The cold invasion of Edgar's hand thrusting into her Astral Body was like being penetrated by a rusty sword; its serrated edge mangling her flesh as it inched deeper.
A helpless spectator, Gwen watched the usurpation of her mind and body.
For a moment in time, she wanted nothing more than to end it all, to summon all the Lightning in the world, then go out in a blaze of brilliant plasma.
For all she knew, she could wake up in her old world; like waking from bad Midsummer Night's dream. Conceivably, she had exhausted her hour upon the stage, and could now be no more.
Then she felt it - that all too familiar sense of vertigo, and saw the gathering of black motes of dark matter within her body coalesce into lithe leeches, attaching themselves like tenebrous white-blood cells to the intruder.
Edgar's Astral Form suddenly panicked, struggling to pull free. With a sense of schadenfreude, she willed herself to hold on, to keep the man bound and tethered for the creatures to ravage. Here was her Astral Soul, it was hers alone, and she forbid him to leave without paying a toll in blood.
Slowly, the little motes coalesced, filling her mana conduit. Gwen instinctively sensed the opening of another Gate. Her Evocation conduit tapped something else, something existing in the space between spaces.
A tenebrous matter flooded through her body.
With a surge of will, Gwen coalescence a mana shield formed of cracking black energy.
A Void Shield.
The scream deafened her ear; she blinked, then was back in the Material world.
Her body slumped.
She knew this feeling; it was one she had experienced it before. Dizzy with vertigo, she attempted to orientate herself, keeping her eyes on Edgar who now screamed like a gutted pig. The bastard reached for the potion injector he had placed before Debora.
You lying sack of filth!
She saw him inject it’s precious cargo, bewilderingly manipulate the stump that was now his right hand, then turn to her with pure malice. Edgar began to chant, his voice thick and full of agony, his invocation dark and foreboding.
Gwen bodily pushed herself onto one side, freeing her arms for spell casting.
Come on! Come on! Her body moved as slow as molasses.
The man was down to his last few phrases now; he was pointing toward her and Gwen had no more time to think. She recalled the first thing that came to her mind and channelled the dark energy filling her conduits like eldritch ice.
“Blast Bolt!” She invoked, though what materialised wasn't the white-hot plasma of Elemental Lightning, but a dark, crackling line of nothingness, of the absence of things, a jet black bolt rendering reality itself null.
The last of Gwen's vitality drained out with the spell. The lid of her eyes turned to lead. Her body, now thinner, frailer, almost skeletal, collapsed onto the stone table, a husk of its former self.
Before Edgar could even complete his spell, he heard the familiar sound of Gwen’s desperate casting of her signature spell. He chose to ignore it, knowing full well he could recover.
Before his final Major Incantation, a bolt of dark energy violently stabbed into his flesh.
His invocation shattered, it’s magic falling apart. Something had just mangled his astral body, damaged the conduits of mana that existed metaphysically within his corporal and incorporeal form.
Edgar looked down. He was surprised to find that he was now sans leg, sans a part of his torso and sans an arm. In the next heartbeat, spurts of blood gushed from all three wounds.
A mote of mana, built by contingency into an item that he had always worn around his left index finger, activated instantly.
The glyphs of a Teleportation, its destination pre-set, activated below him.
“NO!” Edgar cried out, “Leave me here! I can take her! I can take her!”
But the spell could not heed his cry.
In the next moment, Edgar was gone.
With Edgar now out of range, the runes and glyphs surrounding the menhir ceased to writhe, fading into the darkness. One by one, the barriers dispelled.
Not far from the monstrously large Egg. Gwen lay lifelessly on the table; her body pale and lifeless.
Slowly, a pulse of pale light could be seen. Morye's gift palpitated as though a throbbing heart, sending out tendrils of green energy, searching for that which would sustain its hostess.
It found sustenance not too far away, conveniently in the form of an ancient egg. A green haze poured from the amulet, taking advantage of the invasive glyphs carved onto the menhir's surface, providing a penetrative channel into the life that existed within. The life force within was ancient, rich and nourishing, and so, the amulet drank deeply from the egg’s interior. It would only need a sliver of this energy to sustain its owner, who was merely a mortal. As for the excess, its long atrophied Soul Well could use a windfall.
