The Roar That Parted The Currents [1.1]

When the alarm sounded, the room was as dark as when Murati went to sleep.

She jolted up in bed as if she heard an explosion go off.

According to the clock, it was 0500. She was still quite early.

“Crap.” Murati mumbled. “I thought I set the lights to go off.”

Having the lights slowly brighten in the room would have probably made her mood worsen. But she was still vexed that they did not go on when she scheduled them. She pushed herself up and slid her legs over the side of the bed. She groped her toes against the floor, looking for shoes.

Groggily, she lifted her hand up to the wall and pressed her palm on it.

There should have been something shining out at her.

She pushed against it repeatedly, but nothing lit up for her.

Come to think of it, the room was also dead quiet. Her music was not playing anymore.

It was also cold. A shiver ran up her bare legs and into her exposed stomach.

“We must have lost power in the block again.”

Murati grabbed hold of her blanket.

Wrapping herself in it for modesty, she peeked outside the door.

Outside, the hallway was dark, save for stray green beams from flashlights. It looked like there were workers checking the power cables, unearthing steel floor plates to get at the cabling.

Overhead, there was a brief flash as one of the LED blocks installed on the ceiling sparked.

Murati sighed, closed the door, and shambled over to the wardrobe in the dark.

Dim green light from her alarm clock shone over her bare, brown skin.

It was the only illumination in her gloomy three-by-three apartment.

Her bed took up a lot of the space. Her shower, heater and wardrobe occupied three panels side by side, recessed into the opposite wall. A pile of limestone-paper books and pamphlets she had borrowed from the station library took up the corner opposite her door.

She would have to think about returning all of those soon. Not today.

Sliding the wardrobe open, she pulled a smooth, form-fitting bodysuit from the rack and clumsily slipped into it, legs first, then arms. Reaching behind, she tightened and closed the back.

Over the suit, she donned a dark green coat and pants, both synthetic.

The coats she was issued had already been inscribed with the markings for her rank: two red stripes each with a gold star, arranged just over her breast for the rank of Lieutenant.

Murati did not bother to comb her hair in the dark. It stayed messy. She thought she might endeavor to cut it. It was nearly touching her shoulders again. She opened her nightstand drawer: inside were her reading glasses and an injector and the medicine vials labeled “E+”. She briefly considered taking them; but almost as quickly closed the nightstand drawer taking only her glasses.

Without light, she did not want to jab her hip with a needle.

“Comrades of the military council,” she mumbled under her breath. “Murati Nakara is again making a formal request,” she cut herself off with frustration. She sounded pathetic.

Walking out of her room and down the dark, labyrinthine halls of the Block, Murati went over what she would say to the Council. She went over it again and again. Would she opt for a grand speech about her numerous merits? Would she merely be forthright in her request, which many of them had likely heard before? It would be insane to be completely honest and say: ‘Here I am again, please do as I ask this time, or I will be forced to continue wasting your time.’

And yet, there was a part of her that yearned to do just that and get it all over with.

She had ascended the ranks on not just her diligence and work ethic, but clearly her skill.

They had to see that; didn’t they? (It was true, wasn’t it?)

A student of political as well as military theory, Murati had all kinds of rationalizations for what she wanted. She told herself she was not in pursuit of naval achievement, but merely serving her fellow workers, who via their production and necessary labor, uplifted the country, which itself was only given meaning by the collection of workers who lived freely under its auspices.

In a just world, a perfect world, there would be no need for soldiers like Murati.

Nevertheless, Murati was going to petition for the 5th time to be given a command.

And what she desired most after that was to deploy with her ship to a glorious battle.

In a just world, she would not need to do so. Such a dream would not even exist!

This was not a just and perfect world.

None of that would be in her request. She was still obsessing over what she would say.

Just outside of the tight corridors of the Block, lined with doors set a few meters apart that each led to someone’s bedroom, Murati passed by a thick glass wall that allowed one to peer outside the station. Aside from a few curious fish who had come close, and the faintest impression of the gorge, there was nothing to see. Water and darkness. This wall and a few others like it were among the few artful touches that livened up the spartan metallic interiors in Thassal Station.

A glass wall was installed in each landing connecting each major section of the Station.

The Block was the lower residential area. It was mostly occupied by junior navy personnel.

From the Block, Murati arrived at the much more open Bubble Square.

Arrayed around her were several sights, such as distribution centers for rationed goods, shops for purchasable goods, the rationed agroponic garden, and hobbyist clubs. Bubble was several stories high and each floor had several spaces set into the walls, connected by walkways that ringed around a central plaza. This was the one beautiful place in the station. They even had a few trees set into actual soft soil, that were zealously tended to by the living-space committee.

Some people lived with their businesses and lifestyles in Bubble Square, rather than in the living spaces on Block. Their accommodations were no more comfortable: space was at a premium everywhere. Murati knew that in other nations there were people who accumulated such wealth and prestige they had massive bedrooms. Such things were disdained here in the Union.

Bubble represented the belly of the station. Above Bubble was the shipyard and military headquarters in the Military District, with docks and moonpools and warehouses for equipment, munitions, and rationed items that the military controlled the distribution of. This was Murati’s destination. Above the Military District was the Control and Maintenance section. Highly trained personnel worked and lived round the clock there to ensure the Station withstood the waters.

And deep, deep below even the Block, was the Agarthic Reactor powering it all.

Thassal Station had been Murati’s home for years now.

She had no affection for it, though she respected deeply what it meant for her people.

After all, it was not possible for its occupants to live out in the water.

But even beyond the basic necessities, Thassal was historic to the Union.

Murati understood that. And at first, she had been charmed by it.

However, it was not enough to keep her here forever. She wanted a command!

She had ambitions!

Perhaps, it would be she who would ride out of Thassal and defeat the imperialists!

“Hopefully in this lifetime.” She sighed to herself. “A woman can dream, right?”

Before she could think beyond the Union borders any further, a voice nearby called to her.

“Staring into the distance huh? No chores today?”

Murati turned around and greeted the source of that bubbly sing-song voice with a smile.

“I happen to have an important meeting today, so no, no chores.”

“Important huh? So, is maintaining the station torpedo tubes not important anymore?”

Murati drew back a little as the woman playfully leaned in and poked her.

“Is testing the station coilguns also beneath you now, Miss Lieutenant?”

She poked her several times in the chest with a big, beaming smile.

“Everyone’s work is important!” Murati said, flustered. “But this meeting is important.”

Murati made gestures with her hands that, owing to their familiarity, her friend understood.

Or at least pretended to understand.

            She leaned back, laughing.

            “I’d never seriously bring your ideological devotion into question, Murati.”

            “Uh-huh. You routinely call me a troublemaker and a procrastinator.”

            “Hmm.”

Her friend put a finger to her own lightly painted lips, pretending to think.

“It must be because of all the trouble you cause and all the time you waste.”

Whatever Karuniya’s attitude, Murati understood the gentle, joking tone of her voice.

The woman teasing her was a burgeoning researcher around Murati’s own age. Karuniya Maharapratham. Murati would never miss her in a crowd, even when they were strangers. Her dress was colorful by the standards of this station. Over her black bodysuit she wore a plastic coat that had a white bodice covering her upper chest up to her neck, but translucent green shoulders, back, sleeves, belly, and much of the hem. She wore a tiny pair of white plastic shorts too.

She was fashionable where Murati was merely utilitarian.

