"Irene, one more time!" Gunther barked at the Master Diviner. Ferris focused her mana and conjured another Simulacrum, the strain causing her already pale face to wince with mana fatigue.
The illusory Gunther flew directly beneath Sobel, creating refractory conjurations which allowed Gunther to strike at the Void Mage utilising a pincer attack.
Beside them, Walken was already panting with exhaustion, having spent the better portion of his mana on the failed Maze. Of the three, only Gunther was barely breaking a sweat, carefully managing his mana pool despite the dozen or so exchanges they had traded in succession.
Their core problem, the combatants gathered, was that neither Ferris nor Walken were Combat Mages who had gained the title of Magister through decades of conflict and war.
Irene Ferris was ultimately just an academic; an intelligence officer turned Magister who was more interested in Arcane Manufacturing than pragmatic combat. Walken, on the other hand, was better; but the man had always worked in the shadows, seldom gracing the Tower's oft-violent conflicts of interest.
That's the rag-tag team that fate had wrought to combat a sixty-decade-old Void Sorceress, a war hero who'd survived the Saurian Incursion, the Coral Sea Conflict, and countless other military actions large and small.
At first, the battle had opened optimistically. They had fought her in the Tower and beaten back the tide of vampiric lamprey creatures. When they had thought Elizabeth cornered, however, she invoked a ritualistic incantation which began as a dark orb, then rapidly expanded until it became the scene before them. At first, they had thought the spell a Maelstrom or at worst a Black Hole, but the reality of their new hell quickly outstripped even the worst of their expectations.
Battling under the baleful light of the Void Sun was itself a fatiguing endeavour. Even if the trio could use shields to prevent the vitality drain, they still felt their ambient mana draining away, making combat excessively lethargic.
Gunther was not optimistic about their chances. If he was to be brutally honest with himself - Elizabeth Sobel was kicking their arses. For some reason, the woman had a seemingly inexhaustible array of vitality and mana.
Where Gunther, Ferris and Walken planned and conserved mana, his Master's estranged wife continued to pump out high-tier cataclysms one after another.
From training with Gwen, Gunther knew that the fledgeling Void Mage was at best good for a handful of low-tier spells and at best one or two higher-tier incantations. Yet Elizabeth seemed completed unaffected by the physical strain of Void Magic.
The Dark Sun was the apparent culprit for Elizabeth's inexhaustible stamina. Earlier, Gunther had fired a Sunbeam into the Void portal without so much as receiving a single indication that his attack affected the orb. It had, as the saying goes, it had disappeared into the Void.
All they could do was to kite Elizabeth and wait to see if she would expose a moment of weakness for them to exploit.
To that end, Gunther was glad that Irene Ferris was on their side.
The Magister wasn't a Combat Mage, but she was an adept Illusionist. With a plethora of Mirrored Images, Arcane Vision, Projected Image and Simulacrum. Together, they harried Elizabeth, while being spared from the brunt of her attacks.
The Void sorceress was growing impatient though; her spells were increasingly more outlandish and less restrained. Already the collateral damage from misfired spells and dodged attacks had taken down a portion of the Tower's outer walls, sending a hail of deadly stones into the city below.
The rest of the Tower Mages had dispersed, finding shelter or escaping while they still could. If Gunther and two other Magisters could not hold down Elizabeth, then the city was forfeit; they would merely be fodder for the insatiable hunger of Sobel's vampiric ritual.
"Chain Void Bolt!" A zig-zag array of dark Lightning sliced across the sky, striking one mirrored image after another.
The third ricochet caught Gunther's clone, sundering the mirage into the indistinct, azure motes of mana unique to the School of Illusion. Despite their best efforts, the tier 6 Evocation had caught them flat-footed; its deadly effects deployed within a split-second.
Gunther's shield appeared too late to assist Walken, who'd been caught alone after his illusory double had perished.
A ball of void energy bloomed beside the Magister, eating through his protection in the blink of an eye. Of all the primary elements— Air had the weakest Shield by far.
