“Good. If you're actually that pissed off, it means you're alive and lucid.” Gwen threw the blanket over Lulan, then picked her ragdoll body up from the floor. There would be time for words later.
The commotion from behind their battle-line seemed to have alerted the Slavers crowding the tunnel entrance. They turned to what they presumed was the corpse of the berserker girl only to see a blurred outline lifting the girl’s body into the air, underneath of which was a pair of long, shapely legs in leather booties. All in all, it was a surreal sight.
“Stop her!” a husky female voice cried out.
From underneath her cowl, Gwen caught sight of the leader of the Slavers. To her surprise, it was a woman, and an exceedingly beautiful one at that, with honeyed skin and dark eyes, as well as a head full of dark hair that fell to her waist.
She looked nothing like the Slavers Gwen had fought, people like Bozza, who appeared as caricatures from a Mad Max movie. If Gwen saw this woman on the streets of University Boulevard, she wouldn’t think twice. But that was the reality of it, wasn’t it? Gwen thought dangerously. It’s not as though the head of a kidnapping operation would dress up and advertise the fact. All that wealth and ill-gotten gains had to be translated into life’s little luxuries, and those could only be gotten outside in the ‘real’ world of the Tier 1 city.
Gwen held Lulan close to her as she manifested another Dimension Door.
She materialised in the midst of the enemy Mages as a burst of inky Void.
Four Shields burst into brilliance, cobalt, ochre, yellow and brilliant white, sending their Mages stumbling backwards, limbs akimbo.
Another burst of tenebrous ink, then Gwen was gone.
* * *
Nephres watched her Shield absorb the splash of void-tainted mana.
The hungering energy had been enough to consume a semi-sphere of concrete below where Gwen Song had landed, four-inches deep.
Nephres felt a sudden unease gripping her imagination.
Weren’t the Sword Mage and Gwen Song mortal enemies? What was she hoping to accomplish? They had no healers, and no potion was capable of restoring the Lulan girl. Did they have a wand? That was impossible, those only reached tier 4. How about a scroll? No, that still required the relevant Schools of Magic.
“Mass Cure Moderate Wounds!”
Nephres ensured her ‘meat shields’ were sufficiently topped up as she eyed three separate exit routes. She had not made it this far in the Organisation by being illiberal with her followers.
She had not expected the students to last this long against a two-sided assault, and most importantly, she had not at all expected the tier 4 Dimension Door to be in Gwen Song's repertoire. It was virtually impossible to catch teleporting Conjurers.
The only saving grace was that Dimension Door was a costly spell that most Mages could only manifest half a dozen times. Still, if the girl chose to run, abandoning her friends, catching her would be a significant chore.
“Sui,” Nephres called out to her Second-in-command.
Sui was the one who had been transmuting the concrete in the tunnel. Now it was evident that a certain Void Sorceress had access to short-range teleportation, Nephres realised that she needed to make some contingencies.
Raising her head, Sui looked to her mistress for further instruction.
Nephres threw her a mana injector, then activated her earring to deliver a Silent Message. Without access to a Divination control tower, the devices only worked within line of sight.
“Seal the tunnel. Keep them in with the Crawlers. We’ll cut our losses and retreat to B9. We’ll be leaving via the service tunnel in B12.”
“Yes, Mistress,” Sui replied likewise via her embedded device. She had questions but needed no answers. Her mistress' word was divine. If Nephres thought there was a danger and that their operation was too risky, then Nephres must be right.
Sui turned her attention back to the tunnel and redoubled her efforts.
Their Evoker took the opportunity to send in a few Magic Missiles that clanged against the Water Mage’s Shield, which instantly replenished its flowing facade.
The second Evoker sent in another ball of blasting air, but the Water Abjurer had layered a double-Shield this time, preventing the same feint from happening.
Thinking of Gwen's Dimension Door and grinding her teeth at her team's incompetence, Nephres' mind was unpacking a whole new narrative. She pondered the 'advantage' gained by their ambush against their present stalemate.
Within the tunnel, the student Mages were:
A Spirit Abjurer with an insane water affinity.
An Ice Mage with at least tier 4 in both Evocation and Transmutation.
