The half-dozen Flashbang shards erupted with enough sound and fury to flake wallpaper from the walls.
Nestled safely within the shelter of her Void shield, Gwen counted to three, then dispelled her half-sphere dome. As expected, Void Shield drained little vitality when pitted against sound and lumens, resulting in a little more than shortness of breath. Once the tenebrous membrane faded, the wailing of her assailants and their lamentations assaulted her ears.
Bozza was out of her water form, vomiting and puking her guts out on the floor. The NoM bouncers were bleeding from every facial orifice, holding their heads in their hands and groaning. The Initiate air Mage covered the side of her head, crimson oozing from between her fingers. A powder coat of dust drifted from the ceiling, falling like filthy-snow. Gwen raised a hand and conjured Ariel; a secondary jolt expanded her Familiar into its combat form. Bozza gasped as a white mongoose balled her over, snarling and growling, it's slavering fangs an inch from her face.
The Initiate crawled onto her knees.
Gwen preemptively dived sideways, having felt the motes of air manifest before the spell materialised, a spontaneous reaction drilled into her by Alesia. A barbed whip of cutting wind whooshed past her face, marking a white line across the dark concrete. The Initiate then staggered upright, her recovery quicker than Gwen had expected. Calling another spell to her lips, Gwen swung her momentum into a forward combat roll, landing on her feet.
Ariel! She commanded mentally. Atop Bozza, her mongoose armed its fur for an electric assault.
Though her enemies outnumbered Gwen, she wasn't worried. Common knowledge dictated that Summoners had much higher combat potential than Mages of the same tier. In an equal powered spell exchange, attacker and defender had to wait for opportunities to penetrate their opponent's Shield. Though it was possible to maintain both defence and offence, the complexity of the multi-tasking operation seldom favoured both. With Gwen possessed one of the more dominant offensive elements, not to mention an Evocation specialisation, it took all of her opponent's concentration to shore up her defence. Whereas Gwen directly commanded Ariel to hold fire until the Air Mage dropped her Shield to retaliate.
Her mongoose shotgunned a fistful of lightning darts at the Air Mage, catching the novice off-guard.
"Air Cann... Arrgh!"
Before the girl could even finish, she took a dozen of needles to the chest, sending her staggering backwards.
Gwen invoked her staple offensive spell. A bolt of cobalt tore open the Initiate's despondent barrier. The resultant explosion flung the Mage bodily through the air and into a wall.
One down! Gwen refocused her attention.
All hell had broken loose over the compound now; doors were opening and people emerging from every nook and cranny. The cacophony of the Flashbang had shaken the gang members from their haze-induced stupor. From the west wing, Gwen saw a half dozen men and women emerging from what must be a guard’s room, carrying clubs and blades.
Bringing knives to a Spell fight?
"Get back!" she howled, having learnt to inject her voice with mana to enhance its volume. She fired off a Lightning Bolt, skidding the plasma off the walls, scorching the plaster. At the end of the corridor, the bolt struck a boarded-up window, blowing out its glass and leaving behind only the frames. In its aftermath, nought but the scent of ozone and black specs of floating, burning wallpaper remained. That and there was now a window from which they could escape.
The goons fled, crawling over one another. The promise of blue smoke wasn't enough to fight a Mage, much less a Quasi-elemental Conjurer. Noting the bouncers by her side, Gwen activated a flash of lightning from her Lightning Blade. With a groan, both Pieto and the Maori were down and out, convulsing on the floor.
A few more rubberneckers to risk life and limb out of curiosity, but Gwen sent them packing with cheap cantrips.
Bozza turned painfully to look for the Initiate: her client’s once lovely face was a wreck of burns and bruised flesh, her body half buried in plaster. Her goons were fleeing left, right and centre.
"You are going to regret this." She uttered dangerously to Gwen. "When the Masters find out what you’ve done to the Initiate, what you are trying’ ta do to their merchandise, you’re going to wish you were never born. You'd be bred in the barracks until you die."
Gwen's eyes flashed. Ariel took a swipe at Bozza's cheek, snapping her head back painfully and leaving behind three bloody reminders on her face.
She approached Stacey. Thanks to the chaotic action and commotion, whatever glamour which had kept Stacey docile was now dispelled. From Gwen's elevated vantage, she could see that her ears were bleeding.
Ah, fuck! Only now did Gwen realised that her haphazard strategy had neglected the fact that her V.I.P was within the AoE. Thankfully, Stacey appeared otherwise unharmed. First, Gwen commanded Ariel to chew through Stacey’s leather bindings. She then produced the only other outfit she had prepared, a compact raincoat she had stowed in her ring, and wrapped it around Stacey's shivering body.
