this chapter contains violence including brief graphic violence.
Between the earth and firmament she could see nothing but fire.
Amid the ruins of the old ghetto she stood, like a gnat entranced by lamp-light.
There was screaming and running and cries for help and cries for deliverance.
People begged of unlistening gods to explain the events of that dire night.
Around her the Catastrophe unfolded, its fires sweeping across the meagerness that they had been given and now denied. She saw the old church burning, and the housing projects burning and crumbling, she did not even know cement could burn, but it was. Fire swept across splintered streets, and it engulfed the play park, and it melted the bus stop into an amorphous blob of plastic. Power lines and telephone lines flashed red, frayed by some unseen pressure as their poles wildly burned and their boxes sizzled.
Stunned, shaking, her eyes drawn wide enough to tear from the smoke and heat, she saw it, at the epicenter, the thing that had come in the blink of an eye like red thunder.
Beneath the Dragon and its fury, a woman walked, standing tall, proud even.
When the woman turned her head over her shoulder to look at her, she wept.
She reached out a hand, but the woman was gone, yet standing, and still, gone.
“You’ll be fine.” She said, with a gentle, careless, selfish smile.
The Dragon bellowed hatred, all eyes and horns and scales and wings.
The Woman turned to face it, and produced a hunk of purple, cubic rock.
“I want you out of our home.” She said.
There was a flash, and Minerva choked, and the dance of dreams was done, and the things that could not be changed settled, planning to haunt her life instead of her sleep.
“…and that was the weather! Now, for all you holiday travelers out there, be advised that the Charibdys has been spotted over the skies of Kalghatha and the government there has grounded all non-military high altitude flight in the area as a result. So if you were looking to build some water association in the sacred river, either put it off until they sound the all-clear, or try to find a private, low altitude flight to get where you’re go—“
Minerva reached a hand out and struck the radio-alarm clock to quiet it down.
Her hand was shaking, and it crawled over the radio and back onto her mattress on the floor, before gripping the bedsheets in cold despair. She breathed in, deep and fast, and she breathed out with a sputtering sob. She had traveled back to the ghetto, ever so briefly again, just in time for the Catastrophe. She had the six eyes of the Dragon and its oil-slick skin and its alien maw burning in the back of her eyes like the discolored haze left on an old, overused box television. It was enough to drive anyone with a soul to cry.
So she gave herself some time to cry and to think and to decompress.
She had no classes to teach or to sit-in on Wednesdays.
Minerva was a very regimental sort of person, so she gave herself fifteen minutes.
Sitting up after this moment of personal kindness, Minerva stretched out her other arm and pulled open the curtain on the other side of her mattress. She looked out the window of her second story room; though it was humble in amenities, it boasted a commanding view that still inspired awe in her. She saw the pristine waters of the lakefront, and the sweeping green patches of trees dotting the landscape, and the streets straddling the water and shore, packed with students coming and going to class and to life in general.
She saw the National out the window and the National saw her.
Lake Scio was a popular spot, and there were many lakefront apartment buildings, small shops and a food court servicing the radius of the water. Minerva felt calm staring at the water. There was beauty and balefulness both in this sight, in this place she was in.
She had been dealt some blows in life, but things were no longer so bleak.
Reaching again for the little table beside her mattress, Minerva stretched her arm past the radio-alarm clock and seized upon a glass of water. She drank it in one gulp. Then, she took a pill-holder from the same table-top, and popped open the little cap in the middle, labeled “Wednesday.” From there, Minerva took a little violet pill up to her mouth.
Another object began to ring and buzz and shake around atop her bedside table.
Before Minerva could take her pill, her homunculus received a call.
She seized the chunky little wearable, its armband straightening out as soon as the call was received, for ease of holding. Minerva put the thing to her ear, hearing through the side of the crystalline touchscreen, and speaking into a microphone hidden in the armband.
Displayed the screen, without an associated picture, was the name “Beatrix Kolsa.”
“What do you want?” Minerva asked. “Talk fast. I have to take a pill sublingually.”
“Can you do that while you come in, dear? I’ve got a special project for you!”
On the other side of the phone Beatrix Kolsa, Professor of Ancient Magical History, replied with a bubbly and unrestrained voice that irritated Minerva both in tone and content.
“Oh my god, I’m off today. I do not work today, Beatrix.” Minerva said.
