A marigold disk signalled summer sunrise, diffusing a perpetual splendour across the curvature of the eastern coast.
To Gwen’s right was The Coastal Trail, where the emerald bush gave way to jagged ochre rocks awash with foam, assailed by milky white shoals of water that frothed like milk against ochre cliffs. The South Pacific extended beyond, changing hue from aqua to ultramarine, then suddenly dropping off into the dark depth of the continental shelf.
To her left were sundered hills and muddy lakes, the aftermath of the Mythic's passing, leaving behind bleeding canals of upturned earth. Even now, trees toppled into newly formed ravines, moved by underground reservoirs emerging from the pressure of crushed sandstone crumbling in hidden caverns.
Gwen wasn't sure whether it was the anxiety making her nauseous, or the vertigo of flying a hundred meters freely through the air.
Did Elvia make it? Her mind churned with distress, not even the adrenaline of weaving through altitudes high and low could distract her mind.
“Alesia… do you think…” Gwen tried to speak, but her voice was barely audible against the blustering cacophony of moving air.
A Message spell bloomed beside her ear.
“I am activating a Private Message spell.” Alesia’s voice resonated in her ear. “What’s wrong Tiger?”
“I am worried about Elvia, and the others,” Gwen replied, noting the spell was two-way. Her schools' device was a simple thing, incapable of complex Divination algorithms.
Alesia squeezed Gwen’s hand reassuringly, hoping it would relieve some of Gwen's stress.
Unconsciously, the duo accelerated, Alesia's uncertainty feeding more mana into the Flight spell. The boost solicited a curious glance from Jonas, who then matched their new velocity.
“Gwen, I know you are worried about the girls, but you must also consider your circumstances,” Alesia replied solemnly. “Promise me that you will tell no one, not even the girls, about the serpent, and about your new elemental abilities, it will only put them in danger.”
Gwen observed the weight behind Alesia's proposal.
“I promise,” she answered her Instructor.
Hovering beside her protegè, Alesia mulled over troubling thoughts of her own. Though the crisis at hand appeared resolved; it had left them far more questions than their resolution could provide.
Alesia recalled that, in final moments of her encounter, the Mythic had possessed little to no interest in making further ingress towards the city. Instead, it had withdrawn toward Gwen's last location. In hindsight, Alesia guessed that it probably had something to do with Gwen wounding the Mage who called himself Edgar. As for what Edgar's part, the ritual provided a clue. In so far as sealing mandalas went, the ceremony was elaborate, requiring esoteric knowledge of the arcane spellcraft.
Then there was the fact that wounded Mage had escaped while missing half his body and two of his limbs. A Teleportation Contingency Ring set to one’s vital signs was beyond precious. Alesia had one herself, though she disliked equipping it for the reason that once triggered, it took her out of combat and back into the Tower. As Efreet Form drained her vitality, it would be ludicrous if she Teleported away at the initiation of a Firestorm. That was why she preferred Contingency Healing Rings and single-use items like the Dimension Door Gem.
Additionally, the price of a Ring with a Contingency trigger tied to a long-range Teleport would cost just over five thousand HDMs, enough to buy a building in the heart of Sydney's CBD. Ironically, that wasn’t even the worst of it, for there were very few Enchanters in the world capable of creating such an item. For both Alesia's and her brother-in-craft, their Contingency Rings were heirloom objects brought over from Europe. A Mage in possession of such a thing, therefore, couldn't be just anyone.
Finally, there was Faceless - but what was the terrorist like him doing in a place like this? Was he after her? Was he involved in the serpent's rampage?
There were too many unanswerable questions assailing Alesia at once, though for now, an additional problem stabbed at her bosom.
How would her Master receive the kitten she just picked up?
The basecamp came into view.
Now bathed in the light of dawn, the destruction wrought by the prior night became self-evident. The bunker had collapsed like a crushed tent; its iron supports bent and twisted. The main building, where the instructors had last met, was being excavated by what looked to be AMSA Engineers.
The trio landed: Alesia and Jonas gracefully, Gwen with a heavy thump that jarred her knees.
A Mage in a fluoro high-vis vest splintered from the group to intercept them. He was hailed by Jonas, who lifted a flap in his jacket to reveal an emblem.
The scowl of bureaucratic annoyance on the Mage's face immediately turned into a look of wariness.
