This chapter contains strong language, violence and xenophobia.
“Awaken for your feast, Lord Moloch!”
Behind Centurion Ajax the eyes of the impostor statue glowed a fierce red, and the air around the clearing began to suck into the burning hearth in its gut. On the Centurion’s hand the red orb flashed with a swirl of red and orange that seemed to project from it, brighter and brighter each time until the flashes became blinding, until they swept away every shadow from every crevice and turned the world an annihilating crimson.
Lyudmilla Kholodova had her senses burned clean of the world she knew.
She felt a brief, terrifying instant of pain, as if she had brushed against burning metal.
Slowly her hearing returned. She heard screams and the clanking of metal.
She heard a whistling discharge of gas, and she smelled smoke and charcoal with it.
Her skin sensed distant fire all around her, the oppressive pressure of dry, ambient heat.
Though open all the while her eyes had been dead for what seemed like minutes.
When the blinding light slowly faded to reveal the surroundings, she saw a red world.
Overhead the sky had turn dull and red, thickly clouded, like a stormy dusk. She thought she saw something moving in the distance all around them, like mechanisms shrouded in thin smoke, but she could also make out the trees from the forest. Smoke billowed gently from stacks sticking out the sides. Everything was suspended a few meters in the air, she could tell by where the trees were. She believed she was actually standing atop a flat, gridded metal plane with its edges curled slightly upward. This platform covered the area of the woodland clearing around the statue and over a dozen meters more all around them. A brown patina had tarnished much of it along with pools of fouled oil.
“No! Let me go!”
Milla heard Amber and Jennifer and Cheryl screaming and she cast eyes around the platform in a panic. She found them suspended atop spokes extending from the rim of the platform, chained up to poles. Skeletal-looking machines looked on at them, each seeming as if built out of all the sharpest scrap left after a tractor burned down. Several of these creatures were in the process of hanging up Phillip as Milla caught sight of them.
She did not care what they did to him; but she felt desperation build for the rest.
It didn’t matter where she was now; her surroundings disappeared again and she focused on the terror she felt about the fate of her friends. She produced her grimoire.
“Cheryl!” Milla shouted, angry to see her friend strung up, struggling against chains.
Cheryl kicked and wiggled and shook her raised arms. “Milla! Help me!” She cried.
“I’ll get you down–”
Milla heard clanking behind her.
Jets of flame lit up the background and a shadow extended past her–
A figure looming with arms outstretched, ready to pounce.
Over her shoulder she saw one of the creatures.
It moved like a stop motion figurine, like something fake and unreal. No parts of it seemed properly jointed, none of it seemed to move in a way that produced momentum, just arms swinging and legs bending without logic. It was a mishmash of sharp shapes ending in what looked like hearth shovels and tongs, with a red, cracked-glass shape roughly where eyes would be on its spike-like “head.” If she had to give it a shape, she would have likened it to the skeleton of a cow or a bull, with horns and hooves.
Its hollowed out ribs seemed caked in gristle and bone.
Was it trying to drag her to the hearth?
Milla swiped her hands over her grimoire and struck the creature with a bolt.
It jerked upright, briefly pausing, before bouncing away like a character ragdolling in a video game. Propelled by magnetic force, it crashed into its fellows around Phillip’s pole and bowled all of them clear off the platform, gyrating helplessly as they fell away.
Milla turned to Cheryl’s platform, and ensorcelled one of the creatures there as well.
As if billiard balls struck all together, the machines went flying in every direction.
“I’m coming Cheryl!” She shouted, having bought her friend some time.
She grinned to herself then, feeling confident, until she heard that fake voice again.
“You’re up? You don’t know when to quit.”
From somewhere up above, Centurion Ajax landed meters away from Milla.
He drew his polearm and instantly launched a savage horizontal swing.
Again his weapon seemed to warp and stretch beyond its limits to reach her.
