From the air, it was self-evident where Dalian's domain ended, and the Black Zone began. Past the landbridge, past the precipitous rise of the Heishan, the late autumn forest turned to sickly stumps, then into blasted soil devoid of life.
"That's actually from spellfire inundating the landscape," Lieutenant Jinwei Hān, 1st Force-Recon, Fudan's Advisor, replied with a glance. "We run periodic training exercises as well as Purges in the region. When an overflow disrupts the ley-lines, the land becomes inconducive to life."
Gwen floated beside the Lieutenant, her porcelain-white armour gleaming in the morning sun. Behind her, the team fanned out, with Lulan and Richard on either side, and Eunae and Mayuree sheltered in-between.
Their liaison was a PLA officer in his early thirties, though thanks to a cracked and weathered mien, the man appeared older. Measuring just five-foot-five, the Air Transmuter-Evoker had the typical stone-face syndrome which afflicted northern military men.
"Do you know my Uncle?" Gwen's eyes brushed over the man's unit insignia, possessing the Chinese pictogram for "One".
"Never had the luck." Hān shook his head. "As his junior, I must say, I am glad I'm not from his generation. The unit replenishment rate during Captain Song's moment of glory was almost ninety per cent. Who could envy that?"
"Jesus." Gwen grimaced, as did her team. "Is it that bad now?"
"Not nearly. The Undead are losing their momentum. Running out of living bodies. That's why we're pushing back." The Lieutenant grinned at Fudan's vice-captain. "We've fought them to a standstill for almost two decades now. Even Necromancers need supplies—"
"Contact, North-North-West, two klicks. Zombies." Mayuree's voice blossomed just below the assault team's ears. From up on high, it was easy to spot the Undead by sight, though all humanoid specimens appeared identical when viewed from afar.
Hān listened to the orders transmitted into his ear, confirming Mayuree's intelligence.
"Vice-captain, this will be your first sortie." The officer's voice filled their Message Devices. "Standing Orders are to neutralise hostiles in quadrant 44-D2. Will you accept?"
"Understood!" Gwen saluted inexpertly.
The whole setup of the Chinese IIUC round was suspect, Gwen felt. The idea was that the student teams were auxiliaries who receive real-time objectives assigned by the frontline troops. That way, they "participated" in the war, and were at the same time safe where the fighting couldn't accidentally swallow them wholesale. It was very much a curated experience, one that Gwen felt was ripe for underhanded advantages.
The boon, of course, was that Fudan stood to benefit, as per the point and purpose of choosing home ground. Winning with an extra ace from the dealer was no skin off her nose. She was no child, and possessed no idealistic delusions that the world was fair. Whatever advantage they received, she would take. Whatever disadvantage they faced, she would overcome. As a future Frontiers woman in London, having more matches under her belt would ease the favour Lady Grey had to afford with Richard and anyone else she desired to bring with her.
Beside her, her cousin and Lulan closed ranks, while Mayuree and Eunae took up defensive positions in the rear. Somewhere above, where the Elemental Air was thickest, Golos coasted on unseen currents.
"Our first swarm!" Gwen's clarion voice echoed as Richard and Lulan activated their buffs even as Eunae Aided and Blessed the team. "Let's do this!"
A Zombie Horde!
Gwen had seen her share of World War Z, but that didn't' stop her eyes from watering when they arrived downwind of the ambling mass. From a bird's eye view, the ghastly sight appeared a knot of pixilated tendrils, fragmenting and budding, moving forward not as individual bodies but as a living, breathing Undead thing.
"Dull Sense!" Gwen activated Walken's long-promised Transmutation. Below, the Undead walkers made steady pace southward. The sight was almost reposed, now that she could no longer smell anything. Where she had anticipated a rush of rotting fresh barrelling toward distant Dalian, the reality was that the swarm sent out "feelers" of meandering runners before absorbing them back into the throng. Without a foe, the Zombies were entirely placid.
"What's the count?" Richard scanned the roving mass below them.
"Between three and four hundred." Mayuree performed a quick calculation.
"Lieutenant, may I request advice?" Gwen wasn't shy with potential short cuts.
"You may. I would suggest bundling these CCs tighter," Hān replied. "Do use bait."
"A good Cleric ought to do it. Zombies mindlessly seek out life and positive energy."
