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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1.5: Pretenders

This chapter contains strong and suggestive language, violence and  xenophobia.


Aside from buses there weren’t that many cars around the National. Few people owned their own car anymore. There were a few students in scooters and motorbikes; but Phillip’s sports car was the only one on the road. By herself in the backseat, with the window rolled down and the wind tunneling through, Milla felt herself drifting. On the front seats, Cheryl and Phillip flirted and laughed and got handsy with each other.

Milla leaned against the side of the car, staring out the open window, her eyes heavy.

Didn’t VIPs ride in the backs of fancy cars? She couldn’t even muster a little fantasy.

Outside the streetlights and the lights from the fronts of buildings melded together, a mess of color sweeping past her eyes. Her eyes would close, and the lights would dance inside her eyelids, and briefly she would open them again and see the world nearly unchanged. She felt the night as the combined weight of the day, bearing down on her.

Even here, just sitting, just being driven somewhere, she wasn’t relaxed. She felt like the whole world wanted her in chains. All she had were obligations and uncertainties. Her thoughts were all fragmented. Ever since– why couldn’t she– maybe if I had just died–

“Milla, you know anything about Minerva Orizaga?” Phillip asked.

Milla looked up from the backseat at the rearview mirror and saw Phillip’s eyes.

“Not to sound pessimistic but you probably aren’t getting out of that apprenticeship.”

“I don’t know shit.” Milla replied in a grumpy tone of voice. Phillip paid it no mind.

“She came here recently, kinda like you.” Phillip said. “Right Cheryl?”

“She wasn’t here last year, yeah.” Cheryl said. “I dunno, I think she’s cool.”

“My old man hates her guts.” Phillip said. “Thinks its a bad look for the school.”

“Why would he think that?” Milla said.

“Because he’s a fucking asshole.” Cheryl replied, before Phillip could answer.

Phillip didn’t seem to mind his girlfriend trashing his dad, though he also didn’t overtly agree. Instead he answered as if nothing else had been said. “Minerva’s an Alwi, Milla. Maybe you don’t have ’em up in Moroz but down here it’s kind of a big deal she’s here.”

“I know they’re a group of people, we’re not so insular in the north, you know.” Milla said. “I just don’t know why it would make anyone upset that she’s a Magician.”

“Lot of Otrarians don’t think they should be.” Phillip said. “See, a lot of them came in from the South illegally. They came from the Theocracy of Uttara and from Harazad. None of them ever did magic. Over decades they practically made their own city in Otraria, called Alwaz; it was basically a huge ghetto on the edge of the capital.”

“What does any of this matter?” Milla said.

Cheryl looked between Milla and Phillip as if she didn’t get why they were talking at all.

“It burnt down.” Phillip said. “Like 20 years ago. They say the Alwi picked up on magic little by little, but they destroyed most of Alwaz. They caused some kind of disaster.”

“Did that have anything to do with your government collapsing?” Milla said.

She was supposed to be a history major, after all. Milla wasn’t the most well-versed in ancient history, but she knew enough about current events. Everyone would have heard about it, growing up anywhere in the world. Otraria’s powerful government, all mages of great skill, were overthrown and killed in 1980. Since then instead of the Greater Otrarian Republic it had been known as the Democratic Union of Otraria.

“It played a part.” Phillip said, a little more brusquely than before.

“Why are you two so intense all of a sudden? Who cares? That’s all ancient history.”

“Well, I’m just telling Milla, she ought to be careful around Minerva Orizaga.”

“Why? Ms. Orizaga’s fine.” Cheryl insisted.

“Even if she’s totally harmless babe,” Phillip said, “she’s drawn a lot of attention.”

“It’ll be fine, because I’m not going to be anyone’s apprentice.” Milla said forcefully.

What was his problem all of a sudden? Cheryl was right. Minerva was fine.

Whatever; it wasn’t her problem. It wouldn’t be.

A landscape dominated by LED light and concrete shadow melted away around them. A dirt road led them on their abrupt transition from the Academy’s cityscape to the surrounding wilderness. Trees replaced building, their jagged shadows creeping up their flanks and slowly forming a net overhead. Through the gaps Milla could see the lake, the moonlight glistening off the surface of the water. Though the car’s headlights were on, the beams of light seemed unable to part the thick empty darkness ahead of them.