“I’ll have you know, Miss Lieutenant,” Karuniya flipped her long hair in a dismissive fashion. “I have an actually important meeting myself because I’m such an important and busy person with many important duties required of me. But I can still deign to make time for a cup of broth and a quick chat, with you, a factually less busy and important person than myself.”

Smiling, Murati raised her hands in defense. “I get it, alright?”

Her friend narrowed her emerald eyes briefly as if interrogating the statement.

Before Murati could say anything more, Karuniya smiled and led the way to the canteen.

They walked up to the counter, behind which a young woman at a computer input their orders in a database to keep track of allotments. She handed them recyclable cups that they filled at a nearby serving station with the day’s broth, which was a rich dark brown color and noticeably clear. From a table beside the broth serving station, they each grabbed a biscuit to have with their hot drinks. They sat down at a table in the little plaza outside, watching people come and go.

“Wow! Try yours Murati, before it gets cold!”

Karuniya had just had a sip of broth and she looked delighted with the taste.

Murati brought her cup up to her lips.

Today’s broth tasted savory and rich, with just a touch of sweetness.

“I think it’s corn sugar in there.” Murati said. “They must’ve had a good crop at Lyser’s.”

“I can taste the kelp like usual, and the yeast, but there’s definitely corn!”

Karuniya took another sip and sighed with contentment.

“The biscuit looks a little springy today. Maybe it’s fresh baked?”

Murati lifted the flat, crispy square to her lips for a bite. It was dense, but not too hard.

“Today’s an auspicious day Murati! Corn in our soup, fresh ship biscuit? It’s fate!”

Karuniya dipped her biscuit in her broth and took a big happy bite of it.

In moments like this Murati could not help but feel fond of her and her company.

 “This is so good.” Karuniya said, giggling. “But enough about the food! Murati, you are definitely going to ask for a ship, again, aren’t you? Do you think you’ll get it this time?”

She pointed the biscuit at Murati with a sly little smile.

“I don’t like your tone when you say I’m asking ‘again’! I can ask as many times as I want! Without the right of Peership, can you say our armed forces truly give equal opportunity to all?”

“You hold the record for petitions.” Karuniya said. “With a firebrand speech every time.”

Murati recognized that while Karuniya said this, the mischievous smile on her face always meant that she was amused, never annoyed, with Murati’s situation. There were others on the Station and even around the Union less amused at the fact that Murati, perhaps, ‘did not know her place’. To that, Murati always said, if she was refused a ship, then the military was nothing but a gerontocracy where old men and women got to have adventures and gave the young no say.

“If they want me to stop, they’ll give me a ship.” Murati said, cracking a grin.

Karuniya reached out an arm and laid her hand on top of Murati’s.

“You’re right, and I believe in you.” She said. “I’m always rooting for you, Lieutenant.”

“I know. Thank you.” Murati said. “And good luck to you, Miss Science Expedition.”

For a few minutes as they finished their cups and nibble their crackers, the pair of them traded glances and talked about little nothings. Their quick chat over broth ended up consuming them for a time: neither of them had another friend whom they could talk with just like this.

“What do you think you’ll want to do when you get your commission? Other than get on a ship and never come back here, I mean.” Murati asked. She played it off as a joke.

“And leave you behind? I’m going to study the rocks on the Station Mound.”

Karuniya beamed brightly at Murati while taking a sip of broth.

“Be serious, I really want to know.” Murati said, smiling back.

“Ahh, I don’t know. I was thinking I would be an Ocean monitor. Biomass accumulation, temperature and salinity, the Leviathan infestations and all that. I’ve been worried, looking up the numbers. Temperatures, currents, krill production– it has been getting meaner out there.”

“We have been seeing more Leviathans around the Union lately.”

“That’s just the macro level manifestation of our problems. The reason they are coming down here more in the first place is that the Ocean is just– hurting.” Karuniya paused briefly, as if trying to come up with a more poignant description of the state of their environment.

“What do you think we should do?” Murati asked seriously.

“Hell if I know? I’m just a student.” Karuniya shrugged. “Read my thesis when it’s out.”

“I’ll be the first to request a copy, in three years.”

Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her.

“Enough about work! I want to know how you have been filling the ship-shaped hole in your heart lately. What diskettes are playing in your personal three by three metal box lately?”

“Still just listening to synths. For as long as I can get away with it.” Murati said.

“Your hallway is so cool. I miss the dorms. All I can get away with are therapeutic strings.”

 Karuniya put on a face like she wished she could listen to noisy loops all night.

“All the old folks in my hallway.” She sighed. Murati laughed.

“You should cause trouble a little more often. Agitate for your rights.” Murati said.

“Agitate is right, because everyone would just be really pissed at me.” Karuniya said.

For a moment, they side-stepped work and kept talking about the little things.

They shared the addresses of new BBSes they had found with interesting political debates and most importantly, gossip about various personalities in the Union and abroad. They both agreed to rent out some minicomputers from the library and coordinate so they could participate in the discussions together. Perhaps more to cause others grief than to actually enrich themselves.

Karuniya had been visiting the botanical garden often. “It’s where I vent.” She said.

For her part, Murati had taken out more books from the library. Real, limestone paper books and not just a minicomputer loaded with text files. She was fascinated with the old books. Many of them even included Imperial history. As a collection of colonies that had once been under Imperial rule, the Union was particularly concerned with the Nocht Empire, and its detritus could still be found there. It fascinated Murati; maybe even more than the vast world beyond the Empire. More than the Republic of Alaize or Yuyen; the Empire, the great enemy to be defeated.

“Did you know there was a homosexual Emperor?” Murati asked amid the conversation.

“I’m not surprised, I mean, I’m a homosexual and I’m right here in this Ocean too.”

Karuniya cracked a little grin. Murati laughed, seeing her exaggerated expression.

She felt a little melancholy, talking to Karuniya like this.

They were on the cusp of a parting. Their every interaction had an undertone of desperation.

Soon Murati would be out at sea with command of a ship. Karuniya would receive her scientific commission and leave for months at a time to study the ocean’s behaviors and how best to preserve the little, hard-won life that they had gotten for themselves in the Union’s oceans.

Maybe they took for granted how close they could have been all these years.

Stuck in Thassal where they could share broth, trade audio diskettes, go to the theater.

These were things they did “often” only in the context of an unchanging world.

With the future looming, it really felt like they never actually got to talk like this at all.

They would be separated.

Perhaps their paths would never cross again after today.

Even if Murati failed again. Surely Karuniya would succeed in her goals.

Karuniya’s important meeting had to be her scientific commission. She would leave soon.

She would leave while Murati would be stuck.

Never a fuckup like Murati was, Karuniya had always gotten ahead when she wanted.

Sometimes, Murati even thought that perhaps Karuniya only stayed because–

“Karuniya, come to my place tonight. I mean– Can you– try to make time, I mean.”

Murati felt her lips loosen with the words she had been wanting to say for a long time.

Karuniya was momentarily taken aback, and her lips hung a bit agog.

“S-Sure! I mean– I’ll try to make time. Speaking of; we’ll be late. We should get going.”

Her eyes shifted off the table, as if trying to find a can to throw her cup. She brushed her hair behind her ears on one side, absentmindedly fiddling with it. Murati rarely saw her so flustered. Despite Karuniya’s evasive action, Murati was not disheartened. She laughed gently.

“Thank you. Yes. Let us get going.”

In her mind, that response could only have been affirmative.

She put her worries at ease, took her partner’s hand, and now it was her turn to lead.

“Agh! You sure know when to take the brakes off!” Karuniya shouted, dragged along.

“That’s why you like me so much!” Murati replied, laughing. “I’m just a troublemaker!”


