Mark’s voice trembled as he spoke, fully aware of the incarceration that awaited him, carefully enunciating every precious syllable.
“You see, while Henry was away trying to save his precious 'Lillybird', I too was beside myself with grief. To me, there was nothing more important to me than my sister. We were orphans: I was her brother, her mentor and her guardian. She was the reason I served with all of you in the first place. When we had succeeded in saving the Brisbane Line, I had her enrol in the Officer Cadet’s Program. It was supposed to be safe, the kids there were all from notable families, talented. They were supposed to go on milk runs, be coddled through the two years of mandatory service. Jane could then join me in the Intelligence Division. I could look after her - the war would end, we could settle anywhere we liked in the Frontier.”
“Then Noosa Heads happened, and all of my dreams crumbled to dust.”
He looked at his companions coldly.
“It’s a common story. I know, there were thousands like us during that time. Mages and NoMs, grieving together. Why the drama? What makes my sister’s death so special? I tell you what. I knew something stank the moment it happened because I knew about Elizabeth!”
Mark tapped his head.
“Telepathic Bond. Shared Thoughts. Mass Message. Once you tap into someone’s head long enough, a little bit of them rubs off on you. As soon as I heard the news, I suspected her. There was a madness in that woman. None of you believed me of course - not sweet, innocent Elizabeth! Not with her baby-blue eyes! Or was it out of deference for Henry? We owe him so much: our positions, our wealth, our influence, all thanks to him, right? We couldn’t turn against that! There was no biting the hand!”
His voice rose an octave; Mark was breathing heavily now, his excitement dispelling the cool and collected Mark they had known.
The others listened wordlessly.
Gwen and Debra held one another’s hand. So many skeletons raised from the dead. So many monsters were churning under dark and tranquil waters. She almost wanted to say that this was enough. No more. Elizabeth’s depravity. The loss of her Master’s child. Mark’s sister: what would lie at the tunnel’s bitter end? She thought of that old aphorism. He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster, for if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Mark continued, spittle flying every which way, his blood was up.
“Oh, I knew. I knew there was something underneath that sweet face. There was hunger there! I felt it! Inhuman, primal, terrifying. It wasn’t anything that could be satisfied by nature! She was born a man-eater, but now she would be an eater of men! Ha!”
“Mark!” Agnes shouted at him, her face full of upset and dismay. “Enough!”
“Enough?!” Mark howled at her. An arcane glyph opened underneath him. “I’ll have enough when I have satisfaction!”
Gunther moved between Mark and the group. Mark didn’t care; he continued his compound casting. Weaving spell after spell into the Necromantic relic.
There was a pause as his face grew pale. The Negative Energy flooding into his body through the Death’s Orb was consuming his life-force.
“Commune with Dead!”
A vision began to materialise in the space between them into the form of a girl.
“Jesus, Jane…” Agnes covered her mouth. “Mark… what have you done?!
Oh, Mark, that’s your sister…”
Gunther’s jaw clenched with fury and barely constrained anger, his brows knitted. This old ‘mate’ of his Master had gone too far. It was time to put him down.
“Mr Chandler,” he intoned with absolute authority. “For exercising forbidden Necromantic practices and entrapping of the soul of a fellow Mage. You are hereby excommunicated from the Tower and marked for Isolation. I suggest you cease your magic at once and come with me peacefully.”
The Paladin raised a hand. Give him a second and Mark Chandler would be bereft of his limbs, awakening to a world of exquisite agony. The dabbler of Necromancy would enter a Stasis cell and never again see the face of men until the day of his natural death.
“Stand down, Gunther,” Henry commanded. The Radiant Mage regarded his master for a moment before stepping aside. “Let’s see what Mark has to say for himself… and for Elizabeth.”
The dark sprite had now coalesced into a solid figure. Jane's audience could see her speak, though her voice came across a half-second later, disjointed and hollow.
“Mark… where am I? It hurts! It hurts so much! Return me, return…”
“Jane…” Mark began. “Jane, we don’t have much time… tell them how you died.”
