"Tei! What the hell's happening?" Gwen burst through the portal, followed shortly by Lulan, Mayuree, and Eunae. Where Indaw had been a lakeside township a few hours prior, it was now a setting for Rambo II. "Jesus, are we in a war zone?"
"Mia!" Kitty Blinked in from thin air, embracing her companion with a fierce possessiveness. "Are you alright?"
"Kitty." Mayuree was caught in her bodyguard's arms. "The Tyrant's after me!"
The corners of Gwen's eyes twitched.
"I am not sure what's happening here, but first, let's get mobile. We don't want Kyoto to getting too far ahead of us." Tei would have liked the whole story elucidated from the beginning, but he knew the situation could only get worse if they stayed. At the west gate, their rival's convoy had already cleared the town. "We'll be moving northward. Your friends from Kyoto are keeping our unexpected friends busy for now."
"N-northward?" Mayuree spluttered. "No! We should be going south!"
"We're very close to finishing the quest, Miss Mayuree," Tei patiently explained even as his shield dampened a Fireball. "Please move to the centre for your own safety."
"I am staying with Mia," Kitty interjected.
"You-" Gwen bit her tongue, forcing herself to delay her admonishment, giving in to the fact that from Kitty's perspective, she had indeed taken very little care of Mayuree. "Fine, go. Keep her and Eunae safe."
The Ice Mage shot Gwen a cold scowl of disapproval before directing their Healer and Diviner toward a truck with enough space for the agonised Mayuree to lie down.
"No! Don't leave me!" Mayuree reached out in futility.
"I'll be within teleportation range," Gwen parted from her Diviner. Fucking Maymyint, she cursed internally. Whatever the hell that slithering snake in the grass may be planning, she would give the bitch a piece of her mind as soon as they returned to Shanghai.
"Gwen, up here," Tei invited her up to the back of the end truck, a semi-trailer with a shipping container, within which Gwen willed her dogs and Caliban, anticipating a future ambush of whatever may come within melee range of their cargo.
Unfortunately, the multi-team Spellcraft exhibition rampaging in the sky above proved more chaotic than a geometric Picasso.
"I can't tell who's who." Gwen observed the melee. Buildings were falling, and Nagas were rampaging, Fireballs erupted here and there, followed by flashes of close-quarter combat as spells exploded through windows and lit up the alleyways. Indaw was by no means a large town, and from the looks of the collateral damage, there may not be an Indaw thereafter.
In the distance, she heard the familiar sound of Lightning Bolts materialising and striking the ground, making a familiar sound of fulmination as the air turned to plasma. An enemy Mage was throwing down a volley of explosive bolts, peeling away at a building where the local militia had sheltered themselves. Below, civilians fled in panicked mobs, roving across the street as the half-brick, half-galvanised iron construct began to disintegrate.
"Does anyone anywhere give a shit about non-combatants?" Gwen ground her teeth even as Fudan's supply convoy began to withdraw. At the very least, she gave a shit about her NoMs. She would ensure the men and women that came with them returned to La War unharmed, even if they had to pack themselves like sardines to one side, barely caring to breathe or Achoo in the presence of Caliban and her dogs.
"I dare say... no." Tei empowered a Fuda.
"Incoming!" Two blooming mid-air Water Shields punctuated Richard's warning, catching a series of flaming missiles, one of which exploded into a Fireball, showering the hopping NoMs below with scalding liquid. "Fuck me dead. They weren't this keen before."
"I think I know why." Gwen opened her conduits, transforming her invisible Ariel in the process.
"Dick, can you mark my enemies for me?"
"Will do! Lea?"
Globules of glowing water immediately condensed around five Mages who had gotten too close to Fudan's retreating convoy for comfort.
As Gwen incanted, her Kirin Familiar positioned itself. If they were going to punt these bastards back to the mountains, she would do it without adieu.
Sensing her mana build-up, two of the hostile Mages attempted to disrupt her casting. One materialised a spear of stone, while the other conjured a sudden squall of falling fire.
As usual, Tei Bai's barrier offered stoic defence and morbid aesthetics in equal measure, consuming both attacks effortlessly even as the Dust's necrotic aura chilled Gwen to the bone.
Gwen's retributive counter-fire lit up half the battlefield, painting the low clouds a viridescent green.
With Ariel in position, her bolt made just over two revolutions between five enemy casters, blitzing from one to the next with instantaneous clamours of cobalt-green electricity. The initial hit, by far the most potent, singularly shattered an Abjurer's bronze-coloured Earthen Shield, sending her enemy into convulsive bouts of epilepsy. The resultant ricochet then ping-ponged from Mage to Mage, tearing through their depleted defence, sending the unsuspecting rogues tumbling from the sky.
