Opposite Blackwattle, Rosebay likewise held its strategic meeting, overseen by the Headmistress, Mildred Stone.
"Helena and Nancy, full disruption on Gwen Song, as much as you're capable of against their Abjurer."
"Bea, full priority on Julia until she buffs up, if Julia buffs up and transforms without incident, the battle is as good as ours."
"Jody, keep the team up as long as you're able. Don't be afraid to use your Shield of Faith if Bea's busy shielding Julia."
"Julia, we're counting on you."
"I won't fail you, Ma'am, nor Magister Ferris." Julia placed a hand over her heart. She could feel the Wyvern-soul within, melded into her astral form. It was a rare and precious gift, something that no Mage who gained their boons through monster hunting could ever attain. Humanity didn't have the means to entrap the astral form of Magical Creatures within their Cores— their Essence, escaping. That was a skill which belonged to older, far more attuned magical races.
"Remember what I told you, Gwen Song cannot possibly keep up her "unique" ability for long. Likewise, she can't endanger your lives, so use it to your advantage. Take out her healer in your Wyvern form, and the battle is as good as won."
"Yes, Ma'am! Please look forward to my performance!"
Stone returned to the podium to open the final match.
"From Blackwattle High School: Gwen Song, Yue Bai, Debora Jones, Whetu T. Taranga, Elvia Lindholm. From Rosebay Academy: Julia F. Muller, Helen Carter, Beatrice A. Dawson, Jody Klein, and Nancy Hayes!"
The crowd cheered.
"For the deciding match - Five versus Five group combat."
"Adjudicators, please initialise the field. Terrain!"
The field shifted, suddenly filled with water and churning with mud.
It was a bog! The contestants were suddenly ankle to knee deep in thick, viscous mud that sucked at one's feet.
Team Blackwattle looked at one another. It didn't affect their plan, but it wasn't going to make things easier by far. As for the other team, the bloody Wyvern flies.
Slogging through the terrain, the team moved into position: Debora and Yue moving to the fore, Whetu in the middle, and Elvia behind Gwen.
In opposition, Rosebay seemed much more organised. The girls spaced out expertly as to not get in each other's way, the ranged casters gathering behind the Abjurer, while the healer stood in the middle. Julia was by herself in front, where the earthen Abjurer's frontal shielding could give both herself and her team ample coverage.
Julia felt her pulse quicken upon seeing Gwen's figure slogging through the mud. This terrain was a godsend for her. She could fly, while Blackwattle's Transmuter, Debora, had to use Jump. Furthermore, the sticky, viscous mud wreaked havoc on the Sand element of the surfer girl, making her speciality even more limited.
Stone waited until both teams had acknowledged their new terrain.
Unlike the smaller duels, a cloudburst of colour announced the beginning of the 5v5 contest. The mass-melee was the king of Mage-duel, something that had its origins in the Olympic Arenas of yore. Every four years, all around the world, audiences were glued to their Lumen-casters in public squares, universities, pubs and homes, watching the World Spellcraft Championships.
"Quickened Fireball! Empowered Fire Storm!"
"Ariel!" Ariel bolted straight for the sidelines, a white streak of moving lightning, its feet barely touching the mud, trying to flank the opposing team.
Rosebay likewise reciprocated.
"Julius! Sleet Storm!"
An array of spells opened up the epic combat. It was a pivotal moment, a game of strategy and mental chess. Synergy, prediction, teamwork, only all three could ensure the victory of one team over another.
On Gwen's side, Whetu's punamu shield appeared, instantly deflecting the incoming Fireball and Sleet Storm with a crash of splintering green-stone shards.
"Firestorm?! Fireball!" Beatrice the Abjurer wailed. She had barely managed to erect her Earthen shield in time when the Fireball exploded over her team.
"Shield of Faith!" Their healer, Jody incanted in a panic, just catching the Fireball before it engulfed herself and Helena.
"Just hold on!" Julia encouraged her teammates. "I'll pay them back ten-fold!"
"Firestorm, incoming!" Helena cried out. This Asian girl was absurd! She was going to burn all her mana in two spells?! Again, Helena retracted her spirit, Julius, and used him to form an aura of ice so that the rising temperature caused by the Firestorm would not harm her teammates.
"Polymorph!" Julia had matured her Molten Armour and was now ready to transform into a living coup-de-grace. Her morphic field began to shift, though without the explosion of magma this time as she was among allies.
SPAK! SPAK! SPAK!
A cascade of lightning-tinged needles washed over Julia. Where the hell did that come from? She scanned the battlefield and caught a mongoose of all things taunting her.
"It's her Familiar! Get it off of me!" Julia commanded.
Nancy, the Fire Evoker, began a barrage of Fire Bolts towards the edge of the field when Ariel gave her a swish of its tail and let loose a burst of electrical-darts.
It took all of Beatrice's concentration to shield Nancy from the paralysing assault.
