eye’s blink from the last. As the bolt moved it lost strength, and while the first few men had experienced a jolt that shook their stomachs loose, the last two men to be stricken felt a far lesser impact. One staggered back, wrestling with his baseball bat as if his hands were attached to it, due to a residual magnetic cling imparted as the spell died. The second of the men cringed, shook his head, and wiped snot and blood that had spilled down his face, still standing.
“I missed some, Hoodie! You better get the trash off the grass!” Lyudmilla shouted.
“Already on it!”
The Samaritan darted forward.
Her hands spread open, dividing into individual digits where once they appeared sealed into the earthen armor. The mud and stone of her gauntlets moved with the same ease as flesh, and in that instant seemed as weightless her hands. Before they could put up their guard, the Samaritan seized the two remaining men, taking them by the shoulder and gripping. Both men screamed as her fingers dug into their skin.
With unnatural strength and ease, she spread her arms apart and lifted the men, and then bashed them together like a pair of cymbals, their faces slamming into one another. Blood drew from their noses with a visceral crunch; the two men lost the light in their eyes and hung limp at the end of the Samaritan’s hands. When she spread the rough earthen digits of her hands once again the men dropped like sacks on the floor.
She wiped her hands on each other and glanced back at Lyudmilla.
Lyudmilla thought if she could see behind the mask, she would see a smug grin.
“Heavy magic missile!”
From farther up the step pyramid, under the shadow of the great tree, a pulsating glob of glowing force came hurtling down and struck the Samaritan in the chest. Struggling to hold its shape in flight, the missile grew unstable, and as soon as it came into contact with the Samaritan’s aura it spread and burst into a circle of diffuse energies.
The Samaritan was thrown off the steps. She rolled over once and landed face-down.
Lyudmilla found the attacker immediately after his invocation.
He was staring down at them from above, hunched over, with a fancy amethyst-tipped rod clutched in two shaking hands. He had a pretty-boy face, blond hair, blue-eyes, fair and untouched skin; a really manicured kid. As if afraid of what it might do, he held the magic rod out in front of him. Casting in such a way lent little coherence to his spell. A simple “magic missile” became an unstable blob of undisciplined power in his hands.
Unlike the other men he had no helmet and no impromptu armor, no knee-pads, no vests. Only his uniform and an armband with an Iron Flag design: an eagle grasping a pair of spear-tipped flag banners.
Watching the Samaritan fall and then watching as she did not move or stand up, seemed to embolden him. “I’ll get you too, pigtails! Stay back! Don’t fucking move!”
He shouted at them, and shook his rod as if that alone would cast a spell.
Lyudmilla glanced at the Samaritan, who, from the floor, made a gesture at her.
She understood; the Samaritan was just pretending to have been hurt.
“Does daddy know you’re out here putting his retirement fund on the line?”
“Fuck you! You’re going to die tonight if you piss me off!”
He thrust the rod toward Lyudmilla, but no magic came out of it.
He was not casting anything, just trying to sound intimidating.
“I’m a Lieutenant! I’ve got thirty guys here! You’ll leave here swollen like a zit!”
A lieutenant of what? This band of neanderthals?
“Go on and try me, pussy!” Lyudmilla shouted.
He lifted the rod into the air and with his whole body shaking began to cast again.
Lyudmilla tried to think about how she would counter his spell; it was unlikely to hurt her too bad if it struck, but she wanted to bounce it back just like Minerva could. She had seen Minerva counter that ghost during one of their lessons, and tried to think back on what she was doing. Her memory of people, their bodies and movements, was flawless. She felt confident that she could mimic what Minerva had done that day.
She did not need to.
Just as the bolt of magic flew from the self-styled fascist “Lieutenant,” the Samaritan suddenly leaped up onto her feet, reared back on the spot and then leaped once again.
As she rose, the Samaritan shouted a spell command:
“Reverse Polarity! The soil in me rejects the soil beneath!”
Around her the ground visibly cracked, and dust flew up and away in a small wave.
She then hurtled toward the Lieutenant as if she had made herself into a missile.
