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A note from Wutosama

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Alesia's Delayed Blast Fireball enveloped the mid-Tower Teleportation Chamber a split second after her group materialised upon the platform. The damage was near-instantaneous; the sealed chamber simply lit up; there was a flash of quicksilver mana, then the world burned.

When Ferris and her party next appeared on the platform, the dizzying scent of scorched flesh and sizzling fat assaulted their nostrils.
No one had expected that a split-second into their quest, they would bear witnessed was the cold-blooded murder of a dozen members of the Grey Faction. Ferris did not doubt that she would have known at least one of the Mages, either as an associate or alumni. What if one of them had wanted to converse with her? What if they were unwitting participants of the conspiracy at hand? She felt assailed by guilt, but also glad that she couldn't recognise their charred miens. A few of the girls began to cry when one of the crispy cadavers convulsed, its involuntary struggle triggered by raw nerves still tethered to contracting flesh.

Ferris shook with indescribable fury as she turned toward the culprit, challenging the Scarlet Sorceress' cold, ultramarine eyes. Alesia de Botton looked as though she did something utterly inconsequential.

"To the Grot," Alesia announced. "We need to get Master Kilroy in there as soon as possible."

Ferris looked to Henry to see if the old Magister had anything to say about his bloodthirsty entourage. To her dismay, the attack dog's handler was inhaling and exhaling weakly, oblivious upon the Maori's back, blind to the world.

Gwen and her company likewise averted their eyes as they passed the victims, about a dozen in all. Only now did the blood began to seep out from the orifice of their charred, inanimate forms.

Ferris repressed her anger, choosing to keep her lips pursed. Bereft of her Divination, she wasn't sure what to expect after teleporting into the Tower. A standoff seemed the reasonable outcome, a confrontation with Walken's followers more than likely. What she had not expected was her immediate participation in the wholesale slaughter of Walken's acolytes. What would her ally think of them now? How could she face him and expect him to be rational after this?

"Nothing is getting between Lord Kilroy and that Grot," Gwen's sister-in-craft informed Ferris with eyes that were glazed over with single-minded determination, twinkling madly with suggestions of zealous ultraviolence.

The platform began to ascend.

"Alesia... Magus de Botton," Ferris spoke with as much diplomacy she could muster. "I ask that you refrain from taking so many lives. We need to preserve the life of every Mage we can if we wish to combat the Mermen and restore the Tower."

Alesia shook her head.

"With all due respect, Magister, they were attempting to ambush us. It was them or us - and I was faster, that was all there was to it."

Ferris held her gaze against Alesia's own. The two women said nothing more as the platform shot towards the Tower's zenith.

When they began to approach the entrance to the Grot, however, it was evident that the final chamber of the Tower was under guard.

"Halt!" A voice cried out before the platform even reached its destination. "Present yourselves! Hands in the air! Else we will disengage the platform's levitation!"

Ferris' pleading grey irises meet with Alesia's.

"I could have left you down there, but I give you the benefit of the doubt. Please, give me mine," Ferris implored. "Alesia. There has been enough death today."

From his vantage point, Alec Guerre dared to breathe a little when he saw the platform and its cargo of Mages raise their hands submissively. There was Alesia de Botton amongst them, the Void Mageling— Gwen Song, as well as Magister Ferris and what looked to be a comatose Magister Kilroy.
When the floating disc completed the final few meters of its journey, docking onto the remote platform housing the Grot with an audible click, Guerre exhaled in relief.

The two groups of Mages looked upon one another warily as Guerre fired off a Message spell via the Tower's intra-systems.

"Sir, I have Magister Ferris, Magus Alesia, and Gwen Song at the entrance of Kilroy's Grot. It looks like Kilroy is with them as well, but he looks incapacitated."

"Excellent, stall them while I gather the men. I'll be there very soon," Walken replied.

"Lord Ferris, Major de Botton, Ladies and Gents," the Magus addressed each of them in turn, eventually adding a respectful, "Grandmaster Kilroy."

