“The Filtration section begins just ahead.” Their guide bowed, moving aside. “This is where I must leave you.”
Richard turned to Mayuree. Their Diviner extraordinaire continued to empower their Silent Message array. From an outsider’s perspective, it looked as though the Mages were moving their mouths and mumbling something barely audible.
“How’s it look?”
“Got a spotter, 7 O’clock, creeping in the ducting. There are probably other spotters, but if they’re NoMs, I can’t detect them.”
“How’re they communicating?”
“Runners from the looks of it. That or shouting very loudly. The mana signature registers as barely tier 1 in transmutation. I am guessing he knows a few enhancement spells, probably Expeditious Retreat.”
“How does it look, up ahead?” Richard asked. "In the filtration chambers."
“Sorry, Richard. I can't tell. The entire segment is lit up with too much residue mana of all sorts. It’s like a solid block of illumination four storeys high, going on for about six to seven blocks.
Amazing! Gwen wondered if she too could one day attain the sort of proficiency Mayuree had shown, feeling such delight that she wanted to squeeze Mayuree’s haughty cheeks.
Sensing their query, Mayuree explained that her Greater Detect Magic could distinguish the presence of other Mages up to a hundred meters away, assuming a clear LOS, and through walls about twenty or so. Outside of the staple spell, she could scout ahead with a magical eye, or use her powers to listen in on the conversation of people they could see. Furthermore, given time and preparation, combinations of spells such as Scry and Clairvoyance, combined with Locate Creature or Track, brought great utility as well.
The Diviner was a one-woman intelligence service equipped with all the right tools. Additionally, Mayuree could foretell danger should anything escape her notice. Unlike Gwen's mediocre senses, Mayuree could also pinpoint the direction of the threat as well as gain an understanding of the chronology of events to come. Sometimes, as with her unfortunate self-reading, she could additionally foretell 'keystone' persons, places, or events.
Gwen gushed. Such competence! After watching Mayuree sleep, eat, and procrastinate for half a term, she could scarcely believe that this was the same girl who went from awake to asleep in Management within thirty seconds of Professor Ma opening his mouth!
“It would be nice if we had Tao here,” Richard noted with a wry smile. “He could ‘send’ a team up ahead.”
Mr Wang would probably burst into tears if he heard that, Gwen mused. Tao Wang, wanted and useful, in an elite team from Fudan.
“Mr and Missus Bosses?” their guide craned his neck. “I leave you now, okay?”
“Thank you, you may go now.”
They watched their guide leave. It was impossible to tell if the man was genuine or leading them to a trap, or both occurrences happened to coincide.
The party turned to the bulkhead that led into the filtration section of B7. The excess mana that leaked from the area meant that there were unlikely going to be NoMs within. Non-magically aligned humans could live in highly magically charged environments, but they seldom chose to, as quasi-magical diseases and parasites made short work of NoMs lacking the means to defend themselves.
Richard incanted the codified-glyph the Secretariat had given them. The door unlocked with a rusty clang of mechanisms moving out of and into place.
The banded-iron gate swung open, revealing interchanging nodes of light and darkness where decades-old Light glyphs struggled against disrepair. Boss Yi had told them that following the old adage of never fixing that which wasn’t broken, he had barred access to the Building 10 Basement 7 filtration plant on pain of death. Had not a 'Crawler' manifested somehow on the level, not even acolytes of Fudan would have been given access to such an important section of the city's livelihood.
“Arcane Eye!” Mayuree created an all-seeing eye of Divination capable of piercing illusions and seeing in the dark. The eye itself was invisible as it shot forward, feeding back to the Diviner everything it conveyed. The spell was notoriously difficult to exercise, as it forced the user to perceive a 270-degree field of view that was disorienting in the extreme, especially in motion.
Like flying a wide-angle lens drone with a VR headset, Gwen mused.
Mayuree scanned the next few rooms and the corridors, revealing that they were unexpectedly free of any Crawlers. When she skimmed the ground closer with her Arcane Eye, however, she spotted a trail of viscous, snot-like slime. Mayuree held her breath unconsciously, then followed the trail.
If they were in a dungeon, there would be a need for a scribe to map the place, Gwen thought, wondering if there was such a thing as an auto-mapping data slate or something that made the process less time-consuming.
Gwen watched her expression move from curiosity to contortion.