The party turned to regard Eunae, who grew instantly white. Not me, her lips appeared to say. Please, for the love of Korean Jesus, not me.
"Eunnie, its time for you to make Seoul proud!" Gwen grinned at the Cleric. "Have no fear, Dick is here!"
Eunae wanted to hold Luyi tight to her chest, but her doe wasn't capable of flight.
"Lea!" Gwen's cousin entreated his smiling she-devil. "Make sure not a single hair on Eunae's head is molested by the dead!"
In their past life, when they were still men and women, the ambling corpses had been fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. Now, they were driven by insatiable hunger and an implanted drive to move south, caring only to increase the swarm's number.
Though sans mind, sans eyes and sans taste, each Zombie was acutely attuned to the presence of vitality. For months since emerging from Shenyang, the horde had shuffled across the tablelands, fording the Beida River by stepping on the floundering bodies of their fellows, splintering and reforming as the swarm ebbed and flowed.
Abruptly, the Zombie Horde turned.
Now that they scented the presence of life, a strange focus overcame the meandering figures of blackened blood and rigid flesh.
Sensing the sweet presence of a life-bringing Cleric, the swarm began to boil like fingerling fishes at feeding time.
Nailless digits dug into cold flesh preserved by the Negative energies empowering their disfigured muscles. Limbs distended, tongues outstretched and yellow teeth gnashed. By the dozens, the Zombies piled toward their new messiah, climbing atop each other to reach her trembling, tender flesh.
Above the mindless swarm, the students watched, waiting for the Zombie pile to reach critical mass.
"MAELSTROM!" came the sound of a rumbling female voice.
Emerald lightning crackled across a cloudless blue sky. With a shuddering roar of thunder, a portal opened into the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning. An enormous vortex of air began to form, quickly descending in the guise of a cyclonic eye, vacuuming the flailing limbs, ascending their ghoulish flesh into gentle oblivion.
"Eunnie! Hold on for five more minutes!"
"She'll be right, mate." Richard kept up his spherical water shield even as a trail of white water fed into the vortex. "I've got a good RPM going, Eunae's untouchable."
"ARRRRRRRGH!" Eunae shrieked, caught between a Zombie Horde and a portal choked with living lightning.
While the healer's howls reverberated across the horizon, the horde depleted. When finally their numbers dwindled under a hundred, Gwen ceased channelling the spell and allowed the duration to play out on its own.
"Ariel! Caliban!" She allowed her Familiars to descend and stretch their limbs. Ariel sent forth bursts of intermittent lightning drawn from Gwen's Bolts, obliterating the stragglers. Caliban's spider form skittered across the battlefield, ignored by the Zombies, harvesting heads.
Not far, Lulan pounded the survivors into mince with iron girders.
Doubling her duty, Gwen fulminated as she swept the battlefield, picking off cadavers that her Maelstrom failed to absorb.
Mayuree kept up her Detect Foe until the final feeling of danger faded. "Three... two... Alright! Mission accomplished!"
"Very good, I shall verify your results." Lieutenant Hān descended. "I was hoping to see Lord Golos in action."
"He gets hungry if he exercises too much," Gwen explained. "I'll save him for bigger foes."
In her opinion, they had done a decent job. The worst aspect of fighting Zombies is when chopped up creatures continued to function. These crawling swarms, known as "Biters" or "Creepers" were a nightmare for the PLA's NoM troops.
Closer to the ground, Gwen noted that the shamblers wore the garb of military men as well as clothes worn by peasants. The gender divide, in so far as such a thing was plausible to consider, was also male-centric. As the stories of the Front had foretold, the roving hordes consisted of fallen PLA troops mixed in with missing peasants from the Manchurian Frontier.
"Well done!" came the approval from Lieutenant Hān. "Twenty-six minutes, a lesser party would have taken a least three hours. I'll Message over the debriefing while we continue our flight."
Gwen's eyes swept over the fallow earth.
Her chest constricted.
To think that these were once men and women, full of hope and desire.
"Lead on, Lieutenant." She pointed to the west. "Lead on!"
The party headed north.
After their first taste of roasted flesh, the party gained a better understanding of the PLA's ploy. Across a widening Front a hundred kilometres wide, the 1st Force-Recon, joined by the 4th and 7th Divisions formed a sweeping scythe clearing the way for the NoM Divisions to follow. Quests were generated spontaneously by the officers as the advanced force trailblazed, filtered by the IIUC's chief proctor.