“Almost there,” Phillip said. “We’ll get out and walk to the site.”

Phillip pulled over on the side of the dirt road. He shut off the car and with it the headlights; the forest felt like a pitch black room to Milla, unable to tell its dimensions or where she was in it anymore. She reached for her wrist, pulling off the screen from her homunculus unit and using it as a flashlight. She exited the car herself.

“Come on Milla, don’t get left behind! The faeries will take you!”

Cheryl laughed.

She walked hand in hand with Phillip and Milla followed a car-length behind, playing with her hair bobbles. She spun one set of them around the associated twintail, sighing.

Everything was quiet. Milla couldn’t even hear animals crying. One would think a frog or a cicada might have said something, but even they seemed to fear to speak on that night.

The environment was disgusting, lukewarm and moist. Every step Milla took, she felt as if she was standing on dung, the soft earth giving away under her feet. She was back on the farm in spirit, and she hated it at all. She could not imagine how anyone would want to make out or push boundaries in this kind of atmosphere. It even smelled disgusting.

They left the road behind and climbed over a little hill into the woods.

Coming down the hill they came upon a clearing of broken earth and overturned trees.

It was as if the statue in the center of had exploded out from under the terrain.

Or as if it had been exploded out, like in dynamite mining.

Milla knew Baphomet was a horned, cow-headed creature, and this statue was similar. However it did not sport the large, bare breasts Milla had also seen in many drawings of the idol; it was instead big bellied, and it had its arms raised. The creature’s bottom half was not very detailed at all in the statue. It was essentially a pillar with a large opening.

“Yes! There it is!” Cheryl laughed, delivering a couple light smacks on Phillip’s back.

Everyone walked down from the hill and onto the clearing, ducking under roots and climbing over splintered trunks from fallen trees. There were beer bottles and bags of potato chips and other snacks strewn about. Milla thought she saw condom wrappers, and maybe even the genuine article. Certainly the place had seen a party or three.

There was no one else around when they arrived, however.

“I thought it’d be livelier.” Milla said, looking upon the statue from afar.

“Yeah, where’s everyone at? I thought Amber and Jenn had gotten ahead of us.”

“I dunno.” Phillip said. “Trent and Arnes were supposed to be with them too.”

“They better not be fuckin’ around here somewhere. Gross.”

A sharp crack reverberated across the forest, metal on metal, as if in answer.

In front of them the opening to the statue burst into flame.

Cheryl screamed and jumped back, and Milla felt a shock run through her body.

Two slender shadows began to move in from the forest.

“You fucking bitches!” Cheryl shouted. “I hate you! I hate you!”

Cheryl assumed it was Amber and Jenn, and she was right.

They weren’t playing a prank.

Her two friends stepped out into the light of the fire, their hands clapped in irons.

Their mouths were gagged, and they were chained together around the legs.

Tears ran down their eyes.

“What the–”

Amber and Jenn seemed to plead to them to run.

From the darkness a chain flew out and wrapped around Cheryl’s leg like a snake.

She lurched forward, scrabbling at the earth.

Phillip started to move, but he was mouth agape, dumbfounded, and shifting in his spot.

Milla reacted; from her jacket she withdrew a small book and swiped it in front of her.

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

Her homunculus responded with noises and lights, and a wave of force blasted out of the swept-open pages of her grimoire and tore the chains from around Cheryl, freeing her.

Cheryl scrambled back to her feet and ran behind Phillip.

“What the hell is going on!” She screamed.

Milla thought to cast the same spell to free Amber and Jenn, but she saw more shadows.

She raised her grimoire in front of her, holding it half-open by the spine.

She held her hand over the pages, ready to swipe it across and cast.

From behind the statue two men appeared. They were wearing black coats and what seemed like sports helmets, with visors and mouth grilles. They had metal bars attached to chains on their hands, whether clubs or as casting tools Milla didn’t know. Tellingly, they possessed homunculi on their wrists. They walked slowly out, tentatively, as if they feared too. Milla could tell by the light of the fire that they were shaken up. They didn’t seem to know where to put their hands and they seemed to try to hide their gazes.