Usually, Walken would have fought behind his conjured familiar, the impressive Couatl Aella— a winged serpent that was equally the match of many a Magus. Unfortunately for the hapless Magister, his familiar, with its rare lightning breath attack, had been an early casualty of their battle against Sobel. Winded, Walken fought off the hostile magic, but it was clear that the scheming Magister had been grievously wounded.
Gunther retracted the Light Screen. His Abjuration wasn't going to help the Magister now.
"On it!" A simulacrum split off from Ferris and dived for the falling Magister. Like Waken, she too was approaching her limit.
"Fiore, when's the damn Towers getting here?" Gunther fired off a Message spell to Walken's Second, who'd chosen to remain in the Tower and oversee communications.
"The mana drain from the Void-Sun is wreaking havoc with our instruments, but I'd say in the next hour," a wearied female voice replied.
"Carey, what's the status on the Evacuation?"
"Not looking good sir, due to our loss of LRM earlier, most of the NoM civilians remain above ground."
"Shit! What are the Enforcers doing? What about the Civil Defence Mages?"
"I am afraid they have their hands full."
"With what? There's no incursion past the CBD area!"
"With the riots, sir."
Gunther executed a corkscrew turn, avoiding a hail of dark ice that shrieked past his mirrored image and into the city below.
"The NoMs, sir. They're rioting and looting across the Greater West."
Gunther cursed under his breath. Now was not the time to be delicate. As much as his Master seemed to sympathise with the NoMs, their behaviour often left him wondering if they were even the same species. Rioting in the crisis of an invasion, looting for profit when an enervating sun was growing ever larger above their heads? What foolishness!
"Kill the ringleaders and set an example, get the rest into the Shelters as soon as possible. If the Dark Sun spreads beyond the city, they're all going to be Void dust. I'll take full responsibility."
"Aye, Sir. I'll pass the message on."
With a boost of mana, Gunther executed a deadman's turn, watching Elizabeth blow past him in a white blur.
The Void Sorceress must be supremely confident, Gunther observed. She lacked Ioun Stones, wands, enchanted armour, and expendable items— all Sobel had on was a white chiffon dress whose tattered state indicated mortal fabric. Indeed, while the trio had burned potions and scrolls, the Void sorceress had carried on without appearing taxed. After dodging another spell, Gunther had the distinct feeling that Elizabeth was a cat toying with three blind mice.
A ball of light erupted in front of Elizabeth's flight path. The Void Mage immediately erected a shield, but this time it was Gunther who'd caught her flat-footed. He watched with focused intent as the radiant heat seared her milk-white skin, eliciting blistering boils from her flawless complexion.
The scent of charred flesh trailed through the air.
Just as Gunther slowed to make ready his follow-up strike; Elizabeth rotated her body in midair and fired off a riposte to his aerial ambush.
Her conjured Morden's Blade shrieked through the air, too fast for Gunther's eyes to follow. By the time he had erected his Non-Newtonian shield, it was already inches away from his torso.
Even with Gunther's proficiency, he was too late.
The blade found his body just as the spell manifested.
When Gunther reappeared some distance away, he could feel that a part of his musculature was amiss. A good six-inch of his flesh— skin, tissues and all, had been consumed.
Before his body could register the pain, Gunther materialised a healing injector and impaled his wound. The itching growth of new flesh immediately followed, but the Void had already taken its toll.
His Astral body had become wounded— even if Gunther's body healed, it would take months of soulful osmosis for his flesh to regain sensation and feeling.
So it was that the Paladin of Sydney fell back, cursing himself for underestimating the Void Mage's resilience. His one solace, however, was that they had exchanged a significant blow.
Until Elizabeth reappeared from her tumbling roll, her ivory face not showing a single blemish.
Gunther cursed, caught off guard by the impossible outcome. He had seen her face boil and burn! How was this possible?
The Paladin's moment of hesitation proved near-fatal.
Just as Gunther reeled from both the physical shock of recovery and the mental stupor of surprise, Elizabeth made her play.
The Morden's Blade remerged from behind her and teasingly, then made a bee-line for Gunther's chest.
Gunther did not doubt that the blade was a distraction and that the woman would have a follow up waiting for him. But, his retaliation needed a few more seconds, for the reinvigoration of lost flesh had paralysed his body.
