2.3 Iron Heart

This chapter includes violent psychological distress, violence, mild sexual content.

Iron Flag/Iron Heart: A nationalist, Otrarian-supremacist organization that arose in the 1990s in Otraria, Otrarian-managed territories in lower Nobilis, and Heles. While their street movement is relatively disorganized, they found a stable home and allies in upper class educational institutions, and particularly in magical academies such as The National. Their militant wing is known as the Iron Flag, which the movement at large disavows and calls itself the Iron Heart instead. Their driving ideology is that the decline of magic, and in turn the weakness of Otraria politically and militarily, is a result of an ongoing invasion of conspiratorial foreign peoples and cultures in Otraria. In their views, Otraria must rediscover its “Iron Heart” and cast out the “foreign degenerates.


“Cheryl! I’m home, sweetie.”

Lyudmilla knocked on the dorm door and teased her roommate before coming in.

Cheryl, however, was nowhere to be found.

There was a letter on top of the desk, beautifully written. Cheryl wrote with magical grace. When she took her time, her cursive was second to none in style and precision.

“Need to be somewhere else for a bit,” Lyudmilla read aloud to herself. “Head stuff.”

She read it from the bottom to the top. She sometimes did that.

Reading the letter, Lyudmilla wondered where Cheryl went for “head stuff.” As much as she wanted to feel close to her, this question provided such singular confusion at the time that Lyudmilla felt a little frustrated. At least she had been thoughtful enough to leave a note behind. It still sucked, in Lyudmilla’s own words, to be ditched like this.

They had not gotten to talk much since they survived Moloch’s summoning.

Dimly, Lyudmilla worried that she was being ghosted. But she didn’t want to believe it.

Maybe Cheryl just needed a quiet, lonely place to scream at the top of her lungs.

“I’m just being a bitch.” Lyudmilla said. “It’s not her fault.”

Cheryl must have been having a disastrous time of things.

Lyudmilla had only just come into Cheryl’s life, but her boyfriend and his family, her friends, and even more abstractly, the safety she felt at the school, had all been there for her longer. Now it must have felt like she had nobody; like her whole life just broke. Lyudmilla had been hoping she could have this time to talk to her, to thank her for sticking up for her and Minerva, to offer support. But perhaps it wasn’t time yet.

Especially because Cheryl was not alone in having a hard time of things lately.

Her own head was getting a little scrambled.

Magic and Tyrants; Summoners and the racist political group in the school; Agents of Noct and the scorn of the educational administration; what kind of world was little Milla living in now? Everything was so out of proportion to what she was used to, that she did not even know how to feel bad about it. She felt a vague sense of trepidation with nothing to tip her over into despair or hope. It was not like before, when she could look at all her problems down the sights and barrel of a gun. Maybe for the best.

She could have the gun back if she wanted.

She could have the gun back if she could pay the toll.

Sometimes she looked at her hand and imagined it again.

Sometimes she could feel it, and the bullets it made when it took from her.

Minerva said not to do it, however. So she wouldn’t frivolously call it forth.

Lyudmilla sighed. Why listen to her anyway? But despite everything, she did.

Her Master had her feeling the most ambivalent of all.

Who was she really? And was she worth putting her faith into after all?

Could she really trust her? When she was unused to lending anyone any trust?

“Ah, fuck it! I’m going to go out partying, this sucks. I’ll even fucking drink!”

Lyudmilla shut the door behind herself. It was customary of Cheryl to keep the door open, even if someone might see in at a compromising time. But Cheryl wasn’t there. With a moment of privacy, Lyudmilla threw her blazer, dress shirt and skirt on her bunk and picked out an outfit in the closet. Like everything she wore, it was a mix of what few cool clothes she owned, and a generous helping of Cheryl’s vibrant selections.

Her fashion sense was personal and organic. Lyudmilla thought she had a sense for cool, and she could just look at a pile of clothes and make it work. Cheryl’s closet was meticulously arranged, and so, she needed only to quickly scan for things and grab.

First she threw on her favorite black hoodie over nothing but a black sports bra, and zipped it only as far up as it needed to go to hold together. Her chest was mostly exposed, just like she wanted it. Anyone who said there wasn’t much to see could go fuck themselves, she thought. Lyudmilla could have gone louder, even: she would have preferred Cheryl’s skimpy bikini tops, but all of them were, well, oversize for her.

