The immediate vicinity of where Gwen’s lightning had struck combusted into flames, the dry bark of the surrounding Blue Gums combusted, bathing the locale in a hazy glow. The coral cinder juxtaposed beautifully with the blue arcs that continued to ionise and flood over the cowled form of the Mage, swallowed by a cascade of plasma.
Eat this you piece of shit! Gwen grunted, feeling that distinct exhaustion associated with mana depletion. Her full-to-OoM channel lasted a good half a minute, ranging up to thirty strikes drawn by the positive energy, increasing in intensity until the final Blast Bolt was almost a solid beam of white-hot electricity.
The light faded.
The ground was a mixture of charcoal and molten silica.
Gwen’s eyes adjusted. She saw a dark dome emerge from beneath her point of impact. The cowled Mage within could just barely be seen, one hand raised above his head, manifesting a Shield constituted of swirling black dust.
Her bosoms seized.
The cowled Mage dispelled his Shield. She could see that he had not weathered her attack well. There was smoke cascading from the arm that had cast the Shield, and a thin trail of blood dribbled from the cowl's shadow.
“Now you’ve done it.” The Mage intoned, his voice no longer one of mocking joviality, but one of deep annoyance. “Why is it so hard to hold a conversation with you people?”
“Dust Devil!” The man's voice grew hollow. Gwen watched in horror as a breeze of black dust roved over her position. She tried to put up a Shield, but even her best attempt collapsed in a shower of sparks. The storm enveloped her, seemingly possessing a life of its own, taking her from the ground, thrusting her into the air. In the next moment, she was flying, overwhelmed by a feeling of free fall before slamming into the ground so hard that her jaws clattered.
Gwen moaned, her bones tenderised by the Mage's brutality. She couldn’t breathe, her chest wracked with unbearable pain.
But the Mage wasn't done with her yet. She felt the dusty tendrils wrap around her wrists, pulling her bodily upward, crucifying her against an invisible cross. Where the dust had touched her tracksuit, it disintegrated entirely. The sand-like motes of dark energy cut into her skin, releasing streams of warm blood.
Gwen grew faint at the sight of blood.
And that wasn't the worst of it. An invisible gaze within the hideous cowl licked all over her body; the very same feeling she had felt from strangers whose eyes lingered as she walked home late, magnified a hundred times over.
Oh fuck. OH FUCK. OH FUCK OH FUCK. Panic washed over her. Mayhap there was an instructor that survived and could come to her aid? Where was Alesia? She was so powerful, so peerless, surely she of all people could not perish in something as mundane as a collapsed building! Perhaps Elvia could bring help? No! Gwen would prefer they stayed at the camp. There was safety in numbers.
She needed to buy time, to delay.
“What… what do you want from us?”
“Now you want to talk?” The Mage faced her with the dark void of his cowl.
He regarded his quarry, studying her for the first time. The Lightning girl possessed the body of someone older, though she was evidently only fifteen-sixteen. The spell that she had cast at him, it was glorious, beautiful, possessing great affinity. What's more, he was impressed that after all that had happened, the girl remained so collected. Mayhap it had something to do with the same reason she resisted his Dominate? Probing her was going to be a real hoot. What strange secrets, what memories, hid in her crevasses?
He commanded the Dust Devil to send out an additional tendril, picking up Debora and elevating her bodily by the torso. Where its dusty tendrils caressed, Debora's clothes disintegrated, sending out a small trickle of blood.
“Still alive, nice.” The Mage nodded approvingly. “We’ll walk and talk…”
The trio began to move through the woods. Gwen noted between teary visions of clenched agony that the man was levitating. Gwen herself was painfully lifted a few inches off the ground, her arms and collarbones aflame against the weight of her body.
“Who… who are you?” Gwen spoke between clenched teeth. She could feel a sort of delirium coming on. She was losing blood.
“I am Edgar.” To her surprise, the man was entirely forthcoming.
“…” Gwen winced. Edgar? You’re Edgar from the Edgar, and your plan is to Edgar?
They were moving quite briskly now, and Gwen felt the pit of her stomach sink. In the distance, there was more rumbling. A few branches that fell towards them disintegrated into dust.
