Hardin Smith had thought he would die serving the United States Marine Corps. It was only fair, for he was a post-Tide orphan, one who had reaped the benefits of a booming decade, receiving the best education a world at war could offer.
From ward to conscript, from NCO to cadet, his early life had embodied the American Dream. Even as a foundling with no backing and no connections, his judgement, talent, and his ruthless determination had earned him a commission.
Those had been his halcyon days, and during a restive lull in San Francisco, Hardin had met his fianceè. The lovers had spent a week locked in a motel, then married. Unfortunately, for his honeymoon, Hardin was sent on a two-year tour to Patagonia.
When he returned to the states, war-weary and feeling a decade older, what greeted him wasn't his doe-eyed wife, but drifters puffing the Blue in his abandoned apartment.
Hardened by his time in the tundra, Hardin knew that alarm was a useless emotion. He made the necessary enquiries with the local PD and discovered that his wife had become involved with local layabouts.
Hardin took some time to cool his head, then made enquiries. The culprit was the leader of a local gang, the son of a multi-millionaire, heir to a string of trendy clubs in San Francisco's bay area. His wife, a pretty, blue-eye thing from the mid-western Frontier, had been out with friends when she must have caught his eye.
That certain people predated on the wives and children of military personnel serving abroad wasn't an unusual tale. Hardin had heard the rumour many times in the military but had never expected himself to become a victim.
Now that it had happened, what was he to do?
An NoM's life, even in the democracy of the States, wasn't worth a high-tier Mage's fingernail. It was a point his CO had drilled into Hardin over and over in cadet school. The equal society spiel was just that, a spiel. Egalitarianism was an ideology, one Hardin with his magical talent could arguably uphold. Conversely, for his NoM wife, life was one big pile of increasingly sour lemons.
If Hardin had been a hothead, a penthouse in Rincon would have perished, revealing no less than two dozen victims.
As a rational man, Hardin took the loss of his lover as a lesson learnt of the way of the world. He left the military against the advice of his CO, citing bereavement, and walked into the front lobby of Dark Water, America's premier PMC. There, he met with Erik Garant Price, a name he had loathed as a USMC officer, but now saw as the catalyst of his metamorphosis.
Across the next decade, Hardin proved himself again and again to his employer. From Guam to Managua, from Bogota to Guayaquil, he had seldom disappointed. As he rose through the hierarchy, his opinion of the world equally expanded. Behind the hands of administrator Price was the Towers, and behind the Towers, were the Factions. Beyond that, there were more significant forces at play, far beyond Hardin's pay-grade.
Take his current quest, for example.
His role was so embedded in the agenda of the higher powers that he had given up on elucidation. On the surface, he had been hired by the Tower Master of Cuzco, one Amaru Paullu-Yupanqui, cousin to the Incan's Sapa. In Hardin's estimation, the ambitious Mage with the likeness of a snake was fully invested in vaporising the Sapa's son, likely as a bid for more power and control.
This coincided with Dark Water's long-term objective: the destabilisation of Amazonia. Hardin's side-project was to document the creatures that could be found within the rainforest. In addition to politics, Dark Water also organised extradition of rare materials for the American Grey Market. These included and were not limited to Incan relics, pre-Tide artefacts and demi-humans, especially exotic female variants. As his boss once had mused: for the ultra-rich, nothing but the best - or the strangest - will satisfy.
Armed with Cuzco's crude maps and the Magitech provided by Dark Water, Hardin and his team navigated the forest. Though the feat seemed impossible for some, Hardin had since discovered the hidden rules of the jungle.
Prior to his current mission, Hardin had been documenting a second ruin for Amaru. In fact, Hardin had been the one to map the Temple of Mama Killa in the first place, providing the catalyst for his current employment.
When finally his Divi-map had received Inti's attack route, Hardin told his team to remain stationed in the Temple of Viracocha, the forge god of the Incan pantheon. Dark Water had promised its Tower VIPs more relics than they could shake a stick at, and the company aimed to deliver.
Alone, he then made his way to the Temple of Mama Killa to await the arrival of the sun prince. As a man without family, Hardin preferred solo work, for not all Mages possessed the means to travel undetected across so hostile a landscape.
Now crouched against the fork of an ancient cocoa bough, Hardin plucked then masticated its tender leaves. Unlike the variety grown in the north, the Wildland specimens were potent beyond belief. A dozen blades, crushed between one's teeth and suckled for an hour, could keep a Mage awake for days. The concoction did nothing for fatigue, of course, but Hardin wasn't tired; he merely enjoyed the hypersensitive wakefulness.
As for the "Amazonian Tragedy" of Prince Inti's fall from grace, Hardin had planned two ploys and a flawless contingency.
