2.4: Samaritan

The Vainasse Principle: First penned by elven researcher Antonio Vainasse, it is the idea that magic which reproduces a physical phenomenon does not ipso facto behave like that phenomenon. Magic can make fireballs that don’t “burn” the way that a real physical fire would “burn” an object. Magic does not necessarily obey the laws of physics which apply to “physical” phenomena, even when such phenomena are reproduced by magic. As such magic can be rated by its proximity or distance to physical realism, in gradual steps; but unreal magic is not necessarily weaker or less complicated than realistic magic. A completely accurate representation of a physical object or phenomena generated entirely by magic is said to be “Vainasse Perfect.”

In the modern era, many pieces of magic once thought to be Vainasse Perfect have been found by science to be missing something in physical law, and been discredited. No magic is currently believed to be Vainasse Perfect under serious scientific scrutiny.


Lyudmilla and the Samaritan bumped fists to seal their compact.

“I’m no ‘concerned citizen,’ but if it’s these guys, I’ll kick their asses pro bono.”

“Whatever your intention, a donation is a donation. I appreciate it.”

Lyudmilla did not quite know what she was getting herself into at the time.

She had stalked evil men in the night before and made sure they never got home.

She had seen, and done, so much more than she sometimes even comprehended.

Whenever she remembered it, it was all so selective, so out of control.

It was like her whole life had happened to her rather than under her direction.

A different place, different world; maybe even a different her. All she had were flashes.

There was no use thinking about it at such a level. She shook her head; it was actually simpler. If she didn’t want to walk away with a black eye, then she had to give one. That was easier than contracts and targets; that was easier than wars and soldiers. When you walked into a dark alley, sometimes you punched your way out, and that was it.

It was the fascists who had come out in this alley, and they would leave without teeth.

“Lets get moving.” The Samaritan said. “They have a bunch of guys all around here.”

“Are they communicating?” Lyudmilla asked. “Will they know about these losers?”

She pointed at the men dropped face-down around the fountain and hedge.

The Samaritan shook her head. “I don’t think they’re talking. We can’t be sure, but these guys aren’t very organized, or at least, they haven’t been in the past.”

“How are they not organized? They’ve got uniforms, patches; a flag!”

“In my experience, all they’re capable of is ganging up and terrorizing helpless people.”

She turned from Lyudmilla and started walking out of the fountain square.

Lyudmilla felt that maybe the Samaritan wasn’t getting the changes in the fascist modus operandi that seemed to be evident here, but she did not push it any further.

Ahead of them, the expanse of the park seemed to loom large and oppressive.

Though she had come here in the past, Lyudmilla had never had cause to examine Eisenbern park with any degree of detail. Hedges a little under two meters tall walled off the breadth of the park space, encircling the area save for a few entrances and exits, beyond which magic walls likely laid now. A winding white-tiled path flanked by flower beds, bright green grassy fields and great lumbering trees, connected statues, gazebos, benches, fountains and concrete podiums into one continuous space.

And yet, as far as Lyudmilla could see from her vantage, she also felt like she couldn’t possibly know what lay ahead. She could not see a soul walking in the park, despite her awareness that there were Iron Flag thugs patrolling it. When she tried to focus on the space ahead of her, there was something elusive about it in her vision, as if she was staring into a mirror that had gotten just fogged enough after a quick hot shower to distort the picture ever so slightly. Something was wrong; something was hidden.

“I don’t know what kind of spell they put in place.” Samaritan said. “But we should–“

“It was a labyrinth.” Lyudmilla said, cutting her off.

“Oh! You’ve done some homework!”

The Samaritan did not seem disturbed or put off by Lyudmilla’s interruption.

Behind her mask, Lyudmilla could tell she was smiling again.

She raised a finger and spoke in a matter-of-fact sort of voice.

“Large and complicated spells usually have focal points, like wi-fi extenders in a big house, that project the spell through the space. A maze spell like this usually has specific dimensions, like walls and rooms. In this case, a maze was superimposed on the park, so the walls are invisible. I’ve been running into a lot of walls, which is why I can’t progress. If we move carelessly, we’ll touch a ‘wall’ and end up back at this fountain. So we need to find the path that will take around the maze’s focal points.”

Lyudmilla simply nodded her head. She had no experience or learning in this arena.

“Well, you seem to know what you’re doing, so you lead.” She said, shrugging.

Behind her mask, the Samaritan was smiling cheek to cheek once again.

“I’ve done this before, you could say. Though not at quite this scale.”

“Yeah I’m sure you’ve had tons of adventures.” Lyudmilla shrugged.

“Plug these numbers into a browser page on your Homunculus while we walk.”

She handed Lyudmilla a piece of paper with what looked like an IP address.

Then she started forward, toward the white-tiled path.

Suddenly, the Samaritan vanished from Lyudmilla’s sight for a few seconds.

“God, it’s so granular. Everything is a wall except really narrow paths. Whoever put this here is, beyond being fascist, a fucking a-hole. We can’t just brute force our way here.”

She reappeared behind Lyudmilla, back at the fountain. One wrong step was all it took.

Nodding, Lyudmilla input the numbers into the homunculus’ built-in web browser.

A bare-bones page came up, basically a bulletin board style list of messages gathered up in a white text on black background four-celled table layout. Each line had the title of the thread in question, a username, and two timestamps for when it was created and responded to. There were only a few threads, each of them asking for some kind of help. Most of the requests were simple and harmless, but there was one thread at the top of the forum that caught Lyudmilla’s eye: “Girl chased to Eisenbern Park!”

A picture was attached, blurry, but clearly depicting a girl and several pursuers.

“Someone reported this?” Lyudmilla asked. “And you answered?”

“Yep, that’s how the Samaritan Network works!” said the Samaritan. “One of our posters saw a girl being attacked and made a thread. I responded to the call.”

“How many people know about you? There’s not a lot of posts on this board.”

Lyudmilla felt a bit silly asking the question; she herself had not known about them.

Again the Samaritan seemed to smile behind her mask. “We’re kinda indie.”

“And how many people are helping?”

“It’s never enough.”

There was a hint of helpless embarrassment in the Samaritan’s voice.

“Well, we better get moving. The victim’s probably running out of places to escape to.”

Lyudmilla turned around toward the park, and feeling bullheaded, she charged toward the white tiled road only to immediately find herself back at the fountain with the Samaritan again. There was no transition, no feeling in her body, and she retained all the momentum she had picked up running. It was as if a door had opened that just took her back to where she had been standing — seamless transportation.

“It’s no good to just keep running at it.” the Samaritan said.

“Ugh, I don’t care! I’ll just charge at it again and again until–“

“Wait a moment. I have an idea. Hopefully a big enough bang can still alert the patrols.”

“A big enough bang? Why would you hope for that?”

From her hoodie pocket, the Samaritan produced a gun.

Lyudmilla immediately saw it as the sort of gun that she knew. Sleek and black, concealable, deadly when pulled in one fluid motion right to the target’s skull and unloaded there– but it was not. It was rounded, bulky and orange and the barrel was covered in a nuclear yellow safety tape. It was a break-action flare handgun.

“What are you planning to do with that?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Draw attention to myself.”

With an impression of a smile under her mask, the Samaritan lifted her arm to aim the flare gun overhead and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp bang and a smoking canister soared skyward and exploded flashing and burning flare that slowly arced down from the black, cloudless sky overhead. Lyudmilla’s body was suddenly cast in bright red light, and her shadow became a thin strip of black directly behind her.

All of the park seemed to have been illuminated by the flare.

“To yourself? I’m here too!” Lyudmilla shouted.

Long shadows cast by the trees and the hedges seemed to stretch forever.

“Look, I know you’ve done this before, Hoodie, but is this a good idea–?”

The Samaritan did not hesitate; after shooting the flare she stowed the gun back in her coat, and put her hands down onto the soft earth near one of the hedges. She squeezed into the dirt, chanting something while her homunculus projected noise and light to fill in the gaps in her spell. Around her arms the ground glowed a dim green.

Stirred to life by her magic, the soil began to crawl up over her hands.

“Armor of Soil, may I never be disarmed!” She shouted.

When she pulled her arms back up, they were covered in compacted earth. Like a pair of big brown boxing gloves, but with a moist and uneven surface, the soil covered her fists. Now upright, she threw a couple of exploratory punches as if to test the weight.

The Samaritan then turned to face the path out to the interior of the park.

“Wait for it–“

In the next instant, the upper body and part of the leg of a young man appeared before the Samaritan and Lyudmilla, as if walking through a gelatineous membrane in the air, initially missing the rest of the body. Space rippled around him as if there was a flat plane of water right in front of the girls. He was moving through the labyrinth “wall.”

Before more of his body could come through, his face met the Samaritan’s fist.

A visor on his helmet crunched against his eyesockets and brows, and his nose spurted a great gout of blood. A tooth flew out. The Samaritan’s fist was barely dented. Her punch had flown out like a missile and struck like a wrecking ball. The fascist was on the floor with no further protest, his body half in and half out of the illusory plane that had been cast in front of them. The Samaritan stepped on him.

“Here’s our guide. Just walk over him to get past the first displacement. Hurry!”

“Ugh. Now who’s being bullheaded? Just shut up, I’m coming–“

“Someone’s in trouble and needs our help Lyudmilla! Come on, be a hero!”

With a clear cheer to her voice, the Samaritan called out while vanishing through the portal. Lyudmilla blinked, momentarily speechless. She withdrew her grimoire from inside her jacket and held it open with one hand. Sighing, she wondered for an instant what Minerva would do– but it was an easy conclusion. She followed the Samaritan.

“It’s not like I don’t want to be the big hero. Ugh. Here goes nothing.”

Lyudmilla stepped over the wheezing, blacked-out body of the fascist.

She saw her arm, held just slightly ahead of her body, sink into the air in front of her first. In one fluid motion the rest of her body followed, and there was barely any transition. It was just like walking through Minerva’s doorway and feeling the thrum of magic over her skin from the cleaning enchantment. There was no technicolor dreamscape as she traversed the portal; she was just in and out, appearing in another part of the park in less time than it took the brain to realize she had moved at all.

Now the fountain and the hedges were gone. She was standing in what seemed like the foot of a large stepped pyramid, with each tier consisting of flowerbeds flanked by paths and connected by steps up and down. At the top of the romantic pyramid was what remained of the peak of the hill that the park designers had built around, a mound of grass and earth that played host to a single, massive tree that shaded the entire upper half of the structure. It would have been the perfect place to take a particularly sappy girl to for a kiss among the roses and a tumble in the grass.

Now however it was occupied by a group of five or six boys in grey uniforms. They stood in bewilderment, looking every which way for intruders. There were implements in their hands that were meant to be weapons. Baseball bats, hockey sticks, golf putters; nothing as standard as the uniforms they were. To Lyudmilla, who still remembered the lectures of her old commanding officers, she realized a few things about the Iron Flag movement from seeing these guys, and what they had available.

Uniforms without weapons; maybe that also said something about their brains.

“Strong energy readings, overwhelming the vital readings, suggest that the tree detected ahead is part of the labyrinth’s displacement.” said Lyudmilla’s homunculus.

She had not expected it to speak as loud as it did.

Almost once, every one of the men turned around to look their way.

The Samaritan raised her fists in defense.

“After we kick these guy’s asses could you please mute that?”

Lyudmilla sighed and assumed a casting stance, holding out her grimoire while her other hand hovered over the pages, fingers ready to make spellcasting gestures.

“Hey, it’s useful, okay?” She grumbled. Nothing seemed to go her way tonight.

No one was waiting for their banter to resolve.

Without word the gang of boys rushed at them from the steps, heaving up their clubs, the bottom halves of their faces concealed by heavy chin-guards. Their eyes had a violent intensity, and Lyudmilla could see the anger and thrill reflect in their auras.

And yet their intent to kill, their willingness to withstand pain, all of that felt lacking.

As scared as she might have been of them, they were terrified of her.

Terrified of what they were being asked to do. She saw it in their wavering auras.

And so, all they could do was to make themselves monsters and charge furiously.

Running her fingers over the pages of her grimoire, Lyudmilla spread and closed them as if kneading something in mid-air. Sparks jumped off the paper where she scraped.

She had been in fights before. She had been in far scarier fights before. Lyudmilla had met people who wanted to kill her. She knew what that felt; she knew the aura of the kind of person who would end her life without her even being able to scream. There was a difference between people who could hurt her and people who would kill her.

In the back of her mind, she recalled that armored legionnaire, Ajax.

Was that the fear that stood behind these boys and pushed them to attack her?

Her hairs stood on end, and she felt a surge through her body; both adrenaline, and the electricity she was channeling through her arms, fingertips, and her grimoire. At first the sparks danced in flickering patterns that connected her fingertips to the paper like a trail of spittle after a deep kiss. Then the sparks trailed up her arm in the dozens.

Guys with sticks who weren’t even trying to do magic didn’t scare her.

And as the magic intensified, it was their fear of her that saturated the air.

“You take the left, hoodie, and I’ll–“

Before Lyudmilla finished the sentence the Samaritan had already ran in ahead.

Meeting the boys halfway down the steps, she threw the first punch and collided with one of their ribcages. Compacted mud and soil blew off her gauntlets in big chunks, and cracks formed in the remaining armor; the boy she had punched spread his mouth wide open as if to puke and slipped backwards onto his ass, clutching his chest and heaving with pain. Three boys descended on the Samaritan with their clubs.

A series of wild blows struck her armor as she held her hands before her in defense.

Two of the boys ran past her.

“Twintails, If you’ve got something up your sleeve–“

The Samaritan shouted, but Lyudmilla didn’t need to be told to use her magic.

She had been waiting for just this opportunity.

There were plenty of ways her imagination could have molded the lightning, but the sequence of men lined up before her was perfect for what she wanted to do.