“Would you work for me?” Beatrix replied in a pathetic tone of voice.
Minerva sighed. “Absolutely not! I’m sure the Department isn’t paying for it.”
There was a pause, a knowing silence, while some mischief brewed.
“What if I paid you? I just need a little help casting a spell.”
“You could not pay me enough to work today, Beatrix.”
“Would you work if I gave you a piece of uncut Alpanite?” Beatrix said cheekily.
Minerva sighed ever more deeply. She rubbed her hands over her face.
“Ugh! I’ll be there in an hour.”
She slashed viciously with her finger across the screen, cutting the call.
Minerva collapsed back onto her bed and popped the pill in her mouth.
Beatrix sure knew her to a frightening degree.
Alpanite was a stone of pure concentrated Fire.
Minerva closed her fists and kicked her legs.
She felt excited about it, and she hated how excited she was.
In a fit of mixed frustration and elation, she decided to just swallow her pill instead.
She finally stood from her bed, slipped out of her pajamas and picked up her glasses.
Wrapping her long, messy black hair into a ponytail, Minerva quickly assembled an outfit from among the very limited choices in her closet. She donned a cheap green button-down shirt, a black hoodie and a frayed pair of pants, and clapped her homunculus to her wrist. As it did whenever she wore it, the homunculus informed her that it had 92% of its storage space free. There were barely any spells downloaded to its memory.
After one last look out the window, Minerva left her room.
She had seen a bird, and it was worth noticing.
Outside her room was a hallway. There was one other door on her side of the hall, and two on the opposite side. Downstairs, the humble two-story house opened up, with a kitchen, a larger bathroom, laundry room, and a common hall. Minerva shambled into the kitchen, seeking with blurry, drowsy vision for the cupboard with her name on it, which contained her own food. Her eyes drifted; she found a note, scribbled in crayon.
Atop a bowl sealed with tin foil, standing out on the kitchen island, the note read:
Minnie! I made Oatmeal!! It has blueberries and cinnamon!
Around the letters were various hand-drawn emoji hearts and clapping hands.
Smiling, Minerva picked up a spoon, carefully removed the foil, and ate the oatmeal while drinking orange juice from a carton. It was warm, sweet, wholesome; much like the little girl that had made it and left it. Filled up and smiling, she supposed there was no sense in putting it off any longer, and finally departed her home for the lakeside road.
Outdoors, it was mid-morning. The sun was rose diligently and the wind carried the scent of the lake water and the dust from the shore. It was refreshing weather, but for those who could feel it, the auras were off. They were always off. But there were days where, if one could feel it, one really felt it; days where the overbearing Water-aligned auras of the National Academy of Esoteric Arts pushed down like a layer of emotional gravity. For one with as strong an aura of Fire and Metal as Minerva, the National was at its most antithetical.
With the knowledge she wielded now, came a perception of a world that was beautiful but could easily be unkind. The National by its very nature did not want her.
But she stayed.
She tried not to let it get her down as she walked.
Hands in her pockets, face up and eyes ahead, she walked, without concern. At least, until someone passed, paying too-close attention to her on the roads. Then her eyes turned the other way as to avoid their gaze, and she felt their sight meeting her form as a passing discomfort. It was an almost instinctual behavior, something she had learned from years of being too-different in too many ways from the common Otrarian on the streets.
From the uneven old stones along the lake, she made it to the polished concrete roads of the National, where buildings clustered, and grew toward the sky, and shadowed her.
She walked, an ant amid these monuments. After the war, the National became the foremost academy of Magic in the world, they saw the esoteric as Power more than knowledge. Everything in the National was a display of power. She walked past the plazas and gardens, where students congregated under gazebos around statues of powerful men, void of history, known only for the money that made the selfsame statues. She walked along streets laden with plaques and commemorations. Past great glass domes and massive steel cubes and pyramidal shapes all housing classrooms and labs. She walked past men in suits and ties, girls in blazers and pencil skirts, past the only casual crowds all wearing high fashion, past the money and extravagance and the sort of beauty only wrought with gold.
She walked past a man in a severe uniform and felt trembling inside her.
Her eyes caught him and his seemed almost to take her apart.
In his black coat and pants, with an armband bearing a shield-shaped, arrow-perforated heart as a badge of honor, this leaguer laid a long scornful gaze upon her like a curse.