Milla brought up her grimoire to defend against it, reciting a metal reinforcing spell.
The Centurion’s pole struck the cover of her book and bounced off it.
Though she somehow kept her skull intact, much of the force of the blow still transferred into her body, and Milla nearly fell on her side, her arms shaking from the exertion. She felt like she deflected a cannonball with the backs of her hands, like some kind of circus attraction. Had she not reinforced the binding magically she would have probably died.
Nonetheless she stayed upright and defiant.
“Hmm. You’re proving uncannily stubborn for a Rus degenerate. Child soldier, maybe?”
He seemed to muse to himself more than he engaged her. Like she was nothing to him.
Ajax withdrew his pole and raised a hand at Milla.
She could not tell what he was doing; he was not speaking and made no gestures.
His ornate homunculus was making noises, but all homunculi made all kinds of noises when someone was casting a spell, hers included. It faded into the background, it was nothing, it couldn’t be read by anybody. Without reading his lips or hearing him incant or understanding his gestures she had no way of knowing what he was casting at her.
Motes of magical energy briefly collected on his fingers as if from nowhere.
A blue bolt launched toward Milla and she could not defend against it in time.
She raised her book, but not quickly enough; she felt the bolt strike her like a sling bullet.
Her head cocked back and she nearly fell, but she managed to push forward and stand her ground at the last second, preventing herself from dropping. Right under the purple streak in her bangs she felt a sharp pain where the bolt struck her in the forehead.
Milla felt a little woozy, and her vision wavered, but she did not let herself drop.
Once more she remained standing, affected but mostly upright.
“How? You should be out cold.” Ajax said. “Lord Moloch will have to dine on one less.”
His voice was still so dismissive. Milla felt furious, but she was helpless, wavering.
Around the Centurion’s hand the motes of energy started to darken. He gestured wildly.
Milla was sure this one was lethal, but she could not make herself move to avoid it.
She saw a bolt of black lightning burst from Ajax’s hand toward her.
Milla stared at it with resignation, her skin tingling for an instant.
She blinked and the bolt suddenly deflected skyward, as if batted away.
Ajax disappeared, and she saw instead the back of a hooded beige coat, and a pair of dress pants. A figure with black, messy hair in a ponytail stood in front of her.
She could tell by the color of the skin on the back of her neck.
“Professor Orizaga!” Milla called out.
“I’m not a professor.”
Minerva looked over her shoulder briefly, smiling. “I’m just a teaching assistant.”
Milla felt a driving need to look tough in the face of everything, and brought up her grimoire, and she took two labored, agonizing steps to stand beside Minerva.
“He’s trouble.” was all she could get herself to say in the face of all this madness.
“I can tell.” Minerva replied.
Across from them Ajax’s eyes lit up red behind the dragon-shaped helmet.
“The Alwi.” He said, disdainfully. “Of all the mongrels, the degenerates; the Queen.”
“You flatter me, but I don’t even control my own classroom in this school.” Minerva said.
Ajax raised his hand again and with much greater alacrity he fired a second bolt.
Minerva swung her wand at it and lobbed it away the same as before.
Milla saw a flash as it crashed harmlessly into the ground off the corner of her eyes.
Furious, Ajax cried out and swung his polearm, twisting it into whip-like flexibility.
“Watch out!” Milla shouted, ducking her head.
Minerva mumbled something under her breath.
Before it could reach them, the polearm started to melt in mid-air.
At Milla’s feet, a chunk of gelatinous slag ended up where the pole might have crashed.
Ajax dropped the handle before it could melt right in his hand.
Minerva scratched her hair with her free hand, unimpressed.
“I’m not a fan of your edgy cosplay and I’m tired of your little temper tantrums, kid. I’m going to find out who you are, then you and whoever your rich father is will be really embarrassed by all of this. That’s the best scenario. I can also just kill you stone dead.”
She lifted her wand at Ajax, who stood seemingly speechless before her.