"Magus Guerre, in the interests of all involved, please remove yourself from our path," Ferris intoned with a tone of command. "This is an emergency."

Guerre seemed unmoved by the Magister's command.

"I am afraid I cannot do that, Ma'am. Additionally, I regret to inform you that I must take Lord Kilroy, Major de Botton, and Gwen Song into custody."

"On what charge?" Ferris questioned, her eyes narrowing.

"On harbouring a mass murderer and a traitor who trafficks in Mage-kin, and on charges of harbouring Void Mages with dissident interests against the Tower and the city."

To Guerre's surprise, Ferris ignored his warning and persisted in dressing him down.

"Magus Guerre, I suggest you remove yourself at once, or else." To Guerre's eyes, Ferris appeared both annoyed and embarrassed that he had challenged her authority.

"I can't do that," Guerre rejected flatly, enclosing his hands in the form of a shielding incantation as he spoke. "Globe of Invulnerability!"

An invisible shield shimmered before the gate to the Grot, covering Guerre and his Mages.

The Abjurer Magus watched as Ferris flushed a deep scarlet. She must have thought her authority was sufficient, but Guerre was in no mind to follow her orders, not with the revelations that he had seen.

All of the Mages that remained in the Tower were loyal to Walken. Without her acolytes and supporter's presence in the Tower, the non-combatant Diviner was powerless.

Guerre watched the group squirm behind the magic-negating barrier. Soon, his superior would arrive, and that would be the end of these Void Mages.

The group watched as Guerre and his assemblage smugly accosted thin air, looking mightily pleased with their 'success'.

"See?" Ferris turned to Alesia triumphantly. "No need for more bloodshed. nothing like a good Grandeur."

"We'll see about that," Alesia replied ominously.

The group moved past the guards who smugly regarded the paralysed, indecisive illusions and made for the gate. Even as they passed the glamoured Mages, they seemed not to notice them. Unlike lower-tier magic, high-tier Illusions were incredibly immersive when employed under the right circumstances.

Whetu brought Henry forward. Gwen pressed her master's hand against the double-door as she had seen him do so many times before. There was a moment in which they held their breath, but the ironwood portal opened without incident.

Within the Grot, much had changed. With Sufina severely drained by the Void elementals, the Grot itself was now bog-like, damp and dark, more akin to a rotting rainforest than a verdant garden.

Alesia ushered the others into the sanctuary, led by Whetu carrying Henry. The instant they passed the barrier gate, the old Magister stirred into a semblance of consciousness.

"To the heart chamber... Gwen should know…"

When Ferris and her group sought to gain entry through the portal, Alesia lowered a hand to obstruct their passage.

"We'll hold the fort here," Alesia intoned stubbornly. "The pocket dimension can only hold so many people."

Ferris considered the cost of challenging Alesia's innocuous statement and found the prospects wanting. Had their role been reversed, she too would have barred Alesia from her Oracle room. The Magister knew well enough that within the Grot was the heart of Henry's domain. If she wished to remain their ally and benefit from the operation's success, then she mustn't challenge this particular threshold of their tenuous alliance.

"Fine, we stall them here."

Ferris could hold the Grandeur steady for a quarter of an hour; after that, they would likely have to deal with Walken's wrath.

"How long would it take to restore Kilroy?" Ferris inquired, her lips felt parched. She couldn't help feeling as though she had painted herself into a corner. Watching Alesia's hawkish gaze toward Guerre and his Mages, an uncomfortable alternative crossed her mind. Should the matter proceed toward violence, how would she commit herself? With her Illusionary abilities and Alesia's destructive potential, they could probably systematically silence every living soul within the Tower.

"How long do you propose? An hour? Longer?"

"As long as it takes." Alesia met Ferris' eyes sternly and began to renew her buffs. "As I said, its do or die."


