Farez Hamid recognised the intruder.
Farez had been just a Militiamen then, an up and coming Illusionist with an affinity for Air with a freshly pressed commendation for his mastery of misdirection.
He distinctly recalled it was during Second Seige of the Brisbane Line that he first heard the name of Gunther von Shultz.
With the rest of the fresh meat, he was being hauled across the sound when a Dragon Turtle struck their barge. The problem was that most of the Junior Mages couldn't fly, Farez included. The ship rocked, and the novices had flung ineffective spells at the hateful creature. All seemed lost - until a blast of heavenly light pierced the clouds, a God-ray that burned the air turned the sea to steam. Where it had struck the beast, its scales melted and boiled. The Dragon Turtle had returned breath-attack, but a secondary blast took its head clean off, a tier 7 monstrosity - just like that. The recruits never saw who had saved them, but Farez was later informed that it was Gunther von Shultz.
During those days, Shultz and de Botton were the big names on the Front. The first was an invincible superman, a Wing Commander at the age of twenty-five. The second was renowned for her ruthless violence, making Flight Lieutenant at the tender age of fifteen. They had both excelled in the taking of Portsea, racking up a quad-digit kill-count through fire and gore. Upon their return, Shultz engaged a propaganda tour, and that was when Farez met his saviour.
The Illusionist had never beheld a man so magnificent. Gunther was radiance personified, like Apollo in a human body. Farez had screamed his lungs out with the best of them. To think that such a man was fighting on their behalf! To be bathed in the light of such a personage, a man who had carved out a victory in blood and brimstone, was the closest he ever felt to God.
When Gunther had finally reached his squad, Farez reached out. He touched him! Farez touched Gunther von Shultz! He was so happy he could have cried! Then to his shock, Gunther stopped. The Demigod turned his gaze upon Farez with the warmest, most understanding blue eyes Farez had ever beheld in his life.
"Thank you for your service, Warrant Officer... Farez Hamid."
He knew his name! Gunther von Shultz knew his name! As the man left, Farez had wept. His friends had made fun of him, mirthfully punched him in the ribs. They didn't know, Farez laughed internally. They couldn't understand what it was like to touch that radiance.
That's motherfucking Gunther Shultz! Farez's bulging eyes almost escaped their sunken sockets. What the fuck is Gunther von Shultz doing here? Was it for the girl?
Oh. Shit. The thought resounded in Farez's head like a gong.
The Teleportation Circle had faded by now. All Farez and Booza could behold was the godly visage of Sydney Tower's Paladin striding towards them like a fabled colossus.
"Do you yield?" The question was entirely rhetorical.
Had Farez not endured years of anti-glamour training, he would have knelt right there and wept like a child. He saw Bozza fall to one knee, her eyes brimming with tears, and knew it was over before it began.
It was radiance. There was something in Gunther's aura! Was it an Enchantment or an Illusion?
He saw the Geas embedded in Bozza activate. Like him, she could only serve a single Master, incapable of yielding even if she wanted to. At once her head cleared.
"Fuck! What the hell was that?" Bozza shouted. She needn't have, there was no other sound in the room, but somehow, it felt like they were in a maelstrom.
"We're about to meet our maker," Farez intoned rather objectively. "Hey Boz, I want to tell you something."
"Is this the right time?" Bozza kept shouting, trying to Shield her eyes from the radiance. "We should be attacking the prick!"
"My name is Farez Hamid," he said.
Bozza gazed at Farez with a face full of incomprehension.
"What are you..." Bozza began, but she was cut off by Farez's next spell.
"Phantasmal Force!" The Illusionist forced the spell to manifest with a bestial howl, pushing all of his remaining mana into its invocation. A dozen phantom soldiers appeared from every direction to strike Gunther. It was Farez's most potent spell. It was also useless, he knew, but he had to try.
Gunther didn't even move.
The Radiance around him shimmered. Without warning, holes appeared in every phantom that assailed him. There wasn't even a beam or a projectile; it was as if his soldiers were perforated all along. Farez didn't have to wait for Gunther's retribution. He hadn't even finished his gesticulation when he felt a sudden lightness. He watched, almost in slow motion, his limbs fall away, the wounds cauterised and clean. He landed on the ground as a human stump, bereft of his bodily appendages.
Bozza's eyes stared in disbelief. Farez was the Enforcer! He was a Tier 5 Senior Mage! Who was this man they were facing? Were they fighting a God? A Sun God?