A torrent of Magma caught a Mage as she fell.
Gwen's irises contracted upon seeing Rene giving her a thumbs up and an encouraging wink.
"Go for the kill," Richard interrupted her internal revelry with a spot of unwelcome advice. "Gunther told me to remind you now and then of Blackheath."
Before she could retort, Richard demonstrated his point by firing off a jet-blast of white water, sending another falling enemy spiralling into the distance, crashing into a Wall of ever-burning Fire deposited by Jiro.
"Gwen, focus," Tei intervened when he caught her reddening face. "Look, Kyoto's no different."
Indeed, Kyoto's giants were fending off the waves of incoming Mages with fire and stone. What Gwen's Captain underscored was the fact that Dororo, though cute as Gumby himself, was in the process of crushing a shielded enemy Mage like a soft-boiled egg.
A brief scream drew Gwen and Tei's attention to their right flank, where Lulan had caught an assailant flying close to the ground and around the town's waist-high vegetation. Unlike Gwen, whose Ariel could gauge when an enemy was disabled without wasting excess energy, the Sword Mage powered every swing without reserve, cleaving through her enemy's flesh and bone alike. After a dozen flurries in quick succession, an Heart-Piercing Sword impaled her target's chest, pinning an indigenous-seeming man into the gore-strewn asphalt.
Elsewhere, another enemy fled into the distance, aflame with a burst of orange-white fire that refused to extinguish, dashing into the rice paddies in a futile attempt at salvation.
The remaining enemies scattered, likely to regroup and reorganise. Gwen's instantaneous slaying of their Abjurer had opened a glaring hole in their defence.
"Mercy is a privilege," her Captain remarked drily before activating his Message bangle. "Gwen, take the left flank. Jiro, Rene, you take the right. Mayuree, Message our drivers and tell them to increase speed!"
"Oi, we got a big one incoming!" Richard collapsed a Wall of Water to refresh yet another. He and Jiro had been alternating walls every few hundred meters to discourage pursuit. "Gwen! Hydra on the left!"
"It's a Naga!" Gwen shouted, concurrently sending out a mental command, unleashing her dogs from the container's interior. "It's mine!"
A Naga slithered from the tall grass toward the trucks, making haste across the pavement with surprising velocity for a creature of impressive bulk. When the beast broke the fields of still-green rice, Gwen could see that in lieu of Richard's six-headed monster with a body like a brontosaurus, the Naga possessed no limbs, but a massively muscled torso with the likeness of a boa-constrictor. From chest to chest, the creature's central mass was at least the width of their cargo-trailer.
"That's not the Hydra we fought earlier!" Tei reinforced his wards. "Mao! That IS a Naga!"
Nagas were inherently draconic, meaning their resistance to magic was many times that of the pseudo-draconic swamp monster known as the Hydra. If that was the case, it explained how the serpent slithered through spellfire without being cooked, battered or electrocuted.
"Fuck!" Richard swore as the Naga reared to its full height, each cobra head expanding their multi-coloured hoods. "Shit! Lea! Diffusion Shield!"
As one, all six head began to hurl globs of sputum at the convoy.
Lea managed the catch two of the six projectiles, Richard caught two, and the two gnawed at the Tomb Shields Tei had laid down earlier, sliding off the grey barrier to sizzle the asphalt with an odious stink of carbonising acid.
"Nasty stuff." Richard's disgust was met with agreement. "Don't let it get close!"
"I know! Tomb Wall!" Tei formed a circular Sigil with both hands, catching the Naga mid slither, sending its momentum awry by launching it a meter into the air.
Catching the Naga's disorientation, Gwen's deerhounds closed in at once, crackling with electricity as they tore into the Naga's scale-covered body, tearing out great fleshy chunks of rubbery flesh and lichen-covered scales. Feeling the pain, the Naga thrashed, sending its heads to snap at Gwen's dogs. Her deerhounds, however, agile as ferrets and designed by Morden for the express purpose of monster hunting, evaded the envenomed strikes with yips and yelps. With an encouraging "EE!" from Ariel, the dogs renewed their assault by moving down the serpent's body and attacking its mid-section, snapping at its forked tail.
"Do Naga heads grow back?" Gwen shouted at her captain.
"I have no idea!" Tie Messaged back. "This is the first time I've seen an old-world Naga. I'd thought they had human faces and were intelligent creatures."
"Guess we'll find out." Gwen waited for her dogs to position the Naga before she tapped into the Gate of the Void. "Void Seeker! Chakram! Chakram!"
"Dust Bolt!" Tei threw in his support.
