Wincing, Gwen injected herself with a second Healing Potion while simultaneously drinking an Elixir of Restoration, burning past her alchemical limit for the day. With an unbearable itch, her wounds healed and her arm popped back into place, though as for full mobility, that would take dedicated physiotherapy.
"Golos, hold on!" she hollered back. "Keep up your lightning!"
"AARRGH!" Golos hooted like a madcap baboon as it lost another chunk of armour.
"Caliban, keep me covered!"
"First this one, then you!" the Tyrant bellowed, punctuating its threat by puncturing Golos's rump. "Have patience!"
"Dimension Door!" Gwen appeared behind their enemy, just out of reach of the Naga's heads. Caliban stood directly in front, ready to serve as her meat shield or to take its master away from danger. "KEEP IT PINNED!"
"RAWAAAR!" Golos exploded, flaying scales from the Tyrant's neck and back, beating at the Naga with its wings and its tail, raining scales and dark blood.
Gwen forced herself to calm. She recalled Walken's story of Sobel's spell in Sydney. For all her feelings of vitriol, there was no denying that the bitch's mastery of the Void was second to none. According to Walken, Sobel's elemental swarm had been the most horrific and practical demonstration of the Void's consumptive abilities he had ever seen.
If so, she had an inkling of what she had to do.
Sensing imminent danger, the Tyrant pushed back.
With a supreme grunt of supernatural effort, Golos pressed forward, pounding the earth with his massive thighs, taking several envenomed strikes to the neck, back and torso as he attempted to immobilise the Naga.
"VOID SWARM!" Gwen finished her Conjure Elemental with a single breath.
Her shadow distended.
The space around her shimmered, then began to tear as her incantation invited Caliban's fellow-fiends from the otherworldly expanse of the Quasi-Elemental Plane of the Void. The first time she had used the spell, it was in the presence of her Uncle, against the herd of unsuspecting deer. She had been hungry then, far weaker, less practised, green as a sapling.
Now, she'll plague them all, even to roaring!
From one lamprey came two, from two came three, and from three came a midnight tide of screeching, crawling, sucking things without noses nor lips, only teeth, pouring toward the sole source of concentrated vitality not clad in lightning.
Caliban exalted in the display, barking sing-song repetitions of "Shaa!" and "Shaa!" as its tentacles writhed, bathing in the caress of its numberless siblings.
Beware! Beware! Gwen felt as though the Abyssinian maid in Coleridge's epic, strumming her dulcimer of arcanistry as she invited the thousand young from the wending woods where the stars glimmer darkly. With all her vitality thus committed, she would eat the fucker like air!
"Father's whiskers!" Golos sucked in a breath of fetid air, heeding Gwen's advice in cladding his scales within a sheath of electricity.
"Asura!" the Tyrant bellowed, attempting to untangle itself from Golos. "USURPER!"
The carrion swarm of darkling lampreys reached Astaka's thrashing body; then as one, the hive latched on like a tide breaking over the entangled statue of a Wyvern and Naga amid a titanic struggle.
One by one, the lampreys latched on; with each mote they stole from Astaka, the leech-like abominations bloated and swelled, growing to twice, thrice their usual size! Even when Astaka rolled its brutal body, crushing Golos and leeches alike, smearing the ground with Void-tinged ichor, the creatures came on with the relentlessness of the Void's insatiable hunger.
A trickle of renewed vitality entered into her body, hot against her abdomen, gorging her mortal vessel with the milk of paradise.
Her breath caught in her throat, her limbs quivered.
Without reserve, she fed these dangerous, mind-numbing motes back into the Conjuration Sigil, attaining an epiphanic realisation that this was how Sobel had maintained her magic. As one, her creatures reared their phallic, eyeless heads, then redoubled their efforts, slithering up the Naga's body with renewed vigour.
For the second time, there was a groundswell of raw mana.
As though a quickened toadstool after autumn's rain, the Naga grew yet again in size, doubling its girth. Like a child wrangled by an adult, the twenty-meter Golos fell backwards, shanked by fangs the length of broadswords. As a sixth head dipped, Caliban attacked, but with a violent snap, it cleaved Caliban's upper torso, head and all, from its stalwart lower body.
A small microburst of acidic venom hurled forth from the seventh head.
"Shaa!" Spider-Caliban burst from the remains of the stag, expanding its torso to shield its master.
"DIE!" The final head descended, shaking lamprey-leeches from its scales. The Tyrant's maw unhinged. No matter which direction Gwen or her creature fled, they would soon enter its gullet to be digested.
Still channelling her thousand young, Gwen renewed her Void Skin, then performed a quick hypothesis in her head.