“As Pherkan before me, I claim the furious sky in the name of man! Chain Lightning!”

She surprised herself with how effectively her invocation synthesized her lessons.

A spell that had once been cumbersome and exhausting to cast for her became far less effort, now that she had a better idea of how her spellcasting truly worked.

Calling on the great Rus arch-mage Pherkhan, and “associating” Lightning with Metal through the human race, who are most strongly associated to the metal they shape, and the metal she used, and wore.

Lyudmilla loosed a bolt of lightning that was like a coil of serpents dancing in mid-air.

From her outstretched, open palm it burst, as she lifted her hand from the pages of the grimoire. Her first bolt struck the closest of the men on the metal bat he carried. In an imperceptible the instant the screaming, writhing bolt burrowed through his stomach and then split. Her fell instantly to the ground, shaking, heaving with pain and shock, but bloodless. He had been penetrated without laceration, without trauma.

Chain Lightning moved through his body without impediment and split into a new bolt that then immediately bounced to the next man over. This bolt found the metal in the target’s armored knee-pads. It dug through his legs and caused them to crumple beneath him. He fell dramatically, face-first into the pavement as if dropped from the sky onto the ground. Chain Lightning raced up from his kneecaps through his chest, split anew and hurtled toward the next man in its sequence. It transpired in seconds.

Now it had jumped through both the men who had run past the Samaritan and leaped into the men she was attacking. Connected by the chain, the three of them were shocked one after the other within an eye’s blink from the last. As the bolt moved it lost strength, and while the first few men had experienced a jolt that shook their stomachs loose, the last two men to be stricken felt a far lesser impact. One staggered back, wrestling with his baseball bat as if his hands were attached to it, due to a residual magnetic cling imparted as the spell died. The second of the men cringed, shook his head, and wiped snot and blood that had spilled down his face, still standing.

“I missed some, Hoodie! You better get the trash off the grass!” Lyudmilla shouted.

“Already on it!”

The Samaritan darted forward.

Her hands spread open, dividing into individual digits where once they appeared sealed into the earthen armor. The mud and stone of her gauntlets moved with the same ease as flesh, and in that instant seemed as weightless her hands. Before they could put up their guard, the Samaritan seized the two remaining men, taking them by the shoulder and gripping. Both men screamed as her fingers dug into their skin.

With unnatural strength and ease, she spread her arms apart and lifted the men, and then bashed them together like a pair of cymbals, their faces slamming into one another. Blood drew from their noses with a visceral crunch; the two men lost the light in their eyes and hung limp at the end of the Samaritan’s hands. When she spread the rough earthen digits of her hands once again the men dropped like sacks on the floor.

She wiped her hands on each other and glanced back at Lyudmilla.

Lyudmilla thought if she could see behind the mask, she would see a smug grin.

“Heavy magic missile!”

From farther up the step pyramid, under the shadow of the great tree, a pulsating glob of glowing force came hurtling down and struck the Samaritan in the chest. Struggling to hold its shape in flight, the missile grew unstable, and as soon as it came into contact with the Samaritan’s aura it spread and burst into a circle of diffuse energies.

The Samaritan was thrown off the steps. She rolled over once and landed face-down.

Lyudmilla found the attacker immediately after his invocation.

He was staring down at them from above, hunched over, with a fancy amethyst-tipped rod clutched in two shaking hands. He had a pretty-boy face, blond hair, blue-eyes, fair and untouched skin; a really manicured kid. As if afraid of what it might do, he held the magic rod out in front of him. Casting in such a way lent little coherence to his spell. A simple “magic missile” became an unstable blob of undisciplined power in his hands.

Unlike the other men he had no helmet and no impromptu armor, no knee-pads, no vests. Only his uniform and an armband with an Iron Flag design: an eagle grasping a pair of spear-tipped flag banners.

Watching the Samaritan fall and then watching as she did not move or stand up, seemed to embolden him. “I’ll get you too, pigtails! Stay back! Don’t fucking move!”

He shouted at them, and shook his rod as if that alone would cast a spell.

Lyudmilla glanced at the Samaritan, who, from the floor, made a gesture at her.

She understood; the Samaritan was just pretending to have been hurt.

“Does daddy know you’re out here putting his retirement fund on the line?”

“Fuck you! You’re going to die tonight if you piss me off!”

He thrust the rod toward Lyudmilla, but no magic came out of it.

He was not casting anything, just trying to sound intimidating.

“I’m a Lieutenant! I’ve got thirty guys here! You’ll leave here swollen like a zit!”

A lieutenant of what? This band of neanderthals?

“Go on and try me, pussy!” Lyudmilla shouted.

He lifted the rod into the air and with his whole body shaking began to cast again.

Lyudmilla tried to think about how she would counter his spell; it was unlikely to hurt her too bad if it struck, but she wanted to bounce it back just like Minerva could. She had seen Minerva counter that ghost during one of their lessons, and tried to think back on what she was doing. Her memory of people, their bodies and movements, was flawless. She felt confident that she could mimic what Minerva had done that day.

She did not need to.

Just as the bolt of magic flew from the self-styled fascist “Lieutenant,” the Samaritan suddenly leaped up onto her feet, reared back on the spot and then leaped once again.

As she rose, the Samaritan shouted a spell command:

“Reverse Polarity! The soil in me rejects the soil beneath!”

Around her the ground visibly cracked, and dust flew up and away in a small wave.

She then hurtled toward the Lieutenant as if she had made herself into a missile.

His amorphous heavy magic missile crashed into her and dispersed, taking with it chunks of earth the size of baseballs off of the armor on her fists. Debris dropped from the sky in the Samaritan’s wake as she cleared the steps in one superhuman jump.

In the next instant she landed in front of the Lieutenant.

He drew back in terror, and fell out of sight Lyudmilla’s sight from the lower ground.

His rod dropped off the edge of the steps and clanked all the way down.

“I didn’t mean anything, I swear! He made me come here, I didn’t want to–“

Lyudmilla made for the top of the steps, over the bodies of the knocked-out men.

From the top, she could hear the Samaritan’s fist crack against the fascist’s head.

“That one’s payback for the magic missile. It actually kind of hurt. So who put you up to this then? Tell me and I’ll just knock you out instead of throwing you down the steps.”

When Lyudmilla got to the top of the steps, she found that Samaritan holding the fascist effortlessly against the trunk of the huge tree, with one hand around his neck.

Lyudmilla was very briefly distracted by the aura of the tree, but her eyes then focused back on the auras of the Samaritan and the fascist, one brown and red the other blue and grey, intermingling as they struggled. However, the fascist was clearly being outmatched. He could not physically escape, and the Samaritan’s aura was thicker.

Both of her hands were encased in a skin of jagged earth. She had his neck against the tree with fingers like a stone vice. Her remaining hand she held against his face, sharp knuckles hovering near his nose. All she had to do was rear back to strike; Lyudmilla had seen that even a jab from the Samaritan’s earthen fists held massive power.

“It was Ajax! That armored lunatic came into the frat, rounded us up; he said he had a job and when I tried to back out, I could literally see his eyes glint red from his helmet! I swear I had to go along or he would’ve cut my guts open! I didn’t have a choice!”

“Cut the crap.” The Samaritan said. “You always had a choice you piece of shit.”

Lyudmilla heard the name ‘Ajax’ and felt a chill as her mind was transported to that night, not too long ago . That empty armor they found in the forest after Moloch fell, could not have been the last of him; he definitely escaped and it did not even slow him down. He just needed new flunkies, and the group of racist sycophants who loved to fight suited him well. But Lyudmilla knew he was leagues beyond them. He had some kind of ambition; after all, he was capable of using the evil, dead art of Summoning.

And now he was back stalking some other helpless girl. But for what?

“What kind of job was it? What did you stand to gain from this?” The Samaritan asked.

She squeezed on the Lieutenant’s neck briefly. He lifted his hands to seize her arm, but he was without strength, helpless in her presence. Perhaps he, too, was at this point associated with defeat, weakness, helplessness, and could not resist inside her aura. His power had shrunk to the point his aura was just a dim outline around his frame.

Meranwhile the Samaritan’s aura was ever more imperious than Lyudmilla had seen it.

Burning a bright yellow, green and red, colors of earth and fire.

Lyudmilla thought she looked like Justice. She did not quite understand why.

It was a feeling she got when she stared at the aura. Like a smell or a taste.

“Let me go! I’m not part of this anymore, I swear it!”

“Tell me something useful or I’ll let you go rolling down the stairs.”

The Samaritan spoke with confidence as she delivered her threat.

Clearly she had had people in her power before.

Lyudmilla was briefly reminded of some people she knew, from before.

The Lieutenant cried, spat and struggled, but he could not break free and so he slumped back, whimpering. He eventually managed to shout his words out.

“There was this fancy rich girl! She came into the city tonight with a collection of gems; stuff to donate to the Academy. He wanted the girl’s jewels! We were gonna split it!”

Words said amid duress could not be so easily trusted, however.

“That’s bullshit.” Lyudmilla said. “This Ajax guy is not some two-bit thief.”

The Samaritan turned her head to glance at her. “Are you familiar with him?”

“He did the summoning! The one that was reported a while ago. That was Ajax.”

The Samaritan blinked. From the way her eyes drew wide, she was clearly surprised.

Lyudmilla had not bothered to check what had been reported about the Summoning.

People knew that Minerva was involved in stopping the Summoning.

But they apparently did not know who else was involved or who had done it.

“Ajax is hardcore. We gotta assume he has some kinda other plan.” Lyudmilla said. “Tell me, when was the last time these fascist frat boys cursed an entire park with magic?”

The Samaritan must have realized what she was up against at that point.

She turned back to the fascist Lieutenant, who cowered from her gaze.

“You’ve got a hell of a point, Twintails.” The Samaritan said.

Prompted by the current distraction, the Lieutenant started to bargain again.

“Yes! Look, he lied to us! He’s who you want, I’m– I’m a nobody! Just let me go–!”

Almost with a shrugging motion the Samaritan pulled him forward and then–

“Not against the tree!”

At Lyudmilla’s urging, the Samaritan lifted the fascist up and away from the trunk.

Rather than against the tree, she slammed him into the dirt.

His head bobbed, slobber flying from his lips as his eyes rolled up and his limbs went soft. The Samaritan released her grip on him, and he lay limp, drooling at her feet.

Lyudmilla sighed with relief. She had felt a momentary terror for the poor tree.

The Samaritan wiped her enlarged, earth-covered hands against each other.

“Fun thing about brawling with magic is you can go pretty crazy and still not kill anyone if you know what you’re doing. It’s cathartic sometimes, to be perfectly honest.”

Judging by the way her mask shifted, she must have cracked a grin under it.

With one large, jagged finger the Samaritan pointed past the tree.

“When I jumped up here I saw one other guy cowering behind the tree. He ran that way; so we know where the next corridor is. Lets follow him and see where it leads.”

Lyudmillla, however, was barely listening to her anymore. She was focused elsewhere.

“I have a better idea actually. I feel like this tree could be helpful.”

Where the Samaritan was apparently seeing nothing, Lyudmilla’s eyes saw differently.

She felt something from the great tree, and felt compelled to take a closer look.

Lyudmilla stepped up to the tree and put a hand on it. She could feel her skin brimming with the magic that had been imparted on the tree. There was something dizzying about it; trying to read its aura made her senses confused. She had a sudden onset of synesthesia. Tasting its vegetal scent right on her tongue, seeing the bark through her very fingers, hearing the coarse roughness of the trunk as her eyes gazed upon it. Patterns etched upon its being, veins both subtly superimposed and yet running deep.

For anyone else it might have shaken their minds to feel something like that.

This one edgy alt-girl had led a life so steeped in magic her heart-rate barely rose.

“This tree was made part of the spell. So if we can do something from here–“

She tried to remember. Minerva had cast spells that dispelled magic before too.

In her mind, Minerva was moving a certain way, talking a certain way, muttering under her breath where no one could hear; thinking a certain way, feeling; the way that light played off her brown skin, the way her messy dark hair swayed with the motion of her body. Lyudmilla tried to figure out how she could use that to do what Minerva did.

Perhaps, however, it was not necessary to do something so complicated as dispelling.

Lyudmilla felt, touching the tree, that it was trying to resist what the fascists had done.

Amid all the sensation, amid the great confusion that had been cast upon it, and that represented the labyrinth it had been forced to anchor, Lyudmilla felt resistance.

This labyrinth was a system, with walls and corridors, that were just as forced on this tree as they had been on the intended victim, and on the two girls fighting their way through it. Like them, the tree had an urgency to return to the world as it was. When magic was done upon you, naturally your being resisted. Lyudmilla could that tell even from its dim, timid aura; the kind of aura that things had for having lived long among magic, not an aura that was thinking or feeling, but an aura that was situated. Roots held this ground, and knew where this ground stood, and knew what winds traveled between its branches. None of this world made sense to it anymore, and it fought it.

“Lyudmilla, are you–?”

The Samaritan tried to reach out, but Lyudmilla’s mind was racing with a wild idea.

“Maybe– I know! I can give it a way to cast magic!”

This idea had formed in one chaotic instant, and in the next, it was underway.

Lyudmilla took in a deep breath, and she made her fingers feel the weight and heft and texture of a very specific object, and she thought of its origin, and of its powers and she called out its name: the Seven Castigating Stakes, one of which was– “Sudes!”

Magic poured out of Lyudmilla like a hemorrhaging wound, and she felt as if a hole had been bored in her brain. She almost passed out; her vision blurred, her head empty. Sudes was an immensely draining spell. It created an object vastly more powerful than Lyudmilla herself and required so much energy to create even a bare shell of its glory.

She recovered her balance briefly, fighting against the exhaustion and concentrating on her hands, on the shaft of the stakes. Vividly, she pictured the stakes broken in half.

