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A note from Wutosama

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The battle within Sydney's urbanscape had now transformed from a defensive wall to a grand melee. Though the defenders had left tens of thousands of Mermen carcasses in the water before they reached the hastily Transmuted walls, the emergence of a dozen Dragon Turtles quickly changed the tide of the battle.

Though an Iron Golem was incredibly resilient against the breath attacks of the draconic turtles, the ones possessed by the Frontier Military were relics from the Coral Sea War. Unlike the state of the art Steel Legions used by the Americans, these were antiquated European designs that went back to the Second World War in the fifties. They remained highly potent and effective armaments; but lacked the multi-armed, herculean strength of the newer models.

As if sensing their weakness, the dozen or so Dragon Turtles that emerged from the sea lumbered toward different parts of the city, essentially splitting the Military's containment force and stretching their battle lines.

"Where's Gwen when you needed her the most," Gunther lamented. If his sister-in-craft could be here, she could have hastened the Golems by striking them with her lightning spells.

Gunther performed a tight corkscrew turn and made a low pass between two office buildings. One was already half shattered by the violent passage of a Dragon Turtle that had bested its Iron Golem counterpart. Its carcass though, lay not too far from the building itself, a hulking form three storeys tall, headless and limbless after it succumbed to a pyrrhic victory by the Frontier Militia.

Comparatively, the Tower Mages were performing their duties with minimal casualties. As Gunther flew by the shattered streets, sniping the wayward Mermen that appeared from broken shopfronts dragging civilians in cruelly barbed nets, he despairingly acknowledged the systematic failure of their collective defence network in the absence of its command centre.

"Help! Help! Oh, God! Someone help!"
"I'll boil you alive, you lobster bastard!"
"Arrrgh! Arrgh! My arm! It broke my arm!"

A pair of heavily armoured crustacean Mermen were dragging a bountiful harvest of human prisoners behind them, heading back awards the ocean. With a few water-breathing enchantments from a Sea-Priest, the prisoners could be made suitable for labour or nourishment. Their prisoners, six humans whose silhouettes were indistinct in the cumbersome net, was threatening, begging, and crying for the Mermen to release them. As a Paladin, the sight brought a terrible ire to Gunther's chest. These brazen bastards! They were already looting when the battle was hardly over!

With a wave of his hand, two beams took the Mermen in the torso, severing them from chest to groin. A third blast severed the net, allowing the trapped prisoners within to struggle free.

As the prisoners crawled from their previous confinement, they looked for their saviour, expecting a Magus to alight from the heavens and exchange a few gloating words of expected gratitude. They were left wanting, however, for the street remained deserted save for an avenue of smoking Mermen carcasses.

Having cleared the area, Gunther was already a block away and accelerating towards the next checkpoint, where a flight of Tower Mages were fighting for their lives.

His Radiant Aura transformed into a streak of light as he powered through the Quay and towards the CBD, mindful of the aberrantly quiet Tower floating above, an apathetic God without a sliver of care for its children suffering below.

At Alesia's behest, Irene assembled a Rosebay team of Elite Mages, two Magus and Three Senior Mages, including her star pupil Julia. They had an Abjurer-Enchanter, a Transmuter-Evoker, and three others covering the tasks of Healing, Transmutation, and Conjuration.

Blackwattle's fire team was Gwen and her companions, consisting of Yue, Whetu, Debora, and Elvia, as well as Alesia herself. Their barely lucid Master, Henry Kilroy, was snugly bundled and strapped to Whetu, who promised to keep the Magister safe so long as he had breath enough for one more Shield.

Alesia once again demonstrated the incredible resilience of one who had survived two major conflicts, draining a dozen HDMs in the time it took Gwen to mediate and restore half of her own. Their time for rest proved fleeting, however, and the teams had to make do with mana injectors and quick meditations.

With Ferris compliantly giving up her Teleportation glyph, Paul, the translocation specialist, synchronised the Long-Range Teleportation Platform underneath the Cathedral to the Mid-Tower base station.

