“Lady De Botton! You are finally here!” Boone’s eyes were aglow with admiration.
Alesia stepped off her blazing red Ducati with shaking legs. She had thought that the ride from the Shield Fort 47 toward the camp would be one of those iconic drives with long winding roads and graceful curves. Instead, after half an hour of crushed stone, she was left with sore buttocks crying out for a Healing Word.
Chipped the bike too, Alesia silently moped.
“We’ve got trouble, Ma’am.” Boone waited until Alesia inspected her bike.
Alesia followed Boone into the main building, a rundown, two-tier concrete rectangle, noting the Augur-Map laid out on a dinner table. A few other Instructors were likewise present, bickering about an evacuation.
“What’s happening?” she demanded, watching as the Instructors turning to face her. Their voices fell silent at once, some more willingly than others.
“Gwen’s group ran into a CR 4 Soldier class Beast,” Boone informed Alesia. “The kids did good, they took care of it, and are on their way back now.”
Alesia nodded, she was confident in Gwen’s group.
“Jun, but he’s healed.”
“Just before you arrived, Debora’s group said they ran into a huge swarm of Snotlings, a good hundred or so of them. They managed to push through, and are on their way back as well.”
“How about the others?”
“All accounted for, except group 02,” Boone answered anxiously. He pointed to a pin on the map. “They are not responding to hails, but their Augur devices didn’t show any vitality loss either. We were debating to see if we should send someone to check up on them.”
“That’s probably a good idea. What’s the problem?”
“Instructor Crusoe doesn’t want to,” one of the instructors stated.
Alesia turned to look at this ‘Crusoe’ asshole with her penetrating blue eyes.
Crusoe’s face blanched a pale yellow.
“I never said that. I’ll be going then…” Crusoe quickly replied, leaving the room as if in a great hurry. Outside, they heard him incant the Flight spell and take to the air.
“Why didn’t he want to go earlier?” Alesia asked.
“PTSD…” Another instructor remarked with a critical tone, flashing her a disagreeable glance. “But it seems our War Hero managed to make him overcome years of trauma.”
Alesia felt her face flush. She was always too quick to judge; her Master had expressly said so.
A commotion could be heard outside the building.
"That must be Gwen's group," Boone noted.
“I’ll be back,” Alesia stated inelegantly, leaving her peers and their none too friendly gazes.
Out in the clearing, Alesia watched the group stumble into camp. Their clothes were torn, and a little ragged. Henley was helping Jun. The three girls brought up the rear, with Elvia in the middle.
Good girls! Alesia felt a tingling touch of pride.
“You guys alright?” she hollered toward her students before walking towards them. The girls were initially wary of a woman clad in all red racing leather until Gwen realised her saviour had arrived.
“Instructor!” The party ran to their teacher.
Alesia hugged them each in turn. The girls' hair smelled like the bush with its fallen eucalyptus, mixed with the odour of elemental viscera.
"So, what happened?"
The students began to recount their experiences all at once, speaking over one another to tell Alesia about how they had survived a day in the Wildlands. Alesia asked for details, then assuaged their fears and worries. She then took them to the concrete bunker where hot food and tea had been prepared and told them to await the return of their peers.
Relieved that Gwen and company were safe, Alesia decided to take a walk around the perimeter. There was a strange feeling that had been bothering her since they had arrived, like in those dodgy establishments where ‘the walls have eyes’. Her paranoia seemed to grow as she patrolled until finally, she felt the hair rise on the back of her neck.
I am being Scryed! Alesia noted annoyingly. She didn’t like that at all.
A ring of fire blew out from her as she turned, singing everything within five-odd meters.
Instantly, her paranoia ceased.
Was it one of the instructors? She wondered. She wouldn't have put it past them.
Not far, there was another commotion. Alesia watched as another group arrived. The second to reach the camp was Debora’s group. Two of the Transmuters looked to have sustained minor injuries, limping and holding onto one another. The Illusionist followed at a brisk pace, unharmed, their Enchanter following behind. Debora herself came into the clearing like a Mage-Knight, resplendent in her Bronze Skin, tall and proud and full of poise.
“Ma’am!” they greeted her.
"Group 3, I am glad to see you're all safe." Alesia directed them towards the direction of the communal bunker for tea and supper.
In the dim light, Alesia could see that Debora was as tall as Gwen. From what she knew, the two groups had a little rivalry going. She liked that. Rivalries made children grow, especially among those with drive and talent.
“Is… Yue and Gwen alright?” Debora asked, the Bronze Skin fading from her. Without the distinct texture, Alesia could see that Debora was covered with bruises, her face, her arms, her collarbones, all of it possessed by green and purple splotches.
“They’re fine; they should be inside, having a bite. I am sure they would be glad to see you.” Alesia gave the girl a reassuring smile.
The rest of the groups arrived in twos and threes until the whole cohort could be accounted. Crusoe had returned with the last group, who were tied up dealing with a swarm of relatively harmless Fern Slugs. They had become fast-stuck after the hive had passed, incidentally walking into the adhesive trails left behind by the creatures. As no one was harmed, the worry turned to a humorous affair. The kids were told to take a shower and get changed.