“Why… why are you doing this?”
“Why does anyone do anything?” The man chuckled.
“One's modus operandi! The raison d'etre!”
Big words, Gwen noted. The man didn't lack in education.
“We’re just students on a field trip…” She just managed. The pain was too much for someone who'd never broken a bone in either of her lives.
“If you want to know, I'll tell you everything,” Edgar continued all on his own. “You see, we are the…”
But Gwen was no longer listening.
“… what a terrible listener.” Edgar snorted, giving Gwen's clammy cheeks a pat. “I guess the bloodletting was a little excessive. I need our little lamb at just the right state of tenderness.”
She must have lost consciousness, Gwen realised.
She quickly self-assessed. Her tracksuit was in tatters, barely holding together as it were. The apparition secured her waist and torso with a tendril, another wrapped around her ankle, supporting her weight, splaying her like a cheerleader doing an X. Taking note of her surroundings, she saw to her dismay that Debora was still unconscious, dangling like a humanoid fruit behind them a few feet away, likewise hoisted in the air.
They were deep into the bush now, where the landscape grew rugged, filling with sandstone and short shrubbery, with only the occasional Blood Gum languishing in waterless crevices. They soon arrived at what looked like a chasm, cut into the sandstone cliff like an axe wound.
“You up yet, Sleeping Beauty?” the sardonic voice of Edgar asked. “I know you are~, or do you want Dusty there to wake you up like Prince Charming?
“Where… are you taking me?” Gwen opened her eyes unwillingly. She had better do something before they go into that cave. God knows what was going to be in there.
“Where indeed?” Edgar seemed to have regained that scornful composure of his. “You should be glad. We’re going somewhere safe- from that.”
He pointed to the right: in the far distance and through the sparse foliage of the trees, Gwen could see a gargantuan thing roving across the landscape. Or rather, she could see the landscape itself moving as though a living thing. Now and then, she caught blossoms of crimson explosions.
That colour! That mana signature! It must be her instructor. It must be Alesia! She was still alive! She was fighting that thing! Trying to deter it from moving toward the city!
Gritting her teeth, Gwen fought back the Dust Devil's hold.
She charged her single-incantation cantrip with every drop of mana she had regenerated. Her spell launched into the air, erupting into cacophony and colour, blossoming into a blue-purple electric-lotus.
The faceless cowl of the Mage waited for her below.
'Clap. Clap. Clap.'
Even the man's clapping was sarcastic.
“You think the Scarlet Sorceress has time for you at a time like this?” Edgar snorted. “What, are you her apprentice or something?”
Gwen averted her eyes.
A slap backhanded her face.
Gwen made no noise but mum.
They moved once more. The trio slowly levitated down to a ledge that overlooked a ritual of carnage.
Oh God. Gwen felt her spine turn to jelly. Is Edgar looking to sacrifice her Temple of Doom style?
To Gwen, the magic-circle meant nothing, consisting of dozens of concentric rings of engravings and glyphs, at the centre of which was an egg-like object, akin to a menhir stone.
Regrettably, they were indeed heading down toward the site of the ritual. With every meter of descent, the taste of bile grew stronger. She was a consultant! Not Indiana Jones! She can't possibly expect to wiggle her way out of a fucking Dark Ritual!
“Don’t be choking on me now,” Edgar conversed with a friendly tone. “This won’t hurt at all, not if you cooperate.”
The depth of the cavern glowed with amber. By now they had reached the bottom, reaching a stone table Transmuted from the dark stone of the cavern. Edgar carelessly deposited Debora’s unconscious body, letting her ragdoll onto the surface. He then examined the Transmuter, tearing away at the shredded uniform until Debora was left without modesty. The man's actions, Gwen noted, lacked a certain passion. Instead, Edgar gave the impression of a butcher examining a fine cut. Finally, the Mage placed a finger against Debora’s neck and felt for a pulse.
“Good grief, Gwen. You’re merciless,” Edgar ridiculed his captive. “Your friend's rightly fuck up.”
“Will she…” Gwen had to ask.
“Who knows?” She watched as he extended a hand, materialising what appeared to be a healing injector, then placed it next to Debora.
