1.3: Domestic Dragon

This chapter contains some slightly sexually suggestive content.


The National was drowning, and it drowned those who lived and labored within its halls.

A Magician alone with her thoughts could sense the despairingly cold, despairingly thick aura of Water magic that permeated the surroundings. Water was colorless, faceless, it was dark, it was concealing. Water was secrets, water was an agenda that moved with an unfathomable purpose, rolling waves and building storms that swept, swallowed and destroyed. Water was natural, was it not? Water existed and moved unchallenged.

There was no aura more fitting for the National. Otrarian Magicians lead their lives around this institution, and it was natural that they rolled, natural that they swept and natural that they destroyed. Magic itself was the moon that turned their tides. Discovery.

Humanity was fire and metal. Towns and cities full of life and full of passion, pleasure and despair, an air thick with dreams and labors and discoveries. Metal was what humanity made and surrounded itself with and coveted; Fire was what dwelled within their hearts and minds. Minerva could with some effort render her own aura visible and she would see it, burning red with the faintest streaks of grey-black. Fire and Metal.

Where Humanity ceded space to the wild, one would feel the element of Earth, the fading ruler of the primordial Tierra, at peace in its remaining domains. In the mountains and up in the sky, the element of Air dominated, wild and free, a vagrant magic unrestrained by the logic of the world. In the places humans could easily touch, Water was a secret and sequestered magic, existing in small pockets cut into the land. Its domain was the ocean, the last frontier of land-bound humanity, and it guarded it violently, jealously.

That the National reeked of Water so thoroughly and awfully was very deliberate.

Nobody ever felt ‘ok’ at the National. Living there, working there, was a great effort in itself, a draining labor that never seemed to ease. That was the existence of humans in a web of water that drained their air and squelched their fire. That was the sacrifice. This discomfort was the price of power. Those who couldn’t stand it weren’t worthy of it.

It was an ancient law that carried itself out well beyond anyone who supported it.

Minerva shut her eyes, her head dipping against the window of the bus. She could feel it.

That was the esoteric world of the National, the metaphysical atmosphere of it.

Physically, the Otrarian National Academy For The Esoteric Arts was a vast, sprawling entity, a city onto itself. Deep in the center was the Old Campus, where Anthropology and its quietly irrelevant ilk had their old, red-brick buildings that were square and stoic, with grim facades and faded stone streets. There was a splash of living color offered by Turrington plaza and its park, on all sides flanked by vast rainbow beds of flowers.

North of the Old Campus the vast Main Street of the National dominated the new campus, with its dynamic architecture, glass facades and modern flair. Rather than a square plan, the new campus seemed to sprawl off the main street in long veins, buildings sprouting everywhere they could. Classroom facilities, housing complexes, businesses of all kinds of sizes, hospitals, service plazas, fitness centers, laboratories, everything one could think of could be found somewhere in the city’s sinews.

There were buildings like modern art pieces, with domes and planispheres and pyramids coexisting with utilitarian structures. Square buses shared the road with sleek prototype cars that ran on agartheum and other esoteric matter. Holographic and alternate reality billboards appeared along the road beside overbearing state propaganda and a variety of pinned-up flyers and signs advertising political meetings on both ends of the spectrum. On the street Minerva saw high fashion, casual dress, the business-like uniforms of the students, and the austere garb of wizened old magicians all in the same places.

Minerva watched the crowds around the Main Street, trying not to doze off in the bus. She, too, was a citizen of this odd city. She wondered how many were students, how many did magic; there were tons of people here to support the students and teachers and each other and not to do magic. Not every nurse or policeman or food worker did magic.

Maybe they cast a spell or two, but they didn’t do magic. You didn’t really need it.

Outside the National and a few other little oasis, Magic was starting to fall by the wayside. Humanity was a species defined by Metal: technology now rendered the service of physical transportation, digital communication and even the transformation and improvement of the human body. War was waged with effective, rational weapons. Human ingenuity and technology built the cities, the skyscrapers. All without the fickle whims of the esoteric and the years of commitment and unique psychology and physiology required to truly master it. Similar magical abilities to the car, the plane, the telephone, the scalpel and bandage, and even the firearm, were growing rarer and rarer.

Magic had to innovate as technology had in order to reassert itself. And it simply hadn’t.

Like the precious Water that shielded their elite, the magical societies and their arts were consigned to small, exclusive places, dotting the landscape but no longer owning it.

There was one place where Magicians were still very strongly represented, however.

It wasn’t like it was before the Upheaval, over a decade ago. Nothing was like that.

But Magicians still largely governed Otraria, just as they did during that scarring time.

Minerva’s bus took her out of this organ of conspiracy and into the green hills skirting the edge of the Whispering Woods. Here there was green country, thick with trees, and the great Lake Bratten, a blue slice taken out of the earth that seemed to shimmer distantly behind every pine. It was a popular destination for Academy-goers looking to get away from the tension. Here the Water aura quietly receded. Even at the lake, the magic was overwhelmingly of Earth — this suited Minerva fine, and so, she made it home.

Among the final stops for this particular bus was a three-story wooden building on a small wooded hill with a breath-taking view of the lake. This was Wurmbacht Rent House, a housing complex about 45 minutes from Anthropology and Turrington plaza. Tacking on nearly an hour commute both ways wasn’t a problem for Minerva when the rent was manageable, with perks. She could go to the lake whenever she wanted, she had a private and comfortable third-floor apartment, and she could breathe easily here.

They even had Wi-Fi, and the connection was basically fine. Not much more to ask!

At the top of a small set of stone steps, Minerva withdrew her resident’s card and slid it through the card reader on the front door to open it. She slipped quickly inside and closed the door behind her. She was always a little on edge opening card reader doors.

From the door there was a short hallway that branched, leading to the kitchen, to the staircase up to the second floor, and to the back of the first floor where the landlord and his daughter lived. There were some vending machines installed along the hall and a carpet. Just off off the door was a glass panel with a slot, a window into a little office that mostly went unused. When Minerva walked past it this time, however, she found a young girl sitting on the chair, playing with a computer tablet on the front desk.

“Do I need to check in, Laksha?” Minerva asked sweetly.

Laksha looked up from her tablet and smiled. She was swinging her legs under the desk.

“Hi Minnie!” She said. “I’m at the desk today!”

“You are! Here’s my card.”

“No! You don’t need to! I know you live here!”

“Ah, well, thank you!”

Minerva turned around and walked over to the vending machine. She slid a bill into the cash slot and input the number for a candy bar. She brought the bar back to the desk, and with a sweet smile she offered it to Laksha through the slot in the glass panel.

Laksha looked up again from her tablet and beamed brighter than the sun.

“Thank you!” She said, unwrapping the candy bar. “You’re the best, Minnie!”

“I know I am.” Minerva said. “How was school today?”

“It was fun! I learned to do this!”

With her free hand, Laksha withdrew a little silver-lined safety wand from the pocket of her jeans and raised it to the glass. On her wrist, a small provisional homunculus began to whirr and make a little noise. She whirled her wand about, and then dropped it, and it started to float around by itself. Wordlessly, Laksha moved the wand around her head like a toy plane, and at one point slipped it through the neck of her turtleneck sweater. It came out again from one of her sleeves, all the while she casually munched on her bar.

“Isn’t it great? Teacher said it was an example of ‘Applied Energetics’.”

“It’s impressive!” Minerva replied, clapping her hands.

Minerva was a grouch most of the day because she had to save up all her kindness to spend on Laksha. She was a terrifically sweet child, and as a fellow Alwi Minerva felt a sense of protectiveness toward her. She reminded Minerva of herself, and it was more than just skin color and hair color that bound them, but a sense of hope. Laksha was being raised in a world where she was breaking a boundary without knowing it.

“Oh, your girlfriend got a lot of packages today Minnie.” Laksha pointed out.

“My girlfriend did what.” Minerva replied. Her heart rate must have tripled then.

“She got a few deliveries. I was home most of today and saw it. She looked really happy!”

“Well, I, need to go to talk to her!” Minerva said hurriedly. “Keep practicing!”

“Someday I’ll be as good at it as you, Minnie!” Laksha said, waving her wand goodbye.

“You’ll be better.” Minerva said.

She then turned around and took off up the stairs to her floor.

Her apartment was on the third floor, facing the lake, so she had to go up the stairs and round two corners before finding her door. Her skin brimmed and her lungs struggled with the urgency of the situation. She imagined something awful must have happened! She withdrew her key so fast she nearly threw it at the roof, and she practically burst through her own door, into a small, square apartment with a big window, a single room that was bedroom, kitchen and living space all in one, and a small adjoining bathroom.

“Vorra, you had better not–!”

In the middle of the room on a futon set atop a small carpet, Minerva found her partner reclined atop a stack of magazines and biting down on what seemed to be raw steak. There were a few other meats lying around her little hoard: a few links of sausage, a pack of bacon, some more steak, what seemed to be a loaf of white pork fat, and more.

Her partner swallowed up the rest of the steak with disturbing haste and smiled.

“Ah, goodness! You return, milord!”

“Don’t call me that! What are you doing?”

“I am preparing my body to become one worthy of a ‘Wyrmqueen’.”

Minerva realized her room was exposed and quickly closed the door behind her.

It would’ve been quite a sight for anyone out in the hall. Not just the mess but the woman carelessly in the middle of it. Vorra was a looker, with a lithe, long-limbed body, ruddy brown skin, and bright green eyes. Her neck length hair was tidy, and her swept bangs gave her a more elegant appearance than she cultivated otherwise. She was dressed exclusively in one of Minerva’s shirts, barely-buttoned, barely covering her. Minerva was horrified to think that she had met a delivery man this afternoon dressed in this way.