A viridescent glow then suffused Gwen's shrivelled dermis. Her anorexic, shrunken form began to heal. Her sallow cheeks began to fill, returning to their usual plumpness. Her many injuries mended miraculously, as natural as if Elvia had suffused her with a torrent of Positive Energy. Gwen's heart, which only moments before had the weakest of palpitations, began to beat with vigour. Her limbs restored to their slender, athletic self, her skin taking on a healthy glow, more vibrant and youthful than ever before, as supple as if she were a babe.
Gwen inhaled as the amulet became once again dormant. She was hungry for life, hungry for air!
Alesia threw away the fourth potion injector.
From below, she resembled a goddess of flame, resplendent in her flickering regalia. Even her hair was a flowing mane of scarlet fire, swarming with firefly embers.
But even with all her abilities pushed to its utmost limits, Alesia felt powerless in front of the Mythical Serpent.
She had tried to manage her cooldowns, alternating between health and mana potions, but her body was at its alchemical limits. With each additional injection beyond the first, the effectiveness halved.
She could see the camp from her vantage point now, that was how close the creature had gotten. Another minute or so, and the thing would ride roughshod through the vicinity. It needn’t even a direct hit; a near miss would utterly churn the camp to dust, burying those kids under a mountain of soil and debris.
A firework lit up the top of a nearby hill.
Yue! They’re alright! Alesia's agitated palpitation returned to a state of placidity.
She once again faced the creature below her, its scales the hue of rainbows, like the petrol sheen of a pigeon’s neck.
Why was it attacking? Alesia wondered - though she realised 'attack' was hardly the right word.
A creature of yore did not 'attack' in the manner that baser creatures did. Like the seasons, they were driven by instinct beyond human ken, their very existence brining unfathomable terror to the Frontier cities. Beings such as these were neither benevolent nor malevolent, no matter how often humans anthropomorphised their existence.
When humanity had been young, they had worshipped these Mythical beings. Many cultures still do: the Shenlong of Chinese legend, the Quezacotl of the South American Empires and even the Ice and Fire Giants of Icelandic lore were among that number.
This serpent was such a creature, a land God as old as time. Even harassed by fire and sulphur, it had chosen to ignore her, its impervious resistance beyond her assault.
That somehow made it worse.
The creature before her had no designs on her students. It wasn’t even aware of them. She had no idea why it was moving toward the city and could only guess as to its goal.
No matter it’s motive though, it was her prerogative to try and divert the serpent's path.
A dagger materialised in her hand, an exotic blade with arcane designs of engraved flame that seemed not of terrestrial origin. Its handle and pommel were encrusted with rubies the size of pigeon eggs, a priceless artefact by any measure.
“O Efreet, Spirit of flames, heed my call…”
A mandala appeared beneath Alesia’s feet, three circles bisecting to form a triplicate, revolving faster and faster until it tapped into the Elemental Plane of Fire. The air around Alesia instantly ignited, falling below in flaming sheets, turning the bush into a sea of fire.
As she gathered her will, intense heat from above and below fed into the mandala, collating and condensing the energy into her manifesting invocation.
A moment of silence reigned - the calm before the firestorm, then the flames on Alesia’s body, the combusting air, the forest fire below, extinguished simultaneously.
The Cores shattered, sending jagged shards of splintered stone into her hand. Alesia winced, watching the egg-sized Creature Cores, harvested from rare adult Salamanders, burst into incandescence.
The sky began to churn and turn, birthing a small sun from the accumulated energy taken from the Plane of Fire. The serpent below raised it’s head to regard this new celestial object, its vision so similar to the ochre sun setting upon the outback bush.
Fire fell, first in drops, and then in sheets, and finally in cascading torrents. It struck the rainbow scales of the serpent, marring the brilliance. The rest of the storm followed, quick forming into a vortex of fire touching down in the path of the creature.
Finally, the serpent noticed her. An immense head, the size of a small hill, rose to regard Alesia, a tiny mote blazing in the sky.
She could feel it’s attention focusing on her, and the burden of that attention was like molten lead pouring into her mind, almost banishing her to the earth below,
“Move!” She screamed at it. “Move, or be Purged!”
The firestorm raged and twirled. Alesia could see that it was peeling off some of the serpent’s scales.
“Move!” Alesia raised her hand and threw a hapless fireball toward its face, where it harmlessly slid off.
The serpent stopped.
To her shock and surprise, it paused in its movement.
It then reared upon its serpentine neck and rose into the heavens, an impossible thing twenty kilometres long and the width of a football field, rising to meet her.
So this is how I die. Alesia moped sadly. I haven’t even had a boyfriend yet.