"You alright Stacey? Your sister sent me," Gwen affected a kindly voice. "The Madam is expecting your return. You're safe now."
Stacey still appeared disorientated; her face was full of fright and panic, though from Flashbang or glamour Gwen couldn't guess. Furthermore, Stacey seemed oblivious to her nakedness, gazing up at Gwen with an expression of utter incomprehension. Moreover, her eyes were abnormal, her pupils widely dilated. Watching the girl and feeling the lack of resistance in her body, Gwen confessed that circumstances were quickly escalating out of her control.
"Stacey, can you hear me? My name is Gwen; the Madam sent me..." She persisted.
"..." Stacey forced a smile to her face. The girl appeared younger than her sister, less experienced, almost innocent.
But the girl wasn't heeding her words.
Time wasn't on their side, Gwen cursed as she grew increasingly more concerned, how should she move the girl? By force? Perhaps she could conscript one of the men here.
Above and below, she could now hear the commotion of more bodies moving throughout the building. She had been watching the corridors, but the rapid footfalls informed her there were other means of traversing through the interior.
She needed backup; she needed to call Mark.
With a flick of her hand, she materialised her Message Device.
Just as she was about to punch in Mark's glyph, Stacey escaped her protection, forgoing Gwen’s raincoat. With surprising agility, Gwen's ward stumbled past Ariel, past Bozza, and made straight for the hookah.
There, the woman dropped to all fours, tore a mouthpiece from the bulbous bottom, then began to draw out its euphoric contents greedily. Gwen felt her heart sink as Stacey exhaled a long stream of blue-grey smoke. The girl then sat cross-legged, heedless of her indecent exposure, and began to rhythmically huff at the phallic mouthpiece with a look of pure bliss.
"What ... what the hell did you do to her?" Gwen demanded of Bozza, stunned by the grotesqueness of it all.
"She's too far gone" Bozza cackled, her face splitting into a malicious grin. "You'd just be saving a worthless junky now. Once the Blue had its claws into you, it's all over."
Gwen repositioned beside Stacey and tried prying her away from the hookah.
"Stacey, listen to me, Sally is waiting to see you, that stuff's poison, come on, we need to go."
Stacey's grip on the hookah was stronger than she had anticipated, but the woman was no match for Gwen's tempered strength.
The moment Gwen tore her away, however, a look of panic and pain took over Stacey's ashen face. In her distress, her flailing bare legs kicked the hookah, dropping it from the platform. The device fell heavily and a part of its mechanism come loose with a clattering jangle. The powder compressed within blew out in a rolling fog that flowed over the struggling girls, covering them in an expansive envelopment of blue dust.
Gwen held her breath, careful as not to breath it in.
The engendering of an indistinct magical phenomenon filled the air.
On reflex, Gwen whipped around, manifesting a semi-dome Shield of lightning. Her eyes scanned the room, surveying nothing of interest. The Initiate-Mage was still in the wall, the bouncers comatose and Bozza pinned by Ariel.
I can’t escort Stacey like this… Gwen cursed her dilemma. She wasn't strong enough to carry the girl, and Stacey was too drugged up to be relocated compliantly. Filling with frustration, she fought off an immense migraine, wishing she lie down and sleep.
Producing her Message Device, she hammered the Glyph for Mark.
In the course of her action, a curious sense of déjà vu swept over her.
"Mark, I need backup," she spoke immediately into the floating icon. "I am in trouble. The gang who caught Stacey are people traffickers!"
"You're kidding! Are you alright?" Mark's unmistakable voice soothed her nerves.
Gwen began to explain what she had found while scanning for danger. The Initiate was in the wall, the bouncers were down, and Bozza was on the floor. Ariel remained on top of Bozza, but to her surprise, it was no longer in its combat form.
Ariel! What are you doing? Gwen demanded. The adorable marten began to screech and scream at her, its face beset with worry, it was gesticulating at something.
Gwen tried to access their Empathic Link but found her thoughts muddled and full of interference. It felt as though they were trying to speak underwater, shouting across distant rooms.
What the hell is happening? She felt drunk. To her growing incredulity, Bozza rose from the floor.
But it wasn't Bozza.
Instead, the gang leader possessed a beautiful face both sensuous and desirous, full of exciting promises, gazing into her eyes with a pair of hazel orbs Gwen would recognise anywhere.
Helena Huang, her mother, was standing in front of her with an expression full of mocking disappointment. Rigidly, Gwen froze. What's she doing here? Her mind cried out in confusion and panic. The agony in her brain was akin to being probed by fingers of fire.
