Gwen was mid-meditation when the tunnel began to shake like the interior of a maraca.
"Rene!" Tei instantly erected his Dust Tendrils "Lulan!"
"No, wait!" Petra hindered the Magma Mage's Stone Shape. Rene's pause was enough to prove her earlier theory, for though the stones shifted, the tunnel did not collapse.
Still holding her breath, Gwen marvelled at her cousin. "Bloody good call, Pats."
"Earthquake?" Tei furrowed his brows. "Amaru must be 'turning' on the regular if their temples are built to withstand it."
"How long do you think this—"
The ground jolted.
The door to the cathedral-cavern slid opened, drowning out all conversation, making a din akin to jousting angle-grinders.
A multitude of gaping mouths, human and demi-human, huffed at one another from across the open space.
"Duleakum ushhuth guntrudeum!" a booming voice erupted where the Chieftain held court. A cauldron of Almudj knew what bubbled atop the raised dais, filling the cavern with a putrid stink.
"Formation C!" Tei bellowed from behind.
But before either side could move, the cavern shifted yet again. The ceiling structure, which had been glowing intensely with crimson moonlight, began to lower, dropping as an inverted pyramid.
A cacophonic crunch of overstressed stone heralded the catastrophic failure of the capstone portion, crashing directly atop the Troll Chieftain and the Arch-Hag's brew. With a great "Clang!" the cauldron tumbled from the Incan pulpit, forming a foul tide.
Hopping mad, the Arch-Hag and her sister dodged the falling debris, rolling and tumbling down the platform's incline. Besides the Trollic witches, it was every Troll for itself. The Chieftain, a tremendously armoured brute with a hawk's nose and forelimbs long enough to drag the floor, fled for cover. His stunned minions were then caught between debris and a hard place, cold-pressed into Troll mince.
"What the hell is going on?!" Gwen commanded her dogs to form a perimeter just outside the gate. "Tei—"
"JIIII! Ook! Ook!"
A menagerie of Magical Beasts poured through the ceiling into the sanctum's interior, hanging, tumbling, flying and falling over the sides of the half-broken inverse-pyramid. Those lacking flight or too enraged to realise their predicament fell onto the Troll structures below. The lucky ones landed on the incline, slowing their fall. The unlucky few impaled themselves or were suddenly face-to-face with angry Trolls.
Gwen caught sight of Cuzco's Undead Harpy descending with the waterfall of roving, snarling, clawing shapes.
She then saw Musi, covered from chin to shin in wounds, dropping with the Beast Tide. Above the twin spectacles, she caught sight of a glowing Inti, holding back the waterfall.
"I-It's a Beast Tide!" Rene burst out. "It has to be! There's no other explanation for the red moonlight and this many creatures converging on us!"
"Rene, calm yourself." Petra's eyes narrowed. "If this is a Tide, why weren't we told? There's no way the Tower knew nothing."
"Maybe its a part of the test?" Tei attempted a hypothesis.
"Or politics." Petra had seen how the game was played.
"Either way, it's going to take until morning to kill all of this." Lulan wetted her lips. "These are all CCs, right?"
"We should retreat."
"No, we fight."
"It may not be our fight." Petra frowned.
"Tei, what do you think?"
"Hold up," Gwen checked her teammate's enthusiasm for the time being. Now was not the time for in-fighting. Now was time to squeeze out a win. Tapping into her Conjuration Sigil, she called for her Planar Ally. "GOLOS! What the hell is going on out there?!"
"Idiot!" Gwen ground her teeth. Once they got back, she would have to rip her Wyvern a new one.
"Can't we go back through the tunnel?" Rene's voice grew uncertain, more so when the stream of incoming creatures included among their number everything from poisonous vermin to giant snakes. There was even a Displacer Jaguar.
"Mass Aid!" Petra buffed the party. If they didn't make it through their present crisis, there would be no use for the cubes anyway. "Resist Elements!"
"No. We'll be trapped both ways," Tei refuted Rene's caution. "We need to push our way out."