Her skin, honey-brown and darker than his, was all he saw and all he needed to see.
Dark eyes and hair certainly did not help, they were markers too. Neither did the features of her face, gentle though they were, soft and unpronounced. Perhaps he even took issue with her body, too angular and lean, untraditional, unlike the women he knew.
They crossed within meters of one another, enough to throw a punch.
For him, she would not avert her eyes or cower.
She stared at him, and he stared back.
She stopped, and held her ground, daring him to do the same.
He seemed to flinch first, to flinch right into his filthy little copper heart.
He kept on walking. She kept staring into his back, as if in challenge.
When he was gone, she kept moving.
For a second, she had seen the crowds around him stop to look.
Let them know that the fingers that carried out their hidden hate would be broken.
Satisfied, with her head held high, Minerva walked through the National.
She did not teach on Wednesdays, but she had work to do.
The Anthropology building was not a monument.
It was one of the original buildings, before the war was won and the money and interest came pouring in. It was a block, a pillar, lean and tight, three stories, all chalky stone. It did not shine and glimmer in the midday sun the way other buildings did. No arcane geometries went into it. This was just some halls and classrooms, and that’s what it looked like inside and out. Isolated in the old Academy’s Terrington plaza, the building was dedicated to a historical magician and to actual historical magic, those things forgotten in the post-war remembering. Students walked around it and very few seemed to delve inside.
Minerva walked up the steps and plunged into its gloom.
Around the corner of one lonely hall was the office of Beatrix Kolsa. It was open for office hours nobody would attend, and it was a mess. There was barely space for three people to stand side-by-side, not only because it was small but because it was littered with junk. There were stacks of books and documents, stuffed animals, a pile of knick-knacks like mushroom threaded necklaces and clay bangles. Beatrix’s desk and the shelves at its side dominated the space. Both were full to burst with things out of their places.
Behind the desk was the only thing its place. Beatrix was a lovely-looking older woman, tall and photogenic in face and form, with long, light clay-brown hair, peach-pink skin. Her fashion had taken an odd turn lately. She wore a flower crown; and over an immodest tanktop and a pair of sweatpants, looking more like a slacker than her students, she wore an eccentric brown coat. It looked like a fur coat, at first glance, but Minerva knew that the fuzz was fungus, and the texture was leaves and grass, and that it smelled.
To cover up the smell, Beatrix wore an even more aggressive cinnamon perfume.
When Minerva strolled into the office, she found Beatrix applying makeup.
“Let me guess,” Minerva said, “that’s some kind of natural oil, mineral crap, right?”
Beatrix applied a gentle coat of glossy brown on her lips, and kissed into the air.
“Every little bit helps.” She said.
“Just how much Earth association do you need to build?”
Beatrix smiled. “As much as possible. Which is why I need your help, coincidentally!”
Minerva figured that was the case. She crossed her arms and sighed.
“Are we finally going to cast the spells today?”
“No. If I were to do it now there is still a chance that the relics could be compromised. It’s hard for me to describe how fragile these things are. If there is even a miniscule chance that they will crumble under my care, I cannot risk it. So I’m still building association.”
Beatrix’s research was more important than teaching; that was a small part of why Minerva was there and taught classes. Her current project was of special importance. Her colleagues in Archeology had uncovered magical relics from civilizations dating back thousands of years. They were kept preserved in suspended animation, but to be studied, they had to be mended enough to withstand scrutiny. Reversing thousands of years of decay was a daunting task, and to cast the appropriate spells at their maximum expression would require a magician steeped in the aura of the Earth schema. These days, that was rare.
So Beatrix took it upon herself to volunteer for the task, and build enough Association with the Earth. Strongly associated spells were smoother, easier to control, more effective. Minerva could have cast a mending spell on those relics right now, but none would survive the force of the magic across their surfaces. Just the release of energy would crush them.
“So why did I come in? Do you have that alpanite around?” Minerva asked.
Beatrix opened a drawer, withdrew a fist-size rock, and laid it atop a stack of papers.
Minerva leaned in to look at it through her glasses.
Rough, ashen-black stone mixed with veins of what seemed like red glass.
When looked at closely, the veins pulsed with orange light in a specific sequence.
“You’ve been holding out on me all this time!” Minerva said, amicably.
Beatrix smiled. “I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to hand it to a pretty girl.”
Minerva frowned and glared. Beatrix chuckled.