For phase one, the more quests a university was able to complete, the more CCs they were liable to gain. According to Hān, haste and efficiency was the key to acquiring CCs, as the operation could generate an endless volume of requests if need be.
On the first day, the projected purpose was to clear the first hundred-and-fifty kilometres from the Dalian peninsula to Shimenzi, an abandoned water treatment plant and reservoir. Before the Undead threat forced the PLA to pull back into the port city, Shimenzi was a sight-seeing region famous for its waterways. Now, in the slates provided to the students, an illusory projection displayed a bleak and abandoned quarry-cut lake grey with weathered granite.
"Looks like your contemporaries are doing well," Hān remarked on the military's internal chatter. "No problems so far. Pretoria is clearing a thousand-strong swarm as we speak. Auckland earlier destroyed a Grey Ghoul blood pack in just under forty-five minutes. Their Fire Mage must be very skilled to hunt such swift creatures so steadily."
"What's next?" Gwen was keen to get on with it. Lulan returned to the fold, using the armour's self-cleaning function to wipe away the juice-splatters staining her petite profile. Eunae had lost her voice somewhat, but as a healer, her sanity should return within the hour.
"I was so scared!" the Cleric moped, glaring at Richard. "That was worse than those bug swarms in Amazonia!"
"There, there." Richard patted her hair. "You did well. That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"There'll be riskier Quests at Shimenzi without a doubt," Hān replied. "Hold on—"
Hān's brows relaxed. "There we go. Fudan, Purge request at Zhongchang, Corpse Hulk, maybe a controller nearby. The 4th Recon made the discovery— and you have first dibs. Shall we?"
First "dibs". Gwen chewed the words.
Hazzah for the home front.
It stood to reason that the PLA would give the quests with the most CCs to Fudan, but a caveat made the seemingly unfair system balanced— the danger of dying. If the CCP was less brazen, they could have asked two or three university teams to work together. To give the request to Fudan alone meant that one team would hog the gains— and that Fudan had to stomach the risk. Should Gwen's party fail to subjugate the beast and its numberless minions, they would waste CCs, lose the match, or in the worst-case scenario, squander their lives.
According to Walken, the committee turned a blind eye toward politically driven favouritism. It all balanced out in the end, he had informed her, for the same practice occurred every time in every match, everywhere. The lesser ranked universities had been given priority to choose for good reason. Having exhausted their pick, the future Fudan will have to fight a superior team on foreign soil.
"Understood." Gwen passed the thought onto Golos. She welcomed taking on the PLA's ambitious requests. It wasn't as though a regular team had a sixth-member in the form of a Mythically descended Thunder Wyvern.
As for their Corpse Hulk, Gwen conjured the vision of a monstrous creation composed of collated dead flesh, a colossal Frankenstein's Monster. Different to a self-perpetuating Zombie Horde, the Hulk had to be engineered through secret rituals to be controlled by a living Necromancer. According to the Bestiary, the Hulk could be anywhere between four to ten meters in height, pending the caster's skill; though its threat rarely exceeded the tenth tier.
"Is this your first Necromancer?" Hān pointed the students in the right direction even as he passed the coordinates onto Fudan's Diviner.
"Our very first." Gwen avoided the Lieutenant's gaze as the party's trajectory corrected, thinking of her uncle Jun. "Some advice?"
"Of course." The Lieutenant banked upward so that the team rapidly gained altitude. "What do you know about our resident Necros?"
"The bestiary says there are four common archetypes of Necromancers when discounting religion," Gwen recited from memory, having studied the book and consulted her uncle. "Ritualists are those who seek eternal life in Undeath or are trying to stay alive after Awakening with a talent for Negative Energy. Summoners are classic Necromancers who specialise in the raising of bodies, imbuing cadavers to empower Familiars. Corpse Grafters are construct-makers who experiment with the remains of humans and demi-humans, and finally, Soul Flayers are Necromancers who harken after Essence and Spirits, specialising in Ghosts, Wraiths and Spectres."
"And the Hulk?"
"… is typically accompanied by a Grafter," Gwen answered. "In addition to their minions, Conjuration-Grafters control a construct crafted from their bone, a monster that grows malignant with each additional graft."