Previous ~ Next

The Roar That Parted The Currents [1.0]

This scene contains violence and death.


Pings on the sonar heralded the continuation of a long, bitter hatred.

“Enemy detected on sonar! Speed twenty, distance fifteen!”

“We’ve got a pingback! Speed twenty-five, distance thirteen!”

“Captain, several enemies approaching! Speed and heading confirmed!”

Imperial sonar operators found the Republic 7th Fleet approaching in great number, all confirmed by previous combat data loaded into their computers. All kinds of ship classes were detected, with different speeds, sizes, headings across the Great Ayre Reach. Swarms of fast cutters and mighty cruisers led the vanguard, while lumbering dreadnoughts followed into the contested zone. Faces lit green and blue by their instruments, the operators breathlessly tracked the action.

Those faint sounds picked up by hydrophone became the first drumbeat of the war.

Technicians in the Republic fleet took notice of the Imperial Grand Western Fleet and sounded their own alarms as well. Neither side was close enough for their best weapons to take effect, but they both launched acoustic “headless” torpedoes at each other. Gas gunners stationed in the close-in defenses of both fleets would find and shoot all of these down on approach.

Both fleets mustered in formations across the Great Ayre Reach, the soft sands and scant kelp beds stretching out for vast kilometers. It was a rare, valuable place where the ocean floor rose into the photic zone at only 300 meters deep, able to receive some scant sunlight through the waves. Its currents were gentle, unlike most of the photic zone, and Leviathans rarely disturbed it.

Amid the violent seas, it was one of a few paradises worth dying for.

Assembling over holy lands that hid ship hulks and corpses of hundreds of years of battles, the crusading sides neared to their effective ranges of between one and two kilometers. There were hundreds of ships in each side, built from material long struggled for beneath the violent waves of the Imbrium Ocean. All of this engineering power thrust toward its own place amid those sands.

Neither side spoke to the other except in spirit and deed.

“For world peace!” cried the Republicans.

“For the glory of the Emperor!” came the Imperial retort.

All laser communications were rejected from either side.

This encounter had already been spoken for. There would be no parlay.

The Great Ayre Reach would inevitably be fought for, a fifth time.

At the head of the 500-strong Imperial formation was the Irmingard, a massive blade of a vessel clad regal purple and gold, sporting dozens of cannons set into its hull. Within this lead dreadnought was a mock throne room that acted as the brain of this invasion force: and its id.

“All weapons stations are reporting sir.”

Aboard the Imperial flagship Irmingard, the master of this fleet stood up from his throne to the rapt attention and admiration of his most loyal retainers. There, he gave the orders which resounded across the decks of the dozens of ships arrayed for battle. Powerful laser equipment tethered the Irmingard to every other fleet, so that all of them could view the regal countenance on video. His Majesty stood stoically before the soldiers and shouted with a gallant voice:

“All ships: today, you shall unleash a fusillade bright enough to be seen from the surface.”

And so that fusillade did fly. The Fifth Battle of the Great Ayre Reach was underway.

Across those gentle waters roared jet shells, supercavitating rounds and massive torpedoes.

Lines in the water spread by the thousands as the ordnance traveled.

Criss-crossing fire punctuated by the blooming of massive bubbles as charges exploded.

There were immediate casualties. A wire-guided Republican torpedo snaked through the defensive fire from the Imperial frigates and slammed into the hull of a Destroyer, snapping the vessel in two. While the command pod survived and was immediately sealed watertight, several dozens of crew were drowned in their stations, torn to pieces in the storm of metal, or worst, cast out into the open sea to have their internal organs crushed by the pressure around them.

Just as quickly, these losses were repaid. That bright fusillade of jet shells rolled across the vanguard of the Republican fleet. Scout cutters, deployed ahead, withered under the barrage, disgorging metal and bloodied men and women. Larger vessels withstood greater punishment, with each shell that struck their hulls and exploded leaving gashes and dents in the exterior. Fires started where the crushing force of a shell damaged electrical equipment. It took dozens of shells of concentrated fire, but a Republican Cruiser, the Dignitary, was the first major casualty of the battle.

With one lucky shot to the torpedo magazine, the entire face of the Dignitary burst.

Each side watched as their fleets exchanged blows, as ships that faltered beneath the gunfire and missiles sank to the sand below, as human beings unprotected by metal were hurled and sliced and crushed. A thin red mist began to form around Ayre as the casualties mounted. For fleets of hundreds of ships, losing fifty a side was routine: but each ship was crewed by hundreds of souls. Within a half hour of the barrage, perhaps ten or twenty thousand bodies had been broken.

For the young man who bid this spectacle commence, these casualties were expected and did little to reduce his own power and potential. He had reserves and the advantage in manpower, supply and technology base. He saw beyond this moment of bloodletting that had become expected and looked to the violence that would soon follow. A beautiful chaos was coming to the world that would shake the foundations and allow men of dynamism and ambition to finally take control.

Even for all his farsightedness however, there was little inkling in his mind as to where the ripple of his bombs and guns would truly travel to and the souls that it would soon actually touch.

A wave hurtled across the waters to a calm sea one ocean away.

To a place far, far beneath Prince Erich’s notice.


Previous ~ Next

Rewrite incoming

Part of the benefit of writing a story in a blog is that you can edit things.

The Solstice War is a living document. During its first months in existence, there was no “chapter 0” for example. It wasn’t written in small installments, but in gigantic 20,000 word segments. Something like a year into writing it, I decided to overhaul how it would be written from then on to make it more palatable, based on reader feedback. I added chapter 0. I cut the story into segments. Some folks have asked why there are no longer “full text” chapter entries. It’s because I don’t write like that anymore.

Since then, I resisted rewriting. There were parts of Book II, for example, that looking back on, I didn’t really like. I put them there because I felt they would make the story more “complete.” But those perspectives weren’t particularly fun or needed, and I told myself I’d never go back to those characters. Which is a gigantic waste for everyone, but I didn’t want to go back and edit huge portions of the book out that people already saw. I’m still not going to edit that stuff out of Book II. I’ve made my peace with it.

I’ve not made my peace with Book III. For the past few years it’s felt like I’ve been fighting with it. It wasn’t fun to write; it wasn’t even really what I wanted to write. Again, it was a lot of stuff I did because I felt I needed the story to be “complete.” What that meant for me was, showing every different part of a big ww2 style conflict. Planes, ships, tanks, guns and politics. My intention from the start was to have something that was like five or six hugely different “modes” of war that intertwined heavily to show the reader that war isn’t simple: that wars are exceedingly multifaceted, and there is no one big hero in any war. Air power didn’t win it, sea control didn’t win it, land war didn’t win it: it’s a combination of all of these efforts, and no one action hero can do this. There are millions of people involved, millions of fighters, millions of victims, millions of laborers who are working to survive and willingly or not become a part of a war, or a fighter in a war (whether officially armed or not) or a victim of war. And the few in the back are the politicians who start wars and avoid the consequences.

This was my grand ambition for the Solstice War. I was obsessed with a war story that was “complete.” That didn’t settle for one big hero; that didn’t lapse into the juvenile individualism that characterizes war fiction and bothers me so much as both a history nut and a marxist. I wanted a story with a message, but that wasn’t too didactic. It had to have a perfect mix of absolutely everything to fully capture a reader’s imagination.