“At any rate, it’s yours once you help me with a very menial task.”
Beatrix stood up from behind her desk, squeezed around it, and kicked over the pile of knickknacks in the corner. Minerva stared quizzically until the heap of junk fell away, and unveiled a cheap red clay planter pot the size of a small garbage can, containing a brown, knobby lump of something topped with a big violet flower. It was growing in black earth.
Minerva got a shiver just looking at it. She pointed a shaking finger at it.
“Beatrix, is that a mandrake in there? Did you smuggle in a mandrake? Did you hide a mandrake under a pile of garbage and leave it in your office all this time, Beatrix?”
Minerva’s voice grew to an increasingly odd pitch as she made herself more anxious.
“Yeah.” Beatrix calmly replied.
“I thought I was supposed to be the criminal!” Minerva whimpered, hugging herself.
“Oh, honey, it won’t kill you. That’s superstition. You’re a healthy young woman. You’ll probably black out and foam at the mouth. Most of the deaths are from choking during the coma, you know? That is, if you hear the scream at all, which we won’t!”
“You’re pulling it out?” Minerva screamed.
“That’s the idea. I’ll pull it out and you stun it. Use your preferred method for it.”
Minerva put a finger over her own lips, and quietly shook her head.
“This is crazy.”
“Do you not know any stunning spells?”
“I know plenty of ways to stun something! But why a damn Mandrake!”
Beatrix crossed her own arms and looked petulant, almost childishly so.
“I read an old Hortuchemic book that said grinding a Mandrake into a drink with some yak milk and spices produces a potion that improves one’s Earth auras.” She explained.
“I read in a new Hortuchemic book that Mandrakes will kill you!” Minerva replied.
Though the last thing Minerva wanted was to be seen as a coward, this endeavor was hazardous, unnecessary and irresponsible. Beatrix was important not only to the Academy, and to Minerva’s job, but also to Minerva’s general well-being and future, in a variety of ways. For Beatrix Kolsa to be killed by a mandrake in her own office, would be a tragedy of unspeakable proportion, especially if Minerva survives to be blamed for it all.
She was an Alwi and had to tread lightly. Also, she could potentially just die herself.
Mandrakes were not to be toyed with. Even their medicinal properties were largely untested, mostly because of their potential to murder whenever handled in any way.
“Do you want that alpanite or not?” Beatrix said, frowning pointedly at her.
Minerva bit the side of her thumb anxiously.
Beatrix stared at her through narrowed, impatient eyes.
“Fine. Fine! I’ll do it.” Minerva finally said.
She really wanted that alpanite. That was a few months’ salary for a T.A.
With the right buyer anyway.
Still, even the most meager hope for some added income was enough to tip things over.
Beatrix and Minerva set the pot gently in the center of the room and made as much room around it as they possibly could. They had no protective gear, and regardless most protective gear would not fully prevent a mandrake’s scream at such close ranges. So they had to give themselves the room needed to execute their tasks perfectly the first time.
“I’ll pull, you stun.” Beatrix said.
“I don’t keep a stun downloaded to my homunculus.” Minerva cautioned.
Beatrix put her hands on her hips and leaned into Minerva’s space.
Minerva held out her hands in defense. “Listen, I can cast a bunch verbally, its fine.”
“If you say so!” Beatrix stepped back into place. “What will you cast?”
“I’ll use Pherkan Smoke Dart. Fire magic will stun it more effectively.” Minerva said.
Across the planter, Beatrix looked at her with a mix of confusion and awe.
“I’ll be frank, I’ve never seen that spell cast. I do not know the timing.”
“I can draw out the incantation to take three seconds. So count down from three in your head and then pull out the mandrake, and I’ll be ready to stun it.” Minerva said.
Beatrix tapped her feet and rubbed her own chin.
“Three as in, one-two-three, or three as in, one-otraria, two-otraria—“
“Oh my god; hell if I know, Beatrix!” Minerva shouted.
Was she talking to an adult, an actual grown-up serious adult?
Beatrix sighed. “It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine. Let me know when you’re gonna go.”
Minerva breathed in, shaking a little. “I’m going.”
Her voice came out trembling, but its power was palpable.