In her hand, out of a rushing whirlwind of magic appeared half of a stake.

Marshaling her strength, while the magic still flowed in a great tumult around her, Lyudmilla stepped forward, lifted the stake over her shoulder and thrust brutally.

She jammed the broken half of the stake into the tree creating a shallow wound.

Facing out from the tree then, was the side of the stake that “bolstered magic.”

“Lyudmilla, what are you doing?” The Samaritan asked.

She rushed forward, as Lyudmilla nearly tipped over backwards from the effort.

As she stumbled, the crafty northern girl became bathed in an eerie green light.

Given the conduit to do so, the tree heeded her plight. It cast a spell.

Using the empowering half of the stake as a casting tool, the tree surged with magic.

Over its surface, glowing green veins ran across the trunk of the tree. Wherever they shone the brightest, a second pattern could be seen to appear as if trying to obscure the first. While the green veins were curved and curling and shot wildly everywhere, the grey lines were strict and methodical, like a map. A map of walls and corridors trying to stifle the life in the tree. But soon the green overtook it, and erased utterly the metal labyrinth that had been etched over its surface. Curling, coiling green missiles flew out like ethereal shoots from the roots and branches of the tree and flew off.

Where the green missiles struck the walls of Minos, there were great reverberations in mid-air until the walls collapsed. Suddenly more and more of the park revealed itself to the girls under the tree, and the tree revealed itself to sparse groups of hapless boys who had been hidden from view until then. Great green spouts of magic continued to fly from the tree even after the walls went down, splashing onto the grass and onto the cobblestone paths and exploding in bursts of earthen color and smell and texture.

Bearing witness to this spectacle, and knowing the part they took in chaining down that great tree, many of the boys and men could be seen to run away in great fear.

The Samaritan grabbed hold of Lyudmilla and kept her steady, watching the magic play out until the stake was spent. A green shoot from the tree coiled around the jagged wooden conjuration and claimed it as its own until it finally disappeared.

“What did you do, Lyudmilla? That was incredible.” The Samaritan said.

Her mind was airy, her strength coming and going like the drawing of breath.

Lyudmilla shook her head and tried to regain her senses. She had a terrible headache.

“I wanted to help the tree. That’s Samaritan stuff isn’t it?” Lyudmilla mumbled out.

Her companion giggled; quite gently for her appearance. “I mean– yeah, I guess it is.”

The Samaritan raised her head, looking out over the park for a moment.

She stood bolt upright and pointed out over one of the fountains across from them.

“Wait! Lyudmilla, I can see them! There they are!” She shouted.


“A truly miserable display. You are worth less than nothing. I’ll see to it that you all suffer for this embarrassment. Clearly, I must take everything upon myself.”

Centurion “Ajax Of The Iron Fang” stepped onto the beautiful deep blue tiles of a fountain plaza that was littered with a dozen of his men, strewn about, crawling and scraping and struggling. Flecks of ice delineated shallow but painful wounds that had brought several down; others were drenched in icy water and shaking miserably on the ground, where they had been struck by unseen geysers or waterfalls from thin air.

Across the plaza from Ajax was his target. She was defiant; not a single strand of sky-blue hair on her head had been touched. On the back of her head, the elegant braided bun that she wore was neat as ever. Her blazer and dress skirt had nary a tear, not even a dribble of blood. These men who fancied themselves so alpha had done nothing.

Holding out an elegant blue staff topped with a coral, she prepared to strike Ajax.

There was no mistaking it, the emerald-blue eyes, the hair, her slightly sharp ears.

This was the girl he had been after. But did she have the goods with her?

He did not know the dimensions of the stones. They could very well had been in the suitcase behind her. She had been guarding it well against all of his men. It had to be.

Ajax spoke, his voice modulated by the spell on the helmet.

“I’m quite a fan of ancient Arak, you know. I studied archeology here, even. And I already took one of your trinkets; so why not let me have the whole set?”

He taunted her. She grit her teeth and tightened her grip on her staff.

“Return the stone this instant! It does not belong to you!” She shouted.

Under the helmet, Ajax smiled. He shrugged glibly at her.

“It did not belong to you either. Moloch’s lineage traces back to the earliest of the peoples of the lower Nobilis deserts, like the Alwi. For it to sit in the collection of a far nothern aristocrat, who then claims it hers; what a joke! It’s just as much ours to take.”

Nearly in tears with anger, the girl snapped back. “That was my father’s! Return it!”

At his provocation, the young woman made a squeezing motion with her hands over the coral head of the staff, and waves of water aura danced off her hands, rippling in the air. She performed an incantation in a language that Ajax could not quite decipher, but he understood the intent well enough from the tears in her eyes and her agitated voice. Water swirled from the bottom of the staff to the top like a curled snake.

“Aqua! Excoria!”

Shouting the final incantation, the young woman thrust her staff forward and released a torrent of water. Like a high-pressure hose used to disperse riots, the stream was tight and extremely fast, cutting through the air like a knife. Had it been entirely up to the physical characteristics of the evoked energy Ajax might have been sawed in half.

Even a child, properly trained, could make magic with impressive physical qualities.

Magic was a battle of wills.

Powerful magic with a weak, wavering will behind it could never break a will of iron.

Ajax swiped his arm in front of himself with full confidence in its defense.

In the next instant the water deflected from him and soared skyward.

Droplets began to rain down over them in the next few minutes, like a spring drizzle.

Ajax cackled at her.

“I can’t return that which I don’t have. Your stone is spent and gone. In fact, that is why I have come for you personally. I need the rest of your father’s collection for my ambitions. For you, these are merely sentimental trinkets, mementos from a deceased man. But their power will open the way to the future for me. I will have them, Princess.”

Ajax outstretched his arm, and his spear was conjured in it.

He pointed the spear toward the girl, challenging her.

“I stole the Orb of Wildfire right from under the Administration’s nose, and I used it to construct an effigy to summon the tyrant Moloch. I have powers you can’t imagine.”

Stunned by the failure of her magic, the girl’s eyes drew wide and she was shaken.

“I will not fall as they did. Will you still resist? Your magic is well learned, but still weak.”

The girl’s posture softened as her will faltered.

She gasped, and drew back a step.

Ajax glanced over his shoulder; he saw a flash and immediately leaped.

At his feet a bolt of lightning and a torrent of glowing pebbles crashed into the tiles.

Below him the bolts dispersed and the pebbles vanished without damage to the ground. A result of magic without a perfect physical representation, or perhaps, the contrivance of the caster. Had he been struck, however, his body would have been much worse off than the tiles. There was intent to harm behind those projectiles.

Magic with poor learning, but an unmistakably powerful will behind it.

Ajax landed atop the rim of a fountain at the edge of the plaza.

He lifted his spear in defense, watching closely as two more figures appeared.

A familiar, hood-wearing interloper; and a familiar, twin-tailed punk.

“Leave her alone, you freak! Can’t go a day without harassing a helpless girl?”

Lyudmilla Kholodova interposed herself between the princess, brandishing a grimoire.

And moving to directly challenge him was the Samaritan he had heard so much about.

“You must be Ajax.” The Samaritan said. “I’d heard that the fascists had fallen behind a new face after Septimus went to jail. I never suspected that face to be wearing some ridiculous dragon helmet. I’ll be happy to give you the same beating Septimus got.”

Ajax grunted.

He whirled his spear in his hands before bringing the tip to rest toward them.

The Samaritan paused, alarmed by the sudden movement.

Kholodova stuck closer to the elf she had taken in her charge.

As if it would be any use.

“All of the insects are gathering. But I’m not afraid of any of you. First, your teacher isn’t here to protect you this time. And second, unlike before, I am here in whole.”

Nothing could have been more convenient. He could settle every score at once.

He ran a hand over his helmet, revealing a part of a face.

Blue eyes, blond hair; then the metal melted back into its proper shape.

“Septimus was nothing. I will change magic forever. You will not stand in my way.”

This time, Ajax of the Iron Fang would show them their resounding inferiority.


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The Center of Gravity (75.4)

60th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030

Republic of Ayvarta — Undisclosed Location

There was a sense of foreboding permeating the stale air of the bunker as the new year approached. Hundreds of meetings had been held between the many Majors, Colonels and Generals in attendance at the bunker, and their chosen staff of trusted warrant officers, staff officers and specialists. They had decided everything from logistical priorities for hundreds of pieces of war materiel; to the exact supply routes that had to be secured and followed to deliver these supplies; to the tactical use of those materials, how many bullets to a man, how many men to the bullets. Training programs had been outlined, promotions hashed out for new officers leading new units. Every aspect of the war in Ayvarta for the next year had been examined and planned according to what everyone euphemistically referred to as “the new situation,” of the past two months.

Nocht had dearly wanted to have won this war by now, within a hundred days of its commencement. That would no longer be the case. It was found to be impossible.

It was clear that the next phase of the war would be much harder than anything Nocht’s military had ever faced, even the Kingdom of Franz. At the beginning of the conflict, Ayvarta’s army was scattered across its territories and each individual territorial unit was smaller than the Nochtish forces attacking it. Now all of them could concentrate on one defensive line around a very specific target. Solstice would decide everything.

At the dawn of the 60th, much of Ayvarta’s fate had been set in motion by the Federation armed forces. Its air, naval and ground branches each had their grand strategies in order. There were only a few more meetings left for the very highest echelons of Federation command, the few Major and Colonel Generals along with the grand Field Marshal, to review the decisions of the staff and make small amendments if necessary.

Field Marshal Haus was particularly busy at this time, and so, he found himself quite bewildered but not upset when he found Von Drachen early for their afternoon meeting.

At his side, however, a young, mousy-looking woman was far more upset. She had been holding a keyring meant to open the meeting room door, only to find that the lock had been picked and the door left askew. Shocked at this violation of bunker security, she charged through the door and there, they both found Von Drachen reclining in one of the couches that had been brought to the room. He greeted them with a nonchalant wave.

“Wh-what are you doing in here?” shouted the staff girl. “How did you get in?”

“I let myself in.” Von Drachen said. “I wanted to be punctual, and to put up my things.”

Held to the walls of the bunker with sticky tape were some scrawled-upon maps of Ayvarta, covered in lines depicting the flow of troops and supplies for Von Drachen’s vehemently marketed pet project. A mass desert march around Solstice and toward Jomba, the fertile breadbasket of the uppermost half of Ayvarta. Thanks to the desert bifurcating the continent, Jomba’s produce did not travel too far, but in a Socialist Ayvarta that now started at Solstice rather than Adjar, Jomba was wildly important.

Haus smirked at the maps and at Von Drachen himself. He crossed his arms.

“Schicksal, let us permit this nonsense just this once. I don’t want to have to deal with a courts martial for over-politeness.” Haus said, gently patting Schicksal on the shoulder.

“As you say, Field Marshal. At least General Dreschner wasn’t here to see this mess.”

Schicksal sighed and stood outside the door quietly, waiting for their next guest.

Haus, meanwhile, took his seat across from Von Drachen. There were piles of documents on the table between the room’s comfortable couch seats. Clearly Von Drachen took what he had said in their last meeting to heart. Though Haus had not truly meant to do so, he had encouraged Von Drachen to go through the data and craft a plan as thorough as Generalplan Suden. Back then he had wanted to be rid of Von Drachen; this meeting had been arranged before that incident and was supposed to be perfunctory.

They were supposed to shake hands and Haus was supposed to give Von Drachen his blessing to continue operating despite being widely hated by the staff and the President himself. All this owing to the fact that Von Drachen was quietly acknowledged as a powerful commander, and furthermore, a guarantee for continued Cissean cooperation. As the Cisseans’ only frontline general, Von Drachen was a point of pride for that nation, a symbol of their achievement and independence from the communists in Ayvarta.

Von Drachen’s eccentricity and zeal had changed the entire character of this meeting.

It was slightly irritating, but more than that, it was intriguing. Haus would humor him.

He picked up Von Drachen’s information packet, laid out on the table, and began to flip through it, finding himself strangely engrossed by the operation described therein.

He was not so sure that Dreschner, their other guest, would be happy with this outcome.

Nevertheless, he wanted to hear Von Drachen out. He had a chance to pick his brain.

“Gaul Von Drachen.” Haus said. He put down the information packet, having skimmed all of the synopsis and some tables, and spread his arms out almost like a shrug. “I can hardly imagine what goes through your head. If you could make me understand one thing, I would like it to be this: what is it about Madiha Nakar and you? Are you in love?”

Schicksal, outside the door, gasped at the scandalous nature of this question.

Von Drachen blinked and frowned. “She is not my type at all. Women generally aren’t.”

Once again Schicksal was given cause to gasp outside the door at the sheer scandal.

Haus suspected as much and let the comment slide as if it were merely lad humor.

“Then what is it? I’ve dug up her records and studied the reports on Bada Aso and Rangda. Each time she was caught off-guard at first and got lucky with the weather.”

There was a prevailing theory among Nocht’s military intelligence that an earthquake hit the Bada Aso region on that fateful day in the Aster’s Gloom, triggering the fires that consumed the 13th Panzer Division and its affiliates and caused Nocht’s defeat there.

Her second achievement was also explained away as if by enthusiasts divining a piece of stage magic. While the defeat of the traitor Ayvartan forces was seen as inevitable given their weak leadership, the Elven force had the element of surprise and superior training. However, strong winds from a pressure system off the coast of Rangda diverted numerous Elven glider and paratrooper forces and caused them to land scattered, allowing Nakar’s forces to split and pocket and destroy them. Nothing was given to Madiha Nakar’s supposed genius, but to the weather and to military common sense.

These theories were hardly discussed, because Madiha Nakar was not a foremost concern of the Heer, but most officers who heard them believed them readily.

Most.

Von Drachen had his answer immediately, and did not need to dwell on Haus’ question.

