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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