With the students safe and sound, the instructors met to discuss the likelihood of an evacuation.
“I am telling you, tonight is impossible, the Coaches don’t operate at night, meaning we’re going to be hiking in the dark for five hours. That’s FAR more dangerous than waiting it out here, in CONCRETE fortifications!”
“No!” Crusoe seemed adamant, “We have to go. I saw what was happening when I flew over the Burning Palms, the beasts are on the move, and they are moving AWAY from something.”
“This is the Green Zone, Crusoe, what can it be?”
“A Beast Migration,” Crusoe declared ominously. “This is the beginning of a Beast Wave, I know it, I recognise the signs. I am telling you we need to go.”
“Just like that?” Another Instructor retorted annoyedly, “I know you’re a survivor of the 88’ Migration, Crusoe, but not every phenomenon is a calamity.”
Crusoe fell silent; his face ashen.
“Richardson! That’s going too far.” A third instructor interjected, “Sorry, Crusoe.”
“We have to go…” Crusoe replied weakly.
“I understand your fears.” Boone tossed in his two cents. “But there are no signs. No quake activity, no atmospheric phenomenon.”
“I feel it in my bones…” Crusoe seemed on the verge of asphyxiation. He tried to retort, but couldn't catch his breath. Watching their terrified colleague, the rest of the instructors fell silent. “I… I need a moment.”
His eyes met Alesia’s for a moment, and she felt a pang of guilt.
Oh God, it's not me - is it? Ah, shit! She probably shouldn’t have triggered him earlier.
“I’ll go see how he’s doing,” Alesia announced to the table. “My two cents is staying here, because… you know - I am here.”
“Of course, Lady De Botton.” Boone felt like he should be saluting, but stopped himself at the last minute. She was no longer a part of the military.
Boone returned to the room with a look of smug confidence.
Well, of course, they'll be fine holing up here. Boone acknowledged, realising the stupidity of their debate. If need be, the Crimson Sorceress could take out half the zone in a blazing firestorm.
Outside, Alesia found Crusoe walking towards the edge of the clearing, away from the main building.
Where is he going? She pondered, sensing an unexpected paranoia, Jesus, he’s not going to skip out on us and make a run for it, is he?
“Mister Crusoe!” she called, out, but he kept on walking, “Oi! Instructor Crusoe!”
Shit, just my luck, triggering the PTSD of some civilian Mage, Alesia groaned inwardly.
She quickened her pace, following Crusoe out of the clearing and onto the start of a fire trail. It was dark by now; a pale moon illuminated the Blue Gums under the light of a waxing moon.
Though she had lost sight of him for a moment, Alesia found him not too deeply in, hunched over by a tree and rolling his shoulders forlornly.
Jesus, is he- CRYING? Alesia swore. Bloody hell!
She rolled her eyes. Its time to turn on some of that charm and empathy Master always advised. Alesia approached Crusoe loudly as not to startle him, wondering how she should break the ice. Gingerly, she readied a smile, then patted him on the shoulder.
“I am sorry Crusoe…” She began.
A silent clamour of hyper-dense Mana filled the air the moment her fingers touched the sobbing instructor. Before Alesia could react, her world lost all light.
All light disappeared - cold sinews wrapped around her legs, her waist, and her arms, wrought of an indiscernible element.
Dark Tentacle or Stygian Grasp? Alesia's mind raced. Dust or Ooze?
Another spell activated - incanted silently and out of sight.
A feeling of cold invasion penetrated Alesia's abdomen.
Shit! Her mind grew hot with agony, all thoughts banished by the object crushing her innards. She knew now there was no holding back and that this was life or death.
“Blade Barrier!” Alesia completed the spell between clenched teeth.
A ring of flaming blades materialised around her, indiscriminately destroying all within range. She willed them to expand instantly and felt a satisfying 'thunk!' engender in the darkness, the self-evident sound of a blade biting into flesh.
Whatever had pierced her stomach also ceased to be, cut off by the Blade Barrier. Now she had to heal herself; a gut injury was no joke, and she could go into shock at any moment. Alesia willed a mote of activation mana to reach a ring on her index finger, where a gem shattered, filling the void around her with the blue-silver spatial mana of Conjuration. In the next second, she was out of the darkness, having escaped the ambush by activating a contingency Dimension Door.
As Alesia's vision returned, her Blade Barrier continued to expand, annihilating everything within a range of six diameters of the epicentre. Nothing survived, not trees, not bushes, not even bits of rock now sliced into molten silica.
She willed another mote of mana to reach yet another ring, suffusing her body with the healing power of a Cure Serious Wounds.
This fucking ordeal just burned about three hundred HDMs! Alesia's anger blazed as brightly as the destructive flames of the Blade Barrier. As an Evoker-Transmuter, she was neither capable of casting Dimension door nor Cure Wounds; both were contingency items she had earned through Questing. Now they were gone, and she would have to replace them, as well as face the criticism of her Master.
“Shit. I don’t think she is in here anymore,” a voice called out for the darkness, seemingly unfazed by Alesia's Blade Barrier.
“Idiot,” Another voice that sounded genderless stated with a tone of annoyance.