Was it hard to shield against a Firestorm? Of course, absurdly so. Though the spell originally manifested Ice, Yue's ridiculous Affinity meant that the invocation resembled a small meteor shower. Each falling debris that materialised and fell was a ball of unstable plasma, exploding on impact into a shower of heat filled destruction. So long as Yue kept up the channel, the meteors manifested unceasingly, striking without order, making defence nigh-impossible.
Beatrice cursed under her breath. All she could do was maximise her mana usage and form semi-spherical domes of protection above all her companions. Usually, the Evoker was OOM long before the Abjurer.
In this, Beatrice was confident. Mana pools, more formally known as VMI— Volumetric Mana Index, was a fact of Spellcraft that couldn't be mitigated by effort. No matter how gifted a student could be, how able they were in the development of Spellcraft - there was a hard limitation on the growth of one's mana reserves. Not even a strict diet of the best Wildland materials could supersede this fact, only expedite its growth. The advantage of a well-provisioned Mage, therefore, was an accumulation of both time and resource.
"I got this—"
Just as she was about to declare that she could hold the fort steady, there was a loud crack and a blast of light so bright that her retinas seared, turning her mind white with wonder. A spike of painful tinnitus stabbed violently into her ears that for a second, she blanked out. The girls from Rosebay were well trained, but they were far too green.
Without warning, the Firestorm broke through the Abjurer's shielding and descended.
Gwen had refrained from casting her spells precisely because she was waiting for the Firestorm to hit.
It was a strategy that she had worked out with Yue and the crew precisely because she had an unusual, nonlethal AOE signature spell - Flashbang.
It would work only once - and now was the time.
As Julia began her exultant transformation, Gwen let loose the most potent Flashbang she could muster right between the five from the Rosebay team, behind Julia and in front of her companions. She especially placed the conjured explosion directly under the dome created by the Abjurer - utilising one of the Lightning element's most overpowered characteristics - the ability to manifest at a designated point in space without a projectile trajectory.
A split-second later, the signature invocation erupted in a cacophony of light and sound, amplified by the half-dome above the Abjurer. The spell had disoriented them all, but the refracted sound waves striking the Abjurer had stunned her so magnificently that the girl appeared to have lost consciousness for half a second.
Instantly, the Abjurer's earthen dome crumbled. With a grunt, Yue pushed downward with both hands, channelling the last of her mana into the Firestorm.
Her objective accomplished. Gwen focused on setting a welcome for the Wyvern.
"Beatrice!" Julia was beyond livid when she realised that their Abjurer had failed them and that an empowered Firestorm as about to wipe out four members of her team.
With a heavy conscience, she ignored her team and instead focused on her Molten Armour. What was done, was done, Julia had to even the playing field in other ways. With a lunge, she pushed herself from the swampy bog, her new wyvern-form taking flight and moving towards the Blackwattle Team.
"Minor Stone Shape!"
Julia had made it about half-a-meter when she realised that her hind legs were tethered to something in the bog, weight down by what felt like two giant ball-and-chains fastened to her body. She arched her serpentine neck above the duelling-field and saw the surfer girl, both arms up to her elbows in the mud, manipulating the sand as an undercurrent beneath the transmuted mud.
"Insolence!" the Wyvern roared.
Julia shot a blast of superheated air towards the Transmuter girl, but a green-stone shield of honeycombed punamu appeared before Debora and intercepted the destructive force of the breath.
Julia could hear her teammates whimpering behind her, incensing her to greater violence. With a furious tug, she forced her body into the air, pulling up two thick tendrils of sand still tethered around her ankles.
"I can't hold her any longer!" Julia heard the surfer girl cry out in alarm, her head now full of heat and vengeance. With a roar, she dived toward the Blackwattle party, toward Gwen, toward the healer hidden behind her. If Julia could just take out Gwen, take out the healer supporting her, then victory was still possible!
Even with the loss of four members of their team, Julia felt she could do it! She was the chosen Praetorian. Magister Ferris had the highest hopes for her! How could she fail, especially after the fiasco of their 1v1?
The Wyvern came. The plan was working.
"Debora, good work! Finish off the stragglers!" Gwen called out.
"Yue, get behind Whetu, recover some mana!"
"Whetu! Priority shielding on Elvia, I can't keep my spells up without her!"
A shadow befell them, an angry wyvern dripping with Magma was hovering a dozen meters above them, glowing with Magma.
Irene Ferris was fuming with frustration, gripping the arms of her Edwardian settee with disappointment and defeat. When the empowered Firestorm descended, she knew instantly that their chances for victory had gone to the dogs.
Who'd thought that the little harlot had a signature spell, one that she'd never seen before? What was it? Flashbang? An interesting concept, but one that heavily borrowed the instantaneous qualities of spatial manifestation associated with Quasi-Elemental Lightning.
Who had invented it? A unique, elemental-specific spell. Was it the man beside her? Was it the little witch herself?
Rosebay's Abjurer was a good as gone after that resonating blast of light and sound. Without shielding, the healer was useless too, as they lacked mass-healing at the lower tiers. The Conjurer was doing her best to keep the flames at bay, but it was a futile gesture. Their own Fire Evoker had done her best, but between the harassment by that mongoose and that strange green mineral shielding, she may as well be absent.