There was another presence alongside theirs.

He came down from the forest too; he appeared to leap down from somewhere high.

He landed atop the statue, standing on its raised arms. He was dressed in what seemed like a suit of armor, less improvised than the thick coats on the two other men, and his helmet was much less improvised as well. It bore the head of a dragon, and its horns. Instead of a short metal club, he had a long bar across his back like a staff or spear.

His homunculus looked much more ornate than those of the other men. Bigger too.

Cheryl cowered behind Phillip, while Milla tried to keep everyone in her sights. Her heart was pounding and her lungs working themselves raw. She smelled the smoke from inside the statue. That was not an illusion; that was a real fire in the clearing now.

“What the fuck is going on?” Cheryl cried in a shrill voice.

Phillip didn’t seem to move to console her. Instead he stared up at the man on the statue. He was standing as if he was ready to dive back at any moment, to twist around and run for his life, but something kept him anchored to the scene. He was pale, quivering.

“What the hell is going on?” He shouted. “This wasn’t– this isn’t what we agreed!”

Milla turned her head sharply toward Phillip. “Agreed? Agreed to fucking what?”

She thought she saw one of the men make a move and turned back to him.

He took a sudden step back, as if he expected to be shot at.

He was staring at her grimoire with fear.

Complete fucking coward, Milla thought. She could at least take one down.

To find herself in this situation again, in the supposedly safe and civilized Otraria–

It was infuriating, as much as it was horrifying.

She had never dealt with ghosts or monsters but she had certainly dealt with men.

At least you could kill those.

Whenever the man in the horned helmet spoke, his voice was concealed, distorted.

“Yes, Phillip, it wasn’t what we agreed. But you were the one who broke our compact.”

His voice was affable. This all sounded casual, just another day for him.

“Shit.” Phillip turned sharply, pleadingly toward Cheryl.

Cheryl looked at Phillip with horror and pushed him away.

Her own strength pushed her back closer to Milla, and she stumbled, on shaking knees, and fell near the other girl. She crawled back, staring at Phillip with tears in her eyes.

“What the fuck is he talking about Phillip? What is he talking about?” She shouted.

Milla took a step forward to stand in defense of Cheryl.

“So much money and so little sense.” remarked the helmeted man. “I don’t know what compelled you to bring that girl, or these, when I asked for only you and the girl. Had it not been for the fact that your boys report to me, it might’ve become a real mess.”

He waved his hands in front of him, as if pointing to Amber and Jenn below.

Phillip’s hands were shaking, even curled into fists. He grit his teeth.

“I knew you were going to do something awful to Cheryl.” He said, weeping, his voice breaking. “I thought, if I brought other girls then, you would leave her alone.”

Atop the statue the helmeted man slammed his foot on the horned head.

“No, that’s not how it works. You want our power, you follow our instructions. Just like your friends did before you. How could you ask them to sacrifice when you do not?”

Both of the men, presumably Trent and Arnes, kept quiet and anxiously still.

Phillip looked defeated. “Fuck, man, I didn’t know you guys were–”

At once the helmeted man raised his voice, sharply, horribly. “That was your mistake.”

Milla saw something move rapidly; but she just as quickly realized it was not for her.

She made no move to defend Phillip as the helmeted man’s staff whipped out at him like it was suddenly made of flexible leather and not stiff steel. It struck Phillip across the face, an iron slap to the jaw that smashed his nose like a bubble of blood. It retracted, and was almost instantly back in the man’s hands as if it had never been altered.

This was metal-element magic. Much like the chains that tried to catch Cheryl.

“Do not worry. I can fix your pretty face up. I need it. I also needed you to learn respect. We are all around you Phillip. You thought I would approach you without insurance? You are surrounded by my men because I sought you out. Because I want you in my ranks.”

Cheryl redoubled her screaming, horrified at what had happened to Phillip.

She clung to Milla’s leg, and Milla had to stifle her instinct to kick her off.

In a street fight, bawling and stupid shit like that got you killed. But Cheryl was a friend.

“Hey, shut the fuck up and let us go!” Milla shouted up at the helmeted man.

He turned from Phillip to her.

“Girl,”

Milla saw a glint of a red eye through the sleek, sharp, dragon-like mask.