It was much easier to just say these things, than it is to communicate it in writing in the exceedingly obtuse way that I have been. In my ambition for a “complete” war story that showed “everything,” I became lost in the woods of my own writing, making things that I wasn’t passionate about for the sake of adding another color to a painting, without stopping to look at how messy the canvas had become. I stopped saying things with my writing that I felt were important, and instead became obligated to put things into it to satisfy my own sense of “completeness.” I started to research more and more things that didn’t really make it into the writing, just to say “I know what I’m talking about here.” None of that made for a great story. It made it hard to write. Roughly all the work I’ve done in the past two years has been struggling to introduce more history and characters and slowly build up to the climax in their story, while putting the rest of the story on hold: just because I thought “I have to have an air war story, it’s WW2!”

As of today I’ve returned to Drafts every chapter in the Vulture arc. They’ll live in the CMS and the raw text will be exported and backed up. So all this lives on somewhere. Someday it may even return, perhaps broadly the same, likely quite different. I want to go back and rewrite this story as a continuation of my earlier work, rather than the jarring turn I decided I needed for “completeness.” I’ve learned a lot about writing characters and dialog from these chapters, but it’s not the place and time to do this.

I realized I erred and I have reimagined what this story should be like going forward. There will be retcons to the story going forward: or at least, retcons to stuff you saw that I have removed now. The Vultures will be characters but not in this capacity. They will not be protagonists of their own little story anymore, and going forward the air war chapters will be retold from a different perspective that will focus less on “hey I did a lot of research into WW2 planes!” and more on pushing this story forward, and out of the weeds I had become stuck in. I hope this will help me write consistently again. It’s always easier to begin stories than continue them. I realized I’d been beginning this story all over again, because of that. It’s time to continue it.

Some of the text of those chapters will be completely reused. This is because it pertained to politics in Solstice and abroad that are worth talking about. In fact, the coming chapters will be like, 70% more about politics: with a garnish of flight combat. Think of it like the Benghu Tank War chapters: those chapters were about both existing (Leander) and new characters (Naya) and fused everything together a lot better than in the Vulture chapters. That’s what I’m shooting for going forward. Madiha will return as the principal POV, with Homa and Adesh as the supporting cast.

A lot of the text will be thrown out. Some might see reuse in a side-story later.

To summarize: I’m redoing the “Vulture arc” and continuing the story. Books I and II will remain the same. Though I admit, some stuff from it is just not coming back in the way I thought it would when I wrote it, like the Elven side characters for example.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story that will result from this, even if you lament the loss of the story that came before. I can’t tell you when you’ll start seeing consistent updates again. I’m in pandemic quarantine and kind of weeping for the world right now and I don’t think I’ll ever work normally again: but I want to keep writing.

Conceiving Of New Directions

Hay with an “a”!

I’ve normally tried to keep “news” off of this site, and will endeavor to do so in the future again. That being said, I felt that news was warranted. I am a lot more active on social media: you can find me on twitter @Literalchemy and this is a fact that for a bit I tried to keep separate from this site. I don’t really care anymore, however, if you find that I’m a marxist leninist trans woman and hate me for it. I will live somehow.

So if you can stomach it I would encourage you to follow me on my social for “news” about my projects as well as my generally abrasive persona and inscrutable posts.

Anyway.

To make a long story short, I’m pretty much basically done with serialization. That doesn’t mean the Solstice War is going way. But it’s time to acknowledge that the schedule I used to have does not exist. My life is structured very differently. I have a day job that pays my bills. I have hobbies that draw my attention. I have a loving partner with whom I would rather spend my time than writing, on many nights. My life is different now than when I started this story almost eight years ago, alone and shut into a room, without a job, without a computer that could play video games well, without any interest in audio and video, doing nothing but research and writing.

I’m just not that person anymore. And consequently, while I still love to write, and even recently wrote a 10k sample of a new novella series I want to work on on my Patreon and discord server, I’m just not a serial writer anymore. Serial writers work differently than I do and serial readers expect a certain devotion and engagement that my lifestyle doesn’t support, and that personally I flat out don’t want to support. To write The Solstice War weekly I would have to sacrifice things in my life that I don’t want to. I would have to give it more attention than I want to as a project.

As interesting was it was to do, I don’t feel like I have gotten what I have wanted out of it and I don’t feel like it is working for me anymore. It used to be that I would set these deadlines for myself, like weekly chapters, twice monthly, fortnightly, and so on, and because I had all the time in the world to write, I met them. Nowadays I don’t have so much time as I used to devote it to it, and I have other devotions too. When I find the time to write, I write big chunks of “stuff” that get put together into “chapters” eventually of an appropriate length. But this doesn’t feel like a workflow that I can sustain to the degree that a “schedule” and “deadlines” even make sense for me.

I’m still passionately creative, but not in a way where I am producing to meet the demands that algorithmic content capitalism has set for us as creative people. Ironically, though, I feel like I can be more like those youtubers who irregularly release an insanely produced 2 hour rant video and then go away for a bit again. That’s more like how I make things and I would be more comfortable doing the writing equivalent.

Every so often I want to share what I’ve written, and yet, because it’s not a “complete chapter” for example, I just don’t share it. Every so often I want to write different things, but they “compete” with The Solstice War for time, so I don’t even try and I limit what I am capable of. And every so often I think about what I’m writing in terms of these deadlines and artificial boundaries I set for myself, and it’s demoralizing. And every so often, I don’t want to write, I want to do something else, but then the deadlines etc end up in my brain. So I end up messing with my own head over it.

With that being said, I am generally speaking going to be “done” targeting chapter by chapter releases for anything I d, and targeting “monthly” or “bimonthly” or “weekly” releases. I’m done targeting. It messes with my head; it makes it feel like my life has all these time limits that drive me up the wall. It limits my creativity. For a while it even made me ashamed of doing frivolous things like “going out with my girlfriend” when I could instead be writing. That is insane to me! I don’t want to live that kind of life now.

Instead, what I would like to do is be able to work on things in kind of a more organic model. I’ll put out out something of some length, and I’ll release it when I feel like it’s something worthwhile to read. I’ll release what I want, whether it’s some huge chunk of The Solstice War you can binge, or something else. I’ll follow my passions and write because I want to put out more of the grim political shit that I love to write and not because I have contractually obligated myself to write this or that shit for years.

The Solstice War is therefore a bit fucked in this regard by the way. It will take some restructuring, since the release cadence has been very, very similar for years now and likely the readers have gotten used to how it “felt.” Whatever I write, I’ll probably still have to call a “Chapter” and split up into “parts” where it makes sense to cut things, for readability on a website and for continuity purposes. That being said, it used to be produced on this strict kind of template that now feels constraining. I don’t think necessarily releasing fractional “parts” of chapters that are each 6000 words and have a three act structure contained inside each with a cliffhanger at the end, is really working out for me anymore. So maybe parts will be shorter or longer. Maybe I’ll mess with the way it’s written so it will read extremely weird suddenly after being pretty consistent over the past like six years. I don’t know; but I have to do something.

What I want is to take stress off my life, and to help me find joy in creating again. So I will probably be spending even less time updating the Patreon, as it has become a part of the structure I’ve felt tied down to, and I want to be able to just float. If you want to give me money, I’ll publish to Patreon every so often and put a thing here and click the box that makes me money, so don’t fret, I suppose. I would however recommend that you follow my abrasive self on twitter for updates and to get to know me, I suppose.

Or, you can join the discord and then me and my community of toxic dirtbag marxists can harass you in between content updates. Discord link is here: https://discord.gg/gmdzngs If you join, please make an intro post in the welcome channel and we’ll decide if we deem you worthy to stay, and read the rules. We will kick you with prejudice if you come in with some cringey right wing shit so don’t bother if you don’t have similar brain worms to the ones we have. I’m done tolerating weak shit. I’m an idiosyncratic neurotic and I will not ever change. You either love me or you don’t.