“I sweep at the fire on Iomagn’s back–”
“—and at my enemies I cast his ash of stars—“
Beatrix pulled on the violet petals and out came the bulbous body of the mandrake and its almost cartoonishly miserable face, with its enormous gnarled mouth forever trapped in a depressed grimace, and its downcast black slit eyes, and its four tentacle-like root legs that danced in mid-air as the woman held it, wriggling and struggling, curiously unstunned.
Black earth peeled off its body, and it was clearly very distressed.
Everything had happened a little too early. “Oh—“
Before Beatrix could say anything and before Minerva could cast anything the Mandrake spread out its maw, vacuumed in air, and screamed a scream that shook the world. It sent everything on Beatrix’s desk flying, save the chunk of Alpanite, and it shattered every bauble in the room, including Minerva and Beatrix’s delicate brains.
Minerva fell and blacked out, robbed of all senses but the immediate sensation of foam bubbling in her mouth, and the sudden thud of her own head striking the ground.
A jolt of electricity coursed through the darkness and into her body.
“—come on, show me that pretty smile!”
Minerva felt something gently striking her cheek and sat up suddenly.
She looked around in fear. Beatrix was in her personal space; and Beatrix’s own space was completely destroyed. The office was a mess, the wood of the desk was cracked, there were papers everywhere, the bookshelf had fallen over Beatrix’s chair, there was glass and gel and water from all the shattered baubles of various kinds scattered on the floor.
There was no Mandrake in sight. It was completely gone.
Close at her side, Beatrix crouched to her knees, and reached out a wand to poke her.
“Stop that.” Minerva grumbled.
“Ah good, you’re awake enough to be surly.” Beatrix smiled.
Minerva groaned. “How long has it been?”
“Only a minute or two. I cast an enchantment on myself to wake me up in case the Mandrake put me in a coma. And then I cast some spells at you until you woke up.”
Only a minute or two? It had felt like an eternity of sleep in Minerva’s head.
Dreamless, wonderful sleep. No sign of the Dragon in the Mandrake’s night.
“And you didn’t cast it on me! You selfish—“
“I didn’t think it would be necessary! Please don’t hate me!”
She sounded and looked so pathetic she was impossible to hate.
“Where’s the Mandrake?” Minerva asked.
She struggled to stand, but felt herself slowly regaining control of her motor functions.
Beatrix pointed out the door. “It ran out.”
“Mandrakes who have been unearthed by humans will go look for tall grass to hide themselves in. Their hope is that planted among the grass they will throw off pursuit.”
Minerva felt her heart sink and her brain seize up with anxiety. That Mandrake would be running cross-country, screaming at anyone who got in its way, potentially killing hundreds of people across the academy. If it ran out of the old Academy district and into the crowded streets around the monument buildings, there would be mass slaughter.
Granted, the Academy was full of horrendous individuals—
But there were at least a couple of her students Minerva would dearly miss.
At any rate, even if she would not weep for some of the dead, she would weep for the fact that the blame would fall on Beatrix and then herself. Beatrix would try to defend her, probably, but it would become a scandal, it would be blown out of proportion, Minerva’s ethnicity and her origins and her gender and all of it would be scrutinized and exploited.
Minerva’s political leanings and affiliations might come out as well.
Her life would be ruined! Worse, her career would be ruined!
“You go left, I’ll go right!” Minerva shouted.
She seized a wand from among Beatrix’s belongings and ran out of the room.
Whether or not Beatrix was following her, Minerva had to get that Mandrake back!
She ran out into the hall and saw trails of four little dirty dots along the ground as if a muddy die had landed on a four every single time. She followed the trail around the building and down the steps to the front courtyard, where she spotted the little despondent lump standing frozen in the middle of the stone path out to the street, flanked by trim grass.
In front of it, a young woman kneeled and gushed over it like it was a potential pet.
“Aww, what a cutey! Are you a familiar, little guy? Did you get lost?”
She hovered over the Mandrake, while its face grew ever more miserable-looking.
Minerva recognized the girl and felt cold and desperate.
“Jennifer, stay away from it!”
Jennifer turned to look, and the Mandrake shifted a little on its legs.
Spotting Minerva, whom it probably recognized, the Mandrake sucked in air.
“Upon the winds flies a great challenge—“
Minerva had taught herself to speak incantations with incredible alacrity and in a quiet whispering voice. Just as the Mandrake launched its scream, Minerva launched a globe of force from the tip of the wand. Channeled by the wand the magical energy took a much more coherent and directed shape than if loosed through one’s hand. Unlike her previous stun, this one was quick as a bullet, and it struck the Mandrake in its mouth and sent it tumbling backwards, the force of its own silenced scream launching it meters away.
