This scene contains violence, death and body horror.
Demesne: Where humans possess simple auras reacting to ambient and absorbed magic, wild Tyrants create vast, warped otherworlds of magic known as ‘Demesne’ that a Tyrant can project onto the material world to stake territorial claims. A Tyrant’s demesne warps reality into a shape suitable for the Tyrant’s preferred magical profile. In response, humans have historically developed many spells, strategies and equipment to Contain the demesne.
Before Minerva and Lyudmilla the statue seemed to bloat into a bubble of what seemed like liquid cement. Seams formed on its surface that oozed a slick, oily substance, vividly colored in the light of the wild flames around the platform. Minerva raised a hand in defense, sensing movement. From the seams, metallic digits burst through like the arms of an insect, breaching a cocoon. Clay sloughed off the mutating structure.
Once enough material was shed, there was a creature, its skin baking in the heat, large and misshapen, a bull-like head melded into its thick shoulders. Its attached arms were meaty, ending in clenched fists. There was a massive wound on its chest, dripping clay, and out from within it a series of metallic ribs and a large metal spine stretched to the ground like the legs and abdomen of a horrifying insect. Somewhere deep inside the churning, chittering mass of metal amid its clay-sloughing chest, was a heat source, like a pilot light. Thin trails of smoke wafted out from a red glow in the creature’s center.
Now the voice was not booming from seemingly everywhere like a surround-sound system; Moloch’s challenge came from his physical mouth, on his corporeal head.
Somehow the sound disturbed Minerva more than before.
“I will rip the fire from your false body as you ripped it from mine.”
Moloch’s mouth made a wet, slapping sort of sound. It seemed to melt and solidify and melt more every instant, dripping globs of clay that hardened and burned onto its chest.
Everything was heating up. She only barely felt it, because of how she was.
Minerva did not answer to his provocation. She controlled her breathing. She felt her body reacting to the Demesne. Her chest was hot, and she felt Wyrm in the back of her head: its disdain, its hatred. Most of all, its hunger. In the presence of so much wild and uncontrolled ambient magic, she lost her cool. Anyone observing her closely would’ve seen her eyes, red with throbbing veins one seconds, and dark and collected the next. Dilated, weeping; focused and dry. It was a struggle against an atavistic other self.
Though she told Moloch otherwise, she feared some part of her was Wyrm indeed.
Minerva felt a hand at her back, and looked briefly over her shoulder to see Lyudmilla with her grimoire out, and her eyes steeled. She was acting calm, at least. Minerva had no experience with grimoires, but Lyudmilla survived Ajax. She could survive this.
“Miss Orizaga, please protect Cheryl.” She asked.
“Already on it.” Minerva said. “Vorra.”
Vorra nodded and muttered something under her breath.
Smoke briefly played over her lips, swirling with her speech.
Minerva glanced at the sacrificial poles around the edges of the platform and saw them disappear instantly, absorbed through the walls of the demesne in a puff of smoke.
Lyudmilla looked around in confusion.
“I have separated the children from the Demesne, milord.” Vorra said.
“Hear that, Lyudmilla?” Minerva said.
“Yes.” Lyudmilla replied, sighing with relief.
“Hang in there.” Minerva said. “Containment strategy is way too complicated for an introductory course, but you can get behind the basic principle: surviving.”
In truth, Minerva herself was untested at containment, but she, too, could act calm.
She had known since she was young that she would confront a Tyrant in the future.
“Did you install that thing I gave you.” Minerva asked.
Lyudmilla silently raised her hand. Minerva saw the memory card in her homunculus.
“We’ll get through this together.” Minerva said. “Just watch your casting. Limiter’s off.”
Lyudmilla moved closer to Minerva, and muttered near her head.
“Miss Orizaga, I was–” She hestiated, “when I was younger, I was sworn to an oath–”
Minerva felt her heart rise briefly.
“Don’t use it.” She cut in immediately.
She felt Lyudmilla tremble behind her, confidence suddenly shaken.
She raised her voice.
“Are you for real? Listen, I can–”
In front of them Moloch sneered, and the fire in his chest burnt brightly for an instant.
Smoke poured out from his back and he laughed at them.
His eyes were glassy and pale. He looked as if he was staring past them.
“Don’t debate this here.” Minerva warned. “I need your help. He’s weakened.”
She could almost imagine Lyudmilla’s stunned expression.
But she had to keep her eyes forward now. It was about to start soon.
Moloch raised, with difficulty, one of his arms. It looked as if it weighed a ton.
He had much less difficulty plunging it into his own chest.
“Warning, Entity temperature rising sharply. Fire magic channeled.”
Minerva’s homunculus gave a sudden warning, as processed by the illegal M.A.G.E. military spellcasting system installed on it. On the accompanying headpiece, an alternate reality display in front of her eyes overlayed the creature with a temperature gradient that saw its chest turning sharply redder, and the arm inside burning as much.
His aura was very thick; he had focused it around him. She would have a hard time penetrating his defenses with any sort of magic until he opened himself up to it.
She had to respond to an attack; he’d be vulnerable then.
“Don’t do anything yet.” Minerva whispered.
