A miniature sun dawned upon Rosebay, lighting up half the firmament with a second star. A kilometre away, within the confines of the Cathedral, Gwen and her company felt the sudden elevation of the ambient temperature.
There was a screech that sounded like it came from a half-shrieking parrot, half-maddened boar that reverberated through the brine-heavy space, followed by a sound of tumbling stones in the distance which indicated that a portion of the cliff had dislodged itself from the escarpment.
The Mermen paused their relentless assault, allowing Gwen to let loose an additional spell.
A wave of fatigue encompassed her mind as her bolt zigzagged through the stonework, exploding two burly crustacean-Mermen bearing down upon a trio of Acolytes.
"I am almost out of Mana," she informed the others, her head was throbbing, an indication of spell-fatigue.
"I am alright; about two-thirds spent," Yue replied as she shot off a pair of Scorching Rays.
"How's everyone else?" Gwen wasn't OoM in the explicit sense, but that her remaining reservoir was for passive Conjurations.
"I am about half," Whetu announced.
"Same here," Elvia said.
"I am close to OOM." As a melee combatant, Debora was the most exhausted of them all. With a groan, Debora straightened her athletic figure, wiping a snail sheen of sweat from her brow. "I really ought to train for Polymorph as soon as this is over."
When finally news of the Leviathan's collapse reached the Mermen, a change overcame their foe. They seemed to have lost the fervour which had consumed them only a moment ago. Instead, the fish-headed warriors began to beat a retreat, shielded by their crustacean cousins.
"Think the Kraken's down?" Yue tossed a Fireball into the group of Mermen that tried to organise themselves into a semblance of a phalanx. The well-armoured crab-men weathered the brunt of the damage as the Fireball erupted, leaving behind a trivial pair of smoking carcasses. Yue clicked her tongue, displeased with the lacklustre outcome.
An enraged, bellowing howl emerged from the multitude of fins and shells. From the horde emerged a blubbery, bulbous monstrosity covered in viscous slime. It had a set of red, spined dorsal fins that protruded from its head, giving it the guise of a Roman centurion. The thing roared a challenge towards the girls.
To Yue's surprise, her spell was stopped dead in its tracks by the creature's slimy exterior.
The blubbery Merman battered away the flames by expertly shedding a layer of its bubbling, superheated slime. It roared at them triumphantly, spittle flying every which way before turning to charge the group. Stimulated by the warrior's courage, the Mermen following the centurion ceased their rout and were now moving back towards the Mages, turning the phalanx like a school of roving sardines.
Yue cursed under her breath.
"Gwen, you got enough oomph to take care of this?"
"Evee, keep me topped." Gwen formed the sigil for a Void incantation within her mind. The Mermen should be within the range of her spell soon.
"Okay!" Elvia began a Positive Energy channel.
The slimy Mermen centurion was gaining momentum now, its quarter-ton bulk of muscle and slime bearing down upon Gwen and the group of juniors behind her. If the creature entered Melee range, lord knows how many of the kids it would take down before they peppered it with enough spells to dispatch it. Worse still, it's martyrdom could bolster the morale of other Mermen in the area, further complicating what should be a clean rout back to sea.
Just as the centurion gave a triumphant cry, a mass of dark, rubbery tentacles erupted from midair and snagged its hulking form. The sudden cessation of its forward momentum took it off balance. Unlike physical appendages that would slip and slide from its slime armour, the Void tendrils utterly ignored its protective gelatine. Instead, it dug into the creature's flesh like verdurous roots searching for nourishment.
The blubbery Merman screamed, a primal, guttural gurgle, then began to writhe violently as the tentacles began their terrible, life-draining labour.
The Mermen who had changed directions to follow the centurion screeched to a grinding halt, their fish-faces full of undisclosed fear and horror.
Gwen decided to give the throng another motivational push.
Drawing life from Elvia, she pushed the last of her mana into her familiar, feeling her vitality ebbing away as the serpentine nether creature took on its combat form.
Caliban grew bulbous and humongous, a full two meters tall, its carapace splitting the smooth obsidian shell to reveal pulsating masses of purple-pink flesh. With a hiss, her Void beast coiled then lunged forward. It fell upon the struggling Merman, its lamprey's mouth latching onto the hulking morsel.
With a sound that sounded like a man busily slurping soup, Caliban's mouth expanded and took the Mermen headfirst into its bottomless gullet.
The whole spectacle took several agonising seconds; the Merman's maddening shrieks only ceased when it's flippers finally disappeared into the dark abyss that was Caliban's maw.
