2.4: Samaritan

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

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


Lyudmilla and the Samaritan bumped fists to seal their compact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh! You’ve done some homework!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how many people are helping?”

“It’s never enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From her hoodie pocket, the Samaritan produced a gun.

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

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

“Draw attention to myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait for it–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Samaritan raised her fists in defense.

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

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

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

No one was waiting for their banter to resolve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two of the boys ran past her.

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

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

She had been waiting for just this opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Already on it!”

The Samaritan darted forward.

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

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

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

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

“Heavy magic missile!”

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

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

Lyudmilla found the attacker immediately after his invocation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lieutenant of what? This band of neanderthals?

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

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

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

She did not need to.

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

As she rose, the Samaritan shouted a spell command:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Samaritan spoke with confidence as she delivered her threat.

Clearly she had had people in her power before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People knew that Minerva was involved in stopping the Summoning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not against the tree!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lyudmilla, are you–?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aqua! Excoria!”

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

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

Magic was a battle of wills.

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

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

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

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

Ajax cackled at her.

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

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

He pointed the spear toward the girl, challenging her.

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

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

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

The girl’s posture softened as her will faltered.

She gasped, and drew back a step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ajax grunted.

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

The Samaritan paused, alarmed by the sudden movement.

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

As if it would be any use.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2.3 Iron Heart

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

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


“Cheryl! I’m home, sweetie.”

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

Cheryl, however, was nowhere to be found.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheryl must have been having a disastrous time of things.

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

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

Her own head was getting a little scrambled.

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

She could have the gun back if she wanted.

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

Sometimes she looked at her hand and imagined it again.

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

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

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

Her Master had her feeling the most ambivalent of all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her head was in the clouds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And people just killed each other.

There was not any official outrage or acknowledgment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some were forced to.

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

She was among the few child soldiers who did magic.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck.”

Lyudmilla began to weep. She found herself weeping.

It happened that suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Cheryl?

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

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

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

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

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

Lyudmilla shouted at the top of her lungs.

She felt a rising, incoherent hatred for everything.

Her breaths started to catch in her chest.

There was no response from anyone around her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right now there was just the fountain.

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

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

At her back, there was still a fountain.

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

She stomped her feet for a moment as she walked.

“Stupid, just, fucking– stupid.”

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

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

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

Except going to this school and getting jerked around.

Fountain–

Lyudmilla snapped her head up. She looked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t care!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? These old things?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Analyzing–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Loading morale module.”

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

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

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

“Unloading morale module.”

“Never!”

“Uninstalling morale module.”

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

This noise intensified to become crunching and stamping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyudmilla lost her inhibitions and charged headlong toward the fountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had real coats at least.

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

But who was that they were fighting?

Some street punk?

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

They stumbled back, clearly losing their balance.

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

One of his fists glowed dimly green and purple.

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

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

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

“Spellcasting detected, assisting–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her featherweight looked quite dizzy.

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

“Are you okay? Say something!”

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

In response, the hooded figure coughed violently and gagged.

“Whoa!”

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

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

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

“What am I supposed to do then?”

In her hands, the hooded figure writhed.

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

Between each cough was a sharp, sucking gasp.

This was followed by a brief muttering.

“Spell waveform detected–“

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

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

Featherweight smacked themselves in the stomach with a shining palm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well then.”

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

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

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

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

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

<<< Previous / Next >>>

2.2: Associations

Lyudmilla Kholodova turned her head from her master to the uniformed newcomer with confusion in her eyes. She felt a faint power from the woman’s hip pack that concerned her. It was not something she had ever felt before. Not the sensation of magic, but something close to it. And it was ambient; though the pack was clearly turned off, making no noise and doing nothing that could be seen by those responsive to auras, it was still giving off something. It was like a smell with no scent for the nose.

All that one felt from it was tingling and burning with no distinct texture to it.

Von Drachen’s previous statement, asking Minerva about Moloch, had been worded like a challenge. The agent’s face and body language made it clear that she relished the power and authority she carried. Her mouth curled slowly into a self satisfied smile. She seemed on the verge of licking her lips, as if she had taken a delectable bite.

“I feel I am still in the dark as to the nature of your presence.” Minerva said. Lyudmilla noticed that she carefully avoided answering the question at hand. She herself kept quiet while Minerva and the agent talked. She felt an intense pressure in the room.

In response to Minerva throwing the question back on her, Von Drachen crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, still smiling. “I know you’re a migrant, so maybe you don’t really know this all that well. But ten years ago we Noctean people allied with your country as part of the Roterosz Agreement to enact a suppression campaign against the primordial Etherian called ‘Mother Hydra.’ Of course, Noct quite handily defeated this monster for all your sakes’. Part of this agreement afterward was that Otraria would investigate and suppress Summoning magic and the summoning of Etherians, or allow Panopticon to do so. Now, a Summoning occurred; so Panopticon is here.”

“Forgive me, and no disrespect is intended to you, but Otraria is not my country.” Minerva said. “I live and work here, but you presume too much saying any more.”

She said this in a controlled, almost glib tone of voice. But Von Drachen was unfazed.

“Regardless, Ms. Orizaga, as someone who Iives and works here, in a University meant to turn out dabblers in the chaos of magic, you are as responsible for the quelling of forbidden powers as any one of your similarly-endowed peers.” Von Drachen said.

“Indeed, and quell the forbidden power I did. You likely already have access to all of my statements, so there’s no need for me to be subjected to your circular questioning.”

Lyudmilla was flabbergasted by the way they talked to each other. Both were perfectly calm, their voices and sentences completely controlled. They were like snakes coiling around each other, but neither had launched a bite. She had never felt such passive aggression coming from two souls. She was much more used to open insults.

Minerva’s face was neutral, inexpressive. Von Drachen continued to smile.

Their eyes locked together. Von Drachen split her crossed arms to put one on her hip and raised her remaining fingers to her lips, delicately laughing at no one in particular.