She wondered if her Master would teleport the Tower in time. Only a superstructure like that could deter a mythic being.
A Message spell blazed beside her ear.
“Alesia! What’s your status! We’re just past Gate 47, and we can see it all the way from here! What is it doing?”
“I think I pissed it off, Jonas.”
“I THINK I PISSED IT OFF, JONAS,” Alesia screamed into the Message device.
She felt ridiculous. Her Master had made her a peerless Combat Mage, and now she was going to die, saving some nobody-kids from a government school. Still, there were worse ways to go.
To die duelling a Mythic being, a creature that had existed since time immemorial and epoch primordial.
If nothing else, it's a kick-ass memorial plaque.
“Come at me!” She screamed at the serpent. Flanking it from the right, hoping to direct it towards the ocean. “Come get me, you big ugly worm!”
Another Message spell burst into audibility beside her.
“Alesia! Alesia! For fuck’s sake, stand down and fly towards us.”
“You’re slow as fuck Jonas,” Alesia shouted into her Device as the Serpent gave chase. “It’s your fault if I die, and I am going to haunt you!”
“Ohhhh shit its fast! It’s fast, Jonas! How does something that fat even move this fast?” Alesia was having fun now, pivoting with a combination of Haste and Greater Flight, changing directions here and there as the serpent tried to bop her with its snout.
“Alesia, don’t die!”
“I am trying, Jonas! It’s a fucking Mythic being! Not a dog I am trying to dodge. Stop distracting me!”
She became distracted.
A thunder cap resonated loudly from a direction south of the bushland, exploding in the air as a brilliant blue-purple electric-lotus.
Gwen! Alesia's breath caught. She dipped low, avoiding the mythic Serpent and gliding close to its scales. The creature was beautiful up close, gorgeous, like flying beside a scintillating sheet of chromic colour.
Why was Gwen's signal so far from the camp? She didn’t know the answer to her question, but Alesia did understand the meaning behind the firework. Gwen was in trouble, a great deal of trouble - and she was calling for help.
“Alesia!” yet another Message spell bloomed into resonance beside Her, the voice of her decade-old partner, Jonas. “I… I LOVE YOU.”
“Not now Jonas!” Alesia shut off her Message interface with a wave of her hand, dodging the serpent again and leading it off course.
I am coming for you, Gwen! Just hold out until I get there!
Jonas and the team moved toward the Mythic serpent at the utmost limit afforded by their unmapped Teleportation Circle. The furtherer they had gone from the city though, the less precise the teleportation became. Still, it was much faster than Flight and much safer than taking ground transport during an earthquake.
“Good news?” The Abjurer, Taj, asked nervously, watching a Jonas’ grey-blue eyes grew moist.
“She hung up,” he replied.
“My condolences," the Transmuter, Paul, sadly remarked as he finished the next glyph. “It’s done! Hold on to your hats, here we go! Teleportation!”
Gwen rose from the dead with the resplendent vigour of uninterrupted rest. She felt no sense of distress or anxiety, only an unnatural serenity.
Her most immediate memory surfaced in her mind. Frantically, she looked toward where Edgar had fallen. The only evidence that her assailant had been there was a floor full of dried blood clotting in the dust. Not far from her, lay the unconscious form of Debora.
Gwen leapt from the table and ran towards her friend. Gingerly, carefully, Gwen placed a finger under Debora's nose.
Nothing?! No! Was her friend dead? Gwen stared slack-jawed at the Transmuter, whose body remained ravaged by Gwen's lightning. She placed her fore and index over Debora’s neck. Thankfully, she felt a faint pulse.
Gwen looked around the room for something that could help. To her surprise, she found the injector with which the Mage had used in haste. Thankfully, there was still a sliver left.
I hope this is enough! Gwen reminded herself that Edgar had staunched bleeding on a hand stump with this thing.
She slammed it as instructed into Debora’s thigh. Immediately Debora’s complexion took on a fairer hue, leaving behind the deathly pallor she had prior, healing the electric-burns that wracked her dermis.
“Debora! Debora! Can you hear me?” She spoke into her friend’s ear, though she received no response. To her great dismay and anxiety, Debora wasn't breathing.
SHIT! Gwen forced herself to remain composed.