Next, she honed in on some fancy high-rise lingerie and a pair of black, glossy short pants with doubled-up legs. She slipped them on, tightening the pants with a heart-buckle belt. Finally, she would wear a pair of sneakers. Pumps might’ve been too girly. She wanted to show off, but she also wanted everyone to know she’d kick their ass.

She looked for her cigarettes, but Cheryl routinely threw them out whenever she found them. Then she looked for her weed; but that was just gone of its own accord.

Lyudmilla did not even want to smoke at that moment. She just thought it’d look cool to have when she went to the club, depending on the club she ended up going to.

On the table, she saw her grimoire, where she had dropped it as she undressed.

She almost left it behind. But on the way out, she swiped it, squeezed it until it shrank to the size of a little portable bible, and stuffed it in the front pocket of her hoodie.

As much as she wanted to, magic was not something she could just ignore and forget.

When she left the dorm the horizon had consumed three quarters of the sun and the sky overhead was bright orange with the last throes of daylight. She knew a couple places that opened this early — but there were a few others farther away, that, by the time she reached them, it would certainly be dark, and they’d be throwing real parties.

She walked the streets, hands in her pockets, trying to make up her mind.

The Estate dorm was located near the center of the town that had grown around the National. There was a main thoroughfare just off of the plaza that led into the dorm buildings, flanked with shops and bars trying to entice the steady flow of students coming and going. The streets weren’t packed at this time of the day, after classes, but there was still quite a bit of foot traffic. Lyudmilla slipped in amid the small crowd.

She tried to think of where to go, but as she went over the options she started to wander the town without much direction. The sun started to go down. Lyudmilla had gone clubbing before but there was something about tonight that made her hesitate. Every venue she knew, she found some reason not to go to. The Eden might have been the place to go, but it was crowded and some of the regulars had been bitchy to her before. She could have stopped at Club Gravity, but found herself walking past when she saw the line to get in. InMotion was a cool spot, but they had a celeb House DJ that night so the music was probably going to suck. She could always go somewhere new.

Telling herself that, she started fiddling with her homunculus, spotting new places.

It started to get slow, however, as she scrolled past an endless list of clubbing spots.

Eventually, the screen went black again from disuse, and ceased to respond.

Her head was in the clouds.

She missed several of the clubs she had made a note of; she just walked past.

Soon she found herself just thinking about the walk, and consequently, just walking.

She was not going anywhere. She was stuck as she was now. Who she was now.

Lyudmilla Kholodova, a magician-in-training at the prestigious National Academy.

Out and about, just looking for a drink, hard enough bass, and girls to tease.

She developed her own romanticism; lost in her own little fantasy.

It felt pathetic somehow. There was no direction to it — “pure A.D.D.,” she told herself.

There was something about it. It’s not like she hated the trip so far.

Walking through town made everything seem so normal. There weren’t dragons and kobolds and spirits walking through town or floating in the air. There were no fireballs and lightning bolts slinging to and fro. Sometimes, she would see a girl with some kind of conjured cosmetic glamour, like a pair of cat’s ears or a tail. It was like she was not walking through a magical university, surrounded by witches and wizards. Maybe she was not; maybe most of the people here were normal people, minding restaurants and cleaning streets, and there were only a few actual magicians. Lyudmilla didn’t know.

She was a recent inductee into the life of the collegiate mage.

That had not been the way of things in her previous years.

Rus had been in the throes of a civil war that hid in plain sight, while its anonymous yet frequent violence undid the great society little by little, fragmenting everything her people had once gained. For anyone in Rus-Moroz this was a part of their life, even if the world at large did not acknowledge it. For anyone there, bodies just turned up.

And people just killed each other.

There was not any official outrage or acknowledgment.

It was like everyone was being lied to even as the bullets went in their brains.

Living in that place, maybe Lyudmilla’s brain really was scrambled too.

She had been on the side of the former soldiers, against the church and mages.

When she was told she’d be leaving the war-torn north and going to Otraria as a refugee, Lyudmilla did not know how to conceptualize it. She was not like the other child soldiers. She had gotten paid and had gotten to live it up a little when she became more an adult. She’d gone partying in Moruma; she’d bought cool sneakers with the money she got for shooting up a guy in one of the Western Churches. It was not like it was for other kids; it was just business. She had nothing to feel gross about.