A Mage who was likely a Diviner, using 400 HDM wands like they were expendable.
And Gwen Song with a near-dead Clanner Sword Mage.
That meant the Void Beast and the Mongoose both belonged to Gwen. In addition, the object of Nephres' assault was manifesting both Evocation And Conjuration.
What else was the girl hiding?
What did she have in reserve?
What about the others?
Thinking of Lulan, Nephres was reminded of the Sword Mage's battered form.
When they descended down the tunnel, she had felt the shock of the blast in the crawler's abode, though they were too far to see it. From the vibration through the shaft Nephres had figured that Gwen's lightning must have ignited the residual mana that flooded the chamber whenever a filter broke down. What if she was wrong, and Gwen Song had a trump card capable of destroying that chamber wholesale? What if she were to use it and slaughter everyone here, allies and enemies, indiscriminately?
Nephres felt an impotent frustration at the fact that she’d been baited.
Those fucking Dossiers!
Was it Yi? Unlikely. Was it Choi? That she could believe. Did Choi know about her connection to the Ravenports? Or to her Mistress? Impossible. The only reason she could think of was that Choi had thought he could use the student Mages to clean house.
Nephres bit her lower lip vehemently.
Fucking rat bastard!
How many thousands of HDMs had she sent him to keep her operations running?
Seeing that the tunnel was almost closed, Nephres carefully backed away toward the side tunnel connecting B7-4-3 to its adjacent filtration chambers. Her mind was already thinking of the dozen or so routes she could potentially take. Only the locals would know the place as well as she did.
Time was of the essence then. Once she mingled with the flood of magical signatures in the Metropolis or escaped into the Outlands, not even Diviners would be able to locate her.
“Mistress, it's closed,” Sui announced her success. It was far easier sealing the tunnel than it was trying to enclose the interior to crush the inhabitants.
The other Mages had stopped attacking and were looking toward their leader for further instruction as well. Nephres wondered if Sui obsessed over her enough to leave the others. Unlike Nephres, who had taken command of the operation months ago, these warren-rats had known each other all their lives.
“Sui, get the men o-“
A burst of lightning exploded in the midst of Nephres' Mages.
This time, they hadn’t stood so idiotically close to each other, and their Shields had not crowded one another onto their buttocks.
Gwen Song and the Sword Mage emerged with a brilliant flash of silvery Conjuration. The girl no longer had her camo-optic cowl, giving Nephres a good look at her striking mien and flashing eyes.
But it wasn't Gwen's striking appearance that took her breath away.
It was the Sword Mage.
To Nephres’ disbelieving eyes, the girl was utterly restored from head to toe. Not only that, she was the very picture of vitality and haleness. She was now attired in a loose shirt and shorts that covered her shame, her exposed skin glowed with the metallic sheen of iron, her eyes two garnets flashing with merciless bloodlust.
How the fuck?! Nephres felt her reality invert. Even the girls’ hair had grown back!
Nephres turned and fled down the closest service tunnel. She had never been one for sentimentality.
“Mistress!” Sui called out to her desperately.
Nephres sped up.
Time was of the essence.
* * *
Gwen had returned to the midst of her companions with the battered Lulan in tow.
“Mao above!” Mayuree had to suppress a mouthful of vomit, gagging over the Sword Mage as her eyes fell upon her.
Lulan’s face was a ruined, corroded mess. She had bits of cheek absent from an inquisitive tentacle as well as missing the soft tissue of her nose. Her arm was a stump kept from bleeding out by the paralytic poison of the Carrion Crawler. She was topless as well, one breast almost entirely flayed of its dermis, with pockmarks of suction-cup wounds running up and down the left lumbar. Only her legs, which had been submerged beneath the water, remained unmolested by the worm.
But her wide open eyes indicated she was alive and lucid.
Gwen materialised a healing injector and punched the solution into Lulan’s chest. She needed to stabilise the girl so they could make their deal.
As the potion worked its magic, Lulan coughed, clearing the blood constricting her breath.
“We don’t have much time, so here goes.” Gwen watched the red fluid enter Lulan’s body, then produced a Cure Poison injector. She pulled, then punched the anti-venom adrenaline into Lulan's thigh.