“I found the creature we’re looking for. Section 3-8. It’s set up a nest of some kind down here. I can, oh Mao - I can see a few bodies mostly bloating and rotting. I don’t think it's on B7 though, I had to move up the vent - I’d say B6?”
“What’s it look like?” Richard asked.
“L-like a white Caliban with moustache tentacles, maggoty, oozing pus all over. It’s pretty big as well, about the size of a small car.”
“Strewth!” Gwen suppressed her nausea as well, making a mental note that Caliban must not eat this thing. If Caliban could turn into a netherworld larva the size of a VW Golf…
Mayuree’s Eye continued its tour of the surrounding area.
“I got something,” she continued. "Let me finish doing the round."
"Ooop, I found something!" Mayuree gushed. "Well, I found someone."
"Yes! One more!"
"Alright, Basement level 5, Section 2-3, 4-3, 3-6 and 4-8. Hostiles, a dozen NoMs armed with… nets? Why are they doing with fishing nets? Catching the Carrion Crawler? There’s a Mage with each group as well. Evocation and Transmutation from the looks of it- Whoops! One of them just looked at me. I am going back into the vents. Maybe they know Detect Magic?”
"... okay, I am safe. False alarm."
Using the entrance of the filtration quarter as cover, Richard asked Lea to create a little model of what Mayuree was seeing as the Party convened for their next step.
“So, its confirmed,” he said. “An ambush. Waiting for us to take on the Crawler maybe. Those things are notoriously difficult to kill. As a magical aberration born out of God knows what, their bodies resist physical damage and their slime has both paralysing effects and acts as protection against elemental damage.”
“So Gwen’s right? There’s someone responsible for this thing?”
“And laid a trap for us no less.” Gwen tapped her chin. “What are they hoping to accomplish? They can’t be robbing us, that’s absurd. Ransom maybe? A kidnapping? That's beyond stupid...”
“Half the Undercity would cease to exist,” Kitty scoffed. “They wouldn’t dare.”
“Then that makes even less sense. Are those Undercity Mages protecting the Crawler, maybe?”
“It’s still a magical creature,” Richard added. “A powerful one at that, tier 4 or 5 at least. Maybe they’re looking to harvest its core?”
“Too much effort. With this many men, they could form a party and go to the Orange Zone,” Mayuree dispelled Richard’s hypothesis.
“Assuming they are after us -“ Gwen stated unpleasantly, from experience, she had no difficulty believing the extent to which Slavers may go to capture a rare talent. “Any group that wishes to operate with the domain of the Tower would not dare antagonise Fudan. Assuming they're after one of us, they would make enemies of powers they cannot possibly contain. The presumption, then, I would suggest, is that they are a group operating outside of the CCP and the Towers' power. Perhaps Rogue Mages?”
The others considered her theory and found it sound. It was the only logical explanation, given the circumstances.
“Well, how do you want to do this?” Mayuree asked, looking a little unsure. "Do we... umm..."
Gwen felt her whole body tensing.
There it was.
The moment of truth.
She studied the three-dimensional diagram in front of them. The enemy was grouped into four quadrants, one Mage to four to five NoMs. They were situated one basement level above the creature. From the looks of it, they had planned to attack the Fudan party as soon as the Mages had exhausted themselves against the worm, maybe catch Gwen’s party unaware via some sort of environmental effects, like a collapsed ceiling or a flood of water. That would explain the fishing nets, Gwen surmised for the others. The filtration systems could summon immense volumes of water. If they did not have Richard with them or Mayuree with them, it was entirely possible that herself and Kitty could be caught unaware and swept away, drastically diminish their mobility and interfere with their spell casting.
“Gwen.” Richard placed a hand on her shoulder. “Caliban. Consume or Onslaught. Those Mages look tier 3 or 4 at best.”
Gwen flinched at her cousin suggestion, feeling her hands grow clammy.
Vents. Enclosed Spaces. Caliban. Fresh Meat. It was a good plan. There was one Mage in each sector.
If her creature descended upon her hapless victims, there would be no survivors. It would be a repetition of Blackheath.
No, not a recurrence.
Gwen felt her initial euphoria over Mayuree’s Divined advantage transform into a cold and unpleasant epiphany. Earlier, when speculating about the battles ahead, she had anticipated that like her prior experiences, they would be assaulted by parties who wished to impede or oppose them, then in the heat of combat, she would wound, maim and if need be, kill her enemies.
They had a word for it in her old world.
Cold-blooded, premeditated, murder.