Though she certainly looked like a comely human, Vorra had a few things off about her.

Most distressingly, a pair of horns curled back around her head from just over her ears.

She had a tail to match, thick, half as long as her legs, and covered in golden scales.

“Where did you get all this? I told you we don’t have the money for red meat every day!”

Vorra sat up on her hoard of magazines, all of which she acquired as free samples. Dragons needed to maintain a collection of some sort for proper psychological health. Minerva wished it could’ve been something like stamps or postcards, and not a pile of papers. Still, Minerva expressed her willingness to stand on equal terms with her partner by approaching the pile of magazines and sitting down on it along with a joyful Vorra.

“Milord, I am both aware and understanding of your currency situation, which is why I researched alternative avenues for acquiring meat, after you also forbid me to hunt.”

“I feel like you’re accusing me here! You were eating dogs.” Minerva said disdainfully.

“All lesser beasts are possessed of the same flesh and blood.”

“No they aren’t; some are possessed of pet flesh and pet blood.”

Vorra waved her hand dismissively. “Regardless I paid not one coin for this meat.”

“Okay, then how did you get it?” Minerva asked.

‘Paying not one coin’ seemed to rule out both using Minerva’s money and also stealing money from other people to pay for it, both things Vorra was quite capable of doing given her general disdain for law as applied to herself. It was only Minerva’s words and commands that she heeded or respected, but she found loopholes where she wanted.

“Milord,” she began again, despite Minerva’s distaste for it, “I became aware, through perusing the World Wide Web, of various Web Sites that specialized in delivering boxes of assorted food and goods to the houses of their customers. I felt that these services were my most convenient avenue to acquire the meat I needed, but I lacked the currency to make use of them. So defeated, I decided to recline and listen to some ‘Pod Casts’.”

Minerva used to be puzzled by Vorra’s vernacular but was by now used to it. This was the normal tone of their conversations. Clearly she was into buying junk online now. Minerva had gotten her a tablet so she could listen to music and play around on the internet and convinced her to stay in the apartment as much as possible. While Vorra could disguise her draconic features easily, she was very socially conspicuous.

“I’m with you so far. So how did you get all this stuff for free then?” Minerva said.

Before continuing her story, Vorra’s lips curled up into a grin that was full of pride.

“I thought I would soothe my disappointment with the buffoonery of the brothers three, but instead I was made aware of a powerful passphrase that I could deploy to my purpose. It came to light that a way to bend the will of the online meat automatons was available, and thus upon wielding the words ‘My Brother’ against them, they were forced to bequeath to me a box of their delicious meats absolutely free.” Vorra said.

She clapped her hands and broke into a delicate laugh, clearly feeling herself superior.

Minerva covered her own face with her hands. “You got a free sample from a podcast.”

“Not merely one free sample milord. For I circumvented the limit of one delivery of goods per person by requesting the aid of the human child, and thus received–”

“You took advantage of Laksha for your scheme!” Minerva shouted.

Vorra shrugged. “She does not consume meat and so I saw no harm in her giving me the box that is her unwanted birthright. It meant I would have twice as much meat.”

“Okay, whatever.” Minerva said. “It’s fine. I’m fine with it. I was just worried.”

“Milord’s concern for me makes my heart flutter like a growing flame.”

“Why are you so adamant on eating red meat anyway?”

Vorra’s face flushed a little red and she looked fondly at Minerva.

She reached out a hand and scratched across Minerva’s palm, kind of like a cat.

“I require substantial protein to transform my body, you know?”

Vorra spread her arms (and with them her shirt) as if to show Minerva her progress.

She had indeed changed a little bit since Minerva had come upon her. Vorra was a young dragon, and so her forms both human-like and not had a lot of elasticity. She had been just a little bulkier, just a little harder; she was now softer, lighter. Her hips and chest had begun to change as well. Her hair was a little longer than before too. Her voice was still as rich as ever, however. And surely her lizard-like dragon form would have changed since Minerva last saw, too.

“Do Dragons really do this sort of thing for– umm, their mates, I guess?”

Vorra could easily tell Minerva’s discomfort; they had talked like this before.

“Nothing I’m doing is irreversible if I don’t like the end result. I am very pleased with everything and as I stated in our covenant, your role in it is not coercive whatsoever. This is simply how partnerships between Dragons work. One of us must manage this responsibility.”

Minerva was not entirely well versed on dragon customs, and she had been hesitant to research it for fear of finding some terrible thing about Vorra and her kind and the ‘covenant’ they made. Talking about the fact that Vorra was trying to become Minerva’s “Queen” was a little awkward and a little unsettling, but also sweet in a strange way.

“Beside which, I’m not doing it just for you! I merely had no reason to change prior.”

“Does it hurt?” Minerva asked sheepishly. “Changing your body like that, I mean.”

There was something about the concept of a dragon having to eat a lot of meat to reconfigure her fat and bones and organs little by little that felt just a bit, extreme.

Vorra smiled and rubbed her head against Minerva’s. “Did it hurt for you?”

Minerva sighed. She felt talked down to. “I mean– some stuff hurts.”

“Like what?”

“Well, if you can call them that, my tits can definitely hurt.”

“Then you’ve experienced this before, you shouldn’t worry.” Vorra said, laughing gently.

“I’m experiencing it right now.” Minerva mumbled, patting down her chest.

For Minerva, perhaps this discussion shouldn’t have been so strange and uncomfortable. She certainly had experience in changing her body, but her changes felt much more controlled and gradual and natural (despite the medical source for them). In a way, she feared that she had tricked or forced Vorra into mutating herself out of shape through the use of magic. It was perhaps a grievous misunderstanding, borne of the magical origin separating them. Vorra kept saying she wanted it; so maybe it was all fine.

Minerva thought, perhaps she should endeavor to trust Vorra more about this.

“I’m humbled to receive your concern, milord. But it is misplaced.” Vorra said. “I am a being of great and ancient power and I was born to become a majestic wyrmqueen.”

In a way, just as she helped Vorra become something, Vorra had helped Minerva to accept in a healthy way a very dark and dangerous thing that she was becoming too.

Minerva smiled, and dropped back onto the pile of magazines, looking up at her ‘mate’.

“I suppose when a Dragon gets to be that age, the urgency to make nest starts to–”

Vorra blew a little smoke from her human nostrils in response to Minerva’s teasing.

“I’ll have you know, Milord, I’m within several decades of my prime, thank you.”

Minerva supposed there were worse things for the school to find out about her than that she was the possessor of the Tyrant Wyrm and that she was shacking up with a Dragon.

They could discover that she was a communist spy instead.

“Now then, with the misunderstandings sorted, how about a steak, milord?”

Vorra lifted a floppy piece of meat from the edge of the magazine pile, took a deep breath, and blew a puff of fire and smoke at it that seemed to instantly char it black.

“I’ll pass.” Minerva replied. “By the way, I need you to deliver something.”

“I shall endeavor to treat milord’s mission as my own.” Vorra replied.

Minerva grimaced for a moment, thinking of potential fallout.

“Don’t eat any dogs along the way.” She said.

Vorra smiled and pushed the charred steak into her human mouth, to swallow whole.


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1.2: Performance Reviews


Homunculus: the little man inside your head. Modern homunculi are portable digital devices that assist spellcasting by properly stimulating the brain through vibrations, sound, and visual noise. Hooked into the biometrics of the spellcaster, homunculi perform the subconscious cognitive work of magic so the spellcaster can focus on execution. 


A small windowless office was oppressive enough, but when a flyover portrait of the Old College took up most of the wall, it added an additional eerie quality to the space. Every moment she spent in the Department Head’s office Minerva felt like she would be kicked off a helicopter or a plane and fall to her death at the feet of the Lord Turrington statue in the Plaza, a sacrifice to the National and its endless history. She felt suffocated there.

Even more so because most of the free air in the room was now heavily in use.

“I don’t know what to do with you anymore, Beatrix! I have professionally and personally given you so much space and chance and yet, here I am, once again!”

Beatrix nodded politely along with each repetitive scolding and talking-down-to she received from the department head of the college of Anthropology, Miriam Hirsch.

“It feels like it was last week that I gave you a warning and yet here you are, the focus of complaints, complaints and more complaints! From faculty, students, from parents!”

Beatrix behaved ironically like a student sat down before a school principal. She had a childishly contrite expression, her head bowed, nodding silently each time Ms. Hirch raised her voice one twist higher on the volume knob. At her side, Minerva sucked on a straw attached to a grey foil packet, drinking a salty-sweet brown fluid to restore all the vitality she lost to negative energy sickness — in this case, to stomping on a ghost.

A ghost that, as Miriam Hirch rightly pointed out, was summoned through Beatrix’s negligence and nearly allowed to attack students, which violated this and that code; and which was summoned because of Beatrix’s unauthorized ‘raiding’ of the Anthropology Department’s Esoteric Assets stores, which, she pointed out, was quite ‘frowned upon’.

And so on and so on.

Minerva, too, had her head bowed low but mostly out of embarrassment.

At least Beatrix had acquiesced to wearing Minerva’s coat, so she would look decent.

It would be salt on the wound to look thrown about while being thrown about.

“Just because you work for the Department doesn’t mean everything here is your toy! Do you have a child’s concept of ownership? There’s a process!” She shook her hands as though she wanted to wring Beatrix’s neck from afar, as she spelled out p-r-o-c–e-s-s. “Process! You get class materials signed! I would’ve done it! And we could’ve made sure that wand you were supposed to have been working on since a month ago wasn’t cursed when you decided to let your students work out your backlog! I am bewildered, Bea!”