Lyudmilla nodded behind her.
When Moloch pulled his arm free of his own body, it was red, covered in leathery skin, and seemed much easier for him to move. Flames danced around his fingers and nails.
“Wyrm, you come to me in this body, full of delicious skin and oil and hair that burns. You’ve no advantage here! No scales to block me, no wings to deflect my wrath!”
Around his one newly-rejuvenated arm the flames grew denser and collected into orbs.
“Milord!” Vorra warned.
Moloch’s fingers wriggled and the orbs went flying in different directions.
“Scatter!” Minerva shouted, pushing Lyudmilla back and stepping forward.
Lyudmilla responded swiftly. She made a pulling motion on the pages of her grimoire and rapidly blurted out the words to the lesser-known Kabukov’s Cossack’s Flight; this obscure spell coupled with the homunculi limiter being removed caused Lyudmilla to blow herself skyward without control, spinning out and flying away from the platform.
It was enough; the fireball meant for her passed just under legs and careened away.
Two more swerved around Minerva and Vorra like circling hyenas.
Lyudmilla’s was a feint. Moloch grinned, clearly controlling the latter two directly.
Both orbs moved closer, and then pivoted away at sharp angles before driving back in.
Minerva made to move and deflect the magic; but Vorra leaped in front of her.
She sprouted a massive wing that wrapped around the bewildered teacher.
Inside the wing Minerva couldn’t do magic without risking Vorra’s safety; and Vorra, standing Sentinel a few meters away, had put herself in an awful position now.
“Milord, this subservient flesh stands in your defense.” She declared.
“Vorra, no! They’re–”
Minerva felt a brief wave of heat wash over her as the fireballs collided with Vorra.
Wrapped in the wing, she saw two terrible flashes and a shadow standing before her.
Slowly the wing unwrapped and dropped Minerva on the floor.
Vorra fell to one knee, struggling to stand. Her other wing stretched front of her body, smoking. It too fell, wilting before her like a dying flower and crumpling on the floor.
It had been pierced by two metal balls, both of which rolled off Vorra’s body to the floor.
One massive bruise on her exposed shoulder and neck attested to the impact.
Vorra’s sweater covered up the other wound, this one to her rib and flank.
Behind them, the third bullet had smashed a dent into the edge of the metal platform.
“Damnable cheat.” Vorra cursed, visibly in agony. “Blackguard. Hid bullets in them.”
“This is why I said scatter!” Minerva shouted, nearly in tears.
Had she not trusted in Vorra’s constitution she would have been beside herself with grief.
“Kilnlings, collect the dragon concubine, she shall be fuel!” Moloch shouted.
Around Moloch the skeletal metal creatures became excited.
They moved with a suddenness that shocked Minerva.
A dozen of them once holding court around the Tyrant came to life and pounced.
Vorra was well aware of them, but she winced and wobbled trying to move.
Minerva raised her wand–
Before her eyes the AR display showed Moloch’s legs heating up.
That same suddeness was not exclusively to his minions.
Moloch joined the charge, cutting the distance as if propelled by a jet.
In that instant Minerva knew not who to save or how.
Kilnlings jumping on Vorra; Moloch, his arm reared back for a swing at her.
Her brain froze, an infinity of fear colliding with a primal voice screaming at her to devour the enemy in front of her, no matter the cost to her or to those dear to her.
Lyudmilla Kholodova’s words reached Minerva at the precise, final second.
Minerva warped the floor in front of her for defense.
Wordlessly and without motion she raised a wall of metal that Moloch’s arm half-melted through and became trapped in, his glowing hot claws inches from Minerva’s cheek. His body came smashing down against it, and his limbs thrashed atop its surface.
In that very same second Lyudmilla dove down, snatched Vorra and leaped again.
That dozen Kilnlings so sure to kill her lover instead crashed together in a broken heap.
“I’ve got her! Do what you have to!” Lyudmilla shouted from the air.
Somehow that girl was really holding her own. Minerva had to wonder about her.
Still, she was relieved momentarily. She’d have to talk sternly with Vorra about all this.
Moloch pounded his free, clay-like arm into the metal with horrifying force, denting it.
Minerva thought it time to display some uncharacteristic swiftness of her own.
She rolled out from behind her shield and in the same sweeping motion she dragged on the metal. Her motions were accompanied by a red glow and a vacuum pull, and the metal shield she had raised from the platform melted into a white-hot bubble of goo that she suspended in the air before her, held in a tenuous balance between hand and wand.
Seconds later Moloch realized what had happened and he let out a massive roar.
He stared down in disbelief at the gory stump left of his renewed, good arm.
“Wyrm!” He shouted, “This magic! This magic!”
Minerva had pulled his arm in with the metal as she tore away from her shield.
“It looks better on me.” She said cheekily.
Moloch blinked, his open, gaping mouth slowly closing itself as clay melted off it.
M.A.G.E read Moloch’s aura dispersing. A Tyrant was a thick, dense concentration of magic held together by a sharp, focused will and intellect. A Tyrant at the height of its power looked like it wanted to: its ideal conception based on the magic it embodied. Moloch was a remnant, kept alive by its legendary rage and apparently little else.