“I’m fascinated by the idea that the Ayvarta of her adulthood could possibly create her and use her in this manner.” He replied. “Madiha Nakar is someone that a truly utopian communism should never desire, require or even create. She is militarism given form, an avatar of war and death. She thinks of nothing else but war. And yet, here she is.”

Haus was surprised at this answer. It felt masturbatory and its rebuke self evident. “Of course she is, because Lenanism is not an ideology of empathy except to fools. Lenanism is a brigand’s philosophy, its about stealing from the rich and industrious. Madiha Nakar is a product of a militarist culture that knows it needs force to accrue loot and defend it.”

“Do you know your Ayvartan history, Field Marshal?” Von Drachen replied, amused.

“Of course I do.” Haus scoffed. “I’ll have you know I grew up around Mary Trueday.”

“That wouldn’t teach you anything of value. What did she say, that the communists put rubber on toast in place of cheese? She doesn’t know anything, Field Marshal.”

Haus might have been expected to feel offense at this casual mistreatment of his childhood friend by a nobody like Von Drachen. However, he was not altogether very close to Mary and felt no such impulse. She was something of a romantic rival; and Haus himself considered her a little dim. Nevertheless he cleared his throat loudly in response.

Von Drachen snickered. “Ayvarta was at a crossroads between utopian communism and revolutionary communism. For a while, the militaristic revolutionary elements were highly placed, but with the death of Lena Ulyanova, there was a dawn of utopianism that dominated the Ayvartan trend for the better part of the last decade. Social democrats and libertarian communists developed convoluted distribution systems and generous social policies with one hand, while strangling military spending and drawing down Ayvartan involvement with parallel revolutions like Cissea and Kitan’s. These utopian communists wanted peace in a contained, almost autarkic state, and feared the revolutionaries.”

Von Drachen leaned forward, his fingers steepled, an eerie grin on his face.

“This is the Ayvarta that Madiha Nakar assimilated into in her adulthood. But Madiha Nakar is an avowed Lenanist revolutionary, and if you look into her eyes, you’ll understand that she is a born killer. She loves to inflict death; it is stimulating to her. All of this war is an exercise for her brain. She is the polar opposite of the Utopian communist. It is fascinating to me that Ayvarta is relying so strongly on the kind of person it ought to find the most revolting. All you need to turn Madiha Nakar into the perfect contradiction is to make her a secret royal, and then she would truly be deserving of exile from utopian communism. I saw it in her face, Field Marshal.”

“She would probably deny it if you asked her. All of this is conjecture.” Haus said.

“She would, but she can’t deny it to herself. We fought hand to hand, Marshal. And not only that, I saw her, on the fly, plan and execute a daring attack on an unknown enemy during the Rangda situation. You could see it in her face, Marshal! Flashes of excitement, exhilaration! I wonder, will Madiha Nakar stop fighting after this war? Or will she find cause to challenge her new government just for her own continued edification? Maybe she would keep fighting no matter happened. Maybe her zeal would never be satisfied.”

Haus knew all of this philosophy well enough, but it was in his nature to repudiate any politics that were unnecessary to accomplishing his goal. He as much hated the war profiteers in the Congress meddling with his fighting as he did the soldier-scholar who though too deeply about the matter of war. Both of them ultimately led to complications.

He himself had asked Von Drachen about this, though, so he excused him, for now.

“Why does this matter to you?” Haus pressed him. “It’s an utter inanity, to me.”

“It matters to me that Madiha Nakar is fighting for a future in which she cannot exist.” Von Drachen said. “I’m a scholar of war myself, Field Marshal. She is a threat to me!”

“A threat?”

Von Drachen shrugged and laughed. “Let’s say I just want the vanity and glory of being the most successful and defining strategist of my time. If not me, it would be her, so!”

Haus raised an eyebrow. His tone of voice had changed suddenly. It was as if Von Drachen had actively prevented himself from speaking too seriously; or maybe he was revealing an inkling of his seriousness, and the rest had been satire. He was lying, but Haus could not tell what part of what he said was meant to be the joke in this discussion. It unsettled him, because clearly it was the one on one setting that brought this about.

Von Drachen had thought of what to say and said this whole spiel. What was his angle?

Before he could press Von Drachen any further, or even think to do so, General Dreschner arrived at the door. He was grim-looking as ever, but gave his aide a gentle pat on the head as he arrived, and took his seat silently after a quick salute to the Marshal and a nod of the head to Von Drachen. Haus had wanted to assemble a group with himself as a neutral party, Von Drachen’s crazy idea, and a General who advocated for a Solstice Attack Operation, the unoriginal draft name for their current course.

“Gentlemen.” Haus began, once both men were comfortable. “Both of you have proven to be great warriors in this conflict. I’ve made many missteps in personnel management, but I correct them when I can. I am standing by my word: Von Drachen has managed to flesh out his ideas into something resembling an operational plan. I am surprised by the effort and on a superficial read, by the quality of his ideas. I think they deserve debate.”

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly. Some of their other generals would have scoffed and immediately began shouting Von Drachen down, but Dreschner was a little more composed when it came to his peers. This was not a quality he always had. It seemed that the course of the war in Ayvarta had tempered some of his most atavistic impulses.

Haus urged Von Drachen to go through with his plan. Dreschner sat back and watched.

Von Drachen stood and stretched a series of marked-up maps on a board atop a tripod.

He would flip between them at various points in his explanation.

“The Ayvartans are hard at work preparing for a valiant final stand in the city of Solstice. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We view Solstice as a vital political center for Ayvarta, from which communism radiates out to the rest of the world. Certainly, Solstice understands the importance we place on it, and mirrors it back in its defense of itself. So Ayvarta will be ready to fend us off from there, creating a long defensive line centered on Solstice.”

Von Drachen flipped to a map with a outwardly-bulging, semi-circular defensive line around Solstice, stretching across vast expanses of the desert from north to south. There were arrows pointing toward the semi-circle, each numbered the same as a major unit of the Federation’s armies that was scheduled to move in that direction. One arrow for example had his own 13th Panzer Brigade, jabbing at central Ayvarta off of the flank of the 3rd Panzer Division of General Anschel and between the 6th Panzergrenadier Division of Meist, recently reinforced with units of light tanks and motorized artillery.

“However, I do not believe Solstice merits this attention. Its military production is sizeable for a single city in the middle of a desert, but it is nothing compared to the industry Ayvarta is squirreling away beyond the sands. Furthermore, Solstice is utterly dependent on the remaining ‘Dominances’ past the desert for most of its precious food.”

Haus was about to ask a question but Von Drachen launched into an uncalled for explanation of the Ayvartan word for Province, which dated back to the Imperial years and the fact that each province was named for a warlord. So “Adjar’s Dominance” for the province controlled by Lord Adjar, and so on. Haus blinked, and Dreschner shook his head and they both wondered what this had to do with anything, and both protested.

“Ayvartan history is deeply important! To everything!” Von Drachen said, as scandalized himself now as Schicksal was when Haus implied he was in love with Nakar. He had a grumpy, petty look on his face, perhaps moreso for being interrupted than anything. “Solstice’s ancient history is the reason we are going after it, and the reason they are defending it. Why, if we understand this history, must we repeat it blindly?”

“Because the swiftest end to this war is decapitating the communist structure so that the Republic can rule in its place.” Dreschner said. “Because all we need to attack is Solstice.”

“Any siege of Solstice will drag out and cost us dearly in materiel and men. I am advocating a different approach that seems riskier but takes advantage of the moment.”

Von Drachen turned over to a new series of maps that showed a three-directional attack on the Ayvartan line; a massive concentration of forces in the southeast, launching a massive punch at one part of the Ayvarta line; a breakthrough in the south and a hasty march past Solstice. One enormous armored thrust at the ‘dominance’ of Jomba, the breadbasket of the Ayvartan east, able to perhaps feed the entire continent someday. Its industry had been young in the waning days of the Empire, but slowly, it was building.

“Our supply lines will collapse.” Dreschner said simply. He was visibly curious, however.

Haus himself was also very curious. He would not have thought of this trick. Had his forces managed any breakthrough he would have sent it directly to the walls of Solstice, hoping to pierce the city defenses and begin the political endgame. Von Drachen’s gamble was that the long Ayvartan line protecting Solstice would rearrange to meet two fake northern thrusts, break in the south, and that the fortress would be unable to chase a blitzkrieg charge past its walls and to its tender, necessary northeastern regions.

Von Drachen seemed to notice their engagement and smiled proudly at them.

“All we need at that point is to cause damage. Ayvarta can’t counterattack into the Republic with its current forces, so they cannot exploit our absence from the Solstice front or truly cut us off. And if Jomba suffers too much under us, they will lose the ability to resupply any kind of force. I believe the Ayvartans will surrender at that point.”

“What kind of forces are guarding Jomba?” Dreschner asked.

“It’s not important; any kind of battle on that soil is a win for us, even if we are beaten around a bit. However, I believe they have concentrated most of their forces defending Solstice. I doubt Jomba has a full army to its defense.” Von Drachen replied.

“So you want us to go in there and what? Torch crops?” Haus said.

“I think it is more useful to steal them for ourselves at that point.” Von Drachen said.

Haus rubbed his chin. “I can’t deny that you have a point, but it is terribly risky. If Ayvarta does not surrender, and continues to fight, we will be in a tough position.”

“Lets say Solstice does keep fighting and locks us in the northeast. They will kill many of us, but we will have done damage to their ability to prosecute this war long-term that will be impossible to repair. We will win eventually. Our sacrifices will still be pivotal.”

Von Drachen seemed to dismiss the concern. Haus blinked. He was ready to put himself in a nearly suicidal position, cut off deep in enemy territory. There was logic to what he said. By making Jomba a battlefield, at all, they would put the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, the power opposed to the new Republic of Ayvarta, under threat of starvation. Von Drachen might be cut off from supply but he had enough power at any time to rip up fields, burn orchards, poison and salt lands, and render the breadbasket useless. Only the Republic and its southern territories would be able to bear the burden of feeding the continent at that point. It would be nearly impossible for Solstice to recover. Even food assistance from Helvetia would be useless. Communism will have lost all credibility with the people if it could not under its own power feed them anymore. The Allies would win.

“I don’t believe it will come to that, because I think there are voices within the communist camp who will realize the damage that is coming and seek a diplomatic solution.” Von Drachen said. “People with the foresight to know they have been beaten.”

“Do you mean Madiha Nakar?” Haus asked, crooking one eyebrow skeptically.

Dreschner looked between the two of them, clearly confused about this new topic.

“No. I think she will realize what is happening, but I think her solutions to the problem will look utterly insane and she will probably be locked up or become a lone partisan. Her presence will certainly help peace seem reasonable, I think.” Von Drachen said.

“I must admit that I see some merit in it, but I must oppose any plan that hinges on our acceptance of suicide.” Dreschner said sternly. “Even if it led to a guaranteed victory, asking me to give up over 200,000 men– no, actually, you put here 500,000? Insane.”

“Not all of them will die.” Von Drachen shrugged. “You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Your glib tone is only making this plan less appealing to me.” Dreschner said.

“Every time we fight, we take a suicidal risk.” Von Drachen said. “You, and me, and him,” he pointed offhandedly at Haus, “and even the girl at the door, could die any minute.”

Schicksal gasped at the door, now scandalized at the casual acceptance of her death.

“There’s a difference between being in danger and plunging into death.” Dreschner said.

“On paper every one of these operations is plunging into death. In the long term, we want to destroy the communists, and this is what will do it. I guarantee it will do it.”

Dreschner scoffed, quickly devolving to his typically passionate debate.

“Which side are you on Von Drachen? Your attitude is putting all of this into question.”

He was shouting, and Von Drachen sighed and replied calmly, “I’m on the side of victory.”

Before Dreschner could shout something again or raise his shaking fists, Haus grunted.

The Major General paused, and seemed to find his calm and shame in himself.

“Apologies, Field Marshal.” Dreschner said.

Haus glared at Von Drachen, over fingers anxiously rubbing down his own face.

He moved his hands off his own face and clasped them together, staring at the maps.

“Von Drachen, tell me one thing and I’ll consider this plan of yours.” Haus said.

Von Drachen nodded his head. “Unknowing of the inquiry, I certainly shall try my best.”

Haus breathed heavily and dropped the question out into the air, heavy, dispassionate.

“Why did you betray the anarchists in Cissea? Why did you become a part of Nocht?”

Dreschner looked up from his seat at the standing Von Drachen.

Haus did not look at him. Still, he looked at the maps.

Von Drachen was smiling. His smile could be felt even if not seen.

“I’m just a man who falls on the side of victory over sure defeat.” He said.

Haus stomped his boot on the ground. “You’re lying.”

“Well, I don’t know what more to say.” Von Drachen said. He was unfazed.

Haus stood up from his seat and dusted off his coat. There was dust everywhere here.

He closed his fist, feeling a strange mixture of disappointment and relief.

“I’m sure your plan is genuine, and you’ve proven to me you’re a canny officer, but not one I can trust to shoulder the responsibility for an entire operation like this.” Haus said. “I’m putting Dreschner in tactical command of Group South, and you will follow his directive. We will break the Ayvartan front line and attack the walls of Solstice. If, as you say, you are on the side of victory, and not yourself, nor anarchy; you will help him out.”

“I am at your service.” Von Drachen said. His tone had not changed one bit.

“That all? Not going to stand up for yourself?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “It’s fine. I did not expect much. I’m glad I got as far as I did.”

It was almost vexing how easily he took being put down this hard.

Dreschner said nothing. He looked between the two men with an expressionless face.

Just then, someone stepped past Schicksal at the door, and the little aide merely gasped and shrieked and did not seem to put up much of a fight. A beautiful blond woman in a pristine uniform charged past, holding in her hands a document and a letter, breathing heavily. Haus stepped closer and held her shoulders gently to reassure her. It was his trusted aide, Cathrin Habich. She was sweating and had clearly been running hard.