"Jet Blast!" Richard expended a portion of his mana to elicit a stream of super-pressurised water from a tear in the Elemental Plane of Water, aiming to hinder the creature's forward momentum.
"Lava Lance!" From across the field, Rene spared a spell, striking the Naga from the rear flank.
"Fire Lance!" Jiro added his piece.
Gwen waited until her allies' spells had rocked the Naga's body before allowing her deadly frisbees to complete their arc, simultaneously enduring a spell of dizziness.
'GARRRRGH!" the Naga bellowed with a sound akin to a dozen elephants trumpeting.
With the din of a mosquito swarm, her warrior princess Chakrams kissed her prey.
The first managed half a neck before it dissipated.
The second struck a foot lower, fizzling at the spine.
The Seeker struck the same place as the first, completing its trajectory to exit on the other side.
Two of the Naga's heads parted like zip-sawed fingers from a careless woodworker's hand.
The remaining four howled, baying for violence.
Twisting its body to shake the deerhounds, the now quad-headed Naga made a spring-loaded charge at the moving semi-trailer. Two of its heads stretched with unexpected reach, slamming into the steel container as Tei and Richard parried left and right.
Gwen's Kirin rammed into the creature, its horns crackling with electricity as it sent the Naga off course. The hounds had by now recovered, and once again, they mounted the Naga, snapping at its wounds and digging into its flesh with explosive bolts of electricity. Meanwhile, sensing the creature's draconic vitality through her hidden Caliban, Gwen brought to mind a spell which was perfect for the occasion.
"Tei! I need a moment."
"You got it!"
The manifestation took the better part of ten seconds, then one by one, two by threes, torrent by torrent, a cascade of electric elementals from a vivid Elemental Swarm smothered the air. In a second, they fell upon the Naga, exploding across its vibrant scales and gnawing at its open wounds. Thanks to Ariel, she no longer had to fear friendly fire from her numberless elementals.
Tei snuck in another Tomb Wall while the creature stumbled blindly.
The Naga stacked into the pavement heads-first.
"You really are built for monster hunting," her captain remarked. "Your true talent is wasted on Mages."
"Ha!" Gwen's blood was up, the success with the Naga had offset the shame brought on by Richard's reminder. "The greatest is behind! Caliban!"
From the back of the final truck where it had laid in waiting, Caliban slithered from the vehicle's interior, transformed into its spider visage to the background music of screaming NoMs, then leapt for the thrashing Naga, trailing a snail sheen of saliva.
"Onslaught!" Gwen opened her vitality-valves, eager for Caliban to continue its evolution. Walken did say that with enough high-tier creatures in its gullet, Caliban could very well attain Ariel's cognisance. If so, there was no better candidate. "Consume!"
"Lightning Sphere!" Ariel aided its brethren below with a paralytic explosion, keeping the Naga contained and incapable of movement.
"Scorcher!" Jiro performed a flyby, momentarily breaking from his harassment of the enemy Mages, cutting a line of still-burning fire across the Naga's lower back. By now, the Firebird user had left a kilometre of vivid fire that denied all cover to their enemies.
"Panzerschreck!" Lulan aimed for a head, taking off a chunk of jaw even as she revved up a second. With a target as large as this, she felt confident in her aim.
With a jerk, the Naga staggered; the creature's hurt and agony plain for all to see.
"SHAAA!" Caliban leapt into the air, casually allowing a cobra-strike to snap one of its limbs, then landed on the creature's back. Without delay, the spiderling's underbelly maw deployed, opening its grotesque cargo bay to unleash a gut full of writhing tentacles red and blue, eager to hunt for the creature's Core.
The bark that came from the Naga was like an exploding gasket, with its final syllable ending in a cry of human anguish.
Without warning, its torso shrank, shaking loose Gwen's dogs and momentarily confusing Caliban as it deflated.
An illusion? Gwen wondered, but before she could react, Caliban renewed its assault. She could feel her creature's appetite hollowing the interior of her chest. It had been a long time since Cali had fed, and her monster was hungry enough to eat a herd of horses.
"Astaka, save—" was the final cry she heard from the massive pile of deerhounds encircling Caliban's engorged form, indicating that it had swallowed something. When she panicked and commanded Caliban to regurgitate what could have just called out for parley, her monster opened its maw to reveal nought but a mass of newly hungry tentacles.
SHIT! The immediacy of her mistake struck her. There was eating the creature's Core after a desperate battle, and then there was swallowing a demi-human mid-fight. There was also the fact that she just Consumed a sentient being, but that mental commiseration would have to wait.
When would the vitality hit?
By her previous counts, she had a few minutes at best.