She had seen Tyrants at their peak before. She had seen them brought low too.
To prevent the repeat of that horrible massacre, Minerva knew this day would come.
Minerva would end him.
Throughout history humans challenged Tyrants. There were all kinds of myths, all manner of ways; magic items, special spells, rituals, even environments designed to stop or trap them. Minerva knew Containment, the modern, militarized paradigm.
She challenged a Tyrant in its demesne and now she would prevent its spread.
Minerva pushed one hand closer to the orb of smelt and spun her wand around it.
She blinked, and the hot goo became a solid metal orb once more. Such a spell would have spent her, normally. Magic took a lot out of a human body, it drained stamina, it taxed muscles and brains alike, especially when affecting high volumes of material or large objects like the orb of metal. However, Wyrm luxuriated in the fire magic of the Demesne, and unbidden but not unwanted, her body had been absorbing some bit by bit.
Some of Wyrm’s lust for violence rubbed on her for a second too.
Grinning viciously, she flicked her wand and launched the ball at Moloch.
It struck him dead center like a massive cueball.
Flailing his arms and legs, Moloch bounced and skidded brutally along the ground.
Moments later Moloch smashed into the pile of kilnlings and sent his supplicants flying every which way in pieces, chunks of metal ribs and claws sticking to the soft, melting clay parts of his body as he rolled and thrashed and bounced across the platform.
Pieces of clay and skin and bits of metal shed from him as he crashed up and down.
Moloch screamed and raged impotently as it tumbled off the edge into the fiery pit.
His screams began to crescendo despite the distance, but then finally died down.
Minerva turned her head around, scanning the Demesne for signs of magic.
At that moment, Lyudmilla finally dropped from the sky, landing on her feet.
In her arms, she carried Vorra like a princess — a struggling, ungrateful princess.
“Unhand me, peon!” She said. “This skin is for milord’s touch exclusively! Put me down!”
Lyudmilla unceremoniously dropped Vorra onto the ground.
“Here’s this thing, I guess.” Lyudmilla said, a look of exasperation on the student’s face.
She twirled her hair bobbles around while examining the surroundings.
“Is it gone?” She asked warily.
“Maybe.” Minerva said. She was still scanning the auras.
“I can’t believe this limiter stuff. I was flying!” Lyudmilla said, looking around herself.
“That’s not just your homunculus being unbound. It’s because of the demesne too.”
“So what will my magic look like outside?”
Minerva raised her hand. She saw something on the edges of the demesne.
There was a brief silence just as briefly broken.
“Warning, demesne temperatures rising sharply.”
Lyudmilla stood bolt upright with shock; Minerva grit her teeth.
Around them, the “walls” of the demesne flared up, great columns of fire superimposed over the fleeting image of the forest outside the demesne. They thickened and burned and spread until the fire seemed to consume all of the outside world, creating a dimension of endless red and orange flames dancing around the isolated metal platform.
“Oh no, the forest! Cheryl!” Lyudmilla shouted, hands to her chest with fear.
“It’s just the demesne! If we stop Moloch it won’t spread.” Minerva cautioned.
Around them, that deep, booming, omni-directional laughter sounded again.
It sent a chill down her spine. All around her the aura thickened.
Somehow its power was increasing.
“Vorra, leave the demesne now.” Minerva said.
“Yes milord.” Vorra said sadly. “I’ve disgraced myself.”
She coughed, and spat a fire that expanded into a cloud of smoke around her.
Her shape sailed on the hot wind through the demesne walls and out of their sight.
Minerva sighed with relief. Vorra at least would be safe.
At her side, Lyudmilla was stunned to silence, terrified; she was sweating, shaking.
“I’ll need your help, Lyudmilla. I’m sorry. Please be strong.” Minerva said.
She was a truly terrible teacher, but this was what things had come to.
Lyudmilla nodded, but she was breathing very harshly.
Around them the fires reached a fever pitch.
Then, gas began to creep up from below the platform. Thick, awful smog.
Mechanical limbs reached up into the sky from within the fire.
Indistinct and segmented, bolted together with gears and drive belts.
Unholy machinery began to pull something massive as if from hell itself.
Two enormous claws grabbed hold of the platform’s edge and pushed up.
An indistinct hulk at first, when the massive machine rising before them started to untangle itself from its own supporting cranes and conveyors, they could see its arms, its rib-cage, its horned cranium, long and beak-like with a bare jaw and empty sockets. Like a cow skull stripped of any flesh; but it was all metal. Moloch had risen in a new form, its body massive, and driven by gears. Gas pipes ran over his form like exposed sinews, all attached to the smoking, burning hole in its center, still guarded by limb-like ribs.
Minerva was reminded of an animatronic animal, stripped of its outer covering.
Held up by chains and belts and cranes attached to its back, it floated before them in a sky of fire, the platform seeming so small when compared to the Tyrant it served.
Moloch’s jaw slowly unhinged. Minerva could see the gears struggling to move it.
“Wyrm, your short-sighted disdain for humanity and their metal will be your undoing. You stole the fire and left behind the hearth. Now you will burn in it!”