Stepping back in shock, the bubbly student was appalled at this behavior.
“Huh? Miss Orizaga, that was so mean! How could you—“
“Shut up and go do your homework Jennifer!”
Minerva charged past the astonished girl waving her wand for another spell.
In the next instant, the Mandrake leaped back up onto its feet.
Without sucking in air, the Mandrake spread its mouth and stuck out its gnarled tongue.
“God damn it.” She tapped the side of her head briefly and whispered. “Mage.”
Minerva’s glasses dimmed suddenly, and the Homunculus on her wrist glowed briefly.
Initiating M.A.G.E. military spellcasting system.
Through a gloomy, amber filter before her eyes Minerva saw the Mandrake’s aura.
Large-scale rotation of energy was briefly evident before its mouth.
“By the word of Nodun, who climbed the celestial mountain—“
Again the Mandrake screamed, though it was not its killing scream this time.
Instead it had cast some natural magic, launching a wave of force Minerva’s way.
Minerva was ready, and she intercepted the wave, and broke it with a counterforce.
In the M.A.G.E display she saw the energy dissipate harmlessly around her.
She moved quickly from one incantation to the next.
“I sweep at the fire on Iomagn’s back—“
Never had a Mandrake’s face looked so utterly terrorized.
Rather than fight, it turned tail and ran as fast as its little legs could carry it.
Minerva raised her wand and flung spell after spell after it, casting so quickly she felt like she had become a gun instead of a human. Her bullets slammed into the stone around the fleeing Mandrake and kicked up pillars of smoke and geysers of unwound energy and bursts of flashing light, but it was hard to score a hit on the frantically moving creature.
Gritting her teeth, Minerva deactivated M.A.G.E. and chased after the creature.
At the time of the Mandrake’s escape the old Academy was only mildly traveled compared to the lavish new Academy grounds. There was a clock tower and a series of small parkways around the Anthropology building and Terrington plaza, and ringed by the Otrarian Culture Department, Hortuchemy, the old archival Library and a small food court. That was enough space and with few enough people around to give Minerva some room for error. It was still class time, which helped limit the amount of foot traffic, but the noon period would soon end, and there would be a modest but dangerous lunch rush even here.
Minerva would have only one more chance to catch the Mandrake safely.
She spotted the little monster dashing across the street and into one of the plaza’s gardens, sweeping over the concrete with its legs as if whipping the ground to move. Students made way for it, more amused than scared, and stuck around to watch it run.
They were lucky it didn’t accidentally bump into them and get frightened.
Scrambling past the students, Minerva charged into the gardens, little cobblestone squares surrounded on three sides by smooth stone flowerbeds containing a rainbow of plant life. She found her target almost immediately. The Mandrake ran through the center of the garden, rushed around a bench seat and leaped like an olympian onto a flower bed.
It turned its odd frozen little face toward her and hesitated for a moment.
That momentary pause gave Minerva enough time to attack.
Pherkan’s Smoke Dart erupted from her wand like a gaseous arrow.
Standing perfectly still amid the myriad colors of flowers around it, the Mandrake groaned as it finally realized it was too tall to hide among them. With grim resignation it absorbed the stunning spell, and bounced backwards like a football off the flower bed. Now it was truly out of sight. Minerva ran toward it, climbed atop the flowerbed, stomped through the flowers and found nothing on the ground on the other side but dirty root-prints.
She raised her head to the path and found the Mandrake running off again.
“God damn it!” She shouted.
Brandishing her wand, she slung another dart into the air.
The Mandrake leaped, and it struck under it, and sent it bouncing away once more.
Minerva cursed, leaped over the edge of the flowerbed and continued the pursuit.
Somehow this Mandrake was resisting a stunning spell it should’ve been weak to.
Perhaps it was a particularly old (ripe?) Mandrake?
Maybe she was too anxious? Channeling improperly?
She grit her teeth. Whatever the reason, she was running out of time.
Running her legs raw, Minerva raised her homunculus to her face.
“Beatrix, where the hell are you? It’s getting away!”
