Gwen made the call.
Under less urgent circumstances, she would have given the matter some pause, consulted her teammates, reached a consensus, but now she could only go with her gut feelings. Auberon's invitation was akin to putting Inti in front of a freight train, and either she pulled him out of the way, or she could wait to wipe his blood from her face. Though Golos brought the Da-Peng, she was the one arrogant enough to utilise Golos in the match, even knowing the Wyvern was slow in the head. Likewise, whatever Auberon's intentions, she sensed no reason for malice, least of all under the Eye of Providence.
"HOLY SHIT!" Her eyes widened when she materialised to find the prince looking like a torn-up ragdoll. An inch away from Inti, a female-faced Da-Peng prodded at his lolling head with a blistered tongue, lapping up the prince's royal blood.
Her hands blurred.
A series of Flashbangs went off an inch from the Da-Peng's head, reinforced by a screeching Ariel, jarring its brain with shockwaves of light and sound.
The Da-Peng reeled; while the bird shook its head confusedly, Gwen picked up Inti's still-warm body, an arm under his limp legs and another around his mangled shoulder.
"KAAA!" Sensing Gwen's presence through the vibrations in the air, her foe lashed out in all directions with both wings. Before she could duck, the equivalent of a steel bar took her across the posterior.
Agony ripped through Gwen's lumbar as her ribs squeaked. To her miscalculation, the Da-Peng wasn't stunned, but now the same couldn't be said of herself.
Inti shuddered as they struck the murals on the wall. From the prince's mangled stump, fresh gouts of arterial blood poured over her hands.
"Shield!" Gwen erected her barrier a split-second before a massive hand-foot performed a follow-up strike.
Even with the reinforcement from her new Ioun Stone, her double-glazed barrier proved insufficient, turning instantly opaque. Sensing the force push against her body, she knelt over Inti to avoid crushing his limp body.
"!" Her Divination Sigil fired needlessly as Gunther's lauded signature-shield shattered.
The Da-Peng continued its offensive, aiming for a length of her leg. Foul phlegm splattered across her Shen-tei armour as its female-face darted forward with a prehensile tongue poised like a putrid spear.
Dizzy from the blow, Gwen could rely only on her reflex. Fuelled by both Essence and adrenaline, she dodged the bite, lifting her leg so that she appeared to perform a ballet-split— then dropped her heel with an axe-kick.
This time, it was the Da-Peng who miscalculated. Her boot heel connected with the avian's nose, deforming the soft-cartilage and smashing the appendage back into its skull. With a violent snap, the creature locked its jaws.
A fountain of foul iron expelled from the bird's battered face, painting Gwen from head to crotch. A split-second later, a severed tongue slapped her across the thighs.
"EE!" Ariel swiped at the howling bird-beast.
"Tei, Pats! Get ready!" Gwen pushed past the revulsion, then with Inti gore-clad and cradled in her arms, she activated her Dimension Door, taking the prince and her Familiar below.
Hardin slinked from the sanctum, his passage subtler than a water ghost pissing in the murk.
A consummate professional, he had stayed until the moment the Prince lost his arm, waiting until the Da-Peng was toying with its prey to make his escape.
In his opinion, it was a shame that Inti had to die, especially considering that the Radiant bloodline could potentially access un-looted temples. But, as Mister Price might say, "Better no one wins than the company not receiving its due."
Unconsciously, he tapped his Storage Ring.
This time, his task had been a long and arduous one. Thankfully, when Hardin returned to civilisation, it would be in the company of fine wine and finer women.
Hastening his descent, the former marine dove freely into the forest's depth, fading into the emerald sea.
Petra almost dropped her spell cube when Gwen re-materialised a second later, bloodier than the Countess of Bathory.
"Not mine." Their sorceress promptly deposited Inti so that he laid flat on the floor against the barrier's interior. "Pats, he needs help."
"Wocao!" Rene erupted with sympathy. "Poor bastard!"
"Gwen, I can't heal him like this. We need to take care of the—"
"CALAMITY! HELP ME!" interrupted the familiar cry of her Wyvern.
Gwen's Planar Troublemaker was now duelling the biggest Da-Peng of the lot, and from the looks of their aerial joust, he was losing badly.
"HOLD ON!" Gwen hollered back without sympathy. "I am saving a life here!"
"IT'S TEARING ME APART!"
"TOO BAD! WIPE YOUR ARSE!"
"… we need a clean wound, else the flesh-stitch isn't going to take." Petra coldly ignored the shouting match between master and monster. "The highest heal I've got cubed is Mend Flesh at tier 5 and Greater Restoration. That's Eunae's limit."