"If the Tower is still in contingency mode, the Spirit Core shouldn't be announcing your arrival. However, the teleportations circles are going to be lit like Christmas the moment I activate the glyph, so expect to materialise in a hot-zone."

"That's fine, Paul. Can we teleport in 'hot'?"

A look of cunning comprehension exchanged between the two long-time teammates.

Paul smirked. "Just give me a few more minutes, I'll have the portal stabilised in no time."

While they waited, Alesia materialised an armoured robe that intensely radiated an aura of Enchantment so luxuriant as to create a pale glow visible to the unenchanted, naked eye.

"Is that…" Ferris' eyes opened just a little wider.

"Not the real deal, no," Alesia explained, throwing off her top and struggling out of her pants. She uttered a command word, and the tunic lifted into the air, slipping over her head. "It's a replica that I acquired from London after doing a few favours for the Cambridge Tower."

Once attired, the robe quickly shrank to accommodate Alesia's figure. It's sides split to offer more significant mobility, while the armoured sections mounted her arms and shoulders, conforming to her breasts. Below, skirt section bellowed out impressively in a flowing stream of crimson chiffon.

"What is it that you're wearing?" Gwen asked Alesia out of curiosity.

"A replicated Robe of the Arch-Mage," Whetu interjected with bright eyes full of wonder. "Henry has a set as well; even the replicas are priceless."

"What does it do?" Yue asked. She had never seen tier 1 Magical Items before. They were exceedingly rare in the 'countryside' that is Frontier Cities.

Alesia stretched herself out, her taut figure enhanced by the second skin of the form-fitting armoured robe.

"Permanent Resist Elements, Protection from Projectiles and Melee Damage," Alesia intoned proudly.

"The real one possesses the additional property of greatly increasing your Elemental affinity," she added sagely, twirling to show the girls the cut and make of the rare robe.

The two teams marvelled at Alesia's unique garb, using the opportunity to distract themselves from the anxious prickle of their fraying nerves. Even Irene joined in, speaking long and meticulously about the creation of the original Arch-Magi robe by the Mage Morden.

Beside them, Paul had finished changing the last of the Teleportation glyphs.

"This is a one-way trip. I hope you're all ready."

"Remember to stay in formation," Ferris informed her team. Reminding herself that the Mages in the Tower were still members of her Faction, she added a hopeful, 'Don't fire until fired upon,' which made Alesia raise a critical brow.

Though the girls were breathless with nervous anticipation; Alesia seemed entirely in her element.

"Just get us in, and we'll get the Tower back, no trouble," she confided the assemblage with absolute confidence. "Failure won't be a problem. It's death or glory, do or die."

Ferris shot Alesia a wilting look that suggested otherwise.

Both teams were buffed and warded, blessed and shielded. Irene even front-loaded each of the offensive casters with a True Strike. They were as ready as they were ever going to be.

"I am beginning the Invisibility Shield," Ferris intoned. As she initiated the chant, the air surrounding the two teams shimmered.

"Alright," Paul began. The platform began to glow with the signature quick-silver mana of Conjuration. "Three— Two— One—"

On the count of 'Two', Alesia began an invocation.

"Empowered Delayed-Blast Fireball!"

Ferris looked up with an expression of shock and dismay.

"What ar..."

The Teleportation Circle enveloped them.

Jules had been receiving a lecture from Lord Gunther Shultz, Paladin of the Tower, when a siren rang out throughout the Tower.

"NOW ENTERING QUARANTINE MODE."

He was as shocked as anyone when the Tower furthermore began to teleport 'dissidents' from its interior, leaving behind only himself and three others in the cohort of new Acolytes.

When the madcap red light of the Tower's defensive system died, a command in the familiar voice of his Grandmaster, Magister Walken, vocalised throughout the public announcement glyphs.

"This is Magister Walken— all members of the Grey Faction are to gather at the atrium for debriefing at thirteen-fifteen. Any members who fail to comply will be discharged from the Tower."