Lulan materialised her blades, then measured the distance with her eyes. "I can take the Hags if I can get some height."
"!" Gwen sensed a familiar tingle of danger. "Tei! INCOMING!"
Buck dived in front of Gwen just in time, catching a spear in the chest. The missile travelled clean through the Void hound's body, splintering as it struck Tei's barrier a split-second later.
The sneak attack had come from the anarchic melee. With Fudan's limited field of view, it was impossible to make out what was going on. Even so, at least one troop of Trolls had chosen Fudan for its enemies. The Blood Harpy, conversely and to their surprise, wailed upon the lycanthropic Musi. Up above, Inti spluttering like a flickering bulb, sending a blast below to clear the lesser beasts crowding Musi.
Gwen's Divination Sigil had been pinging non-stop, but this one struck a four on the Mayuree meter.
"Tei, with me! Everyone else, SCATTER!" Gwen made the call. "Dimension Door!"
A split-second later, necrotic energies engulfed the space where the team had stood, sizzling the granite with foetid black bile.
"The Hags are going to be trouble," Gwen remarked after teleporting herself and their captain to higher ground. When she reappeared, a burst of tenebrous ink from her offensive Dimension Door cleared their landing area of all hostiles. As for survivors, they fell instantly to her faithful hounds. "Tei, can you set up a safe zone?"
"It won't be safe until the casters are silenced." Tei surveyed the battlefield. "We need the Hags removed. Shall we ask Inti to join us?"
Gwen nodded, affirming her captain's command.
"Ariel! Clear a space!" She materialised then transformed her Kirin. With a "EE EE!" a resplendent Ariel unleashed its latent Dragon-fear, abjuring all lesser creatures within a radius of a dozen meters. Those caught within the sorceress and Ariel's consolidated aura either fled, froze, or fainted.
"Gwen!" Petra appeared a second later, utilising one of Gwen's Dimension Doors. With a touch, she buffed both Tei and Gwen with Mage Armour harvested from Anita. "Where's the other two?"
"There!" Gwen's eyes were sharper than most. "I see them!"
Lulan's armour was already in tatters after deflecting half-a-dozen javelins. However, the Troll's interceptions proved no deterrent to the iron-clad battle-maiden as she Misty Stepped into the air to launch her blades against the hated Hags.
Across the cavern, a Brutaliser ate her Panzerschrecks, taking two in the chest and one in an outstretched hand, deflecting the final two with its shield, making a mess of beasts caught in the projectiles' path.
Rene meanwhile, had transformed herself into a living battering ram, charging forward like a horizontal meteor, smashing through beasts and Trolls alike, hissing jets of sulphur as she carved out a trail of magma and lava.
"Musi! Retreat!" Inti's voice boomed across the cavern's interior.
A flash of radiance briefly turned the chamber bright as noonday. Inti rained down a volley of radiance, pummelling the Harpy to keep her from Musi.
"Inti! Where's the rest of your team?" Gwen's Message questioned why Cuzco was sans its other members. "Also, why's the damn Harpy attacking your teammate?"
"Someone interfered with Kusi's magic," Inti's voice came across colder than Elemental Ice. "As for the others… They've returned to Cuzco."
"Strewth." Gwen's shock was genuine. "Sorry mate, I hope they're safe."
"I hope they're safe as well," Inti Messaged back, not at all the voice of a man surrounded by raging fauna. "What are your plans?"
"Help us with the Hags. We'll get out together."
"Agreed," Inti replied. "In return, please help Musi. She cannot defeat the Blood Slave."
"Yeah, no kidding." Gwen watched her opponent fighting in her Puma form, bounding from wall to wall to dodge the Blood Harpy's wing scythes. Whenever Musi passed the Harpy's side, a flurry of feathers filled the air, followed by an arc of dark blood. The Harpy, however, paid its injury no mind. Swinging its wings, it appeared fully committed to slicing Musi in half so that it could feast on the Transmuter's entrails. Thus far, a dozen exchanges had transpired, matting her fur with corrupted blood. Were it not for her transformation, Gwen would've guessed that the girl's current complexion was paler than printing paper. "Will do. Tell her not to resist my Dimension Door."