"Well done." Lieutenant Hān appeared pleased. "How will you approach? Do you have a plan?"
"I do." Gwen's lips curled. "But first, let's see what our foes have in store."
* * *
From five klicks away, Gwen caught sight of the Zombie Horde.
Or so it seemed— until her essence-infused pupils re-focused.
What caught her off guard was the eerie appearance of a spartan but otherwise undisturbed township. With her eagle-eyes, she could see what appeared to be innumerable Zombies, some thousand or more, milling about a cabbage field three times the size of the town itself, ploughing the earth and turning the soil.
Not only that, she could see that the vegetation was neither withered or dying like the plants they had seen on their previous encounter. Instead, the plants appeared to be green and robust and thriving under the cloudless, midday sun.
"Halt," Gwen gave the command, then turned to Hān. "What the hell is this?"
"An outpost," the officer said. "Housing a Necromancer and his or her host of Undeath."
"Are you inferring that the Undead eat cabbage?" Richard, who had likewise read up on the PLA's state-issued bestiary, furrowed his brows.
"Gwen, I've heard rumours like this," Eunae, whose home city was a strategic spell distance away from the DNZ, butted in before her teammates' tone grew harsh. She hadn't been to the Black Zone in her youth, but the stories were well-circulated. "The areas occupied by the Undead can have regions where human or demi-humans live. The lower tier monsters mindlessly seek out living flesh, but the Necromancers and their minions who flock to the Black Zones still need to eat. So, they have outposts like this that provide fresh food for the still-living casters. I've heard that there are even reports of cows and sheep near Pyongyang."
Gwen's eyes swept past Eunae's entirely wholesome and completely innocent face.
"Eunnie— there are enough cabbages there to fill five semi-trailers," Gwen explained the reason for her dismay. Certainly a few fields of rapunzel weren't going to ruffle her tail feathers. "What kind of Mage subsists on cabbages? I don't even like it as a filling for my dumplings. They add nothing."
"I concur." Richard floated beside Lieutenant Hān. "Those are grown to feed NoMs."
"Your QUEST is to Purge sector G2-55." Hān's expression grew amused, his eyes forming two slits. "150 CCs, with a bonus for Necromancers. A gift from the 4th Recon."
"Mia," Gwen requested of her Diviner, ignoring their PLA liaison. "What's the maximum range on your Scry?"
"In the open? Just over two klicks," Mayuree replied. "I'll check as soon as we get closer."
"Your uncle Jun ever mention anything?" Richard asked Gwen in a silent Message as the team picked up the pace. "If there are NoMs here, surely he would know."
"Uncle Jun hasn't been at the Front since the late nineties," Gwen recollected. "He was also stationed where the fighting was heaviest. The Tangshan Line north-west of Beijing."
"Lulu, you ever heard anything about NoMs on the Front?"
Lulan shook her head. "Why does it matter?"
Mayuree's voice quivered. "Are the NoMs… food?"
"The Necromancers are growing food for their food?" Gwen questioned her friend's horrific hypothesis.
"Our serpent tamers breed Hornshell Rats to feed the Horntail Vipers," Mayuree reminded Gwen of the ingenuity of Mages when it came to harnessing power by any means. "Also, in Yunan, the Miao Clan keeps NoM slaves to temper the poisons of their Familiars."
"Let's hope you're wrong." Gwen increased her velocity, leaving a dirty trail of blue-white mana. Her agitation seemed to have infected her Wyvern, who telepathically requested the cause of her concern. "Yes, Gogo?"
"Calamity, I grow bored," Golos bemoaned. "Let me fight the Hulk."
"I'll be the judge of that." Her answer was for her Ally to hold his position. "Don't forget, you're my ace-in-the-hole, don't show yourself so easily."
"HA!" came a prideful huff from Golos. Her Wyvern had no idea what the idiomatic reference to poker implied, but felt instinctively pleased by her words.
A few minutes later, the village fell within the range of Mayuree's Scry. She could see now that the town below them consisted of only a dozen inhabited buildings, while the hundred or so dynasty-spanning mud-brick homes were left abandoned. Where the modernised houses began, a bone-white fence ran a ring around the structures, outside of which meandered the milling Zombie farmers.