Or so she told herself, whenever she felt gross about it. Whenever it felt too heavy.

She tried to put it out of her mind. She was just Lyudmilla Kholodova. Just an ordinary edgy alt-girl who liked some shitty stuff, like anyone. An ordinary girl in a magic school.

Walking down the street, through all of this normality, Lyudmilla took a look at her hand; her ordinary, normal girl’s hand. She suddenly sent a current running through it.

Tiny sparks of blue electricity crackled between her fingers very briefly.

She had seen Minerva do magic without speaking, and she poked the idea in her brain until she did something similar. Tiny sparks was merely all she could do on a whim. Had she been able to concentrate even a bit, maybe she would have done better. Tonight was not a night for concentrating. Already her brain was accelerating to the next thing.

Still, she felt a strange sense of satisfaction, having done it.

Lyudmilla had always been good at learning by looking at things and practicing them.

Perhaps that is why she had held such a rare and different rank than the other kids.

All of the orphans from the war fought. Some wanted to; some got incentives to.

Some were forced to.

Killing mages, killing the clergy, those traitors; to take the country back for the people.

She was among the few child soldiers who did magic.

“What if I got laid tonight?” Lyudmilla told herself, feeling her head turning heavy. She chuckled. “I’ll find a hot older girl at the club and crash at her place, that’d be cool.”

What club? She had walked past all of them. There would be no club.

But she wanted her mind to race past pain and toward pleasure. She needed it to.

“I’ll give her a bit of jolt.” She chuckled to herself, rubbing her fingers together.

In response to her jests, her mind offered up a picture of a few other things she did with her hands, other than hot girls. In this case, she saw the stake in her hand that she threw at Moloch’s core in order to destroy it; and she saw, briefly, the same hand, and the same stake, become a loaded gun on a cold street, sending a blazing red light into the back of a man in a priestly garb, tunneling through his heart and out into the air.

“Fuck.”

Lyudmilla began to weep. She found herself weeping.

It happened that suddenly.

She was still walking, barely knowing where she was going, or what was around her.

People seemed to fade in and out of existence. Her head was a swirl of broken and confused thoughts. She wiped her eyes with the back of her fist, and felt her feet shaking as she walked, faster and faster until she had broken into a run.

“Fuck. Guess you’re not partying tonight Lyudmilla, you ditzy bitch.”

Her voice trembled as she chided herself. Her slurs rose to a scream.

She started to get pissed. At herself, but also at everyone around her.

Her mind was turning over at thousands of kilometers per second.

Nobody understood, and everyone was always fucking up with her. She felt like screaming more. Her country; her school; her class. Minerva. The Commander. Everyone had set her up wrong, everyone had abandoned her to this. Even–

Even Cheryl?

Nobody ever did right by her. Everyone just went their own way without getting it.

Cheryl didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed to know it wasn’t weird between them, and that she needed to know right now that she wasn’t being abandoned; Minerva didn’t get that Lyudmilla needed her to be perfect or else the fucked up turn her life had taken recently would be for nothing, because she needed to know Minerva really was special, so she could cope with having to follow her and trust her and admire her–

And it was certain that the school didn’t get that Lyudmilla was not just going to be ok with a dorm and food credits and going to class every day after spending life as a magical killer moonlighting as a schoolgirl in a country falling apart from inside out!

Nothing was going to be ok, and nobody seemed to get that!

“What is anyone supposed to feel now? Why can’t someone just tell me what to do?”

Lyudmilla shouted at the top of her lungs.

She felt a rising, incoherent hatred for everything.

Her breaths started to catch in her chest.

There was no response from anyone around her.

There was nobody, around her. She was all alone.

She looked around herself. She did not know how far she ran, how much she shouted.

She turned her head, whipping around in a sudden paranoia.

People must have thought she was crazy– but she saw no one around anywhere.

She turned the entire landscape over, and there was not a soul.

Her eyes were clouded with tears, but she scarcely recognized the surroundings.

There were hedges and sculpted bushes. In the distant, hazily, she saw a fountain.

It was a park; it was her park, she thought. She came here for weed once or twice.

It was Eisenbern Park, she recalled. There was a statue of that man somewhere.