To make good on his promise, Inti marked the two Hags with beams of light. When the Hags responded, one with a curse and the other with the black blood of ruin, Inti erected a unique variant of Shield of Faith, negating both effects.
"Gwen," Tei's voice came from behind, "Wards are done. Waiting on you."
"I need to bring their cat back before she runs out of lives. Pats?"
"No problem. I got restorations and heals by the dozen."
"Alright!" Gwen turned to her dogs. "Everyone, on me!"
Wolf howls filled the cavern, momentarily drowning out the mayhem.
From the ceiling, new monsters cascaded inward ceaselessly, threatening to drown the chamber if the flow couldn't be checked. Even now, the Trolls fought the Mages; the simians fought the avians; the avians strafed the beasts; while lesser fauna fought each other and everything else, including the undead Harpy in their midst. Meanwhile, the Harpy hunted Musi, harvesting Essence and vitality from creatures dying by the score. Behind the crumbled ziggurat, the Hags fought Inti, and finally, Inti fought the Hags, simultaneously keeping the Soul Slave pinned and the Tide at bay.
Gwen felt her fingers tingle.
In a moment, sans Cuzco, she would fight them all.
A year ago, such a prospect would have seemed absurd, but now, not only did she feel confident, she knew exactly how she could do it. Even in the worst-case scenario, she had contingencies in place to ensure she emerged as the king of the hill.
"Shaa!" Caliban stirred in her Pocket Dimension, prodding its owner, demanding to be born.
Gwen took a deep breath, fighting both vertigo and nausea. If tonight she succeeded, Fudan was off to round two. If she failed, then she would be finding out exactly how much she owed Gunther.
"Astro! Buck! Ariel!" she commanded her minions, concurrently imparting a silent command to Caliban. "Chow time!"
"Track the three from Cuzco," Auberon commanded. "And find the Wyvern."
Auberon had lived through two Beast Tides. His first baptism, like many Magisters his age, was the awakening of the Black Dragon. He had been a young man then, fresh out of Eton and a year into his studies at Oxford. As an inheriting Lord, he had joined the front even before the Queen dipped her quill and called for conscription. In those days, Mages and NoMs fought without the support of Towers and Shielding Stations, leaving few veterans to tell the tale.
The second instance had been in Tripoli. Auberon had served a stint as the city's Paladin, defending the colony against the Mermen of the Mediterranean Sea. The defence he mounted had been successful, and for his efforts, Auberon received a medal and an Order commendation from her Majesty.
Half an hour into the "Beast Tide", Auberon relaxed. From the way the beasts were reacting, he recognised that it wasn't a true Tide. If Magical Beasts attacked one another in a Beast Tide, they wouldn't be half as troublesome.
Considering the circumstances then, the chief proctor congratulated himself on making the right call even with incomplete information. Just now, his suspicion of politicians playing silly buggers was further affirmed by Lucy, whose region-wide Divination pointed to the presence of man-portable Resonators.
What mattered then, was the recovery of Inti, Cuzco's key to future archaeological endeavours— that and the completion of the IIUC match.
"Sir," a proctor interrupted. "I believe subject Golos is using obfuscation magic. I am reading enormous Illusion spikes on the spectrometer."
"Impossible," Auberon snorted. "The brute can't even use Lightning Evocations."
"I believe subject Golos may be using expendable items, Sir."
Auberon knitted his brows. Why did Gwen Song make everything so complicated? "What's the rule for conjured Allies using unregistered items?"
The proctors looked at one another, searching for answers.
"Do Planar Allies come equipped?" another raised a curious point.
The others shrugged.
"Find out what Golos used and log it for CC deductions." Auberon's brows twitched. "What's it doing now?"
"Er...he has wandered out of range just now," the first proctor apologised. "Sorry, sir."
The Baron of Shenfield groaned.