He stomped his feet once more on the head of the statue.

Immediately after he started to bloviate in a high-and-mighty tone of voice.

“You’ve no business here. Neither do these two. I feel gracious tonight. Take them and leave. I only need that one.” He pointed idly toward Cheryl. “And the boy with no face. You can leave with your life, and you can even tell anyone your story of this night; I don’t care at all. I cannot be touched by you. I just don’t want anymore interference here.”

Amber and Jenn started to scream and jump in place, begging Milla.

“Fuck you.” Milla replied. “I’m taking ’em all, except that shithead. You can have him.”

Atop the statue the dragon helmet shook from side to side.

“Big-hearted of you. Kill her.”

Beneath him, the two henchmen approached. They had their clubs and chains ready.

Their legs, however, were visibly shaking. And she knew they were focused on her book.

“Hey, Amber and Jenn, those two were your boyfriends right?”

She winked at the girls to try to convey her intent.

Both girls shut their eyes and leaped aside, taking the hint.

Milla threw her grimoire gently overhead.

She reached into her coat, withdrew two of her hidden knives and launched them.

“That’s some shit taste you both got!”

She caught the boys clearly unprepared to defend against a physical attack.

One knife went into one’s shoulder and the other into a knee.

Both men shouted and grit their teeth and stumbled.

Milla caught her grimoire coming back down.

“Pherkhan’s Magnetism!”

Milla swept across her grimoire and the pages whirled with power.

In an instant the knives pulled both men screaming into one another.

They bashed into each other.

Milla then swept her hand across the other way, turning the pages back and forth.

“Pherkhan’s Shock!”

Neither man seemed able to tell where the bolt was aimed, and even though only stuck together by a relatively weak magnetic force neither of them seemed able to escape.

In reality, it struck the trailing chain held by one henchman and trod upon by the other.

Striking the metal, the bolt trailed up like a snake and shocked the two of them at once.

It was something on the order of twenty milliamps, and it hurt.

Both men fell screaming and choking, holding their own bodies, twitching.

It was grotesque and Milla was undisturbed by it.

She had her eyes up to the helmeted man and ready to cast another spell.

He clapped, unperturbed, and stomped his feet on this statue’s head once more.

“I am Centurion Ajax, of the organization Iron Flag.” He said.

She thought she had heard of that. It certainly sounded familiar.

Milla showed him no emotion. “Lyudmilla Kholodova. I’m not afraid of you punks.”

She thought she saw the helmet contort into a smile.

“Of course.” He said.

He raised a hand to the helmet, stroking its chin.

“Of course. Kholodova? I should’ve realized. Of course. Pherkhan, the great late Rus archmagus.” He said. “You do have the eyes of a Moroz savage. How disgusting. You northerners have always been the same. Brute force, all numbers and no finesse.”

He turned from her to Phillip.

She gazed out the corner of her eye as Phillip lunged at her.

“Good man.” He said.

Milla ducked.

Phillip, his broken face contorted in horrified desperation, swung over her.

She could’ve drawn a knife and stabbed him.

Instead, she closed her book, swung her arms around and struck him in the face.

Fresh blood drew from the gaping wound where his nose had been.

He tumbled backwards, and squirmed in pain on the muddy soil.

Centurion Ajax stomped his feet on the statue again, and laughed.

“Pitiful. I thought you wanted to escape your father’s shadow.” the Centurion said. He taunted them. “You don’t deserve it. If you didn’t have a sizable inheritance I would leave you here without a nose. Now If only I could feed that Moroz mongrel to the hearth; but it only accepts children, and that Kholodova is simply too old. Only little Cheryl will do.”

Milla grit her teeth. She was 21 years old; that must’ve been what he meant, if he knew.

She also knew that Cheryl was only 19. But what then did he mean by a hearth?

She realized then, all that time. Baphomet’s statue, the flaming gap in it.

“Amber, Jenn, get away from that statue!” Milla shouted.

She wished she knew a good water spell; but Pherkhan only traded in metal and fire!

“Pherkhan’s Shattering!”

She was still at the level where shouting names and making casting gestures was her only personal mnemonic. She wished dearly she could have cast faster and quieter.