Right now there was just the fountain.

When she wiped her eyes, everything was still hazy. She felt she could barely see the tops of the trees, they seemed to loom over her. Maybe she was having a worse episode than she thought. Everything felt oppressive, like it was closing on her. She had not taken any medicine, but she was freaked out enough she almost considered it.

Lyudmilla started to walk the way she came. She wanted to hide in bed forever.

At her back, there was still a fountain.

“I didn’t fuck anyone but myself tonight.” She told herself, bitterly.

She stomped her feet for a moment as she walked.

“Stupid, just, fucking– stupid.”

What was anyone supposed to feel? Wasn’t she supposed to drink and smoke and party, wasn’t that living life? After everything that happened? Wasn’t that normal?

Wasn’t she a normal girl now, who did normal shit?

But she wasn’t. She was a magician, too. And she didn’t know what that meant.

Except going to this school and getting jerked around.

Fountain–

Lyudmilla snapped her head up. She looked around.

It was the same fountain again; the trees; the sculpted bushes.

“I’ve been walking.” She told herself. “I’ve never stopped. I should’ve been outta here.”

She started to walk again, paying close attention to the fountain.

As she went to cross the hedge, suddenly and without transition, she was walking with the fountain in the distance again. She should have crossed the hedges and been out of the park, but here it was. One step out of the hedge, and it was the fountain again.

In an instant of panic she repeatedly tapped the screen of her homunculus.

“Wake up! Hello? Can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

Her homunculus screen lit up with a progress bar that finished completion.

“Update completed. Initializing M.A.G.E. tactical spellcasting companion.”

First the homunculus screen went black, and then loaded back a red window with seemingly hundreds of gibberish lines scrolling quickly past Lyudmilla’s vision. There was one line on the screen that wasn’t scrolling, a copyright for some of the program’s code base owned by the Ayvartan government. Finally, the screen went black again and then loaded a sparse white interface with a few numbers ticking up and down.

“You were updating all this time?” Lyudmilla shouted at her wrist in outrage.

In the next instant the homunculus responded in its dull, droning voice.

“In an emergency, command input is still accepted during the update process.”

“I don’t care!”

Lyudmilla raised her wrist into the air and shook her homunculus this way and that, as if trying to get it to see the park around her. “Can you tell me what is happening here?”

Of course, the homunculus was not alive and showed no indication of distress at being jostled around. Lyudmilla had almost desired to hear a quivering or empathetic voice, but instead got a robotic, male-passing droning, characteristic of her wrist computer.

“Utilizing the same hardware extensions that allow for assisted spellcasting through light, sound, biometric and geographic awareness and projection, and running the gathered data through a military-grade algorithmic and learning environment, M.A.G.E. can run analysis on ethereal, spectral and vital patterns and waveforms. Data output will be partially verbal; scanning for compatible visual hardware to transmit to.”

Lyudmilla saw the camera on the wrist computer’s face flash.

“Hardware found. Please don the identified visual hardware for output.”

On the homunculus’ screen, Lyudmilla saw a wireframe image of a pair of sunglasses.

Absentmindedly she picked at the pocket of her hoodie and felt the sunglasses there.

“Really? These old things?”

She lifted the sunglasses, spread open the legs and pushed them up her nose.

As soon as her eyes had adjusted to the lenses, she instantly saw the information that was on her homunculus appear, hovering in front of her. It happened so quickly it felt like a light had flashed directly into her eyes, and she was momentarily disoriented.

“What the fuck? What did Minerva do to my smartwatch?”

At that moment, when Lyudmilla ceased to pay attention to the homunculus and for the briefest second caught a glimpse of the world around her, as seen through the sunglasses and the projection from the device, her predicament started to take a palpable shape. She could see trails and auras that would have once required great concentration to spot with her naked eyes. They were only slightly visible, but enough that she could identify them. She saw a dim multi-colored gas, a ribbon in the air, that ringed the park and discolored everything outside the perimeter it delineated. She saw a gray and blue aura emanating from the edges of the ribbon and spreading. Five or so meters from the thick center of the “ribbon” the colors diffused and disappeared.

It was clear, however, that some kind of spell was surrounding the park, and another was spreading through it in every direction. She was in a sealed-off space, and so, she surmised, whenever she tried to leave she was forced back to the last spot she had been in, inside the space. Lyudmilla was trapped, and she did not know by whom.