Anyway, I’m going to stop worrying about everything and just allow myself to breathe easy. I’m going to try to relax and embrace the chaos. You’ll learn that I’ve made something if you’ve invested in it, or if I can work up the energy to shout about it. But I won’t feel obligated anymore. Obligations are killing me right now. I want to live.

dab

2.4: Samaritan

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.

“Aqua! Excoria!”

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.”

Ajax grunted.

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.


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2.3 Iron Heart

This chapter includes violent psychological distress, violence, mild sexual content.

Iron Flag/Iron Heart: A nationalist, Otrarian-supremacist organization that arose in the 1990s in Otraria, Otrarian-managed territories in lower Nobilis, and Heles. While their street movement is relatively disorganized, they found a stable home and allies in upper class educational institutions, and particularly in magical academies such as The National. Their militant wing is known as the Iron Flag, which the movement at large disavows and calls itself the Iron Heart instead. Their driving ideology is that the decline of magic, and in turn the weakness of Otraria politically and militarily, is a result of an ongoing invasion of conspiratorial foreign peoples and cultures in Otraria. In their views, Otraria must rediscover its “Iron Heart” and cast out the “foreign degenerates.


“Cheryl! I’m home, sweetie.”

Lyudmilla knocked on the dorm door and teased her roommate before coming in.

Cheryl, however, was nowhere to be found.

There was a letter on top of the desk, beautifully written. Cheryl wrote with magical grace. When she took her time, her cursive was second to none in style and precision.

“Need to be somewhere else for a bit,” Lyudmilla read aloud to herself. “Head stuff.”

She read it from the bottom to the top. She sometimes did that.

Reading the letter, Lyudmilla wondered where Cheryl went for “head stuff.” As much as she wanted to feel close to her, this question provided such singular confusion at the time that Lyudmilla felt a little frustrated. At least she had been thoughtful enough to leave a note behind. It still sucked, in Lyudmilla’s own words, to be ditched like this.

They had not gotten to talk much since they survived Moloch’s summoning.

Dimly, Lyudmilla worried that she was being ghosted. But she didn’t want to believe it.

Maybe Cheryl just needed a quiet, lonely place to scream at the top of her lungs.

“I’m just being a bitch.” Lyudmilla said. “It’s not her fault.”

Cheryl must have been having a disastrous time of things.

Lyudmilla had only just come into Cheryl’s life, but her boyfriend and his family, her friends, and even more abstractly, the safety she felt at the school, had all been there for her longer. Now it must have felt like she had nobody; like her whole life just broke. Lyudmilla had been hoping she could have this time to talk to her, to thank her for sticking up for her and Minerva, to offer support. But perhaps it wasn’t time yet.

Especially because Cheryl was not alone in having a hard time of things lately.

Her own head was getting a little scrambled.

Magic and Tyrants; Summoners and the racist political group in the school; Agents of Noct and the scorn of the educational administration; what kind of world was little Milla living in now? Everything was so out of proportion to what she was used to, that she did not even know how to feel bad about it. She felt a vague sense of trepidation with nothing to tip her over into despair or hope. It was not like before, when she could look at all her problems down the sights and barrel of a gun. Maybe for the best.

She could have the gun back if she wanted.

She could have the gun back if she could pay the toll.

Sometimes she looked at her hand and imagined it again.

Sometimes she could feel it, and the bullets it made when it took from her.

Minerva said not to do it, however. So she wouldn’t frivolously call it forth.

Lyudmilla sighed. Why listen to her anyway? But despite everything, she did.

Her Master had her feeling the most ambivalent of all.

Who was she really? And was she worth putting her faith into after all?

Could she really trust her? When she was unused to lending anyone any trust?

“Ah, fuck it! I’m going to go out partying, this sucks. I’ll even fucking drink!”

Lyudmilla shut the door behind herself. It was customary of Cheryl to keep the door open, even if someone might see in at a compromising time. But Cheryl wasn’t there. With a moment of privacy, Lyudmilla threw her blazer, dress shirt and skirt on her bunk and picked out an outfit in the closet. Like everything she wore, it was a mix of what few cool clothes she owned, and a generous helping of Cheryl’s vibrant selections.

Her fashion sense was personal and organic. Lyudmilla thought she had a sense for cool, and she could just look at a pile of clothes and make it work. Cheryl’s closet was meticulously arranged, and so, she needed only to quickly scan for things and grab.

First she threw on her favorite black hoodie over nothing but a black sports bra, and zipped it only as far up as it needed to go to hold together. Her chest was mostly exposed, just like she wanted it. Anyone who said there wasn’t much to see could go fuck themselves, she thought. Lyudmilla could have gone louder, even: she would have preferred Cheryl’s skimpy bikini tops, but all of them were, well, oversize for her.

Next, she honed in on some fancy high-rise lingerie and a pair of black, glossy short pants with doubled-up legs. She slipped them on, tightening the pants with a heart-buckle belt. Finally, she would wear a pair of sneakers. Pumps might’ve been too girly. She wanted to show off, but she also wanted everyone to know she’d kick their ass.

She looked for her cigarettes, but Cheryl routinely threw them out whenever she found them. Then she looked for her weed; but that was just gone of its own accord.

Lyudmilla did not even want to smoke at that moment. She just thought it’d look cool to have when she went to the club, depending on the club she ended up going to.

On the table, she saw her grimoire, where she had dropped it as she undressed.

She almost left it behind. But on the way out, she swiped it, squeezed it until it shrank to the size of a little portable bible, and stuffed it in the front pocket of her hoodie.

As much as she wanted to, magic was not something she could just ignore and forget.

When she left the dorm the horizon had consumed three quarters of the sun and the sky overhead was bright orange with the last throes of daylight. She knew a couple places that opened this early — but there were a few others farther away, that, by the time she reached them, it would certainly be dark, and they’d be throwing real parties.

She walked the streets, hands in her pockets, trying to make up her mind.

The Estate dorm was located near the center of the town that had grown around the National. There was a main thoroughfare just off of the plaza that led into the dorm buildings, flanked with shops and bars trying to entice the steady flow of students coming and going. The streets weren’t packed at this time of the day, after classes, but there was still quite a bit of foot traffic. Lyudmilla slipped in amid the small crowd.

She tried to think of where to go, but as she went over the options she started to wander the town without much direction. The sun started to go down. Lyudmilla had gone clubbing before but there was something about tonight that made her hesitate. Every venue she knew, she found some reason not to go to. The Eden might have been the place to go, but it was crowded and some of the regulars had been bitchy to her before. She could have stopped at Club Gravity, but found herself walking past when she saw the line to get in. InMotion was a cool spot, but they had a celeb House DJ that night so the music was probably going to suck. She could always go somewhere new.

Telling herself that, she started fiddling with her homunculus, spotting new places.

It started to get slow, however, as she scrolled past an endless list of clubbing spots.

Eventually, the screen went black again from disuse, and ceased to respond.

Her head was in the clouds.

She missed several of the clubs she had made a note of; she just walked past.

Soon she found herself just thinking about the walk, and consequently, just walking.

She was not going anywhere. She was stuck as she was now. Who she was now.

Lyudmilla Kholodova, a magician-in-training at the prestigious National Academy.

Out and about, just looking for a drink, hard enough bass, and girls to tease.

She developed her own romanticism; lost in her own little fantasy.