“What’s wrong?” Haus asked. He put one hand on her own, and signaled with his fingers over the back of her hand, where she could see it. They had developed this system together. He was trying to see if it was something they could talk about among them.

Cathrin signaled affirmatively with her own hand and slowly rose, caught her breath, and regained her composure and the cold, steely gaze for which she was known.

“Sir, McConnell went around all our backs.” She said.

“What?”

Haus raised his voice. He felt a sudden shock in his chest, a swelling of anger.

Dreschner looked speechless, caught in the sweep of events. He could not have known what McConnell was planning, unless McConnell also went to him with his idea. But Cathrin certainly made it sound ominous and deadly serious. Von Drachen, meanwhile, was cleaning up his things without concern for the drama unfolding around him.

“Show me.” Haus said.

Cathrin showed him the document. “Presidential approval. Here’s a telegram.”

She then opened the letter and handed Haus the paper.

Haus almost did not want to open it.

He felt stung, betrayed. He imagined what it must say and it made him hurt and angry.

In one sweeping move accompanied by a sigh he spread the paper open.

“Prepare Rolling Thunder. McConnell is sharp. Trust him like I did you.”

Trust him like I did you? When did Haus ever have to prove himself to Achim? When did he have to come up with some unnecessary, nonsense plan to earn his trust? Haus felt a level of dismay and even jealousy that he knew was irrational but could not contain. He had felt secure in his knowledge that he would be trusted utterly to make decisions like this. Achim had interfered in operations before, and Haus had allowed it and even seen some of the wisdom in it; but this time he had promoted a subordinate over him.

McConnell would get to execute an operation Haus had blocked as infeasible.

Had he used his pull with his brother in the Senate? Haus did not know.

He could only fantasize angrily about every backhanded thing that may have happened.

In a bid to tear his mind away from the shock and hurt, he handed Dreschner the paper.

Dreschner read it, and the accompanying document, and almost seemed not to believe it.

“This is exactly like Bada Aso. Why would the President order this to happen again?”

“Field Marshal, what are we going to do?” Cathrin asked.

Haus had no answers for anyone.

He stood, breathing heavily, his soft, boyish face broken up by anger and despair.

Looking up from the his hands, he only saw Von Drachen’s back as the man left the room with all of his maps and charts in tow, without a word or seemingly a care in the world.

Something in Haus yearned to understand how Von Drachen could continue to raise his head like that, where Haus felt such a burden upon his own that it was hard to even live.


On the 1st of the Postill’s Dew of 2031, a brand new year, the active airports of northern Dbagbo and Tambwe, in cities like Rangda and Karahad captured mere weeks ago, began preparations to launch massive daily air attacks on Solstice under plan Rolling Thunder.

At their disposal were the Archwizard class heavy strategic bombers with 7000 kg of bombs; Wizard class long range bombers with 3000 kg of bombs; the standby Archer fighter and its new cousin, the Crossbow; and the old reliable Warlock ground attack plane with its cannons, light bomb-load and a screeching dive right out of a nightmare.

There were other weapons being cooked up too; but the pilots knew little about that.

Enemy opposition was always implied in battle operations, but in this case, it was largely unremarked upon that the Ayvartans would try to keep them out of their airspace.

As far as they knew, their flying would be mostly opposed by the Ayvartan’s old Anka biplane with nowhere near the fighting power of even the older Archer. Perhaps a first generation Garuda might appear once in a while, to speak nothing of the rare Garuda II. In their minds the pilots of the Luftlotte’s Jagdwaffe and Schlachtwaffe felt that they would easily own the skies over Solstice, and kill without obstacle. It was almost funny.

None of the men on the ground had taken part in that meeting where Haus quoted a very large number of anti-aircraft guns on the ground and walls of Solstice. So in the minds of the pilots, it was a scenario where they would either fight gallant duels in the sky, or just bully Ayvartan planes into the dirt over and over while the bombers rained death.

In this environment, all the preparatory activities of Rolling Thunder were carried out with zeal. Lehner had finally been talked down, and the Eagles were now cut loose.

The Luftlotte scheduled the attacks to commence on the 13th and last for weeks, maybe as far into the month as the 30th or 40th from there, or until Solstice utterly collapsed.

Or until their ability to fly collapsed. Whichever came first; but only one was acceptable.

Thus began the apocalyptic Battle of Solstice.


Previous Part || Next Part

Life In The Besieged City (74.1)

This scene contains alcohol abuse and mild sexual content.


24th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Resort

As the sun began to fall, and the sky turned red, the rings were exchanged.

It was not a massive ceremony nor a state ceremony. There was no roaring crowd, no band, no feast, no media. They had no diamond-studded rings and no bouquet to fling. Few people knew of the occasion; fewer attended. Kuwba was their silent witness.

Curtained off with bamboo dividers, the waterside was reserved for the brides and a handful of guests. Standing at the edge of the stone ring around the oasis, framed by the trees in the background, the women held hands and looked at each other fondly, close to tears with joy. Mayor Mazibe said some words, and linked the bride’s hands together, and then stepped aside for them to recite their vows. They were brief vows. Those women, who had fallen in love exiled to a deserted island for anti-goverment activities, knew each other’s vows by heart. They had already been living those vows for years.

“Daksha.”

“Kremina.”

They were dressed as bride and groom. Daksha in a sharp black suit, and Kremina in a silver-blue dress. Daksha wore her hair gathered up in a bun, while Kremina had a flowing ponytail ringed with flowers and covered by a lacy veil. Neither one looked her forties and fifties in this scene, in this attire. Both looked like young, romantic girls, openly weeping and trembling with emotion as they held hands and stared longingly at one another. Even before the Mayor started talking, and even after he stopped, the tears would not leave their faces, but neither would their smiles. Under the falling sun, they glowed with a sublime beauty. When they drew in to kiss, even their guests wept.

Parinita Maharani was weeping most loudly, sobbing, covering her mouth with a handkerchief to snort, her makeup starting to run a little around her eyes. She felt small, like a woman struck dumb by the sublime, belittled by a grandeur that shocked her to tears. She was standing in the shadows of giants and she felt completely unworthy.

Madiha Nakar was not weeping, but she admitted to herself that she was near to it. She felt almost nothing coherent at all. She did not have the greatest grasp on her emotions.

Daksha and Kremina broke their matrimonial kiss, held their hands up to each other’s faces, and kissed again. They put their foreheads together and sobbed and smiled. They were laughing, closer than anyone had ever seen them. There was a subdued applause.

“By the power invested in me by the office of the Solstice mayorship, I declare thee both joined in official matrimony!” shouted Mayor Mazibe, so excited by the whole ceremony that he completely mixed his secular, religious, ancient and modern speech together. Everyone was too busy with the bride and the suit-bride, to truly pay him attention.

After the declaration, Charvi Chadgura and Gulab Kajari raised rifles into the air and fired into the distance. They were dressed in matching suits, acting as designated wedding shooters. It was allowed by the resort — they fired toward the empty oasis.

All of it was merely traditional. For Ayvartans the ceremony was truly nothing so grand. It was no joining of a King and Queen. Only the dress and the people stood out.

Two women in love got to have a vulnerable, touching moment beneath a falling sun.

That was all they wanted, and by all accounts, it seemed as wonderful as they dreamed.

After a loving relationship of over 20 years, Admiral Kremina Qote and Premier Daksha Kansal were finally, officially married on the 24th of the Hazel’s Frost of 2030 D.C.E.

Madiha Nakar watched everything with muted emotion, not quite knowing how to behave appropriately or what to say that would be profound. She knew that everything was beautiful and happy, and she knew that she herself felt the swelling of emotion when the brides kissed, and she felt that she wanted something like this for herself.

But it was hard to communicate it in a way that didn’t seem trite, so she mostly kept to herself and Parinita, on the periphery of the ceremony, holding hands and trembling.

“I want a ceremony just like this.” Parinita said. “I want a cozy little venue by the water with a pretty background, a beautiful dress, and a funny little man as the notary.”

Madiha put on a little smile. “We should book this place today, so we’ll get it in a year.”

Anyone could book the hotel now, and so, it was booked very far ahead of time.

“We’ll do it.” Parinita said. Her eyes teared up again. “We’ll live and we’ll shine like this.”

She tightened her grip on Madiha’s hand and Madiha gripped tightly backed.

Their hearts were full of emotion that they could scarcely identify or handle.


Ayvarta, Solstice City — Kuwba Oasis Hotel

“Madiha Nakar! It’s been far too long.”

Kremina Qote extended a hand to Madiha and she shook it, and Kremina laughed in return. Madiha did not know why, and thought perhaps she made some kind of embarrassing etiquette blunder. Maybe she was supposed to kiss her hand?

“Don’t break my bride’s arm, please.” Daksha joked.

Madiha laughed a little herself then, and at her side, Parinita giggled with her.

“I remember when she was just a little courier girl.” Kremina said. “To think she would grow a head taller than me and nearly rip my arm off at my own wedding day.”

“She doesn’t know her own strength.” Parinita said, trying to play along.

“I didn’t pull that hard.” Madiha said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

Kremina patted her on the arm. “Just having fun! Come now, let’s have some drinks.”

Madiha turned to Parinita, who nodded pointedly.

“Come on, of course you’ll drink. It’s practically contractual.” Kremina said.

“Take her up on that or she’ll drink it all herself.” Daksha said. “I’d prefer her a bit sober.”

After the ceremony, Kremina and Daksha relocated to the resort’s Principal suite, their best accommodation, for a short honeymoon stay before resuming their duties. Madiha and Parinita were invited for a meeting before the two lovebirds secluded themselves.

It was a palatial establishment they were given: almost a whole floor of the hotel for themselves, with a kitchen, a hot bath, a game room with pool, darts and shuffleboard, and a bedroom that was passionately red, candle-lit and smelled of sweet incense.

They caught up with Daksha at the foyer, and she took them on a little tour while Kremina dug into the alcohol cabinet, as was her wont. They soon rendezvoused at the dining room, a cozy affair, small and square with the walls decorated with paintings of things like fruits baskets, wine bottles and whole hams. Kremina put out several different bottles of champagne, rice beers, sugarcane wine, and grape wine.

There was also a bit of a spread. Fresh, crunchy vegetables in little cups; small flatbreads; and various spiced dips like lentils, chickpeas, and chutneys.

“Cheers!”

Before anyone else even reached for a glass, Kremina downed a shot of sugarcane wine.

“You only live once!” She said, slamming the glass down on the table with a satisfied grin.

In no time, she was already pouring herself a second.

Regardless of her drinking manner, Kremina looked stunning at the head of the table. Her face was bright and immaculate, the lines from her eyes giving her a stately beauty that was as well aged as the drinks being served. Her ponytail, already silvery in the past, took well to growing grayer and the flowers around it were fresh. She was well made up, with blue eyeshadow and lipstick that suited her sleek, tidy blue dress. Her shoulders were free, her bust raised up by the bodice. It looked to Madiha as if made of a futuristic metal rather than cloth because the skirt was shiny and unruffled. Madiha was used to big dresses at the very few western-style weddings she had attended in her life.

“I know I can’t stop you, but I can try to empty the bottle before you.” Daksha said.

She seized the offending item from her bride’s hand, and drank directly from it.

“That’s unfair! Well, there’s always the rice beer.” Kremina said, popping a different cork.

Truly they seemed a couple made for one another.

Though Kremina was definitely a sublime beauty, Daksha was no slouch herself. She was reminiscent of her gangster days, sans her iconic fedora, now in Madiha’s possession. Her hair was turning grayer in places, but the gradient-like effect when collected into a bun was attractive; the little lines around her lips and eyes added a regal gallantry to her overall appearance. She wore just a touch of powder on her skin. Her wedding suit was well tailored, with a black coat that accentuated her shoulders, a buttoned vest that was loose enough for her chest but well fitted, and pants that made her legs look perfectly straight. Though she was not quite the wiry brawler that she had been in the past, the Premier was still dashing and handsome enough to match the beauty of her bride.

“Madiha, we have to put up a fight!” Parinita whispered to her.

She picked up the bottle of grape wine and poured Madiha a little glass.

“Social drinking is a contest of wills. We are representing our generation!”

Madiha did not understand the collective madness of the room. Despite this, she drank dispassionately, tipping the contents into her mouth and swallowing, hoping it would please everyone involved. Parinita stared at her critically, until Madiha extended her glass out as if to ask for another pour. This brought a prize-winning smile to her girlfriend’s face, quite a match for those on the giddy brides. She happily complied.

Though it was impossible for them to outshine a pair of experienced wives on their wedding day, Madiha and Parinita certainly tried their best. Madiha herself was wearing a suit, as she was known to do. Her hair, which had gotten long enough again, was tied up in a little ponytail. She had left her coat elsewhere and dressed down to her vest and shirt, which were rather plain, but she thought her height and stature and the gentle smoothness of her face lent her a good mix of boyish-girlish charm. Daksha’s fedora also helped a little to make her stand out. Parinita, however, was the bridal guests’ trump card, in a colorful, traditional Ayvartan garb. She was draped in a purple and gold sari over a matching dress, with a plunging neck and an open midriff. Her strawberry hair was flowing and decorated with flowers, and her gold makeup was immaculate.

There were numerous cheers around the table, and with each cheer, the girls drank.

“To health!”

“To sapphism!”

“To socialism!”

In appearance, as a relatively young couple Madiha and Parinita could hold their own, but it was quickly becoming clear they were amateurs at drinking. Madiha quickly developed a headache, and Parinita was drinking shamefully slowly, trying to mask that she was a lightweight. Meanwhile, between the two, Daksha and Kremina had nearly disposed of the rice beer and sugarcane wine, and taken notice of the snacks too.

“This is too hectic.” Madiha said. “I need water.”