Gunther had thought that his final thoughts would be of his Master.
To his surprise, it was Alesia's face that appeared.
A flaming, resplendent Alesia who was pure plasma, the very vision of an elemental Djinn blessed with the power of fire. A split-second passed, then his vision filled with that of a fiery Valkyrie blazing a trail of fireflies, with smouldering coals for eyes.
"Did ya miss me, Tiger?"
Her voice was the sweetest thing in the world. Gunther was very much surprised that his final vision was even capable of speech. Maybe, just maybe, he had admired his sister-in-craft more than he'd thought.
"Alesia," he confessed to the blinding vision, so bright as to burn a sensuous silhouette into his retinas. "I am sorry—"
Then the Efreet was gone. It had taken the Void Sorceress with her, leaving behind a mist of dark blood and burning air.
Gunther's mind jolted back to reality.
That was no vision! His mind screamed at him. You dimwit! That was Alesia in the flesh!
"Alesia!" his voice boomed at the retreating form now fleeing from him like a falling star. "Beware! She's feeding off the Black Sun!"
The supernatural confidence of the Djinns suited Alesia well.
She hadn't felt the need to consider meagre offerings like strategy.
After all, she was flame incarnate; a Djinn manifested in the material realm, a Demi-Goddess of fire.
What was an illusion before absolute power? What was trickery and subterfuge before unquestionable force?
A halo of plasma and fire coalesced around Alesia as she blasted towards the Tower. A ring of superheated hair blew from her passage as the barrier of sound itself was sundered by her supersonic flight.
The Tower rapidly grew larger
She could now see specks, fighting in the distance.
Rapidly, specks became individuals; one white, one radiant, and two that were nondescript.
The white one was Elizabeth, one of the plebeian looking ones was Walken. The radiant one was Gunther, meaning the last mote was Ferris.
Alesia already had her priorities sorted - Elizabeth would burn first, then Walken would follow her fate.
She saw Gunther making a corkscrew turn, retaliating as he spiralled, catching Elizabeth as she dodged.
She saw Elizabeth retaliate.
She saw Gunther becoming wounded by a dark sliver of Void.
A new fury exploded in Alesia's chest. The tail of searing flame that trailed her passage changed from white-hot to dazzling.
"Did ya missed me, Tiger?" Alesia fired off a mirthful Message spell just before impact. It felt like a lifetime before she'd seen Gunther, and her heart soared to know that he was alive.
But kisses and hugs would have to wait. There was a wicked business to concluded before they could lick each other's wounds and find commiseration in the commonality of their grief.
Alesia ensured that her rigid flame-shield slammed into Elizabeth with superhuman force. The impact was such that had it not been for Alesia's elemental form; both combatants would have become the mingled mince, forming a human rissole.
There was a satisfying crunch when she'd struck the void witch, feeling the shock of her body-blow reverberate through the tiny woman's frail form. To the Scarlet Sorceress' surprise, the Void Mage did not simply cease to exist, nor was she cut in twain by the force of Alesia's assault.
Alesia's combat instincts screamed for her to continue her assault.
With one hand, she fired a jet stream of blue-white flames in the opposite direction, cutting her inertia dead in the air. The dizzying manoeuvre was just enough to send the sprawling body away from Elizabeth, whose silhouette exploded into a mess of dark worms issued straight from the Void.
The air ignited— the revolting creatures ceased to be.
"Watch out! There's a…"
Gunther's warning came too late. His flight spell was many degrees slower than Alesia' rocket-powered acceleration. Sobel's conjured Black Blade emerged from the burning mass, cutting the air with an unholy shriek as it aimed for Alesia's heart.
With no time to react, Alesia swung her arms downward, instinctively opening her palms to catch the incoming projectile.
To the surprise of all, the vorpal blade had not taken off Alesia's forearm as Sobel had expected. Instead, Alesia's elemental body of plasma caught the flat-edge an inch from her torso, enclosed between her palms.
Alesia's scalp crawled.