"Sir— Cuzco reports they have received the contestant Kusi, Tupaq and Mallqu. The Sapa has also ordered a mobilisation of his eastern garrison. The Master of the Tower has committed two rapid-response flights. They should be here within half-an-hour. The king's forces will take longer."
"Half-an-hour?!" Auberon snorted. "Bleeding colonials… alright. That's fine. Thank them for their prompt response."
The proctors' minds returned to the grand melee.
Fudan's grave keeper had by now set up a sizeable force barrier, reinforcing his wards with Fudas and additional layers of Abjuration. Rene, who had made a one-woman charge into the Beast Tide now aided the Abjurer by creating a two-metre moat of flowing lava. As for Petra, the Russian Enchantress, she delighted the proctors by simultaneously maintaining a Wall of Water, Crystal and Lightning, forming a concentric ring of death around the Pillars.
"Turtling up during a Beast Tide?" one proctor observed. "Are they fools? How long do they think their mana will last? Retaining one's mobility is the first lesson taught in tactics."
"A curious tactic indeed. Miss Pritchard, are our contestants aware that Inti's father has summoned his Mage Flights?"
"And yet they're preparing a final defence?" Auberon cocked his chin. "Where's our Void Sorceress?"
"She's fighting the Soul Slave, sir." A proctor manipulated the central vid-caster.
"My word, that's Kilroy's Dimension Door, isn't it?" A British Magister adjusted his spectrometric lens. "AND her creatures trigger the secondary effect? What's the girl's VMI?"
"Just over three hundred." One of the proctors cited from memory.
"That's more than mine," a Magus-proctor sulked.
"Lord Shultz did vouch for the girl," Auberon reminded them before exploding with a "Golly— Well done!"
On the screen, Gwen Song materialised with her dogs, instantly paralysing the Soul Slave with ten consecutive blasts from her Dimension Door. The joint lightning strike wasn't fatal, but it was enough to clear the space between Musi and the Harpy.
Impressively, between the sorceress and the Kirin above, three bolts crisscrossed with the Blood Harpy as the locus. Where the spells conjoined, the scarlet-winged cadaver transformed into a being of pure plasma.
"KREEE!" the Soul Eater keened, pulling at the Mages' Astral Souls, hoping to stun the sorceresses.
Its targets, however, were long gone. What was left was only a pack of Void Hounds, hungrily eyeing the half-cooked hen in their midst. Beings without souls and possessed only of insatiable appetites, "Buck" and his pack boxed in the wary Soul Eater, leering at its Essence-rich flesh.
With a grand sweep of its wings, the Soul Eater drove the deerhounds back, taking to the air.
A timely divine punishment from Inti sent the Harpy reeling back to earth. Snarling with sadistic delight, the Void dogs closed in, tearing at the Harpy's throat, its limbs, its arms and wings.
"KREEEEAAA!" the creature keened. Though each bite could only damage a portion of the Blood Slave's reinforced flesh, what was taken no longer regenerated. In seconds, the seemingly unstoppable Soul Eater became buried under a roving mass of undulating dogs.
"Horrible…" A female proctor wrung her hands. "My God! She's going for the Hags!"
After depositing the half-drained Musi within the safe zone set up by her team, Fudan's sorceress reappeared amidst the Troll camp, right behind the Arch-Hag and her minions.
Auberon found it impressive that the teleport had been timed with Inti's Radiant Blast.
With the lightning sorceress' arrival, the area instantly electrified, stunning all but the gigantic Brutalisers. A second invocation issued from the girl's petal-lips, enveloping her foes with twin sets of Chain Lightning.
Auberon's mood rose and fell.
The assault should have been enough, but the Hags were cunning beings who had survived for centuries in a region where might makes right. Even as the livid plasma seared their infected skin, the curse of Kernunno, the dark God of the Deep Woods, left the Hags' pestilent tongues to bewitch Fudan's sorceress. Against all their expectations, the Hags had been neither stunned nor beaten. They had instead been waiting for an opportunity.
The Brutalisers moved in.
Missiles from across the room sank into the Troll bodyguards' bodies.