Was it a problem of skill? No, Irene knew that the girls were well trained and far exceeded the level of expertise expected of their age.
It was instead a problem of application, an issue of combat experience. The Blackwattle team had seen far more action, somehow. Their Evoker, the Asian girl, gave an air of destructive intent that Irene had seen on veterans. The green-stone Mage, likewise, was too well trained to be a member of a public school. Even the mediocre Transmuter had a mid-tier spirit that could shape sand. In addition to Gwen Song's presence, why was there an all-star team from a school as poor and neglected as Blackwattle? How did they even manage to throw the oddball bunch together?
Irene looked over at Henry Kilroy, who was sipping his Golden Mead and nodding to himself with every other spell exchange.
"Helen Carter, out!"
"Beatrice Dawson, out!"
"Jody Klein, out!"
"Nancy Hayes, out!"
Ferris' protege, Mildred Stone, looked as though she was spitting blood as she announced each of the girls who yielded.
But, there was hope yet.
Julia's Wyvern had almost reached Gwen Song. If she could take out the Void girl and her healer, then it was all over.
Gwen's felt her vitality drain away. Was it possible for a person to feel hollow? She wondered. It was the first time that she had consciously pushed herself so far.
Elvia too, felt her reserve of positive energy rapidly exhaust itself. It was as though a Nosferatu had suddenly drained the warmth from her veins and replaced it with arcane ice. She grew instantly rigid, her limited mana pool incapable of keeping up with the demand of Gwen's output.
Above, the Wyvern was descending from a terrific arc, approaching them with the force of a freight train that was disastrously also on fire.
Gwen waited until the Wyvern skimmed the pond, then released the last part of the spell she'd been holding steady at the cost of her vitality.
Gwen's 'tentacles' didn't sprout from the ground as the spell had initially intended, but directly as a writhing mass anchored onto thin air, growing like an angry sea anemone and flailing like the tendrils of a carrion crawler.
The watching crowd suddenly held their breath as a feeling of disgust and vertigo swept over them.
Julia knew that the tentacles were supremely dangerous, but she had no recourse— like a shot from a bow, her trajectory was set in stone.
She flew headfirst into the mass, feeling it envelop her molten armour.
Immediately, Julia knew she was in dire danger. If the tendrils were flesh, they would have burned. If they were material, they would have crumbled. Yet what element was this? It was as though ropes that had no mortal existence held her imprisoned. Furthermore, they seemed to be consuming the mana from her armour! With each passing second, she could feel the tentacles wrapping themselves tighter around her wyvern form, stripping away chunks of her carapace, scraping hungrily at the layer below to pry at her flesh.
Yet another layer of tentacles wrapped around Julia, this time lashes of lightning that didn't so much as entangle her as wildly flay away at her skin, sending more pieces of molten carapace flying away like charred, dark china.
Julia twisted her sinuous head so that she faced Gwen, who was concentrating on her spells while the petite healer hid behind her. Both girls had complexions whiter than bedsheets.
She drew in a mighty breath and launched a jet stream of superheated flames towards Gwen, hoping that it would disrupt the channelling of these ridiculous tentacles that had her entrapped.
"Wall of Sand!"
"Shield of Faith!"
A triple layer of shielding erupted.
The force of the breath blasted through the sand wall and struck the punamu shield, crushing it. The glowing shield unique to the healer class dissipated the remaining elemental damage.
Gwen Song didn't even flinch.
Julia felt the flower of despair beginning to blossom within her chest, the confidence and bluster of mere moments ago withered.
But she wasn't about to just give up, Julia's pride wouldn't allow her to yield. There was one more gamble she could participate in, a final chance to set the record straight and prove that she was better than these yokels.
To Gwen and the others' surprise, their target disappeared.
Julia had become a flaming peregrine a hundred times smaller than her wyvern form, flying towards Gwen in the hopes of physically assaulting her in her Human shape. The twin-tentacle spells automatically reached for their target, but Julia was far too swift. She edged closer to Gwen, the distance between them disappearing entirely in an instant.
This was it! Julia thrilled. Her victory was assured! She could almost see Gwen Song's amber-green pupils now; her reflection refracted within Gwen's eyes. In a moment she would expend the last of her mana to dispell her avian form, then she would pin this upstart into the ground.
"HALT! BLACKWATTLE WINS!"
The voice of Irene Ferris cried out like a thunderclap across the duelling field, amplified by a Clarion Call. Julia banked in her avian form, throwing her body to a screeching aerial tumble before return to her human form to stare at her Grandmaster in disbelief.
Why? She wanted to know. Why did the Grandmaster announce their loss?
Up above against the podium's iron railing, Irene Ferris's chest rose and fell.
She turned towards Henry Kilroy; her Divination-empowered eyes were alive with shock and horror. As a Diviner, she was rarely, if ever caught unaware. Yet today, she was the victim of one upset another after another.
"Henry," she said quietly, trying to find a better word but failing to. "What the hell did I just foresee?"