First, he had previously harassed the Troll fort so that not only were its denizen aware and vigilant, the beasts had pulled back their scouts and hunting parties from the jungle.
Secondly, Hardin had composed and delivered cryptic missives in Trollic, informing the Arch-Hag and her coven that the Son of the Sun would soon arrive to reclaim his Amazonian domain.
Of the two, his confidence lay in the Hags. In his mind, there was no doubt the witches would bury themselves deep within the temple caverns, safe from harm until Inti arrived, tired and haggard and out of mana. Then, in that dire moment, the Hag's Brutalisers would fall upon Inti's party, aided by hexes and curses, sending the haughty prince to an early grave.
And if somehow Inti survived?
In addition to Magister Amaru's 'Contingency Rings', Hardin could activate a string of resonating devices he had painstakingly planted so that all manners of creatures would swarm the Temple of Mama Killa, swallowing Inti in a freakish Beast Tide.
Having processed his thoughts, Hardin waited for his prey, a smoky ghost lost in the haze of the Amazonian jungle.
Gwen acknowledged that Aerivela was a better host than she was a guest.
After a diplomatic exchange, Gwen and her "Flock from Fudan" toured what remained of the tribe's home. As bumpkins visiting a city for the first time, the party then gawked at the wood-spun homes of the Harpies and cooed at the hanging cottages. On suspended balconies, they saw chicks, half-naked and barely feathered, suckled by heavy-breasted hens. Elsewhere, brightly-plumed priestesses lead less experienced pullets in flights around the trees, harassing the stranglers with squawks of frustration.
For Gwen, it was a scene that stabbed at her chest.
As for her host, his lack of animosity made her squirm in her Shen-tei combat suit. If anything, the peacock Cloud Father reminded her of an ascetic monk, living with one foot in the material world, and the other in the clouds. An Affinity-induced personality? Gwen wondered; though she had no idea if Demi-humans could be affected by such a thing.
"I can't say that we're not responsible for your plight," she explained as they toured the Harpy's stronghold. "I mean, our quest ruined your home, and now you're proposing to vacate permanently."
The Cloud Father shrugged attractively.
"The moment the Ancient one appeared, this place was no longer safe," Aerivela explained with great patience. Though his priestesses were wearing anxious faces, the Cloud Father himself seemed entirely at ease. "The Sky brings life, and it takes as well. Say your fellow city-kin had not burned our home. There would have been more of us, but that would mean more fodder for the Ancient. In your remorse, you come to parley. As was the Sky Father's will, you defeated the Ancient. Now, we live to build a second home. Is not the will of the world intriguing?"
"I don't think that's how it works." Gwen was beginning to wonder if the airy Aerivela gave a shit at all.
"Do not fret." Aerivela laughed, his handsome, effeminate face radiant as he pointed downward at Golos. The Wyvern had not joined the party when they entered the trees. Instead, he lingered outside, accompanied by Phelara and a flock of warriors eager to engender powerful spawn for the next generation. "Where there is death, there is life. Your death-dealing sibling is now bringing new children to our tribe. Knowing this, what need we fear a decade of labour? The emerald sea is limitless. We shall find a home, and the Great Sky willing, we will grow stronger."
Gwen sighed; there was no reasoning with the Harpy Pope.
She had anticipated being henpecked, or perhaps, she had expected to coerce Aerivela with her dragon-fear. Instead, the Harpy leader had laughed off her suspicions, dismissed her threats, and told her that Golos was free to plough whatever he wished.
"Thank you, Cloud Father." She bowed her head. "I wish there was something else we could do. I could convince Cuzco to leave your new home alone, for example. I can be very persuasive. "
"No." The Harpy smiled. "No need. Are you ready to proceed with your quest to recover the relics of the mountain-kin?"
Gwen and team noted that they were ready to proceed.
"Then I shall direct you to the western entrance." Aerivela lifted a wing, its plumage covering every shade of paradise. "Come, Godling. Your adventure awaits!"
With Aerivela's aid, the party broke through a part of the undergrowth the cock had transcribed as neutral territory.
All through the forest, these "trails" existed. However, unless one could read the signs and smell the scents of the jungle, the network was impossible to traverse.
From treetop to the undergrowth, the guided tour took an hour to thread through the trees, avoiding the unhappy simians left by the Explorers' previous passage. At the understory's end, the party emerged into an overlook hanging. Below, they saw the roving mass of a vegetation-choked stream.
"We're here," Tei noted on his device. "This is one of the three streams leading to the temple city."
"Follow the water, and you shall not miss your mark," Aerivela intoned sagely. "Remain in the understory and the earth-kin shall not expect your arrival."
"Thank you, Aerivela. We'll take it from here."