“Forgive me, I perhaps came off the wrong way. In fact, I am an admirer of sorts, you could say. I don’t want to know the bare facts of the situation. But rather, I’d love for you to demonstrate the power that allows a teaching assistant from an oppressed ethnicity, alienated from halls of magical knowledge for generations, to defeat an Etherian single-handedly. Anyone who kills Etherians is a friend to the Republic.”

“For as much as you hate magic, Ms. Drachen, you don’t understand it very well.”

Minerva’s face was perfectly composed, but Von Drachen’s lips curled slightly down.

“Please do refer to me as ‘Von Drachen,’ you misunderstand how our honorifics work.”

“Apologies.” Minerva said. “At any rate, frau Von Drachen, the study of magic is at an all time low point. Most magicians haven’t the learning, motivation, skill or willpower to perfect even the simplest magical practices. As a teacher of magic, I’m already far above the average magician by the very fact that I have mastered anything at all.”

“Could your fellow teachers have defeated Moloch then?” Von Drachen asked.

“Some could have.” Minerva replied. She might not have been lying, Lyudmilla thought. Certainly, Beatrix Kolsa gave off an aura of strength and confidence that rivaled even what Lyudmilla had seen of Minerva. But she was one of the few good ones in the young student’s estimation. Minerva was right. Most magicians today, were hopeless.

Of course, Lyudmilla herself was quite good at it, she thought.

It was just the darned exams and essays that were a problem.

As Minerva spoke, Von Drachen’s little orb flew about, its central eye expanding and contracting like the lens of a very high-tech camera. They were being filmed, maybe even cross-referenced in some kind of way. Could it perhaps see their auras? Was it transmitting information to Panopticon? Maybe that’s why Minerva was tight-lipped.

Lyudmilla’s eye was then drawn past Von Drachen and to the doorway behind her.

There were students coming and going to class, and all of the ones crossing past their door threshold seemed anxious and casting glances at the wall just off to the side of the doorway. Lyudmilla thought then that someone else must have been out there. None of them were looking through the doorway, so it was not just Von Drachen.

In the next instant, Lyudmilla’s master must have thought the same.

“Tell your partner to come in and stop scaring the students.” Minerva said.

“Oh!”

Von Drachen played cute for a second. She grinned and clapped her hands together.

“I’ll introduce you then. Catalina, you may join me.” Von Drachen said.

A second figure entered the room in response to these words. She wore the same tri-color style uniform, but she was taller and had a pronounced figure compared to the slimmer Von Drachen. Her long dark hair and perfectly blunt bangs gave her a manicured, princess-like appearance, and she had a placid smile. Unlike the pearl-pale Von Drachen, this agent’s skin was a honey-colored tan, with eyes fiercely orange.

Her expression, however, was similar. She was smiling, and seemed quite amused.

“I did not intend to scare the students, Ms. Orizaga. You will hopefully forgive me. I’ve a presence that some have referred to as ‘unsettling.’ I’m Catalina Pedros-Robles.”

Lyudmilla could immediately tell what she meant. That foreboding feeling that she got from Von Drachen, she got three times as pronounced from Pedros-Robles. Whatever their auras were made of, Pedros-Robles had a thicker, far more violent version of that aura. Lyudmilla understood that people from Noct were unable to do magic, so she wondered what it was that she was feeling from the two of them, if that was the case.

Pedros-Robles extended a hand to politely shake Minerva’s.

Minerva abstained. She cast a callous glance over at Von Drachen.

For her part, Von Drachen grunted, but retained her smiling demeanor.

“Well, Ms. Orizaga, this conversation feels like it has become unproductive. So let me just be blunt. Whenever I call upon you, I will expect you to drop everything and come to the aid of my investigation. That is the true objective of my visit. As one of the first persons of this esteemed Academy to come into contact with an Etherian in years, you are a crucial piece of this puzzle. I will have you, whenever I desire. Understood?”

She extended her own hand in place of Pedros-Robles’ hand.

Lyudmilla was scandalized at the rather dubious wording of Von Drachen’s demand.

She turned to Minerva to see what she would do.

Her master was still unshaken by any of the agent’s provocations.

Once again, Minerva left the Noctish officers hanging. She refused to take the hand.

“I am more than willing to follow all appropriate law and policy to resolve this matter.”

That was all Minerva said. Von Drachen withdrew her hand.

“Hmph. Let us to see to that then. Catalina had a curiosity earlier, which I share.”

Von Drachen nodded her head at Pedros-Robles, who metaphorically took the stage.

“Ms. Orizaga,” Pedros-Robles began, “is it not true that the summoning site of the Etherian is now tainted? Is it not true, that all persons that came into contact with it are tainted by its touch? That the object that summoned it, which remains in this Academy, is tainted by its influence still? What’s stopping this catastrophe from simply unraveling the same way again? Should we not, say, quarantine all involved?”

As Pedros-Robles spoke, the violent grin on her face grew ever wider.

Minerva chuckled, in a quite obviously mocking fashion.

“Lyudmilla, how much do you know about associations?”

She turned to her student, who had so far never spoken once. Her eyes had fully disengaged from Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles as if ignoring the both of them. A smiling, inquisitive, cheerful face had taken the place of Minerva’s vacant expression of the previous conversations. Lyudmilla was taken aback, having been put on the spot so suddenly. She glanced at the officers and found them suddenly less amused.

“Uh, can you refresh my memory?” Lyudmilla asked.

At that point, Minerva turned back to their guests, both of whom grew slightly sullen.

“What about you, officer Von Drachen? Do you know?”

Von Drachen pursed her lips slightly.

“I’ve an inkling of it.” She said. “But go on, elaborate for your student.”

Minerva nodded. “I shall elaborate for all. I think you two have the most to learn today.”

She stood from her desk, and slowly picked up an object from it. It was a horn, as if pulled from the skull of a cow, or more like a ram. It was curved and brown-black.

Minerva was careful to pick it up without it seeming like a sudden movement.