Here was an opportunity.
If the acid and the creature's internals proved impenetrable, then she would find herself back in Chengdu, or possibly Sydney. If she could survive long enough for Caliban to do its terrible work, then she would be one half-millennia Naga richer and Caliban may very well attain the gift of garb.
"TONIGHT, I FEAST ON THE FLESH OF THE YINGLONG."
She prepared her body for the worst.
To her chagrin, a Thunder Wyvern foiled her plans, placing itself between the Naga and herself.
"Golos!" she screeched, but how could she complain? It wasn't as though Golos could read her masochistic mind and deduce that she wanted to skinny dip in acid.
"Flee! You'll perish instantly!" Golos's rescue had arrived a little too late, meaning the Naga caught him by the neck before he could dodge the blow intended for Gwen. When the Tyrant's jaws snapped shut, it caught Golos right in the middle of his serpentine neck, crushing scale and bone alike.
A look of strange elation overcame Golos' face as his wingtips grew limp. "That's t-three times—"
Gwen felt an upwelling of emotion. Though Golos owed her, her chest nonetheless constricted. Staring at the skyscraper-sized Naga, she wondered if she could Dimension Door into the Tyrant's body, for the thing was now the length and girth of a blue-whale, so massive that her lampreys appeared as though aphids.
What could she do to save Golos? Should she save Golos?
Back when they first met, he had tried to maim her, hell, he even threatened to rape her. Then she had probed him with Caliban, but still-
"Gurrrrk!" Golos gurgled, a spurt of blood rained over Gwen and her shrieking Caliban, sizzling her Void Skin. At once, her lampreys rejoiced.
"Hahaha!" Astaka savoured the blood from Golos' throat. "Delicious!"
You should go. A voice of reason called out to Gwen. Kitty's dead, Mayuree's saved, what more was there to do?
But her body refused to move. Was it because of her spell? No, the thousand young were doing their job; the Tyrant was beyond her lamprey's abilities, her theft of its Essence was a drop in the bucket against the ley of the landscape itself. If so, how could she hope to usurp the life of Kachin, Nagaland and all its flora and fauna? She may as well run a pump into the Bay of Bengal to stem the tide.
"Be patient, insect. You're next," the Tyrant commanded her, and that's what she did, caught between spectacle and indecision, unable to leave her ally, neither wanting to flee nor knowing what else to do.
Walken would slap me, Gwen thought unpleasantly.
Another head approached.
The Naga was getting impatient.
Her confidence crumbled.
She was at her limit.
Was Golos right? Could her worms eat this thing from inside out? Or would half of her instantly dissolve, sending not enough of her to Gunther to be revived? How much would an acid bath hurt?
Her useless Divination pinged. Could a Sigil be sarcastic?
Her world grew dark.
Then it suddenly grew white.
Not the white that one would expect to see at the end of the tunnel.
Nor the silvery-white flare of Conjuration from her Contingency Ring.
It was instead the alabaster of ionised plasma, the retina-searing white of unadulterated power drawn from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning.
"VHIRA, VILKLVI!" Came a fulmination of thundering bolts so turbulent that the ground shook, the heavens split, and the dusk turned to midday.
"BROTHER!" Golos' jubilance was drowned out by the cacophonous discharge sundering their ophidian enemy. Above the duo, one of Astaka's offending appendages suddenly erupted, blazing blue and green from its eyeless sockets.
A great trumpeting of agony erupted from a chorus of cobra-headed tubas.
Fighting the revolt in her conduits and the dizziness assailing her trembling innards, she forced herself to focus. If she tarried any longer, she would be the first Mage to be sent out of the IIUC as a result of being sandwiched between a Naga and a hard place.
"Never overextend." A belated piece of advice penetrated the noise.
It wasn't silvery Conjuration that enveloped her, but a pair of arms with the stiffness of steel cables, cradling her waist, pulling her away from the Tyrant, wading through her mass of Void-spawns as effortlessly as a lightning-charged scalpel through bible-black butter.
Gunther? A déjà vu of Blackheath struck. Or could it be Uncle Jun?
But she was wrong on both accounts. The man that had pulled her from certain teleportation was a being of paradoxical intimacy, a stranger she already knew. His presence, or the "Stink", as Marong would say, was all too familiar. She had inhaled it many times already, on her Uncle, on Ayxin, on Golos, from all the fauna she had consumed on the Yellow Mountain. It was the same Essence held captive within her mortal body.
She craned her neck to regard the saviour of Gunther's Contingency Ring.
A pair of soft eyes the colour of pale water met her halfway, half-covered by a head of shocking silver.