Still dazed with confusion, Jules and the others made their way hastily to the atrium. There, a hundred or so Mages, mostly juniors, had already gathered.

When enough of them had filled the chamber, the austere figure of Magister Walken dressed in a dazzling set of armoured combat robes appeared at the command dais.

The Magister and Master of the Grey Market was a quiet man with intense dark eyes. His face would have been handsome once, though now it was gaunt. Now, the Magister's presence was more or less 'forgettable'. However, it was precisely such an unmemorable figure, together with the support of his two peers, Lin and Ferris, who created the most extensive "unofficial"' trading emporium in Oceania. Standing at a mere five-foot-nine, the once unassuming Magister was now radiating an aura of command, his loosely styled dark hair cut with streaks of silver. Both of his hands were a spectacle of rare, exotic rings, while around his head rotated no less than six Ioun Stones. He was the very vision of an Archmage, inspiring his followers to let loose raptured cheers of jubilation.
Jules wasn't the sycophantic kind, but peer pressure was an infectious drug.

Above him, the Magister began to speak of dire tidings.

"Factioners of the Grey Market, I come as the bringer of terrible news. As of twenty minutes ago, we are in a state of War. The Mermen incursion which has been held back by the Tower is once again upon us. It is now our solemn duty to keep the Tower safe from enemy hands."

The illusion-empowered Glyphs built into the atrium began to construct a real-time vision of the scene below— a dozen shielding stations in smoking ruin, an armada of Mermen riding for the city.

Ragged cries of dismay broke out among the crowd below. Some urged immediate action, while others questioned what the hell the Tower was doing at a time like this. Where was Gunther Shultz? Its Knight Protector? Where was the Master of the Tower?

"I know what you are thinking. Why are we attacked? Why is the Tower disabled? Why are Message spells jammed?"

Walken paused, his tri-colon to resonating across the almost empty hall that should be housing a thousand battle-ready Mages.

"We are not in the midst of combat - because we have been betrayed! More so, the traitor is Henry himself! The Master of the Tower is not as he seems!"

The crowd gasped.

"Behold what Kilroy's selfish actions have wrought upon us!"

A series of images created through magical glamour flickered to life. The hyperrealistic vision showed a woman with skin as white as snow, massacring what appeared to be a coastal military base with dark tendrils of Void.

The crowd gasped and gagged at sight. The slaughter was utterly indiscriminate: men, women, mermen, NoMs and Mages, none escaped her life-seeking lamprey tentacles.

"That's... that's Noose Heads!" someone cried out within the crowd.

All present had heard of the Massacre at Noose Heads. It was before the creation of the Tower— a place where humanity had lost over four hundred promising acolytes to an ambush by the Mermen. But the cause for the invasion and the disappearance of the Mages remained unresolved. Jules furrowed his brows. If so, why were they been shown this now?

The second set of images showed a group of Mages piling what appeared to be another group of casters, tied and gagged, into iron cages. The montage progressed until the vision became that of a dark warehouse filled with bloodstained hospital beds where Mages, presumably captured prisoners, were being dissected for their organs. Overseeing the operation was yet again, an ageless young woman with pure white skin and dark hair.

An angry murmur spread throughout the crowd. The mood changed from confusion and question to outright resentment and hostility.

"It is with dire danger to himself that a friend and companion of our Faction was able to expose these nefarious operations. The heart of all this horror and misery lies in this woman, the very same responsible for the massacred youth at Noosa Heads."

A projection materialised, a photo of Elizabeth, looking older, more worn and travelled. The lumen-recording was an official portrait taken from the Tower's records.

A few of the senior Mages in the crowd gasped.

"That's… that's Elizabeth Winsted Sobel! She's the war hero!"
"What? The Goddess of the Coral Sea Conflict?"
"The very same!"
"I've seen her on the propaganda recordings."
"Impossible!"
"She's dead, right?"
"Is she… undead?"
"That witch!"
"Those poor kids..."
"Those poor sobs getting gutted!"
Walken matched a few of the images from the previous sets with the lumen-recording of Elizabeth, drawing gasps from the room. Jules felt physically assailed by conspiracy. It was possible to fabricate the whole thing, of course, illusions can be crafted and created by meticulous Illusionists, but the crowd saw no reason why their patron and Master would go to such lengths to deceive them. After all, Walken had brought great boons to the Tower via the Grey Market. He was well known as a generous Magister, dependable and protective of his acolytes.