His amorphous heavy magic missile crashed into her and dispersed, taking with it chunks of earth the size of baseballs off of the armor on her fists. Debris dropped from the sky in the Samaritan’s wake as she cleared the steps in one superhuman jump.
In the next instant she landed in front of the Lieutenant.
He drew back in terror, and fell out of sight Lyudmilla’s sight from the lower ground.
His rod dropped off the edge of the steps and clanked all the way down.
“I didn’t mean anything, I swear! He made me come here, I didn’t want to–“
Lyudmilla made for the top of the steps, over the bodies of the knocked-out men.
From the top, she could hear the Samaritan’s fist crack against the fascist’s head.
“That one’s payback for the magic missile. It actually kind of hurt. So who put you up to this then? Tell me and I’ll just knock you out instead of throwing you down the steps.”
When Lyudmilla got to the top of the steps, she found that Samaritan holding the fascist effortlessly against the trunk of the huge tree, with one hand around his neck.
Lyudmilla was very briefly distracted by the aura of the tree, but her eyes then focused back on the auras of the Samaritan and the fascist, one brown and red the other blue and grey, intermingling as they struggled. However, the fascist was clearly being outmatched. He could not physically escape, and the Samaritan’s aura was thicker.
Both of her hands were encased in a skin of jagged earth. She had his neck against the tree with fingers like a stone vice. Her remaining hand she held against his face, sharp knuckles hovering near his nose. All she had to do was rear back to strike; Lyudmilla had seen that even a jab from the Samaritan’s earthen fists held massive power.
“It was Ajax! That armored lunatic came into the frat, rounded us up; he said he had a job and when I tried to back out, I could literally see his eyes glint red from his helmet! I swear I had to go along or he would’ve cut my guts open! I didn’t have a choice!”
“Cut the crap.” The Samaritan said. “You always had a choice you piece of shit.”
Lyudmilla heard the name ‘Ajax’ and felt a chill as her mind was transported to that night, not too long ago . That empty armor they found in the forest after Moloch fell, could not have been the last of him; he definitely escaped and it did not even slow him down. He just needed new flunkies, and the group of racist sycophants who loved to fight suited him well. But Lyudmilla knew he was leagues beyond them. He had some kind of ambition; after all, he was capable of using the evil, dead art of Summoning.
And now he was back stalking some other helpless girl. But for what?
“What kind of job was it? What did you stand to gain from this?” The Samaritan asked.
She squeezed on the Lieutenant’s neck briefly. He lifted his hands to seize her arm, but he was without strength, helpless in her presence. Perhaps he, too, was at this point associated with defeat, weakness, helplessness, and could not resist inside her aura. His power had shrunk to the point his aura was just a dim outline around his frame.
Meranwhile the Samaritan’s aura was ever more imperious than Lyudmilla had seen it.
Burning a bright yellow, green and red, colors of earth and fire.
Lyudmilla thought she looked like Justice. She did not quite understand why.
It was a feeling she got when she stared at the aura. Like a smell or a taste.
“Let me go! I’m not part of this anymore, I swear it!”
“Tell me something useful or I’ll let you go rolling down the stairs.”
The Samaritan spoke with confidence as she delivered her threat.
Clearly she had had people in her power before.
Lyudmilla was briefly reminded of some people she knew, from before.
The Lieutenant cried, spat and struggled, but he could not break free and so he slumped back, whimpering. He eventually managed to shout his words out.
“There was this fancy rich girl! She came into the city tonight with a collection of gems; stuff to donate to the Academy. He wanted the girl’s jewels! We were gonna split it!”
Words said amid duress could not be so easily trusted, however.
“That’s bullshit.” Lyudmilla said. “This Ajax guy is not some two-bit thief.”
The Samaritan turned her head to glance at her. “Are you familiar with him?”
“He did the summoning! The one that was reported a while ago. That was Ajax.”
The Samaritan blinked. From the way her eyes drew wide, she was clearly surprised.
Lyudmilla had not bothered to check what had been reported about the Summoning.
People knew that Minerva was involved in stopping the Summoning.
But they apparently did not know who else was involved or who had done it.
“Ajax is hardcore. We gotta assume he has some kinda other plan.” Lyudmilla said. “Tell me, when was the last time these fascist frat boys cursed an entire park with magic?”