"Found it!" Mayuree directed their eyes toward a large warehouse structure. "The Hulk is in there. It's not moving right now— there are glass baubles and jars everywhere. And bits of people."
"Is the Necro alone?" Gwen called Ariel to her side, informing Golos to remain ready.
"I sense… ten mana signatures in the houses. Nine low-tier readings and one at the tier of a Magus, almost a Magister," Mayuree noted. "There are other people here as well, without Mana signatures. Servants, I think, about twenty or so..."
"Lieutenant." Gwen halted. This high up, they were specks barely worth noting. "Why hasn't the main recon force annihilated this place?
"Well." Hān pointed to the houses below. "They're YOUR CCs."
"I see..." Gwen observed the village below. Now she knew the CCP fully intended to pad Fudan's score. To that end, she could open up with an Essence-enhanced Maelstrom while obliterating the Hulk with a Void Sphere, but what of the humans in the houses? There were thirty more lives below— assuming one Necromancer who had to die. "Those people—"
"Renegades and Rogue Mages," their advisor stipulated, biting each word. "Vice-captain Song, these are CCs which the 4th Recon has left for your team. I assure you that the IIUC will recognise these contributions, the same as the Wildland Mercenaries you neutralised in Kachin."
Gwen's expression grew hesitant.
"I can move in with Mia and Lulu," Richard advised in her stead. "You take care of the Hulk and the Zombies— and Golo can snag the Grafter."
"BUT— I suggest you alpha strike as soon as we close in." Richard's logic pounded her ears. "Those Rogue Mages are bunched up right now. Chasing them would be a chore."
"Why haven't they noticed us?" Gwen felt her conscience throb against her temple. She would have preferred if the acolytes fled, but these were Necromancers. For some reason, Michio Lee's words came to the fore of her mind, explaining that Necromancy was no different to Biomancy and that the mere practice of it shouldn't sign a death warrant.
"There are no Message Towers here in the Black Zone," Mayuree explained. "Our enemy's outposts likely keep in touch through physical means."
"Corpse Ravens. Ones which the 4th Recon has neutralised for you," Hān added helpfully. "Miss Song, will you proceed? Forfeiting the quest at this stage will result in a penalty. And of course, we shall then offer the same quest to your competitors."
Gwen's well-loved eyes swept over her teammates.
Richard had no qualms about doing what was necessary, that was a fact she could clutch with absolute confidence. Lulan had already proven that she thought little about carving through a wall of NoMs; even after her District 109 rampage, her remorse had been demure. For Mayuree, Gwen was sure the coup against Maymyint involved removing at least a three-digit number of ex-allies that opposed Marong's plans. And Eunae— sweet Eunae could be discounted, for she couldn't battle her way through a dozen NoMs, much less mass murder them.
As their vice-captain, it was her responsibility to make a choice.
For some time since Maymyint, she had understood that in the distant future, there would come a time for stone-cold slaughter. That future, however, had arrived a little sooner than she had anticipated.
As Gunther had said so long ago, it was a Mage-eat-Mage world out there, and even if Gwen had no desire to take the lives of others— others had great desire to make her life as humanely miserable as conceivably possible. Even now, she wasn't yet at a tier of power where mercy was something she could afford.
Didn't Mia say the workshop was a full-blown charnel house? That these Necromancers thrived on the lives of innocents wasn't an ambiguous reality. It was only her silly conscience that prolonged the inevitability of their execution.
When she opened her eyes again, her emerald-amber orbs were as unyielding as gemstones.
Necromancers were living, breathing, thinking human beings. But they were also aberrant psychopaths who pried open the body of the weak to practice their profane arts. If so, what mercy did they deserve? Didn't she boast to her Master that she had to be cruel to be kind? To be kind to a Necro was to be cruel to the living.
"Lieutenant Hān." Her husky voice took on the hardness of granite. "The quest was for the destruction of the Hulk, yes?"
"Then we destroy the Hulk as our topmost priority," Gwen said. "Richard, Lulu, please take care of the Rogue Mages. If you can, show some pity for the NoMs."
"Yes, Vice-captain!" her teammates replied.
"Calamity?" Her Wyvern demanded to know her mind.
"The Desecrator is yours. I'll let you know as soon as I can locate the caster."
"Ariel. We're opening with a big one."
Gwen took a deep breath.
"FUDAN! ROLL OUT!"