Satisfied that the crowd was sufficiently incensed, Walken continued.

"At first, I too doubted my findings. How could a war hero become such a virulent plague upon our society?" Another image appeared, this time of Henry and Elizabeth in the setting of a family portrait.

"Furthermore, as some of you may know, Master Kilroy and Elizabeth Sobel are husband and wife. Why would the Master of Oceania betray his people, the same Mages he pledged to protect? For love, perhaps, or maybe a darker purpose?"

The image flickered again, this time of Elizabeth in the full fury of combat, swirling with motes of malignant darkness made the room flicker ominously. The illusionary projection was lifelike and recorded candidly, giving the gathering a taste of what it was like to face Elizabeth in combat.

"SOBEL is a Void Mage! A caster in command of the forbidden element! A step away from Necromancy!" Walken announced.

Another vision, this time a candid shot of Elizabeth draining the life from another Mage, a dozen others already dry husks beside her swirling, darkling form.

"That's Victor's team!" Another voice cried out from the crowd. "They disappeared two years ago! I got told that Saurians ambushed his party!"

Jules felt his own heart pounding uncontrollably. The revelations they received were far too shocking and horrifying to be accounted for logically. The Master of the Tower's wife was a murderer, a traitor, and now she was also a Void Mage? It was earth-shattering news!

Furthermore, the woman was deceased! Ancient history! There was something strange and illogical about it all, but Jules couldn't question the Master, not when the crowd was spitting venom.

Walken continued to speak, collapsing the image with a wave of his hand.
"I too, had thought myself mistaken. There must be some explanation for all this. In the months that followed, I shadowed Magister Kilroy and his operations— but thankfully uncovered nothing. I was glad; I was delighted that our Master was innocent, that this may not be his wife, that this could be a look-alike; a doppelgänger."

"Yet, as some of you know, Master Henry had recently acquired a new protege."

The younger men nodded to themselves, thinking of the Lightning Sorceress, Gwen Song. The lovely, lithe young girl had been a regular feature of the Tower in the last few months. She had conversed with them and shared friendly chit-chats. Many of them had designs on the girl, doing small favours for her in the hopes of catching her attention.

"I regret to inform you that she too, is a Void Mage."

Another illusion appeared, this time projecting the epic combat between a group of girls and a giant spider in some salt mine. The vision seemed to be from the perspective of one of the participants, a Transmuter. The gathered watched as she summoned sand pillars to halt the speed of the spider-creature, but was too inexperienced to provide adequate cover for her allies. As the girls fought, they saw Gwen shoot off lightning bolts that cascaded harmlessly from the creature's salt-studded armour. The spider then burst through the pillars and lunged straight for the girls, making several of the inexperienced observers stagger backwards at the hyper-reality of the illusion.

Then without warning, the spider dropped— a horrid looking parasite, half worm, half lamprey, carapace in darkness and wet with ichor, burst from the spider's thorax.

'Shaa! Shaa!" The disgusting, malignant thing cried out, its slimy, putrid body wet with strange fluids from the interior of the sand-spider.
The vision ceased.

A few of the watchers turned and hurled, triggering a wave of gags.

Walken waited, watching the crowd.

"Still, I thought my friend, Henry Kilroy, may yet be uninvolved - until a dutiful agent delivered the terrible truth to my hand."

Another illusion appeared, this time, the vision showed an office. Gwen Song was there, as well as an older blonde woman. Henry and his Familiar sat on a seat by themselves. The crowd murmured when they saw Gunther Shultz, the Paladin of the Tower, among that secret meeting. They were all listening intently to a shadowy figure deliver a revelatory address. Behind the shadow was a stone-faced Mage sitting behind a desk, looking drained and hollow.