"My prodigal niece." The dragon-kin had a baritone voice, deep like lowering tempest. "I had expected to meet you under better circumstances."
A spear of vertical lightning pierced a second cobra-head, penetrating the offending ophidian mass from snout to neck, blowing out the back of the serpent's brain like a too-ripe melon.
Astaka reeled, suddenly afraid as any intelligent Naga would be when an enemy effortlessly disabled two of its eight heads.
"Astaka, you're looking worse for wear." Ruxin's voice filled the clearing even as he cradled his niece with the earnest affection of a young man and his golden goose. "For offending our father, I've come for you and everything you own. So that you know, your palace has fallen, and the Pillar of Jade is mine as well."
"YOU!" Astaka tossed Golos aside, folding the Wyvern's body into a groaning heap. "IT WAS YOU!"
"Watch out!" Gwen pushed against her captor's arms, though she may as well be striking concrete.
Ruxin took the hit head-on.
A semi-sphere barrier protected Gwen and Ruxin from the assault, though it failed to dissipate the force of the blow.
KLANG! There was a sound of metal-on-metal, then the humanoid dragon was sent flying.
Gwen's world twisted and turned while they spun, feeling as though trapped in the violent tumble of a drink driving commercial, only ending when Ruxin righted himself some fifty meters away.
"That was embarrassing," the dragon apologised to the girl in his arms. "Are you alright?"
"Can you let me down?" she demanded with the sourness of a tart. Though she was safe, her suffering was exquisite. Kitty was dead, and she had seized up like a deer. In the end, she couldn't drink danger as though it were the wine of life. She could not jest as a Naga swallowed her whole. She had called her own bluff and had found herself wanting.
"Are you hale?" Ruxin's patience was perplexing.
"I am." Gwen answered her self anointed "uncle", paying no heed to the dragon's semi-divine visage. For the foreseeable future, she was out of shits to give.
"Good." Ruxin made two gestures. One toward Gwen, and one toward Golos. "Keep safe and keep away. I'll be along shortly."
Before she could retort, there came yet another groundswell of mana, the very same that Astaka had employed twice over.
Her stomach lurched. When she blinked again, she had been translocated into an untouched clearing, stranded beside Golos' broken body.
Ruxin assumed his natural form.
Had he not sent his niece away, she would have witnessed the awe-inspiring sight of a pure-blooded Thunder Dragon forty-meters from whisker to tail. She would have awed at his lion's maw and tiger's claws; gaped at his handsome head upon which sat a mane of vibrant feathers, marvelled at his stag horns, as majestic as they were potent.
Twisting and turning, Ruxin caught each of the Tyrant's heads within the confines of his coiled length, paralysing his opponent with blue-green bolts of electrical discharge.
"How!" The Naga thrashed, its body shrinking rapidly, deflating like a punctured balloon as the mana from the ley flowed from its body into his opponent's. "W-WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"
With a swipe of a five-fingered claw, Ruxin crushed one of Astaka's heads against a tree, toppling both.
"You still don't sense it?" the dragon appeared thoroughly amused. While Astaka diminished, his form seemed to grow not in size, but majesty. "You're no longer tethered to Nagaland, Astaka. I am your new lord and master."
"Oh, it's possible. Watch."
A burst of raw mana suddenly infused Ruxin's twisting form, healing his wounds and suffusing him with the same energy that the Tyrant had abused earlier to overcharge Gwen's darkling swarm.
With a sickening crunch, another of the Tyrant's heads burst.
"Stop!" the Tyrant was in full panic now. The loss of each head afforded an experience of mortality in its purest form. "No more!"
"A pitiful thing like you, stealing the essence of the land- how droll," Ruxin remarked. "You are far from ready to join the Vaeri di tobor vur marfedelom. I am beginning to doubt if it is even worthwhile making you my consort. Perhaps serving as my nourishment would be better."
Each of Ruxin's claws now grasped the remaining four heads effortlessly. Though the Jade Pillar was far more suited to an earthen drake, the power of the land nonetheless flowed pure and unsullied from hitherto undespoiled by man.
"Well?" His claws tightened. "Do you yield?"
"I—" Astaka choked, comical in that all four heads hesitated as one.
"Tir wux tyrtrol dout pliso?" Rux demanded in the dragon-tongue, cementing his offer of mercy. Once agreed, there would be no challenge except if Astaka were to outstrip Ruxin's power, or if Ruxin perished before the Naga. "Serve me, or nourish me."
"S-si vield, ekess qe dout katima!" The Naga lowered itself.