Lyudmilla, who had dealt with police in the past, knew the kind of way Minerva was moving at that moment. And yet, she saw none of the twitchiness that an ordinary pig would have if someone like Minerva reached for a mysterious object while under scrutiny. Both Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles remained perfectly still, and Minerva’s movements were unacknowledged by them. It was as if they were fully confident they could not come to harm in her presence, no matter what she tried to do to them.

Von Drachen’s orb dilated its central eye, but made no sudden movements of its own.

“Trying not to get too far into theoretical metaphysics, but all magic is built on association.” Minerva said. “This horn, for example, I simply pulled from the old bones of a dead animal from the Agrimancy building. It is associated mildly with the Earth.”

Minerva held it up. “Concentrate on it. Can you see it?”

Von Drachen scoffed. “I can’t see a thing.”

Pedros-Robles concentrated. “I see something, dimly.”

Lyudmilla squinted her eyes at the horn.

When she concentrated on it she felt like a filter had gone over her eyes.

There were dim tongues of light that moved like fire, or perhaps like a gas bleeding off of the horn. Lyudmilla could not explain it precisely, but it was aura. There was an aura around the object, and if she concentrated, she could see it as the color of soil and sand, and she could feel its texture. Gritty, rough; particulate like dust through fingers.

“You can say magic is the power of imagination. When we look at something in just the right way, when we feel something is correct, or that it makes sense, it can become magic to us. That’s the power of associations. It’s a basic word we use in magical studies to describe the relationships that worldly concepts have to each other in a magical context. Because we believe in them so strongly as to be subsconscious, and because they make so much sense to us there, they make it easier to do magic.”

Minerva withdrew a wand from her jacket.

“May I demonstrate, agents?” Minerva said.

Von Drachen shrugged. “I abhor the use of magic, but you people do what you must.”

Minerva smiled, and swiped the wand over the surface of the horn and intoned a spell.

“From death, make life anew: Prithvi’s blossoming!”

After her incantation, a tiny sliver of green vine began slowly to grow out of the cracks in the bone. A thin trickle of dust and earth seeped out of the crack as the vine curled.

“Calcium, bone, meal for plants.” Minerva said. “Plants are life associated with the Earth. Plants are associated with soil. They are associated with death, with bones, with carcasses. They are associated with life because they can grow fertilized off ‘death.'”

She put the horn down on the table. Lyudmilla hardly understood the gesture.

A tiny, limp little vine growing out of that wasted old horn. What was so special there?

And yet, Von Drachen and Pedros-Robles seemed curious about it.

“Creating life with magic is extremely hard.” Minerva said. “But if you think about it in just the right ways, and if you temper your expectations, it is not outright impossible.”

“Fascinating.” Von Drachen said, sarcastically. “What is your point, professor?”

Minerva nodded. “Such impatient students these days.”

She picked up the horn again and gave it a wan look. The vine that had grown from it was already parched and started to curl up and turn yellowed. It was in a sorry state.

There was a look in Minerva’s eyes almost like she felt responsible for it.

Lyudmilla could see that concern.

She’d seen that paternalistic expression directed her eye from others before.

And yet Minerva was just looking at a tiny insignificant vine she conjured up.

She continued the lecture, turning the horn over in her hands.

“Because the ambient magic of the world stirs for human thought, human thought controls reality. But we have a very incomplete understanding of our minds, so magic and spellcasting are very abstract. And yet, the way we learn, is by associating concepts together. We associate glyphs with specific sounds and words. Words associate with concepts to form our understanding of reality. In a way, every spell is just a really powerful Association between numerous concepts: it’s a shortcut, let’s call it, that tricks your brain into believing without a doubt that magic can happen. We call this field of study a fancier name, Metamagic, but it’s actually very philosophical.”

Minerva put down the horn and pointed her wand at it.

“But associations work both ways. They can be positive and negative,” she began to transition then to an incantation. “Otar’s Torch, lend me a day in the light of Sol.”

From her wand a beam of gentle warmth suffused the vine growing around the horn.

For a brief instant, the vine jerked; Lyudmilla thought that Minerva desired the vine to grow again by giving it light for photosynthesizing. However, the plant’s health took no better turn. Beyond that initial spasm, it would not grow nor become any more green. In fact, it seemed to be curling back in, withering around the bone that had borne it.

“This light is associated with Fire. Earth is resisting it, and the plant wont recover.”

Minerva lifted her wand, and put down both the horn and the instrument.

“Of course, I contrived that whole scenario. If my objective had been to try to grow a tiny vine that can be nourished by the sun, I could have done that with a different sort of effort. But I wanted to demonstrate to officer Pedros-Robles that ideas like ‘evil magic corrupting the land’ are more complicated than she thinks they are.” She said.

“I’m unconvinced, unfortunately.” Pedros-Robles replied. She shrugged.

“How about a more common example?” Minerva said. She seemed to smile even brighter at the challenge. “Say you’re trying to use magic to start a campfire. It obviously helps if you have flammable material; but not just because of the physical properties of, say, a pile of dry wood. Because even if you had wet wood, and even if you had a brick, you could use magic to set it on fire. But Burning has a strong affinity to Wood; there is strong positive association to the idea that you can burn wood, no matter the state the wood is in. So if you have wood, it’s just easier to cast fire magic on it than it is to cast it on a brick or on a rock. You could burn a puddle of water, if you tried hard enough, but there’s a strong negative association to the concept of burning water, so it would be a lot harder, maybe even impossibly harder, for a normal magician to burn water than to burn wood. Does that make sense, Lyudmilla? Officers?”

Lyudmilla felt like she was losing the plot at this point. “Duh? Obviously?”

Von Drachen shrugged. “I feel as if I’m being treated like a child.”

“Then let us end the childishness.” Minerva said.

In the next instant, Von Drachen’s orb stood dead still in the air as Minerva spoke.

“Calling upon Tyrants is a form of magic you call ‘Summoning.'”

Out of nowhere and quite bluntly, she said the exact words to get everyone in the room to draw their eyes open, where before they had been halfway shut by then.