Miriam had practically made a hole in the ground from circling around the couch in front of her desk so many times, as she waylaid Beatrix from all directions. When she finally sat down, her shoulders slumped and it seemed almost that she would deflate like a balloon right in front of them, utterly emptied of hot air. Minerva looked up from her juice pack and caught Miriam looking her way, exhausted. Miriam was an older lady, older than Beatrix, whom Minerva placed in her thirties; definitely older than Minerva’s fresh, spry 25 years on Tierra. Out of all of them she was the most corporate-looking: black blazer, red shirt, pencil skirt, sleek glasses. She looked like her own secretary and like her own boss at the same time. Her black-and-white hair was tied up in a bun far more tidy and professional than Minerva’s “stick a pin in it, call it done up” affair.

“I don’t know what to do with her, Minerva.” Miriam said. “Did you know she could’ve been Department Head? Once upon a time she was practically in the chair.”

Minerva briefly glanced at Beatrix and then back at Miriam. She just couldn’t see it.

“Years ago, Beatrix was a historical prospect! On skill alone!” Miriam shouted.

She seemed almost personally offended at Beatrix’s current state. Minerva, meanwhile, wondered if the ‘skill alone’ fragment was meant to separate it from Minerva’s historical prospect, and from there she became hyperaware of the situation. She was in the office of the Department Head on a reprimand. And she was not like any other T.A. in this seat.

Beatrix, meanwhile, smiled just a touch, as if only allowed a few humble millimeters to display joviality. “Yes, but instead I married my girlfriend and live my days casually.”

“Why are you dressed like that?” Miriam shouted, her head resting on steepled hands.

This was such a sudden turn in the conversation even Beatrix seemed bewildered.

She absentmindedly fingered the plunging neckline of her tanktop, just over her chest.

“Well, the flower crown helps align my aura with Earth magic, which I need a lot of for the piece I wanted to work on. And me and the wifey do yoga every morning, but then–”

“I don’t care anymore, Beatrix.” Miriam cut her off, waving a hand dismissively. “Listen well, you wannabe bohemian, you’re a tenured Professor of the most prestigious university on the continent. People like Minerva can be held up to different standards–”

Minerva snapped her head up. “Excuse me–?”

“–She’s a teaching assistant, after all–”

“Oh–”

This one time, Minerva was glad her objection was ignored as usual. She quieted again.

“–but you, Beatrix, must act like the professional you are!”

Miriam pushed herself to a stand by her arms, but quickly lost her energy and sat again.

“Honestly, if it weren’t for the value your research has brought, Beatrix, if it weren’t for the history, and not just the history you’ve uncovered, but our history, and just. Ugh!”

The Department Head pushed herself against the back of her chair, gritting her teeth.

She sighed with a kind of grave finality, fanning herself with her hand.

“We bleed money every year to things like Quantum Effects and Applied Energetics. It’s only our routinely excellent scholarship and high student performance that keeps us alive here, you two. And yet it seems like the good Professor just takes her teaching job for granted when she is not handing it off entirely to her freshman Teaching Assistant.”

“Minerva is a cut above any T.A. I have ever worked with.” Beatrix said.

“She reminds me of you and that’s ultimately what worries me most.” Miriam said.

Miriam turned from Beatrix and back to Minerva, staring at her with a dull expression. She wasn’t mad at her, but she seemed tired of having to talk, or maybe displeased with having to talk to her now. Her voice was dispassionate, as gray-sounding as her coat. She felt exhausted looking at that woman and exhausted for being looked at by her too.

“Minerva, the Department thanks you for making sure no students saw harm from Beatrix’s little stunt. Everything regarding that incident will be fine, I will see to it, it’s too much of a nuisance not to sweep under the rug for us, however; you yourself were also called here for a purpose. Seeing as how you are basically teaching Beatrix’s classes right now, aside from her foolishness, I must speak to you about your performance.”

From behind her desk came a sliding noise, wood on metal. Miriam pulled open a drawer and pulled out a folder, and she spread it open on the desk. Minerva could not see the contents of it from the couch, but she grew a little nervous now that she was being addressed directly. This was not the first time she had met with Miriam, but those times had been social and courtesy occasions, educational committees, things like that.

A performance review was ominous. Performance was an ominous word.

Minerva had a monumental pressure placed on herself to excel.

She had a unique pressure on her to succeed.

“Beatrix’s class averages have been declining for the past few years by an expected one or two percent, given her, well, unique teaching style. However, Minerva, the average for her classes under your tutelage is declining by a staggering 12%.” Miriam said dryly.

“Well, new students come in and they need time. It’s only been a few weeks.”

Minerva tried to temper her defensiveness and the passion with which she wanted to decry this injustice. Those averages could have been easily upset at any point by a below average freshman class. Magic and especially Magic scholarship was not exactly drawing the cream of the crop from society anymore. Minerva had apparently gotten unlucky and the year she was finally accepted as a teacher was a year with some black sheep in it.

And yet, it was absolutely being used against her now! It felt like a terrible injustice.

She had to wonder whether there were ulterior motives for bringing up this topic.

“I understand, and I do not hold it against you. I am just saying, I expect great things from you and from the class of 1998, as I do every year. And having had a few incidents with this class this year, I was inclined to review its performance, and I saw this pattern.”

“I feel I have gone above and beyond to do what I can for my students.” Minerva replied, trying to keep herself cool and professional. “I have more office hours than any of my colleagues, and Professor Kolsa and I have developed a very student-friendly unit plan.”

Beatrix smiled and waved as if asked to. Miriam grunted at her as if to preempt her.

“I recognize and applaud that. Believe me, I am not holding you to a different standard.” Miriam said. “In fact, I too have gone above and beyond and identified the predominant cause of this trend. You have one student in particular, who is troubled and troubling.”

She handed Minerva a folder and Minerva took it and opened it, to find a photograph of a young woman with purple-streaked twintails, pearly-pink skin, amber eyes, dressed just a bit messily. It was Lyudmilla Kholodova, a recent immigrant from Rus-Moroz according to her file. Minerva knew her grades were not good, but she expected her to swing up soon. It felt just a little harsh to judge her like this so early on in the semester.

“She transferred here with a special status, along with a few other refugees.” Miriam said. “It was good P.R., but now it’s on us to make sure she doesn’t just coast by. It’s regrettable but she seems to be setting herself up for failure. She needs supervision.”

“That’s a little harsh.” Beatrix said suddenly, airing Minerva’s thoughts. “This girl is a student like any other. And this is a University, we’re all adults here. I think Lyudmilla ill deserves this treatment. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d think you were being bias, Mir.”

Miriam glared at Beatrix. “It’s your fault predominantly that she is not acclimating well! So be quiet. We keep tabs on special students. This is a prestigious institution with a strong reputation, I’ve told you this before. She will succeed at her classes, and you will make sure of that, Beatrix. Or I guess, effectively, Minerva will make sure. I trust her.”

Beatrix gave a sympathetic look toward poor Minerva, who did not respond in kind.

The Department Head very deliberately took back all the files and stowed them away.

“I didn’t just do this at random. Minerva and Lyudmilla may be worlds apart in many respects, but I feel they can bond over some common experiences. Minerva is the best mentor for this young, troubled girl. I am sure of it, and I am sure it’s for the best.”

Minerva sighed. At the end of the day, it was all indeed about her race and status.

Unlike Miriam and Beatrix, who could well pass to anyone as simply “white Otrarians,” Minerva was one of the Alwi. Her mixed race was engraved in the color of her skin, the slightly fussy texture and behavior of her hair, among other things. There were other, more sensitive reasons that made her different, but this was the obvious one. Before she was a woman, before she was an Otrarian, before she was a magician, she would always be an Alwi. And it was even more obvious in the National than it was anywhere else.

“Be proud! The First Alwi Magician of the Otrarian National Academy, will take on the first Alwi-taught Apprentice! It would be historical if I wasn’t trying to keep it low-key.”

Miriam smiled and stretched a hand out over the desk and Minerva shook it dejectedly.

“All of the paperwork is in the process of being done.” She said. “You will all be notified.”

Beatrix clapped a little and mumbled a little ‘yay!’ and Miriam scowled at her in return.

Minerva and Beatrix then left the anthropology department side by side, having both essentially gotten slapped on the wrist given the sheer nonsense that Beatrix had decided to do. In the grand scheme of things they were unscathed, but Minerva was troubled by this idea of apprenticeship, of being a mentor. Ambling out of the old building and into the wide open plaza across the street, they were both silent, Minerva having become absorbed in thinking about her own situation. It was not until Professor Kolsa patted her on the shoulder and back that she realized she had walked past the statue of Turrington.

Ahead of her, a bus came to a stop, picked up and dropped off no students, and then went on its way once again. Far in the distance, the yellow line of the sun split the heavens from the tops of the various National campus buildings encircling the park.

“Oh right. I think– no, that was not my bus.” Minerva said. “But we do part ways here.”

Minerva waved a half-hearted goodbye and made to sit down on the bench nearby.

Beatrix reached out a hand to stop her, wearing a nervous smile on her face.

“I apologize, Minerva. I had no idea she would respond like this.” Beatrix said.

“It’s fine.” Minerva said. “I’ve accepted you’re some force of nature I can’t control.”

“Aww, I think you’re very energetic too. Thank you.” Beatrix replied cheekily.

Minerva grumbled, but reciprocated the friendly pat on the shoulder that Beatrix had given her before. Beatrix in response took both of Minerva’s hands in her own, and Minerva did not break the touch or shrug her off. She smiled back just a little.

“Regardless of everything, you did splendidly today.” Beatrix said. “And though I may not seem like I would, I hope you know that I will do my very best to support you in all this.”

“I know you would.” Minerva said. “Though I question what you’d do to support me.”

“I’d go to great lengths. You’re a magnificent assistant. Plus, I’ve been a mentor before.”