Ruxin exalted. Finally, after decades, his plan had come to fruition. For paltry beings with a century's life-span, human sages were wise in ennobling the simple virtue of patience. Now, he had a brother and a niece to tame.
Eyeing his rear, Caliban skulked in its serpent form, warning Golos that one wrong move and it would revisit their last rendezvous.
"Why didn't you run away?" Gwen sat with her back against the Wyvern's neck, stroking its ear ridges. Despite the good news from Ariel that Mayuree was safe, Kitty's absence made her melancholic and apprehensive, which led to the unusual choice of making Golos her conversation partner.
"Dragons never run," Golos grunted. "We triumph, we yield, or we die."
Gwen nodded, pressing her palm into the Wyvern's scales so that it prickled her flesh.
"I wanted to run," she confessed.
"Yet, you stayed." The Wyvern groaned, then to her surprise, Golos shat out a nugget of wisdom. "We are responsible for our own lives. The weak die, because they are not strong."
Gwen chuckled, recalled what she had conjured up against the Naga, then thought about her master's wife. If might made right, what did that make Sobel?
"I wonder about that." She smiled weakly. "Even so, thanks for saving me."
"I did it for myself," Golos reprimanded her with a silvery iris, its gold-on-obsidian slit browsed her pale face. "If I died, I died for myself."
"Well, I couldn't save my friend," Gwen castigated herself, more so because Golos' simple philosophy was brutally rational. For some reason, she just wanted to tell someone or have someone tell her off. "I watched her die, or maybe I killed her by accident, I don't know."
"Then it doesn't matter," Golos said. "Humans die so easily. Even if she lived, she would be dead in a century. She is not like us."
Golos snickered. "What manner of a Calamity could you be if you perished with time? Father could nap, and you would be dust. What are you, a Calamity for gnats?"
"Will you suffer this Calamity to live?" Gwen picked at a piece of debris stuck between Golos' scales. Even now, his wounds wept. "What does the Yinglong mean by it?"
"Why don't you ask Ruxin?" Golos growled threateningly. "I've paid my debt."
"Shaaa!" Caliban wiggled its faceless, bullet-shaped head.
"I see the two of you are getting acquainted," came a voice from above.
Gwen looked up to see Ruxin in all his silver and mithril glory. The dragon appeared to have a thing for the divine, evident in his chiffon lungi, pearlescent robe, silvery hair and alabaster skin, punctuated by slitted, golden eyes.
"Ru—" Gwen paused. Should she be addressing a five-hundred-year-old dragon as such? What was a viable honorific? The man had arguably saved her, maybe not her life, but certainly from much suffering. "Lord Ruxin, is the Tyrant defeated?"
"Quashed and gone." Ruxin dipped his pointed chin. "The Tyrant rule these lands no longer."
"Brother, I can't move," Golos whined. "And you're late."
"I came as soon as I could," Ruxin apologised, surprising Gwen with the brothers' cordial relationship. "Dislodging the Pillar and subverting its power proved a challenging task."
"Why are you in Kachin, Lord Ruxin?" Gwen continued carefully, trying to digest the brother's dialogue. "You know, I had thought you were the Tyrant."
"Me, the Tyrant? Ha!" Ruxin laughed. "Oh, and call me Uncle Ruxin. Or just Uncle, if you like that."
"Ah-ah." Ruxin wagged his slender fingers.
Gwen felt her lips curl.
"Unc—" The title stuck in her throat. "Ruxin."
"There, isn't that far more comfortable?" Ruxin chuckled. "Golos, relax your defences."
Wyverns did not sweat, but whatever Golos did was enough to make Gwen wince sympathetically, sweating in his stead.
"Irisv!" Ruxin muttered a draconic power word. To her amazement, a Lightning of renewal, not of death and destruction, washed over the Wyvern. "There, let it do its work. Do use your human form, Golos, how do you even hope to talk to Gwen looking like that? What if you sat on her? Mortals are malleable, you know."
Golos grunted as bones popped back into place, flesh mended, and scales grew back.
"Care for a jolt?" Ruxin pointed at Gwen's shredded suit.
"What was that?" Gwen hid her shame with both hands, the potion had worked, as did her worm's theft of the Tyrant's vitality. She didn't need the healing, though she remained enthralled by Ruxin's display. A healing Lightning? Could such a thing exist?
"An old magic…" Ruxin teased her. "Something you might acquire one day."
The dragon glanced at Caliban, then gave her a wink.
Gwen looked around, feeling flustered. With Ruxin acting strangely human and Golos accusing her of being inhuman, she wasn't sure how to proceed, and so she did what was right, considering the circumstance. "Look, um… thanks, Ruxin, for saving us."