“There’s likely quite a bit of noise and vibration once you get down there,” Richard continued to explain, perhaps sensing her unease. “With any luck, the other groups wouldn’t hear…”
Mayuree's complexion paled as well, watching Gwen's silence, her own conscience was catching on.
Kitty's eyes moved from Mayuree to Gwen. In her opinion, if one of them had to do the dirty work, it was self-evident that Gwen should be the one to get her hands dirty. She was the one with the monster leashed to her soul.
Gwen began to speak.
She knew the day would come, but not like this. Not over something so trivial. Not for convenience.
“Wait!” Even if it was futile, she had to steer her companions' minds away from one of bloodlust. “You’re all forgetting about what the Secretariat’s quest for us was! It’s to kill this thing, right? It’s to make this level safe from an aberrant beast! We don’t have to go in there and kill everything and everyone. What would be the point? I know of a way to solo the Crawler. Single shot artillery spell. Boom, and its smithereens. Richard can defend me, Mayuree can keep an eye out, and Kitty, you can run interference if anyone comes to find us. Think outside the box! We’re not going to benefit from killing these NoMs and Mages, because it’s not a part of our quest! This way, bang-bang-boom, 5 CCs. Done! Otherwise, we waste time and mana, get blood on our hands, and for what?”
"More pussyfooting around?" Kitty frowned at Gwen, her eyes critical and unpleasant.
Mayuree pulled at her friend's sleeve. Kitty turned to the Diviner.
"I... don't want to kill the NoMs," Mayuree raised her voice, perhaps thinking of the NoMs in District 35, or maybe the lively scene she had seen in the market. Ma's thought experiment had struck her soundly. These NoMs were just people, desperate people trying to eke out a living. To kill them in defence was one thing but, to casually slaughter them when an option for avoidance was available, wasn't the outcome she had intended with her Divination.
Gwen was averse to murder, while Mayuree had no desire to be accessory to murder.
Richard grinned his usual grin, shrugging. He would abide by Gwen's choice.
“You sure you can kill the Crawler solo?” Kitty pulled a face before turning to her fellow LCSS candidate. "Also, an artillery spell? You know an artillery spell? What are you, tier 4? 3?"
“I’ll Consume it if I have to.” Gwen’s expression was full of hopeful determination. “As for your question, yes. I know an artillery spell. Worked it out with Magister Wen. We measured the maximum output between tier 6 and 7."
Kitty's pale eyes grew hard, impressed but not convinced.
“If you screw this up and they find us, I am not going to be soft-hearted, just so you know,” she warned Gwen. “My Path does not allow for such sentimental hesitations. Mao knows why you’re trying to spare these trash.”
“Thanks, Kitty,” Gwen unwound the tension in her voice. That settled it.
She knew that Mayuree’s friend was the sort of person whose words were harsh and unforgiving, but having spent six weeks with the girl, Gwen knew better than to judge Kitty by her frigid exterior.
Nonetheless, empathy was a rare bird in this world. Even Gwen's friends, whom she considered good people, didn’t see killing enemies to be something that was morally reprehensible. Had Kitty been blooded? She certainly acted the part. Richard? Gwen had no doubt. Conversely, Mayuree was a confessed neophyte in the taking of human life. As for herself, Gwen could only abide by her lingering remorse.
At least for now, she had convinced her party to give her a chance to complete the quest without unnecessary bloodshed. If they still got attacked by these NoMs and Mages, then her mercy was at an end.
There was a nonchalance she still couldn't quite grasp.
How can one come to accept a training exercise with sanctioned murder?
If she were to kill an innocent, attack a fellow Mage in Fudan, she would be trialled and sentenced, then put in Stasis or be done and dusted by a well-aimed Disintegration.
But because she could label someone with no backing, no authority, no Clan and no allegiance 'THE ENEMY', she would receive accolades and applause for mass-murder.
To kill under the duress of dire straits was one thing - but the alternative?
She walked the Path of Violent Conflict, not the Path of Gleeful Butchery.
"Gwen?" Mayuree turned to her friend. "Are you right?"
The time for thinking was over. Now was the time for action.
Gwen faced the threshold, beyond which was the flickering unknown.
“Right,” she informed her companions. “I am ready.”
* * *
Richard sighed internally.
Gwen had an irrefutable logic.
These slavers weren’t going to be worth any CCs.
He could probably drown the whole room without making a peep, but what was the benefit?