"Ain't that Mark Chandler!" A voice pointed out.
"From the Black Cat Agency?"
"The very same!"
"Didn't he disappear last year? The Agency shut down!"
"Jesus, what the hell is happening?"
Within the vision, the gathering of Mages was watching the shadowy form of a girl, her ethereal body writhing in agony, her face a mask of malice with a palpable hatred for the living.

"Jane…" in the vision, Mark began to speak. "Jane, we don't have much time… tell them how you died."

"Died… I died…" The shadowy form of 'Jane' mouthed in her necromantic guise, her face indistinct. Suddenly, the ghost cried out, a guttural, banshee's screech that went on and on, sending slivers of ice down the spines of the observers. "Murdered... I was murdered!"

"No! Necromancy!? In Sydney?"
"Unforgivable!"

An explosion of virulent emotions erupted. Even Jules felt caught up in the intense moment, finding himself rising his fists willingly and shouting out angry slurs. Necromancy! Had the world not suffered enough under its yoke?! Who were these that dared bring Necromancy back to these purified lands of Oceania? Just because they were the Masters of the Tower, they thought they could get away with such a crime against humanity?

The image changed and shifted.

They watched the shared vision of the ghostly girl's demise, of Elizabeth's inhuman act. Of Jane's final moments in Noosa.

"Jesus…"
"Oh, Gods…"
"That poor girl..."
The crowd momentarily forgot their anger when the dark sun blossomed over Noosa Heads. When the ghost thankfully perished, they saw Mark Chandler denounce the gathering, shouting accusations in turn at Henry, then at Gwen, becoming excited and agitated with each passing second.

"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 abruptly, Gunther Shultz moved from where he stood and assaulted Mark Chandler. Without even incanting a spell, Gunther had reached across space between them, caught Mark by the hair, and slammed his face against the stout oaken table. Mark's limp body then fell to the floor like a sack of slack potatoes.

The vision ended with Gunther teleporting away with Mark. The perspective of the informant ended with Henry and Gwen alone in the room.

"Do you now understand the stakes?" Walken spoke to the crowd slowly, biting each syllable.

"Henry Kilroy - Elizabeth Sobel - Gwen Song, they are all vipers of the same pit. They are working together to impair our very society for their benefit! A deathless Magister that drew life from his Dryad; a deathless Void Mage that stole life from others! Furthermore! A new apprentice of both Lightning and the Void element! A serpent in the egg, which when hatched, shall be more poisonous than both Henry and his wife!"

"Not only that! The Paladin of the Tower, Gunther Shultz, in cahoots! A dog that traffics with wolves!" Walken cried out bitterly.

"We are nothing but food to this family of life-sucking vampires, livestock and chattel! We exist only to feed their hunger for power, to develop their own forsaken magics. They may not behave like lions in public, but to them, we are boars!"

The crowd silent, then inevitably, their raging, pend up emotions exploded into a fitful clamour.

"Down with Kilroy!"
"Down with Shultz!"
"Save the Tower! Save Sydney!"
Walken furiously struck the dais to steer the violent emotions of the crowd.

"We are now in a moment of crisis. I did not wish to put my contingency plan into effect. However, when Watson Bay Shielding Station became disabled earlier, it became clear that whatever Elizabeth and Henry had planned was coming to fruition. Therefore, in his absence, I took the opportunity to assume control of the Tower's core systems."

He once again engaged the real-time vision of the scene below: a Leviathan, multiple Krakens, an armada of Mermen roving into the city.
Cries of horror and frustration erupted from the Mages below him. They had family down there! Friends and allies!

"I fear the Tower will not be joining the defence of the city. I have already disabled long-range communication to prevent any further complications." Walken said grimly. "I cannot risk the Tower, the most powerful instrument we possess, falling into the hands of Henry Kilroy again. Already, I have sent out Messages explaining our circumstances and requesting immediate aid from Melbourne and Brisbane. With any luck, they should be here to aid us in cleansing the city. As well as arresting Kilroy and his ilk."