It felt pathetic somehow. There was no direction to it — “pure A.D.D.,” she told herself.

There was something about it. It’s not like she hated the trip so far.

Walking through town made everything seem so normal. There weren’t dragons and kobolds and spirits walking through town or floating in the air. There were no fireballs and lightning bolts slinging to and fro. Sometimes, she would see a girl with some kind of conjured cosmetic glamour, like a pair of cat’s ears or a tail. It was like she was not walking through a magical university, surrounded by witches and wizards. Maybe she was not; maybe most of the people here were normal people, minding restaurants and cleaning streets, and there were only a few actual magicians. Lyudmilla didn’t know.

She was a recent inductee into the life of the collegiate mage.

That had not been the way of things in her previous years.

Rus had been in the throes of a civil war that hid in plain sight, while its anonymous yet frequent violence undid the great society little by little, fragmenting everything her people had once gained. For anyone in Rus-Moroz this was a part of their life, even if the world at large did not acknowledge it. For anyone there, bodies just turned up.

And people just killed each other.

There was not any official outrage or acknowledgment.

It was like everyone was being lied to even as the bullets went in their brains.

Living in that place, maybe Lyudmilla’s brain really was scrambled too.

She had been on the side of the former soldiers, against the church and mages.

When she was told she’d be leaving the war-torn north and going to Otraria as a refugee, Lyudmilla did not know how to conceptualize it. She was not like the other child soldiers. She had gotten paid and had gotten to live it up a little when she became more an adult. She’d gone partying in Moruma; she’d bought cool sneakers with the money she got for shooting up a guy in one of the Western Churches. It was not like it was for other kids; it was just business. She had nothing to feel gross about.

Or so she told herself, whenever she felt gross about it. Whenever it felt too heavy.

She tried to put it out of her mind. She was just Lyudmilla Kholodova. Just an ordinary edgy alt-girl who liked some shitty stuff, like anyone. An ordinary girl in a magic school.

Walking down the street, through all of this normality, Lyudmilla took a look at her hand; her ordinary, normal girl’s hand. She suddenly sent a current running through it.

Tiny sparks of blue electricity crackled between her fingers very briefly.

She had seen Minerva do magic without speaking, and she poked the idea in her brain until she did something similar. Tiny sparks was merely all she could do on a whim. Had she been able to concentrate even a bit, maybe she would have done better. Tonight was not a night for concentrating. Already her brain was accelerating to the next thing.

Still, she felt a strange sense of satisfaction, having done it.

Lyudmilla had always been good at learning by looking at things and practicing them.

Perhaps that is why she had held such a rare and different rank than the other kids.

All of the orphans from the war fought. Some wanted to; some got incentives to.

Some were forced to.

Killing mages, killing the clergy, those traitors; to take the country back for the people.

She was among the few child soldiers who did magic.

“What if I got laid tonight?” Lyudmilla told herself, feeling her head turning heavy. She chuckled. “I’ll find a hot older girl at the club and crash at her place, that’d be cool.”

What club? She had walked past all of them. There would be no club.

But she wanted her mind to race past pain and toward pleasure. She needed it to.

“I’ll give her a bit of jolt.” She chuckled to herself, rubbing her fingers together.

In response to her jests, her mind offered up a picture of a few other things she did with her hands, other than hot girls. In this case, she saw the stake in her hand that she threw at Moloch’s core in order to destroy it; and she saw, briefly, the same hand, and the same stake, become a loaded gun on a cold street, sending a blazing red light into the back of a man in a priestly garb, tunneling through his heart and out into the air.

“Fuck.”

Lyudmilla began to weep. She found herself weeping.

It happened that suddenly.

She was still walking, barely knowing where she was going, or what was around her.

People seemed to fade in and out of existence. Her head was a swirl of broken and confused thoughts. She wiped her eyes with the back of her fist, and felt her feet shaking as she walked, faster and faster until she had broken into a run.

“Fuck. Guess you’re not partying tonight Lyudmilla, you ditzy bitch.”

Her voice trembled as she chided herself. Her slurs rose to a scream.

She started to get pissed. At herself, but also at everyone around her.

Her mind was turning over at thousands of kilometers per second.

Nobody understood, and everyone was always fucking up with her. She felt like screaming more. Her country; her school; her class. Minerva. The Commander. Everyone had set her up wrong, everyone had abandoned her to this. Even–

Even Cheryl?

Nobody ever did right by her. Everyone just went their own way without getting it.

Cheryl didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed to know it wasn’t weird between them, and that she needed to know right now that she wasn’t being abandoned; Minerva didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed her to be perfect or else the fucked up turn her life had taken recently would be for nothing, because she needed to know Minerva really was special, so she could cope with having to follow her and trust her and admire her–

And it was certain that the school didn’t get that Lyudmilla was not just going to be ok with a dorm and food credits and going to class every day after spending life as a magical killer moonlighting as a schoolgirl in a country falling apart from inside out!

Nothing was going to be ok, and nobody seemed to get that!

“What is anyone supposed to feel now? Why can’t someone just tell me what to do?”

Lyudmilla shouted at the top of her lungs.

She felt a rising, incoherent hatred for everything.

Her breaths started to catch in her chest.

There was no response from anyone around her.

There was nobody, around her. She was all alone.

She looked around herself. She did not know how far she ran, how much she shouted.

She turned her head, whipping around in a sudden paranoia.

People must have thought she was crazy– but she saw no one around anywhere.

She turned the entire landscape over, and there was not a soul.

Her eyes were clouded with tears, but she scarcely recognized the surroundings.

There were hedges and sculpted bushes. In the distant, hazily, she saw a fountain.

It was a park; it was her park, she thought. She came here for weed once or twice.

It was Eisenbern Park, she recalled. There was a statue of that man somewhere.

Right now there was just the fountain.

When she wiped her eyes, everything was still hazy. She felt she could barely see the tops of the trees, they seemed to loom over her. Maybe she was having a worse episode than she thought. Everything felt oppressive, like it was closing on her. She had not taken any medicine, but she was freaked out enough she almost considered it.

Lyudmilla started to walk the way she came. She wanted to hide in bed forever.

At her back, there was still a fountain.

“I didn’t fuck anyone but myself tonight.” She told herself, bitterly.

She stomped her feet for a moment as she walked.

“Stupid, just, fucking– stupid.”

What was anyone supposed to feel? Wasn’t she supposed to drink and smoke and party, wasn’t that living life? After everything that happened? Wasn’t that normal?

Wasn’t she a normal girl now, who did normal shit?

But she wasn’t. She was a magician, too. And she didn’t know what that meant.

Except going to this school and getting jerked around.

Fountain–

Lyudmilla snapped her head up. She looked around.

It was the same fountain again; the trees; the sculpted bushes.

“I’ve been walking.” She told herself. “I’ve never stopped. I should’ve been outta here.”

She started to walk again, paying close attention to the fountain.

As she went to cross the hedge, suddenly and without transition, she was walking with the fountain in the distance again. She should have crossed the hedges and been out of the park, but here it was. One step out of the hedge, and it was the fountain again.

In an instant of panic she repeatedly tapped the screen of her homunculus.

“Wake up! Hello? Can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

Her homunculus screen lit up with a progress bar that finished completion.

“Update completed. Initializing M.A.G.E. tactical spellcasting companion.”

First the homunculus screen went black, and then loaded back a red window with seemingly hundreds of gibberish lines scrolling quickly past Lyudmilla’s vision. There was one line on the screen that wasn’t scrolling, a copyright for some of the program’s code base owned by the Ayvartan government. Finally, the screen went black again and then loaded a sparse white interface with a few numbers ticking up and down.