"If the Tyrant ate you, Ayxin's nagging would rot my ears," Ruxin said. "But, to answer your first question, I had no idea of your coming until Golos here told me of his dilemma. As for myself, I had planned for some time to subvert this Tyrant from his lair, to think you would be involved, how serendipitous, hmm?"
"I see." Gwen mulled over Ruxin's words. "So, what happens now?"
"Well, first, we need to greet our voyeuristic friends."
"Excuse me." Before she could react, he cupped her skull with both hands.
From her scalp, a queer sensation spread, draconic in origin and older than anything Gwen had ever experienced, suffusing her mind. After the first second of mild panic, her mind began to turn inward, shifting her consciousness until she was floating above the clearing, above the landscape, then scurrying East until she saw an encampment where several astounded proctors sat beside an array of wires connected to boxes of carefully arrayed HDMs and storage crystals.
"Which one of you is Gwen's Chief Proctor?" Ruxin's voice resounded in her head.
"By the Magi! Is it talking to us?" One of the Proctors leapt from his seat, tearing the Ioun Stone from his head.
"You hear it too?" The second checked his device, punching in a series of glyphs.
"I, Ruxin of Huangshan, is speaking to you. Are you not trained in speaking to your betters?" the voice in their heads continued.
"Is it piggybacking off Magister von Schlabrendorff's Eye of Providence?!" the first Magister opened his mouth like a hungry carp. "Astounding!"
"Lord Ruxin?" one of the Magisters was quicker on the uptake. "H-how can we serve?"
"Finally," Ruxin continued. "As you have deduced, I am utilising Gwen Song's contract glyph right now, so I'll make this short before her brain burns out."
"What?!" a female voice intruded.
"I am now the undisputed ruler of the Wildlands known as Manipur, Nagaland and Kachin." Ruxin's voice blasted across the communication devices. "Bring me your leader. We shall negotiate for the future fate of Burma, as well as discuss your trespass of my domain."
The box of storage crystals suddenly ignited, as did the Divination Engine.
Ruxin's mind retracted.
"You're the ruler of what now?" Gwen shook off the queasiness that came from simultaneously existing here and fifty kilometres away. With great humiliation, she realised she'd been drooling.
"Of everything!" Golos's human voice was like sandpaper.
She turned, only to be confronted by an enormously exposed Golos, mostly man, some dragon, looking like a bruiser found outside a fantasy pub on Oxford St on a Friday night. He was very well equipped. Wyverns have spiked clubs for tails, after all.
"Shaaa!" Caliban wiggled its tail.
Ruxin snapped his fingers, and Golos was suddenly wearing a longi.
"The ruler of a modest kingdom, from the tip of Arakan to its northernmost edge and then some." Ruxin laughed expansively, joined by Golos, whose laughter came with a half-second delay. He then regarded Gwen with a grin. "I am, as of today, a landed dragon."
Was that- Gwen swallowed. A human joke?
"But…" Gwen glanced at the handsome dragon sceptically, struggling to link everything. Golos, Ruxin, the Yinglong, the Tyrant, the House of M? Was Maymyint somehow involved? That would be absurd; they were completely unrelated. "How?"
With great benevolence, Ruxin placed a hand on her shoulder, and another on Golos, as one would a pair of prized hounds.
"Why." The dragon savoured the words as though they gave him the greatest pleasure in the world. "With the help of my family."
Richard, Lulan and Jiro flew as fast as their spells, affinities, and items could afford, speeding through the darkness as they made for Lea's essence vial.
Some fifteen minutes ago, the northern tip of Kachin, near the Nagaland border, lit up as though day, signalling what could only be a cataclysmic event in its near vicinity.
Could this be Gwen? Richard's cynical-self informed him that of course, who the hell else could it be? The blast of light wasn't a Barbanginy, but some similarities were unmistakable.
For a while more, the trio flew in silence, each conserving their focus to maximise locomotion.
A pale blossom of light bloomed beside Richard's ear.
"Hello? Richard?" came the sound of Mayuree's voice.
Oh, thank fuck! Richard adjusted the trajectory of his flight.
"Mia! Where are you? Where's Gwen?"
"EE EE!" came a sound from Ariel in the background. "Ee! Ee! EEE!"
"What's happened?" Lulan's face was a mask of anxious worry.
"Gwen's finished fighting the Naga," Lea translated for her companion, whispering in his ear. "She was getting all kinds of beat up, but she's safe now."
Richard turned to the others.
"She's fine, apparently," Gwen's cousin informed their companions. "I think that... er... she fought off the Tyrant?"