“Well, thank you.” Minerva said. “For reference though, random stunts don’t help me.”

Beatrix’s smile turned into a fiendish grin.

“Well, well. You should know that like Miriam Hirch, I don’t do things randomly.”

She took off Minerva’s coat, and produced from the pocket a little booklet.

That had not been there when Minerva handed her the coat.

She handed the book to Minerva, who, sensing what it could be, did not open it.

“Tell your commanders it’s a little cheat sheet. They’ll understand the contents.”

Beatrix winked.

Comrade.

Minerva blinked, looked down at the booklet, and sighed, stowing it away.

“I see you can be real tricky when you want to.” Minerva said. “Was it this morning?

“Trade secret. Listen: I don’t do this for just anyone.” Beatrix said, sticking her chest out.

Minerva grinned a little herself. Amazingly enough, she felt glad for Beatrix right then.


<<< Previous / Next >>>

 

 

1.1: Busy Child

This scene contains violence and brief verbal expression of racism.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minerva covered her face in her hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I sit down now?” Milla asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minerva braced for whatever happened next.

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

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

“Kyra’s Force Bubble.” Milla said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milla’s fingers slipped.

“Huh?”

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

It was shaking in her grip.

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

“Oh my, oh me!”

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

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

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

Milla fell to the floor, dropping the wand.

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

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

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

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

He drew a ghostly sword and pointed at Milla.

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

“Ah! Oh my! Oh my!”

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

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

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

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

“Beatrix, exorcise him!”

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

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

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

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

Ugggghhhh. Minerva wanted to be swallowed by the earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she needed the connection.

She focused on the mnemonic technique once again.

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

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

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

Streaks of awful black energy coursed through his ghostly sinews.

There was a terrifying flash.

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

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

Milla sat up on the floor, gasping for breath.

All of the students were speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beatrix watched her leave and smiled helplessly.

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


<<< Previous / Next >>>

E.S.P. (72.1)

This scene contains violence.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — Conqueror’s Way

Wordlessly, the battle began.

Madiha’s wrist had barely recovered from the previous clash when Aatto jerked her arm toward the side of the bridge as if grasping for something that had fallen from her hand. Madiha saw the foam washing up along the sides of the bridge before the wave came flying over the barriers. It was not as a wave should be, it was not a long sheet of water; it was water sliced from the source, contorted, shaped into a weapon. Madiha pushed on herself and leaped out of the way as river smashed into the bridge where she stood.

Behind her she left a hole, bored clean through the bridge as if by a drill.

Around the rim of this orifice was a sheet of ice.

Everything had happened so quickly and yet the action and reaction both seemed so eerily natural and understandable to Madiha, as if it had all been rehearsed for her.

E.S.P. was like touch, like smell, like sight; active and passive all at once, innate.

It took seeing Aatto’s E.S.P. to really understand.

Madiha was being pushed to use it, where before she loathed to.

It was the battle that was pushing her. But it was also something else.

Something frighteningly like an instinct.

“You’re not like any of the spoonbenders at the Institute.” Aatto said.

Madiha taunted her. “Are they all savages like you?”

She needled her.

Aatto grit her teeth, and turned sharply to the other side of the bridge with both arms up.

Water started to rise once more.

She opened herself up. She committed her E.S.P. and Madiha would punish it.

Madiha drew her pistol and in a blink put two shots into Aatto’s forehead and nose.

She staggered back with a cry, seizing hold of her own face in pain.

Along the sides of the bridge the water harmlessly descended.

“God damn it!” Aatto cried. “Right to the face? To the face? And I’m the goddamn savage?”

Blood had drawn from her enemy’s forehead. But when Aatto started to peel her own hand away from its reflexive grip on her wounds, Madiha saw cracks, as if on glass, that were merely dribbled red. She had not been killed, or even seriously wounded.

“Should’ve known there was nothing important there to shoot.” Madiha said.

“Ha ha.” Aatto grinned viciously. “Very funny. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I do.”

She had some kind of armor on her body.

Did she cover herself in ice? Madiha realized that must have been it.

Her mind started to race. How many layers? How deep? What sort of attack would–

As Madiha had done before, Aatto pushed on herself for speed.

“You’re not the only one with tricks!”

Madiha wasn’t the only one learning.

In an instant Aatto had made her way to Madiha, so close that Madiha could feel the cold emanating from her body where warmth should be. Where Madiha was wreathed in fire as she used her abilities, Aatto grew colder, steaming with an inhumanly icy aura.

Growling in anger, Aatto threw a punch.

Pushing away from it, Madiha sidestepped the attack and found Aatto briefly vulnerable.

Madiha drew a knife and tried to engage in close quarters combat, but Aatto was not fighting by the book, not by anyone’s book. Army combat manuals taught effective fighting for disabling and killing enemies with fists or knives, but these counted on human enemies behaving in human ways.  When Aatto swung around to meet her, she was not moving nor behaving like a human. Her speed was such that Madiha could do little to retaliate but to drive the knife toward her enemy with all her strength and pray.

Thankfully for her, Madiha was also inhumanly quick when she needed it.

Her knife met Aatto’s flesh before the woman could swing again.

Cracks formed as she struck the base of the neck, where Aatto’s head and torso met.

It was no use. Madiha found her blade caught in the icy armor, drawing little blood.

Aatto shrugged it off, and grabbed hold of Madiha, taking her in a brutal embrace.

“I was afraid if I pushed on myself too hard I’d break my body, but you did it so easily.”

At the moment she improvised those steps, Madiha felt no regard for her own safety. It wasn’t a technique she had honed, it was spur of the moment. Everything in this battle felt like a spur of the moment idea, a figment brought to life by two inhuman minds pitted like dogs inside a cage. Only new brutality and new evil could come of their fight.

She would have to think fast once more, because Aatto was innovating too.

Aatto took a deep breath and suddenly squeezed. Madiha felt the air going out of her lungs, and though she tried to push back, Aatto was using all her power to keep her grappled. But she saw an opportunity. Arms forced to her sides, Madiha turned her wrist and stabbed Aatto in her rib. She could only muster short thrusts but she pushed on each.

Her own wrists screamed in pain, but she could feel the knife digging into Aatto each time as if it had been swung with the full force of the arm. Blood and ice splashed out.

Despite this Aatto stood undaunted. She grinned, and she laughed.

“You ever wrestle before? Up north we love it.”

She enjoyed it; Aatto liked hurting people. Aatto thrived on power.

Or she was an idiot who talked too much.

Madiha pushed again — on herself.

She thrust her head forward and butted foreheads with Aatto.

Blood from the woman’s forehead spilled over Madiha’s nose and mouth.

For a moment they were frozen, a brutal sculpture to this messy, primeval battle.

Forehead-to-forehead, blood to blood.

Madiha could feel the chaos in Aatto’s head, as if a storm brewing from the wound.

She was angry, angrier than she had ever been. She was sad and hurt and furious.

“You think you’re better than me. You think you got me this easy. I hate it. I hate it!”

Aatto started screaming. She was emotionally unstable; she was losing control.

She squeezed tighter, and forced a gasp out of Madiha. She was choking her now.

“You think you’re better than me! I feel it! You think I’m trash! AND I HATE IT!”

Aatto pressed Madiha tighter against her chest, set her legs, and pushed.

Madiha could feel the strength of the psychic thrust as Aatto launched upward.

Mid-air, Aatto swung the other way and made suddenly for the ground.

Her mind started to fog; Madiha desperately pushed on her other wrist and broke it.

She twisted the hand holding the pistol, and twisted the finger on the trigger.

She twisted the pistol toward Aatto’s chest, between them.

“Use your inside voice–!”

Madiha forced the words out before unloading a magazine into Aatto.

She saw shards of ice go flying from Aatto’s back in six different places.

Bullet penetration; that armor had shattered.

Blood splashed from her belly and chest, and her grip slackened dramatically.

Madiha pushed away from her and from the ground.

For an instant Conqueror’s Way shook, just enough to perceivably disturb the skin.

Aatto and Madiha hit ground. The two landed meters apart and on their backs.

Recognizing from the terrible pain what she had done to her hand, Madiha screamed.

She grit her teeth, and with her remaining, functional hand she pushed herself up.

Over her shoulder, she saw Aatto slowly forcing herself up on violently shaking knees.

She turned around to meet her, and watched as the ice around her wounds melted.

Her armor turned to water, and turned to blood. It started to seep into her wounds.

Madiha winced from the pain in her wrist. “How many lives do dogs have?”

She was no good at taunting, but she knew now that Aatto had no self-control.

That was an advantage, even if it didn’t look like it right then.

“Shut your fucking mouth, you stuck-up little princess!”

Princess? Had she read Madiha’s anxiety? Had Madiha left herself that open?

Or was it just low-key misogyny?

Without warning Aatto peeled a chunk of ice as if out from the air itself and launched it.

It was needle-thin and ultra-sharp, a wedge shaped knife spinning through the air.

Madiha ducked under it, and realized the cloud around them was a mortal trap to be in.

There was a reason Aatto made this cloud, and it was not just for cover.

Aatto controlled water. She controlled moisture, she controlled the droplets in the air.

Whatever merciful old gods prevented Aatto from simply peeling all of the blood out of Madiha’s body with her E.S.P. were not as keen to keep her from wielding all the rest of the water around them. And there was a lot. In their every breath, in the air itself, in the river that rushed below and around them. There was a lot of water. It belonged to Aatto.

All this time Madiha was matching E.S.P., but she had to recognize her core competency.