The Sword Mage's body shuddered and convulsed as the remedy took effect.
“Kill me,” Lulan grunted when her muscles regained motion, her voice barely audible. “Put me down. I don’t need your charity.”
Gwen licked her lips drily, observed by her companions.
“Lulan, I am going to make you a deal.”
“Just get it over with!” Lulan gasped.
“Hey! Listen to-“
“Chou Biao-zi! Just kill me already! I am ruined! Look at me! I-" Lulan made a supreme effort to rise.
Gwen slapped her across her remaining face.
In the stunned moment that followed, Lulan opened her mouth to speak again.
Gwen slapped Lulan across the face again.
Lulan looked as though she wanted to speak again until Gwen raised her hand as a warning.
She met Lulan’s burning eyes.
“Good. Now shut up and listen. I am going to make you a deal.”
Gwen produced from her ring a Spell Cube that glowed intensely with emerald energy.
“I have in here, a tier 7 Regeneration spell cast by a tier 8 Healer. It is capable of restoring every wound, regrowing every limb, and repairing every scar on your body.”
Lulan’s chest rose and fell as her eyes rested upon the Cube.
“I am going to save you. In return, you will help us repel our enemies, Yes. That’s right. Yours and mine. I am sorry for what happened with the Elemental Sphere. It was an accident. I don’t know if I can return Kusu daggers, but I will ask Caliban where they have gone and try my best. I also want no more trouble from you afterwards. Do you understand? Nod if you do.”
For some reason, the pressure from the Stone Shape had ceased. Now there was the sound of shifting concrete coming from the furthest part of the tunnel.
After several seconds, Lulan nodded.
Gwen breathed out. She couldn't think of a reason why Lulan wouldn't agree. Just look at the state the poor girl. Jesus fuck. Apart from her legs, she didn’t have a single piece of her torso and face that wasn’t mauled beyond all recognition.
“Gwen! They’re trying to close us in!” Mayuree cried out. Her wand’s charges were almost out. "I don't know what they're trying to do! Flood the tunnel? More crawlers? AOE attack?"
“I am getting close to being OOM,” Richard informed them. “Going to use my last potion soon.”
“Whatever you want to do, you better do it now!” Kitty hissed at Gwen. In her opinion, Gwen teleporting Mayuree out was the best option by far.
“Okay.” Gwen incanted the lock release on the Cube gifted from Petra, then redirected the manifesting spell from herself toward Lulan.
Instantly, the healing energies of the tier 7 spell suffused the Sword Mage, its potency so powerful as to lift her bodily from the floor. With a rapidness that defied even their wildest expectations, Lulan’s lost limb restored itself, growing from stump to pale white, flawless arm in less than ten seconds. Her skin likewise restored itself, her face returned to its usual pale beauty, and even Lulan's hair, which had been burned off by Gwen’s lightning, grew long and silky down to her shoulders.
Richard glanced at Lulan’s half-naked form, lamenting a missed opportunity.
He had hoped that Gwen could consume the damned girl and see if she too could tap into this Sword Magic, or gain greater affinity in her Conjuration and Transmutation schools. What a perfectly good waste of a unique talent.
Lulan bolted upright, her body alive with renewal.
Her heart pulsed, transmuting her Earthen mana into motes of iron.
She regarded her surroundings, but there was no haze.
What she saw, she observed with crystal clarity!
The red mist… it was gone!
Doubtfully, she circulated her mana. Lulan's mana-lit irises became twin garnets. They were no longer a cloudy wine or a rusty red. As the volume of mana running through her body reached an apex, her eyes became two vermillion rubies, clarified and clear. Her everpresent headache, the oppressive feeling that something hot and rusty was hammering her brain, had all but disappeared.
Lulan touched a hand to her left breast.
The incision below her bosom, where the catalyst for the Heart of Iron, implanted into all of Huashan’s disciples who qualified for the secret sword-art, was gone. Furthermore, as she circulated her mana, her motes of elemental iron felt unimpeded and rarified, flowing through her conduits with complete ease. All those injuries she sustained, all those conduits cut off by her brute-forced training, sending the iron roughshod through her body, were fully restored.