Her mind was suddenly shifting into the hyperactive clarity of a soldier in battle.

“If someone was after me they’d have gibbed me by now.” Lyudmilla said to herself.

She must have fallen in a trap meant for someone else. Whoever cast it was not even paying attention to her, and probably did not even realize she was around. She had been a sitting duck here for long enough now that it could not have been sheer luck.

“Homunculus, what kind of spell is this? Do you know?”

“Analyzing–“

In the enhanced view she was seeing through her sunglasses, Lyudmilla could see a faint light like a pen laser tracing a circle from her homunculus out into the air around her. A pulse emanated from the wrist computer and returned after the striking the barrier. She saw a column of numbers and letters on one side of the screen on the watch itself that were not mirrored on her glasses. It was doing something.

Finally ‘the robot’ — as Lyudmilla began to think of it — spoke up once more.

“Spell waveforms are consistent with the line of Helic spells known as ‘Laburinthos’. Strong illusion and conjuration magic focused on multiple points in plain space have recreated the maze of Minos in this area. It is not possible to escape the confines, until the sources anchoring the spell are found and dispelled deeper within the maze.”

Lyudmilla blinked. “Do you know who you’re asking to do this stuff?”

She was flabbergasted. She barely understood anything ‘the robot’ had said.

Obviously she was trapped in some kind of magic; the particulars of that explanation were a lot to take in. How many anchors were there? How could she dispel them? She did not know any dispelling magic beyond ones like Herrcher’s Arcane Unmaking or Kabukov’s Unraveling Arrow. Would they be enough to break down magic this strong?

“Loading morale module.”

At once, the voice of the homunculus became that of a sweet woman with a thick accent. “Soldier, you can do anything you set your mind to, for country and comrade–“

Lyudmilla’s face flushed. Could it tell that kind of thing about her?

“Oh shut up! Never do that again!” She shouted.

“Unloading morale module.”

“Never!”

“Uninstalling morale module.”

At that point Lyudmilla heard the leaves rustling on the hedges.

This noise intensified to become crunching and stamping.

Then, from the hedges across the fountain, Lyudmilla saw figures falling through.

“Vital waveform detected,” said her homunculus. “Low resonance and impact.”

Soon as the robot said the word ‘impact,’ Lyudmilla heard a bone-crunching punch.

A black-clad figure landed atop another as they fell through the hedge and delivered a series of sharp punches that smashed the defender’s arms out of the way and then cracked his helmet as he fell back. He was a clearly wearing repurposed bicycle helmet with a coat of metal paint, and it splintered like a plastic toy when subjected to the attacker’s violent blows. Spittle flew out of the mouth of the man absorbing the punch, and he fell to the ground as if there was no weight to his legs, instantly out.

Then the attacking figure swiftly swung back around to face the hedge.

In the very next instant, a second grey helmet and mask plunged through the green.

Though not taken by surprise, the swift puncher could only grapple with the new enemy, who was significantly bigger and had not spent as much of his stamina. There was an aura around him also — around both of them. Lyudmilla could not tell what the enchantments were, but there had clearly been a melee going on longer than this.

When the two opponents collided, they locked arms and struggled, grappling and shoving and then striking wherever they could get an opportunity to free their hands from each other. The featherweight puncher shoved back, created space, and threw strikes; but the big guy was on his guard quickly, and just as quick to grab again.

This was a fight, a real fight; a street fight! People were getting fucked up here!

Lyudmilla lost her inhibitions and charged headlong toward the fountain.

As she neared, the figures revealed their true forms. For the one throwing punches, Lyudmilla could see they were wearing a heavy-duty black jacket with a hood pulled up over their head, and a surgical mask and sunglasses. Near completely anonymized; but Lyudmilla saw markers of a familiar sex. Even with how thick that jacket looked there was an impression that there were breasts beneath, and the jeans the puncher wore clung close enough to fill in the rest of a womanly figure. Those savage punches had not been thrown bare, either. Lyudmilla saw a rust-brown strip over each knuckle.

And over each strip, the faint billowing of an aura of some kind. On one wrist, barely concealed, was a homunculus flashing warning lights. The featherweight was a mage.