Aatto was water and Madiha was fire. However much she feared the flame that was her legacy from the conquerors and emperors old and maybe new, she had to wield it now. Though she hated that flame that linked her to the Empire she destroyed, if Madiha did not stop Aatto now, there would be nothing keeping her from the walls of Solstice. From her people; from the nation she gave everything up to found; and from Parinita.

There seemed to be no other way. She had to burn Aatto to death.

But fire was not so easily brought to bear. Madiha couldn’t just take fire out of the air.

She realized that she could take something else.

“Even during a tantrum, you like your clouds a consistent, moist 2 degrees or so.”

Madiha, having seen the cloud, knew how to influence it almost on instinct.

Or maybe she knew because Aatto knew.

She raised her hand in front of herself and snapped her fingers together, producing a flame on her thumb as if from the end of a match. She did not push on this flame the way she did to objects and even to herself, but she caressed it, nurtured it, fed it, spread it. An aura of fire grew from the match on her thumb to cover the immediate area.

Aatto stared in stunned disbelief as the cloud around her started to heat up and dry out.

Beads of sweat drew from Aatto’s forehead, and became little wisps of vapor.

“I prefer a nice 50 degrees.” Madiha said. “Are you melting? Should’ve stayed up north.”

Around them the thick, fluffy blue cloud was turning almost to sand, dry, dark, choked.

Even Madiha was straining to breathe in the heat. Aatto, however, was despondent.

She grabbed at her throat, coughing, sweating, covered in vapors. Her knees buckled, her tongue lolled, hanging dry from her mouth. Her eyes started to tear up, but the tears were evaporating even as she wept them. It was a horrifying sight.

“No, no, no, no, no–”

Aatto grit her teeth.

“No! Stop it!”

She stamped her feet into the earth, and her eyes flashed blue, and the vapors chilled.

Madiha felt an lightning-fast instant of cold and reflexively resisted.

Her nose bled; she felt a sharp pain as if a knife had excavated a vein in her brain.

Her hand shook, and the fire spreading from it started to twist and hiss and sputter.

Within moments, the blue spreading from Aatto overtook the dark heat in the cloud.

Madiha’s influence was snuffed out, and she staggered back, holding her head.

Her eyes were bleeding, and her nose was too, and her vision was foggy.

She should have realized it. She was not strong enough. Not like when she was a kid.

She was spent; she had been debilitated by the deeds she performed in her youth.

Aatto had never been challenged, not like Madiha had been. She was still at her peak.

Madiha’s legs quivered, and she dropped to one knee, unable to stand.

Gasping for breath, and laughing cruelly between each gasp, Aatto stumbled closer to Madiha, as the cold started to mount and the latter’s body to shake both with the pain she had caused herself and the unbearable environment around her. She had been able to suppress it when her special fire was at its peak, but weakened and vulnerable as she was, Madiha was just a little girl of the southern continent facing down a raging blizzard.

Aatto’s sweat started to freeze up, and she collected it into a jagged chunk.

She put the weapon to Madiha’s temple, staring down at her with malice.

“I came here for the idiot who is too loud and the useless hunk of metal; but you’ve convinced me that while I’m here I might as well take your walls and your life too.”

She raised the icy pick into the air to bring it down on the helpless Madiha’s head.

Madiha did not blink or flinch, she couldn’t have even if she wanted to.

She saw Aatto thrust down and in a blink, saw her thrust away on a sudden gale force.

Aatto stood her ground as much as she could, but she was forced a step back by the gust.

“What the hell–?”

Madiha found her vision blocked by the appearance of a new figure.

Standing guard, with her hands open in front of her in a defensive stance, was a young Yu woman, dressed in an eastern style. She glanced over her shoulder at Madiha, her characteristic eyes soft and almost admiring, and smiled at her.  She looked untouched by the carnage around her, even as she had so suddenly moved. Her brown hair was done up with a pair of picks, and from the back, the ends flared up like a bird’s tail. It was immaculate. Her skin bore not one bead of sweat nor the touch of Aatto’s frost.

Her green eyes glowed softly yellow and she gave off an aura like a slight breeze.

“General, I am humbled to stand between you and the enemy.” Yanyu Zhuge said.


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BERSERKER (71.2)

This scene contains graphic violence and death, and brief homophobia.


To the outside world it seemed Loupland was covered in a perpetual snow.

In the spring, however, Loupland thawed just like the world beyond the arctic sea.

Green grasses peered from under their blanket of snow. Flowers, covered in cold dew, rose from the earth, seeking the returning sun. It was the eye in the storm that seemed to consume the little country. A respite from the blizzards. In days gone by, the folk would have come out to till the fields and hold markets and dance under the festival wreaths.

Times changed, but at least the children still laughed and played.

That spring, a little girl from the village decided to go climb the mountain. She did not climb far, but she climbed far for a child. For a child, she felt she had climbed the entire mountain, in her kirtle and smock, getting dirty, laughing aloud and alone. She climbed over big boulders and ran up little hills and after an hour or two she could look back and see the village below her like a little brown square etched on the green and white earth.

On that day and atop that climb, the little girl met a demon on the mountain.

She was scared at first, to see the creature bundled up in a cloak, huffing and puffing and making noises to scare her away. But her curiosity led her to draw nearer to the monster and to stare into its eyes, and she laughed and called it a little imp and ruffled its cloak.

“I’m not an imp.” said the creature dejectedly.

“Can I stay here and play?” asked the village girl.

“Whatever. Don’t tell anyone about me.” replied the imp.

She returned the next day, and found the imp again and brought some food.

She found the imp not wanting for food, its lair strewn with frozen bones.

She returned the next day and brought the imp toys since it was clearly a child.

She found the imp to be a girl by her choice of a doll, which she clung to tightly.

She returned the next day and brought the imp a kirtle and a little smock.

“I don’t wanna dress up.” said the imp dejectedly.

“Will you dress up for me?” asked the village girl.

“No!”

And the imp dressed in the kirtle and smock, but kept her cloak wrapped around herself.

“I’ll come back with more tomorrow!”

“You really do not have to.”

She returned the next day having brought a blanket, stitched up into a cloak.

“Will you wear this for me?” asked the village girl.

“Ugh.”

She helped the imp into her new cloak.

She found the imp had a furry little tail, and she wagged her own furry little tail.

Day after day, the village girl awakened early, ate her porridge and drank her milk quickly, and ran off laughing and smiling to the mountain to play with her newfound friend. She showed her friend many things from the village, fruits and toys and sweets. The imp barely played, choosing mostly to watch, but it was enough that she remained. She followed the village girl wherever the village girl wanted, and they explored the caves and crevices of the mountain, and climbed higher and lower, and had fun.

One day the imp stopped the village girl and spoke to her in a new voice.

“Want to see something strange?”

“Yes! Show me!”

Eager to learn anything at all about her new friend, the village girl followed the imp to a spring formed out of thawing ice, where the imp reached down into the water, and took from it a big fistful of frost. As her hand rose from the water, the spring froze where the fist had entered, the little waves and ripples on its surface etched hard in the ice.

She really was a demon! A demon that could do witchcraft! It was amazing!

Never had the village girl been this excited.

“Promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”

“I promise!”

“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”

“I won’t! I never have!”

And so the village girl returned home, and every day she would leave for the mountains to play again, and she enjoyed many moons of the thaw season in this fashion. But the thaw season was too short for the village and too short for the girl. Soon the snows began to blow over Loupland once more, and the thaw season, and its thaw jobs began to wane.

Despite this the village girl was resolved. Whenever she had no lessons or finished them early, she would put on her coat, put on warm leggings and thick boots, and she would go out, though the mountain was treacherous and slippery. Though she even took a few bumps, the village girl was very brave and made it to the Imp’s hideout without fail.

“Stop coming here.” Said the imp.

“No! Lets play.”

Reluctant as always the little imp would play with the village girl.

“Soon we’ll be separated by the ice. Or something else.” said the imp.

“No! Lets play.” replied the village girl.

She made a great effort to meet her friend whenever she could.

However, the village around her was changing. With the coming of the snow, there were more people walking the street with nothing to do, crowding the shops and bars, being loud. There was a lot of tension in the air, and it felt dangerous to go outside, but the village girl kept going, heedless of anyone’s caution. Her routine went unchanged.

One day, however, without her noticing, three men followed her right to the mountain.

They had bottles in their hands, and strange expressions on their faces.

“Every bloody day you leave the village, and come here, for what? Ain’t nothin’ here.”

“Little girls shouldn’t be running around making a racket when the village is struggling.”

“You’re too carefree! It pisses everybody off. What’s up here that’s so special?”

They reminded the village girl of her own father; drunk, jobless, shouting every word.

She felt very nervous, and could not answer their questions, and it made them irate.

“Didn’t your mother teach you respect? Huh? You think you can look down on us?”

One of the men shoved the girl down at the maw of the imp’s cave, and she cried.

In the next instant, the imp stepped out from the shadowed rocks.

She gazed coldly at the men and they gazed quizzically back at her.

“Who’s this? Why she hiding out here? Who’s daughter is she?”

“I’m nobody’s daughter. Go away.”

Confused, the drunks commiserated while the imp stared all of them down.

“Huh? What’s with that tone, you brat? You think you can talk to us like that?”

All three men had emptied their bottles and held them like clubs.

Across from them the imp stood unfazed.

Her tail stretched straight behind her, and her ears were raised in alert.

Meanwhile the village girl tried to calm everybody down.

“She’s not bad! She plays with me! She’s just living out here. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You shut up, you brat. You wanna get hit again?”

One of the men raised an arm to strike the village girl with cruel ease.

In mid-air, the arm stopped moving.

The Imp’s eyes turned icy blue.

“What is–”

Suddenly the man started to scream.