“So you can stop all this right now, and take off your helmet, or I’ll take it off.”
Ajax quickly lifted with his other hand the red orb he had taken from the statue.
“Beseeching with furious reverence I set myself to stoke the wild flames of the Lord–”
“Idiot! Vorra, now!” Minerva called out.
One moment Ajax was chanting whatever he was–
Then a great shadow swooped down at him faster than her eyes could follow.
Her mind registered it as a punch, but she felt like Ajax had been dive bombed by some giant beast. He went flying from the blow, hitting the ground twice and thrice and launching off the platform, screaming incoherently. Where he once stood, there was now a handsome woman, dark-haired and dark-skinned, somewhat like Minerva; slender, with lean, exposed legs, a coy expression on her face. She was dressed in a sweater.
“Milord, I fear I struck too true. It appears the orb fell with him.” She said.
“It’s fine.” Minerva replied. “We’ll pick him back up.”
Milla looked between “Vorra” and Minerva quizzically.
She shook her head, trying to right her own thoughts.
“Teacher, please help Cheryl, and those girls, they’re all trapped.” Milla labored to say.
She tried to point at the poles, but Minerva wasn’t looking anymore.
She was fixated on the statue standing opposite them, its gut open and burning.
Vorra bared gritted teeth, staring furiously at it. Her eyes turned feral.
Milla noticed Minerva’s eyes seemed to redden and dilate as well.
“Milord, the pretender god wakes.”
Minerva raised a hand out in defense of Milla.
Suddenly the hearth in the middle of the statue blew a jet of flame their way.
Vorra stood in it as if nothing was wrong, while the fires redirected around Minerva.
Had she deflected them the same as she had Ajax’s bolts?
All around them, the environment was changing.
Every smokestack billowed thicker, darker smoke.
All around them the sky turned redder.
Flashes and bangs went off inside the smoke clouds.
All of the remaining steel creatures, that had been standing docile around the captives in the poles, seemed to return to life. Like the many-pronged mouths of some vile insect their rib cages began to clap together, producing sparks that suddenly lit their chests aflame, setting ablaze the oil and coal and gristle and crud that was collected there.
Milla heard a spine-chilling laughter, deep and booming.
Inside the hearth in the statue’s stomach the fire seemed to burn ever brighter.
“Bastard! Thief! Kinslayer!”
Minerva stood fast in front of the fire, beads of sweat forming on her forehead.
“I’m not who you seem to think I am.” She said calmly.
“I sense you!” replied the incensed voice. “I sense the aura you stole from me! I smell the everburning flame that you took! I feel the essence that was rightfully mine!“
Vorra hopped back from the statue and landed near Minerva.
“Milord, I am prepared to give my life. Command me as your own body.” She said.
“Oh god. Calm down.” Minerva sighed.
She looked over her shoulder. Milla could not understand what was happening.
“Kholodova, do exactly as I say whenever I say anything and don’t ask questions.”
Minerva put down the arm guarding Milla and raised the other to adjust her glasses.
She heard a little robot-like voice speaking as if from the glasses out.
“Concentration of fire and metal-type energy in the Demesne is reaching saturation point.”
Ahead of them the statue started to bloat and bubble as if melting into a new form.
“Do not ignore me, Wyrm! Coward! Usurper! Beast!”
“M.A.G.E, commencing containment.” Minerva said.
Milla saw Minerva’s glasses light up just briefly, and her homunculus lit up as well.
She thrust something into Milla’s hand. It was a red memory card.
“Put that in your homunculus to override the limiter, now.” Minerva said.
Milla fumbled with the card but jammed it into the wristband slot on her homunculus.
“Stay behind me. I’ll get you all through this.” Minerva said.
There was a little trembling in her voice at the end there.
“Wyrm! You and these morsels will burn in my trough of kindling!“
Several of the metal monsters arranged themselves around the statue in supplication.
Something started to take shape there, and it was furious.