"Greetings," the Mage wrung his hands before managing a 'Sir!' nervously.
"Foremen, give me a sit-rep," Jonas was a different person when not talking to Alesia, Gwen noticed.
"The excavation's almost done," the Foremen replied. "But there are bodies down there. We're waiting for the Coroners."
"Bodies?" Gwen's voice quivered. "What bodies, whose is it?"
The Foreman eyeballed the teenage girl, challenging her presence before meeting Jonas' eyes.
"Let's take a walk." Jonas tiled his head to their left. The two then moved towards the excavation site.
Gwen wanted to follow, though a tug from Alesia obstructed her.
"No." Her Instructor's hand was firm. "You don't need to see this."
"But..." Gwen felt her stomach knotting. "Sergeant Boone... Mr Thomas, and Mr Dylan..."
“I am sorry," Alesia insisted, her hand like a vice grip. She already felt guilty that Gwen had dealt with Edgar. In the future, as a Combat Mage, the girl may very well become familiar with the morbid reality of mangled corpses - as for now, she would prefer a less damaged protégé.
Despite Alesia's best intentions, however, Gwen struggled to reconcile with the reality in front of her. These teachers had taught her for half a year! She knew them by names, their idiosyncratic quirks, their mannerism, their likes and dislikes! Mr Boone liked to talk about his military days; Mr Thomas owned two cats; Mr Dylan had a fiancee-
"Don't you want to find out if Yue and the others are safe?" Alesia demanded mercilessly.
"Then let us find out." They rose into the air again. "Your friends should be safe by now at the F.O.B.”
Jonas caught up with them a few minutes later.
"Alesia..." He consulted his partner.
"You can tell her, Jonas," Alesia asserted. "She's a strong girl."
"Four dead,” Jonas declared gravely. "Boone, Evans, Thomas, Dylan."
“Five," Gwen added after a moment of silence.
Alesia saw that the girl's knuckles were white with tension. Gwen was right, of course. Alesia recalled the mangled body of Mr Crusoe.
"Five," Alesia confirmed. "Crusoe's still somewhere out in the woods."
"Jesus." Jonas spat, taking another gander at Gwen. "Were they after the kids?"
"Probably." Alesia did not want to reveal any more to her partner before she had a chance to speak to her Master.
Jonas nodded and said no more. His leader was evidently in an evasive mood.
They flew in silence until the sea of emerald came to an abrupt halt. Below, the landscape transformed into the low, stunted shrubbery of the tablelands. In the distance, they could make out the F.O.B.
About two kilometres out, an Aerial Mage unit in digital combat jackets and winged jackboots intercepted the trio. Again, Jonas opened a flap on his coat; after which they were allowed to pass.
Gwen scanned the camp until she found a spot where dozens of humanoid dots in black, white and grey tartan congregated.
“I see them!” she uttered breathlessly.
"I'll drop you off." Gwen's urgent desire to be immediately amongst her friends brought a smile to Alesia's lips.
"Jonas, can you take Debora to the triage centre?”
Jonas withdrew without complaint.
When Gwen and Alesia alighted in the yard, they became surrounded by a ring of students whose faces were livid with excitement.
"Oh my God! Did you see that?"
"She flew in!"
"I wish I could fly."
"You'd have to be a Transmuter!"
"Wow, instructor Alesia looks amazing as usual. "
"Is that Gwen?!"
"Ergh, there she goes, stealing the Daylight."
An abrupt loathing for her peers engendered in Gwen's chest. Don't they think of anyone but themselves? Your friend, Debora almost died! Your Instructors lie mangled underneath concrete slabs!
"GWEN!" The voices she had desired to hear more than anything for the last twelve hours echoed across the levelled dirt of the temporary base.
"Evee! Yue!" Gwen broke from Alesia to dart past a crowd of stickybeaking students.
"Ah! My face!"
"She stepped on me!"
The girls meet one another halfway.
Three at last! Three at last! Gwen's heart soared.
"All for one!" She exclaimed in a moment of uncontrollable jubilance.
"We missed you so much!" Yue was hugging Gwen's waist and pushing her head into her bosoms. "Holy SHIT, I was so worried! Elvia told me what happened, that you tried to save her, and you fought that Crusoe FUCKER alone!"
Elvia was no longer in control of her emotions, tears the size of sultanas falling from her luminous blue eyes, "I am sorry Gwen... sob... sob... I ran away... I ran away Gwen... I was scared... "
"Oh, Evee... it was the right thing to do. I would have been in greater danger if you hadn't gone!"