Farez watched as Bozza turn to summon a shield, maybe trying to protect herself; perhaps trying to save him. It didn't matter. Her Shield disappeared in the next second. Her Body of Water didn't matter either. Her skin sizzled, and in the next instant, she was also bereft of limbs.
"I have questions for you. Later," Gunther stated mildly, then left to inspect the girl by the door.
He left! Farez snorted painfully. He wasn't even worth a moment of Gunther's time!
From the floor, he regarded Bozza, who was weeping now. She was a strong woman, but she finally understood. In front of real power, they were just worms.
"Hey Boz," Farez called out to Bozza, whose eyes met his, wet with agony and despair. "What's my name?"
"Hamid. Farez." She said between gasps of air.
"Thanks, Boz..." Farez replied, then waited quietly for the inevitable.
Gunther left the two assailants incapacitated. Between the loss of their limbs and the mental shock, they were capable of neither magic or escape. He looked around the place, took in the surroundings, and felt a fit of monstrous anger.
Master Henry had made a terrible mistake in trusting Mark Chandler.
He walked over to where Gwen lay, picked her up from the floor, and wiped the debris from her limbs and her dress.
The girl was having a nightmare; her eyes were fluttering, her ocular muscles spasming.
"Gwen, wake up," he intoned gently. His voice was radiance, full of texture and temperature. Warmth suffused Gwen's head, undoing the Phantasmal illusion.
His sister-in-craft's hazel eyes shot open. Gwen found herself in Gunther's arms, her white face refracted against his blue orbs. Her clothes were dishevelled, but she was warm and safe, it was over.
"I..." Gwen wailed weakly. "Gunther... I did it... I killed them all!"
Her breath caught in her throat, her face turned scarlet.
"So... so much blood Gunther... how... who'd thought there be so much blood in them?"
"It's okay," Gunther coddled her. "You did well."
There was a warning in his voice that made Gwen tense, filling her body with adrenaline. She was a sensitive soul, and she knew the feeling of the calm before the storm.
Gunther ushered a jolt of Radiant mana into his aura, silently activating a passive calming effect. The girl's shivering grew weaker until it ceased.
"Gwen, I need you to see this," Gunther spoke to her softly. "Can you stand?"
"Yes... Sorry. There's something in the basement you need to see, brother," Gwen urged her senior sibling.
Gunther was glad that Gwen seemed considerably more in control of her faculties. She was going to need it for what came next.
"That's not important," he assured her. "This is."
Gunther walked Gwen towards Bozza and Farez, two torsos lying on the dusty floor.
"I need to ask you some questions, and you will answer them truthfully," Gunther spoke in a voice that was measured and kind. Not at all the tone of a man who had taken off eight limbs in the blink of an eye.
He did not wait for the slavers to affirm his demand.
"You, Illusionist," Gunther began. "Who do you work for?"
Suddenly, Farez's skin began to sizzle.
"Who do you work for?"
"I... argh! I ... oh God! Arrrrgh!!!"
"Who do you work for?"
"I can't! I can't!" The smell of burning flesh filled the air.
"Hmmph," Gunther grunted. "A Geas. Fine. What were you going to do to Gwen?"
"Sell her." Farez gasped.
"Listen carefully, Gwen," Gunther commanded. "This is the answer you are looking for. What happens to those who get sold?"
"Arrgh! O, Gods! Oh, oh, oh!" There was now the smell of crisping fat.
"Breeding! For breeding! Or sacrifices! Or experiments! We take the heart blood! We extract their organs! They're Mage stock! Oh please! I can't say more! Just kill me! Just kill me, Commander Shultz!"
Gwen blanched. Breeding. The man had said. Rituals. She wanted to hurl and vomit, but the contents of her stomach had been spent.
Gunther on the other hand, blinked when the man said his name.
"Are we acquainted?"
"I saw you once..." Farez was hardly recognisable now, just a lump of ruinous flesh. "It was.. it was at the parade in 86'... you said my name... we shook..."
Gunther searched through his memory.
"Sergeant... Jones? No - Officer Hamid? I am sorry to see you in this state."
"Ha... ha ... you don't know the half of it! There's nothing more I can say... Commander, a request before I die?"
Gunther furrowed his brows.
"What do you need, Hamid?"
"Bozza, the woman next to me. She too is under Geas. Please- give her a clean death. Not like me. She didn't see the war. She's not built like we are." Farez's voice was stronger now, louder, kept up only by adrenaline. "The other girl... Cantwell, she survived. She's in the second room. The monster, it spared her, please..."
His voice grew faint.
"Peace be with you, Farez."