"Where's Lulu?" Gwen looked for their Sword Mage.
"Still fighting the Chieftain in the tunnel." Rene pointed to their prior entrance. "I don't think we should distract her."
"I need a clean-cut." Petra drew a line over where Inti's shoulder began. Presently, the ligaments were a mess, for the girls could see Inti's scapula buried in the mutilated flesh, while the knobbly end of the humerus hung by a tendon. As for Inti himself, the man was knocking on Ukhu Pacha's door.
"I'll do it." Gwen raised her hand, created the thinnest Chakram she could muster, then severed the mangled portion of Inti's right shoulder. Now, they must rely on the prowess of Petra's spell cubes.
Not missing a beat, Petra activated four restoratives in the blink of an eye. It was brute-triage; for usually, a specialist utilised the spells through targeted applications.
The second Da-Peng burst through the ceiling, angry as anything.
"EE! EE!" her Kirin yelped, demanding to go toe to toe with the bird. When its master had been assaulted, it couldn't do anything at all.
"Ariel, settle down!" Gwen reigned in her creature. Though Ariel could arguably do some damage, she had no desire to see her Familiar crushed and broken then sent back into its pocket dimension for twenty-four hours.
"Caliban!" Gwen called out to her sturdier Familiar. "Keep it busy— WOA!"
Golos slid into the barrier wall, cascading fire, water and razor-sharp crystals from his resistant body. The Da-Peng was likewise resistant to Petra's wards, for the Mineral Mage lacked the affinity of the spells' original casters.
"Help me! Leave the mortal!" her Ally barked, reeling from the Da-Peng's assault. As a whirling tornado of teeth, nail and feathers, the duo crashed against Tei's wall, taking out a pillar before Golos managed to wrestle the bird away. Hearing Golos' laments, Gwen's anger abated. Her last command was telling Golos to wipe his arse, an order he took to heart.
But the fight wasn't equally matched. Already, splotches of upturned flesh on Golos' silvery body indicated places where the Big Bird had "plucked" some scales. Conversely, Golos was having a great deal of trouble penetrating the Da-Peng's armour-like feathers.
Nonetheless, Gwen remained preoccupied with her human company.
"Is he breathing?" Petra stood unsteadily, fighting the spell fatigue.
Gwen placed a hand against Inti's nostrils, then rested her head against his heart. Now stripped of his body armour and ceremonial costume, the prince was bare-chest and crudely Prestidigitated. After the healing spells ran their course, his shoulder had knitted into a smooth, fleshy stump.
Beside Inti lay Musi, unconscious for an entirely different reason. Once restored and out of danger, Petra felt no obligation to cure the girl of her Negative Drain.
"No." Gwen breathed out, her breathing growing ragged as dread set in.
"I don't think more healing is going to help." Petra pointed to the scabs and the polyps forming on Inti's flesh-stump. "Any more and he is going to need a whole other type of healing."
"Rene, help me with the barrier," Tei commanded. "Petra, Gwen. We've done all we can. Focus on the bird."
Caliban taunted the second Da-Peng with cries of "Shaa!" and "Shaa!" insulting its whore mother.
"Gwen?" Petra paused when she realised Gwen wasn't moving.
"Pats, I have to perform CPR." Gwen placed a hand on Inti's chest. "I can revive him."
"You mean…" Petra knew her cousin well enough not to argue. "What you performed back in Burma?"
Gwen nodded, her lips forming into that familiar, stubborn pout.
"Then do it!" Tei's tone strained. "There's no time to waste."
Their captain's conjecture was correct.
Golos and the Da-Peng were bouncing from wall to wall, shaking room-sized sheets of shale and granite from the cavern and making a general mess of the Moon Sanctum. Caliban enticed the female Da-Peng by menacing it with its six serpent heads, pilfering vitality from the Void Swarm even as the Wildland tide thinned.
Gwen wasted no time.
She divested herself of the cumbersome Mage Armour, likewise stripping off the gloves of her armoured suit. Kneeling beside the unconscious prince, she pinched Inti's nose, pulled back his head, then delivered two lungfuls of air. Concurrently, she conjured Almudj's Essence on her tongue, then ran a current of electricity through her hands.
"Wake up, you Son of a Sun!" She pounded on his chest with her draconic-enhanced strength. "Your country needs you! Tica needs you!"
Her next breath brimmed with emerald-green Essence. As Inti's chest inflated, she could feel the renewal filling his bruised organs, sense the nodes of electricity firing away in Inti's bosom as his body jump-started.
"Okay!" Gwen brimmed with confidence. It was working.