"Shaa! Shaa! Hiss!" Caliban turned towards the rest of the Mermen, it's lamprey's mouth hungry for more, its pink throat ready to launch a volley of barbed tongues that would retrieve more morsels for its insatiable hunger.
The remaining Mermen fled.
"Ha!" Gwen was physically exhausted but still raised her fist triumphantly. She turned to regard her allies, expecting a humorous quip or a witty observation. Instead, Gwen found them sick with horror and ripe with revulsion. The Rosebay juniors had retreated from Gwen as though she was a Mermen herself, forming a semi-circle around Gwen's party that unquestionably suggested they wanted no association with Gwen and her aberrant ilk.
Wordlessly, Gwen retracted the unspent mana from Caliban, watching it returned to its usual form. Ariel joined Caliban a moment later, performing figure-eights around her slim ankles.
"I don't think we'll ever get used to that." Yue scratched her nose as she caught the terrified expressions on the faces of the Rosebay Mages. "Cali is a fucking horror show all on its own. Does wonders to morale - on both sides."
"I don't mind the critter at all," Whetu retorted, sniggering. "Ai rather like the little feller. We could have used a few of em when the Mirmin landed in Tauranga."
Meanwhile, Elvia restored however much of Gwen's vital energy as she could, although it was only useful as a stop-gap measure. Gwen would need to eat and rest to make up for the drain on her body. Watching the colour return to Gwen's face, Elvia wondered how that other Void Mage who had assaulted them, Elizabeth, kept up her vitality. That woman had been pumping out spell after spell of mass destruction without so much as a breather.
"You guys right? Need to rest?" A Rosebay Prefect, a comely lass with auburn hair tied into a knotted ponytail, inquired carefully, keeping her distance from Gwen.
"We need to see Magister Ferris," Gwen informed her. "As soon as Magus Alesia has returned from dealing with the Kraken."
The auburn-haired Mage nodded at them and directed them away from the frontlines. Gwen withdrew her familiars and urged the others to follow. The group had been fighting for a solid half an hour. After the last exchange, Gwen, Yue, and Debora were now out of mana.
Whetu and Elvia, who had some mana remaining, elected to stay. There wasn't near enough Healers or Abjurers, and they couldn't afford to leave the Rosebay Mages fighting by themselves.
The trio retreated into the cathedral, where most of the older girls were now sheltered under the bishop's quarters, awaiting their turn to descend the narrow stairs that lead into the catacombs. The younger girls had gone first and were now waiting for teleportation in the safer confines of the old underground sanctuary.
As soon as the guards had cleared them, Gwen hasted back to find her Master guarded by several Maguses and Senior Mages, palely loitering upon a pew.
"He's getting weaker, healing spells and restorations both failed to improve his condition." One of the Tower Maguses' informed Gwen worriedly. "Do you know what he needs?"
Gwen shook her head sadly. Her Master needed his Golden Mead, though there was no helping it now.
Seated uncomfortably in the pew, Henry waved a hand weakly at his youngest apprentice, beckoning her to come closer. Sufina remained manifested beside him, but she was unresponsive and still, her body skinny and brittle; all the leaves upon her head withered and yellow.
"My Lord?" Gwen kept her supplication formalised as her apprenticeship was yet to be formalised.
"The… Grot…" Henry murmured a little breathlessly. "Inform— Irene, I need to return to the Grot, to gain control of the Tower..."
Gwen nodded and squeezed her Master's hand. The man seemed indomitable, to see him so diminished broke her heart.
"Where's Magister Ferris?" Gwen questioned one of the older Mages ticking off a chart as the Rosebay survivors shuffled into the underground. Much to her dismay, she noted that with every dozen or so names, a red strike indicating a fallen Mage.
"She's by the Atrium, directing the evacuation," came the concerned reply.
The double-doors violently swung open. Alesia entered in her Efreet form, making a bee-line for Ferris. In the dimness, Alesia's Efreet-body lit up the cathedral. The younger Mages below made a circular space for her as her halo of firefly embers landed with an intrusive hiss, scorching the scarlet carpet below.
"The Kraken's gone," Alesia said flatly with the same tone as one having done the dishes.
A cheer broke out in the cathedral, performed with conservative enthusiasm. The girls knew that although their immediate danger was resolved, Rosebay wasn't out of the rip just yet.
Alesia gave Ferris a quick rundown of the situation outside.
Once the Kraken was gone, the Mermen had lost their advantage. Without endless swarms of reinforcements, they would only serve as seafood for the Mages.
The flames that torched Alesia began to dim, transforming from white-hot to blue, then finally to a spluttering ochre.