“Summoning,” Minerva continued, without skipping a beat or letting anyone recover from her previous statement, reciting the facts as if she had been reading from a very forbidden book, “is essentially, an altered form of Conjuration that breaks the rules of Conjuring. Instead of creating a copy, you bring in an approximation of the real Tyrant, a vessel, that can spread its demesne and gradually become fully realized. It has life, agency, a personality; in fact it can have many of the original’s characteristics, even if you don’t know those powers or are aware of that personality yourself. This is because Tyrants are made of magic, and any magic that makes them will make the original in some form. In essence, any copy will become the original eventually. However, by its very nature summoning is chaotic. You can only barely control the form that the being will be summoned in, and which of its characteristics and personalities will be called.”

As far as Lyudmilla knew, Summoning was forbidden. While it was possible, perhaps, to know about Summoning, to know Summoning was illegal, evil, anarchic, a threat to civilization. Minerva must have known as much as she did in her capacity as a teacher to teach the vile-ness and degeneracy of Summoning. But Lyudmilla had seen Minerva do incredible magic before. Perhaps, could Minerva know how to Summon also?

If she did though, why would she be telling officers from Noct, the anti-magic nation?

At that moment, the orb was dutifully recording her.

Who knew who else was watching?

“Like any spell, it helps if you build powerful associations to help you Summon a Tyrant.” Minerva continued, again pausing for no one. “So having an object that is associated with it, or being in a location associated with it, or performing rituals that are strongly associated with it; all those things could possibly help a magician carry out a Summoning. Maybe not the fully formed or complete version of the Tyrant, but the Tyrant can piece itself together once it’s been summoned, since its Demesne will eventually spread and start gobbling up all the magic around it no matter where it shows up or in what form it appears. A Tyrant’s original will always be recreated.”

Von Drachen cracked a little grin. “Minerva Orizaga, are you trying to make me suspicious of you to deflect from your students? Is that your game now?”

“No.” Minerva bluntly and simply replied. “Only someone who knew nothing about magic would think that I am capable of Summoning by merely knowing those facts. What I just told you, is told to Otrarian schoolkids when they enter their first magic schools, to dissuade them from walking a path we view as evil and degenerate.”

Von Drachen’s face turned mildly surly once again. She closed her hands into fists.

Lyudmilla had not had formal magical education, so she had not received that same spiel. Her mind was also fuzzy on this concept of ‘Associations’ that Minerva was so fond of; but she knew Summoning was no good. She also knew maybe Otrarians spoke too soon when they considered themselves to have eliminated Summoning, as recent events had proven. Regardless, Minerva had just called Von Drachen a child.

The agent was visibly not taking it as well as she had past instances of disrespect.

Pedros-Robles interjected. “Wherever your knowledge came from, and whatever you’re capable of, Minerva Orizaga, you’ve made it clear to us that we are correct. You agree that the clearing in the forest is now associated with the Etherian, Moloch.”

Minerva shook her head. “It has a weak association to Tyrant summoning in general, and a strong association to the summoning of Moloch specifically: but I wouldn’t worry about that though. It is not any more helpful than trying to summon an Ayvartan water deity by standing in the Baryat river. Summoning is extremely chaotic and complex.”

“If it’s as you say, though, a strong association with Moloch would help, no?”

Von Drachen tried to interject again, but was immediately made to feel put in her place when Minerva retorted. Her tone was perfectly akin to a schoolteacher’s scolding.

“Zero points, officer. Moloch has associations too, and they are both positive and negative! That’s what I have been trying to get all of you to understand. Yes, Moloch is associated with fire strongly, and that clearing is associated with him. But because Moloch is contained now, it would be difficult to summon him again. He is now strongly associated to being defeated, contained, dispersed, quenched. The orb he was sealed in is also drained, and similarly broken, so it won’t be of much use for a ritual either.”

“That’s nonsense.” Von Drachen said. “So if I were to lay a beating on you, Minerva Oriziaga, would you be associated with defeat? Would you be unable to do magic?”

Minerva smiled softly.

Despite her previous intensity, she not only held the strength and command that a schoolteacher possessed when scolding, but also had the softness and harmlessness of one when she was treating the children with motherly care. Perhaps this too was part of the lesson. Lyudmilla wondered if all of this could be an Association as well.

“I’m not an anarchic being made purely out of magic, so if you could defeat me, officer, the magical effects would be rather more minor than the violence you would cause to my physical body. And of course, the violence you cause to me, and the ignominy of it, might stick to you too. In life, karma cuts us every which way.” Minerva responded.

Von Drachen turned around, with a flourish of her arm and started out the door.

She showed them her back, and they could not see what her expression became.

“I’m satisfied. We’ll talk again, Minerva Orizaga. Come, Catalina.”

Her voice was terse, and her tone low, but she did not sound too upset.

Pedros-Robles gave a gentle bow of the head before departing with her superior.

Lyudmilla watched them go with a sense of glowing admiration for her master.

Minerva had stood so tall against such intimidating foes! She had dismantled them with logic, facts and reason! Despite the circumstances, she never lost her cool!

“Master, that was incredible!”

Her heart swelled with pride, and quickly deflated with it.

As soon as the officers were out the door and around the corner, Minerva instantly collapsed back into her office chair, her eyes closed and a hanging-jaw expression on her face. A look of such lamentation and wretchedness took over her powerful Master then; Lyudmilla almost felt whipped in the face by the suddenness of the change.

On her desk, dropping so suddenly on her chair made the bone shake, and the vine crumbled, sliding from the cracks in the horn. Lyudmilla spotted a little nub of matter in the biggest crack in the horn: like a seed, or a bean, or something like that, already in it.

In the next instant, Minerva put a hand over her face and started to moan openly.

“Ah, damn it, I really hope they won’t go to the forest. I really hope they won’t go get the orb. I really don’t want to do that paperwork. I really don’t want to tag along for any of that. I hope that hocus-pocus dissuaded them from bothering at all. I really do! It’d all be so annoying, you know? I’m already so busy, and this would take so much time–“

She descended into practically mumbling.