His raised arm started to shake, and his whole body contorted in pain. Dark black veins threaded visibly through her skin, becoming harder and sharper as if the blood inside them was thickening, hardening, stretching. Everyone present watched in horror as the man’s arm started to peel away along lines of the sinews like a blossoming flower of skin and gore, and the stem, blood frozen sharp right under his skin, glowing, and glowing!

The captive man was in such pain and terror that he could not scream anymore. He slobbered and twitched and hung as if his arm was dangling from an invisible shackle, suspended by some unknown force like a sack of meat, the blood in his veins freezing.

“Aatto no!” shouted Petra, little village girl Petra who only wanted everyone to get along.

“It’s a witch! It’s a witch! Kill her! Kill her!”

In an insane frenzy the remaining two men charged past their dying ally, bottles in hand.

“I’m sorry Petra, but you can’t hear what is in their disgusting heads like I can.”

Aatto, Petra’s friend, the mystical little imp of the mountain, raised her hand and without expression, pushed on the men and sent them flying off the mountainside, their bodies twisting and smashing and clinging to the snow and rock, collecting into balls of slush and blood. Blood drew from her nose and from her eyes, her glowing, icy-blue eyes.

Petra saw it, the blue steam that emanated from Aatto whenever she committed this sin.

She rushed to her friend and hugged her around the waist, weeping openly into her.

“Why are you crying?” Aatto shouted angrily. “They were going to hurt you!”

“I’m not crying for them.” Petra said, sobbing and screaming. “I’m crying for you!”

At Petra’s touch, the steam started to calm, and Aatto started to shake. She wept a little.

“Shut up, Petra. I did a good thing for once. I did a good thing.” Aatto muttered.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

“Aatto! Open up!”

Atop a wooden staircase, Petra banged on the door of the camp’s command center module, a small air-conditioned mobile home set on the bed of a tank transporter. She saw beads of water dancing on the shuttered windows, and could feel air coming from under the door, so she knew Aatto was inside. She banged on the door twice, but there was no response. Behind her, General Von Fennec tapped his feet on the step impatiently.

“Why did she lock herself in here? I’ll have you both know this is my command center!”

Petra sheepishly turned to the General with her hands clapped together as if in prayer.

“Ah, well, Aatto really doesn’t like the heat, anything above 20 celsius is bad for her see–”

“Get that door open this instant, and that punk out in the desert fighting! Now!”

“Yes sir!”

Petra twisted sharply back around to face the door and started to twist the handle.

She brought a foot up to the door and kicked it, doing little to move it.

Though she had basic combat training, Petra Hamalainen Happydays was not a fighter, but a support officer. Specifically, a radio operator, as well as deputy to Lieutenant Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather. She was, compared to the tall and fit Lt. Stormyweather, smaller, plumper, and far less capable of battering down a door. She stopped for a moment to tie her golden hair up into a ponytail, her tail swishing to and fro with excitement.

This pause to gather herself before her next attack prompted Von Fennec to scoff.

“Good god you’re all so useless. Out of my way!”

Von Fennec pushed Petra aside, and put his shoulder up to the door.

In the next instant, the General charged the door, and the door suddenly opened.

Von Fennec tumbled into the room, smashing into the carpet.

Petra stood at the doorway, her hands raised in alarm.

“Petra,” someone mumbled in an aggrieved-sounding tone.

Inside the command center, behind Von Fennec’s desk, was Aatto herself, seated sloppily on a rotating chair with her arms dangling, her head thrown back. Her black uniform jacket and shirt were both unbuttoned down to the belly, bearing glistening brown skin and a hint of muscle — and well over a hint of her breasts, her brassiere’s central clip snapped apart so as to almost fully bare them also. Her hair was down, long and black. She was sweating like, well, a dog; all of her body was profusely moist, and her icy blue eyes looked like they would roll back into her head. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

“Petra, I’m dying.” Aatto said. “Petra it’s 44 degrees. I am going to die here.”

Sighing, Petra wiped sweat from her own brow and maneuvered around the fallen Von Fennec as carefully as she could. She rushed to Aatto’s side and immediately fastened her brassiere back and started to unbutton her shirt and jacket, trying to save her dignity.

“Aatto you’re an officer now! And in an army of men! You can’t behave this way!”

“Petra, I’m absolutely going to die. I am melting.” Aatto mumbled.

She fixed Petra with a pathetic look. She had absolutely beautiful eyes, even then.

Petra tried not to stare too deep into them as she fixed the Lieutenant back up.

“Aatto, you slob! You barbarian!”

Petra sighed again, and behind her, Von Fennec helped himself up from the ground.

“You have a mission, you witch! You monster! Go out there this instant.”

“Petra, I’m so hot.” Aatto said, ignoring Von Fennec.

Von Fennec grit his teeth, while on the chair Aatto swooned and slumped.

“Aatto!”

Petra raised a hand to Aatto’s brow and found her blazing hot.

She couldn’t spot any of the blue steam, the sign that Aatto had overdone it with her ESP.

So it was not a supernatural malady — that fact scared Petra even more.

She could, somehow, heal Aatto’s self-inflicted psychic wounds. But she couldn’t heal this.

“She’s burning up, General!” Petra said.

Von Fennec stood, silent, stupefied.

“If I lose her, and the Vishap, and Von Drachen. My career– no, I’ll be over! I’ll be killed!”

He rushed to the desk and started shaking Aatto.

Petra grabbed hold of him and shoved him back.

“This isn’t helping, General!”

“Do something Petra! Do something for God’s sake!”

“I regret so much. I’ll never get to marry Petra.” Aatto said.

Von Fennec blinked and stopped struggling. Petra covered her mouth, scandalized.

“WHAT?” She then shouted.

“We’ll never get to raise a litter of pups–”

“EXCUSE ME?” Petra shouted again.

Von Fennec took a step back from the chair and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

He then suddenly kicked the chair, knocking it from under Aatto.

“Lieutenant Stormyweather, I order you to assault Conqueror’s Way this instant! Your sexual deviancy will be overlooked if you succeed!” General Von Fennec shouted.

On the floor, Aatto started laughing uproariously, and the room suddenly cooled.

It was as if all the heat of the desert had been extinguished with a thought.

“Will do, General Von Fennec! Just give me some water and a target.” Aatto said.

“There’s an entire goddamn river where you’re going! Move! Both of you!”

Petra, mortified, red in the face, and far more tantalized by these sapphic ideas than any good girl of Loupland should be, stormed off with her hands balled into fists, stomping.

Aatto raised herself off the ground, and looked out the door with distress.

“Wait, Petra! I wasn’t kidding! Let’s get married!”

She ran out the door herself, Von Fennec staring at her back with gritted teeth.

Like Petra, he too knew the weapon that lurked inside that oafish bush-tailed girl.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.3)

This scene contains violence and death.


Ayvarta, Solstice — East Wall Defensive Line

“Ah! What cruel god to have created the waters! I despise them!”

Though he had learned to swim, Von Drachen was still far from the most proficient swimmer, and all of his men were already up and fighting by the time he extracted himself from the water, breathing heavily and struggling to stand. He was pulled up to the barrier by a soldier in a black wetsuit, and found many more of his soldiers fighting already. They had the good fortune to have hit ground near a portion of the bridge where a tower had fallen over, providing good rubble for cover. His men pulled submachine guns free from waterproof bags and enfiladed the Ayvartan portions near the gate.

All manner of red tracers went flying over his head as he got settled.

There was a blazing exchange of gunfire happening as Von Drachen entered the scene. Across the bridge from him there were a dozen Ayvartans around a the remains of a collapsed, bullet-riddled tent, shooting back with a machine gun and rifles. This was likely their command post. Their cover was sparse, however, while his own men had the strong, chest-high concrete barriers. There were Ayvartans scattered all about, fighting ineffectively from any isolated rubble. He had successfully flanked the lot of them.

And this close to the gate, the wall gunners could not adequately target him.

Water was vile, but swimming was a powerful ability.

His own men fought with discipline. They engaged in groups of three submachine gunners, peeking up from the barriers, shooting at targets of opportunity, and then hiding from return fire while three more men attacked from farther up or further down the barrier. Though their position was confined to the left side of the bridge, they had many men and various angles from which they could shoot. While half his men engaged he ordered the remainder to crawl down the bridge and climb the rubble to flank.

Meanwhile, Von Drachen produced his own bag, and pulled his uniform from it.

“Keep fighting,” he said, “our lively friend is on its way.”

Von Drachen buttoned up his coat and put on his shoes in time to watch the Vishap come barreling through the second gate. He smiled, and he clapped for it, standing up to greet it alongside three of his men, dutifully firing on the Ayvartan position and suppressing it while he showed his support. To be the first man inside Solstice; what an honor–

In the next instant, the smile on Von Drachen’s face twitched as the Vishap exploded.

Already worse for wear, the Vishap was blown forward by an unseen blast and propelled across the bridge. Sliding on a streak of flame, throwing up rubble and churning up the bridge floor, the crippled superweapon came to rest, wheels spinning helplessly, its gun staring into space, almost off the edge of the Conqueror’s Way, with no line to the gate.

Von Drachen clapped his hands one final time and crouched with his back to the barrier.

“Hmm. Plan B.”

He waved over one of his men who was crouched with him.

He had a large waterproof pack with an X marking on it.

“Alvarez, we’re deploying the C-10 on the gate.” Von Drachen said.

Alvarez looked as if he was surprised to be addressed by name.

Von Drachen, puzzled by the reaction, tried to explain his orders once more.

He did not count on a far louder sound than his voice rising suddenly nearby.

A shell sailed over the collecting heads of Von Drachen’s platoon and struck the wall.

Rock and shrapnel exploded out from the impact and rained down on the bridge.

Von Drachen covered his head.