Gwen materialised a robe in her hands and approached Alesia, who expectantly snuffed out her Efreet form, exposing her pale, trembling body. Her sister-in-craft was wounded in several places, bleeding profusely from a cut to her right shoulder and thigh. A developing bruise covered her right lumbar, extending from her navel all the way to her breast and shoulder.
The gathering of neophytes were both awed with gratitude and stunned by her injury. Alesia was none other than the hero of the Coral Sea War, the one and the only Scarlet Sorceress, to see her so bettered in the flesh made them all the more guilty for their incompetence.
"You're hurt!" Gwen intoned worriedly, materialising a healing potion she had received from Alesia prior.
Alesia took the robe from Gwen and wrapped it around her body nonchalantly. She tore off the injector's tip with her teeth and slammed it into her thighs, shuddering as the rapid healing restored her broken flesh.
"Here, got a souvenir for you."
Her sister-in-craft made a flicking motion with her wrist. A dozen heads appeared at Ferris's footsteps, ranging from a long-nosed swordfish to the bulbous, carapaced head of a Mahi-mahi. The largest of the spoils was an octopus-like creature that was now entirely deformed. From the grey matter oozing from its burst eye-sockets, one could comprehend that the beast must have been incredibly intelligent while it was alive.
"That's their Arch-Priest." Alesia nodded at Ferris. "The Kraken's half cooked and floating belly up in the bay. We should be good for our retreat."
Magister Irene Ferris did not allow the shock of her mind to register on her face. Though her Divination empowered intuition had told her that Alesia de Botton was fully capable of taking down a battalion of Mermen mounted on a Siege Kraken, the reality remained awe-inspiring. No wonder the old men in the Tower lowered their voices when speaking of the sorceress. No wonder Walken decided to take the slap in the face when de Botton burned down his library. Alesia may not be able to control utility magic, create powerful items, nor participate in advanced theoretical research; but the woman was a walking engine of mass destruction.
"How's Master Henry?" Ferris asked. If there was a way to salvage their crisis, it was to have Henry re-assume control of the Tower and reactivate the Message network by disabling the jamming ritual.
"He is weakened and needs to return to the Grot," it was Gwen who replied. Beside her, Alesia materialised a skin-hugging combat suit and quickly dressed, heedless of the hundred or so eyes watching her. "Only by returning Master Kilroy to the Tower's Grot can we hope to regain control of the Tower."
"Is he lucid at the moment?"
"A little, but he is far from hale."
"This is troubling, what solutions did Master Kilroy offer for returning to the Tower in the first place?"
"That we aid you and your students, Magister," Gwen said expertly. "And when the school is safe, we may seek passage together into the Tower via your unique key."
Ferris knitted her brows.
"Would the Tower even be safe? If the Disruptor wasn't on, I could probably tell you more, but all the information we have on hand suggests Walken has taken over the core systems. I doubt he would give it up peacefully."
"Then this Walken of yours is a traitor," Alesia said distastefully, her voice full of disdain. "If and when we enter the tower, we'll have to take care of him."
"Eric, a traitor?" Ferris momentarily lost her composure, but couldn't refute the reality that her precious academy was now suffering.
"I suppose the circumstances speak for themselves." She observed dryly. "Give me a moment."
Gwen and Alesia waited on Ferris while the battle outside began to reach its final stages. By now, the Mages should be pushing the Mermen over the cliff's edge and back into the ocean.
Their temporary lull was disrupted by a Senior Mage who hurriedly entered the cathedral and sought Ferris' attention.
"Yes, Sandra?" Ferris turned her attention to the panting Mage.
"Mistress, the Mermen are in full retreat - for now. We don't know if there are more coming, the Scrying Stations and Divi-Towers are still down."
"I see. Thank you, Sandra, please organise a headcount. Recover the bodies of the fallen, if you are able."
The girls watched Sandra retreat. Two guards opened the giant double doors of the cathedral, and the Mage disappeared between the light-flooded gap.
"This is not going to end unless we recover the Tower," Alesia persisted. "Look around you, Irene, is this where you want to hole up and wait until reinforcements show up? Where would they even come from? New Zealand? Brisbane? We don't even know if those cities are safe themselves. How likely do you think they would bring their Tower to recover ours?"
Alesia's voice echoed across the cathedral, amplified by the acoustics of its vaulted architecture.
Irene Ferris regarded her surroundings. Wounded Mages, both girls from the school and its staff, leaned against pews, lying down with white faces twisted in agony. The younger girls had pallors pale as sheets, watching their surroundings with terrified, confused eyes. Near the dais, a few dozen girls were fervently praying below a benevolent statue of Mother Mary, begging her to deliver them from this crisis.