“For your friend,” he said. “If you behave.”
She felt the tendrils of force around her body go slack. The apparition faded into a pile of grey dust, cascading from her clothes. Edgar moved toward another table and gave the surface a friendly pat, a man beckoning an unwilling cat.
Gwen nursed her tender wrists; her eyes darted between the man, the table, and the healing injector. For a split second, she imagined herself taking it and injecting herself, giving her a better chance to escape this place.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Edgar mocked her indecision.
Now burdened with shame and guilt, Gwen moved demurely toward the ‘examination’ table, the exact opposite of where she could feel comfortable.
Edgar pulled back his hands as if to show his best intentions.
“Let’s not rough you up anymore, shall we?”
Gwen swallowed hard. Maybe she could self-destruct, take him with her? She wondered what would happen if she willed her conduits to overload. Was that possible?
Slowly, agonisingly, she removed her tattered jacket, pulling it with the tattered T-shirt over her head. She was down to her panties when she heard Edgar sniggering.
“What are you doing?” He asked, trying to hold his laughter.
“…” Gwen's face caught on fire. “You said…”
“I have no interesting in that sort of thing,” Edgar answered mirthfully. “You are a lucky young woman. There are those of us who'd eat you alive."
To her surprise, he materialised a robe not too dissimilar from the one he wore and threw it towards her.
“Cover yourself. Don't catch a cold now.”
Gwen was beginning to become very confused.
What the hell is he doing? Why was Edgar playing nice?
She covered herself. The robe was velvety and warm, hanging onto her body like the softest silk. The villain had good taste in textiles at least, if not style.
“So, Gwen…” a swirl of dust seemed to materialise underneath the man, and he made himself a stool composed of compressed particles of dust. “Tell me about yourself.”
She gazed at him blankly. Her thoughts were a mess. Why are you asking me these things? Aren’t you guys terrorists or something? You attacked us! Unleashed that thing! Why are we even having a cordial conversation in the first place?
“Don’t want to answer?” He asked, and looked over at Debora, whose chest was barely moving.
“My name is Gwen Song…” Gwen began - and spoke a little about her school, her life in the city, her divorced parents, saying whatever would satisfy the man so that he would finally inject Debora with the healing potion.
“That's all very fascinating,” Edgar said finally, “but what’s your modus operandi? Your raison d'etre?”
“My ... my reason for being?” Gwen wondered. It was getting hard to think; she wanted to sleep.
“That's right, tell me what you want, what you desire. Why are you a Mage? What do you think Mages are born to do?”
“I… I don’t know.” The barrage of questions was making her head throb. Not knowing the answer, she spoke the truth.
“Come on,” Edgar demanded. “Surely you don’t think that you of all people, whose talent exceeds a hundred thousand souls, was born to be... a wage slave? Do you? Think on it. Ask yourself.”
Gwen found herself in a deep state of introspection far more readily than she thought possible. What did she 'really' want? Gwen wanted a comfortable life. She wanted prestige and a great deal of wealth and parents who gave a shit and to reconnect with her brother and a seaside house and two cats and a dog-
“Those are easy goals.” Edgar’s voice grew sonorous, filling the emptiness of her mind. “You could have them effortlessly with your talent.”
“Yes…” Gwen realised her goals were indeed shallow. She could easily reach them with her talents and her drive.
“You should aim for something bigger, greater, something more suited to yourself, your very own personal legend.”
Her surroundings now seemed to fade into nothing. Gwen appeared to be alone with this friendly man who was speaking to her so endearingly, even Debora’s comatose body faded from her awareness.
“What would that be?”
“Firepower! Firepower! and more Firepower!” The man’s voice took on that strange tone which Yue loved to use, that childish passion with which Gwen loved so much. “You could be just like Instructor Alesia, a goddess of destruction, respected and worshipped...”
“That would be lovely,” Gwen replied dreamily, a stupefied expression of satisfaction on her face. How curious, she thought to herself. The man's voice was stereophonic!
“How happy that would make you,” the voice continued. “You should do it.”
“I could…” Gwen repeated.