Parinita drooped her head and put down the bottle. “I submit also. They’re too strong.”

“Like the…second act villain?” Madiha whimpered.

“If you’re going to steal my lines, you’ll need to do better.” Parinita said weakly.

Across from them, Daksha and Kremina were giggling, chatting half-sentences and interrupting each other, the alcohol clearly starting to unwind their brains.

“Ah, if only, if only, Anatoly, Anatoly right? He was the guy?” Kremina said.

“It wasn’t Anatoly. I killed Anatoly. He was a rat.” Daksha replied.

“Okay, not him. There was a guy. A guy who drank well, remember?”

“Kremina, we knew a lot of guys.” Daksha said.

“I wish Anatoly, was here. I’d drink him to shame, that rat. I’m invincible at drinking.”

“I told you it wasn’t Anatoly who did anything. You wouldn’t drink with Anatoly.”

“We knew a lot of guys, you say. None of them here at our wedding! How rude!”

Daksha looked at the floor for a second, shaking the bottle of wine, stirring the remnants.

“A lot of them– well, they can’t help it. A lot of them died. They can’t help it.”

Kremina held up a glass. It was empty. She put it to her lips like it was full.

“To the dead!”

Daksha, her head bowed still, lifted her bottle. “To the dead.” She said, much less eagerly.

“You know who was a good drinker? Lena Ulyanova. Fantastic drinker.”

“She was.”

“Such a tiny body, could hold so much alcohol. It was death-defying. I was still better.”

Daksha shook her head. “If Lena Ulyanova was, if she was–”

“‘scuse me?”

“I said if Lena Ulyanova was alive, things would be different.”

“Yes, they would be.” Kremina poured a shot, half on the table. “She wouldn’t be dead.”

“That would be big indeed. But I think she would know get people to do things right.”

“We’re doing things right. We got married finally. We stopped living in sin.”

“I mean, things of the state.” Daksha said. She held up a bottle. “To Lena!”

“To Lena!” Kremina drank her shot.

“Bah!” Daksha put the bottle down, and it toppled over on the table and would have spilled had any decent amount of liquid remained in it. “I’m a lousy cheerer, Kremina. Lousy at drinking, lousy at cheering, lousy at everything. Lena was a genius. I’m lousy.”

Kremina patted Daksha on the shoulder, and with amazing technique, managed to leverage the gesture into a grab, taking the back of her head and pulling her down into a kiss. It was very sloppy, given she was juggling a mouthful of beer as well as her wife’s tongue, but somehow Kremina managed it, and a shocked Daksha played well along.

When their lips parted, Kremina put her forehead to Daksha’s chest.

“You don’t have to be a genius. I don’t want a genius! I want someone like me who understands being trampled and overlooked. I think the people, they want someone like that too. I think these kids need that too.” She turned to look at Parinita and Madiha.

Groggily, the two girls had been watching the exchange, without input.

At the mention of them, they snapped to attention.

“All the geniuses went and died in their lofty dreams. We’re normal people who are making a world for us. That’s our job now. And we’re doing it well.” Kremina said.

Daksha rested her own head against that of her wife. “I hope you’re right.”

They held each other there, weeping lightly, for seemingly as long as they had drank and rambled before. Madiha and Parinita did not know what to say. So they said nothing.

“To the kids!” Kremina let out an anguished cheer, launching her glass overhead.

Everyone scurried for cover. Everyone agreed to stop drinking after that.

Madiha and Parinita left the table less drunk than the brides, but also less confident.


On the foyer there was an old matchlock rifle hung up on the wall.

Madiha had to train with one of those so-called classics in the Academy, for purposes of procession duty. She despised it. Temperamental, slow-firing. Powder was easily ruined, the bullets were old and deformed and sometimes the barrel interior deformed too.

“I know you hate everything old, because your head’s poisoned by efficiency.”

Daksha stood beside Madiha and stared up at the rifle on the wall.

Parinita had gone to look after Kremina, who was, for what she claimed was the first time in her life, taking her drinking poorly and laid up in bed. Madiha wondered if it was time to consider the wedding ruined and perhaps plan a makeup, but she did not voice her concern. She had walked idly around the suite, trying to shake off the alcohol in her own head, when she was taken in by the curious token in the foyer. Then Daksha had caught up. They had been wanting to speak for a long time, Madiha knew this, she knew this desire was shared. However, there had been no good opportunity until now.

“Well, we have better rifles now.” Madiha said. “We could use those for procession.”

“These are historic. They remind us of something.” Daksha said.

“They remind me of how poor these old rifles were.”

“You can be such a child sometimes.” Daksha laughed.

“What is the message supposed to be then?”

Daksha looked up at the rifle with a weary expression.

“For the Empire, these rifles represented pride. For us, they represent sin. You wield those rifles in procession to remind you to be respectful of the tools your predecessors used to commit evil. You toil with them so you understand that even with those weapons they slaughtered countless people, and that you must not just look at it as a mere tool.”

Madiha averted her gaze. She already thought of that quite often.

She just did not think of it during procession at school.

“We should consider a lecture element to procession then.” She said demurely.

“We should.” Daksha sighed.

She contemplated the rifle and crossed her arms, and began her own impromptu lecture.

“That style of rifle was imported by the Ayvartan Empire from the Elves. The Empire claimed all of the territorial Ayvartan continent for itself, including the south, like Adjar, Cissea, and Mamlakha. But they didn’t have the power to back it up, until they exercised one strength that nation-states have over tribes and villages. They engaged in diplomacy with an equal nation, a nation that taught them armed conquest the likes of which the world had never seen before. And just as the Elves spread over Afarland, Borelia, Nort, Helvetia, Mauricia, and so on, the ethnic Arjun of Solstice spread across Ayvarta.”

She referenced two historical ethnicities in Ayvarta. Down South, it used to be the Umma, and in the North, it used to be the Arjun. It was different now. There were all kinds of people everywhere. There was a third catch-all category, created for the Imperial census, called “Zungu,” people who were mixed with ‘white’ or ‘foreign’ people. There were various other ethnicities often unacknowledged. The Hudim, for example, who practiced their own unique religion and were considered an ethnic group; the Zigan nomads; various Barbar tribes in the desert; the Mamlakhs themselves, the Cisseans, and so on.

All of those peoples and territories were beyond the grasp of Solstice once again.

This time it was not an Arjun empire that conquered them, nor was it by their own hand that they were made separate from the rest of Ayvarta. It was the Nocht Federation.

“A lot was done to the Southern peoples, hundreds of years ago. Socialist Solstice has tried to make up for it here and there. We teach what we have of the Umma language, we incorporated it into the Socialist Language Standard. I named the KVW that way, a lot of the Unions, to pay homage to their language group as best as I can. And we also let the South practice self-governance as a bloc. A lot of things were overlooked that way, but it’s what the people wanted there. It’s the least we could do to make up for the past.”

Madiha found questions of ethnicity difficult to answer, but she understood, as one trying to make up for her own past, the need to fulfill those sorts of reparations. She did not hate anyone nor did she think she oppressed anyone for their ethnicity and as a good socialist she tried to be conscious of all kinds of social positions and relations, such as those of class and race and sex. But she remembered Mansa; she hated him completely, and she despised the things that he stood for, and all that he did to her and to Ayvarta.

However, the growth of his power independent of Solstice made sense when one considered the history of ethnicities in Ayvarta. His people looked up to him as a strongman who wielded Umma power in a majority Arjun world. They loved him because he positioned himself against an Arjun orthodoxy that was seen as ineffective and untrustworthy. Even if it had been the Ayvartan Empire who committed the sin in the first place, Solstice in general was tainted by it, and Solstice’s socialist project, as the successor state, had to be the one to make amends. Perhaps they didn’t do enough.

It was all such a mess.

“I really don’t know what to say that.” Madiha finally admitted.

Daksha cracked a little smile.

“I guess it’s unfair for me to act like we’re both complicit. I’ve always thought of you as an Arjun because of your physical appearance. But I honestly can’t know. And at any rate, it isn’t your place to do anything about it. I was the one who was supposed to save everybody from the tyranny of the Empire. I feel like I ended up failing at that.” She said.

The tyranny of the Empire, she said–

It jogged Madiha’s memory. She thought of how her birth was something of a mystery.

And Mansa, too, being on her mind at the same time–

“I am really sorry for everything Madiha.” Daksha said. “We used you. I struggle every day thinking of the backs we built this country on. You were just a child, and I ask myself, is all of this really worth all the desperate measures that I took to build it–”

Quite suddenly, Madiha turned to face Daksha with serious eyes.

“Am I Empress Ayvarta II, Daksha?”

She almost expected to be shot at that moment, in some dark, lurid corner of her mind. Certainly it was a shocking question to ask, and at such a moment too. At least it allowed her to dodge thinking about the question of ethnicities, which was always fearful and puzzling. And it had been on her mind for far too long now, her status. She had been afraid since hearing the insinuations from the villains she came across in Rangda, and since remembering her role in the chaos of the Revolution. She had been afraid that if she was actually some long lost noble child, she was undermining socialism by living.

So, thinking all of that, she expected Daksha to dispose of her, to end the royal line.

Instead, Daksha grinned and shook her head. She looked like she had tears in her eyes.

“On the census, you keep putting down Madiha Nakar every few years. If you want to change your name, you can do it without saying scandalous shit like that.” Daksha said.

She smiled, but there was indeed a glistening of tears she was fighting off.

Madiha chuckled. “I guess you’re unbothered by the whole thing, huh?”

“Did you expect differently? Madiha, I think of you like a daughter. I don’t know where you really came from and I never checked. To me, that doesn’t matter. Didn’t we want to erase class, sex, ethnic discrimination and all of that? Isn’t that socialism? Hell I don’t know my own ethnicity really. I was born in the South. I might be some quarter Umma or something, who cares? I never had the privilege of my ethnicity but I identify as an Arjun to make amends to people who were far more oppressed than me for far longer.”

Daksha turned to her and put both hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

“You’re what you decide to make of yourself. No matter who your parents were. Even if you end up being the long lost Empress, you killed your father. There’s no Empire now. On the census, I could put Umma or Arjun. I decided which and why. You can too.”

Madiha nodded her head solemnly. There was a lot on her mind still. This was not such a liberatory thing to be told. After all, even knowing all of this, and being given a choice, she still did not know what she truly wanted to become or what she could become at all. She just knew what she was good at, and what she was interested (or obsessed with).

She supposed that she had no choice right now but to fight this war.

So she could defer thinking about everything else when there was peace.

“At any rate, why am I being so gloomy on my wedding day?”

Daksha shook her head and picked up the matchlock from its place of honor.

“You know how to use this, of course.”

Madiha nodded. She could use any weapon by touching it. Ever since she was a child.

“Lets have a little contest then.” Daksha said.

Under the matchlock there had been a stack of plates, and a pair of boxes.

One contained charges, the other contained balls. It was a shooting kit.

“I never miss.” Madiha said apologetically. “So, I cannot lose.”

“Bah, don’t be so full of yourself.” Daksha replied. “If I can’t win, I’ll tie you.”

Madiha laughed.

“It would be a moral victory.” She said.

“It will be!” Daksha corrected her.

They went to the roof and twenty plates later, Madiha handily won.

She was not even able to throw the game for the bride’s sake.

Madiha was just not capable of throwing games.


“I’m truly growing old. My youth has absolutely left me. I’m decrepit — a crone!”

Kremina Qote bemoaned her misfortunes in the grand bedroom arrayed for her and Daksha’s honeymoon night. Dressed in full wedding regalia, she lay against the pillows with a hand over her face, tossing and turning, the blood drained from her face. She had drank too much and it made her sick. She claimed this was an unnatural occasion, an ill omen. Parinita did not know that she and Daksha had met because Kremina had fallen dead drunk and essentially got them captured by the Imperial police. She believed in Kremina’s fierce drinking reputation and told herself it was a pity that everyone aged.

“Here, drink this. Drink all of it, Mrs. Kansal. Even if you dislike the taste.”

Parinita came back from the kitchen with a mug of honey-ginger tea and a big piece of salty breaded paneer, fried quickly in ghee. She dropped the cheese plate on the dresser beside the bed, and handed Kremina the mug. “It’s a traditional cure. I vouch for it.”

Her patient moaned and protested, but eventually started drinking the tea.

“It’s awful! It’s got too much ginger!” Kremina said, recoiling from it.

“Trust me, my grandmother knew a dozen hangover cures, but this is what she did when she was hungover herself. That’s how you know it’s the real one.” Parinita said.

Kremina frowned, staring down into the mug. She took another belabored sip.

Parinita pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down. She did not need to read Kremina’s aura to understand how badly the bride must have been feeling. She looked quite worse for wear. Parinita felt like saying ‘it wasn’t even that much alcohol’, but she was playing the role of the healer. Wounding her patient even further would be cruel.

“Ugh, what a way to start my honeymoon.”

Once more, Parinita’s more vicious side wished to retort with ‘you did this to yourself.’

Instead she said, “I come from a family of faith healers! You’re in good hands.”

“Well, it turns out I don’t have faith in healers!” Kremina moaned.

She took another drink of the mug and shut her eyes hard, and clenched her teeth.

For a moment Parinita felt like the bereaved heroine of some comedy flick, caring for her whining mother in the first act to establish a dysfunctional family relation and her drive to escape into a bawdy adventure. Then the hero would arrive and sweep her away.

Unfortunately for her, Madiha was in the other room, already arrived, and unhelpful.

Still, even her current attitude couldn’t mar Kremina’s newlywed radiance. Parinita was stuck by how majestic the two of them looked. This must have been such a massive relief for them, and such a long time coming. Surrounded by tragedy and with the weight of the nation on their shoulders, they finally found the opportunity and courage to make themselves eternal to one another. Their auras had been so brilliant at the wedding that Parinita cried, overwhelmed by their beauty. Truly it was the power of love at work.