Directed by Gwen, Whetu and the others followed into the heart of Kilroy's sanctuary until they reached a humongous Banyan. The thick, woven roots of the tree formed into a sheltered space hollowed out by the lifting timber. Above, thickly braided roots that hung as though a great beard.

With Whetu's aid, Gwen lifted the ragdoll body of her master and placed him within the heart of Sufina's Grot.

At first, nothing seemed to come to pass. The team watched with nerve-wracking agitation.

"Gwen, do you think..." Yue was the first to speak.

"No," Gwen replied sternly. "Patience, I can feel something here."

There was a sense of familiarity about the mana that seemed to surround them, embedded in the fleshy walls of the Banyan tree. Gwen thought of Sufina, of her Master, and something that would trigger a sense of recognition. The answer she found brought a smile to her lips. Gwen produced from her Storage Ring the gift she had received from Almudj and placed it upon Henry's person.

The scale grew warm in her hand and began to shed a scintillating light, painting the Grot with rainbow hues.

To no one's surprise, Debora left the chamber, attracting a discouraging snort from a critical Yue.

The next few minutes were agonising, though thankfully, Henry's complexion eventually changed from lily to peach, indicating a slow restoration of the old Magister's vitality.

When Henry's breathing returned to a regular cadence, the group collectively exhaled, finally drawing in fresh breaths.

"Well, we did it." Gwen brushed a stroke of loose hair from her Master's face.

"Thank Master Alesia and that Magister Ferris," Yue injected a hint of nervous mirth into the conversation. "I am surprised she pulled through."

"I hope he recovers soon," Elvia added, her face regaining its colour now that there was light at the end of this particular dark dungeon.

"Where's Debora?" Gwen asked, puzzled that a member of their team was so distant at a pivotal time like this.

"She's outside," replied Elvia, who had seen Debora leave. "You know, her 'allergy' with the scale."

"I don't mind her so much these days, but man, she's such a weirdo when it comes to these things," Yue wanted to take a dig at their xenophobic friend, but Debora's recent performance compelled her to bite her tongue. The Shire girl had worked hard and done well against the Mermen, defending the two Evokers expertly during the grand melee.

Just as Gwen felt at a loss for her friends' persistent distance, Debora ducked into the archway of the heart chamber.

"Guys, we got trouble." Her brown eyes were anxious with apprehension. "There's a lot of them out there."

Gwen turned to regard Henry, sensing that her Master was breathing easier with each passing moment. She could feel through Almudj's gift that Sufina's life-tree was revitalising.

The main thing now was to stall until Henry could recover. If her Master could regain even a fraction of his powers, they could resume control of the Tower and resolve their convoluted crisis.

Gwen touched Henry's wrinkled hands. Her master had given her so much. Now was the time to repay his kindness.

"This is not going to be easy," she began, but the stirring rhetoric wasn't necessary.

"We're with you."

"Let's do it!"

"To the bitter end! Though I hope it doesn't come to that."

Gwen felt her heart fill with rapture as they huddled.
Come hell or high water; she was ready.

When the group returned to the entrance of the Grot, Ferris was in a heated argument with a grey-haired Mage impressively attired in an enchanted robe, decked with swirling Ioun Stones.

"Eric, this is insane! Stand down at once! I can't believe you've set the whole city on fire for your little games! Just wait until the other Magisters hear of this! Lin won't stand for it!"

"I am insane?! You're the one who will be persecuted by the High Council! Kilroy has been a plague; he's been hiding Sobel for decades, there's nothing you can do to deny this fact! His wife is a mass-murderer, the reason for the Noosa Heads Massacre! Who do you think barters for the Mages she trafficks! She'd tied to this invasion, mark my words!"

"That may be! It doesn't excuse the fact that you have withheld the Tower from coming to the aid of the city! You disabled communication and ensured that hundreds of Mages, tens of thousands of NoMs who might have survived are now dead! We're not warmongers, Eric! You've taken this too far."