Milla swept the pages back once more, and Amber and Jenn’s bonds burst apart.

She had the space to cast one spell and she had cast it to save the girls.

Unperturbed, her enemy made his move.

Centurion Ajax reached down from his perch and snatched something from the statue.

There was a gap in its head from where he ripped a chunk of its stonework out.

It was the thing he had been stomping on this entire time.

He crushed it in his hands, and the earth slipped from his fingers to reveal a red orb.

“You could’ve struck me down, Moroz, but you fell for taunts and wasted your chance.”

At once the fire in the statue’s stomach erupted. Amber and Jenn scrambled away.

“In a battle between mages every word, every step, has meaning! You’re still green.”

But the fire seemed to suck in, like a giant drawing in huge breaths.

Centurion Ajax reveled in it all. “Awaken for your feast, Lord Moloch!”


Minerva felt something hot and quivering. She was awoken in the middle of the night as Vorra tore suddenly away from her arms, rushing so quickly to the window that she sent the blanket they were sharing flying into the air. Minerva, bleary-eyed, stared from bed at her girlfriend’s naked human form clawing bestially at the window, bathed in moonlight. She shimmered, red lines tracing lean muscle as her aura became agitated.

Recognizing how exposed they both were, Minerva grabbed the blanket and ran to the window, and quickly threw it over both of them. She looked out upon the lake, confused.

“Livorra, what is the matter with you?” She said, briefly compelled to use her full name.

Her partner raised her hand to the window. Her eyes were bloodshot and dilated.

“Milord, I sense the foulness of a pretender God in those woods. I smell the kindling.”

Minerva blinked and stared past the lake at the dark, distant, nondescript woods.

Her own eyes started to warm up, and she thought she could smell something burn.


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1.4: Restless Girl

This chapter contains repeatedly vulgar and sexually suggestive language.


Tyrant: Spells made real; the wrath of nature; manifestations of faith, power, the elements. Gods. In short, Tyrants are entities that within certain parameters can perform magic beyond the bounds of human performance. The limits of their existence are not understood. Most Tyrants spread a territory known as ‘demesne’ that represents them and their claim on the world. Tyrants who have lost their demesne possess humans or objects instead.


All around her the streetlights went on as if acknowledging her presence, a tunnel of light that bisected the park. It was a white carpet spreading out before her, and for an instant, she reminisced like a child, about the feeling of eyes, about the wonderment that others might have had at the sight of her. She felt almost as special as she wanted to.

However, they were only streetlights. This was not a runway. Nobody was watching.

In this case, that was good and fine. She went to the meeting place and made the exchange. Money left one hand and a brown paper bag filled the other. She grinned.

Night fell quickly after, but Lyudmilla Kholodova paid the gloom no mind.

As she departed the park and made for the dorms on foot, she sparked her own light.

She withdrew a rolled paper cigarette from the bag and a pristine silver lighter from the pocket of her uniform blazer. She took a long drag from the cigarette; the taste was grassy, and the pull a little harsh and spicy on the tongue. It was of poor quality.

“At least it was cheap,” Milla said to herself. She laughed a little through the taste.

She put it out before approaching the dorms, but she’d light another up when she could.

Though she referred to her residence as “the dorms,” the National had all kinds of housing. There were inns and hotels with small rooms up for cheap. Whole apartments and flats were up for sale in town if you applied and the landlord thought you could keep the place together. Private places were the best, or so Milla had heard. There were fancy ultramodern flats going for thousands of thal that had hot tubs and parties going 24/7; Milla couldn’t have hoped to get something like that, given she was practically living on the National’s charity at the moment. Instead she was in the dorms; specifically in what was known as The Estate, a three-winged complex near the center of town. This was not a plebeian state of being by any means. The Estate was well located and rather fancy.

It was just not hot tub sex party fancy; not that Milla really wanted such a thing anyway.

Everything was clean and smooth and well-lit. These weren’t like the school dorms she’d slummed in at various points in her life. Seeing into open rooms there were computers and big bunks and mini-fridges and microwaves for the beer and noodles. There were students everywhere in the halls, chatting, grabbing stuff from the vending machines, making out; each floor had a bulletin board and there were posters and notices on the walls, messages left for people. Every hall was like its own little village, Milla thought.