Jules felt his breath catching in his chest. He wanted to believe. Indeed, those around seemed to accept Walken without question. However, there were so many aspects of Walken's narrative that seemed at odds.
Above upon the dais, Walken was now confidently in command.

"While Gunther and Kilroy occupied themselves with the invasion, we must keep the Tower safe. As such, us Greys will assume guard duty until either of the other two Towers arrive, bringing with them the blessings of Magister Lin or Magister Luther. Do you understand?"

A smattering of 'Yessir' resounded from the uncertain crowd, more preoccupied with the dire circumstances facing their families.

"You are not compelled to stay if you are not with us. If you wish to abandon the Tower to Void Mages and Vampires - I can teleport you out right now, safely deposited inland." The crowd considered their options while Walken persisted in his rhetoric. "Friends, students, compatriots! We cannot lose this war! Sydney must survive even if we do not!"

Walken raised his voice resolutely.

"YESSIR!" The crowd chorused back.

Jules unwittingly followed suit. His mind a confused muddle of conflicting feelings against the actualities of his position. A second later, the ranking Mages began to give them orders, but Jules was too preoccupied to comprehend their hastily given commands.

There was so much that didn't make sense to him. Why would someone who is so intimately known to Magister Kilroy betray him? How authentic were the lumen-recorded illusions? Furthermore, why would the Paladin of the Tower, numbered as one of the highest authorities in the Tower, betray the institution itself? Why was Master Walken privy to so many of Kilroy's secrets, and why was it all coming out without consulting any of the other Magisters? Afterall, Magister Ferris and Magister Lin were both members of the Grey Faction, all they had to do to remove Kilroy was convince three more Magisters out of the ten. With the evidence Master Walken had demonstrated, it should prove no trouble.

Jules wanted answers to these pressing questions but lost to the momentum of the crowd. He shuffled from the room like a ghoul, unmindful of his steps as he bumped shoulders with others, who likewise alternated between fervent and perplexed.

"Hey Jules, we got the mid-section Teleportation stack." Frederick, his university alumni, tapped him on the shoulder. "How about this, huh? Lord Kilroy, a traitor and his wife a life-sucking Vampire, pretty rad if you ask me."

Jules nodded absentmindedly, masking his thoughts from his friend.

"I can't believe that sweet little thing is a Void Mage too. She was a sight for sore eyes. Did you know that I even offered to take her out once?"

"Yeah," Jules mumbled. "You tell it every other week."

"I am worried about my sis, you know. I am glad they live inland though, all the way south of the western suburbs. Sucks to be one of the coastal folks, hey? Where's your family located?"

"Canberra."

"Lucky," Frederic quipped, using the conversation to mask his growing anxiety. "Chin up, Jules, we got to hold the Tower until help arrives. I can't wait to see the vid-cast trials for this fiasco. Reckon they'll fill the Stasis Prison or just go straight for public execution?"

"Who knows?" Jules felt a shiver despite the controlled clime of the Tower's interior.

It took them a few rides on bisecting routes of levitation platforms to arrive at the mid-way Teleportation Chamber.

There were a dozen guards stationed at the Teleportation Circles, Jules included. The Evoker languishingly took up position in the dimness of the Tower's interior. Usually, the place was a hive of activity, each corridor illuminated by glowing sigils that mimicked daylight. Now, most of the passages were burning with a dull red, indicating that the Tower was in Quarantine mode.

To the acolyte's knowledge, of his Faction, only Magister Ferris was currently present in Sydney. Jules hoped that the wizened Diviner would make an appearance and answer some of his questions. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding, or mayhap the Magisters reach a compromise. There were Factions within the Tower, Jules understood that, but he'd hoped that in the face of racial extermination by the Mermen, only the "Faction" called humanity mattered.

Jules found a comfortable nook and sat, meditating to soothe out the turbulent mana stirred up by his emotions. Hopefully, whoever teleported through these circles could bring an invocation of True Seeing that would dispell the twisted illusions haunting their present reality.

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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