He had known that Gwen would be averse to the killing. Likewise, he could have offered Gwen a reprieve, taking it upon himself to kill the men so that her little hands remained unsoiled for a little longer.
But instead, he'd egged her on because Gwen needed instruction in matters more than just magic.
Lord Gunther had told him as much when he left for Shanghai.
“Now that you and I are both privy to Gwen's peculiar quality,” Magus Shultz had shared with him. “We have some interesting times ahead of us. My Master had seen his redemption in Gwen, and I am determined to see his legacy fulfilled, for all our sakes. Despite her trauma, her mind has retained a clarity of purpose, her heart an unwavering moral compass. That is why Master loved her so. The girl has a curious ability to see things with a perspective outside of our ken, a conception of balance, just like her Void and Lighting, interesting, don't you think?"
“The abuse of greatness is when the use of power is disjointed from remorse,” Richard recalled Gwen’s tale of meeting her Master. How strange her mind worked!
“In times of doubt, look to Gwen,” Gunther had advised. “But when she is in doubt, give her a prod.”
Richard observed Gunther's grey eyes.
"How forceful a prod, Sir?"
“Keep her safe, but don’t keep her sheltered,” the Magus had informed Richard. “She will bend, but Gwen will not break.”
And so I shall prod. Richard thought to himself as Gwen summoned her Familiars. He regarded Caliban in its serpentine form, appreciating the obsidian serpent's smooth, high-gloss exterior. A double-edged blade, he thought to himself, one that necessitated finesse and skill.
As the others entered the filtration chamber, Lea returned from her discrete little adventure in the vents above.
The Undine informed him through their telepathic bond that the spotter in the vent had expired.
'Anyone else?' He asked internally.
'The NoM who was watching us is unconscious,' Lea replied. 'I spared him as you asked.'
'Good girl. Stay out of sight, Lea.'
Richard felt a light pressure to his right.
He looked down to see Mayuree, her face full of questions. Gwen and Kitty could not detect his invisible Familiar, but Mayuree could.
He smiled at her innocuously.
“What are you doing?” It was a Private Message.
“Doing what I can for Gwen,” Richard answered without a hint of shame. "Paving the road ahead. Doing my best."
“Best for you, or for Gwen?"
“Is there a difference? I can't foretell the future, I am not a Diviner.”
“…” Mayuree's amber eyes searched his face for an answer.
Were it not for the fact that she knew Richard was bonded to Gwen as both family and ally, she would have exposed him right there. Killing the Mage up in the vents was a convenience, not a necessity. It was only a moment ago that Richard had affirmed Gwen's proposal of letting the non-combatants live.
“Why did you kill him?”
Richard’s answer was as cryptic as it was chilling.
“You gave me cause.”
“Aye,” Richard paused, then gave Mayuree a look that made her skin crawl. “Because we have no need for low-level Transmuters.”
The Diviner walked on ahead.
* * *
The party entered the filtration chambers.
The wastewater exchange nodes were rooms constructed from ferroconcrete, transmuted into twenty-meter width cubes. In the midst of each hub, was an enormous pillar inscribed with a combination of Transmutation, Conjuration, and Abjuration Magic held together by inscriptions and glyphs of the Enchantment School. A plumbing system which tunnelled throughout the Hive city was embedded within, taking fetid wastewater from above and then expelling it into the near-infinite stratum of the Elemental Plane of Water. Below, another node drew in fresh, clean water from elsewhere on the Plane, feeding the purification junction in B2. Though exceedingly rare, the occasional Elemental creature thus stole into the Material Plane, causing havoc in the Hive cities where maintenance was neglected.
When the device was first introduced to the Management students, Gwen almost spat out the chai she was nursing. How big was this Elemental Plane of water exactly? She thought to herself. What if some Aquatic Demi-God came across a floating log of human turd? Would they then desire to punch through the fabric of reality into the Prime Material Plane and end humanity once and for all?
Magister Wen later provided Gwen with some solace by informing her that the Elemental Plane of water was of a scale measured in astrophysical terms. The amount of waste humanity injected into the Plane would not even account for a single particle of waste ejected by native creatures to the plane, such as the True Leviathans, whose size was measured by continents, and whose turd, Gwen reasoned, would be the size of Tasmania.