"Richard," she cried out. "I need to meditate!"
It had been such a long time since Caliban ate something that broke her Nephres' Scale. If a high-tier, high-affinity healer was a ten, what new ecstasy would a four-meter-tall sentient Naga reach? She could be out for minutes to an hour!
"Gwen!" Tei had a Dispel ready go. "What's wrong?"
"I need a moment!" Gwen confessed a half-truth. "Caliban needs to digest."
"Oh." Tei glanced at where the Naga had been just a moment ago, trying to catch Caliban in the chaotic action. Under where Fudan's Captain stood, Gwen struck the container of Tei's truck with an audible moan. When she looked up, the glazed orbs of two dozen labourers from La War met her eyes.
FUCK! She could feel Caliban throbbing. There was no bloody way she was about to fall into a convulsive, orgiastic fit in front of strangers. "RICHARD!"
"I am here!" Lea appeared overhead, setting a barrier shield of murky water over her master's cousin.
Once the watery womb enfolded her, Gwen commanded Ariel, Caliban and her dogs to guard the perimeter of their moving line of vehicles while she could maintain them. Furthermore mindful of the deluge of vitality soon to bloat her conduits, she relented on switching Caliban to its stag form, refraining it from consuming any more enemies.
"Shaaa!" Caliban burped, sprouting and twisting until it reached its full height, it's faceless mien scanning for targets to impale.
Now cut off from external stimuli, she took a second to process the final visage of the desperate Naga. With her Essence-enhanced kinetic vision, her hindsight was truly twenty-twenty. The Naga was a woman; she recalled- an indigenous looking serpent folk with blue-green scales.
Right before Caliban did his terrible ferreting for Cores, her enemy had reverted to a Demi-human being. After that, Caliban was large enough to swallow its target wholesale.
She wanted to say she felt ill, that it was accidental; but in truth, her regret paled against the ecstasy of dominating her opponent.
Worry not, the Caliban of her mind lubricated her conscience. The servants of Aung San attacked first, and Mayuree had to be protected. If she was going to eat it anyway, what difference did it make?
Her digits twitched.
Her abdominal muscles contracted.
In her head, she could hear Caliban singing a happy song of madcap violence as it charged a party of screaming, screeching Burmese Mages fleeing its Medusa's visage. Retracting her legs, Gwen pressed her knees to her chest, coiled in a foetal position, clenched her jaws to avoid making too sweet a moan, then readied herself for the oncoming metamorphosis.
"What a magnificent thing!" Lutz von Schlabrendorff found himself hunched forward, an inch away from the projection. "Absorption! Who'd have thought such a thing is possible."
"It's not," a fellow Magister, a British member, corrected the chief proctor from across the table. "We have Void Mages as well. They can't do that."
"Oh-ho? Then explain that."
"It's her Void Beast, or the girl, or her unique magic," the Magister remarked. "Doesn't it remind you of someone? Although I hear Fudan will be releasing a Systematic Study on the subject soon. Submitted by Magister Marie-Roslyn Wen, I believe, the details are said to be very intimate."
"Then we shall drink to interesting bedtime reading," a Magister chuckled, sipping his tea.
"I find the refractory period after Consume particularly interesting."
"A curious flaw," von Schlabrendorff agreed. "One I welcome gladly."
"Sir," Hass interrupted the men's appreciation of the Void Element. "There's an anomaly within Fudan's formation."
As one, the Magisters turned to the lumen-projection.
"What the devil are they doing?"
"Hass, who does that Enchantment signature belong to?"
"Their controller, sir, someone called Kitty Liang. Her profile states she's from Kunlun, although the House of M remains her employer."
"Note the use of non-registered magic and deduct CCs accordingly," the chief proctor grunted. "Wait, what's happening now?"
"Their controller and their diviner appear to be breaking away from the party, sir."
"Where are they going?"
"Heading North-North-East, sir." Hass manipulated the map so that it zoomed outward. "Assuming trajectory by crow-flight, they're aiming for the border of Nagaland and Burma."
"Can you get me a visual before they're out of range?"
"Yessir, I'll bring them up now."
There was a thrum of circulating mana as the Divination engine worked its magic, channelling the long-range Scry enabled by the Chief Proctor's Eye of Providence. From a bird's eye view, the magical vision fell forward with a sense of induced vertigo until it centred on the vague shape of two petite outlines.
The smaller of the silhouettes had secured the first in what looked like a frosty cocoon; a spell used to capture subdued Mages. Concurrent with the lilac flush of Transmutation, Kitty's signature additionally exhibited the unmistakable golden halo of Enchantment.