“Would you… like me to help you?” The voice implored. Edgar disappeared, and Gwen was in a place that she knew very well. It was the Cognisance Chamber! Oh, thank God! She was safe! The Field Trip was just an Illusion.
She was free floating in that space of absolute freedom; she could see the glow of her Evocation sigil with its nebular of lightning.
"Let me help you."
“I want you to help me,” Gwen repeated after him.
“Let me in,” the voice intoned.
“Come in… come in…” Gwen declared dreamily.
“I want you,” she repeated more forcefully this time. “I want you beside me.”
Suddenly, she could feel Edgar right beside her, his own astral body swirling with a malevolent dark light, flickering with motes of Elemental Dust. Comparatively, her own astral body was long and lithe, a work of art, a beautiful crystalline sculpture swirling with bottled lightning.
“Beautiful,” Edgar spoke with a tone bordering on reverence. “You should be proud of your potential. You're special.”
"I am special." Gwen giggled.
He moved to touch her, and though Gwen knew that there was something wrong about the intimate act, she still wanted to accept Edgar as her companion. She closed her eyes, feeling the shame of being touched for the first time. Edgar’s hand moving from her naval toward her left breast, were the heart resided, and where the light of the astral body was brightest. Her ego pulsed in turn, growing dimmer.
Though the Enchanter's fingers rested upon the globe of Gwen’s breast, there was no flesh to be depressed, nothing to be groped nor prodded. Instead, his fingers sunk into the fabric of her soul, moving past the membrane of her Astral Body.
“My God…” Edgar’s voice cried out in ecstasy. “What is this? There are two existences here!”
A wild excitement shook Edgar to his core. It was a phenomenon that he had never seen before. The girl was a priceless specimen! A prize to curry the highest favour with his Mistress.
Edgar paused, assailed by a sudden feeling of danger. His Astral Form startlingly experienced a sense of vertigo, an impossible feeling in the immaterial world of the mind. He quickly retracted his hand from the girl's Astral Body but found that he was stuck.
With a push, Edgar willed himself to manifest via the third-eye, to observe what the hell was happening. To his shock and horror, his Astral Body had become inundated by dozens of leech-like slugs, darker than black, meandering hungrily, looking for a way in.
"What the fuck is that?!" Edgar spluttered.
His real body broke out in a terrific sweat.
Before the Enchanter could react, Gwen’s unconscious anima tapped into something tenebrous and formless. Tens of thousands of black, writhing worms flooded into her Astral Form.
How could her body withstand that? He marvelled.
But this was no time to be lollygagging. Whatever was manifesting in here was bound to be happening out there. He gathered his will, then pulled, feeling the stuck hand sliding free, send out sparks of lightning where he had penetrated before. The pain was exquisite, though Edgar didn’t care, his Element existed in opposition to hers and could withstand whatever she could throw at him. What he feared was that black conduit that was now manifesting within her body - that was a mystery he wasn't keen to toy with.
His world went dark. In the next instant, Edgar was back in his body.
“Aaaarrrgh!” a cry of unimaginable agony echoed across the cavern.
The Enchanter fell backwards as if propelled by a spring, one hand clutching his wrist. A spurt of arterial blood covered Gwen and the table upon which she sat.
His hand! His right hand! Shit! SHIT! FUCK!
Edgar lifted the stump to his face.
It was gone.
No, more than gone. It was GONE.
It was as if his right hand had never existed at all, neither in the material nor the immaterial. Gritting his teeth, Edgar stumbled toward Debora, grabbed the healing injector, and slammed it into his wrist.
The flesh mended, the bleeding staunched. Edgard looked at a perfectly sealed stump, its plane of tissue as smooth as unscarred flesh and as natural as the day he was born.
A sudden rage overtook Edgar. He felt such hatred for this girl before him as he had never felt for anyone nor anything in his life. Not the nanny that had denied him his Vid-Casts. Not his father who had found him disgusting and wanting. Not even his poor mother whom they said died when he was born, inheriting the ire of his father and his estate.
He pointed towards Gwen with his remaining hand.
“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust…” He began, incanting the most powerful spell he possessed. A spell that would take a terrible toll on his own body for his inability to sufficiently control it’s power.