The Samaritan must have realized what she was up against at that point.
She turned back to the fascist Lieutenant, who cowered from her gaze.
“You’ve got a hell of a point, Twintails.” The Samaritan said.
Prompted by the current distraction, the Lieutenant started to bargain again.
“Yes! Look, he lied to us! He’s who you want, I’m– I’m a nobody! Just let me go–!”
Almost with a shrugging motion the Samaritan pulled him forward and then–
“Not against the tree!”
At Lyudmilla’s urging, the Samaritan lifted the fascist up and away from the trunk.
Rather than against the tree, she slammed him into the dirt.
His head bobbed, slobber flying from his lips as his eyes rolled up and his limbs went soft. The Samaritan released her grip on him, and he lay limp, drooling at her feet.
Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She had felt a momentary terror for the poor tree.
The Samaritan wiped her enlarged, earth-covered hands against each other.
“Fun thing about brawling with magic is you can go pretty crazy and still not kill anyone if you know what you’re doing. It’s cathartic sometimes, to be perfectly honest.”
Judging by the way her mask shifted, she must have cracked a grin under it.
With one large, jagged finger the Samaritan pointed past the tree.
“When I jumped up here I saw one other guy cowering behind the tree. He ran that way; so we know where the next corridor is. Lets follow him and see where it leads.”
Lyudmillla, however, was barely listening to her anymore. She was focused elsewhere.
“I have a better idea actually. I feel like this tree could be helpful.”
Where the Samaritan was apparently seeing nothing, Lyudmilla’s eyes saw differently.
She felt something from the great tree, and felt compelled to take a closer look.
Lyudmilla stepped up to the tree and put a hand on it. She could feel her skin brimming with the magic that had been imparted on the tree. There was something dizzying about it; trying to read its aura made her senses confused. She had a sudden onset of synesthesia. Tasting its vegetal scent right on her tongue, seeing the bark through her very fingers, hearing the coarse roughness of the trunk as her eyes gazed upon it. Patterns etched upon its being, veins both subtly superimposed and yet running deep.
For anyone else it might have shaken their minds to feel something like that.
This one edgy alt-girl had led a life so steeped in magic her heart-rate barely rose.
“This tree was made part of the spell. So if we can do something from here–“
She tried to remember. Minerva had cast spells that dispelled magic before too.
In her mind, Minerva was moving a certain way, talking a certain way, muttering under her breath where no one could hear; thinking a certain way, feeling; the way that light played off her brown skin, the way her messy dark hair swayed with the motion of her body. Lyudmilla tried to figure out how she could use that to do what Minerva did.
Perhaps, however, it was not necessary to do something so complicated as dispelling.
Lyudmilla felt, touching the tree, that it was trying to resist what the fascists had done.
Amid all the sensation, amid the great confusion that had been cast upon it, and that represented the labyrinth it had been forced to anchor, Lyudmilla felt resistance.
This labyrinth was a system, with walls and corridors, that were just as forced on this tree as they had been on the intended victim, and on the two girls fighting their way through it. Like them, the tree had an urgency to return to the world as it was. When magic was done upon you, naturally your being resisted. Lyudmilla could that tell even from its dim, timid aura; the kind of aura that things had for having lived long among magic, not an aura that was thinking or feeling, but an aura that was situated. Roots held this ground, and knew where this ground stood, and knew what winds traveled between its branches. None of this world made sense to it anymore, and it fought it.
“Lyudmilla, are you–?”
The Samaritan tried to reach out, but Lyudmilla’s mind was racing with a wild idea.
“Maybe– I know! I can give it a way to cast magic!”
This idea had formed in one chaotic instant, and in the next, it was underway.
Lyudmilla took in a deep breath, and she made her fingers feel the weight and heft and texture of a very specific object, and she thought of its origin, and of its powers and she called out its name: the Seven Castigating Stakes, one of which was– “Sudes!”
Magic poured out of Lyudmilla like a hemorrhaging wound, and she felt as if a hole had been bored in her brain. She almost passed out; her vision blurred, her head empty. Sudes was an immensely draining spell. It created an object vastly more powerful than Lyudmilla herself and required so much energy to create even a bare shell of its glory.