Meanwhile, both the grey helmet knocked flat on the ground and the bigger one still fighting were dressed in almost military-style coats and pants, all grey. On their wrists, they too bore the magical implements of National students. Not just spellcasters generally, but specifically students. Lyudmilla could tell. All of them wore the same school-issued model, in the stock grey with a sturdy, basic faceplate and touchscreen.

They were the fascists, Lyudmilla knew. She had seen them before.

She recalled how the boys under Ajax’s command dressed and acted.

Power-tripping racist savages spoiling for someone weaker to hurt.

“These guys must be one tier up from those sackless fuckwits.” Lyudmilla told herself.

They had real coats at least.

That was more than Cheryl’s boyfriend and his friends got.

But who was that they were fighting?

Some street punk?

Lyudmilla cleared the fountain at full sprint, running up the steps to it and past the water basin. As she did, the hooded puncher she’d begun to think of as ‘the featherweight’ got shoved back and struck in the side of the head with a fist.

They stumbled back, clearly losing their balance.

Sensing opportunity, the fascist charged, descending on the punk.

One of his fists glowed dimly green and purple.

He threw a second punch, and left some of that aura on the punk’s shoulder.

Lyudmilla felt her skin brim with the urgency of the situation.

No time to reach for the grimoire. She acted entirely in the moment.

“Spellcasting detected, assisting–“

Her homunculus felt it in her biometrics a second ahead as Lyudmilla cast a spell.

“Lord Pherkan, unveil the fury that clouds the boreal skies! Molniy!”

She shouted the incantation, and the fascist stopped momentarily to face her.

Leaping into the air over the last steps down from the fountain, Lyudmilla’s raised a hand with fingers brimming with blue bolts. An insubstantial javelin of metal-aligned lightning magic formed in her hand and twisted like a struggling snake in her grip.

Without time, a longer incantation, a casting tool, or all of them, the bolt was going wild in her hands. She could barely contain it. Its heat was stinging between her fingers.

Barely able to hold the projectile she had created, Lyudmilla leaned into the descent of her own jump and then used all of her momentum to hurl the shimmering bolt away.

She focused with every fiber of her being on harming, killing, striking, shocking.

Harmful magic came in a multitude of forms. One could try to cause an enemy to become sick with a pox, or turn to stone, or burn up, or be pierced with spears; any torment one could imagine, magic could visit upon an enemy. But just thinking about the pain you would cause was not enough to inflict it. Because of their auras all humans and all living creatures had inherent defenses against magic. They could make it weaker, or absorb it altogether, or warp the effects out of usable shape.

Perhaps the “associations” Minerva spoke of also had something to do with it also.

When she cast the spell, when she channeled it in her hands and finally when she fired it, the agitated Lyudmilla had wanted a bolt of lightning to shock the fascist to death.

Instead, the bolt struck him in the stomach as if it was a blunt instrument.

There was a surge of electricity that was clearly coursing through his body. His legs danced out from under him, and a dark stain crept along his pants as he very clearly pissed himself from the attack. But there was barely any heat transferred, nothing burned, nothing was pierced. Blue sparks deflected in numerous directions as the bolt struck him, dissipated, and knocked him back, eyes wide, jaw hanging, limbs twitching.

Most students would have only known one generic magic missile with which to defend themselves with. Killing magic and hurting magic was not taught widely. One could learn it, and anyone motivated to do so would; but it was not productive or practical, the things magic needed to be to compete with science. So it was not prioritized.

Watching the result of her attack unfold, Lyudmilla briefly understood some of the things Minerva had taught her. Magic was imagination and could take any shape; but a duel between wizards was a battle of wills. You never knew what would happen. To truly crush an opponent with magic there had to be greater wits and power at work.

For Minerva to have defeated Moloch, it must have taken her a titanic effort.

Lyudmilla felt in that instant both powerful and powerless. She had so far to go yet.

Even though she was already so far ahead of her peers in certain ways.

She clenched those hands of hers, those normal, abnormal hands.

And yet, there was no time to feel pity. Lyudmilla was in the middle of something.

There was work only violence could accomplish, and Magic was her one weapon.

Quickly after her attack, she took stock of the situation.

Her fascist was out like a light. Not dead; perhaps that was for the best.