"Mother! What? A-are you a part of this?"
"You have failed us terribly, Gwen. I guess in the end, your Uncle was right. Your only use was in bedding your betters, go back to Forrestville, Gwen. Go home! Forget about your future. Shut up! Don't you dare speak to me like that! Get out! Go to your room!"
Gwen reeled from the force of her mother's psychic command as though struck by a physical blow.
A part of her mind questioned this reality. She tried to pierce through it all, but her will had been reduced to wool. Was she the victim of an Enchantment? An Illusion? But Gwen's consciousness was already spiralling, taken by dark and troubled waters, drawn by the suck of a psychic sea.
The weight of the mongoose beast faded into motes of fizzing lightning, finally allowing Bozza to rise onto her shoulder. She had been in her water-form when the sonic blast struck. The combination had shifted every molecule in her body, introducing her to the indescribable feeling of having every organ rattled.
Beside her, the blasted lightning girl was now talking to thin air, emoting expressions of disbelief and shock, her face undergoing the various stages of one taken by Phantasmal Killer. Thank the Magus there was an Enforcer here, Bozza coughed, spitting out blood. With great annoyance, she realised she would have to beg for a high-tier restoration potion.
"Let's hope Master is feeling charitable," a voice spoke quietly from across the room.
The owner of the voice was a stick-thin Mage with a pulled back cowl. His eyes were deeply sunken into his overlarge skull, his gaze dark and sickly. Pale, jaundiced skin wrapped the man's skull like stretched canvas; as he spoke, a shortness of breath gave the impression of permanent illness.
With a glance, his victim's imaginary horror grew in intensity. The duo watched as the girl flailed and stumbled, failing to flee from some unseen foe. The sorceress resisted well, but ultimately fell to her knees and began to whimper.
The gaunt Mage grunted with yet more exertion, pushing more mana into his spell. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he sought to overwhelm the last bastion of the girl's will. Finally, their victim convulsed, once, and laid still upon the stained concrete floor.
"Tough customer." The Enforcer grunted. "She's strong. As strong as a Magus."
He looked at Bozza, who stood beside him quietly, one hand trying to hold her guts in.
"Amazing specs on that one." The Illusionist exhaled. "I could feel... something, even when a part of her mind was overwhelmed, another part of her kept fighting. Did you see her casting?"
"Yeah, Evocation and Conjuration," Bozza responded with a measure of jealousy.
"Looks like you might be in for promotion after all. What luck huh? A one in a million prize waltzed right into your lap." The Enforcer chuckled sardonically. "Maybe you did something great in a past life?"
Bozza grunted. She kicked her bouncers until they were awake. It would have taken the drug-rats days to recover from the paralysis, but these were large men with well-fed constitutions.
Pieto and the Maori regained their senses. Their body had been beaten, but their mistress's order was absolute. The Maori took Stacey, who was still in a half stupor trying to breathe in the blue dust. Roughly, he wrapped his hand around her neck. She moaned painfully but had no motivation to struggle or flee. Pulling her upward, the big man then wrapped his arms around her legs, scooping her up bodily before moving into one of the corridors.
Pieto, his mug face full of undisguised intention, moved to pick Gwen from the floor.
"No drugs," the Enforcer stated coldly. "No damage must come to this cargo. She's worth more than you and your entire family ten times over."
"Don't fuck this up, take the utmost care," Bozza commanded her goon as well. The Boss then turned to her companion. "She's yours anyway. You managed to capture her. You take the credit."
"We share the credit," came the reply. "Trust me. You'll need that healing potion if you want to live past forty."
Bozza smiled, an expression that was unbecoming on her scarred face. The Enforcer had worked with her for a year now, and though they had a professional relationship, he could be softie too. Was it a quirk? She sometimes wondered. He wasn't a sick fuck like some of the men who came down to Blackheath, just a man doing a job. For a while now, she'd been curious as to his identity, but dared not pry. That was strictly forbidden.
Meanwhile, Pieto was already getting handsy.
"Pieto, you want to lose that hand?" Bozza barked at her simple-minded bouncer. The man had scooped the girl in his arms but was attempting to slide a hand under her dress. "You want to know what it's like to slowly drown over an hour?"
"Sorry Bozza," Pieto sulked, princess carrying Gwen down another corridor.
"Strip her items for inspection, then get her ready for transport. We'll relocate tonight."
They watched the big man disappear with the girl. Bozza's ears were still ringing with tinnitus.
"What do you think?"
"We need to move her quickly. She had a Ring of Storage. It looked to be a signature build too, pretty high tier."