There was no response. The Mandrake crossed the gardens, passed the street, and cleared the car road, mantling over a bus stop bench and diving into a low hedgerow as if into a swimming pool. It was almost to the Hortuchemy building—inside which there would be a tragic number of victims trapped with it, or, even worse, many witnesses.
“Beatrix! Come on, answer me!”
Minerva crossed the road and cleared the hedgerow.
Scrambling up a small, grassy bump of a hill toward the Hortuchemy greenhouse, the Mandrake leaped between several freshly-planted saplings, bearing the pink and black ribbons of the Beautification Society, using its tentacles to clamber around them like a monkey. It was getting away fast! Minerva raised her wand, but then stayed her hand.
Would there be trouble if she tore up this lawn?
Would there be trouble for the flowers too?
What would people think of her, specifically, running around making messes?
The Mandrake hit the top of the hill and barreled toward the steps.
Minerva cried out in frustration and ran past the saplings to the top of the hill.
As her sneakers hit the white stone tiles leading to the Hortuchemy greenhouse, the Mandrake was almost to the door and ready to burst through the glass. Through the panels Minerva could see students, diligently working on rows of plants with schematic properties.
“Beatrix, do something already!” Minerva cried, raising her wand to take a final shot.
The Mandrake leaped headfirst to bash into the greenhouse door.
Minerva started to chant— Beneath the Mandrake the ground trembled.
A pillar of dirt, tile and concrete spiked suddenly up like a piston.
Stricken in its rotund face the Mandrake flew up and backward into the air.
From around the greenhouse, Beatrix appeared with a grin on her face.
She raised a wand into the air, and on her wrist, her homunculus flashed.
Droning noises issued from it that stirred the world around Beatrix.
Swiping her wand like a conductor’s baton, Beatrix shaved off a chunk of the pillar and launched it like a cannonball at the Mandrake as it began to lose altitude.
Again the stone smashed into the creature’s face and sent it hurtling away.
There was such brutal, palpable force to the attacks that Minerva flinched.
She watched it fall, and turned and ran toward where she thought it would land.
“Wait for me, little guy!” Beatrix shouted.
She swiped her wand toward the hill and turned a slice of it to mud.
Taking a running leap, she hit the mud like a skateboarder on a rail and rode it.
In a flash, she made it to the Mandrake before Minerva was halfway there.
The little monster hit the ground and bounced in the same undignified fashion.
Recovering from the strikes, it opened its mouth a handful of meters from Beatrix.
She stood her ground, grinning at the thing.
The Mandrake screamed.
No sound issued from its mouth.
Minerva thought the maw looked a little vacant.
“You’d need this, I think.”
Beatrix, still smiling, kneeled down and picked up something from the ground.
Amid other displaced chunks of Mandrake bark splintered from the main mass by Beatrix’s vicious attacks, there was an object that seemed part banana and part potato.
The Mandrake stared at the piece, and comically stuck its twig legs in its mouth.
Its despairing little face spread wide in every way it could.
“Mandrakes need their tongues to scream, huh?” Beatrix said. She kneeled down again and petted the Mandrake on its violet bulb. “You learn something new every day.”
In response the Mandrake dropped on its back and squirmed around.
Minerva inched closer, perturbed by the plant’s behavior.
“Is it acting like it is dying so you won’t eat it?” Minerva said.
“Are you really going to grind it up?” Minerva asked, wincing at the thought.
“Nah. I can’t eat this much mandrake. I’ll grind this up.”
She held up the severed tongue.
“So what will we do with the rest of it?” Minerva said, staring at the Mandrake.
It looked as if it was having a convulsion on the ground.
“We’ll take it back and replant it. I’ll take it somewhere safe when I can.”
Minerva sighed and dropped onto her rear on the hill, exhausted.
Though there were a few students and couples and small groups who had been around to witness the event, everybody seemed to quickly get on with their business. Perhaps for people who knew and grew up with magic, this was all just an average Wednesday. People just chased after mandrakes and shot up the campus and made a racket all of the time.
“Let us get back to the office, Minerva. I’ll let you have a taste!” Beatrix said.
She held up the disturbing mandrake tongue once more, wagging it in the air.
“Go to hell.” Minerva replied.
This was probably all the thanks she would get for saving the Academy.
Beatrix picked up the Mandrake and got moving.
Minerva eventually followed.
There were a few people staring, but not for very long, and not very seriously.