“Died… I died…” Jane mouthed, her face indistinct. Suddenly she cried out, a guttural, banshee’s screech that went on and on, sending slivers of ice down their spines. It was not a cry that existed in the material plane, for no particles of air had sifted nor moved. It was instead a sound that resonated within their souls, filling them with malice and dread.
“Murdered! I was murdered!”
“Show me,” Mark commanded in an eldritch voice tainted by the foulness of deathly hallows. He placed a finger in the space between his eyes.
The Third-Eye: the seat of a Diviner’s astral vision.
“Enter and show me… show them…”
Jane had been admiring Elizabeth’s tailored dress uniform when a sudden tremor shook the building, lurching the dining table sideways and sending the tea and cupcakes scattering all over. Outside, a siren blared. The speaker system in the mess hall also began to screech and scream.
A long continuous wail meant the base was under imminent attack.
Jane’s eyes widened in horror. She looked towards Elizabeth, whose own lovely face affected a slight furrow of her exquisite brows.
“Not a drill, it seems,” she observed worriedly, though not forgetting to finish her tea. “You ever been in combat before? Jane?”
“No… never…” Jane swallowed. In a panic, the novice had dropped her cup; shattering the bone-china amongst a smattering of shortcakes. Like her bother, Jane was a Diviner, a caster with little to no offensive or defensive capabilities.
“Lizzy! What do I do?” Jane’s eyes were darting to and from with sheer panic.
The Acolyte saw the sea rise from the window. Something was moving from the shallows onto the shore, toward the base. A gargantuan tentacle rose into the air, then another and another. A tidal wave of white water washed over the compound. As the water drained, the dark silhouette under the water transformed into an armoured Kraken that towered over their four-storey HQ.
“Stay here.” Elizabeth’s voice rang out as she made for the exterior. “This is the only concrete building in the compound. If there’s anything that’s going to withstand that thing’s physical attacks, it’s the HQ. Don’t leave unless you have to.”
“Alright…” Jane answered doubtfully, both wishing to stay within the compound as well as enjoy Elizabeth’s protection. There were others here as well, but how could they compare to Elizabeth Sobel, the Hero of the Brisbane Line? Her most ardent desire would have been for Elizabeth to remain in the mess hall, accompanying her. Of course, that was wishful thinking, for her mentor had gone in the next minute.
From the safety of the HQ building, Jane watched with growing horror and apprehensions the creature finally made landfall. Mermen were cascading off its back, spilling from some strange interior chamber. There were all kinds, some in the classic humid shape of men with webbed feet and arms, while others were more fish-like or crustacean.
Jane paced uncertainly back and forth within the mess. She was on the fourth floor, secure, at least for now. Was Elizabeth right? Should she stay? The Kraken loomed too close for comfort, so much that Jane could hear the sound of fighting. The Diviner had never fought before except in sparring duels at the academy. She had never even seen a monster above tier 2 since her Field Exercise. Her brother had told her that this place was safe, that it was just a two-year milk run.
The more she considered her options, the more her mind became a soup of fear and panic. She wasn’t trained for this, or perhaps she was? She didn’t even know. The very thought of facing one of those half-fish, half-man beasts made her puke.
There was a sound of structure failing under stress.
The ceiling began to crumble, the floor to ceiling windows vibrated for a split second before blowing out. A giant tentacle swooshed past the now shattered windows. A shower of glass peppered Jane, sending her crashing onto the floor. She frantically struggled to stand but dug her hands into the fragments that were now all over the carpet. Agonising pain burned across both her palms, her hands and fingers. She cried out for help. For Mark, for Elizabeth, to return and aid her.
She looked up. A fish-man was moving toward her! It was shouting something in a guttural tongue, sending out a spray of mucus that smelled strongly of the sea.
“Jet Blast!” A watery missile materialised from thin air and struck the creature, pushing it back through the window. One Evocation spell was all Jane could manage, for already Jane felt her mind straining with her use of an unschooled Sigil. Any more and she would be retching all over the floor, incapacitating herself.
Another creature appeared from the window, having scaled the walls on its suctioned feet.