The filtration system within the room was as Secretariat Choi had described. They were built in the eighties, and many of its sections were suffering from disrepair. Parts of it glowed faintly, others had chipped or missing inscriptions. The lower section had plumbing failures, resulting in gushing pools of foul water that ran ankle deep into water-worn crevices that leaked into the lower floors.
There was also a scent of death in the air, distinct from the heavy odour of human excreta. It was the sort of smell that was sour and acrid with an offending odour that watered the eyes. There was likewise a faint sound of buzzing in the distance, as though someone had thrown a wasp’s nest into a room and then shut the door.
“We’re close enough. We’re smelling the Crawler because of the connecting vent above us.” Mayuree indicated to the rusted entry-point above, where a network of ventilation shafts lay long neglected, used only by strange and aberrant creatures spawned from the chamber’s connection to the Elemental Plane of Water, and now an Arcane Eye. “The creature’s lair is one level above us on B6 and one chamber to the North. The Slaver Mages are on B5 above the creature, spread across various adjacent rooms. My Arcane Eye is currently overseeing the creature. It's disgusting. It's got some sort of compound insect eyes too, and tentacles, and it's squirmy and slimy, and oh God, its got maggots in its maggot body! Arrrgh!”
"It'll all be over soon, Mia," Gwen promised. "Hold steady!"
She knelt and focused upon circulating Alumdj’s mana until half of her Druidic essence congealed into a sphere the size of a ping pong ball.
“Ariel, come here.”
Ariel appeared beside her hand in a flash. With a snap of its jaws, it swallowed the ball of vital energy with an audible chomp. As the emerald energy suffused its body, Ariel's serpentine, marten figure grew several magnitudes until it was almost the size of a hunting hound. Sparks of emerald lightning arced from its whiskers onto the concrete, gouging out a set of Lichtenberg figures across the pavement.
"Eee!! EE!!" it 'E'ed at Gwen.
Her companions, Kitty included, felt the palpable intensity of the mana stored inside Ariel's body.
“Caliban, you’re on back up,” Gwen communicated to her Familiar that it should wait for Ariel to deliver its payload, then strike if the Crawler survived the lightning blast. “Stay in your serpent form until you’re needed. Okay?”
“Shaaa! Shaaa!” Caliban 'S'ed at Gwen.
Gwen could only assume her infamous 'Mongolian Death Worm' understood.
“Okay, lets head up now. Mayuree?”
“All good, the thing’s still in there. Keep in mind I’ve only got the proficiency to control one eye. Our goal is to do this quickly and get out before they're able to come down. Time is of the essence.”
“That’s right,” Gwen said deliberately. “Let's make this clean and snappy.”
Kitty scoffed. In readiness, she had also put on an array of self-buffing Transmutations. Her A-line one-piece had now become a sort of battle-dress, encrusted with dense shards of frigid crystal. Like a Valkyrie of ice, she floated through the air, hovering an inch off the ground, radiating an Aura of Frost that would slow any enemy that tried to close the distance to melee her.
“Lea and I are good to go.”
“Thanks, everyone.” She knocked her boots together. It wasn't necessary, but she had felt the gesture suited the effects of the magic item rather well. “Flight!”
Caliban coiled itself around her waist while Ariel rode on her shoulder. Gwen elevated herself carefully until she reached the height of the vent, near the entrance where Mayuree's eye had entered prior.
At about half a meter from the rusted ventilation, her familiars leapt into the corroded space of the metal with a terrific clang.
“I think it heard that. It's stirring.” Mayuree kept a real-time tab on the Crawler with her face half caught in a suppressed gag. "Mao, that was loud!"
Rookie mistake No. 1, Gwen grimaced. The Arcane Eye was silent and ethereal. Physical movement through the vent was a drunkard playing silly buggers with a trash can outside an inner-city pub, 3 AM Friday night.
Too late now though, Gwen thought. She had to see it through.
Gwen channelled a jolt of Lightning mana into Ariel.
Ariel disappeared in a silvery-emerald streak of light. Caliban slithered forward as well, traversing the vent in an S pattern. When Ariel reached the vertical section, it kicked off the sides with another terrific ‘Clang!’ and made its way up.
As for Caliban, the Void serpent turned its faceless mien upwards, then requested the mana necessary to transmute legs.
Rookie mistake No. 2, Gwen pulled a face. There was a vertical section too steep for her pet to climb in its snake form.
Gwen allowed the request, feeling her blood run cold as Caliban assumed the form of the Javanese Death’s Head centipede.