“Looks like our so-called superweapon is still alive!” Von Drachen shouted.

He peered over the barrier, briefly glancing over to Alvarez to find him dead, his forehead crushed by a stone come flying from the wall. He frowned at the sight.

Seizing Alvarez’s explosive pack, he pushed the corpse into the river.

“Water burials are honored in some countries.” He told the rest of his men.

Many of them stared at him.

“Look at the road! Our injured friend has company, you know!”

Von Drachen pointed to the Ayvartan side of the bridge.

Against the wishes of a shouting officer, it seemed, several men and women desperate to see the Vishap stopped once and for all ran out of cover with grenades in their hands.

This breach of discipline was most opportune. Von Drachen ordered covering fire.

His men rose as one from behind the concrete barrier and opened fire.

An overwhelming amount of submachine gun bullets crossed the bridge from their side.

Not one of the Ayvartan runners made it to the Vishap’s corpse.

Not one Ayvartan gun responded to the salvo. His men fired continuously on them.

Von Drachen took the opportunity and jumped the barrier with the C-10 in hand.

He ran as fast as his feet could carry him, crossing the no-man’s land, ducking fire.

He was within breathing distance of the gate, the closest any enemy had gotten to–

Just as he raised his head to behold the great wall and its gate, he saw a muzzle flash.

Overhead, one of the wall guns fired on the Vishap at an oddly direct angle.

Von Drachen watched as the shell flew downward from the wall and struck the Vishap.

There was a colossal explosion.

Such a blast could only have been generated by a 152mm gun or higher, but, he had seen all the aerial photographs, and he read the plans their collaborators in the Republic had given them, and various other sources. He knew all the guns on this wall were 76mm caliber at the largest, with the bigger guns used as indirect artillery behind the wall.

He looked briefly up again, and he thought he saw her.

He saw her red eyes, staring down at him in disdain.

Von Drachen dropped the C-10 pack, and made for his own side of the bridge.

He reached for his hand radio, carefully preserved in a waterproof bag.

“Von Fennec, it is likely I will be captured now. My new plan is to escape Armaments Hill somehow and attempt to undergo a guerrilla or sabotage campaign inside the city, and–”

His clearly stressed voice was met with dismissal from the other side.

“One moment,” said a woman’s voice.

In the next instant, Von Fennec took to the airwaves himself, scoffing.

“Von Drachen you’re not going anywhere! We’re protocol thirteen, and I need you there to keep things controlled. She’s coming to get you and the Vishap! You’d better live!”

Von Drachen looked out into the desert, sighing. “I’d rather be captured.”


On the bridge below them, the Vishap came to a halt, its legs chopped out from under it.

“You did it, Kajari. I hope you survived it.”

“I’m sure she did, Madiha.”

“I’ve got to make good on it now, Parinita. Let’s go.”

Atop the wall, Madiha watched with anticipation as Agni and a pair of engineers slid the gun barrel into the completed mechanism of the 152mm howitzer and fastened the recoil buffers tight, finishing the assembly of the gun. It was unmounted, merely sitting on the floor of the rampart without its carriage parts or gun shield, and its optical and ranging equipment lay on the floor as well. There were various other unused parts around.

There were also five shell crates containing pieces of the gun’s two-part ammunition.

“I completed my miracle.” Agni said. “It normally takes eight people an hour, you know.”

“With all due respect General, that gun will fall apart after a shot or two, and in its current state, its too unstable to be accurate anyway,” one engineer remarked.

“She knows. I explained all of this.” Agni said, in her toneless, matter-of-fact voice.

“Yes Sergeant! I am just sincerely hoping this gun needn’t be used.” He replied.

Madiha smiled. “You’re dismissed, corporal. See if you can help with the gate.”

She waved away the two men helping Agni and waited for them to be gone.

“Parinita, hold me from behind, okay?” Madiha said.

Parinita dropped her radio headset on the floor and stood behind Madiha.

“Agni, you load and fire, on my signal.”

Raising one curious eyebrow but otherwise inexpressive, Sergeant Agni nodded.

Madiha took in a deep breath, and focused on the howitzer on the floor.

Her eyes went red and her head felt hot as she pushed gently on the howitzer.

It vibrated gently and began to rise off the floor.

It was the heaviest thing Madiha had ever moved, she thought. She could feel her body tense up, and her brain, also, tensing like a muscle at the limit of its endurance. Her hands shook and she grit her teeth. She was out of practice for this sort of thing, but the howitzer was moving, sliding gently across the ground over to the rampart. Her shaking arms and legs steadied a little, and she lifted the howitzer off the ground a few meters.

Her head felt like it would explode, so hot and tight was the sensation.

“I’ve got you, Madiha. You can do this.”

Parinita embraced her from behind, one hand around the waist, and the other perhaps a little too close to Madiha’s breasts than appropriate, but Madiha didn’t mind then. Having the touch of a healer, Parinita could cool off the burning sensation Madiha felt when she pushed too much or invoked the fire inside her. She could feel Parinita shaking behind her, however. There was a slowly building pain, pinpricks of it, in her brain.

“Madiha, I’m having to go through a bit of effort myself.” Parinita said.

She felt her lover’s grip tighten, and her chest press against Madiha’s back.

This was such an effort that Parinita was being taxed trying to keep it controlled.

But Madiha had the gun over the rampart, and she was pointing it down.

“Now, Agni!”

Agni, staring silently at the spectacle, blinked her eyes rapidly.

“Yes ma’am.”

She quickly picked up the heavy projectile portion of the shell, unlocked the breech, and shoved the object inside. Behind it came the brass-colored propellant casing, a long, thin tube. Once both pieces of the shell were inside the gun, Agni locked the breach tightly.

“I’m firing, ma’am! Get ready!”

Madiha took a deep breath, and Parinita tightened her grip.

Agni pulled the firing pin.

For Madiha it was like trying to hold back an earthquake. She felt the force of the gun diffuse into the air and it was as if she was holding the piece not with her mind but with spectral arms that could be shaken, and that were shaking, and it took all her strength to keep the gun from wobbling as it fired. A bright muzzle flash followed the ejection of the shell, and the recuperator simply couldn’t handle it, and the gun started to come apart.

All eyes turned to the bridge, where the shell sailed into the front of the Vishap.

The explosion that followed consumed the front of the Vishap in smoke, and nearly knocked the hulk fully off the bridge. It just barely managed to hang on to the stone.

When the smoke cleared the damage was immense. All of the concrete and armor in an area the size of a watermelon had collapsed inside and left a smoking pit amid the face of the Vishap. A quarter of the gun mantlet was blasted off and the rest came unseated, and the gun hung half-out of the orifice, almost like an eye plucked from its socket.

That was the end of the Vishap. Madiha let go of the howitzer.

Agni took a step back as the gun came crashing down onto the rampart, spilling apart.

One recoil buffer went flying, the recuperator was crushed, and barrel twisted off.

But it had served its purpose. This ramshackle gun had finally put an end to the Vishap.

Madiha looked down at it from the ramparts.

“Tell the Svechthan mountain troops and the snipers that they’re clear to rappel down.”

Parinita nodded her head and let go of Madiha slowly. She was breathing heavily from her exertions, but smiling and triumphant. Even Sergeant Agni looked relieved after her own efforts. There were enemies invading the bridge, but with the Vishap gone the existential threat to the gate was gone with it, and they could rally once more. Even as they spoke, Madiha could see her troops rallying once more and the frogmen and their officer on the bridge beginning to retreat back closer to the water they came from.

“Tell HQ that the eastern sector is tentatively clear–”

Madiha felt an eerie, sudden chill that prompted her to quiet suddenly.

It was as if there was a sound, distant, just on the edge of her ability to hear it.

Her pupils dilated, and red rings began to burn around her irises.

She looked down at the bridge again, gritting her teeth, her hands smoking.

“Madiha?” Parinita asked. “What’s wrong? You’re burning up!”

Parinita rushed to her side, and applied her healing touch.

Madiha felt her eyes sting so badly she started to tear up.

“Something’s coming.” Madiha said, words drawn from some ancient, prophetic sense.


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The Battle of Conqueror’s Way (70.1)

48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, City of Solstice — North Solstice

Deep in the heart of Solstice, under the shadow of Armaments Hill, the ground began to tremble violently. Several blocks out from the headquarters of the Golden Army the shocks and the stirring of Solstice’s three great biting heads could be felt in the floor and the walls. At the Varnavat Artillery Base, there was nothing but blacktop and three massive structures. Stone turntables each the size of a city block, arranged in a triangle around a central control tower, began to turn three massive 800mm cannons.

All three cannons, each 20 meters long, lay on enormous steel bases. Recoil tubes larger than two adult men standing atop each other and thicker than a sand worm were installed atop the barrel to carefully reset the weapon as it slid across a mount some 15 meters long, criss-crossed by the skeletal components of its wheel-driven elevation mechanism. Each gun had a crew of 250 men and women assigned to it for setup, maintenance and repair, along with an elite 15-troop gunnery crew. These hundreds of people crowded the spinning terrain of each turntable, tightening screws, lubricating parts, working the cranes that raised 4-ton explosive shells up to the massive breeches.

Before the Solstice War, the Prajna had not been fired in anger since the revolution.

Now it felt almost routine. At the Sivira HQ not too far away, at Armaments Hill just a stone’s throw from Varnavat, in the surrounding streets, and even in the control tower a hair’s breadth from the epicenter, there was no stress. Civilians passed by the base on their way to work or shop in the North Solstice City District; at the military installations men and women walked the halls with their feet gently quaking, and with the earth’s palpitations winding their way through their guts and lungs, and they bore it quietly.

Every one of the three 800mm Prajna Super-Heavy Howitzers turned its barrel South.