“No! No! No!” Jane uttered bewilderingly, waving her hands to muster another spell. Motes of water mana churned but no phenomena manifested. Jane felt a wave of dizziness overwhelm her, sending her to her knees. The half-lobster mermen bowled her over and pushed her onto the floor, pinning her arms. The thing likely wanted to capture her for some nefarious purpose.
“Mark!” Jane cried out. “Lizzy! Somebody!”
Her answer came in the form of a bolt of darkness cutting across the room. When it had struck, most of the Mermen was gone. Only stumpy claws holding Jane onto the floor remained.
“Elizabeth! You came! Thank god!” Jane rolled onto her elbows, doing her best not to puke from the smell of desiccating prawn. “What was that spell? It was magnificent!”
Elizabeth didn’t answer.
Instead, she stumbled towards Jane and ran into her bodily. Jane could see that Elizabeth's face was deathly pale, that she was bleeding from her right arm.
“Lizzy! You’re injured! I… I'll find a medic…”
“Get out of here!” Elizabeth took Jane’s arm and pulled her toward the window. Jane resisted, but even in her frail state, Elizabeth had overpowered her.
Jane screamed. They leapt.
They jumped from the fourth storey just as another tentacle struck the side of the building, sending out a spiderweb of fissures across crumbling concrete.
“Feather Fall!” The two of them slowed their descent, but still, they landed heavily. Elizabeth’s rushed invocation couldn't cover for both of them. With a heavy thud, they stuck the pavement below, and down Elizabeth went.
“Liz! Are you okay? Oh my God…”
Elizabeth’s dress uniform had come with unfortunately tall heels. She landed awkwardly, and now her ankle was twisted in a disturbing direction. Jane watched as Elizabeth grunted, her face turning even paler than before. Her fingers dug into Jane's arm with enough force to draw blood.
“Someone! Help!” Jane shrieked into the chaos. Cadets and Officers were running like headless chickens all over the place. Some were trying to flee; others tried to fight.
Thankfully, a blonde-haired youth ran up and helped Elizabeth to her feet, hopping on her good leg. From above came the sound of something whooshing through the air, crashing into the building and the wall behind them.
They looked up to see a purple-pink tentacle slither away, leaving behind a mess of human flesh, crushed into smithereens against the concrete HQ.
Jane screamed. She screamed and screamed; frozen to the spot.
Elizabeth swore. Jane glanced up and saw a silhouette loom over them. The writhing mass of the Kraken was now upon them.
“It’s seen us!” Elizabeth shouted and tried to move. Even with the cadet’s help, she couldn’t move fast enough. The Air Evoker cursed. She commanded the cadet to turn her around. Jane helped, bracing Elizabeth’s other arm.
“Blade of Wind!” Elizabeth threw up a hand.
The tier 6 Evocation hacked into their assailant.
A massive tentacle landed not far from them, sliced clean off it’s now oozing stump. There was a sound of thunder as the creature raged, the ground shook violently.
“Well fudge, I shouldn’t have done that. It’s twice as pissed now.” Elizabeth remarked despairingly; her comely face pale, drained, deathly.
Without warning, the blonde Cadet dropped Elizabeth. He ducked under her arm, allowing her to fall, then ran for it.
Elizabeth fell awkwardly onto the floor and crumpled into a heap, screaming as her broken ankle hammered the tarmac.
Behind them, the cadet scampered past a fence, fleeing toward the uncertain shelter of the woods.
“Fuck! You ingrate asshole!” Elizabeth shrieked at him.
Jane was shaking now, her whole body buzzing with fright and hysteria. She saw Elizabeth turn to her. Something dark grip her heart, something full of yellow venom and selfish purpose.
“Jane…” Elizabeth began. "Don't-"
She ran and ran and ran.
Behind her, Elizabeth was saying something indistinct, but Jane could no longer hear it.
“I am sorry… I am sorry Liz… I am sorry… please make it. Please survive…”
She ran. She fell, she got up, she staggered on.
She didn’t even feel the pain from her palms anymore. She just wanted to get away from the sea, from the monster, from the mermen, from Elizabeth.