Caliban stretched out its 29 pairs of newly sprouted legs and began its ascent with a rhythmic ‘tink-tink, tink-tink, tink-tink-tink’, its carapace clanging as it went and its bulbous head and two grasping mandibles attached banging the vent like a cymbal.
‘Clang! Clang! C-C-Clang!’
'Clong! - Clong! - Clong!'
An unholy orchestra of noise reverberated and shot through the vent with such absurd cacophony that Gwen's party could hear nothing else.
“Mayuree.” Gwen closed her eyes as to avoid becoming distracted, turning her mind inward to feel her Familiars through their empathic link. Until her creatures took on Spirits or became higher-order existences, they would not be able to feedback visual and audio stimuli like Lea. It meant that she would have to trust her training of her two Familiars, that and abide by Mayuree’s observations. “Mia, be my eyes."
“It’s fully active now, it's moving toward the vent!” Mayuree shouted over the ding of Gwen’s Familiars raking and ripping their way through the rusted vents.
“Ariel, faster!” Gwen's voice took on a tone urgency, giving her pet another jolt of mana.
Within the field of Mayuree’s Arcane Eye, she saw Ariel launch from the vent into the corroded, slimed covered filtration room where the Crawler had made its lair, skidding across the slippery pavement.
“Combat form!” Gwen released the limits placed on Ariel’s marten form and allowed it to transform into its mongoose shape. “Ariel, keep it company while I ready the spell!”
As it enlarged, the mongoose became surrounded by a splash of blue-green energy that scorched the ground, its spiral horns blasted off a jolt of excess electricity which ionised the fetid air into purified ozone.
Above the Mongoose and Crawler, an arcane eye hovered.
The Crawler had apparently been feeding on the filth that leaked from the malfunctioning filtration node, growing fat on waste and excreta. Now that Ariel was in the fray, Mayuree could see just how unnatural this aberrant creature had become.
The bestiary had stated that Crawlers measured up to a maximum of five-feet, but this creature was clearly nine-feet and then some, excluding its writhing tentacles. It had evidently outgrown its own natural instinct for carrion, for Mayuree could see that in the pile of amphibian spawn-sacks behind it were pale and bloated bodies of humans in various states of decay.
Ariel’s fur fluffed into needle-like slivers as it blasted the creature with a shower of pins and needles, setting up a damage multiplier for Gwen's next assault.
Enraged, the Crawler vomited forth a spray of vile milk liquid in a frontal cone which covered a distance of almost four meters.
Ariel proved far too fleet for a creature used to tracking down unmoving prey either dead or dying. Ariel, meanwhile, in the form of a creature born with the reflex to hunt and devour Wildland cobras, moved as a streak of quicksilver. With a thrust from its powerful hind legs that pulverised the pavement, Ariel leapt from the ground, kicked from the walls, and used the three-dimensional nature of the filtration node to manoeuvre itself into the Crawler’s blind spots, sending its compound eyes twisting and turning on their stalks.
Gwen, meanwhile, readied her artillery spell.
Mayuree was keeping her topped up with a steady stream of updates, informing her that Ariel was performing masterfully. With Mayuree's panoptic eye, Gwen could alleviate her worry that Ariel lacked the intelligence to supercede its tunnel vision prey-sense, making it susceptible to ambushes.
One after another, she incanted the necessary patterns of the Evocation Sigil required to manifest Elemental Sphere.
Though the spell was still a tier above her, she had studied the incantation enough to complete the circuit. Using a spell above one's attained tier was slow and costly, though Gwen had mana to spare.
Caliban suddenly sent her an empathic warning.
“Something’s coming through the top side!” Mayuree abruptly shouted beside Gwen, her eyes wide with disbelief. “What in Mao’s name? A Stone Shape is manifesting on the east wall!”
The intrusion was so sudden that Gwen almost let slip of her spell.
“Gwen, if you’re going to do it…” Mayuree urged her to make or break. As the intrusion had posed no immediate danger to Mayuree, she had not foreseen it coming and was just as surprised.
Gwen caught her fumble and finished the last few syllables. For a combat spell meant to be used in the heat of battle, Gwen's carefully orchestrated artillery version had taken her almost three minutes.
"Gwen! I think its-"
Gwen finished the last dozen syllables of her incantation, feeling the strain on her Evocation glyph dialled to eleven. Given a choice, she would have chosen Lightning Bolt, but it was only in her new Signature Evocation AOE that she had full confidence. The spell required no aiming in an enclosed room, just that Ariel was within ten feet of their target.