Back in the office, Beatrix practically dunked the Mandrake headfirst into its pot.
It offered a few sad little shrieks in protest, and wiggled despondently, but there was not much it could do for revenge now that its scream had been stifled. From the detritus of the office Beatrix produced a food processor, and dropped the Mandrake tongue inside.
“Could you dig out the cooler, it’s under those plush toys.”
Minerva kicked over the pile of plush toys. Her foot struck the mini-fridge beneath.
“Hey! Don’t kick them, those guys are precious to me! They’re collectible!”
Without a reply, Minerva picked up the only things inside: a bottle of yak milk and a small bag of seasoning mix for milkshakes. She laid them on top of Beatrix’s desk.
Beatrix patted her on the shoulder. “You can have this.”
She picked up the alpanite rock and deposited it on Minerva’s hands.
Minerva slipped the rock into the pockets of her hoodie with a deep sigh.
She stood around waiting while Beatrix mixed the milk and seasonings, which smelled almost as strongly of cinnamon as she herself did. Into the food processor they went, alongside the mandrake tongue. Beatrix pressed down the lid of the food processor and hit the button, grinding it up slowly until the grey-white milk had become chunky and brown.
Once ground down enough, Beatrix poured the mixture in a glass.
Minerva found the drink identical to mud from color to consistency.
Perhaps the only difference was the smell of cinnamon and the sprigs of mint floating atop the muck. Beatrix looked at the glass with a downcast expression, and sniffed it.
“Well. Down the hatch I guess!”
She tipped the contents into her mouth, taking a hearty swig of the shake.
Her expression switched in a flash from downcast, to strained and downright offended.
She held the glass out at arm’s length as if it was a living thing that had attacked her.
“It’s so sour and so thick! It’s sticking to my tongue.” Beatrix said.
She smacked her lips and tongue, and a shiver worked its way down her body.
“Do you feel any more connected to the Earth?” Minerva asked.
Beatrix took another long drink. This one caused her to bend and hug herself and shake.
“I feel like I’ve swallowed some Earth and I’m going to spit it up soon.” Beatrix replied.
“Yeah, I thought so. See you around, Beatrix.”
She waved half-heartedly, turned on her heels and ambled out of the room.
“Wait a moment.”
Minerva turned over her shoulder.
Beatrix stretched out her hand, holding a folded envelope between the fingers.
“Your friends sent you a suspicious letter. I opened it to ensure it was safe.”
“You opened it?”
Minerva snatched the letter out of Beatrix’s hands.
She spread it open and found the paper blank. It was written in magically encrypted ink and would require a specific spell as the password to reveal its contents.
“It could have been cursed. Tell your organization to send something more innocuous.”
Beatrix shrugged as if it had nothing to do with her.
She could afford to be that blasé; the Party trusted her implicitly.
Why they thought they could, Minerva didn’t know. All of it quite annoyed her.
“Anything else of mine you messed with that I should know?” She snapped.
Beatrix shook her head and nonchalantly took another hearty sip of her mud.
While she grabbed at her throat and retched, Minerva walked out, now definitively.
A primal scream tore through the forest.
“Child of Hama!”
Minerva stood frozen before a gigantic figure as it thrust a weapon her way.
“The beast in you hungers! Oh this will be a glorious yA gNAGH indeed!”
There were bodies around her, slain bodies. Leaves fell around her like razors.
She looked around but the environment was blurry, indistinct. She knew only that it was dark, and it was wooded, and ringed-off, and there were gravestones sliced to bits.
Behind her, she saw a lean, vulnerable figure tied to a post as a sacrifice.
“Miss Orizaga, please run away! Please!”
It was Jennifer.
Minerva reached out a hand to aid her student.
“You dare turn your back in an honorable clash?”
There was a flash.
Her hand flew from its wrist.
She stared at it disbelief until her vision itself was cut, and her breathing was cut too.
Her body started to fall apart where it stood.
There was blood.
She was dead.
Over her remains, the beast stood, and its laugh caused reality to tremble.
Minerva sat up in bed, choking.
She reached for the glass of water at her bedside and drank through trembling lips.
Her shaking hands spilled some of the water on her.
She was in her room. She was safe, alive. Her hand was still attached.
Her guts, were all still attached.
She had not dreamed of the Dragon and the Catastrophe tonight.
Though she felt terror, the dream itself was beginning to fade even as she wept for it.