“You were updating all this time?” Lyudmilla shouted at her wrist in outrage.

In the next instant the homunculus responded in its dull, droning voice.

“In an emergency, command input is still accepted during the update process.”

“I don’t care!”

Lyudmilla raised her wrist into the air and shook her homunculus this way and that, as if trying to get it to see the park around her. “Can you tell me what is happening here?”

Of course, the homunculus was not alive and showed no indication of distress at being jostled around. Lyudmilla had almost desired to hear a quivering or empathetic voice, but instead got a robotic, male-passing droning, characteristic of her wrist computer.

“Utilizing the same hardware extensions that allow for assisted spellcasting through light, sound, biometric and geographic awareness and projection, and running the gathered data through a military-grade algorithmic and learning environment, M.A.G.E. can run analysis on ethereal, spectral and vital patterns and waveforms. Data output will be partially verbal; scanning for compatible visual hardware to transmit to.”

Lyudmilla saw the camera on the wrist computer’s face flash.

“Hardware found. Please don the identified visual hardware for output.”

On the homunculus’ screen, Lyudmilla saw a wireframe image of a pair of sunglasses.

Absentmindedly she picked at the pocket of her hoodie and felt the sunglasses there.

“Really? These old things?”

She lifted the sunglasses, spread open the legs and pushed them up her nose.

As soon as her eyes had adjusted to the lenses, she instantly saw the information that was on her homunculus appear, hovering in front of her. It happened so quickly it felt like a light had flashed directly into her eyes, and she was momentarily disoriented.

“What the fuck? What did Minerva do to my smartwatch?”

At that moment, when Lyudmilla ceased to pay attention to the homunculus and for the briefest second caught a glimpse of the world around her, as seen through the sunglasses and the projection from the device, her predicament started to take a palpable shape. She could see trails and auras that would have once required great concentration to spot with her naked eyes. They were only slightly visible, but enough that she could identify them. She saw a dim multi-colored gas, a ribbon in the air, that ringed the park and discolored everything outside the perimeter it delineated. She saw a gray and blue aura emanating from the edges of the ribbon and spreading. Five or so meters from the thick center of the “ribbon” the colors diffused and disappeared.

It was clear, however, that some kind of spell was surrounding the park, and another was spreading through it in every direction. She was in a sealed-off space, and so, she surmised, whenever she tried to leave she was forced back to the last spot she had been in, inside the space. Lyudmilla was trapped, and she did not know by whom.

Her mind was suddenly shifting into the hyperactive clarity of a soldier in battle.

“If someone was after me they’d have gibbed me by now.” Lyudmilla said to herself.

She must have fallen in a trap meant for someone else. Whoever cast it was not even paying attention to her, and probably did not even realize she was around. She had been a sitting duck here for long enough now that it could not have been sheer luck.

“Homunculus, what kind of spell is this? Do you know?”

“Analyzing–“

In the enhanced view she was seeing through her sunglasses, Lyudmilla could see a faint light like a pen laser tracing a circle from her homunculus out into the air around her. A pulse emanated from the wrist computer and returned after the striking the barrier. She saw a column of numbers and letters on one side of the screen on the watch itself that were not mirrored on her glasses. It was doing something.

Finally ‘the robot’ — as Lyudmilla began to think of it — spoke up once more.

“Spell waveforms are consistent with the line of Helic spells known as ‘Laburinthos’. Strong illusion and conjuration magic focused on multiple points in plain space have recreated the maze of Minos in this area. It is not possible to escape the confines, until the sources anchoring the spell are found and dispelled deeper within the maze.”

Lyudmilla blinked. “Do you know who you’re asking to do this stuff?”

She was flabbergasted. She barely understood anything ‘the robot’ had said.

Obviously she was trapped in some kind of magic; the particulars of that explanation were a lot to take in. How many anchors were there? How could she dispel them? She did not know any dispelling magic beyond ones like Herrcher’s Arcane Unmaking or Kabukov’s Unraveling Arrow. Would they be enough to break down magic this strong?

“Loading morale module.”

At once, the voice of the homunculus became that of a sweet woman with a thick accent. “Soldier, you can do anything you set your mind to, for country and comrade–“

Lyudmilla’s face flushed. Could it tell that kind of thing about her?

“Oh shut up! Never do that again!” She shouted.

“Unloading morale module.”

“Never!”

“Uninstalling morale module.”

At that point Lyudmilla heard the leaves rustling on the hedges.

This noise intensified to become crunching and stamping.

Then, from the hedges across the fountain, Lyudmilla saw figures falling through.

“Vital waveform detected,” said her homunculus. “Low resonance and impact.”

Soon as the robot said the word ‘impact,’ Lyudmilla heard a bone-crunching punch.

A black-clad figure landed atop another as they fell through the hedge and delivered a series of sharp punches that smashed the defender’s arms out of the way and then cracked his helmet as he fell back. He was a clearly wearing repurposed bicycle helmet with a coat of metal paint, and it splintered like a plastic toy when subjected to the attacker’s violent blows. Spittle flew out of the mouth of the man absorbing the punch, and he fell to the ground as if there was no weight to his legs, instantly out.

Then the attacking figure swiftly swung back around to face the hedge.

In the very next instant, a second grey helmet and mask plunged through the green.

Though not taken by surprise, the swift puncher could only grapple with the new enemy, who was significantly bigger and had not spent as much of his stamina. There was an aura around him also — around both of them. Lyudmilla could not tell what the enchantments were, but there had clearly been a melee going on longer than this.

When the two opponents collided, they locked arms and struggled, grappling and shoving and then striking wherever they could get an opportunity to free their hands from each other. The featherweight puncher shoved back, created space, and threw strikes; but the big guy was on his guard quickly, and just as quick to grab again.

This was a fight, a real fight; a street fight! People were getting fucked up here!

Lyudmilla lost her inhibitions and charged headlong toward the fountain.

As she neared, the figures revealed their true forms. For the one throwing punches, Lyudmilla could see they were wearing a heavy-duty black jacket with a hood pulled up over their head, and a surgical mask and sunglasses. Near completely anonymized; but Lyudmilla saw markers of a familiar sex. Even with how thick that jacket looked there was an impression that there were breasts beneath, and the jeans the puncher wore clung close enough to fill in the rest of a womanly figure. Those savage punches had not been thrown bare, either. Lyudmilla saw a rust-brown strip over each knuckle.

And over each strip, the faint billowing of an aura of some kind. On one wrist, barely concealed, was a homunculus flashing warning lights. The featherweight was a mage.

Meanwhile, both the grey helmet knocked flat on the ground and the bigger one still fighting were dressed in almost military-style coats and pants, all grey. On their wrists, they too bore the magical implements of National students. Not just spellcasters generally, but specifically students. Lyudmilla could tell. All of them wore the same school-issued model, in the stock grey with a sturdy, basic faceplate and touchscreen.

They were the fascists, Lyudmilla knew. She had seen them before.

She recalled how the boys under Ajax’s command dressed and acted.

Power-tripping racist savages spoiling for someone weaker to hurt.

“These guys must be one tier up from those sackless fuckwits.” Lyudmilla told herself.

They had real coats at least.

That was more than Cheryl’s boyfriend and his friends got.

But who was that they were fighting?

Some street punk?

Lyudmilla cleared the fountain at full sprint, running up the steps to it and past the water basin. As she did, the hooded puncher she’d begun to think of as ‘the featherweight’ got shoved back and struck in the side of the head with a fist.