She recovered her balance briefly, fighting against the exhaustion and concentrating on her hands, on the shaft of the stakes. Vividly, she pictured the stakes broken in half.
In her hand, out of a rushing whirlwind of magic appeared half of a stake.
Marshaling her strength, while the magic still flowed in a great tumult around her, Lyudmilla stepped forward, lifted the stake over her shoulder and thrust brutally.
She jammed the broken half of the stake into the tree creating a shallow wound.
Facing out from the tree then, was the side of the stake that “bolstered magic.”
“Lyudmilla, what are you doing?” The Samaritan asked.
She rushed forward, as Lyudmilla nearly tipped over backwards from the effort.
As she stumbled, the crafty northern girl became bathed in an eerie green light.
Given the conduit to do so, the tree heeded her plight. It cast a spell.
Using the empowering half of the stake as a casting tool, the tree surged with magic.
Over its surface, glowing green veins ran across the trunk of the tree. Wherever they shone the brightest, a second pattern could be seen to appear as if trying to obscure the first. While the green veins were curved and curling and shot wildly everywhere, the grey lines were strict and methodical, like a map. A map of walls and corridors trying to stifle the life in the tree. But soon the green overtook it, and erased utterly the metal labyrinth that had been etched over its surface. Curling, coiling green missiles flew out like ethereal shoots from the roots and branches of the tree and flew off.
Where the green missiles struck the walls of Minos, there were great reverberations in mid-air until the walls collapsed. Suddenly more and more of the park revealed itself to the girls under the tree, and the tree revealed itself to sparse groups of hapless boys who had been hidden from view until then. Great green spouts of magic continued to fly from the tree even after the walls went down, splashing onto the grass and onto the cobblestone paths and exploding in bursts of earthen color and smell and texture.
Bearing witness to this spectacle, and knowing the part they took in chaining down that great tree, many of the boys and men could be seen to run away in great fear.
The Samaritan grabbed hold of Lyudmilla and kept her steady, watching the magic play out until the stake was spent. A green shoot from the tree coiled around the jagged wooden conjuration and claimed it as its own until it finally disappeared.
“What did you do, Lyudmilla? That was incredible.” The Samaritan said.
Her mind was airy, her strength coming and going like the drawing of breath.
Lyudmilla shook her head and tried to regain her senses. She had a terrible headache.
“I wanted to help the tree. That’s Samaritan stuff isn’t it?” Lyudmilla mumbled out.
Her companion giggled; quite gently for her appearance. “I mean– yeah, I guess it is.”
The Samaritan raised her head, looking out over the park for a moment.
She stood bolt upright and pointed out over one of the fountains across from them.
“Wait! Lyudmilla, I can see them! There they are!” She shouted.
“A truly miserable display. You are worth less than nothing. I’ll see to it that you all suffer for this embarrassment. Clearly, I must take everything upon myself.”
Centurion “Ajax Of The Iron Fang” stepped onto the beautiful deep blue tiles of a fountain plaza that was littered with a dozen of his men, strewn about, crawling and scraping and struggling. Flecks of ice delineated shallow but painful wounds that had brought several down; others were drenched in icy water and shaking miserably on the ground, where they had been struck by unseen geysers or waterfalls from thin air.
Across the plaza from Ajax was his target. She was defiant; not a single strand of sky-blue hair on her head had been touched. On the back of her head, the elegant braided bun that she wore was neat as ever. Her blazer and dress skirt had nary a tear, not even a dribble of blood. These men who fancied themselves so alpha had done nothing.
Holding out an elegant blue staff topped with a coral, she prepared to strike Ajax.
There was no mistaking it, the emerald-blue eyes, the hair, her slightly sharp ears.
This was the girl he had been after. But did she have the goods with her?
He did not know the dimensions of the stones. They could very well had been in the suitcase behind her. She had been guarding it well against all of his men. It had to be.
Ajax spoke, his voice modulated by the spell on the helmet.
“I’m quite a fan of ancient Arak, you know. I studied archeology here, even. And I already took one of your trinkets; so why not let me have the whole set?”