"You don't know what I have seen, Irene. Kilroy's hand is as bloody as they come! He's in cahoots with Sobel, you'll see. How could I let the Tower fall into the hands of the enemy?"

"Don't be such a fool, Eric. I was there when they fought! Why do you think Henry is in this state? If he was alive and well, how could the Mermen even penetrate the shields? You should know better to be blinded by your ambition! Even if Henry was a mass-murderer himself, it's up to the Tower to implicate him, not you, Eric! Not you!"

The two Magisters of the Grey Faction exchanged a few more barbed accusations before separating with reddened faces. When Walken saw Gwen's group emerge from the Grot, his complexion took on a darker shade.

"Irene, for God's sake, move aside!"

The Diviner bit her lower lip until it flushed a shade purple. She knew that her ally was strongly prejudiced against Kilroy. Whoever had clouded Walken's perspective of the truth knew well the man's inclination for grudges and conspiracy.

"I am sorry, old friend. I cannot allow this farce to go any further than it already has."

Beside Ferris, Alesia stared down at Walken coldly as if daring him to try her.

"I'd listen to Master Ferris if I was you," Alesia spat venomously. "This time, it's not going to be just your library that goes up in kindling."

"Silence, hellcat of Kilroy!" Walken snapped before turning to Ferris. "Irene, I don't want to hurt you, but you're forcing my hand!"

Gwen and the others watched the exchange behind the Grot's portal, mesmerised by the spectacle of Oceania's highest ranked Mages about to square off in a chamber that was no larger than a generous classroom. A single cataclysmic spell would collapse the room and decimate every living soul contained herein.

It was a curious dilemma.
Use low-tier spells, and they couldn't penetrate each other's defences.
Use high-tier spells, and they could tear the whole place apart.

Walken's gaze fell upon Gwen.

"There! Do you see her, Irene? There's the little Void vixen that Henry is raising. She'll be the death of us all, mark my words. A walking calamity!"

Gwen was as shocked as anyone that Walken, a Magister she had never seen before in her life, was addressing her so vehemently.

"I have seen her Void Magic, Eric. She is not as you describe."

"The Council will be the judge of that!" Walken spat smugly.

Gwen followed Walken's cold, dark eyes as the Magister's gaze surveyed each inch of her figure. The man's gaze was a scalpel trying to dig under her skin and uncover how she ticked. She'd felt the same gaze before, when she'd dealt with Mark Chandler - the man was hunting for secrets that he believed was buried deep somewhere within her. As a Magister, the pressure from the man's intent gaze as immense, appearing as though he was dissecting her piecemeal.

It was Alesia who moved between them and freed Gwen from the torturous attention.

"That's enough," she intoned coldly. "You want to bully someone, try me."
"Insolent wench!"

Motes of Transmutation and Conjuration erupted from Walken as the last ounce of his patience was spent. A portal opened beside him, battering the chamber with a terrific gust that forced Gwen's company to shield their eyes. Walken was summoning his familiar, a Couatl from the Elemental Plane of Air.

"A fancy snake isn't going to save you," Alesia opened up her mana channels, igniting the air surrounding her body, menacing the Magister recklessly. "Last chance, Walken."

"Globe of Invulnerability!" Ferris's Abjurer opened with a spell that negated offensive magic below Tier 5.

"Globe of Invulnerability!" Their opposing Abjurer responded in kind.

"Wall of Pounamu!" Whetu did his part, creating a series of barrier shields that ensured they couldn't be bull rushed. In the next moment, a flood of buffs engendered on both sides.
"Bless!"
"Resist Elements!"
"Shield of Faith!"
"Stone Skin!"
"Sanctuary!"
"Death Ward!"
"Aura of Life!"
"Wall of Stone!"

Chaos and anarchy erupted as protective spells of all types and elements flooded the room, dizzying even the most experienced of Diviners.