"An implanted glamour!" von Schlabrendorff raised a brow. "Not something we could have detected without an actual activation. Hass, additionally note the Mind Magic now active on the Ice Mage. Mark the signature and re-check records from Mandalay. Penalise Fudan accordingly if it has impacted the competition's outcome. I am starting to see where this is going."
"Which is where exactly?" a fellow Magister patrolled the footage. "My word, they're going awful fast. That girl sure can fly. What are they fleeing from?"
"From the Void sorceress."
Lutz von Schlabrendorff glanced at the glyph that indicated Gwen Song remained stationary within the travelling convoy.
How long would it take the girl to wake up? He wondered. More importantly, would the girl take the live bait and rush into Nagaland? If it were himself, he would not have put faith in a Mage from the Frontier having the gall to charge headfirst into certain doom. But having observed Walken's student for the better part of two weeks; he was starting to sense a disturbing trend.
As for their current dilemma, he could only bank on Walken's projection that the deposed Royal House of Burma was playing with dragon fire. When he had questioned Walken about the man's unruly student and the possibility of the girl's connection to a certain wild Wyvern, his old acquaintance had hinted that the girl had links to mythic presences in both China and Australia, though neither received official verification. "Gwen thinks the Tyrant might be related to her in some convoluted way." Walken had explained his limited knowledge of the girl's multi-pronged affairs. "Though I disagree, her speculations do hold some merit."
For von Schlabrendorff, one Dragon or two made no difference. The dilemma was whether or not a rescue action was warranted. For now, as one of Fudan's Mages had betrayed her team, there was no protocol for the IIUC proctors to intervene. As for alerting Walken, with the competition ongoing, it was improper for von Schlabrendorff to feed his friend any more information. By logic, regulation and creed, he was a neutral observer.
"How far is Nagaland from Hpakan?"
"About a hundred-and-fifty kilometres, sir."
"Tell Hpakan to send out a relay team," von Schlabrendorff commanded his second. "Whatever happens, the record shall speak for itself."
Fudan's victory was short-lived.
Just as they managed to disable about half of the Mages pursuing their convoy, there was a cry of blue murder coming from the middle of the transport column.
Hot-headed and bathed in spellfire, Jiro and Rene had ignored the interruption entirely, while behind them, Bai and Anita had their hands occupied deflecting bolts of fire, stone and electricity aimed at the truck's wheels. It was only Richard who heard, though when he finally pulled from the battle to inspect what had occurred, a great blast of air blew through the tarped roof, sending him skittering into the roadside rubble, scattering the NoMs that rode with them in every direction.
After Richard cushioned the NoMs' deadly trajectories and recovered the tumbling Eunae, he found the girl dazed and covered in a thin crust of rime, safe thanks to her distressed nature Spirit.
"Well, shit on a stick," he swore. "KITTY?! MAYUREE?"
Looking up toward the hazy sky, he could scarcely make out Kitty's Flight form, already reaching an impressive altitude, visible only thanks to a trailing cocoon.
Without warning, Aung San's Mages retreated, pursuing the fleeing Kitty as though Jiro had lit a flame up their arse.
When finally the confusion cleared and combat concluded, Richard measured his team's present predicament.
"Lea, how's Gwen?"
"Recovering," Lea replied. "She's burning up, but I think she'll be okay."
"STOP THE TRUCKS!" Tei called out from the rear, ordering the terrified NoMs back onto the vehicle. "Wocao! What the hell just happened?"
"Kitty's gone," Richard informed their Captain as he knelt beside Eunae. "With Mayuree. She attacked Eunae."
"I'll be f-fine," Eunae clattered while she circulated a healing spell from an anxious Luyi. "K-Kitty's gone c-crazy!"
"Give me some heat!" Richard called out to the returning Mages.
"Maybe she is trying to help us?" Jiro landed shortly, likewise troubled by Kitty's unexpected escapade. With a word, a Firebird settled beside the shivering Eunae. "Are you sure Kitty's not carrying out some crazy plan instead?"
In Jiro's experience, Kitty was quiet and shy, but in no way a traitor.
"I don't think Kitty is trying to help, Jiro…" Rene read Richard's iron expression far more readily than the straight-laced Fire Mage.
"What happened?" Anita and Lulan were the last to join them, having come seeking Eunae's aid to heal the NoMs. "Kitty took Mia? Why?"
Richard's answer came in the form of a complicated expression aimed at their vice captain's privacy bubble. Before he could clarify further, the barrier burst, revealing a radiant looking Gwen flush with supernatural vitality.
"Let's not worry about the 'why' just yet." Richard felt his fingers grow suddenly numb. "Here comes the waking dragon. Who wants to hold her down while I give her the bad news?"