He taunted her. She grit her teeth and tightened her grip on her staff.
“Return the stone this instant! It does not belong to you!” She shouted.
Under the helmet, Ajax smiled. He shrugged glibly at her.
“It did not belong to you either. Moloch’s lineage traces back to the earliest of the peoples of the lower Nobilis deserts, like the Alwi. For it to sit in the collection of a far nothern aristocrat, who then claims it hers; what a joke! It’s just as much ours to take.”
Nearly in tears with anger, the girl snapped back. “That was my father’s! Return it!”
At his provocation, the young woman made a squeezing motion with her hands over the coral head of the staff, and waves of water aura danced off her hands, rippling in the air. She performed an incantation in a language that Ajax could not quite decipher, but he understood the intent well enough from the tears in her eyes and her agitated voice. Water swirled from the bottom of the staff to the top like a curled snake.
Shouting the final incantation, the young woman thrust her staff forward and released a torrent of water. Like a high-pressure hose used to disperse riots, the stream was tight and extremely fast, cutting through the air like a knife. Had it been entirely up to the physical characteristics of the evoked energy Ajax might have been sawed in half.
Even a child, properly trained, could make magic with impressive physical qualities.
Magic was a battle of wills.
Powerful magic with a weak, wavering will behind it could never break a will of iron.
Ajax swiped his arm in front of himself with full confidence in its defense.
In the next instant the water deflected from him and soared skyward.
Droplets began to rain down over them in the next few minutes, like a spring drizzle.
Ajax cackled at her.
“I can’t return that which I don’t have. Your stone is spent and gone. In fact, that is why I have come for you personally. I need the rest of your father’s collection for my ambitions. For you, these are merely sentimental trinkets, mementos from a deceased man. But their power will open the way to the future for me. I will have them, Princess.”
Ajax outstretched his arm, and his spear was conjured in it.
He pointed the spear toward the girl, challenging her.
“I stole the Orb of Wildfire right from under the Administration’s nose, and I used it to construct an effigy to summon the tyrant Moloch. I have powers you can’t imagine.”
Stunned by the failure of her magic, the girl’s eyes drew wide and she was shaken.
“I will not fall as they did. Will you still resist? Your magic is well learned, but still weak.”
The girl’s posture softened as her will faltered.
She gasped, and drew back a step.
Ajax glanced over his shoulder; he saw a flash and immediately leaped.
At his feet a bolt of lightning and a torrent of glowing pebbles crashed into the tiles.
Below him the bolts dispersed and the pebbles vanished without damage to the ground. A result of magic without a perfect physical representation, or perhaps, the contrivance of the caster. Had he been struck, however, his body would have been much worse off than the tiles. There was intent to harm behind those projectiles.
Magic with poor learning, but an unmistakably powerful will behind it.
Ajax landed atop the rim of a fountain at the edge of the plaza.
He lifted his spear in defense, watching closely as two more figures appeared.
A familiar, hood-wearing interloper; and a familiar, twin-tailed punk.
“Leave her alone, you freak! Can’t go a day without harassing a helpless girl?”
Lyudmilla Kholodova interposed herself between the princess, brandishing a grimoire.
And moving to directly challenge him was the Samaritan he had heard so much about.
“You must be Ajax.” The Samaritan said. “I’d heard that the fascists had fallen behind a new face after Septimus went to jail. I never suspected that face to be wearing some ridiculous dragon helmet. I’ll be happy to give you the same beating Septimus got.”
He whirled his spear in his hands before bringing the tip to rest toward them.
The Samaritan paused, alarmed by the sudden movement.
Kholodova stuck closer to the elf she had taken in her charge.
As if it would be any use.
“All of the insects are gathering. But I’m not afraid of any of you. First, your teacher isn’t here to protect you this time. And second, unlike before, I am here in whole.”
Nothing could have been more convenient. He could settle every score at once.
He ran a hand over his helmet, revealing a part of a face.
Blue eyes, blond hair; then the metal melted back into its proper shape.
“Septimus was nothing. I will change magic forever. You will not stand in my way.”
This time, Ajax of the Iron Fang would show them their resounding inferiority.