When she made it to her room, the sixth door on the ninth floor hall, Milla found the door open and her roommate waiting on a desk chair, sitting with the backrest forward and leaning on it. She had been looking out the door with gloomy, expectant eyes.

“Hey Milla. Glad I got to see another human face before the end times.” She joked.

“Okay.” Milla replied. She looked over her shoulder at the door. “Waiting for someone?”

“Yeah, my dirtbag boyfriend and my shitty friends.” She replied, sighing.

“How late are they?”

“Ugh, they were supposed to be here an hour ago, and he should’ve been here all along.”

“Oh well. You’ve got the rest of the night ahead of you Cheryl, lighten up.”

“Uh huh.”

Milla walked past her and dropped onto the bed, and pulled off the screen unit from the homunculus on her wrist. While pretending to toy with the unit, she surreptitiously photographed Cheryl with it while she was still looking out the door and distracted.

It was a good photo.

Cheryl was rather pretty and flashy. Her luxuriantly long blond hair was studded with glittery pink stars, and her eyes had a magical glamour on them that superimposed a star in each. She had her uniform mostly on. Her shirt seemed like it had been tugged until the buttons burst open halfway down her chest, but the tie was still on and done up right. It had a striped pattern of lush pastel colors. Her skirt was a bit loose. She wore a pair of open-toed shoes with short heels and had her blazer tied around her waist.

Her homunculus lay discarded on the desk behind her. Its straps were pink, and there were a dozen little things hanging from it, like peace symbols, a tag that read sexy bitch and keychain cats and little figures of cute characters from animated shows.

“Can I borrow one of your ties sometime?” Milla asked.

She clipped the Homunculus screen unit back to her wrist.

Cheryl seemed to awaken from her previously single-minded focus on the open doorway.

“Yeah, sure. Go for it. Just don’t take the one I put out for tomorrow.” She said.

“Can I grab a bra too?” Milla said cheekily, spying one of Cheryl’s red straps and grinning.

“You wouldn’t be able to fill it.” Cheryl said. She fixed her shirt, tying a button up.

She was quickly back staring glumly at the door.

Milla burst out laughing. “I was trying to have a good time and I feel so attacked now.”

Cheryl sighed.

“Ugh, fucking, Amber and Jenn, I’m so mad!” She said. “How are they this late?”

“Maybe they got kidnapped. Maybe they’re getting bled for a dark ritual right now.”

“Eww, you’re so gross Milla!” Cheryl said, but she said it while laughing uproariously.

She reached a hand to the bunk and delivered a friendly smack to Milla’s stomach.

“Amber’s real mad at you, you know.” She said, wearing a little grin on her face.

“What did I do?” Milla asked, her tone dispassionate and largely unconcerned.

“You popped that bubble in front of her in class. She looked dumb.” Cheryl said.

“Tell her to stop being such a baby.”

“You can tell her when she shows up. I’ll have your back.”

“I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

“Aww, come on. We’re pals. You wear my clothes. Don’t be like that.”

“It’s true. I’m wearing your clothes right now.”

Milla patted the sides of her skirt, her lips curled in a demonic smirk.

“You’re gross.” Cheryl said.

“I’m kidding.”

“You were pretty cool today, y’know?”

Milla thought that came kind of out of nowhere, and she raised an eyebrow.

“You summoned a ghost out of that wand.”

“I didn’t summon anything.”

“I bet you did. I bet it wasn’t there before.”

“I’m not some kind of witch. I’m not even that good with magic.”

“You’re better than me.”

“It’s not hard.”

“You probably know some like, real fucked up dark arts stuff, don’t you?”

Cheryl giggled, clearly pleased with the glum look on Milla’s face. She loved to tease.

“I wish.” Milla said.

From her bag, Milla withdrew another cigarette.

Cheryl noticed her lighting it up, her eyes darting to it as if tracking it by GPS.

“Hey, open a window or something, I hate that smell.” She said.

“I guess you don’t want a taste then?” Milla asked.

“I extremely do not want a taste, Milla.”

“Pity, it’d take your mind off this nonsense.”

“Yeah it’s a real tragedy that I’m not high right now. But I’ll live through it somehow.”