They stumbled back, clearly losing their balance.

Sensing opportunity, the fascist charged, descending on the punk.

One of his fists glowed dimly green and purple.

He threw a second punch, and left some of that aura on the punk’s shoulder.

Lyudmilla felt her skin brim with the urgency of the situation.

No time to reach for the grimoire. She acted entirely in the moment.

“Spellcasting detected, assisting–“

Her homunculus felt it in her biometrics a second ahead as Lyudmilla cast a spell.

“Lord Pherkan, unveil the fury that clouds the boreal skies! Molniy!”

She shouted the incantation, and the fascist stopped momentarily to face her.

Leaping into the air over the last steps down from the fountain, Lyudmilla’s raised a hand with fingers brimming with blue bolts. An insubstantial javelin of metal-aligned lightning magic formed in her hand and twisted like a struggling snake in her grip.

Without time, a longer incantation, a casting tool, or all of them, the bolt was going wild in her hands. She could barely contain it. Its heat was stinging between her fingers.

Barely able to hold the projectile she had created, Lyudmilla leaned into the descent of her own jump and then used all of her momentum to hurl the shimmering bolt away.

She focused with every fiber of her being on harming, killing, striking, shocking.

Harmful magic came in a multitude of forms. One could try to cause an enemy to become sick with a pox, or turn to stone, or burn up, or be pierced with spears; any torment one could imagine, magic could visit upon an enemy. But just thinking about the pain you would cause was not enough to inflict it. Because of their auras all humans and all living creatures had inherent defenses against magic. They could make it weaker, or absorb it altogether, or warp the effects out of usable shape.

Perhaps the “associations” Minerva spoke of also had something to do with it also.

When she cast the spell, when she channeled it in her hands and finally when she fired it, the agitated Lyudmilla had wanted a bolt of lightning to shock the fascist to death.

Instead, the bolt struck him in the stomach as if it was a blunt instrument.

There was a surge of electricity that was clearly coursing through his body. His legs danced out from under him, and a dark stain crept along his pants as he very clearly pissed himself from the attack. But there was barely any heat transferred, nothing burned, nothing was pierced. Blue sparks deflected in numerous directions as the bolt struck him, dissipated, and knocked him back, eyes wide, jaw hanging, limbs twitching.

Most students would have only known one generic magic missile with which to defend themselves with. Killing magic and hurting magic was not taught widely. One could learn it, and anyone motivated to do so would; but it was not productive or practical, the things magic needed to be to compete with science. So it was not prioritized.

Watching the result of her attack unfold, Lyudmilla briefly understood some of the things Minerva had taught her. Magic was imagination and could take any shape; but a duel between wizards was a battle of wills. You never knew what would happen. To truly crush an opponent with magic there had to be greater wits and power at work.

For Minerva to have defeated Moloch, it must have taken her a titanic effort.

Lyudmilla felt in that instant both powerful and powerless. She had so far to go yet.

Even though she was already so far ahead of her peers in certain ways.

She clenched those hands of hers, those normal, abnormal hands.

And yet, there was no time to feel pity. Lyudmilla was in the middle of something.

There was work only violence could accomplish, and Magic was her one weapon.

Quickly after her attack, she took stock of the situation.

Her fascist was out like a light. Not dead; perhaps that was for the best.

In her anger, Lyudmilla had not considered she was not meant to be a killer anymore.

Once she was sure the enemy was down, she sprinted toward the stumbling, hooded figure who was still in the midst of disorientation and about to fall into the hedge.

That was not an ordinary punch they took. Nobody was throwing ordinary punches.

Her featherweight looked quite dizzy.

Lyudmilla grabbed the featherweight before they could fall to the ground.

“Are you okay? Say something!”

She immediately raised their category to welterweight as she held them up.

In response, the hooded figure coughed violently and gagged.

“Whoa!”

Lyudmilla tried to hold on to them. Something was quite wrong.

“Poison detected. Conjured poison is weaker than the original strain.”

In disbelief, Lyudmilla brought up her homunculus, staring incredulously at it.

“What am I supposed to do then?”

In her hands, the hooded figure writhed.

Coming just short of vomiting, the figure coughed with horrible force.

Between each cough was a sharp, sucking gasp.

This was followed by a brief muttering.

“Spell waveform detected–“

Lyudmilla’s ‘robot’ spoke just as the hooded figure’s own ‘robot’ acted.

Assisted by their homunculus, the hooded figure’s hand glowed bright.

Featherweight smacked themselves in the stomach with a shining palm.

For an instant, the mask came loose on their face.

Lyudmilla caught a brief glimpse of a soft face and bright eyes before the figure realized the fullness of their senses, and covered their face with their other hand.

Regaining their breath, perhaps having counteracted the poison, the figure shook Lyudmilla off, shoving with their shoulders and taking a brusque step back from her.

Once more they nearly stumbled into the hedge; recovering from the sudden tumble, the featherweight stood and adjusted their sunglasses, mask and hood in a brief panic.

Anonymized once more, the hooded figure turned sharply to face Lyudmilla.

“Whoa! Fucking, cool down, okay? I just saved you from him!”

Lyudmilla pointed at the downed fascist, a pool steadily spreading about him.

Chest rising and falling with deep breaths, the hooded figure opposite Lyudmilla appeared almost contrite in their body language all of a sudden. They hunched their shoulders forward, and stared at the ground. They stuffed their hands into their pockets. Was that shame? Was this punk really sorry they turned on Lyudmilla?

“You did save me. Thank you. I’m sorry about that shove. It’s been a night, you know?”

When she finally spoke, the figure’s voice was gentle, almost out of place.

This was no ordinary street punk, in a multitude of ways.

“It’s a night for shoving, I guess. And all kinds of other things.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She was disarmed by the character of the voice, and by the casual tone that it took. By the softness, and reasonableness of it. Lyudmilla would have been throwing f-bombs. “Yeah, you can say that again. You might not have noticed but the park’s under some kinda curse. Who are you? Some kinda hooligan caught up in this?”

Slowly the figure straightened up. She dusted herself off, and cracked a grin under the surgical mask. Lyudmilla could tell through the paper, and her cheeks had moved too. Whatever kind of cool this mysterious boxer had, she was definitely getting it back.

“You can call me the Samaritan.” She said.

“Oh I get it. You’re one of those street punks that fights these guys all the time.”

Lyudmilla had heard of something like that; violent counter-protesters.

She was at a loss for what she heard them called, but the Samaritan elucidated.

“You could say I’m antifa, yeah. I’m not exclusively antifa, but yeah, I do it too. I’m just your all-around concerned citizen.” She stretched an arm toward Lyudmilla, fist curled up. “Wanna pull up your hood with me too? Right now the fash outnumber my crew.”

Lyudmilla put on her own grin. She felt a bloodthirsty kind of hype in that moment.

Truth be told, it was also the kind of night where she felt like tearing some shit up.

“I’m not afraid of these guys. They can look at my pretty face all they fucking want. Tell me this though, is your crew still outnumbered if I come with?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Lets just say my odds would double with you along.” the Samaritan replied.

“Well then.”

Lyudmilla stretched out her own arm and bumped her fist on the Samaritan’s.

“Can you clue me in on what these cosplaying shitheads are doing here?”

The Samaritan raised her homunculus and showed Lyudmilla something on it.

It was the layout for something like a forum, or a text message thread.

“They’re after somebody. She called for help, and the Samaritans are answering.”

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