Again, their faces met, her pink-petals enveloping Inti's pasty lips, injecting a concoction of oxygen and Essence. Against her cheek, his mouth twitched; underneath her palm, his diaphragm rose and fell.
Gwen withdrew as Inti violently expelled blocks of congealed blood all over his chest. Jelled, yellow bile followed, indicating that without her assistance, the prince would have died all over again.
"Wha— where— Gwen?" The resuscitated prince looked about him, confused by the sudden change of scenery. "The monstrous bird, is it dead?"
As if heeding Inti's call, the bird proved itself very much alive.
"KAAK! KAA! KAA!!!"
Petra's crystalline wall shattered.
Tei's lost the pillar he had just replaced.
Inti's awakening had attracted its undivided attention.
Her Wyvern fell from the ceiling, falling into a bed of squirming lampreys.
"CALAMITY!" Golos' cry now lacked its prior vigour. Visibly, the princeling of Huangshan was injured from neck to its shin, even the membranes of his webbed wings were wet with gore.
Above the Wyvern, the Da-Peng lorded over its battered prey with an expression of pure sadism, toying with its defeated foe.
There was no helping it now; sacrificing her dogs was a strategic necessity. Currently, her lampreys had the critters and the surviving Trolls well under control, meaning the deerhounds' utility was diminished. As such, rather than waiting for the Void Hound's slow rate of return or having her mana trickled away by Astro's pack, it was better to put them to use.
Gritting her teeth, Gwen ordered her dogs to menace the Big Birds. With one pack defending Golos and the other Tei's pillars, they could hopefully buy her the time needed for what came next.
Her hounds were happy to obey.
"EE EE!" Ariel promised to conserve her faithful canine companions.
"SHAA!" Caliban had waited patiently for its mistress to finish her task. It had sensed her turmoil, and now it demanded from her more life than she currently possessed.
"Pats, how many heals do you have left?"
"Not enough. We'll have to use supplements."
It was an assessment to which Gwen concurred.
In the next moment, she materialised a red wooden box inscribed with ancient Chinese glyphs. Exuding Dragon-fear, she slid back the lid to reveal a quivering root-vegetable. According to Ayxin, five-hundred years of Huangshan's earthly Essence was stowed in the thing. If taken in excess, she could very well explode from the eruption of vitality.
"Kii? Kii-kii?" The Spiritual Ginseng, awakened from its long slumber, gazed up at Gwen with its faceless mien. It attempted to move, but her dragon-fear held it in place. "Kii?"
"Sorry," Gwen apologised. Then, with a mote of Void wrapped around her finger, she removed its right-most root.
"KII?! KIIIII?!" The ginseng bellowed, betrayed by its owner.
The box slid shut with a "Click!" activating the sealing Glyph. With a deft hand, Gwen then popped the still-wiggling leg into a porcelain jug housing her favourite rice wine. This way, Ayxin had explained, the mellowed vitality could be absorbed without mangling her mewling mortal organs.
"I am going to transform Cali, when I do, feed me the heals." Gwen turned to face the birds outside the barrier. Golos was just about done to death. Tei could hold out for a few minutes more. Rene wasn't OoM but lacked the means to fight high-tier monsters. Petra was also at her limit. Apart from herself, their second-best damage dealer was Lulan. "Lulu? Are you done? We could use some support here."
"Almost!" Lulan's laboured voice came across in huffs. "One minute— No, half a minute!"
"C— GWEN!" Golos howled, ripping enthused lampreys from his armour. "It's coming back!"
"SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban urged its mistress to hurry.
"Allow me to help." Inti attempted to stand. "Sun's Blessing!"
A woeful spurt of Positive Energy suffused Gwen's back.
"Should have saved it for yourself." Gwen maternally patted the young man's head before facing the two Da-Pengs, one menacing her Wyvern and the other Fudan's pillar-barrier.
"Cali..." Gwen swirled the vitality-infused alcohol, then drank from the draught until the bottle was dry, transforming her pale complexion a vivid scarlet. Thus infused, her eyes grew misty and alluring even as she exhaled the command for their foes' oblivion. "...BIG BIRD FORM!"
In her mind, she fought down the vision of an eight-foot-two canary with the ability to skate, dance, swim, sing, write poetry and ride unicycles. Instead, she called upon her Lovecraftian lore.
Caliban's Naga-slug body began to bulge.
"Cure Wounds!" Petra burned her remaining restoratives.
"SHAAA!" Caliban pulled into the air, tearing through its membranes in the shape of a fist punching through darkly-dyed silk. Rapidly, Caliban's avian form took shape, expanding to encompass a pair of wings a dozen-meters across.