Lyudmilla put her arms to her hips and scowled. It was her turn to act the schoolmarm, her gushing replaced with a rising anger at her suddenly disgraceful arcane master.

“Get yourself together, I can’t believe all of this! So you’re telling me you just lied to avoid having to tag along with their investigation? Because you’re fucking lazy?”

Minerva lifted her hands off her own face to peek at Lyudmilla.

Her expression was blank.

“I’m not lazy. I’m working smart, not hard. And at any rate. Some of it was facts, but there’s a lot open to interpretation, you know? Metamagic is above my pay-grade–“

“Fuck you.” Lyudmilla said, in as blunt a voice as she could manage.

Minerva blinked at her.

“With all due respect, Master, you’re full of shit! I’m going back to the dorms!”

As unfazed by Lyudmilla’s anger as by Von Drachen’s scrutiny, Minerva shrugged.

“This is why everyone’s becoming an engineer now, I guess.”

By the time Minerva was through with her sentence, Lyudmilla was already stomping out the door with her hands balled up at her sides and her teeth grit. Her Master was mostly unconcerned, however. After all, they were strongly associated now too.


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2.1: Mischievous Student

Magic: A learned ability to manipulate ambient arcane energies. Human minds can be triggered to agitate aura through various mnemonics, gestures and recitations. Once the aura is stirred from its ambient form it can cause various perceivable effects on the world.


There was a knock on the door and Minerva’s head snapped up from a stack of quizzes.

“Come in!” She shouted. Finally, she’d gotten Niko to come in for office hours!

There was nearly imperceptible shimmering as the door opened.

Cocking a big grin, Lyudmilla Kholodova took long steps into the room, her head held up high. Her hair was arranged in two purple-streaked tails, and each seemed to float for just a second as she stepped through the door. Similarly but more subtly, there was a mild tug on her uniform while she crossed through. She dropped her bookbag beside Minerva’s desk and dropped herself on a chair to examine her well-kept hair.

“Hey, what’s going on over there?” She asked. “My hair’s all tingly.”

Minerva sighed.

Lyudmilla frowned in response. “Wow. Nice to see you too, boss.”

“No, no, it’s not you.” Minerva reached out and patted Lyudmilla condescendingly on the head. “I had an appointment with a student set a half hour ago but he’s not shown up.”

Rather than complain Lyudmilla leaned into the petting in an unsettling way.

This had its perhaps intended effect of getting Minerva to stop.

“Anyway– afternoon, Master.” Lyudmilla grinned again. “Why did you decide to enchant your door? What did you do to it? Am I rigged to explode now if I act against your will?”

“What? Of course not. Who do you take me for?”

“Well, I don’t really know that yet.” She replied.

There was a bad feeling in Minerva’s stomach but she willed it away.

Instead she urged Lyudmilla to look behind herself for a moment.

Minerva swiped her wand at the doorway and lifted up a little basin that had been slotted just under the door threshold. Lyudmilla’s eyes drew wide as she spotted it.

“Oh, I think I get it.” She said, a delighted smile on her face.

She was easy to please (or distract) at least.

Minerva proudly explained her trick. “I put a weak Forbidding Lattice on the doorway. It is calibrated to forbid very very small things with very specific qualities. So in effect, it pushes the dirt and bugs right off anyone that comes in and collects it in the basin.”

“Huh. That’s the laziest thing I’ve ever heard of.” Lyudmilla grinned.

“I have a tight schedule! I have to save time where I can.”

Her office was always very clean, and magical shortcuts were certainly a part of it.

She stared back at the door. Niko was not coming, was he? Minerva started to worry.

But she couldn’t be consumed by the student who would not come when she had a student, and especially her apprentice, right in front of her. She put it out of her mind.

In fact she remembered she had something prepared for Lyudmilla anyway.

“Oh right. One second, Milla.”

Barely speaking, she swept her wand and Lyudmilla’s bag floated up onto the desk.

“No weed in there, I promise.” Lyudmilla said, raising her hands defensively.

“I’m not– oh nevermind. Here, I got you a present.”

Minerva opened a drawer in her desk and produced a plastic wrapped stack of books.

She had the books fly over to Lyudmilla’s bag, but she intercepted them in the air.

“Oh what are these? This is heavy.”

Lyudmilla ripped open the plastic with her fingers and picked a book out of the stack.

Minerva could not tell what the cover said. It was all in Rusean Cyrillic text.

That very fact immediately delighted Lyudmilla.

“Oh my god! This is incredible. You got me all my textbooks in Cyrillic?”

Lyudmilla flipped through the books with a massive, childish smile on her face.

It had taken calling in a few favors, but it was satisfying to see her pupil so happy.

“I figured some of the problem with your grades might have been a language barrier. You can read and write Otrarian, I know that much, but every little bit helps, right?”

Minerva crossed her arms and smiled as wide and brightly at her amazed pupil.

“Hell, one of the reasons I learned silent and shorthand casting was to avoid Otrarian.”

“How did you learn that, by the way?” Lyudmilla asked, still flipping the pages of the book and seemingly marveling at what they said to her now. “You still have not told me where all your superpowers come from, and I feel like I’ve asked every day since then.”

Then.

Minerva averted her eyes. “It’s not easy to talk about. I promise I’ll tell you eventually, but just give me a minute right now, okay? As for the shorthand casting, it’s weird.”

Lyudmilla flipped through one of her cyrillic textbooks. “You just said literally nothing.”

“I’m sorry, okay? Just trust me for right now.” Minerva sighed.

“Sure thing, Master.”

“Ugh.”

Minerva stared at the door briefly and then turned her gaze back on Lyudmilla.

“Okay, well, Niko isn’t coming, so I’ll just tutor you.” She said.

Lyudmilla looked at her over the book. “Tutor me in what? I don’t have homework.”

“You do now.”

She passed her a handwritten set of discussion questions that she had intended to go over with Niko Klein, covering several things in the current and former unit that had given him trouble. Most of them had also given Lyudmilla trouble, judging by her quiz answers and generally mediocre grades, so she figured it was a good way to make use of the work she had already done. It might also keep Lyudmilla shut for a bit, god willing.