Cheryl hugged the backrest of the chair tight against her chest.

She blinked for a moment and then raised her head.

“Oh, hey, right– you got a letter this afternoon. Sorry, I forgot all about it.”

Cheryl reached behind herself and picked up an envelope from the desk.

“It’s from the school. Can’t be about your grades this early, so I dunno what’s up.”

She handed Milla the envelope. Milla looked it over: it had the seal and everything.

From her pocket, Milla withdrew a knife, hidden as a pen, and cut the envelope open.

Cheryl gaped at the sight. “Oh my god, put that thing away. I’ll pretend I didn’t see it.”

Milla sighed internally, the cigarette still in her mouth. She pocketed her knife again.

Cheryl was mostly cool but she could also be dreadfully boring about certain things.

Inside the envelope was an average-seeming, very ordinary letter from the college.

Milla read it carefully, and stared at Cheryl as if she had any answer for the contents.

Cheryl stared back at her and lifted one hand up for a half-shrug, blinking rapidly.

Looking back down at the letter Milla felt her heart exploding in her chest.

“What is this crap?” Milla shouted. “I can’t– I don’t understand any of it!”

“Do you want me to read it? Is this a language barrier thing?” Cheryl asked.

“I read Otrarian just fine!” Milla replied. “It says I’m going to be apprenticed!”

“Huh. I thought that’s usually a thing you like, consent to.” Cheryl said.

“I know! I’m being apprenticed to Minerva Orizaga, effective immediately! There’s not even any explanation for it, it just says owing to my performance and conduct!”

“Oh, well, Ms. Orizaga’s pretty cool. She’s got that kinda ponytail butch look to her.”

“I don’t care! This is crap! I’m not going to be some teacher’s slave for no reason!”

“I mean, that’s not how it works, it’s 1998. We got like, laws. Your grades are probably not good and you weren’t showing up to office hours either so they probably wanna help.”

“I don’t need help with my grades! Or office hours! I am doing just fine!”

“Hey, don’t yell at me!” Cheryl said, wincing. “If you’re that mad, go talk to Ms. Orizaga.”

At that moment they heard a knock on the open door.

Cheryl’s face lit up as a young man let himself into the room.

“Hey baby, sorry I’m so late. My dad showed up to be a hardass at me.” He said coolly.

“Aww that sucks sweetie, I hope it’s all chill now.” Cheryl replied, all sugary sweet.

Her boy grinned at her. “I’m recovering. Maybe a kiss will make it better.”

Cheryl threw herself on him and practically started to rub up and purr like a cat. She was completely doting on him, and Milla watched with a detached humor. She almost wanted to say something about ‘dirtbags’ at that point but she figured that was the easiest way to make Cheryl turn from reasonably friendly to complete and utter enemy. Milla knew too well the kind of reactions one got from these girls where their boys were concerned.

Milla raised a finger. Quietly and magically she spun one of her hair bobbles around one of her partly-dyed twintails, bored of the romantic display happening in front of her.

After a long kiss, the couple paid her mind again.

“You look like you got the goods as usual, Milla.” Phillip said.

He looked at the brown bag at Milla’s with a knowing smile.

“Stay on my good side and I could share, Phillip.” Milla said, playing it cool.

Phillip looked like all the guys in the school looked. Blond hair, lots of gel. Cheekbones. Leggy, kinda big, but not too big. Button-down, jacket. Some kind of shoes. It was whatever. Cheryl saw something in him, Milla could not have imagined what it was.

Maybe it was football or something. At any rate, Cheryl was revitalized in his presence.

“I saw Amber and Jennifer with the guys.” Phillip said. “We should get going too.”

Cheryl’s eyes lit up and she smiled euphorically. She turned around with a hop.

“Milla, you should come with us!” She said. “We’re meeting a few friends to get a couple drinks and check something out. We’re going somewhere real cool, right Phillip?”

“Real cool?” Milla asked.

“Few nights ago a quake shook up a hillside in the wood. They say a shrine to Baphomet popped right out. We’ve been meaning to go hang out there.” Phillip said, grinning.

“They say if you offer blood to the shrine it’ll bring passion to your life.” Cheryl said.

That’s so gross.” Milla said, in a mock-Cheryl kind of voice.