"Which means she's being tracked, I guarantee it."
"Alright, what's the play?"
“Scatter and hid, get our reward, then rebuild, wait for this to blow over."
Bozza cursed. She rather liked the place.
The Enforcer moved towards the broken plaster wall where Gwen's Lightning Bolt had deposited the Initiate. He pulled out the comatose girl, then placed a finger under her nose.
"Still alive, nothing a few minor pots won't fix," he observed casually, smacking her face a few times until she began to awaken.
"Wake up, Initiate."
"What... what happened?" The girl stammered as she stirred, her eyes coming into focus. Her lumbar was between fire and ice. She must have broken something as well because she couldn't turn her torso without nearly fainting again.
"You got your arse handed to you, that's what happened." The Enforcer replied. "They don't instruct your generation like they use to, huh? Too much horizontal training?"
"That bitch!" The girl winced. "Where is she now?"
"Getting set up for transport. We're cleaning the girl's trackers below in a shielded room."
"I want to see, argh..." The Initiate knelt over, clutching her ribs.
"You stay put, I'll get you back to the House."
"I am fine... erg... oh fuck... " The initiate passed out again. The gaunt Mage shook his head. The new generation can be talented, sure, but they were bloody useless in a real fight. It was the peace, the lack of true grit learnt in trenches.
Watching the two bicker, something that had been scratching the back of Bozza's head clicked.
"Tonna! Tony! Anthony! Where the fuck are ya?"
She was answered by the sound of the building creaking.
Of course, the fucker's gone. Bozza spat. The guy had the tenacity of a cockroach.
Bozza commanded another two goons to fetch a stretcher for the Initiate, placing her in an isolated room to rest until they could leave with all their merchandise. Activity was slowly returning to the compound, but the Enforcer's deduction was right. Soon, all of this would be gone. All her work for a year, up in smokes because some stupid Apprentice-in-training thought it her business to meddle Bozza's business. She ordered sentries to be set, ensuring that the base was fully alerted, then searched for some bloody clean bandages.
Gwen dreamt, paralysed by phantasmal visions drawn from within herself.
In her current vision, she had fought with Edgar for hours, and now she was out of mana. She watched in disbelief and horror as her assailant disintegrated her navy dress with a simple caress of his fingers, exposing the white of her globular breasts. His face was a mask of heat and lust, an amalgamation of various faces she had seen since coming to this world. That man on the train, those workmen who had catcalled her, those boys she had met at Uncles, even that young man she had just met, Tony.
She raised a hand to blast him - Lightning Bolt! She invoked, but no power issued forth. She wasn't a Mage! Gwen remembered. She had failed her Awakening! She was just Gwen, the old Gwen, the NoM of her old world! Shit! Shit! She cried out, gesturing wildly but summoning nothing. Where was Ariel? Where was Caliban? Where were Alesia and Gunther and Henry and Mark? Hadn't they had all promised to help and protect her? Where were her friends? Yue and Elvia?
"A NoM has no friends amongst the Mages, as sheep has no allies amongst wolves." The indistinct vision of Edgar mocked her.
"I am afraid he's right," Another voice announced behind her.
Gwen turned to see her mother, her face also hyperbolically surreal, twisted.
"I am giving you to him." The voice that spoke was her Uncle's.
No! Gwen cried out. No! No! No! I'd rather die. Kill me now! Kill me now you bastards! I want to go home! Go home to Sydney!
"I am going to enjoy this." Edgar discarded his robes. Half his cheek was missing, as well as an arm and a leg. Dark blood oozed from the festered, necrotic wounds. "I will make this as long and unpleasant as possible, my sweet."
Gwen bit her tongue. She bashed her head against the linen. Turning inward, Gwen dug deep for that font of power that was rightfully hers, like a madwoman digging with her bare hands, shredding nail and flinging blood with every handful of dirt, dredging the darkness even an ounce of power. All she needed was one mote, one mote and she could end it all.
Then, just as Edgar's robe arrived at the edge of her vision, she found something. A dark ichor broke free from the crust of the earth like shale oil. It grew until it covered her white legs, wrapped her waist, touched her breasts, black and viscous, thick and suffocating. She had wanted salvation and now she was drowning in its obsidian opulence. If she could find no allies in the light, then she would call for the nameless ones in the dark; if the thick air above proved murderous, then she would breathe fetid water.
Pieto slid his hands up and down Gwen's white thighs as he carried her, the girl's skin proved smooth and moist, toned and tender. She was so different to the women they held here; whose bodies were feeble and frail, wrecked by the Blue, nothing like the supple flesh in his arms.