Of course, it was immediately obvious the latter would not happen.

“I can’t believe this– this betrayal! I trusted you! I thought your office would be a safe space for me! You even have the stupid ‘safe space’ sign on your door!” Lyudmilla cried.

She put on a cartoonishly distraught expression as she manhandled the question sheet.

“My office will never be a safe space from schoolwork.” Minerva said.

“I’m never coming here again!” Lyudmilla shouted in even more cartoonish distress.

“You will come here and you will turn all your 60s into 90s.” Minerva replied firmly.

Lyudmilla stared at her, mouth agape for a second. “Master, I don’t know whether to be in shock that you think I can score 90s, or distressed that you think I can’t score 100s.”

“We’ll make you a 100s student next year. That’s my goal.” Minerva said.

She put her hand on her chest and closed her eyes solemnly as if swearing an oath.

Lyudmilla hung her head in surrender.

Soon they were deep into the sheet, engaging in a deadly duel of questions and answers.

Lyudmilla had put down all her books and was working from memory.

Minerva was reading from the sheet and tried not to be too merciless.

She quickly reckoned that she had failed to soften herself.

“Name and explain three different kinds of spells.”

“Enchantments last as long as they’re fed aura, Blessings and Curses last until dispelled, and Hexes are short lived spells exclusively targeting someone else. Did I get that right?”

“That is right. Date the first recorded Diyah scripture and explain what they believed.”

“Um, the Diyah, that’s 73 D.C.E right? And they believed in a divine life-giving light.”

“Come on, you can do better. That’s a 60 point answer.”

“Well, 65 points is a pass, so I’m pretty close.”

“I don’t want you to just pass.”

“Fine. Let me think. Uh. They believed in the obfuscation–”

“Occultation. The Occultation of the Mahdi.”

“Right. That’s like, there’s this guy, like, a super sweet dude, and he’s hidden himself as a test to see if people are worthy of him, and he’ll come back someday when the followers prove that they deserve to be saved or something like that. Did I get that right?”

“Well, we’re up to 75 point answers, once we correct for grammar.”

Lyudmilla put her head down on the desk. “You’re a Tyrant, a literal Tyrant.”

Minerva winced at the suggestion. Some of it was maybe, technically, sort of, correct.

On accident, hopefully. Though, certainly, depending on how much Lyudmilla recalled of the events of the past few weeks, she had all the clues she needed to put it all together.

At least she was still just calling her Master and not, say, Lord Wyrm.

She tapped her wand on Lyudmilla’s head, not to do any magic, just to annoy her.

“You’re doing your reading, so that’s good. I’m proud of you.”

Lyudmilla turned her head sideways on the table, so she had one eye staring at Minerva’s hand. She had on a pensive expression and Minerva did not know what to make of it. It was as if she wanted to say something, so Minerva retracted her hand and gave her space to think. In a few moments, she raised herself back up and crossed her arms. She stared directly at Minerva, put on a little smile and tossed her twintailed hair.

“I figured out what that spell you used in the demesne does.” She finally said.

The demesne. Again with the thing that happened that Minerva did not want to discuss.

At this point however it was impossible to sidestep.

“What do you mean?” Minerva asked. She had cast a lot of magic in Moloch’s demesne.

Lyudmilla meant her statement to be provocative and she was delighted by the response.

“That Sudes spell. Magic gets buffed by the butt of the stake and weakened by the tip.”

“You saw me cast that, huh?” Minerva said, staring at Lyudmilla.

Sudes, “The Messiah’s Seven Castigating Stakes,” was not a spell one just found in the 5000 mark school packet bought from the library shop. The battle against Moloch had been desperate, and Minerva had not taken care to only use magic that would be safe and normal for a student to see and learn about. Had she done so, she could have died, even with Moloch’s weakened state. She was surprised that Lyudmilla had been sober enough and paying enough attention to have retained that detail from the encounter.

Minerva had figured (perhaps naively desired was more accurate) that Lyudmilla’s brain would buckle under the shock and terror of a Tyrant encounter and block out most of the details. Inside the demesne she had looked like her eyes were glazed over. Was she that resilient, or did Minerva just really underestimate kids these days? Either way, with her mischievous personality, Minerva had wanted to avoid disclosing anything to her.

After all, a lot of it was information she would have loved to avoid disclosing to herself.

That was probably unfair of her to do. Even if it involved trauma, even if it meant revealing ugly things. Minerva was her master and Lyudmilla was her apprentice. They were supposed to have a bond in magic and life that was different than the normal student-teacher relationship — closer to family. They were both outsiders also.

Lyudmilla seemed to have something of a past too. She was probably safe to talk to.

“It’s a difficult spell to cast. I could show you when I think you’re ready.” Minerva said.

“I cast it already. It’s how I broke up the demesne.” Lyudmilla replied bluntly.

Broke up the demesne?

Gods defend, it was Minerva’s memory of the encounter with Moloch that had buckled under the trauma. It hit her then like a brick that she had recklessly thrown herself at Moloch (using wyrm’s power?) and ordered Lyudmilla to infiltrate deeper into the demesne and attack its weakness. She had treated her like a soldier, made her execute a flank; she felt mortified at how much of that day was just scrambled in her memory.

Sighing deeply, Minerva replied, “It’s called Sudes, the Seven Castigating Stakes of the Messiah. And it is an extremely dangerous spell to just use willy-nilly Lyudmilla.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She sighed a little herself.

“Well, yeah, I kinda fucked it up I guess. It really gave me a beating, you could throw out so many of those stakes but I could only make one or two. I only knew it from your lips. You mouthed an incantation and I picked it up. I filled in the rest myself best as I could.”

Minerva blinked hard. To cast even one Sudes without training in such a dangerous and stressful environment was impressive. Certainly, anyone could cast any sort of spell if they knew the mnemonic and the basic principles of magic (and had an unlocked Homunculus, like Lyudmilla now did thanks to the card Minerva gave her and which she had not thought to ask for back). However, most people who cast something like Sudes would not “take a beating” and would instead keel over dead, bereft of their vitae.