Ferris had said that she wanted a moment to think, but she was genuinely lost for thought. She was not a Magister that rose to prominence due to accolades achieved through the two conflicts in the 70s and the 80s. She was the newer breed of geniuses who rose to distinction through their contribution to the study of Spellcraft, and their ability to provide essential goods and services. The warmongers jokingly called Magisters like Ferris the 'cherry' Magisters, a derogative term that denigrated their rightful place as equals.
Ferris had always thought those old fools idiotic and useless, out of date and senile. Now she understood that in the face of real danger, she was honestly of little use. She couldn't strategise a theatre of War; she couldn't organise her Mages into flight teams for combat formations. If Alesia de Botton had not been here, could they have taken out the Kraken? Ferris shuddered at the thought, thinking of the price they would have had to pay to achieve the same result.
If Lin was here, or perhaps Gilford from the Cairns Tower, they could be riding out with Alesia and carving out a path of blood all the way from here to the CBD. With the Divination jammer active, Ferris felt embarrassingly useless.
But she was a Magister nonetheless. Irene Ferris couldn't show her vulnerable face to the proteges of her great rival.
With a hardened heart, Ferris swallowed the feeling of insecurity and guilt. She took a moment to look around the century-old cathedral, seeking solace in the stained-glass figures of the saints mounted around her.
What was the right thing to do here? Should she participate in their haphazard, foolhardy plan?
Irene Ferris received no answers from a higher power.
As a Diviner, Ferris knew better than most that men were responsible for their own choices. Fate was an insurmountable tree, but the branches of fortune do not grow without careful watering and meticulous pruning. The fruit it bore only ripened for those who were willing to risk scaling its precarious height.
A commotion rippled across the cathedral's interior while Irene pondered her next move. She looked up from her thoughts to see Henry, supported carefully by Whetu, slowly tottering towards them.
"My Lord! You need to rest!" Both Gwen and Alesia immediately left Irene and went to Henry, helping him find a space between the body-ridden pews.
"Magister Ferris, my protege is right. I am afraid there is no more recourse. We must find a way to recover the Tower." Henry was a little restored by his rest but remained pale and weary.
"What more can you tell me?" Irene probed the old Magister.
Henry delivered a quick synopsis of Elizabeth's agenda, explaining that though her ultimate goal is unknowable, the discredit of the Tower system and the integration of Mage and NoM populations were high on their assailant's list objectives.
Should Sydney continue to besieged, the inevitable outcome is significant casualties for Mages, and catastrophic casualties for any NoM areas penetrated by the Mermen.
Henry then lapsed into a fit of coughing, but there was nothing to be done. The weakened Sufina could not provide her Master with the Golden Mead extracted from her life force. The group turned to regard Ferris, awaiting her final decision warily.
Ferris measured the circumstances before her and knew that what Henry suggested was the best outcome. Without the Tower, they could not repel the Mermen. Without repelling the Mermen, they could not rebuild the Shield Barrier. Without the Barrier, there would be no end to this conflict. The Mermen could afford to lose a hundred thousand, a million merfolk. Sydney could not. The city was four million souls, of which a few hundred thousand were Mages.
Then again, Henry and Irene were in opposing factions. The old man had more than once obstructed their Grey Market operations, arrested her men, and uprooted the seedlings she had sown. Could she trust that she was doing the right thing here and not merely playing into yet another of Henry's long cons?
Ferris compulsively hated making uninformed decisions, especially without any aid from Augury or Divination. What if Walken was taking the opportunity to act on behalf of the Grey faction.
"What of your Paladin, Mr Shultz?" Ferris asked carefully. "Should he not be the one responsible for putting down insurrections?"
"Gunther should be in the Tower when it all went down," Alesia interjected on her Master's behalf. "If he is not currently fighting for his life or defending the city..."
Alesia paused. She didn't want to state the obvious; saying it made it all so real.
As if on cue, a thunderous cacophony fulminated, so loud as to be heard within the confines of the cathedral's interior. All other sound was drowned out as a riptide of colliding mana rolled across the heavens.
The double doors tore open, a group of girl Mages stumbled into the atrium with eyes lit with wonder.
Ferris waited until they were closer before allowing them to speak.
"It was incredible! The Leviathan was pushing towards the city centre and then suddenly, a giant beam of light blasted through the sky and took its head clean off!"
The girl was breathless with excitement, trying to articulate the spectacle with both hands.
"The water in the bay area is flooding back! I don't think the Leviathan can make it into the city itself!"
A wary cheer rose up from those recovering in the cathedral.