He kicked open the door to the lead-lined basement, where a dark corridor revealed a dozen more rooms. There were other merchandise here, men and women, but they were nothing like his prize. These poor bastards were locals: adolescents who awakened to one thing or another. They were fodder, useful for some dark purpose Pieto dared not know.
The bullish man walked until reaching the final chamber, shouldering open an iron door. This one was larger than the others, cleaner. It had yellowing tiles that covered the floor, where a trickle of water dripped into a drain. Pieto made for the large steel table in the room's centre, where he deposited the girl's unconscious body, enjoying the feeling of her flaxen hair falling over his hairy arms. Should he undress her? It was the rational thing to do, but Pieto understood that Bozza would likely have something to say about that. Instead, he patted her down, removing from her dress a small purse just large enough for a few cards.
He picked through her wallet and placed gingerly on the table her Student I.D, her Public Practice of Magic I.D, and after a moment of thought, pocketed the hundred or so dollars she had in notes. It was a perk that came with the job.
He then took to her hands, feeling the softness of her fingertips. Not a day of labour, the large man noted, feeling a dark emotion welling in his chest. These bloody Mages! This one particular must have been raised like a princess. That was why she had blundered into Bozza's den, shooting lightning all over, stroking her ego with her superior existence.
Continuing, he took off her storage ring, held it in his hands for a second, then placed it carefully next to her I.D. He wasn't a Mage, but he could tell from its craftsmanship that it was expensive. Her's wasn't some run of the mill Ring from a mall - a Master handcrafted it. Pieto tried to guess how much it was worth, and the answer only incensed him further.
She had another ring, a nondescript, non-magical thing. A dark gem inlaid into a sterling silver band. That looks expensive, Pieto smacked his lips gently. Checking his surroundings, he tugged at her finger until it came loose. After gazing at it longingly for a second, he slipped it into his pocket.
Magic for the Mages, and silver for people like us, Pieto rationalised.
And speaking of perks, he grinned.
The Enforcer and the Boss had to resolve matters above before they arrived below. Pieto's job was to ensure that the girl was tied and tethered. He rolled her pliant body over on its side, then folded her lower limbs until she was in a foetal position. Then, Pieto took a roll of leather strips from a hanging hook, and dextrously wrapped it around her ankles. The same length then moved between her legs, where he had placed her hands together as though she was in prayer. He made a butterfly loop around her hands before moving onto her swan-like neck, where he measured and cut the rest of the length. This way, if the sorceress struggled or strained against the strap, she would choke herself senseless. Pieto wasn't too bright, but he was good at his work. The positioning was expertly arranged, ensuring a smaller profile for transport as well as torturous bondage should the girl awake.
Stepping back, Pieto regarded his handiwork. Even unconscious the girl was absurdly beautiful. Unashamed, he felt the mounting hardness of an all too natural compulsion. He couldn't touch her of course, proverbially, but that was just a manner of speaking. After all, he had bound and gagged her, right? It was a perk.
With trembling hands full of anticipation, Pieto moved to unzip the side of her dress, his breathing growing more arrhythmic, laboured with every inch of exposed flesh, his hand trembling upon her flawless skin.
Just a touch, he told himself. It's a perk.
But as his fingers dug into girl's flesh, there was a slight thrum that engendered behind Pieto, accompanied by the sound of something landing wetly on the floor. Though usually alert, Pieto was too engrossed in his holy task to notice. He was a man on a mission, after all, his mind entirely and utterly focused on the task at hand.
“Ha,” Pieto chuckled. He loved this part of his job. The high and mighty Mages were just people once you had they hogtied and gagged. The girls especially, he loved that look of despair when they awoke in the box. Sometimes, Pieto wondered if that's what it was like to be a Mage.
"Heeheehee," he chuckled.
“Shaa…Shaa... Shaa…” Something chuckled beside Pieto.
The bouncer's fingers froze just as they were about to venture further. He could feel it now: a dense presence hovering over his right shoulder. In slow and measuredly movements, he turned to face his watcher.
His new companion was a strange and alien thing, composed entirely of glass. Its smooth head was semi-transparent, radiating an alien and exotic elegance.
“H…he… hello?” Pieto couldn’t think of anything else to say. How would one answer an otherworld horror anyhow? The creature must have understood him, however, for Pieto watched with paralytic fascination as the glass began to split three-way. From within the carapace emerged an engorged black-purple head with a lamprey’s lips, drooling grey goo.
There was a blur of darkness; then a barbed tongue shot into Pieto’s open mouth.
He screamed, half choking.
Caliban screamed with him.
The basement and its cargo of desperate souls screamed and screamed.