Finally, a flying form! Gwen exalted as fire and ice seized her body, with Petra's warmth roasting her insides even as Negative Energy ravaged her conduits. Fighting the sensation, she broke out in a terrific sweat, realising that Caliban's new form took a toll far exceeding her one-woman body.
The male Da-Peng reacted instantly, increasing its velocity as it swooped at Golos. The grounded Wyvern responded by whipping its tail around to meet his descending assailant.
Golos possessed the advantage of reach; at the cost of a dozen tail spines, the Da-Peng was forced to land.
Gwen's hounds closed in, latching onto the Da-Peng for dear life. Their fangs, however, proved insufficient in penetrating the bird's defences.
The bird lifted into the air. The dogs were flung aside easily, one crashing into the wall, while two were caught as they fell. The lightning hound perished instantly, while the void hound clung on for dear life, biting and snarling while the Da-Peng wrung out its vitality like water from a rag.
Cackling with glee, the Big Bird righted itself, opening its mouth to mount a sonic-attack.
"KREEAAAAAA!" The air in front of its human face distorted as though asphalt on a summer's day.
"ROAR!" Golos' dragon-breath proved futile, his line of lightning may as well be lukewarm water from a garden hose.
"Caliban, hurry!" Gwen willed more of her life into her Familiar, turning her complexion ashen.
Four Panzerschreck struck the Da-Peng alpha, three deflected by its hyper-dense feathers, while the last lodged in an old wound. Howling, the Da-Peng hopped through the air, attempting to shake loose the missile.
"Lulu! Get in here, quick!" Tei called out. Their Abjurer's stamina was waning. Since the battle's unexpected beginning, he had successfully defended their position against Trolls, the Tide, and now the Da-Peng, all without ley-lines or mandalas.
The newly emergent Lulan was covered in welts, cuts and bruises, her tattered armour hanging only by virtue of its limited self-mending property. Gwen winced. Though Lulu suppressed the Iron Heart, the drawbacks of a female using pure 'Yang' energy remained.
"DANCE OF IRON!" Lulan shouted, conjuring five slabs of green-iron to her side, her eyes brimming with battle lust. "Monster! I'll be your opponent!"
"KAAK!" The male Da-Peng shrieked.
"KEEE!" The female Da-Peng ignored the dog pack harassing its passage. Instead, it spiralled upwards amidst a bell-beat of wings, crushing a dog in one claw.
Lulan launched her swords to no avail, for the Da-Peng knew her blades were dangerous. With subtle shifts of its trajectory, it deflected Lulan's missiles, all the while accelerating with supernatural haste.
"Caliban!" Gwen huffed, her vibrant voice rising to a crescendo. "Start with the fat one!"
Auberon and the proctors lurched from one miracle to another.
Thanks to Burma, they had been inoculated against the possibility that Gwen could bring the newly dead back to life through assisted breathing and chest compressions.
In truth, Magus Evan had recorded Inti's vitals as hopeless even before Gwen's arrival. Already, a few proctors sighed sympathetically at the loss of so great a future Mage, lamenting the loss of human potential.
A few minutes later, Inti returned, ushering both jubilations from Auberon's peers as well as sullen silence from those who whispered accusations. Of course, CPR wasn't Necromancy, Auberon was sure of that, as sure as the silent spectrometer. Seeing it performed, however, was no less unsettling.
With Inti saved, only two monsters remained. Golos, the incompetent Planar Ally, proved no match for the largest of what Fudan called the Da-Peng, a term another proctor translated as Big Bird. Moments later, the female Da-Peng joined the fray, pushing Fudan against the wall, forcing Gwen to sacrifice her dogs.
In all honesty, the team had performed well and truly beyond their expected capacity. Now, it was a matter of endurance. If Fudan could hold out for just five more minutes, then two Mage flights would soon be bearing down on the Da-Peng.
But expecting Gwen Song to stay put was an impossible thing, for the girl then produced a Sapient Plant Spirit.
"The reading on that thing is off the charts!" the Magister in charge of Gwen Song's biometrics hammered at her Glyphs, bewildered by the numbers.
A few of the proctors stood from their seats. Flora Sprites weren't common cabbage. They only occurred in Black and Purple Zones where the ley-lines were thick, and in most cases, they were either eaten by the local monsters or reared by supreme creatures capable of levelling cities.
"KII!" the Sprite screamed blue murder.
"What the bollocks?" another proctor paled. "Is she… eating it?"
"Barbarian!" a second wailed indignantly.
"If the Elves find out…" a particularly well-connected Magister scoffed. "My word, she's mixing a cocktail!"