Don’t look back! She told herself. You mustn’t look back.
Sickening sounds of destruction resounded from behind: wails of pain and horror both human and mermen.
An explosion rocked the base. Something had set off the mana crystals in the depot.
Jane hastened her pace, but the shockwave was too quick. It caught her in the next few seconds, sending her tumbling through the air, thrashing her flailing limbs against the asphalt.
When she re-orientated herself from the tumbling, she realised she was facing the wrong way.
She was facing the ocean. She was looking back.
Her face blanched, the blood drained from every inch of her skin.
Her eyes began to bulge, then bleed.
Jane began to whimper and cry.
“Oh, Liz… oh, Lizzy, save me. Save me…” she moaned incoherently. “I don’t want to die… I want to see Mark…”
A miracle imposed itself atop the girl's gibbering figure.
A solar eclipse.
A dark sun, a shadow of a shadow consuming all light, drinking up the world.
Tendrils of darkness, tipped with lamprey's lips, reached out from its centre, seemingly ignoring the distance and space.
Jane watched in horror as one of them seemed to find her instantaneously.
She felt the cold dark invade her skin, digging into her body, lifting her from the ground. The tendril effortless sliced through her non-existent mana Shield, through her uniform, slicing into her torso and legs, bleeding her.
“Arrrgh… Ah-ah… N-No, no, no…” Jane was mewing like a babe, her face a grotesque mask of pain and agony.
The gathering watched agog as the vision continued to manifest.
A dark sun bloomed in Jane’s vision: draining all light, all life.
The Merfolk, the NoMs, the Mages, all were caught in it’s embrace. It took in everything, friends, enemies, trees, grass, bits of concrete, even water from the sea. With each thing it consumed, it seemed to grow larger, bigger, more powerful. Dark miasma poured from its centre, forming long shadowy tendrils. Darker then black, they extended through the air, picking through the flotsam and jetsam for nourishing sweetmeats.
Jane cried out in horror.
She rose into the air, weaker and weaker, higher and higher.
When Jane had floated close enough to the centre of the dark sun, they saw.
They all saw.
Two women were silhouetted side by side: a ghastly parallel of the two women having tea only an hour earlier. There was no cakes and ices this time. Jane's body was a bloody mess, while a tenebrous miasma scattered from Elizabeth's body like fog rolling off a cold mountain.
They saw Jane’s unfocused dark eyes meet with Elizabeth’s irises of baby-blue, whose innocence betrayed no particular emotion. Elizabeth’s thin white legs extended from the churning shadows swirling across her body. Obsidian black and starkly white, a goddess of deified death.
"Lizzy..." Jane moaned, crying and sobbing, blood and tears pouring from her bulging eyes in equal measure. "Lizzy it hurts... it hurts so bad..."
Elizabeth gazed upon Jane without an iota of sympathy.
“Silly girl… you needn’t have died. You had nothing I wanted. You were useless…”
“Please… spare me…”
“You should have stayed a moment longer. I was telling you to run you know, playing the big sister.”
“Please… please, Lizzy!”
They watched Elizabeth force a hand under Jane’s ribs, piercing her chest in one swift, bloody motion.
“Now look at what you made me do...”
The vision ended.
Mark tore himself away from the Orb, falling to the floor, gasping for breath. When he raised his face again, he looked older, far older, as though he had aged a decade.
“Do you understand now?!” Mark uttered between clenched teeth. “This was your precious wife! I spent twenty years to uncover the truth! A decade to track down an Orb, and another decade to learn to use it! Did you know what I had to give, to trade, to find my sister’s soul?”
Henry’s pallor was paler than it had ever been. His wife - his poor Elizabeth. She hadn’t turned into a monster. She was a monster from the beginning. All it took was a single crisis; then the undertow took her.
Gwen recovered herself from the overload of emotion and information. There was so much there, so many answers, but still, she felt that Mark had left an important question unanswered.
“Well, do you have your satisfaction now, Mark?” She tried to keep her voice level and measured. “That still doesn’t explain why you sent me into that hell-hole to suffer, what could you gain from that? More satisfaction? Was it to see my Master suffer humiliation? Is it because I am a Void Mage that you wanted me defiled and betrayed?”