"Ergh—"

Gwen was a split second away from dropping a Flash Bang when she felt the premonition of something so terrible as to make her heart skip a beat. Beside her, Ferris seemed to have sensed the same thing. Alarmed, she looked toward the Master Diviner and saw Ferris' eyes widen in horror, her mouth moving to utter an indistinct warning.

"Gwen—"

Gwen gasped. She never heard the belated warning from Ferris. Every once of her consciousness was now focused upon the excruciating pain that promptly wracked her body.

"Arrgh! Who—" Her instinctual cry broke mid-utterance, her breath catching in her throat so violently that her torso convulsed. She felt motes of shifting sand crawl underneath her armoured robes; construct her arms, legs, seizing her neck in the manner of a choker. Concurrently, the convulsive panic pushed the air from her lungs, turning her scarlet with asphyxiation. An irresistible force bent her spine and held her in place, helpless.

The unexpected turn of events arrested the imminent mortal combat between the two parties.

"Debora!"

"Debbie?"

"Gwen! No!" The ignited air surrounding Alesia deflated. Alesia was staring wide-eyed at Gwen, held captive by Debora's sand Spirit. Even now Alesia's disbelieving eyes were incapable of comprehending that her sister-in-craft had been captured, betrayed and made hostage.

"Walken… you…" Ferris's face was blanched. Her gaze met the resolute eyes of the girl standing behind Gwen and shuddered. Debora was utterly impassive, showing no indication that she had just betrayed her closest friend, the girl she had professed to love and desire. Her expression was a mask of nothing, a tabula rasa devoid of emotions. When Gwen struggled, she tightened her spell, lifting Gwen from the ground.

"I can't believe you fell for that twice," Debora articulated her triumph. Her voice was strange, sounding as though she had borrowed the vocal cords.

"Good work! Ms Jones," From across the room, Walken congratulated the athletic Transmuter. "I knew that I could count on you!"

The gathered crowd looked from Debora toward Walken and back again.

"Debbie! No!" Elvia's utterance was a heartrending cry. How many times had they survived dangers together? How many nights had they trained, how many days and they spend in each other's company!? The girl had risked her life to defend them only a few hours ago!

"Sheet!" Whetu cursed. His dark face flushed, the symmetry of his facial tattoos outlined by his livid face.

"Debora, if you can even imagine surviving my wrath, you will let her go, right now," Alesia snarled, her the heat of quaking hellfire.

"Bring her to me," Walken commanded delightfully.

To the Magister's surprise, Debora did not hand Gwen over.
Instead, she stood unmoving, as soon as she exited the Grot.

"Now, now, like we agreed. I will protect you. You'll be a hero. I swear by my arcane soul." Walken's voice was seductive and resonant, full of soothing allure.

Upon hearing Walken's promise, Yue's face became so full of fury that she looked ready to ignite where she stood. Opening her mouth to speak, she delivered her diatribe without reserve.

"Debora, God help me if you don't let Gwen go right this minute. If you harm her, my life's sole purpose will revolve around ensuring that you suffer the greatest agony known to man or woman. Do you think you can make it as the Apprentice of this asshole? Think again, fucking bitch. Nothing is going to save you. You know what, even if you die before I am through, I am going to kill everyone you love. Your brothers, your sister, everyone you ever loved. You will rue the day you turned traitor. You can trust me on this. I swear by my arcane soul."

Yue's words were so chilling that even the two Magisters felt their spine tingle.

After that, the time grew dilated while the gathering anticipated Debora's next move. Walken persisted in imploring Debora to deliver Gwen to him while Alesia, Ferris, and the others waited for an opportunity to free Gwen from Debora's Sand Prison.

"Don't try anything, especially you." Debora caught Alesia's subtle channel of Transmutation magic. Alesia felt her brows knit in frustration, when had the girl become so perceptive? She was at best a lacklustre Transmuter with limited innate talent.

"Alesia," Ferris' voice bloomed beside her. She was using a line-of-sight variation of the Message spell. "Something is not right. My premonition senses are going haywire. That girl is stalling, and we must find out why. There is going to be great, imminent danger. My instincts are screaming for me to flee."