Who the hell catches a Morden's Blade with their bare hands?! Her rational mind felt challenged by her surreal circumstance. Furthermore, what the hell does one do next after catching a dancing vorpal blade?
On instinct, Alesia knew what to do.
White-hot flames blew from her palms until the air ignited with blue-green bursts. The mana of the Black Blade sizzled, then exploded into globs of dark ink, raining down into the city below.
"There's a PhD there for whoever explains that phenomenon," Gunther remarked dryly, finally reaching his companion's side.
"The fuck did the bitch go?" Alesia looked around, bewildered. "That was a simulacrum thing! Where's her real body?"
"Aye, and a dangerously self-destructive one," Gunther observed unhappily. "What did I tell you about rushing in, Allie?"
Alesia shot Gunther a look that spoke volumes, her eyes two glowing cores rolling in the molten sockets of her face. Gunther coughed and averted his gaze.
"Thanks for saving my life," the Paladin remarked quietly. "I am sorry about our Master, whatever happened, I am sure you did your best."
"Well, it wasn't enough." Alesia's voice lost the vivacity she had possessed just a moment ago.
Sighing, she looked up at the dark sun hanging mercilessly over the blue sky, an unmoving eclipse which cast its deadly blessing over all that it surveyed.
"How do we kill that?" Alesia asked.
Gunther dearly wished he had an answer to her question.
"Well, Walken said that her Void was weak to Lightning. Walken also said that the Melbourne and Brisbane towers are incoming, ETA, soon." Gunther did not sound optimistic.
Alesia shook her head, sending out a swarm of fireflies.
"They don't have anyone at the Magus level."
"I know," Gunther affirmed.
"Gunther!" A Message spell bloomed next to Gunther's ear. It was Irene Ferris. "I don't know what you did, but something just came out of the Black Sun!"
Gunther relayed the Message to Alesia, whose flaming eyes smouldered.
"Gunther!" Irene's voice took on a tone of urgency.
"We're coming back now."
The two ascended, with Alesia leading. From afar, the duo appeared as though two shooting stars moving to accost the dusky sky. Closer now, they could see that Ferris was right to worry. The Void-sun was changing now, taking on a more malicious tone. The shadowy blight it was dispensing was becoming more intense, hungrier and more potent. The tingling coldness one felt when it touched the skin was now an icy bite that permeated to the bone.
"Its good to see you again, Alesia," Ferris muttered when Alesia pulled up. "We need all the help we can get."
Walken, wounded and discretely loitering a distance away, tried to make himself scarce. Unfortunately, there was no escaping Alesia's smouldering orbs.
"Alesia, not now." Gunther wanted to place a hand on her shoulder but feared to lose his limb should his Sister-in-craft's emotions supersede her rationality.
A moment of dangerous crossroads hung in the air; the silence punctuated only by the ambient thrum of the dark sun's magic.
As they spoke, bursts of enervating energy emitted from the dark sun. Dark tendrils, distinct and indistinct, emerged like curious tongues, tasting the air for prey.
"Don't let them touch you!" Gunther alerted the others, recalling the vision that had been agonisingly wrought by Mark Chandler at the cost of his sister's soul.
The others hadn't needed Gunther's warning to tell them that much.
As the prehensile tendrils reached out, seemingly ignoring the limitations of space, the trio was forced to duck and weave, alternating between shielding and abjuring the shadowy appendages.
It was Gunther who first noticed that Alesia's flames were no longer swaying chaotically in the air. Instead, the heat of her Aegis of Flame was streaming in one direction, feeding the heart of the sun.
Walken, who'd been paying particular attention toward Alesia, likewise realised what was happening.
"It's penetrating our Shields!" he Messaged the others. "We're not going to last much longer under this."
"How shall we regroup?" Ferris inquired carefully, though the question may as well be rhetorical. If they were to flee from the sun now, it would only grow stronger. If they couldn't contain it now, somehow, how could they defeat it when it matured?
"Ideas?" The collected Magisters and Maguses communed while keeping the tentacles and tendrils at bay. Each appendage seemed to possess a life of its own, hunting and feeling the air for nourishment. Gunther did not doubt that if they were to leave, the tendrils would be felicitously hunting the lesser Mages below.
