Ohhhh, Nicoooooole, you've gotta be a magical girl! Ars Magi have a storied part in humanity's survival! They'll remember your name in the neighborhood for the rest of time! Sure, you were a fuck up who could have gotten all As but got all Bs because you didn't like turning in assignments, and you declare thumb war on guys you want to bone down on, but that's just part of your charm! They'll love that about you in military school!
For three days, that had been the sardonic core of Nicole's buried resentments, swirling and tempestuous and often punctuated with weird stomach rumbles and groans, like she'd been fed some foul carbonara with frankfurter in it. She couldn't say she was entirely unused to the sensation. Two years previously, she'd had her wisdom teeth taken out all at once, but somehow all the romanticizing and propaganda disseminated about Ars Magi had neglected to mention that the whole journey began with the same crippling, post-anesthesia nausea that came with having your jaw disassembled. She hadn't even felt comfortable standing for the first day or two, for fear that she would find her legs still gelatinous or her stomach in the mood to betray her and heave. When she would look down, curled halfway into a fetal position on her bed, she would see the alien invading her body - scarlet and dull, with only the occasional glitter that she had begun to suspect was merely a trick of the sunlight, days passing by one after the other. Once she had reached down to poke it - sue her - and actually been driven to the point of tearing up in pain and discomfort.
Bereft of those two emotions, the only feeling left to her was boredom. She considered talking to Astrelle every now and then, but it was hard to keep her usual standard of flirting up when she constantly felt like she was going to turn into sludge with one wrong wink, let alone getting up and going over to the other bed. Besides, even if Astrelle was in the mood for talking - doubtful - Nicole wasn't really in the mood to hear her say she was right back on the airship. Even if she was, what good would it do now? They were thoroughly locked in for the ride.
They remained locked in for two more days after their procedure. At least, that was the result of the mental math she'd come up with as she trudged into their dorm's bathroom and began running the water for a shower. She was feeling only a little less listless this morning, and personally she would have been happy to take another week off. But it seemed like today was the day that Nova Lux figured they were strong enough to kick ass under their own power. As she stripped out of the clothes she had been bumming in since the operation and started fiddling with the water temperature again, the queen of vibes lifted up one leg and mimed the single, sweeping motion commonly associated with kicking ass. To her surprise, she didn't quite topple over - although she had wrapped her fingers around the top of the stall to prevent such a klutzy disaster from unfolding. Letting go, she tested kicking with her other leg. That felt easy enough, too.
She grinned at this latest triumph and stepped into the shower, gasping a little at the shock of the water on her skin - and then realizing it was a pleased gasp, and not the pained hisses that normally came swaddled in a blanket of foreign curses at the water being too hot or too cold. No, it felt just right - Goldilocks temperature. After a second of indecision in the face of her good luck, she grinned; her head reclined, letting the water wash over her face, hair, and down her front as she savored the warm water and her good fortune. Even the way the water lapped at the jewel in her abdomen didn't feel quite so bizarre anymore. Gently, she reached down to touch the small chunk of emerald. This time, she felt nothing. That felt good in of itself, and she grinned, giving the gem an affectionate little pat and circling it with a finger.
Another little victory. Just keep stringing those together, bella. That's what life's all about.
She grinned, angling her head back further, and started rinsing her hair.
Once again, she found herself marveling at the differences between Palmyra and her native Hasta. Marveling was the wrong word, actually. Mourning was more appropriate. But even as far as Palmyra went, setting foot in the MEZ was an absolutely ghoulish concept, like preparing to duel in the middle of a graveyard. Every building had once bustled with activity, people living their lives here in spite of miasma, until one by one they had faded into memory or been driven out by the military - the same military she had now devoted her body and her life to. She looked over at Astrelle again, then back to the tests at hand. The rest of them had gathered to watch Vanna perform, and once again, Nicole found it enchanting to watch the daughter of the Diana clan go to work. Even though there was no possibility of her words of encouragement reaching Vanna, or Dana after her, she still kept up an enthusiastic applause at their transformations and performances against the Voids, and at the end of both tests she found herself applauding loudly. Then it was her turn, the girl in the middle - not noble, but not poor; not thrilled about her fate, but not resigned to it either; not consumed by dreams of being an Ars Magi but not thoroughly repelled by them. The queen of vibes, the girl in the middle. She guessed that made her the natural candidate for the glue of the team.
That glue would be put to the test. Nicole was about to prove she was capable of holding herself, and the squabbling quartet of girls who fate had tied her to, together. She looked back at the other girls in the observation tower and smiled warmly, hands on her hips. Knowing that familiar eyes were on her helped quell her discomfort at the ghost town that threatened to swallow her, like being in the midst of friends in a horror movie screening.
“Now lowering diffusion level. Nox levels rising. Manifestation of Voids detected.”
Nicole's attention was stolen away from her new friends for good. It was do or die time. The nausea in her stomach was replaced by performance jitters. The kind she'd felt when she was on the Laurus, experiencing fleeting bursts of agility for the first time. The kind she felt when she had first gotten her letter from Nova Lux. The kind she felt standing at the highest point of Hasta, rain matting her hair, seeing the rivulets trace the lines of his cheeks, his jaw and his lips...