"I am sorry..."
"I am too, Sergeant Hamid," Gunther intoned grimly. "More than you know."
He left Gwen standing alone, then returned momentarily with Stacey. The girl remained groggy and out of her mind, unaware that she had escaped death more than once. She mumbled something incoherent, and Gunther could smell the Blue that lingered on her breath, that acrid scent which permeated her body and ate into her flesh. It was too late for the girl. Those who awakened late seldom received the necessary talent or training to be competent. The Tower would be hard pressed to dedicate the resources required to restore this girl to normalcy. Not even Agnes had the means to fight off the lingering effects of such a deeply set addiction. He wondered if the girl could be used as a lesson in mercy for Gwen, but decided against it. Gwen was not ready. She had another lesson to learn first.
"Gwen." Gunther turned to his sister-in-craft. He saw her body seize, a deer caught before Dancing Lights. She must have realised what he was about to ask.
"Gunther..." Gwen's breath quickened, he could feel her heart pounding against her breast. "Gunther, I can't... that's a man, Gunther! That's a human being!"
"Gunther, he is defenceless! I don't even know why you're torturing him; there are... spells for interrogation... for truth..."
"They were going to sell you, Gwen. Use you for spare parts! Do you understand what that means? At best, you would be strapped to a ritual table and have your brain, your heart and your liver extracted. At worst..."
"Oh...Oh... " Gwen was hyperventilating now.
"Finish it, Sister!"
He placed a hand on her shoulder; his voice grew sonorous.
"Do it now."
Gwen choked and sobbed, her hands trembling. At Gunther's behest, she allowed the spell to manifest in her mind. She was uttering the words before she knew it, wondering if this was what she wanted. The man was a mess of charred and boiled flesh. It was mercy.
A flash of plasma enveloped Farez. The man laid still.
"I am afraid I won't be able to keep that promise, Sergeant Hamid. I have a use for your companion," Gunther replied regretfully to the corpse. "I hope you make better choices in your next life."
A beam of light struck Farez. His corpse blazed for a few bright seconds before turning to ash; another glance from Gunther and his fallen limbs cremated as well. Two rings and an amulet dropped to the floor.
Gunther retrieved them before turning to Bozza.
"Please..." She sobbed uncontrollably, "I can't tell you anything."
Gunther regarded Gwen's face, now numb with shock. The girl likely had always thought death clean, not obscene.
As for Gwen, she was having an out-of-body experience. With her Familiar, there was at least an abstract quality to it, the bundles of stuff that dropped here and there, the carnage of it was too violent to be real.
"Finish what you have begun."
"No, Gunther, I can't do it again..."
"You must. It is your duty. Bozza was dead the moment you chose to walk into her den. Do you understand that?"
Gwen stared at Gunther; conflict etched all over her face.
"This is also a part of the Credo, the one you so thoughtlessly flaunted before Master. You said that you would harry the foxes, frighten the wolves, and slaughter the tigers that barred your way! You wanted to fear no vengeance! Here is where you do it, Gwen! Open your eyes!"
He watched the girl's laboured breathing, observing her struggle against hysteria.
"You do, don't you?" The question was rhetorical.
Her reaction validated his suspicion that Gwen was different. He had told Alesia just that when she'd asked what he thought of their little sister-in-craft. The girl was too mature, improbably thoughtful. As far as he knew, Gwen had a torturous upbringing under a malevolent mother, an apathetic father, and the threat of a talented brother. She had never lived in a Tier 1 city. Frontier folk like her lived under the constant assumption that life was scant and temporal. The way Gwen reacted to her surroundings, the training and killing - it was like she had grown up in a walled garden, a place without violence or bloodshed. He wasn't sure why, nor did he care. What he did need was for her to stop behaving like a petulant child.
Her naivety was suicide. She would have to learn, fast.
"Do it," Gunther commanded, dropping another sliver of mana into Radiant Command.
Another lightning bolt. Bozza screamed.
Another. Bozza was stronger than she looked.
Fool! Gwen grunted. The girl was resisting, pulling her punches. She was now both stupid and cruel. He had only empowered his words with suggestions; perhaps he should enforce the command? No. That would be beside the point.
"Where's your mercy, Gwen? Do you find joy in her suffering?"
He could see the girl trying her best to rationalise her resistance.
"The dead, Gunther! Those bodies: don't they pluck out your eyes?! I can't... we can't do this... We can't wash our hands with excuses! The blood of our victims will dye the emerald sea incarnadine! Blood will have blood! To murder a human being- The dead will have their day!"