Alesia watched the darkness dispel to reveal two men in cowls, one taller than the other.
“Ola Señorita!” The tall one, who had been Instructor Crusoe, called out to her in a lewd manner. “Oh-ho! Scarlet Sorceress! I would DIE for one night between your sweet thighs!”
The other one Alesia knew. They were old friends after all. The Faceless Man, the bastard responsible for the Massacre at Rhodes, the prime suspect of the Kingsford Kidnappings. She had been hunting the fiend across half of Australia, to New Zealand and back.
What the fuck is he doing here? Her mind was spinning with possibilities, though Alesia was sure of one thing. She was going to end these pricks right here.
Alesia felt her body quicken. Simultaneously, her physical form turned gaseous, becoming a flaming cloud in the shape of a woman.
“Oh shit!” The taller man cried out, then made to cast something at her.
Silent Spells! Alesia's heart palpitated. She was up against skilled opponents. It was time to go big or go home.
A spiral of fire fell from the heavens, materialising from the aether and striking the ground where her opponents stood. A flaming tornado ripped through the immediate area, obliterating every standing tree and object within a radius of over twenty meters.
She watched as their bodies cease to exist, sensing the pulverisation of a single target. Alesia willed the flames to part momentarily and saw not a pair of charred and burning bodies, but one. From what remained of the clothing and the frame of the charring, partially minced carcass, she knew it to be Instructor Crusoe.
FUCK! She cursed. Faceless was an Illusionist as well? Or was it the other Mage?
Her Crimson Caracal instructed her to dodge before her mind even registered the incoming attack spell. Spirits were far more sensitive to mana-fluctuations, and a great boon of possessing a sentient Spirit involved having two consciousnesses operating in parallel.
A spear of darkness, the Signature Spell of the Faceless Man, pierced Alesia’s gaseous form, displacing a few motes of her Astral Body. That’s going to hurt later - a lot, Alesia grimaced before reorientated herself.
She saw his arms move yet again, but this time she was ready. Alesia completed the tier 6 spell in an instant, then pointed a finger at her aberrant foe.
A scarlet beam, as thick and intense as the concentrated rays of a hundred midday suns, instantly blasted through the form of the Faceless Man. The hit registered, affirmed by her spirit pouring it’s own spiritual power into the beam, magnifying its heat by several magnitudes. When the spell ceased, Alesia expected to see nought but a pile of dust. Instead, she saw the tattered robes of the creature float away. Beneath it was thousands of stricken carcasses consisting of vermin, some alive, other seared and medium rare.
“Coward!” Alesia cursed, “Where did that fucker go…”
The earth tremored.
She saw something shifting in the distance, something too vast to be comprehensible: for the landscape itself begun to churn.
What the fuck is that?! Alesia felt every muscle in her body tense; her Flame Spirit was shrieking in alarm within her astral soul.
The silhouette moved again, and this time, Alesia saw the shadow of a mountain shifting against the moonlight. No. Not shifting, she noted. It was coiling, slithering, meandering, moving with the surety of tectonic movement. A sliver of luminescence refracted from a moving ridge, blasting the landscape with a splendiferous hue.
The ground below her was shaking now, shivering as if terrified of what's to come.
Alesia gritted her teeth and dispelled the Transmutation transformation. Where she'd been wounded once before, her body re-materialised a flap of gouged flesh that directly assailed her torso. The pain was excruciating, causing her to cry out.
She extended her hand, and from her Storage Ring, Alesia produced a ruby-red injector which she then slammed into her wound.
“Nnnngh!” She grunted; her damaged-tissues regenerated, accompanied by an unbearable itch.
The thing in the distance was moving now; moving towards her and toward the camp.
Gwen! Yue! Elvia!
Alesia's mind was racing at a hundred miles a second.
What the fuck was Faceless doing here?
Who was the man that was with them?
Why aim for a group of students from a Rank-less government school?
The land rumbled; the time for thinking was over.
As her Master's pupil, it was her responsibility to protect the innocent and defeat threats from the Wildlands.
Her red racing suit burst into flames, falling off her battered body, revealing her athletic figure to the night. In a split second, a crimson sheet of flames flowed across her bare skin until she became a goddess adorned by crimson fire.
“Flight!” She incanted and took to the air like a celestial vision. In the distance, a monstrosity slouched forward ponderously, crushing the bushland, making for the camp, making eventually, for the city.
“Message.” Alesia activated her elementally attuned Message Device, protected from her fire.
“Shit! Alesia! There you are!” A male voice, deep and baritone, answered beside her ear, “What the fuck is happening out there? The city’s just gone into Red Alert!”
“I need the team here within the hour, take the Teleportation Gate at Shield Wall station 47.” Alesia said calmly, “I am observing a MYTHIC, I repeat, a MYTHIC incursion at the Royal National.”
“Alright, can you hold out? We’re teleporting towards your location,” the voice replied, alarmed but collected.
“Just get here soon,” Alesia reiterated solemnly.
“Can you hold out? Are you able to retreat?”
“Get here as soon as possible,” Alesia repeated once more. “Or bring a casket.”