Even now, the healing energies in her body were continuing to repair hidden injuries that she knew not existed.
“I…” Lulan looked around her, unsure what to say. “Than-“
Gwen handed her singlet. Coughing gently. Their temporary ally was filthy and covered in grime and ichor. And topless.
Lulan slipped the borrowed shirt overhead, then got to her feet. She smoothed out her damaged riding leathers. It would have to do for now.
“We’ll talk later,” she informed the Void Sorceress, the clarity of her own voice strange to her. “For now, use me as you see fit.”
* * *
The sword that protruded from the space between the Planes was bright and razor sharp, its edge honed by the monomolecular split between the Prime Material and the Elemental Plane of Earth. Its surface was still speckled with impure ochre, but it was no longer rusty and misshapen.
With the sound of whispering steel slicing through paper, Lulan’s sword penetrated the Shield of the Transmuter before she was ready to defend herself, then sliced off her legs at the knees, where the Shield was the thinnest. For most improperly trained Mages, their Shields tended to be thick near the head and torso, thinning as the membrane reached the ground.
The expression on the Transmuter's face was still one of disbelief as she fell to the floor. She landed with a thump, staring at her own severed feet before a torrent of blood turned the brackish water crimson.
The Fire Evoker let loose with several beams of Scorching Rays.
"Parry!" Lulan materialised a blade which absorbed the blast.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen called down a bolt from the blue, sending the Mage's shield into a dazzling display of crackling energy.
She readied another Blast Bolt, but Lulan was faster than even that.
A second blade shot from the Elemental Plane of Earth and took the Fire Mage in the face, entirely unimpeded by its passage through the feeble Fire Shield the Mage erected. Hardpoint attacks were not something soft-Shields could resist - paper and scissors.
“Onslaught!” Gwen allowed the lull in danger to provide her with the liberty of commanding her hasted void-spider to make quick work of the Carrion Crawlers, now isolated from healing and frostbitten by Kitty’s spells.
The Air Mage turned and fled.
"Lighting Bolt!" Gwen let loose another spell. This time, it penetrated the Mage's Shielding, struck the water, and lit up the brackish liquid.
Like a javelin, a length of polished steel flew through the air and landed in the water with a heavy 'Thunk!' In the next moment, the dark waters took on the colour of red wine.
Which one of these was the Crawler handler? Gwen wondered. There was no point to it now though.
“Gwen, take us to the other side. There’s three more. ” Lulan informed her quietly. “My Misty Step cannot teleport outside of the line of sight.”
Taking a glance at the dead and dying around her with a grimace, Gwen wrapped an arm around Lulan's waist and initiated a Lighting based Dimension Door.
From within the tunnel, Caliban informed her that it had torn through the first Crawler, and was now moving onto the second.
The duo appeared on the other side of the tunnel complex with a blast that sent the Abjurer stumbling. There was a dozen of the Slavers here, apart from three Mages, the rest looked to be NoMs carrying various apparatus’ like netting made from a nylon-like substance and an assortment of melee implements.
A rippling wave of upturning concrete spread throughout the room, sending the Mages off balance and flatfooted. These untrained magicians of the warrens had not undergone formal training, meaning their mana reserves were woefully low, and their prolonged casting easily disrupted. It was one of the reasons why often, they had NoM bodyguards and melee fighters supplementing their magic.
Lulan’s irises flashed like twin rubies as her killing intent swept over the Slavers, sending a few of the NoMs to their knees.
An enormous blade almost four-meters in length and half a meter across swept through the crowd. The stunned NoMs and hapless Mages screamed and cried as the iron blade harvested their lives in one swoop, sending a spray of blood and guts in a crescent arc.
When her blade ended at the Abjurer, her eyes narrowed.
There was a sound of splintering glass, then a severed head rolled away. The Abjurer had dodged and deflected Lulan for almost an hour prior, and he had furthermore tanked Gwen and Kitty's bolts for the last five minutes. There was only so much a Shield can take.
As if waking from a bad dream, the rest of the NoMs began to flee for their lives.
Lulan moved to intercept, but Gwen held Lulan's shoulder.