It was almost like film. Perfectly shot and directed, beautifully acted. A real fantasy.

Parinita’s fantasy; not that seeing it in the flesh made it feel any more achievable.

After all, Kremina could look like an actress, but Parinita was always her boring old self.

Still, she was quite moved by the day’s events. She was smiling like a bashful little girl.

“Ma’am, I’ve been wanting to congratulate you personally. I was so moved by the ceremony. I really want to know how you two made it so special. There was something in the air, everything was charged with electricity! It was like film, it was perfect.”

In truth there was a part of Parinita that really wanted to have a girly talk session with someone like Kremina, an elegant, sapphic bride to a strong and constantly engaged woman. She wanted to compare notes, almost, to share experiences in loving women and being loved and having a relationship that could lead to a wedding. She had never been able to talk to her grandmother and certainly not to her mother, and the closest other confidant she’d ever had was Logia Minardo — a regrettable person for that role.

Kremina looked upon her with renewed interest and cocked a little grin.

“It’s all the resort, it’s very lovely. You should put in your reservation soon. It’s very popular, and they really only do weddings now that there’s no tourism.” She said.

Her piercing gaze put Parinita quite on edge.

“Well, I’m not getting married–” She said.

Kremina leaned forward with a conspiratorial expression on her face.

“Trust me, you two should not wait. There’s no sense in waiting.”

“Us two?”

Suddenly, Parinita remembered that she could have no such discussion with her.

Parinita and Madiha were not fully open with their relationship, mostly because it was scarcely a month old and they were in the military, and in the same unit. In fact, Madiha was technically Parinita’s boss, which made the whole thing look even worse to outside observation. While it was almost an open secret, people who suspected said nothing, and people who knew, like Logia Minardo, were on their side and not keen to expose them.

So it behooved Parinita then to act dumb when Kremina pressed her.

Though the Admiral and the Premier were like family to Madiha, Parinita did not know how strict they were on her. They might not see the relationship as fully appropriate.

Her own parents would have definitely tried to scare Madiha away!

So she thought, she had to keep this as hidden as she could from Madiha’s ‘parents.’

However, her beet-red face and awkward, averted gaze made everything too clear.

Kremina quickly tried to disabuse her of any fearful notions.

“I see right through the two of you.”

Parinita was so stunned she couldn’t think of what to say.

“Whatever do you mean–”

“Why would she invite you here? Madiha always goes to parties alone, if she goes.”

“She’s not that anti-social–”

“Madiha’s never had a lot of party-going friends. She’s a private sort of person.”

Parinita briefly choked up. “Well– how do you know she–”

Kremina raised a finger to Parinita’s lips, quieting her.

“I know she’s a sapphist. She had a girlfriend before. Perhaps she has another.”

Parinita mumbled nervously. “She has friends, we’re just very good friends–”

She found herself denying everything out of impulse.

Meanwhile, Kremina seemed to be living this moment to its fullest.

“Hey, why don’t you two stay the night? There’s a guest bedroom.”

Kremina rapidly changing the subject threw Parinita entirely off-course.

Staying the night with Madiha in this gorgeous hotel full of silks and wines and candles, in a relatively private room all the way across from the brides, where nobody would bother them. An entire night just to themselves in the most sinfully lavish luxury–

Parinita blinked, quivering. “Why of course, we can’t turn down such generosity–”

“You’ll share one bed, you know. It’s only got one bed.”

Parinita started to shake, and clenched her fingers on her skirts, her face red hot.

“I suppose it can’t be helped–”

“We don’t really have a change of clothes either, so you’ll be a bit exposed.”

Parinita fanned herself. “We’re both girls, it’s okay–”

“Why it’s like your very own honeymoon night, if you were like that of course.”

“It really isn’t–”

“Just you and her, one bed, nothing but robes, warm incense, anything could happen.”

Now she was truly the heroine in a bawdy romance comedy, exposed to the audience in a moment of pure farce. Defeated, revealed to be impure, and laughed at by all.

“You win.” Parinita was shaking with embarrassment at the salacious thought of taking Madiha bedding her in the brides’ guest room. “Are you teasing me or really offering?”

She raised her hands to her face, wearing a crooked, demonic smile.

Kremina reached out and played with one of Parinita’s long locks of strawberry hair.

“Madiha is very lucky! You’re pretty, funny, and passionate.”

Parinita wanted to sink into the earth, but could not truly deny any of that.

At least the latter part of it. She almost thought Kremina would say perverted.

“Oh come on, why are you shaking so much?” Kremina said. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Daksha and I are both in the military too and nobody will object to it. You should probably keep the secret from your subordinates, in an official capacity, so that you set a good example for them. But you don’t have to keep it from me. I do want to help you.”

She reached into the drawer on the bedside dresser, and produced a key.

“Help yourself.”

She flicked the key over to Parinita. Then she picked up the paneer and took a bite.

“Now this is good stuff. This tea tastes like motor oil, but paneer can’t be done wrong.”

Parinita smiled and faked a little curtsy. “Even someone as useless as me can do it.”

She pocketed the key and felt a little cloud starting to loom over her head.

She felt ridiculous and inadequate. It had all been in good fun for the brides, the drinking and the teasing, but Parinita, she thought if any of it had been serious, then yes, she would not have kept up. She was a bad drinker, a bad liar, a foolhardy girlfriend. She looked fine in a dress, maybe a touch too chubby to really pull it off, but that was it.

“Why are you all gloomy now?” Kremina asked through a mouthful of cheese.

Parinita took a deep breath. “Madiha isn’t lucky, I’m lucky she pays me any attention.”

“What’s this all about?” Kremina asked. “Are you feeling well? Do you want tea?”

She swallowed her cheese and tried to push the mug of tea back to Parinita.

“It’s just difficult standing among titans sometimes. I feel unworthy.”

Parinita pushed the mug back toward her with a sigh.

Kremina smiled warmly and laid back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.

“And you think I don’t? I’ve never been half the woman Daksha was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Weren’t you listening when we were all drinking? We shared some wisdom then.”

Had she known Kremina possessed similar insecurities, Parinita would’ve said nothing.

“I’m being gloomy on your wedding day, it really isn’t right.” Parinita said.

“Weddings are beautiful and cheerful, but they are also gloomy too. Thinking about the future is gloomy. And after all the glitz and glamour, you wake up in bed with another person and you have to think about your life together, about all the rest of your life.”

Kremina sighed deeply, but then she sat back up, and she took Parinita’s hand.

“Listen, how you feel about yourself doesn’t reflect how your lover feels. She loves you. To you, she’s your Madiha and you’re her Parinita, and that’s what matters. I should know. I’m a mediocre Admiral who is now married to one of the most powerful women in the world. And Daksha thinks she’s mediocre and foolish and all that too. I make her feel different. She makes me feel different. I bet Madiha thinks that you are wonderful and she is a slug. I bet she doesn’t understand why a beautiful woman looks at her at all.”

Kremina caressed Parinita’s cheek and put on a warm, motherly smile for her.

Parinita smiled a little back. Under that smile, however, she was still worried. These were words that were easy to hear and be comforted by now, but to truly believe them, to deprogram years of living as someone who had to make herself verifiably ‘valuable’ to others in order to live with herself. It felt like fooling herself, like living a terrible lie.

She loved Madiha with all her heart. From that fateful day, when the war started, it was almost like insanity. All the world went insane and she went insane also, and she came to obsessively love a warrior with the world’s strongest, strictest, most insane sense of justice. Someone who stared madness in the face and made miracles happen, not for herself, but for those around her who couldn’t. She grew close to her and discovered her vulnerable side, her charming side, the little moments of sarcasm and levity that could be extracted from her, and the naive wonder with which she beheld certain things.

She grew to love her even more, to want to know everything about her, to want to know her as a person and not an idol, and to want to be by her side forever to see the world that her dark eyes envisioned. She wanted to quell the fire that was killing Madiha from the inside; to save her. But in the back of her head, she told herself, ‘I must get stronger for her, I must be useful to her.’ She could not live in Madiha’s world without strength.

Because she loved Madiha and wanted to remain at her side, to see the justice in those fiery eyes and to love the tender shadow cast by that pyre, she had to reach her level.

Perhaps, instead of being gloomy, she could at least try to be determined instead.

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take your words to heart.” She said.

It was a sincere as she could sound then.

Kremina laid back on the bed and put a handkerchief over her face.

“Good. Just remember three things. Let her win sometimes; pretend she’s in the right sometimes; and let her be on top if she wants to. That’s my time-tested wife advise.”

Parinita’s hand clutched the little key Kremina gave her, and she averted her gaze again.

“I’m going to do my best too. Even if I’m drunk and sick, this is my honeymoon.”

Kremina put the mug on the dresser.

“But I’m not drinking that. I’m sorry.”

Parinita giggled.

“What if I told you the tea is what has made you so lucid these past few minutes?”

She hoped to get one over on Kremina at least once.

Kremina shook her head. “Fine. I’ll let you have this one.”

She reached over the dresser and took the mug back with a heavy sigh.


Previous Part || Next Part

1.8: The Fire That Consumed Canaan

This chapter contains disturbing imagery, violence and death.


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


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

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

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

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

Something had gone terribly wrong in the world around them.

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

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

She didn’t understand it.

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

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

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

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

“Lyudmilla?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Target is concentrating heat in the left arm–”

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

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

Her limbs felt as heavy and immobile as stone.

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

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

She felt the ground rumble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudes!” Minerva cried out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it gone?” She asked.

Minerva sighed. “God, I hope so–”

Temperature spike detected,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lyudmilla!”

Her hand turned red again.

She pressed it down on Milla’s forehead.

For a split second Milla remembered an unpleasant feeling.

A child, drowned in the baptismal water–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wyrm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Witness the Doom of Canaan!”

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

Its mouth erupted in a stream of red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She raised her head from the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heat began to pump into the Moloch machine once more.

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

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

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

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

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

Barik!”

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

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

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

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

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

This is the fire that consumed Canaan!

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

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

Minerva leaped.

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

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

Her heart sank–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milla did not need to look very long.

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

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

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

Several pairs of glowing eyes approached from inside the furnace.

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

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

She remembered an old commander who admonished her for cowardice.

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

Kladenets!” She called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was tired, too.

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

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

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

“Lets hope this works!”

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

In a blink the book was back in her hands.

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

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

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

Sudes!”

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

It was crude mnemonics, but it had an effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milla never intended to target the machines themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milla locked eyes on the stake and reached out mentally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She only needed a small stake this time.

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

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

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

Blue bolts of energy trailed up and down her body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wyrm!” Moloch screamed. “Wyrm!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing was burning anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get away from them!” She cried.

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

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

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

He charged without warning–

But in the direction of the treeline, to escape!

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

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

From the wood, Minerva appeared.

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

“Milord, he is faltering.” She said.

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

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

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

He threw himself forward and swung his weapon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minerva would have none of it.

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

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

There was nothing beneath the helmet either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow despite everything, they all had survived that mess.

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

She managed to keep a steady grip on it.

So she was ready when she heard the dirt sifting.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“My word!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sounded strangely and specifically outraged about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam was just outright ignoring her words and defending Theimer.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There, there.” Beatrix said.

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

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

Minerva allowed herself a restrained smile back at Beatrix.

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

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

Miriam sank atop her desk.

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

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

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

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

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

With Beatrix and Cheryl gone there was a sudden silence.

It dropped between everyone like lead walls.

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

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

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

Soon as the office was vacated Miriam slammed the door.

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

Everything ended up working itself out somehow.

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

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

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

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

Behind her, Lyudmilla Kholodova approached with a questioning expression.

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

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

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

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

Lyudmilla seemed amused by the answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyudmilla stuck her tongue out at Minerva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.” Minerva said dangerously.

“Ah fine, fine.” Lyudmilla replied cheerfully.

Together they got going to Minerva’s office.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you?”

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

“It’s really been a day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is, as you say, a lot, milord.”


Bright blue waves filtered into the elevator through glass panes.

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

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

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

I am listening.

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

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

Miriam was surprised to hear the headmaster already knew.

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

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

He could see through her.

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

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

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

Miriam flinched and drew back a step.

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

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

“Yes, headmaster.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, headmaster, great lord.”


Story 1 — Lord of the Wildfire, END


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Election Year (73.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content.


43rd of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Nocht Federation, Republic of Rhinea — “Jewel of the Orient”

Ramja Biswa heaved a sigh of relief after closing the door behind her and flipping the sign on the door from Geöffnet to Geschlossen. She briefly stood by and watched the day’s last customers walk away, through the soft drift of snow falling from the sky. She picked up a broom and glumly she began to sweep the entrance and dust off the welcome mat.

Though the sun was in retreat, it was not yet night, and normally Ramja would await dinner service instead of cleaning up; but the Jewel of the Orient, Rhinea’s most underrated 2-star Arjun-style restaurant, did not open for Friday night hours.

There was too rowdy, nasty and often racist a crowd out for it to be profitable.

“You need to be more confident with our customers.”

Behind the counter an older woman appeared, tinkering with the register. Pink-skinned with white-blond hair, dressed in a sari and a silk garment, and with an exhausted expression; she was the owner of the restaurant, and she certainly did her best to look it.

Ramja gripped her broom with both hands.

Replying in the Ayvartan tongue, she said, “I’m confident! But we need to be careful too!”

“Practice your Nochtish,” replied the boss, whose Ayvartan was quite rusty.

“Malakar, I’m always nervous about the northerners causing trouble!” Ramja said. “You let anyone in and you let them do whatever they want up front, it’s nuts in here.”

Her Nochtish had gotten much better since she moved in with her girlfriend.

Malakar scoffed. “There’s nothing to be concerned about.”