Beams of sunlight struck the apathetic hulks, failing to overcome their resistance.
Fudan's sorceress fell onto one knee, guarded by an agitated Kirin. Her complexion grew instantly pale, indicating that at least one curse had caught the sorceress unaware. In one exchange, from an avatar of lightning and destruction, Gwen Song had transformed into a mewling, defenceless young woman.
"Poor lass." A proctor winced when the sorceress' eyes rolled back. "Too hasty, that's inexperience for you—"
A semi-dome Void Shield sprang into place. The girl wasn't out of commission yet.
"What? How is she—"
"SHUT UP!" Auberon snapped. "Keep the instruments attuned! What's she saying?"
The Eye of Providence attempted and failed to penetrate the Void barrier, though it was capable of picking up the subtle vibrations on its surface.
"Turn up the volume." Auberon furrowed his brows.
"What is that?" A Proctor found the glyph to clarify sonic projections. "I think it's a ritual of sorts."
The chant grew clearer.
"Evee…Evee Evee Evee EVEE…"
The proctors fell silent, not only because of the nonsensical mantra but also because of the planar tear that had just appeared atop Gwen Song's Void Shield. Soundlessly, the slit opened; an all-consuming eye staring into the Material Realm.
"SHAA! SHAA!" came a horrid screech that rocked the barracks, splitting their ears, announcing the arrival of imminent oblivion.
Inti wished Tica was here with him.
Whenever he felt down or that the burden of the kingdom was too much, her soft voice and wise advice comforted him. Now that she was away, he began to realise just how much he missed and needed his better half.
"RADIANT STRIKE!" Inti gestured with his right while his left hand dextrously completed the necessary incantations.
When the Rite of Dusk and Dawn activated, the prince of Cuzco had received the collated Faith the temple had gathered within its mystical circuits. His only regret was that after so long, the Rite's energies were long exhausted.
The disaster thus far had been one serendipitous event after another. If Cuzco hadn't been ambushed; if Kusi hadn't lost control of her Undead; if it weren't the full moon; then he would have never activated the Temple of Mama Killa.
Just as well, when his companions had been overwhelmed, what Inti felt wasn't regret, but relief.
Relief that he was alone.
Relief that he was no longer responsible for their safety.
Relief that his decisions were finally his own.
"Solar Blast!" Inti carefully portioned his mana, using just enough to keep the Hags stunned and on the defensive. When Gwen made good on her word to rescue Musi, Inti extended his artillery support, hammering down the Undead slave so that her aberrant dogs succeeded in their monstrous labour.
Soon, the Soul Eater perished.
Inti felt a moment of exhilaration.
Was it strange that he preferred working with Fudan? There was great satisfaction when objective, action, and skill fitted like a well-cut puzzle. From his vantage, Gwen's Dimension Doors were easy to follow, for her lightning novas made her whereabouts self-evident. When furthermore the sorceress unleashed a torrent of lightning to encircle the Hags, Inti matched her spell for spell.
"ARRRGH!" the girl unexpectedly reeled, falling to the floor.
A curse! Inti swore. Lacking the ability to read magic, he could only predict the Hags' actions based on their body language. In that regard, the creatures' low cunning had deceived them all.
He must save her! An urgent desire flashed through Inti's mind, though before he could move, a cynical voice interceded. Guiltily, Inti wondered if the Void Sorceress's loss meant that his team could still win in the competition. After all, between Kusi and himself, they had subjugated almost a thousand Harpies.
Below, a Void Shield sprang up where the girl had stood.
She didn't need his help.
Paying no heed to Inti's dilemma, a slit opened mid-air, filling the cavern with an aura of vertigo.
Soundlessly, the Void vomited forth a fiend more terrible than Amaru itself.
Inti shuddered, realising that he would never want to be the girl's enemy, not now, not ever, not so long as her sweet body drew breath.
The proctors fell into a dumb silence.
A faceless head emerged, bullet-shaped and armoured in transparent obsidian, beneath which a writhing mass of tentacles was just visible.