"Beware the coven of three," Aerivela warned her again. "Not even I dare to approach when the crones gather. Once they witness your prowess, they will surely hide and seek to ambush you at your most vulnerable. Such is their way."
"Please take care, Mistress," Phelara urged her saviour. "Lord Golos, you as well."
"I shall return shortly." Golos, in his human form, pinched the Priestess' underside. "We'll make a whole flock!"
"I'll have the nest ready." Phelara touched her belly with the tip of one wing.
Feeling as though she had been force-fed dog food, Gwen wondered what Ruxin would think when he found out that she had pimped out his brother. The rest of Fudan's flock likewise diverted their attention to the task at hand. A bird flirting with a Wyvern marked the limit of human prudence.
"Inti's been notified." Tei checked his Divi-marked map. "He'll start right after we do."
"Right." Gwen took a deep breath. "What's the plan?"
"We'll begin with nav-point Alpha, then move to Epsilon pending on their resistance." Tei tapped the map. "Gwen, Barbanginy at E4 and Maelstrom at G16, can you manage without Caliban?"
"With Pats here, I should be fine," Gwen refuted her captain's fears. "Cali should awaken by the time we're into the inner chambers. Don't forget, Inti will be taking half their forces as well."
"Lord Golos, you will be responsible for the main avenue, C12 to F29, does that satisfy?"
"He'll be fine." Gwen patted her Wyvern. "He's eager to return, after all, the sooner the trolls perish, the sooner Gogo inseminates his flock of hussies."
"Calamity," Golos corrected her. "Phelara is your aunty."
"..." Gwen swore internally. She motioned to the map again. "We're counting on you, Golos. The Troll chief is worth a hefty load of CCs."
Golos snorted. The princeling of Huangshan appeared to have restored his bravado after spending some time with the flock. The Da-peng had been a punishing episode for the proud prince, one that Gwen initially feared had scarred the Wyvern's psyche.
"Alright!" Gwen shook out her long limbs. "Captain, will you do the honours?"
"FUDAN!" Tei snapped, a rare hint of colour touching his grave keeper's complexion. "BUFF UP!"
Hardin hung from the underside of a tree overlooking the temple city, plated in MKIII optic-camouflage. To the forest's fauna, he resembled a piece of bark, perfectly blended, appearing nothing like a six-foot soldier clad in articulated combat armour.
Attached to his helmet were two tendrils resembling a snail's stalks, the latest in military hardware - a pair of All-Seeing Googles modified for full 360-degree coverage.
"There you are." Hardin spotted Inti's mana signature through the layers of spoiled foliage. He double-checked that his Divi-linked devices remained connected to the slate in his hand, wondering why Inti's party still remained stationary.
BEEP-BEEP-BEEP! A warning marker appeared in his peripheral vision.
The answer to his puzzlement came in the form of an unexpected commotion at the western end of the temple city. Hardin had neglected the quadrant because the passage there was made near-impossible by the density of demi-humans living in the deep jungle.
The mercenary willed both google-tentacles toward the phenomenon.
As a part-time evoker himself, he recognised the beginnings of a wide-range Maelstrom now collating above the western wall. Below, the trolls exploded into a frenzy of activity, erupting from huts and houses, tents and crude humpies, retrieving whatever weapons they could find.
The fort's war-horns called the tribe to action.
Hardin cycled through the lens filters until he found one capable of long-range Detect Magic. When the diagnostics came through, his agitation was so profound that he almost broke his perfect camouflage.
A Void-Element Maelstrom! Hardin swallowed the cocoa leaves. It was the sort of spell he had only ever read about in the archives. With a shiver, a name intruded into his mind, though Hardin immediately dismissed the possibility. There was no way the world's most hunted Void Sorceress would be in a backwater part of the Amazon, fucking with Trolls.
A vortex opened into the Quasi-Elemental Plane. The expansion was itself soundless, but not so the gush of hysterical air in its midst.
Hardin zoomed in further, maximising the utility of the magical lens.
First to be drawn into the all-consuming orifice was the debris. Bits of bone, the carcasses of animals, scraps of leather, crude parchments used by the Shamans, as well as a bric-a-brac of life's little necessities all met with oblivion. Next to rise were the tusk-less slaves, too numerous to hide inside buildings and too weak to grasp onto the smooth stones of the temple's original buildings.
With horrible fascination, Hardin observed the phenomenon, clicking his tongue every time a troll was launched into the air to kiss the dark dimension-sphere, its size no more than the circumference of a human head. Whenever Troll-fodders arrived kicking and screaming, they were wrung as though by some irresistible force, turning the consistency of thick soup.
"God damn," Hardin couldn't help but mutter. The spell was inexpertly utilised, and its stability was horrid, but even so, its power made his scalp crawl.