Few people could tell that Malakar was actually mixed race. Malakar and Ramja had lived in Nocht roughly the same amount of time, but Malakar was older, she already knew the language from her Nochtish father, so she found it much easier to integrate and to acquire capital. She also looked less conspicuous. There were jokes by regulars that Ramja brought more color and authenticity to the restaurant than Malakar.

She was brown-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed; easier to pick out than her boss.

Ramja could not help but feel sometimes that Malakar did actually want her for the authenticity — despite the cold, she was dressed in a sari and a tight blouse and skirt that perhaps too clearly accentuated certain parts of her. She felt like a mascot character.

It only added to the amount of eyes that would naturally be on her.

“Men around here are racist, yes, but they won’t do anything except say things. If they say things and eat we have their money, it doesn’t matter. Just calm down.” Malakar said.

“At my old job, a man almost fought my boss because I was around.” Ramja said. “And you see all kinds of things in the papers. People aren’t happy about Ayvartans at all.”

“Your old job was a chocolate place full of Franks, of course there’d be racists.”

“My– best friend is a Frank!”

Ramja almost said my girlfriend which, would not have been advantageous for her.

Malakar, as far as Ramja knew, was not a homosexual.

Though they could relate as Ayvartans a little, sexuality alienated them just a bit.

It was just easier for Malakar to go around without worrying.

“See? If a Frank can love you as a comrade, any other racist can too.”

“She’s not racist!”

Malakar chuckled. Ramja sighed and went on with her sweeping.

She was grateful to the older woman for the job. It had been hard finding work after the chocolate place; her girlfriend tried all kinds of things, but she just had no connections who would take on an Ayvartan without a state-issued proof of language competency. At last however a local mosque connected her with the restaurant. Neither Malakar nor Ramja were of the Diyah faith, but many Diyah were Ayvartans, so the Jewel was known and traveled and well-liked by Diyah, and the Diyah were compassionate to Ayvartans.

“I’m thinking of opening tomorrow. I hear some men are coming back from the war for the first time; maybe they’ll be back with a taste for dal and curry.” Malakar mused.

“Malakar, they’ll come back wanting to pour the lentils over your head.” Ramja said.

“Oh please, this is starting to seem less cute and to verge on frustrating.”

“I’ll calm down! But you need to consider these things more than never.”

“Fine, fine. Okay. Lets open tomorrow, but I’ll load this guy just in case.”

From behind the counter a grinning Malakar produced a sawed-off Ayvartan rifle.

She held it in one hand like a pistol, the other hand stroking the woodwork.

“You’re awful! It’s no wonder you’re unmarried!” Ramja said, half in jest, half serious.

About a half hour later all of Ramja’s cleaning was done in the front. She swept the floor, wiped down their tables and the counter, and made sure all the spice shakers and sauce bottles were good enough for the (thankfully limited) operation tomorrow. The Jewel was a small place, so it was easy to keep it neat, and it paid to do so. Malakar was pleased.

“I’m locking up soon, but I can wait for her to pick you up.” said the boss.

She disappeared into the kitchen, unlikely to come out for a while.

Ramja nodded, and took a seat by the window, looking out at the lightly falling snow.

A few minutes later, a figure in a fancy coat walked by the window and knocked on it.

Ramja grabbed her coat and ran outside.

Bonjour darling. I parked around the corner.”

Ramja was as elated to greet her girlfriend then as she had been a month ago when they first hooked up. She was a glamorous blond named Cecilia Foss. Sharply-dressed, her lips and eyeliner well made-up, with her hair in a utilitarian ponytail and thin spectacles perched on her nose, Cecilia was like an actress or a singer to Ramja, a celebrity, a person she thought she’d only ever see in magazine covers or theaters. But she was here now.

Cecilia reached out a hand to hold Ramja’s own.

Its delicate solidity and warmth were mesmerizing.

“I’m so happy to see you!” Ramja said.

Wordlessly, Cecilia’s other hand pulled Ramja in suddenly and she kissed her.

Her kisses were ravenous; Ramja was startled at first and afraid of being seen.

However it was snowing, and the street was deserted, and the few cars driving by likely weren’t seeing anything; and what’s more, she was too delighted to care about it for long.

Ramja felt like she would be devoured as Cecilia’s lips locked with her own. She took long draws of her lips, as if she wanted to savor her taste. Ramja was almost left breathless. At first only the soft shock of a playful bite gave Ramja room. Cecilia was so forward! But she was skilled. After taking Ramja’s lips a dozen times she teased and then thrust with her tongue, one hand holding Ramja’s head forward and the other creeping elsewhere.

Though she had kissed before meeting Cecilia, it had never been like this for Ramja.

She fell in a trance, following Cecilia’s lead perfectly through each pull of the lips and tongue. She loved it, she loved how on top of everything Cecilia was, it was so sexy! She was lost in the fervor as their lips joined, drew back for breath, and quickly and fully reunited. Ramja’s hands settled under around Cecilia’s waist, under her coat, gripping.

Feeling this, Cecilia nearly drove Ramja back to the door of the restaurant.

Her hands started to dance as well as her tongue did; Ramja had to politely intervene.

“Not here.” She said, peeling Cecilia’s hand from her thigh.

Both of them drew gently back, breathing hot air into each other’s gasping mouths.

“You’re right. I apologize. I’ve got some bad habits to shed.” Cecilia said.

Her cheeks flushed, and she looked almost demure for once.

Ramja smiled. “We can pick it up where we left off at home.”

They walked down the street together, though for modesty’s sake, and the awareness of their position, they did not hold hands. There were few people out because of the cold weather. Everyone was taking their cars or the buses, and vehicles were covered in snow. Ramja thought, probably nobody was watching the street. And what would they see anyway? But still, holding hands on the street was a bit more visible than two women one in front of the other in a recessed doorway. It was such an odd situation.

Unlike in Ayvarta, where girls just kissed girls and it was nothing, the Federation was very cruel to what Cecilia referred to as a “sapphic.” Ramja trusted Cecilia on that.

The Federation was very cruel about a lot of things, after all.

“I’m working tomorrow, can you drive me Cecilia?”

“You’re working on a weekend?”

“Malakar wanted to open to see if we can get any GIs coming back.”

“Well, I can drive you.”

“Thank you.”

They were talking in Nochtish, quite comfortably. Both had accents, but they understood each other. Certainly, Ramja was very comfortable talking to her own partner this way.

Cecilia huffed suddenly; Ramja saw a tiny white breath fly out of her.

“You don’t have to work at all, you know. I can support you just fine.” She said.

“I know! But I just feel bad sitting around. Everyone’s always talking about merit–”

“Everyone’s an idiot, believe me.”

“Oh, Cecilia, I just want to earn my own money too–”

“If I was a man, would you feel more secure letting me take care of you?”

Ramja blinked hard, staring blankly at her girlfriend.

“What’s this about? Is something troubling you Cecilia?”

She had only really known Cecilia for a month before they decided to move in together, so it wasn’t as if the two had shared their life’s stories with one another. Cecilia was always open, when asked; but Ramja couldn’t help but feel she still hadn’t asked the right questions to really understand her mysterious, glamorous, wonderful girlfriend.

That was scary, and also made her feel anxious and a little unworthy.

So she had on a rather worried expression when she asked Cecilia this.

And obviously, Cecilia must have picked up on it immediately.

In the next instant, however, they were around the corner, and at the car.

It was a small, fairly recent Oder Olympus model, a cozy two-door convertible.

Once they were both seated inside, they were silent for a moment.

Cecilia sighed deeply and put her hand on Ramja’s own.

She met Ramja’s dark eyes with those mesmerizing blues the girl loved so much.

“Look, Ramja, I’m sorry. To be completely honest, and this must sound so pathetic, I had a bad day at the office and now I got something an old girlfriend told me stuck in my head. I should have put it out of my head and thought about the wonderful girlfriend I have now, instead, but you know, I’m a disaster, so I’m just flashing back to that awful mess.”

Ramja smiled. She was almost relieved that it was something that silly.

“Cecilia, I may not speak Nochtish very well, but I’m not a child, you know? We’re both adults, and I can help you with your problems if you talk to me without being cryptic.”

“I know. Ugh. Okay. Today some nitwit at work got away with the credit for a project I was on, and it just. It reminded me. She basically said ‘I wish you were a man.’ As if me being a man would’ve solved our problems so fucking easily. It’s stuck in my craw now.”

Ramja nodded sympathetically.

“Oh, Cecilia, that’s an odd thing to say. I think you’re an absolutely wonderful woman.”

“I know I am, darling. But there’s certainly things a man is allowed in this world that a woman isn’t.” Cecilia sighed again, shaking her head. “That’s what’s getting to me.”

“Well, I don’t want you to be a man. I wouldn’t feel more secure at all.” Ramja said.

Cecilia shook her head. “Sometimes I wish I had my old job. But, it’s better I have you.”

As far as Ramja understood it, Cecilia’s old job (and presumably her old girlfriend with it) was some kind of government job, that she left behind to go work at the Central Bank. Ramja started dating her in the process of her leaving that job and finding her new one. It had been strange but fortunate; they met at the chocolate shop, both their lives seem to have exploded after that, but then they picked up the pieces together. It was romantic.

“I’m glad you’re here, Cecilia. You made my life a lot brighter.” Ramja said.

“You too darling.” Cecilia said. “Honestly, you saved me from a mess. Not the other way.”

“Well, I helped you quit drinking, I guess, but you still smoke too much.” Ramja teased.

“I haven’t smoked at all today.” Cecilia said, defensively clutching her coat pocket.

“You’ll smoke after we have sex. You always do.” Ramja said, giggling.

“Ugh. I’m so predictable. Listen. I’ll try not to.”

Cecilia started the engine and drove them out from the side of the alleyway and down the road toward the tight little inner city apartment that acted as their new love nest. Rhinea had been Ramja’s home for many years, but 2030 had transformed it. In the inner city there was still all the hustle and bustle around the office buildings, hotels, train stations and the stock market. Old town was reeling from the war, however. Factories that once made meats and clothes and toys were shells of their selves, and the council houses were emptied of the poor. Market street was a shadow; the stadium was empty.

The Jewel still got plenty of business. Its clientele did not go to the war.

But there were far less lavish birthdays being booked, according to Malakar.

“It’s sad around here. I wish I could’ve gotten a job in the city proper.” Ramja said.

“Once we get you your language certificate, I can get you in at the bank.” Cecilia said.

“Can you?”

“I’ve got an old friend there, y’know.”

Cecilia gently slowed the car to a stop.

Ahead of them a pair of wooden barriers came down, blocking off a level crossing.

Moments later a massive train thundered past them, pulling many open cars each loaded with military vehicles. Ramja was amazed at some of them. They were armed, tractor-like things, big and rounded off and sharp and heavy, intimidating but fascinating all the same. Those were certainly artillery cannons that they bore, Ramja knew that much. She had read about some of the things that happened during the Ayvartan civil war before.

Cecilia, however, had a concerned look on her face as the long, long train passed them.

“Those are not Sentinels.” She said to herself, in a barely whisper.

“What do you mean?” Ramja asked.

“They’re too big.” Cecilia said. She was still a captive to the sight of the vehicles.

Ramja crossed her arms and sat back and sighed.

She thought of something cheeky to get her attention while they waited out the train.

“How many girlfriends did you have before me, Cecilia?”

“Huh? What? You’re asking– Ugh.”

Cecilia looked so annoyed by the question that Ramja laughed.

Ramja was not insecure about it. Cecilia had made her passion for her very clear.

She was curious though. Nobody could help but be gently curious about such things.

Especially because Cecilia so often mentioned “old friends” who did her favors.

Old lady friends usually.

“Come on, I promise I won’t be mad or jealous. Heck, I’ll tell you, I had a girlfriend once, a girl from the mosque. We called it off because of an arranged marriage. So, your turn.”

After a while of grunting and groaning Cecilia, with an anguished face, said, “just guess.”

Ramja burst out laughing, and tapped her hands on the car door.

“Wow, that many, Cecilia? I knew the first time you made love to me that you must have been a woman with experience. But I thought also, there had to be an upper limit to the number of women in Nocht who slept with other women. Now though, I’m not so sure.”

Ahead of them the train whistled, and the armored vehicles on the cars rattled loudly.

“You look so innocent on the outside, but you’re awful thorny.” Cecilia mumbled.

“It’s an Ayvartan talent. We’re all polite, but also vicious. It’s why everyone hates us.”

“Eh. Damn it. I slept around a lot, okay? I was young, and a mess.” Cecilia said. “That’s just how naive sapphic women communicate in this society, you know? It’s by having sex. We had sex before we could say more than sentence fragments to each other.”

“Wow.” Ramja replied.

“I was young!” Cecilia whined.

Ramja said aloud in mock wonder, “You could’ve been young yesterday.”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“I care now that it’s this much fun.”

“Ugh. I’m going to shut you up the instant we make it through the front door.”

Ramja put on a little grin. “I’d like that.” She patted Cecilia on the shoulder.

Finally the crossing barriers lifted, and the train charged out of sight.

But the little Olympus wasn’t moving across the track yet.

Cecilia looked at Ramja, and finally smiled, and she also, surprisingly, started to tear up.

“I do love you so much, darling.”

Ramja started to tear up as well. Those were words she just was not used to hearing in the Federation of Northern States. For a woman like Cecilia to not just bed her, but love her, and for Ramja to love back. It was hard. It simply didn’t happen.

It felt miraculous.

It wasn’t just Cecilia who was a mess; everything was a mess.

Ramja was a mess too in her own way. The Federation was a mess. The times; oh they were a mess. At least, however, they managed to weather the mess together now.

2031 was not shaping up to be a good year if they were both crying together at the mere thought of two women having a steady relationship, at the thought that past mistakes and current challenges could be reduced to fodder for jokes on a wintry car ride.

2031, however, was their year.


Previous Part || Next Part

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.


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