“Don’t just copy spells at random, even if you technically can. Your arcanometry is advanced but unpracticed, and you’ll just hurt yourself. Please promise me.” She said.

Lyudmilla glanced askance and mumbled grumpily in response, “I promise.”

Minerva put down her wand, and concentrated for an instant.

Magic was a lot of factors working at once. It was a herculean effort that seemed effortless because it was carried out in an instant. It was trial in the space of error.

Human minds did not move like muscles did. To think was the most instantaneous action one could imagine, encompassing universes within instants in between any amount of perceivable time. Because humans thought, and were surrounded by auras and vitae, and because humans possessed a connection to the elements that gave off these auras and energies, they could perform magic. To think, therefore, to cast, one could say.

Communities shaped their environments through action; at a global scale, the human organism composed of billions of bodies, shaped the entire world. On the most quantum microscopic scale imaginable, a human thought was a world-shaping action too. Magic was the result of thought, and thought was influenced by input, like the light entering the eyes that became visual imagery, the vibrations that were interpreted as sound; and it was given shape too, by the muscle actions that created speech, breath and movement.

Magic was profoundly difficult to explain. It was easier in the time of Otar the Great, who claimed that God had given him the power. And yet what was academically known as Divine magic now was very different than the Otarian wizardry practiced in Otraria. Minerva cast magic like people took footsteps. On some level, she barely recognized that she was doing it. Nobody had to think to take a footstep. Similarly, most wizards who did not have a great being of fire embedded in them and an archmage for a childhood mentor cast magic like a musician played an instrument. On some level, it became rote, and in the way one knew to control one’s breathing, to hit a key or a string just so

All of that was Magic.

And if the act of playing was the rote, then the incantation was the sheet music to learn.

All of Magic was an effect caused by thought, but to perform specific, controlled effects, required the brain to think in specific ways and the body to act it out in specific ways.

Wizards employed a mnemonic of some kind to trick their brains into casting spells.

The homunculus used barely perceptible light patterns, special audio waveforms and even direct injection of pulses into the flesh to help fulfill what were once long incantations, smoke tricks, prayer music and other mnemonics, gestures and autosuggestions, reducing the act to second’s worth of sensory and physical activity. Because they lived in a fallen time long since Otar’s death after all; people did not have the time or patience for the long form when they could just say the name of the spell.

And even the latter concession was more of a requirement for sanity’s sake.

To Minerva, casting Sudes meant intending to cast Sudes, grasping with her hand like the stake was already in it, and then calling out Sudes. Under particular stress or if she needed to concentrate the magic more she could call them the Seven Castigating Stakes, taking more time to develop stronger mnemonics. To her brain, Sudes meant images of the Messiah, the stakes in his body; the specific waveform of his cries and prayers; the smell of the sand in the holy land; and the feeling of remorse for humanity’s cruelty. Feelings, senses, information — understanding shaped the magic. Sudes meant a weapon intended half to deliver one from magic and half to deliver one to magic as Lyudmilla pointed out. One end “buffs,” one end breaks. One end was in the open air of the land of Al-Zujaj, and the other end soaked in blood from the flesh of the avatar as he died–

She couldn’t help but twirl it after it manifested, and almost hit Lyudmilla. The Sudes was a wooden stake about the thickness of a cheerleading baton and the length of a throwing javelin. One end was blunt and just ever so vaguely rounded compared to the rest, while the other end was smoothly tapered off and mildly sharp. All of it looked worn, ancient.

All of it swept right in front of Lyudmilla like a swung sword.

“Ah! Sorry!” Minerva said. She dispelled the stake after the demonstration.

Lyudmilla had immediately backed up, defending herself with raised arms.

“Whoa, be careful with that.” Lyudmilla said. “Hey, are you ok?”

Minerva noticed that her face was sweaty, and she was breathing heavily.

It felt like all the air had left her lungs. Her stomach felt hollow suddenly.

She felt like she could tell apart all the nerves in her brain as pinpricks of pain.

This was not Moloch’s demesne after all. This was the material world.

Casting magic in the material world was much harder.

A Tyrant’s demesne draws magic out; the material world pushes magic in.

“I’m fine.” Minerva said. “This is a really tricky spell. It’s very powerful. Conjurations in general require tons of magic y’know? Creating an independent physical body and all.”

“Then that’s not the real stake you got there.” Lyudmilla said. “Conjurations are all fakes.”

She was learning! That was indeed a property of conjurations, a type of magic.

“Correct, they’re not real. Those real stakes got thrown out or burnt or buried. What matters is the image of the stake; the metaphorical stake. That’s what Sudes is. Copies of the seven stakes that killed the Messiah. Artifacts like that, with history that sticks in people’s minds, often inspire spellcraft.” She realized how much she sounded like an encyclopedia text to speech bot and paused for a moment to gauge Lyudmilla’s reaction. The girl seemed captivated by it, rather than bored or confused, so Minerva supposed she was doing something right. “You were right about their properties. One end will amplify magic that strikes it and the other end will weaken it. So I buried the weakening end into the Tyrant and kept the strengthening end open to the air for my purposes.”

“Yeah, I kinda thought so. I did that trick too.” Lyudmilla said. She was being pretty casual about what should have been an utterly horrifying experience. Perhaps it was the distance to it; or maybe Lyudmilla had been conditioned in some way to accept such things. She continued, looking smug. “I knew I couldn’t break apart all the machines in the demesne by myself, because I don’t really know any big explosive magic like you probably do. So I buried the weakening end of a stake into the machines to bring down their resistance and then used the buffing bit to amplify my magnetic spell.”

“I’m sorry that I made you fight like that, Lyudmilla.” Minerva said. Even if Lyudmilla was alright and seemingly satisfied with herself, that whole situation was a massive failure on Minerva’s fault to protect her charge. She had thrown in to defend her students but ended up using a student as a tool. “Even if you were clever enough for it.”