In her anger, Lyudmilla had not considered she was not meant to be a killer anymore.

Once she was sure the enemy was down, she sprinted toward the stumbling, hooded figure who was still in the midst of disorientation and about to fall into the hedge.

That was not an ordinary punch they took. Nobody was throwing ordinary punches.

Her featherweight looked quite dizzy.

Lyudmilla grabbed the featherweight before they could fall to the ground.

“Are you okay? Say something!”

She immediately raised their category to welterweight as she held them up.

In response, the hooded figure coughed violently and gagged.

“Whoa!”

Lyudmilla tried to hold on to them. Something was quite wrong.

“Poison detected. Conjured poison is weaker than the original strain.”

In disbelief, Lyudmilla brought up her homunculus, staring incredulously at it.

“What am I supposed to do then?”

In her hands, the hooded figure writhed.

Coming just short of vomiting, the figure coughed with horrible force.

Between each cough was a sharp, sucking gasp.

This was followed by a brief muttering.

“Spell waveform detected–“

Lyudmilla’s ‘robot’ spoke just as the hooded figure’s own ‘robot’ acted.

Assisted by their homunculus, the hooded figure’s hand glowed bright.

Featherweight smacked themselves in the stomach with a shining palm.

For an instant, the mask came loose on their face.

Lyudmilla caught a brief glimpse of a soft face and bright eyes before the figure realized the fullness of their senses, and covered their face with their other hand.

Regaining their breath, perhaps having counteracted the poison, the figure shook Lyudmilla off, shoving with their shoulders and taking a brusque step back from her.

Once more they nearly stumbled into the hedge; recovering from the sudden tumble, the featherweight stood and adjusted their sunglasses, mask and hood in a brief panic.

Anonymized once more, the hooded figure turned sharply to face Lyudmilla.

“Whoa! Fucking, cool down, okay? I just saved you from him!”

Lyudmilla pointed at the downed fascist, a pool steadily spreading about him.

Chest rising and falling with deep breaths, the hooded figure opposite Lyudmilla appeared almost contrite in their body language all of a sudden. They hunched their shoulders forward, and stared at the ground. They stuffed their hands into their pockets. Was that shame? Was this punk really sorry they turned on Lyudmilla?

“You did save me. Thank you. I’m sorry about that shove. It’s been a night, you know?”

When she finally spoke, the figure’s voice was gentle, almost out of place.

This was no ordinary street punk, in a multitude of ways.

“It’s a night for shoving, I guess. And all kinds of other things.”

Lyudmilla nodded. She was disarmed by the character of the voice, and by the casual tone that it took. By the softness, and reasonableness of it. Lyudmilla would have been throwing f-bombs. “Yeah, you can say that again. You might not have noticed but the park’s under some kinda curse. Who are you? Some kinda hooligan caught up in this?”

Slowly the figure straightened up. She dusted herself off, and cracked a grin under the surgical mask. Lyudmilla could tell through the paper, and her cheeks had moved too. Whatever kind of cool this mysterious boxer had, she was definitely getting it back.

“You can call me the Samaritan.” She said.

“Oh I get it. You’re one of those street punks that fights these guys all the time.”

Lyudmilla had heard of something like that; violent counter-protesters.

She was at a loss for what she heard them called, but the Samaritan elucidated.

“You could say I’m antifa, yeah. I’m not exclusively antifa, but yeah, I do it too. I’m just your all-around concerned citizen.” She stretched an arm toward Lyudmilla, fist curled up. “Wanna pull up your hood with me too? Right now the fash outnumber my crew.”

Lyudmilla put on her own grin. She felt a bloodthirsty kind of hype in that moment.

Truth be told, it was also the kind of night where she felt like tearing some shit up.

“I’m not afraid of these guys. They can look at my pretty face all they fucking want. Tell me this though, is your crew still outnumbered if I come with?” Lyudmilla asked.

“Lets just say my odds would double with you along.” the Samaritan replied.

“Well then.”

Lyudmilla stretched out her own arm and bumped her fist on the Samaritan’s.

“Can you clue me in on what these cosplaying shitheads are doing here?”

The Samaritan raised her homunculus and showed Lyudmilla something on it.

It was the layout for something like a forum, or a text message thread.

“They’re after somebody. She called for help, and the Samaritans are answering.”

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