"Garr! My eyes!"
Mayuree felt her arcane eye burst with a brilliant display of dazzling light.
At the same time, before her spell fizzled, she had seen the wall burst open to reveal a familiar mana signature she was sure she had detected before.
The ball of plasma which erupted from Ariel was like a miniature sun manifesting within the tightly constrained space of the filtration chamber. Arcs of blue-green lighting running at a billion or more volts filled the room, turning the air into flames.
The Crawler creature made a single screech before its mucus evaporated, its flesh charred, and its soft innards boiled. Already pin-cushioned by Ariel’s lightning-charged spines, the volatile energy sought a path of escape, finding itself drawn to the creature’s body, obliterating it so entirely that it split from top to bottom in an eruption of superheated mucus.
Then the first stage of Elemental Sphere ended, and the second stage began.
A secondary burst of electricity in emerald and cobalt smothered the room in a cleansing tempest, scouring every inch of its surface with plasma, flaying the necrotic air with heavenly fire until only ozone remained.
* * *
Gwen immediately retracted Ariel and Caliban when the spell connected.
Rookie mistake No. 3, Gwen sighed. Too much gunpowder in the cannon.
She wanted to make sure the volume of vitae spent was a sufficient multiplier for the Crawler.
But, Gwen realised too late. Overkill was overkill.
Having spent weeks practising Ariel’s lightning manifestation, as well as record metrics with Magister Wen, she had developed an acute internal sense for the strength of lightning produced by her Evocation Sigil.
Week after week, she had felt the intensity and power of her Evocation Sigil increase in proficiency little by little, like water carving out a pathway through stone, becoming more fluid and fluent.
From the rush of heat exploding from the vent, Gwen's spell appeared to have ignited the residual mana within the room, left by the broken Enchantment of the filtration system.
Gwen felt her back soaking with sticky perspiration.
Rookie mistake No.4, she drew in a hot breath of ionised air. Getting caught in an accidental AOE of one's own making.
If Gwen had been in that room, and she had no idea that her lighting was powerful enough to ignite the excess mana - then the ramifications would have been severe burns or even incapacitation. Gwen was confident her Shield was supreme against pinpoint physical attacks, but this was a burst of plasma that turned all localised moisture into superheated steam.
She couldn't help but applaud her choice of avoiding the Slavers. What would have happened if she was with allies in that room? Or that Gwen had chosen to cast the spell as Richard defended her? She could have taken out their own party - and by extension all her aspirations for Fudan and the IIUC.
“Goddess above and below!” Mayuree struck out her tongue at Gwen. “What did you and Magister Wen create?!”
“Bloody hell.” Gwen felt her heart pounding against her chest. “Thank God we sent Ariel in! No one else got hurt right?”
Mayuree's expression froze.
“Er… I don’t know about that…”
She recalled the sight she'd seen as the spell erupted. She was sure that a sorceress had come through the wall, which meant that...
The two Diviners instantly took up defensive postures.
There was no time to explain.
“Richard! Incoming!” Gwen warned her cousin.
“12 O’Clock! Above us!” Mayuree’s warning was far more precise. “It’s coming through the bulkhead!”
“Shield!” Richard formed a water barrier in front and on top of his companions. He had been working on his Abjuration for the last six weeks, focussing on both the speed of his manifestation and the endurance of his protective barriers, bringing it to tier 2.
Kitty readied an incantation.
Then the floor began to churn.
'Thump!' 'Thump!' 'Thump!'
The whole chamber seemed to ripple and tear from a Shockwave spell.
The ground lurched violently, and Gwen lost her footing. She had not dared to keep her boots in a fight while she focused on her Elemental Sphere.
Richard too was forced off balance. Mayuree fell on all fours.
“Mia!” Kitty cried out. “Watch out!”
The floor shook.
The ceiling shifted.
It felt as though the whole building was shivering.
The concrete surface directly above them suddenly opened, revealing curling rebar that folded back as though commanded by a supernatural force, like the inverse-bloom of a flower.
Four pairs of eyes turned skyward.
A rusted blade, two-feet across and a full ten-feet long, shot into the filtration chamber where Gwen’s party lay sprawled, arms akimbo.
No, not a blade, Gwen thought as it punched through two layers of Richard’s Water Shield then struck her non-newtonian mana Shield.
More like a slab of iron.