The kind she'd felt then, the moment of her greatest failure. Her final failure. From here on out, it was all about the little victories.
She stretched out her dominant arm, rolling her hand by the wrist and cracking every knuckle as the Voids drew their forms from hell.
The wind is on my back.
She felt her stomach flutter again, and her body began to glitter.
May my sword cut like my smile.
And the blade, long, slender, and cobalt, bloomed in her hand like an extension of her hand - the finest steel, ornamented in color and born from gust.
Her body looked like it had become fire made flesh, a slender inferno being licked and fanned by the breeze cultivating around Nicole Cognoscenti. Her clothes had become tangerine tongues of flame, with white hot cores serving as her top, skirt, and boots; her scarf blew triumphantly in the wind, the longest tongue of all, tasting the justice she represented on the wind. Even the jewel in her navel glittered brighter, like her eyes after a well-timed quip. She tipped her small beret towards the monsters formed to test her, in a playful show of respect. She didn't bother with a ready stance.
"Vi faccio vedere come lotte un Hastano!"
The Ars Magi lunged.
Her very first Void died to her very first cut. Instinctually, Nicole crowed out in triumph, but beneath the lizard brained thrill of her Void kill virginity came a mental note - she had swung with a simple backhanded cut that had ducked past all three Voids, and bifurcated her target down the middle on her way past. The sword, however, had never even touched the shadows; its reach must have been augmented by her power somehow, or perhaps the physical blade itself was only the center of winds that swirled invisibly and cut sharper than scissors. She would need to test it out further sometime.
In the meantime, the second and third Voids were ready to attack. Her back was to them, so she kept running, feeling the same agility that had served her from nowhere onboard the Laurus kick back in. Now, however, she felt it burst from within her spectacularly, and when she ran she felt freer and fleeter than she ever had in her life. Nothing would catch her with the wind at her back. Nicole leapt, so happy she could cry.
She thought her feet made contact with the ground until she looked down, noticed the dusty, fogged, cracked glass of a window long-abandoned, and decided she didn't give a crap. She kept running along the length of the building, taking her final leap off the corner where building met alleyway. Her right foot reached out and used a sign post, rusted beyond the point of deciphering, as a springboard for her next great leap, back into the midst of where the Voids had rushed to meet their doom. This time, she wanted to see the blade sink in; her gladius sank deep into the shadow of a Void, where any normal, Godly creature would have felt its heart pierced by the manifestation of her justice. She grinned in triumph--
oof oh god
--and felt the breath leave her when the third Void struck her stomach.
Even as the second Void returned to the cold hell from whence it came, she tumbled backwards from the force of the blow, feeling the strain of the operation upon her midriff all over again as she skidded to a halt on one knee. She had been caught showboating, caught up in testing power unlike any she'd ever imagined she would feel, and gotten caught for it. That was probably one of the lessons that Nova Lux wanted to teach them. It was better to learn it now. Nicole stood and adjusted her beret, an uncharacteristic, pouting glower on her face. Her fingers adjusted, cracking again around the hilt of her gladius.
This time, both opponents rushed to meet the other - both determined, but one measured and strategic where the other was mindless and cruel. Blows that had seemed terrifying onboard the Laurus now looked wild, frenzied, intent on pain and death without a clue how to inflict it on an opponent that had become faster and stronger than them overnight. Nicole's dodges felt kinetic in a way she'd never imagined she could feel, skidding backwards, to the side, bobbing and weaving for the fun of it. The wind was tickling her inside, making her feel as though she could start laughing and never, ever stop - making her feel like she never wanted the fight to stop. She felt like laughing like she imagined she'd laugh if she ever got Astrelle to come up with a joke. Most of all, she wanted to laugh at the Void.
Then, in the middle of a leftward dodge that turned into a flourish, the wind around her blade cleaved an arm-like appendage from her final obstacle. The inky blob that passed for a head went next. And then it was over. She was victorious.
Hell with little victories. This was huge. Nicole Cognoscenti had passed her test.
She adjusted her beret, seconds before her transformation slowly began to revert. She had imagined the reverie she felt would fade alongside it, but aside from a few little aches of exhaustion, she felt no worse for wear. Even the scrape on her left leg, where she had skidded the length of the forgotten street, was barely a twinge. She took another deep breath and went to fiddle with the beret again, anxiously, excitedly, before she realized it had faded away. She was back in the clothes she'd warn to the test. Only the gem in her stomach still glittered, as it would until the day she died.
She looked up at the observation tower where her friends watched and grinned, smile cutting the length of her face. She raised two fingers and kissed them emphatically, then arced her left arm in a clockwise motion above her head. The fingers split in front of her eyes, forming a triumphant V as she bowed low, like a ballerina seeking accolades for her performance. Her bad leg was hidden from sight at the peak of her proud little curtsy.
Then, true to character, Nicole Cognoscenti started to headbang. When she lifted her gaze up, her scarlet hair had fallen into her face. She gave a halfhearted attempt to blow it out of her eyes, with no cigar.
She started to laugh, and didn't stop.