When none of them spoke, Ferris made a suggestion.
"How about we wait for the other Towers. We can attempt a parallel octagramic mandala Dispel when Uther and Lin get here. Myself, Alesia, Walken, Gunther, and two fresh Magisters. We can use their Tower Mages for the other two spots. Surely they would have brought their Paladins along as well."
"Impossible, there is no way we're going to be able to attune the magic, not with the tendrils attacking us. Look at that thing; you think the other two are going to let their Tower Mages serve as fodder while we take time to commune and align our mana?"
"Not to mention—"
Walken narrowly dodged a grasping tentacle. His flight agility had been drastically affected by the injury earlier. The Magister's body desperately needed a Greater Restoration, but there were no healers powerful enough to be present in a battle of this magnitude. A mid-tier Cleric would only serve as targets of opportunity, feeding Elizabeth's hunger for mana and vitality.
"… the Tower has been losing altitude since a moment ago."
"Well, you got any better ideas?" Ferris demanded cattily.
"Fuck this," Alesia suddenly announced. "Gunther, cover me."
Before Gunther could answer, Alesia shot upward like a falling star compelled by Reverse Gravity.
A triple layer of mandalas formed under her feet as she blasted through the tendrils barring her way, arriving dead centre of the hovering sun, just beyond the borders of its nether realm.
A host of tendrils moved to usurp her elemental energy, abjured by blasts of light emanating from below, slicing and dicing the intruding mass.
A double glazed barred the tentacles for the moment.
"Allie," he began, but the worrying words in this throat were mute before he could speak them. The battle for Sydney was her fight as well as his. Even if they swapped places, Gunther knew he would have also ignored Alesia and persisted what he thought was necessary and right.
They were birds of a feather in many ways, they who were proteges of Henry Kilroy, inheritors of their Master's gifts, not to mention his sins. If Elizabeth exists today because of their Master's weakness, then for the sake of the Master who brought them life, his students would conclude their Master's life's work. For better or worse, there must be closure to the chapter.
"I'll cover you," Gunther said instead. "Sphere of Light!"
An aura of brilliant radiance expanded around the two Mages. Used defensively, the light channelled from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Radiance consumed all beings of darkness, dispelled all things whose origins lay within the Negative Plane. Gunther had saved the spell as a trump card, an eleventh-hour attempt at repealing Elizabeth's mortal strike— alas, now, he felt no qualms burning the high-tier Evocation if it meant sheltering Alesia.
The flames that sheathed Alesia grew focused, losing that chaotic quality so endearing to fire, instead weaving themselves into her body. Alesia was already an impressive Evoker, but the spell she was attempting was a tier higher. As with all things magical, there were dire repercussions for exceeding one's limitations. At best, the invocation would wreak havoc upon her Astral body and rupture her mana conduits; at worst, she could become severely debilitated by mana burn. No Mage ever wanted to make this choice, but now was as a particular time, and all Gunther could do was be his dearest's protector.
In a moment, the Djinn's borrowed mana poured from Alesia's body, feeding the spell manifesting above. Her crimson Caracal fused itself into the manifest, expending its Essence to shield its Master from the negative feedback of the over-channelled sorcery. Though the Caracal spirit wasn't a sapient being like Sufina, it instinctively prioritised its Master's life over the continued existence of its ego.
A heaviness smothered the air, a feeling of dreaded oppression. The ambient temperature of the air skyrocketed as a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire gave birth to a massive fireball a dozen meters in circumference. Smouldering with spluttering flames, Alesia pointed a finger heavenward, then moved it towards the nadir in a swift, violent motion.
The burgeoning mass of plasma began to move.
It first moved ponderously, but as it picked up speed, an elongated tail of orange-red flames began to grow, casting an orange haze over the dark recesses of the void-sun, turning its translucent tendrils orange and yellow.
Besides the dark sun, Gunther clutched the exhausted Alesia, heedless of her flaming torso, pulling her from the path of her AoE spell.