“I think that's enough.” Gwen was a single corpse away from hurling up all the contents of her lunch at D-35.
No more purpose would be served by cutting down yet more NoMs. Gwen was glad that the sight of slaughter stifled the growing feeling of satisfaction. The joy of slaughter was one she would rather not entertain needlessly, for any more would be butchery.
Jesus Christ, Gwen thought. It's a fucking abattoir. Enough for today.
Lulan was surprised herself that she felt no blood frenzy, just a strange, mechanical calm.
Richard, Mayuree and Kitty emerged from the tunnel now that the enemies at this side were cleared. They informed Gwen that between Caliban, Ariel and Kitty, the already wounded crawlers were accounted for. Without their handler and without healing, the crowded crawlers made easy targets in an enclosed tunnel.
As they appeared at the scene of Lulan’s merciless retribution, her team members baulked at the steaming mass of corpses before them. Mayuree’s face paled, while Kitty frowned at the dead NoMs; only Richard seemed to be energised by the total victory that Lulan and Gwen had wrought.
“There’s one more who escaped. Their leader - the healer,” Lulan stated with finality.
The foursome regarded the Sword Mage strangely. Who was this young woman and why was she so collected? Where was the crazy-eyed Sword Mage?
“Shall we give chase?” Lulan further enquired.
“Of course we give chase!” Richard felt his exhaustion fall away at once, his body rejuvenated by a second wind. “I bet she's worth 20 CCs.”
“Wait, let me try,” Mayuree stopped them. “We’re looking for that Middle-Easterner, right?”
“Yes,” Gwen nodded. She had gotten a good look at the woman. "What are you going to do?"
Lulan used another Stone Shape to clear the blockaded tunnel. Employing her Greater Detect Magic, Mayuree caught motes of the healer’s diffused mana still lingering on the Crawlers.
“I don’t know if this is going to work,” Mayuree stated hesitantly. “Too much mana floating around, from both the filter and our fight.”
“Do your best, Mia,” Gwen informed her kindly.
“I always do my best.” Mayuree grinned, turning to the task at hand. With a flick of the wrist, she summoned two obsidian tubes bent in the shape of bananas.
Banana Dousing?! Gwen’s mind was still reeling from the slaughter and took every opportunity to distract itself. Mayuree is going use dousing to vector out the location of the Slaver’s leader?
Well, there it is, Gwen nodded approvingly.
To their surprise, the sticks shifted and tilted until they were pointed downwards and toward the north-east.
“…” The other four watched.
“This way?” Mayuree indicated.
The party began to move for one of the side tunnels.
“No need,” Lulan interjected, surprising them all with her impromptu helpfulness. “You'll never catch her at this rate. I'll make a shortcut. Stone Shape!”
The girl appeared to have a near-perpetual supply of Stone Shapes, Gwen observed. Was it because of her high affinity? It was impossible that the Sword Mage possessed a VMI similar to herself; it was more probable that Lulan’s peculiar elemental compatibility with Earth made her low and mid-tier spells extremely cost-effective.
The party followed the direction of Mayuree’s dousing, creating an entirely new system of tunnels that cut diagonally from B7 to B12.
* * *
Expeditious Retreat, when used excessively, exacted a terrible burden on the body. Nephres felt such exhaustion that she was on the verge of falling to her knees, but knowing a hot pursuit, she continuously cured her fatigue cramps the best she could.
She had raced the entire length to B12, running, crawling, sliding and leaping across collapsed sections and hidden crevasses to get to the service tunnel that would lead her back up above ground. She had a vehicle stashed at the exit warehouse, where once she made it into the city, Nephres could safely disappear.
As for disappearing, Nephres was confident she could escape.
After all, she was currently Invisible.
Potions of Invisibility were absurdly difficult to obtain. A highly controversial and controlled substance made from the rare catalyst of the Pixie-winged Mayfly’s scales. A single potion was almost 200 HDMs at the source, escalating in price from trader to black market until it was close to 800 HDMs. Nephres didn’t mind though, anything was better than falling into the hands if the PLA, especially Secretariat Choi.