Words. Gunther felt even his own stoic, immovable soul shaken and stirred. Gwen had a way with words. Master liked that about her. Words have power, whether they be incantation or wisdom. Was she right? Gunther knew her words were didactic, but her sentiments were sophistry, the cawing of a mewling girl. Mastery Henry was a man of words, but Gunther and Alesia's baptism had been one of action. He did not like Gwen. No. She was talented, but she was also naive, stupid, suicidal. A Mage of Gwen's potential was a terrible temptation for the wolves: only violence would keep her safe. Kindness? Compassion? She would drown in it.
"These people had designs upon you, Gwen, whether you will or no. The mere fact that you appeared in their lives had sealed their fate. Either you were bound and sold like chattel, and they burned - or you survived, grew stronger for your troubles, and they burned. They were dead the moment you walked in! Did you think this was going to end amicably? That they were going to be imprisoned?"
He watched the battle unfold over her tortured face. Finally, their eyes met.
Gunther needn't command her this time; the choice was hers. He watched her pour wave after wave of mana into the channelled spell.
There was very little of Bozza left when the light had cleared. Another blast of cremating flames from him cleared any signs that Bozza had ever existed, save for a single Storage Ring.
"Good work." Gunther pressed Gwen's wilting body against his chest, feeling the beat of her heart against his own. "You must always remember this feeling. What must you do?"
"Finish what I had begun."
"Finish what I had begun."
Gunther picked up Bozza's ring.
"Good girl. Let's go and see our Master. Somebody must pay for what has happened here."
"What of the bodies, Gunther?" Gwen asked. "There... there are so many of them..."
"Hmmph..." Gunther closed his eyes for a moment. Gwen felt a sudden rise in the temperature. The walls around them combust into flames. The whole building was on fire. Her brother's flame was not the fire of the mortal realm, but destruction wrung from the Elemental Planes, the very stuff stolen from the Gods themselves. Gunther's was a cleansing blaze that would wipe all sin from Gwen's blighted land.
Gwen watched the world burn.
When she had realised what Caliban had done, her first thought was to lock herself up in a deep dark cave and never emerge back into the world of men. Perhaps she would leave the city, travel into the Wildlands? She could live amongst the savage races of the stone-formed Goblins and the malignant Orcs.
Then, when she came closer to the atrium, she felt the telepathic link between her and Caliban re-establish. Oh, what visions flooded her mind! It was as if she was Caliban itself, striking into her victims with unadulterated joy, boring through their screaming chests and emerging with mouthfuls of warm flesh! She felt an orgasmic jolt of vitality fed into her, replenishing what Caliban had taken. She felt satiated, satisfied. But it was not like the satiation offered by a hearty meal. It was the satisfaction of something ancient, something dark, something that was devouring and eating a millennia before men discovered the first mote of mana. It was a primal hunger, a gibbering bestial joy!
Caliban had fed on others, but Gwen fed on Caliban. She supped via her Familiar, more and more hungrily! Less and less sufficient!
Hungry! Caliban had cried out, and now Gwen, who had once contented with mortal food, now desired the hearts of men.
No! Gwen scalded herself, No! She cannot lose herself to this thing! She would not let Caliban override her ego, assume her animus! Heel! She cried out. Caliban! HEEL!
She hadn't resisted the Phantasmal Killer when it struck her mind. She welcomed the darkness, a respite from the hunger brought by wayward Caliban. She shunted the slithering Void beast into its planar cage. The wormling was hers and hers alone; she gave it purpose and existence, and she would not lose control of it ever again.
Then she was out like a light,
And when her sanity returned, she was murdering her first human being face-to-face.
"Do it now!" He told her.
Gunther pried open her eyes and Gwen could see the truth hidden in the winding dark. She had nowhere else to hide. Attached to her wrist, her hand had felt like a stranger's, an alien appendage distended from her body.
"They were dead the moment you appeared in their lives! Did you think this was going to end amicably?"
Gwen knew now she was wrong, but she had hoped. She was going to defeat them - but she wasn't going be there for the aftermath. That had been her naivety. She was going to save the girl, and that was the end of it. Was it meant to be more complicated than that? Or was it as Gunther had said, that nothing would ever be so simple.
But Gunther was right. There comes a time when an individual must take account of their own choices.
Assume their own stories.
She raised a hand toward the whimpering slaver.
The old Gwen is dead. Long live Gwen, murderer, her hands smeared in the snail-sheen fat of slaughter; for all the perfumes of Arabia will never sweeten her fingers again.