Mark laughed: a burst of insane, hysterical laughter.
“We always save the best for last, no?” he said to Gwen, grinning maniacally.
He turned to Henry.
“Your wife is still alive and kicking.”
Henry suddenly stood, his face a mask of anger and fury. Surya did likewise, his expression full of indignation for his friend. Agnes simply held a hand to her mouth in shock horror. It was madness, complete madness. Mark was consumed by it, by holding onto that secret and letting it fester in his chest, it fed on him, ate the man they had once known.
“You think me mad, don’t you?” Mark demanded, his eyes glowing with excitement. He stopped talking suddenly and gloatingly gazed at Henry.
“Whose soul did you think I attempt to raise at first?! Ha! It was Elizabeth! The woman I hated more than anything in the world! Why raise my sister, subject her to such soul rendering agony, when I could have truth and satisfaction in one fell swoop?! BUT do you know what happened? You know what happened when I tried?”
“She wasn’t there! Her Astral Soul had never untethered from her body! I may be a fledging Necromancer, but even I know that you can’t raise the soul of a being who hasn’t died!”
“Master…” Gunther stepped between Mark and Henry, cutting him off abruptly. “Perhaps it is best to end it right here and now. What good would more secrets serve? What’s done is done. We need to look to the future. This Necromancer was as good as dead the moment he trapped a human soul within that Orb. Gwen too should be free of his insanity."
As if sensing the end is nigh, Mark suddenly began to speak with great haste; a torrent of words poured from his mouth. His eyes were wild, his face contorted with the ecstasy of the reveal. All these years, all these years and now he had finally proven to Henry that he was wrong, that Elizabeth was responsible, that she was a monster and they were all fools! There was just one more step. One more step!
“I always knew, I just knew that Elizabeth had been up to something, but I could never figure it out. Let me remind all of you of that final climax, what had she said? You had nothing I wanted. What had she wanted? What could have she have wanted?”
Mark pointed to Gwen with an accusing finger. Her heart leapt to her throat in an instant.
“There’s your answer! At first, I couldn’t prove it! I couldn’t prove what Elizabeth wanted. Then you, Henry, sent me your apprentice! How fortuitous! How foolish! I couldn’t believe it when you told me that she was a Void mage! Is it poetic justice? I couldn’t believe my luck. Were you trying to repeat the past? You can’t repeat the past old friend! You can’t! All you sent me was proof! I couldn’t prove my theory, but with Gwen… with another Void Mage, I could! Your apprentice had killed a dozen Mages - I have… I have their dossiers here… see! Look!”
He pounced on the papers: pictures, files, records scattered all over.
“Put her in the Chamber, Henry! Put her in and you’ll- you’ll know why Elizabeth is still alive! Ha! You were all wrong! My poor Jane, if you hadn’t covered it up, Henry! if…”
Then Mark was suddenly silent. Without even incanting a spell, Gunther had reached across between them with his long arm, caught Mark by the hair, then slammed his head against the heavy oaken table. Mark’s body fell to the floor wetly like a sack of slack potatoes.
“Master.” Gunther knelt. “I take full responsibilities."
Henry’s eyes rose from Mark’s body. He nodded gently and patted Gunther’s shoulder.
His Apprentice was right; this farce had gone on long enough.
“Magus Mark Chandler is to be placed under indefinite quarantine,” the Magister spoke, gaining a measure of strength with every uttered word. “What say you?”
Gwen and Debra had nothing to say; their opinions counted for nothing.
Surya inclined his head imperceptibly.
Agnes looked away, unable to find the words.
“Good. Gunther. If you please.”
Gunther hoisted his human cargo with one hand.
“I am returning to the Tower, Master.” He bowed. “I’ll send a clean-up crew within the hour.”
Henry nodded toward his eldest Apprentice before turning to his youngest one.
“Gwen…” he began.
Gwen felt her heart lurch, at this rate, she was sure to develop an early arrhythmia.
“It's time we discussed your future.”