Soon, a second phallic appendage emerged.
Then a third.
And a fourth.
The violence in the cavern slowed as all eyes fell upon the emerging beast. Even partially emerged, the fiend's aura was enough to drain the choler from the frenzied combatants.
The final head emerged, totalling six as it made a sound like the tearing silk.
A bulbous, elongated body followed; legless so that the faceless Naga resembled a fat slug, its semi-transparent torso filled with alien, irrelevant organs. It's rear followed after what seemed an eternity, stretching the creature twenty meters from tip to tail.
"SHAA! SHAA!" The leading head split open, revealing a dozen lamprey-lipped tentacles, tasting the air for prey.
"SHAA! SHAA! SHAA! SHAA!" The others quickly followed, their faces splitting from bullet-head to neck-shaft so that when it once again began to slither, the Void Naga resembled a roving, ravenous mass of malicious mouths.
The first Troll to make a move was a Brutaliser. Hoisting its shield and club, it charged the mass of tentacles, diving into a sea of lamprey-lips.
The massive Troll succeeded in penetrating the Naga-slug's armour, crushing the smooth obsidian as it barrelled into Caliban's side.
Two hundred kilometres from the site of the fiend's manifestation, Auberon felt a chill.
"Gulelush! Gulelush gloguth! Glogother!" the seemingly indestructible Troll howled, its body language suddenly terrified.
Where the Troll had made a man-sized wound in Caliban's flank, two dozen thigh-thick intestines came to life. With a sick sibilance of squirming and slithering, the tentacles enveloped the howling brute, resembling a mass of pallid worms.
Back in the proctor's barracks, the reticence was punctuated only by the whining emitted by Divi-engines. The Brutaliser's skin was dense, its armour formed of hardened hide, but even so, the Troll possessed many orifices that did not enjoy the protection of its ritually enhanced body.
Behind the first, the second Brutaliser dropped its shield. From its expression, the proctors witnessed that a hysterical madness had snapped its sanity.
"Ulubag!" the giant turned from the writhing mass of hunger, then fled toward some distant corner, crushing fellow Trolls and Wildland fauna alike.
The prince of Cuzco took the opportunity to strike the Hags again, stunning them even as Caliban approached.
By now, Gwen's dogs appeared to have recovered as well. The Lightning hounds guarded their mistress while the Void hounds, having finished the Soul Eater, closed in from all sides.
Auberon checked the secondary projection centred on Fudan's Ace. Despite the spectacle, her biometrics indicated a semi-conscious delirium. He frowned. If the girl was senseless, how was she controlling her Familiars?
Meanwhile, the bare-breasted Hags shrugged off the spells wearing away at their blood-caked hides, even now smoking with Inti's holy fire and Gwen's punishing lightning.
The Arch-Hag muttered, then raised both hands in the air. A visible source of vitality suffused the Hag's body as she drained the life from her fleeing bodyguard. Her wounds instantly healed, as did that of her companion. Like an epidemic, the vital energy spread from Troll to Troll, dispensing her blessing to her followers, restoring and reinvigorating her kin.
Not far, the Troll Chieftain tore away a massive green-iron blade embedded in its navel. Now invigorated, it caught its Sword Mage assailant by surprise, walloping her across the torso. Though the Chieftain broke its club in the process, the riposte was enough to send Lulan across the room to crater the granite.
"ULOAR!" The Chieftain's bulk doubled. The bark armour it wore seemed to grow as well, enveloping the Troll leader's body.
"Glogzag dol-in, dol-ilrag ushhesuth guntruders! Guoum Kernunno!"
"ULOAR!" The surviving Warriors, their bodies wet with gore, raised their weapons. "Kernunno! Kernunno! Kernunno!"
The Warband had been riled up.
"Sir…" a young Magus chose this moment to carefully raise an arm, unsure if this was the best time to speak.
"What is it?" Auberon spoke without moving his eyes.
"Lord Lucas…" the Magus gulped. "Her Wyvern's back, but it's not alone."