Lieutenant Adesh Gurunath of the 5th Guards Mechanized Artilery Brigade watched the massive guns moving, settling, and the teeming mass of humanity that crewed them, with a mixture of awe, pride, and a lingering, uncomfortable sense of mortality, fear, despair. He was dressed in the formal uniform, coat, button-down, skirt, leggings; his shoulder-length hair wrapped in a bun, his glasses dripping with sweat from his brow, his entire face, ordinarily pleasant, soft and effete, contorted with anxious disbelief.

At his side, his previous superior, now-Major Rahani, outdid him in military elegance with the addition of a bright rose in his hair and a touch of makeup around his eyes and on his lips. Smiling, with a hand on his hip, he patted Adesh gently in the shoulder. His own skirt was just a little bit shorter than Adesh’s, who wore a more conservative woman’s uniform. Both of them had dressed up their best for the facility tour.

“I knew you’d love to see it. My husband is an engineer here, you know.” He said.

He pointed toward the third gun with a winking eye. Adesh made no expression.

He had wondered so many times before: why me? His life had been spared in battle so many times; he had felled so many foes with so little understanding of how or why; he had been promoted away from his friends for so long. Now Rahani had chosen him to bear witness to this. Rahani was going to become one of these powerful, elite gunners.

“Please don’t be nervous. I know on some level that these weapons scare you and you hate using them. I just wanted you to get the full picture of what they can do, before you decide anything.” Rahani said. “I know you’ve been through so much, Adesh. You’re on the cusp of major turning points in your life. You can’t just go with the flow anymore.”

Major Rahani wrapped an arm around Adesh, and drew him close in a motherly way.

“You like guns, right? I think seeing this might help you understand some things.”

In front of them, the guns began to elevate, and then were set into their final arc.

“For the artillery, we are at a crossroads between movement and power. We’ve never had to think about this before, not the way we do now. This right here, is the power you could have by staying rooted where you are now. By stalwartly defending this place.”

Adesh raised his eyes to the barrels of the three Prajna as their breeches locked down.

Standing beside the control tower, he saw flag-wavers come running out of the building.

“You’re here, in Solstice now. You could stay here, like I have. Isn’t this magnificent?”

There was a great and mighty shock that sucked up all other sound.

From the barrel of the Prajna came a flash like a bolt of lightning, and copious black smoke belched out in the wake of a massive, red-hot shell that rushed to the horizon like a shooting star. Beneath Adesh’s feet the ground quaked, and he felt the onrushing force of the gun’s shot like a tidal wave, washing over him. Into his every bone, to the marrow; within his guts; even his eyes felt like they were shaking with its power. He wept openly.

In succession, the second and third guns fired their own projectiles, and Adesh nearly fell; had it not been for Rahani holding him close, perhaps both of them would have fallen. Gunnery and engineering personnel all around stood in the same shocked silence, picking themselves up from their own exposure to the god-like force of the gun firing.

Somewhere out there, something was going to catch those stars and die.

Adesh stood, speechless.

He wished so much that Eshe and Nnenia could be here with him.

He wished he knew where they were.

He wished things hadn’t resolved the way they did.

Rahani, at his side, smiled and waved off the rapidly disappearing shells.

He sighed deeply, and turned to Adesh again.

“We could defend this city’s walls until the end of the war, safe and sound. No more fighting, no more stress, helplessness, powerlessness. We would have 15,000 of the quickest guns in the world, and the three biggest guns in the world, at our disposal. We can do desk work, start families, make passionate love to our partners every night.”

Something small, insignificant almost, wandered in from the edge of Adesh’s vision.

There was a Chimera moving about, towing one of the Prajna’s massive shells.

Its gun was bound up with cloth. There was no need for it to shoot. It was just a tractor.

“But this is a new age also.” Rahani said. “You could follow this war to another border. You could follow General Nakar, the only person in this army speaking of Attacking.”

“I could leave the army.” Adesh said, sobbing.

“You won’t.” Rahani said. “I know because I said it once too. I see a lot of myself in you.”

Adesh hated how right Rahani was, despite how much he loved him that moment for it.

Rahani, with his gentle smile and pretty features, who had saved him so many times.

He was always there for him. Even now, when he had no responsibility toward him.

“You want to do what is right; but you also have to do what is right for you. All of our people are part of this war now. But you don’t need to sacrifice your life for it.”

Rahani pointed at the Prajna’s once more as if reintroducing them to Adesh.

“Please consider it before you return to Mechanized again, Adesh.”

It was a kind, wonderful gesture.

But Adesh knew what he would do.

It was so kind and so wonderful because it was so unnecessary, so ineffective.

He was the only one in that field, it seemed, who saw that Chimera trundling about.

Adesh knew he would unbundle that gun and leave everyone behind. On those tracks.

Rahani sighed a little bit. “My hubbie will be busy, so, lets grab a bite and catch up!”

He clapped his hands together happily. Adesh nodded his head.

“I would like that. You’re the only one of us I can visit anymore.” Adesh said.


Ayvarta, Solstice Desert — Conqueror’s Way Approach

Major General Von Fennec stood on the back seat of his utility truck and watched in a mixture of horror and exasperation as a shower of rocket fire wiped his and Von Drachen’s troops off the bridge to Conqueror’s Way. He had heard of the Ayvartan rocket troops and their howling ordnance, but seeing it with his own eyes was like watching meteors raining from the sky on his men. It was sudden, infernal, and vexing.

The disdainful hand of a fiery goddess, slapping his men like pieces off a game board.

Truly that Madiha Nakar had a knack for setting her own battlefields aflame.

Setting down his binoculars and turning away from the scene of half his men burning to death and the rest fleeing like cowards, the general tapped his foot against the rib of a girl below him on the back of the truck, crouched in clear discomfort beside a portable radio. She groaned upon being struck this way, and grumpily turned her blond head.

“Casualty estimates, right now.” He demanded.

Promptly but with a trembling in her voice, the young woman responded.

“Major Yavez is saying a hundred and thirty, at least. Battalion combat-ineffective.”

“What about the Vishap?”

“It appears unharmed sir.”

Von Fennec sighed with a deep relief. He dropped his binoculars on top of the girl.

“Acceptable. Tell those idiots to get back on the bridge ASAP. Combat ineffective my ass.”

The General left the girl, speechless and rubbing her head, and dropped off the truck and onto the sand. His all-terrain quarter-ton “Peep” truck was parked in the far edge of the battlespace, with a full view of the bridge but ample distance between himself and any guns. He had been watching the battle with a keen interest in the Vishap’s advance. He was an old warhorse of the days of carriage-drawn artillery, and rose through the ranks with the mortar and howitzer men of the last war. This Vishap was really something else.

He was excited to be entrusted with it. To him, it meant Lehner still believed in the old staff, that he was bringing the respected elder statesmen of the army into his future.

Unlike his compatriots, Von Fennec readily dispensed with tradition if it suited him.

Now even the artillery men could know the glory of the assault! They could finally take whole cities by themselves, and humiliate the enemy in the fashion of the infantry! No more was the artillery a lowly thing dragged behind the lines, or saddled with the thankless defense of worthless camps and fortresses. Now in this age of maneuver, the innocent artillery that fired unknowingly into the sky, could itself know blood and fire!

All he had to do was watch the Vishap as it crept toward the city, and await victory.

Now that was progress he could agree with.

Von Fennec walked back toward the tall dunes surrounding his camp.

“Sherry, I shall be in my command tent, tell those cowards to get back in line–”

Moments after he turned his back, as the firestorm died down on the bridge and the Vishap’s gate-smashing shells once more became the loudest presence on the field of battle, Von Fennec felt a trembling moving from the floor to his legs, up his bones.

He shuddered, and turned once more toward the city.

He saw trails of smoke stretching over the sky like black lances.

And the speartip was a trio of glowing-red shells like stars being shot into space.

From the back of the peep truck, Sherry stared at him with terror in her eyes.

“General, the Prajnas have been fired! We’ve got three shells, south-bound!”

Von Fennec sighed deeply with great relief.

“Not my problem then! We’re attacking from the east. Tell my men to keep fighting.”

Safe knowing he was not the target of those monstrous guns, Von Fennec once more turned his back on the truck and the city and ambled away, his gait irregular from horse-back injuries sustained long ago. He had a bottle of wine in a personal icebox on his command vehicle. He could see his HQ already, near the Vishap’s old container. A tank transporter with what resembled a little house on the bed instead of a vehicle.

Several minutes later and sopping wet with sweat, he put his fist to the HQ’s door.

Finally, time for a well-earned rest and maybe a bit of drunkenness.

Von Drachen was out there somewhere, he could do the commanding–

Von Fennec then heard the beeping of a horn, and turned to see the Peep rushing close.

Confused, he watched silently as it pulled sharply up in front of him.

Sherry was in a panic in the back. She was waving her arms with every word said.

Her glasses practically fell off, and her professional-looking hair bun was out of sorts.

“General!” She cried out, short of breath.

Von Fennec turned back around and reached for the door, hoping to ignore her.

“Corps is calling an immediate retreat out of Prajna range!”

Von Fennec stopped and abruptly turned sharply over his shoulder.

“They’ve sustained casualties as high as the divisional level. Our southern thrust is broken, we’re practically fighting alone, and we’re closest to the city.” Sherry said.

Von Fennec blinked.

To retreat would mean–

“We can’t abandon the Vishap! My career will be over!” Von Fennec said.

He turned his head sharply every which way, looking for that uppity mutt.

“Where is Aatto?! Get that bitch out here! We need to extract the Vishap immediately!”

Von Fennec was losing his sun-addled mind entirely.

Demure and white as a ghost, Sherry mumbled, “Sir, um, about that–”


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