Alesia growled. What could be more dangerous than their present circumstances?

The Scarlet Sorceress' eyes measured every inch of Debora's form, searching for some clue as to what was sending Ferris's Divination into a frenzy. Alesia's gaze landed on a small, non-descript ring that Debora wore on her left hand.

A ring. A standard accessory common to Mages sparkled. There were many kinds of rings. Storage Rings were standard, followed by Tracking Rings, ones that had teleportation beacons, given by Masters to their Apprentice so that they could escape imminent danger.

Suddenly, watching Debora's fingers, a stray thought invaded Alesia's imagination, after which she was no longer capable of maintaining the meditative cadence of her breathing. The hot blood in her veins abruptly turned to ice. Circumstances and events converged within like a multi-vehicular accident.

"No!" Alesia cried, her musky bloodthirst transforming into a hysterical panic. With a blast of flame, she Blinked into the Grot. Elvia, Yue and Whetu stared slack-jawed at the point where Alesia had been. What of Gwen? What if Debora made good on her threat?

"You're too late," Debora announced flatly to the still flaming air. "There is nothing you can do. There is nothing any of you can do. Not anymore."

Deep within the Grot, Henry Kilroy, Master of the Ten, Lord of the Ordo Arcanum Oceania, was stirred to wakefulness by a familiar scent of lilacs.
For a moment, he had thought himself still sleeping amongst a pile of white sheets, the heat of the Tuscan sun beating down outside as a dry wind whispered through the Ottoman architraves.

When he opened his eyes, however, the familiar sight of the heart-tree came into being. His head, however, rested not on wood, but on a pair of soft, white thighs, held in place by their supple curvature.

A face came into view, breathlessly beautiful. Eyes as soft as a mellow summer's sky held him intact within their twin pupils. Wisps of bible-black hair tickled his nostrils.

"Hey," Henry struggled to speak. "I wasn't expecting you here."

"Hey." Elizabeth smiled, her small cherry lips parting with breathless desire. "I know we only just parted, but I missed you."

For some reason, rather than fear, Henry felt free. He felt free that after all these years, they were back to square one.

"You know," Henry began. "I often wondered if it would have been better if we had all died that day on the Brisbane Line. If you and I had perished, how many innocents lives could have been spared?"

Elizabeth said nothing, for there was nothing more that needed to be said.
She leaned forward and kissed Henry full on the mouth, her passionate tongue meeting his own. Her lithe white fingers wrapped around his skull and dug into his papery skin.

Like so many years ago, like that fateful day on the Brisbane Line, Henry's wife allowed herself to let go.

When the master of a summoned familiar perishes, all manifested phenomenon created by the magical being ceases to be. And it was with the fabled Grot - the unassailable bastion of Henry Kilroy, Master of the Tower. A symbol of power and stability, the domain of 'Deathless Henry' that had for three decades taken its residence atop the tallest spire of the Brutalist Tower.

Just a moment prior, there was an ironwood portal, a shimmering gate, the distorted space of a pocket-dimension.

Now, a second later, it was as though the Grot had never existed.

Gwen was a tough woman, one not easily stirred to volatile emotions. She was a modern woman, one who believed in self-efficacy and the power of individual will to overcome all obstacles.

None of that could help her now.

Caught in the excruciating torture of her constrictive prison, Gwen sensed painful tears pour from her eyes. She had thought herself tutored in despair when the slavers had captured her, but she'd been woefully mistaken.

Now, she felt genuine despair. Sloshing and churning, the feeling was sick and sinister and viscous, its malice dragging her into the suck of a dark sea.

There was no Grot.
There was no Henry.
No Yue.
No Elvia.
No Whetu.
No Alesia.
Nothing.

There was only the figure of a dark-haired woman, her blue eyes smiling with mirth, her red— red lips a dash of red paint upon a flawless complexion as pale as virgin snow.

 

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Wutosama

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

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