The three of them squeezed into a crushing huddle.
"What happened to Debora?" Elvia asked between her choking sobs.
The euphoric moment deflated.
"She'll be okay," Gwen muttered. She hoped to God the healing magic of this world could mend lightning strikes.
“I’ll be back for you in the evening,” Alesia shouted over the din of squealing teenagers. Gwen waved to her Instructor, wanting to say another word of thanks before she left. Instead, her Instructor's ultramarine eyes reminded her to say nothing. Taking to the air, Alesia flew toward the command tent, worshipped by supplicating students cooing at the incredulous sight of superhuman flight.
With the spectacle over, the girls retired to the limited privacy of temporary shelters that had been set up by Army Engineers. The trio entered a tent where Bunks were placed four by a dozen, with heavy curtains dividing each section.
“How did you escape that horrid Mage?” Elvia asked, her eyes puffy and swollen. “Did you… did you…”
“Instructor Alesia saved me,” Gwen told a technical-truth.
“I saw that titanic battle in the sky between Alesia and the Snake!” Yue began excitedly. “Did you see it, Gwen? It was incredible.”
“I was pretty deep in the woods by that point.” Gwen wracked her brains for salient timestamps. “I could only see the fireworks over the tree lines.”
“It was incredible!” Yue continued as if she was the one that had confronted the Serpent, describing in detail spell after spell, only a few of which Gwen had heard of before.
“What about you Evee?” Gwen asked, wondering how her friend had fared after their separation.
“I ran the way we came…” Elvia recounted. “I saw your lightning spell go on and on, so I ran as far as I could until I saw Yue’s fireworks back in the clearing.”
“Anyone tried to stop you?”
Elvia shook her head, sending out flailing strands of flaxen hair.
“There were a few Goblins and some other magical beasts who were trying to flee the Snake, but they left me alone.”
“We must have wracked up another hundred or so kills.” Yue beamed proudly. “The officer who saved us told me that we had done well and that we’re going to be commended for our bravery. My very first medal, Gwen!”
“Did you find any of the Instructors?” Elvia cut in suddenly, “Mr Crusoe turned out to be that evil Mage, does that mean…”
Gwen felt a pang of guilt, though her friends were old enough to face the truth.
“Alesia said Mr C was dead long before we met Evil Crusoe…” Gwen answered with a tone of forlorn sadness. “As for the others… Mr Dylan, Mr Thomas, Mr Boone, and Mr Evans; they found their remains in the main building.”
With that, conversation died.
Elvia dug her face into Gwen's chest, wracked with quiet sobs. Yue stared at the ceiling, her thoughts unknowable. The three of them laid in one bunk, quietly observing the slow rotation of a whirlybird as it pumped out the rising heat of their bodies. Elvia was the first to fall asleep, her constitution too weak to sustain a night and a day of activity and distress. Yue likewise shut her eyes, the tension of Gwen’s absence displaced at last.
Gwen looked up at the ceiling, where the scaffolding expanded like a spider web across the rectangular canvas, thinking of Alesia’s warning, and the uncertain future ahead.
Was this a regular event in this world, or was it a one-off catastrophe? In her old world, she had experienced, on television, the horrors of September 11, though as a Sydney-sider, the precipitous moment of 21st-century history had felt unreal, more akin to a movie.
Likewise, she had known no violence. Sydney was a haven of middle-class mediocrity. No mass-shootings, no serial murderers, no mass-poverty and virtually no violent crimes beyond the occasional domestic dispute.
Until today, the idea of someone she knew suddenly dying was something that had never occurred to her. Gwen realised she had never experienced the death of someone she knew in any private capacity: not a family member, nor a friend, nor someone in her social orbit.
Now suddenly, five teachers who had taught her for half a year suddenly ceased to be; gone, disappeared, evaporated into thin air for no reason, no particular purpose nor goal.
They had not died for some grand act, they had not died to save their students, or made a last stand. They died randomly, purposelessly, became collateral.
Would her death be the same? Gwen wondered. A chance encounter with malevolence - then no more? Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow, then nought but a dusty death?
Gwen's eyes grew heavy, mesmerised by the whirlybird's ceaseless rotation, closing slowly until the undertow of troubled sleep took her.