“It’s not a problem. Aren’t apprentices basically just an arch-wizard’s troops anyway?” Lyudmilla leaned back on her chair and waved her hand in the air as if the tension in the room was smoke and she was trying to dispel it. “Anyway, you said there were Seven stakes or something, but you made more than seven of those though, I’m pretty sure.”

Minerva blinked, still a little shocked by the composure of her new apprentice.

And her apparent enthusiasm at becoming “an arch-wizard’s troops.”

Nevertheless she continued to explain. After all, an engaged student was a rare delight, and even if it was not course material, Minerva loved to teach things to a willing mind.

“Depending on my intentions, I can conjure copies of the copies that are even weaker but satisfy my needs. In the demesne, I used Sudes to spread Bariq, desert lightning, across Moloch’s body to intensify the effect. He had so much mass that he would have barely felt one stake or one bolt striking his body, no matter how powerful the bolt was. He was mostly made of metal though, so with enough contacts, I could shock all of his body.”

“Huh. So being that big had its upsides.” Lyudmilla said. “He seemed really weak compared to you. Looking back on it, you kinda made a clown of a Tyrant there.”

Minerva shook her head. She did not want Lyudmilla to think she was some invincible juggernaut. There was a ready explanation. “I think because of the circumstances of the summoning, Moloch was forced to express his element of Fire through the medium of the metal idol that Ajax guy lured you to. Metal and Fire are opposed though, so Moloch was dramatically weaker than he should have been. Moloch seemed to think Wyrm had permanently removed his Fire element in antiquity; but I think if summoned right, Moloch could probably have crushed me in the Fire department nonetheless.”

She was trying to be careful of what she said still; some part of her approached the eagerness of her student, and the deeply troubling things she had seen, with great trepidation. Lyudmilla, however, had a simple response to everything and seemed thoroughly untroubled. She was not conspiring over anything that Minerva said.

Instead, she diverted the subject once again to another linked curiosity of hers.

“I guess I can understand that. Wait though, aren’t humans made of fire and metal?”

“Most of them, magically, yes.” Minerva said. She let out a little giggle at the concept of humans being made of fire and metal. Certainly their auras tended to be that way.

“Is that why we suck at magic more than Tyrants do? Opposing elements or whatever.”

“Well. It’s one of many reasons. I’d like to think we don’t suck too bad.” Minerva replied.

“Well, you don’t, I guess. You’re some kind of genius hero.” Lyudmilla said.

She laid her head down on her arms and kicked her legs, looking mildly frustrated.

Maybe she really did not think Minerva was dangerous or monstrous and was, honestly, casually and simply, jealous of her abilities and greedy for a similar kind of power.

“Hey, I had resources others did not. I owe this to a lot of people and a lot of study.”

Lyudmilla glanced up at her with a foul expression on her face.

“Yeah, and you’ll tell me all about it someday.” She said sarcastically.

Minerva frowned right back at her. Even if she wasn’t malicious, she was a handful.

“I’ll teach you all of it. But not now. Right now, we should get back to your homework.”

“Yeah, the homework you made up to give me a hard time.”

There was almost some tension in the room now and Minerva did not like it one bit.

“Come on now, you’re doing really well. Lets build up some momentum! From 75 to 80!”

Minerva smiled and cheered and tried to be perky and nice to her in response.

Lyudmilla turned her head away and narrowed her eyes.

Picking the sheet back up, Minerva asked, “Explain the first formalized spellcasting method divised by Hama, and explain why it is so difficult to reconstruct today.”

She tried to sound bright and sunny, but that was actually a rather difficult question.

“Oh man, are you for real?” Lyudmilla protested. “Am I a PhD student or a freshman?”

Just as Minerva was about to comfort her, there was a vigorous knock on the door.

She snapped her head up from the sheet and stared in surprise.

“Come in!” She shouted, thinking that it must have been Niko who was just very late to office hours, and happy that she would not have to reschedule him to a later day again.

However almost as soon as the door opened, her homunculus vibrated on her wrist.

Looking down at it she found a message from Niko Klein.

Looking up from it she saw the door swing open and an unfamiliar woman walk through the threshold. She looked Minerva’s or Lyudmilla’s age and carried herself with confidence, stopping short of the desk with her hands behind her back and a big grin.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Orizaga. I apologize if I’m interrupting something, but I was told you could help me with my investigation, and I wanted to meet you right away.”

She was quite a dazzling character, slender, athletic. Her hair was long, shiny, a golden blond, adorned with a dark purple, reflective headband. A sharp streak of red eyeliner and a careful dab of ice-blue lipstick made her face stand out. Her attire was professional and more than likely symbolic of something: a blue-striped white uniform jacket with long sleeves and red shoulders and cuffs, buttoned up, with a similarly tri-color skirt.

On her hip was a tote-bag sized belted pack with a cable, connected to a holstered object clipped to her opposite hip. The cable stretched behind her back. Was it some kind of gun? She had no homunculus on her wrist; but there was an orb floating around her, gunmetal and purple with a recessed pink eye amid a pattern of concentric neon veins. About the size of a football and moving around as if of its own volition. What was it?

Lyudmilla stared at them half-turned on her seat, seemingly also confused.

“Good afternoon.” Minerva said. Since this woman had skipped introductions and just called her out by surname, Minerva would skip any formalities as well. “May I inquire as to the nature of this investigation? As you can see I am currently with a student.”

Her guest grinned ear to ear, crossing her arms.

At her side the orb’s eye and the veins around it blinked on and off.

“Pardon my rudeness. My name is Silica Von Drachen. I am here on behalf of a global task force of the Noct Republic, operation Panopticon, to investigate a summoning.”

Minerva blinked hard. That was a lot of words she was not prepared ever to hear.

Silica seemed to immediately pick up on her discomfort and genuinely enjoy it.

“Ever heard of the Etherian ‘Moloch’? I should hope not. Humans should not consort with such beings of course, especially humans bound by international agreements not to.”


Story 2, Lord Of The Tempest, BEGIN.


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