"Did she register the Sprite?" Auberon turned to Lucy.
"Yessir, its logged as 'five-hundred-year-old Chinese herb for restoring vitality'…"
"…" the proctors had no words; since Gwen wasn't using the Sprite as a Spirit, the girl was in the right.
"Sir." Gwen Song's presiding proctor frowned at the spectrometric disco playing across his projection. "Her biometrics are a mess."
"To be expected, I suppose." Auberon focused on the screen. "Looks like our Naga slug is about to become a butterfly."
Gwen's Familiar did not disappoint.
When its tenebrous body finally broke free of the Naga-shell, it measured just under ten meters from faceless tip to tentacled tail. At first glance, the creature appeared as the Void facsimile of a Wyvern, for its faceless head conjoined a distended neck and powerful shoulders with arms forming into a pair of wings. From the waist, however, the similarities ended. Where Golos sported powerful hind-legs, Caliban's avian form took on the lower half of the Da-Peng. Sensuously, the fiendish avian's underside sported a pair of six-fingered female hands, pink and flawless with nails of ivory, reminding the proctor of Caliban's owner. Finally, from behind the Void Fiend's rear, plumage consisting of a dozen tendrils tasted the air, forming the "tail" of Caliban's new anatomy.
The male Da-Peng met its bizarre doppelgänger in combat. Wings clashed, raining grey goo and fluttering feathers below, indicating that Caliban had replicated a portion of the Da-Peng's unique physique.
"What an abomination!" A proctor gagged when Caliban's hand-limbs flexed.
It was the strangest sight, for the Da-Peng possessed the hands of a man, while Gwen's creature was visually a female one. With the two jostling for dominance, their hands met, forming a disembodied spectacle of two lovers with their fingers entwined. This way joined and dancing through the air; the Da-Peng gnawed at Caliban's neck, leaving dark welts of upturned tissue.
"Consume!" came a command from its mistress below.
Caliban's faceless head, similar to its obsidian serpent form, peeled back to reveal an interior full of tongues, beside which rows of lamprey teeth formed an unending spiral leading into the Void fiend's maw.
"SHAA!" Obeying its mistress' command, her creature tongue-kissed the Da-Peng opposite so that its peel-back face enveloped its opponent's head.
The proctors shuddered.
On another vid-caster, concurrent to Caliban, Fudan's Sword Mage engaged in close combat. With Sweeps and Strikes, Lulan Li kept the creature at bay even as it snatched at her swords, bending, breaking and crushing her green-iron implements.
As they fought, the proctor noted that Lulan Li wasn't just fighting blindly, but slowly leading the creature toward Fudan's wall.
Launching and throwing enough blades to equip an army, the battered Sword Mage from Huashan grew slick with sweat until finally, the duo was close enough for the trap to be sprung.
"Bilby's Hands!" both Petra and Gwen activated the last big spell they could muster.
Sensing imminent danger, the Da-Peng attempted to retreat, only to cop a sword to the face, parting its cheeks and missing its remaining eye by an inch. The bird kicked, taking the Sword Mage in the abdomen with a claw-tipped finger, shattering Lulan's Crystalline Mage Armour.
Lulan Li faltered, flying back, vomiting blood as she skittered toward the pillar barrier. Thankfully, before she connected with the many-layered walls, a selfless Rene Blinked into place to catch the Sword Mage before she fell into the channel of lava.
The distraction was enough for the Hands to manifest. With a great clap, Bilby's supercharged Mage Hands slammed the Da-Peng against the granite floor, with both hands pressing it against the ancient stonework so that it couldn't gain purchase to free itself.
"Shaa… shaa… shaa…"
The lamprey swarm approached, having near-eradicated all creatures from the faux Beast Tide.
Up above, the leading Da-Peng panicked, beating its wings even as Caliban's deep-throated kiss turned to slow digestion. The struggle continued for a dozen more seconds, their hands below clasped in anguished passion as Caliban's tentacled tails sought out other weaknesses.
Finally, the Da-Peng's wings fell limp. With its meal still attached, Caliban circled the chamber as though parading its kill, then spiralled downwards to land with a thump, displacing a dozen lampreys.
Not far, Golos groaned, too exhausted to move.
"My God, it's over!" A proctor sat back in his chair. "By George! They did it! Incredible!"
Auberon exhaled, hoping that there would be no more complications.
"CALI, WAIT! SPIT IT OUT!" came a resounding cry from Gwen Song, filling the proctors' barracks with her husky voice. "Gogo! If you want to avert my wrath, eat those Big Birds! I want Cores! I want ALL of their Cores!"