Cheryl stuck her tongue out at her.

“What honest Magician doesn’t like a little devil worship, am I right?” Phillip laughed.

“Come on, this is so your scene, Milla. You love this weird shit.” Cheryl said.

Milla tried to cultivate something of an alt girl kind of aesthetic, this was true.

But she had other things on her mind than partying at some creepy sex god statue.

“I gotta talk to this teacher about this letter.” Milla said. “I gotta get out of this shit.”

Cheryl looked disappointed, while Phillip tried to play it off like he had no investment.

“Fine, I guess. Do you know where Ms. Orizaga could even be at this hour?” Cheryl asked.

She had that tone of voice like she was trying to dissuade Milla from being uncool.

Phillip looked at Cheryl for a moment and then back at Milla with a smile. “Minerva Orizaga right? She lives out near the lake. We’re going that way; you could hitch a ride.”

Milla had heard that Minerva Orizaga was big news around here before, being the first Alwi teacher and all of that, but she didn’t think people were on a ‘know where her house was’ basis like this. Still, it was good that this information got to her; she really wanted to get this situation sorted out. Minerva was a cool teacher, but not cool enough to become subordinate to. Above anything else, Milla valued her privacy and freedom.

However Milla also didn’t want to end up at Cheryl’s weird woods party if she could help it. Not that it wasn’t intriguing to see a demon statue, but, she knew there’d be a bunch of weird auras all over that place and she was not in the mood to be there all by herself. No gaggle of college girls and their boyfriends ever went somewhere for chaste reasons.

“That’d be convenient, but I’m not getting roped into bringing you weed.”

She had to register her discomfort, but she still had to be cool about it.

“Hey, relax,” Phillip said, “We’ll drive there, but you can leave whenever you want. It’s just a quick walk from the woods to the inn by the lake. Nobody’ll mess with you.”

“I’ll make sure they don’t.” Cheryl said.

He sounded almost insistent. Cheryl made eyes at Milla as if begging her to be cool.

Milla had no idea why anyone was interested in her company, but she finally relented.

“Fine, I’ll tag along. But I’m leaving real quick. So don’t get too attached.”

“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit.” Cheryl said. She grabbed hold of her boyfriend’s arm and looked up at him, giggling. “Milla’s real cool, Phillip. Cooler than Amber and Jenn.”

“Hey, I can tell just by looking at her.” Phillip said. “Glad you’re joining us.”

Milla averted her eyes. “I said it was only for a little while, you know.”


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1.3: Domestic Dragon

This chapter contains some slightly sexually suggestive content.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are! Here’s my card.”

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

“Ah, well, thank you!”

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

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

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

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

“It was fun! I learned to do this!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll be better.” Minerva said.

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

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

“Vorra, you had better not–!”

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

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

“Ah, goodness! You return, milord!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They could discover that she was a communist spy instead.

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

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

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

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

Minerva grimaced for a moment, thinking of potential fallout.

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

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


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1.2: Performance Reviews


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on and so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minerva had a monumental pressure placed on herself to excel.

She had a unique pressure on her to succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beatrix’s smile turned into a fiendish grin.

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

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

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

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

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

Beatrix winked.

Comrade.

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

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

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

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


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1.1: Busy Child

This scene contains violence and brief verbal expression of racism.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minerva covered her face in her hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I sit down now?” Milla asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minerva braced for whatever happened next.

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

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

“Kyra’s Force Bubble.” Milla said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milla’s fingers slipped.

“Huh?”

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

It was shaking in her grip.

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

“Oh my, oh me!”

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

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

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

Milla fell to the floor, dropping the wand.

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

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

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

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

He drew a ghostly sword and pointed at Milla.

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

“Ah! Oh my! Oh my!”

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

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

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

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

“Beatrix, exorcise him!”

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

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

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

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

Ugggghhhh. Minerva wanted to be swallowed by the earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she needed the connection.

She focused on the mnemonic technique once again.

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

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

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

Streaks of awful black energy coursed through his ghostly sinews.

There was a terrifying flash.

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

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

Milla sat up on the floor, gasping for breath.

All of the students were speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beatrix watched her leave and smiled helplessly.

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


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