With the Crimson Caracal consumed by Alesia's spell, Gunther was no longer confident that Alesia's AOEs could discriminate between friend and foe.
As the two faded amidst a swirl of quicksilver mana, the forces of Void and Fire collided.
To the observers below, marvelling and screaming at the sight of two celestial bodies in a mortal contest, it was akin to a reverse eclipse.
Above them, a dark sun was lit up by a meteor of raw elemental fire.
To the observer's surprise, there was no cacophonic explosion, no blast ring that sent shockwaves below to trouble the already sundered city. There wasn't even the sound of two objects meeting in violent disharmony.
There was only a hiss—
A terrible, indescribable hiss as the dark sun began to consume the meteor. The meeting of two celestial bodies of energy was a foreboding sight that would trouble researchers for years to come. What would happen when a strategic ritual designed for mass vampiric absorption met an overwhelming force? At what equivalence does the consumption win out, when do they negate one another, and at what magnitude does the spell force disrupt the ritual's mandala?
Unfortunately for Alesia and her battered, exhausted company, the answer did not ring in their favour.
Not even a Meteor, one tier below the city-destroying Meteor Swarm, a strategic spell used only in conflicts of mutually assured destruction, could destroy the dark sun.
As Alesia grew increasingly weaker, feeling the power of her meteor wane, they could once again see that the Black Sun was regaining its exhausted energies.
Even if over half of the sun's initial mass dissolved, there were plenty of Mages and NoMs, flora and fauna below to feed its hunger.
When the mass of the meteor finally dissipated, they could see for a brief moment, the silhouette of a woman in the darkness, shrouded by the void tendrils.
Elizabeth must be laughing at them, mocking their last-ditch attempt.
Then she faded from view, and tendrils once again manifested from the heart of the blighted celestial object.
Alesia's companions scattered as before, only now further weakened and spent.
Alesia's cry of alarm shook her brother-in-craft from the despairing revelry of assured defeat.
A tendril had found the Scarlet Sorceress.
The cognisance came as much as a surprise to Gunther as it would have for anyone of them. Alesia was the most agile and empowered for combat, for her to be caught, she must be genuinely exhausted.
To their relief, Gunther had enough mana remaining to severed the nether-tentacle with a blast of light.
Alesia's problems, however, were just beginning. The sorceress' flaming form suddenly became a chaotic mess of spluttering flames, appearing and disappearing about her body.
Instantly, Gunther realised that the Djinn that had been the source of the Efreeti Transformation was to blame. Now that Alesia was bereft of mana, exhausted in spirit, and physically wounded by her overambitious spell of mass destruction, it was maliciously trying to cause the death of its host!
Even as Gunther approached, dodging several jellyfish tendrils of void-matter himself, Alesia lost herself to another tendril.
Gunther swore under his breath; his mana was hardly inexhaustible. They had been fighting for half-an-hour now, throwing out one spell after another, soon they would all be out of mana and helpless.
"Scorching Radiance!" Another blast freed Alesia from her impending crisis.
Gunther tackled his craft-sister in midair and dove downwards for the cover of the crumbling Tower. A searing pain ignited across his arm, hands and chest. The scent of scorched flesh filled his nostrils.
The fucking Djinn! Gunther swore. It dared to attack him! Had Gunther not been flame-aligned himself, the assault would have floored him, debilitated him with an unexpected fatal blow.
"Shit!" Gunther swore. "Allie, hold on!"
Though the distraction lasted only a second, it was enough.
First, a single tendril, then two more, and then a dozen, quickly wrapped around Gunther and Alesia's falling form, compounding the crisis that Gunther faced from the rebellious Djinn.
Gunther was not a man prone to admit to despair, but now he felt it distinctly. If he and Alesia were gone, who would carry on Henry's legacy? Would his Master always be remembered as the husband of the madwoman who consumed all of Sydney? What of all his subordinates, all those NoMs that awaited salvation below? Who would save them now?
DING! A Message alarm fired off beside Gunther's head.
Gunther answered it in disbelief.
Rolling thunder echoed across the cloudless sky, growing louder and louder with each passing mile.
Their youngest sister-in-craft had arrived.