"That's Gunther for you," Henry said weakly, his expression bursting with pride.
"Well, there are still over ten-thousand Mermen in that Leviathan," Alesia interrupted the 'good news' that the girl had brought. "Not to mention Wave Riders, Dragon Turtles, and countless critters hidden in the water itself. We need you to make a call right now, Magister, else I am heading to the frontlines to meet up with Gunther."
Ferris gritted her teeth and surveyed the hopeful eyes of those around her. Even though the incursion had just been blunted, there would be no rest, no cessation to the conflict until the Mermen are pushed back. The only possibility of achieving that goal in its entirety was to regain control of the Tower.
"If we enter the Tower, you are confident you can handle Walken?" Ferris questioned with lips that were dry with anxiety.
"Yes," Alesia replied without blinking. "His element is borrowed Lightning, even with his expertise in Transmutation and Conjuration or what not, he shouldn't be a problem."
"What about his men?"
"Gwen and her team should be able to handle the occasional Acolyte. If you are willing to lend us a hand, it will make our assault doubly sure."
Ferris turned to face her followers, the progenies of Rosebay Private Girls Academy. There were a few Maguses with them still, a dozen Senior Mages.
"We are at your command!" The gathering knelt and placed a hand upon the rose-crest sewn into their uniforms, their shrill feminine voices firm with commitment. Gwen noted with some comfort that Julia and her team were amongst them.
Ferris turned back to Alesia, standing protectively over Henry, who was resting on the pew.
"What happens when we teleport in?" Ferris asked.
"We make for the Grot and restore Lord Kilroy. Killing all who impede us. So long as the Master of the Tower recovers, we should be able to wrest back control of the entire system. If we can best Walken, Lord Kilroy can supersede any commands given by Walken and clear out his goons in a single stroke."
Yet, despite Alesia's urging, Ferris still felt indecisive. She knew that each minute Fersheris persisted in her deliberation was a minute in which Mermen would rampage through the city, measured in human lives.
"Magister Ferris, if I may have a but a moment to speak?" it was Gwen who spoke.
"You may," Ferris gave her permission and considered the Eurasian girl in front of her. The Void Mageling had limitless potential, and Ferris wanted to see that potential remain unburied and carefully developed. After all, it was the highest directive of the Tower to ensure that the best bloodlines are preserved. An arbitrator with a colder heart would suggest that perhaps, only a dozen casters in Rosebay, possessing unmatched talent, truly needed to survive the city's ordeal. Everything else could be rebuilt, even the school itself could be restored within a generation, but if these young talents were lost, then catastrophe would befall the Mageocracy.
Gwen began to speak.
"Ma'am… I understand your pain and your indecision." Her voice took on that sonorous timbre beyond her childish face.
"I do not doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out to achieve. None of us, Divination or otherwise, can foresee precisely what course we will take or what casualties we may incur. There may be sacrifice ahead, ones in which both our tenacity and our will, will be tested."
"BUT... Magister Ferris... the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing."
Ferris felt her chest constrict.
"As Mages, we have all chosen a Path, and my Path is the way of Militant Pacifism, to use everything in my power to ensure that there is peace. I care not for Factions. I care not about profit or prestige; I simply want our world to be safe, for my friends, and for my benefactor."
The Diviner nodded, lost for words.
"Ma'am, the cost of freedom is always high, but us Mages have always paid it. I may only be a junior Mage, not even a sanctioned Magus, but there is one Path I shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or inaction. Ma'am, I implore you. I don't know if what we're doing is right. But the greatest wrong— would be doing nothing."
When Gwen had finished speaking, the entire cathedral held its breath, fascinated with violent emotions that they had not known they possessed before Gwen's soul-searching words struck them to their very core.
Ferris found herself likewise speechless. She felt the convergence of guilt and courage, hope and despair, action and inaction all-encompassing her mind at once, pushing her to give Gwen her best.
Gwen Song! Ferris exalted. What a girl! A future Magister! Mayhap even a future Magi!
If Ferris were to help Henry and his proteges in this moment of crisis, they would forever owe her a boon which they were compelled to return. Even if Gwen were to betray Ferris' blessing, she would have a trump card with which she could demand a boon of gratitude from Henry Kilroy- such as a crucial vote on a polemic policy. As much as de Botton droned on about the need to do the right thing, Irene Ferris was first and foremost a pragmatist.
Suddenly, Irene Ferrise no longer felt that her lips were dry. Instead, they were wet with anticipation and expectation.
"Well." Ferris' once ambivalent face grew flushed with expectation. "What are we waiting for? It's time to take back the Tower."