Before Hardin could finish recording the first vortex, a second one appeared. Rapidly zooming outwards, Hardin caught the absurd sight of a flying deer imploding a lightning-fed nova.
The second Maelstrom was huge, more extensive than anything Hardin had ever seen. Where a regular variant was already an impressive spell with an AoE of fifty meters, this one was well over two hundred and expanding with each passing second.
Crack! Boom! Boom! Boom!
A cascade of thunder fulminated, mixed in with the sound of war drums.
"What. The. Fuck?" Hardin considered tearing away his goggles so that he could acquire un-assisted visual confirmation.
The Trolls were now in a frenzy. Compared to the Void Maelstrom, this one was more akin to a natural disaster. Within its epicentre, a portal into the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning tore itself open, a full ten-meters wide and then some. Unlike the previous variant, the new updraft possessed ten-times the suction, forming a crackling, cyclonic vortex that tugged at the anchored huts, straightaway ripping the wooden humpies from their foundations.
"Initiate Scry," he commanded the suite of magical diagnostics attached to his helmet. In awe, Hardin rapidly calibrated his device, successfully triangulating his optics until he caught sight of the caster.
It was a girl. A mewling young miss and her university-age companions. A TEEN sorceress! A lass young enough to be his daughter!
Quickly, the mercenary recalled the data provided by Cuzco.
Gwen Song- Fudan's Ace.
Hardin had been vaguely aware that Cuzco's foreign competitors had talented casters, but he had fought both Void Mages and Lightning Casters before and knew what to expect.
As for his present reality— What in the name of the Apostles John, Paul and Luke was this Lightning Maelstrom? How was it possible that a university student could manifest a maximised, empowered, enlarged, and hybridised tier 6 Evocation?! Upon closer inspection, the damned girl wasn't even using a relic!
Hardin cursed. Wasn't it only Inti who possessed such powers? How could a mortal girl match the faith of twenty-two million—
"MOTHER FUC—!" Hardin tore the goggles from his face when a second sun blossomed across the eastern quadrant of the troll fort, expanding as a proliferate orb of light fifty-meters above the temple's eastern escarpment.
The celestial sphere lasted ten-seconds, within the expanse of which all flammable things ceased to exist. Trolls caught in the blast became instantly black and charred. Those who shielded themselves under anything but the hardened stone properly cooked, the moisture seeping from their seared bodies as vessels burst and boiled. Wooden lean-tos disintegrated, humpies burst into flames. Wildland vegetation instantly turned to ash, falling from the stone fort's ancient facade. Lichen smouldered, mushrooms wilted, and the murals of blood painted by aeons of sacrificial rites oxidised into nothing. Sand, pebbles and other loose rubble melted into cracks and crevices, turning the surface into pockmarked glass.
Hardin circulated what healing energies he had brought with him into his optic nerves, restoring his eyesight.
When he regained his vision, the Troll fort, or at least the parts of it that were exposed, was consigned to history.
A thousand Trolls, hundreds of warriors and God knows how many Shamans had perished. What remained was the temple itself, now appearing as a strange, two-sided construct.
On the western elevation, it was as though the storms had vacuumed away all life. Only the stoutest trees remained embedded and leafless in the rock formations, while evidence of Trollic occupation had all but disappeared.
On the eastern slope, the temple glistened, raw and a little runny like a smoked slab of brisket. From an epicentre, a dark ring of smoking stone, resembling those used in traditional cooking, blistered and boiled. No troll structures wrought of wood, mud or rock remained standing. Away from the blast, the Trolls that did survive the flashfire crawled in the ash, mangled and medium-rare, howling in unfathomable agony as their regeneration failed.
Hardin decided he had to make a call.
Inti's prowess was beyond his expectation, but the problem now was that he faced not one, but two Ace-Mages. Worse still, he knew from experience that while Inti's faith magic was quickly exhausted, the Void and Lightning sorceress had appeared unfatigued.
"Sir." Hardin altered his voice, adding to the distortion of his long-range Message.
"… instructor," came an annoyed response. "How goes our acolytes' lessons?"
"Poorly," Hardin replied euphemistically. "I'll need more resources to keep these kids in line."
"ALL of it."
"I see," came the reply. "In that case, I have good news."
"What is it?" Hardin furrowed his brows. He had enough surprises.
"You should inform the children that they need to be very careful between tonight and tomorrow…"
"Because the Blood Moon rises," the effeminate voice replied. "Tonight, the jungle will come alive."
Ten-thousand flower-wreathed llamas crossed Hardin's mind as he cursed Amaru's family to burn in the deepest pits of hottest hell.
"So, can Dark Water handle it?"
"Of course." Hardin spat his next words between clenched teeth. "It will be done."