Gwen recalled her First Aid training; as a manager, the certification was mandatory. She began by massaging Debora’s chest, doing repetitions of thirty odd or so before checking and moving on to C.P.R. Gwen then tucked Debora’s head back, opening the airway of her oesophagus, pinched her nose, and placed her mouth onto Debora's, sealing her lips. She blew two quick breathes, waiting for Debora’s chest to rise and fall before releasing her nostrils and repeating the action.
An indescribable happiness tingled Gwen's insides.
[You. Life Bringer?]
A stray thought intruded into Gwen mind, halting Gwen in her tracks.
“Hello?” Gwen asked the empty room around her. “Is … is anyone there?”
She looked toward the dozen or so corpses that still littered the area around the menhir.
Oh, shit - is one of them rising from the dead?
[You know the song to sing the dead?]
The voice in her head asked again.
“Where are you? Who are you?” Gwen commanded the room, feeling silly for doing so.
[Here] The voice said.
Gwen looked towards the centre of the room, where only an egg-shaped menhir stood.
“You are… a rock?” Gwen approached the menhir, sensing a kinship that she had felt only for someone like Percy, her brother.
[Remove my shackles]
Gwen knew innately that the voice meant no harm, as a child knew their parent to be benevolent. Gwen approached the menhir and pryed off the spent mana stones, stamping over the magic circle.
As she wreaked havoc, she felt the presence within the menhir grow stronger, until finally, she felt elated, as though a weight had been removed from her chest.
Suddenly, she felt the coolness of falling rain, smelled the fresh loam of upturned earth, heard the quiet cascade of billabongs and the yawning of blood gums as they grew.
[We are grateful]
“No worries…” Gwen spoke to the menhir, now increasingly appearing to her like an egg. “Are you… alright? Are you an egg?”
[We are kin.]
“Thanks.” Gwen felt absurd, carrying out a conversation with a salient stone egg. She searched her mind, scanning through memories of the Creatures Class and wondering what creature the thing could be. An Earthen Troll? A sentient spirit from the Plane of Earth?
[Gift for kin?]
Gwen looked around her. More than anything, she was worried about Yue, about Elvia. Did Elvia escape? Did she meet with Yue? Did they evacuate?
“Can you get me out of here?” Gwen asked the egg, wondering if it would sprout legs and arms.
[A simple thing]
Gwen looked around her, doing her best to ignore the fact that there were real life dead bodies of actual human beings here and there, trying to keep herself from going insane.
There was... nothing happening.
About half two kilometres in, the snake gave up.
Instead, it changed directions. A shimmering glow began to suffuse the length of the serpent, illuminating the heavens with a blast of chromatic aurora australis. Much to Alesia's shock, the mythic being began to shrink, moving towards some location buried in the valley below.
That’s where Gwen’s signal was!
She gave chase, though the snake was the swifter of the two, its size giving it an impossible advantage even as it rapidly shrunk, leaving vast swaths of the landscape devasted beneath its girth. Alesia marvelled at the manner in which it eventually became the size of a city-tram, making for what seemed to be a cleft by the side of a sheer sandstone cliff.
She watched the thing slither into the gully, knowing that she had to follow.
More tremors shook the cavern. As Debora had done for her before, Gwen opened up her feeble Shield, hoping that it would be enough to keep them safe.
She then gazed at the silent egg.
What did it mean, it was coming?
A chunk of rock the size of a sedan fell into the chamber.
Then she saw it, a serpent with a head the size of a sedan, slithering through the cavern’s mouth above them, meandering down towards her, its forked tongue darting this way and that, tasting the air.
"FUCK!" Gwen swore. Misfortune loves company.
The thing was huge, so it would take at least as much energy as she had poured into Edgar. She felt confident though, for some reason, she was brimming with mana.
[Do not strike. We arrived]
There was a scent of Grevillea flowers.
Gwen looked towards the egg, and then back towards the snake.
“You’re a snake?” Gwen asked bewilderingly. A sentient, talking snake!
“Gwen!” A voice with the cadence of archangels resonated across the cavern. Gwen looked past the serpent to see the angelic form of Instructor Alesia, garbed in a gown of fire, her hair flaming as anything, leaving behind a swarm of fireflies. She was resplendent, no wonder they call her the Scarlet Sorceress.
She’s alive! Gwen cried for joy. Oh happy, happy, Day!
But of course, there remained the matter of the glittery snake even now tasting the air.
“The snake with you?” They both asked in tandem.
Their eyes met.
The snake looked at Gwen.
Gwen looked at Alesia.
Alesia looked at the Snake.
The Snake looked at Gwen again.