With a burst of fearful adrenaline, she made it past the final section of the crisscrossing tunnels and found herself twenty or so meters from the iron grate that connected to a hidden exit. It was her predecessor who had built the escape tunnel into the exhaust port. She was the only one who knew of its existence.
As she approached the tunnel, she became aware of a small, white creature sitting on its haunches. It looked like a ferret, or perhaps an ermine, with beady eyes that stared straight at her.
Nephres readied a Shield of Faith as he approached.
There was something familiar about the ferret that caught her eye. A particular hint of ozone, perhaps, that lingered in the air, or mayhap the way its fur reminded her of the larger beast she had seen earlier.
The ferret sniffed the air with its nose.
Nephres froze mid-movement, scanning her surroundings.
The ferret made a throwing motion with its neck, tossing a white crystal toward her general direction before fleeing down the tunnel.
Nephres felt her stomach lurch as the crystal landed a few meters away.
A burst of light and sound triggered the Shield Nephres had prepared, momentarily negating her invisibility as her barrier absorbed the sonic force and lumen brilliance of the blast. In the next moment, a torrent of water gushed from the tunnel, pooled around her semi-dome Shield, and unveiled her whereabouts.
She made a leap for the exit, but the water pinned her firmly against the floor. Nephres had the choice of releasing her Shield or remain fast stuck.
The choice was soon made for her.
Nephres' heart tumbled like a boulder down a sheer cliff as her assailants emerged one after another.
The Water Mage, Richard Huang.
The Ice Mage, Kitty Liang.
The one called Mayuree.
Gwen Song emerged with the accursed ferret.
And finally, the Sword Mage who had gone berserk earlier followed behind the Void Sorceress with a grim expression.
Nephres felt her spine quiver with agitation, had she not seen such misery and agony under her Mistress that would drive a grown Mage insane, she would have fallen to her knees and despaired.
But Nephres had been around long enough to know that chance came to those who had the patience to endure.
“Enough with the invisibility,” Gwen Song pronounced in her general direction. “Come out.”
Nephres bit her lower lip. It wasn’t as though she could turn off a potion! She had no control over it!
The Sword Mage behind Gwen huffed with displeasure, then made a motion with her hands.
“Shield of Faith!” Nephres swore, frantically channelling her mana into the staple Cleric defensive incantation.
A wrought iron blade, polished and gleaming, struck Nephres with the force of a small truck. Nephres was lifted from the air as her Shield shattered, sending her skittering and sliding across the concrete pavement.
The impact and the damage were jarring enough to dispel her Invisibility.
“Why did you attack us? Who are you? Who do you work for?” Gwen Song fired off a rapid series of questions as Nephres was lifted into the air by a pocket of sentient water. “I suggest you tell us the truth because Richard here can be very persuasive.”
“…” Nephres knew then, that she had overplayed her hand for the last time.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t 'talk' to the student Mages. They evidently had no desire to kill her, nor were they uncivil. The problem for Nephres was that she knew death was preferable to what her future held.
She could easily bullshit the students. Gwen Song had no idea who she was. Then what? Then she would be handed to the PLA. To Secretary Choi. Did Choi know who she worked for? Nephres wouldn’t bet her Arcane Soul on it, that was for sure. They would torture her, of course, that was without doubt; take liberties with her sweet body even. As a healer, she could withstand that, survive without lingering symptoms. Then what? Then the MSS would bring in the Mind-Mages, and those nasty Enchanters would comb through her drugged mind, sifting through the sand of her incoherent memories for gold.
What would she say?
Without a doubt, Geas or no, Nephres would reveal her true identity under delirium or fever.
She would speak in dreams and riddles but speak she would.
If someone had asked Nephres whether she would be a martyr for the Organisation one day, Nephres would have laughed in their faces. Yet here she was being called to question.
When she woke up this morning, what did she portend for herself?
A fuller lunch would have helped. Nephres thought. A final meal of her favourite things. Maybe another round with Yi, fulfilling another appetite.
Her eyes moved from student to student until they landed on Gwen Song.
The girl was impatient with triumph, flanked by an obsidian serpent and a white marten.
They did say that salvation came in all shapes and sizes.