"True Strike!" Mayuree's damage-divining augury flooded Lulan's mind with sudden clarity.
Below, above the workshop, her vice-captain had opened up with a triple-eruption of Element Sphere, staggered so that the first would blow away the tin roof, and the second and third, issued from Ariel, would vaporise the Corpse Hulk within.
The roof deformed as displaced lines of current cascaded down its sides, neutralised by an unseen ward. Across the team's Mind Linked stream of consciousness, she heard her vice-captain let fly an expletive as the nova rang out harmlessly. A half-dozen heartbeats later, Ariel's cloned Spheres struck, turning the flaring Glyphs white-hot before the mandala failed, this time ripping apart the topmost portion of the laboratory.
With the sheeting structure peeled like an orange blossom, a cloud of foul and poisonous gases, superheated by the electrical discharge, polluted the air. Within, the team saw what Mayuree had seen, a stitched horror, an abomination some six-meters tall, held together from bulbous face to multi-limbed bottom in gory stitches. Lulan recoiled. Against her anticipation of a giant Jiangshi, the craft used to create the now-stirring creature was western Necromancy, for she had never heard of such monsters in the annals of Huashan's index.
DING! DING! DING!
An alarm rang out, alerting the compound. Lulan rotated her hovering blades, shaping the iron so that the weighted tip formed an acute cone, while its latter half tapered into a four-finned, narrow-waisted fletch.
"Chakram!" Gwen let loose two of her discs to dice at the creature below.
Lulan grunted as she reshaped her conjured iron. A surge of agitating bloodlust from her enchanted heart threatened to revolt against her better judgement. Her Naga Spirit as well, raged within her Astral Soul, howling for violence. Through sheer force of will, she fought down her impulses, patiently awaiting the moment her assigned targets revealed themselves.
And they did. A flood of bodies— not the ambling Undead, but living figures, fled for their lives, pouring from the homes in the middle of the township. One by one, Lulan head-counted the escapees.
"NoM, NoM… NoM— MAGE!"
The Necromancer's Acolytes were easy to spot. Where the NoM servants wore the juniper-coloured hemp common to North Korean peasants, the Mages wore silken garbs of black edged with silver. In more fortunate times, the uniform denoted their superior existences; now, it made them targets.
"Panzerschreck!" Her borrowed premonition foretold that now was the time to let loose a modified Heart-Seeking Sword.
The largest of her projectiles, the "central" head of her Naga Spirit, punched the whistling air.
First rang the sound of shattering glass, then a thunk as her projectile ricochetted into the fortified abode.
The result was music to her ears.
Not only had her projectile punctured the first Acolyte through the chest, crushing his shield and penetrating the man's heart, it had also caught the second Mage unaware, mangling his unprotected legs before his barrier could manifest.
Lulan's attention momentarily shifted, distracted by the earth-shattering howl of the Corpse Hulk. For whatever profane reason, her vice-captain's spells had failed to sever its bodily appendages.
In response, Gwen switched to Lightning, entrapping the flailing beast as bolt after bolt of cobalt electricity penetrated its barrel-waisted body, igniting the alchemical compounds oozing from the ravaged lab.
"Mia— targets!" Lulan requested of their Diviner.
"Upper left, second storey! Ground level, forth window, just above the basement!"
"Got it! Panzerschreck!" Lulan sent four more projectiles toward Mayuree's nominated destinations, piercing through the feeble ward and striking at the unseen interior. By design, magical wards prevented magic from damaging or altering the shielded region of effect. Her solid-steel projectiles, however, were a matter of brute physics.
A short scream from the ground floor indicated that she was now three for five.
Lulan proceeded to "reload".
Without conscious thought, she ran her Clan's secret invocations through her Astral Body. As they passed through her Heart of Iron, a mystical transfiguration transmuted Huashan's Blade Summoning into gleaming slabs of polished steel.
"Spine Spear!" came the sound of retaliatory invocations from below, unveiled by Mayuree's sharing of Detect Foe.
The bloody bone-projectile lost its momentum at about eighty-odd meters, then fell toward the earth. As for Lulan, her Panzerschreck rounds were optimised for assault between two to five hundred meters, weather permitting. Gwen had even said that with practice, power and better 'designs' on the missile itself, distances exceeding a kilometre were entirely possible.
"Panzerschreck!" Without needing to look, she returned the favour. In times like these, having Mind Link with Mayuree was a Mao-blessed wonder.
Two solid girders of racing iron crushed the brick-facade, collapsing a portion of the outer wall. The other three, formed as twisted metal, rebounded through another window. A crash engendered, then a wailing cry began to haunt the lightless room, reminiscent of a blood-letted pig.
"That's four," Mayuree's voice came across the channel. "Be careful. They're desperate now."
From the dashed windows, what must be the oldest of the Necromancer's Acolytes emerged. To Lulan's surprise, they were almost all foreigners; one even had the blonde hair of a European.
"Panzerschreck!" Lulan unleashed another volley.
This time, the Mages had prepared defences. The leader was an Abjurer, for a wall of bone deflected Lulan's leading projectile. The second, however, crushed the skeletal barrier, while her third penetrated the resulting debris and the forth speared the woman, clearing her abdomen, withdrawing a trail of intestines.
The remaining five fanned out.
Richard was waiting below, hidden behind his invisible Undine.
Soundlessly, Lea enveloped an Evoker before the sorceress could utter a single spell. Another, one that Mayuree detected as a Transmuter, clutched at his face as a globule of water forced its way into his mouth and nose, manifesting as a Water Tomb.
Simultaneously, a torrent of hyper-pressurised water sent a man shield-first against the house, obliterating first his bubble, then breaking every bone in his body before he rag-dolled against the brickwork, coughing up blood.
The remaining two fled.
Lulan's lips twisted in mockery. If she missed from this distance, she wouldn't know where to hide her face.
With the NoMs fleeing for safety, Gwen focused on the monster.
In the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the blood splatters painting the shattered panes as Lulan's invocations fired with its characteristic shriek of wailing metal.
Her alpha strike had been too conservative. She hadn't expected that such a shabby looking laboratory would possess Abjuration wards. Likewise, when the thing awoke, and she attempted a decapitation, the resistance of its un-living body far exceeded her anticipation.
Cursing, she switched from Evocation to Conjuration, Void to Lightning.
With her present expertise, her Lightning Tentacles were as thick as her thighs, with six meters of reach. Before the giant could bring to bear the momentum of its bloated body, she had it tethered by the neck and shoulders.
"MUUOOAR!" the Hulk possessed vocal cords like a harpooned whale. With a heave, it tugged at the tendrils, displacing the elemental link momentarily before Gwen re-connected the ethereal chains, tethering it like a mongrel against the workshop's concrete floor.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen called upon Ariel to bring the creature to its knees. Bright arcs of electricity travelled from sorceress to Kirin to the Hulk, cooking its flesh as the Positive Energy of her Lightning neutralised the Negative motes of mana empowering the monster's profaned flesh.
"Gwen!" Mayuree's voiced pinned her ears. "The Zombie Horde's closing in! Finish up with the Hulk!"
Gwen immediately upped her ante, invoking a torrent of rapid-firing bolts.
"MUAAOAR!" The Hulk pulled away from her tentacles. By now, its skin was almost crispy with char, and its eyes had exploded from its sunken sockets. Yet, unperturbed by its injury, the thing rampaged toward her with the tenacity of a runaway semi.
Given time, she could toy with it, but now, she had to deal with an emerging Necromancer and his Zombie Horde. There was also the matter of the Grafter's Familiar, a threat that would surely be more powerful than this dumb brute.
A few seconds was all it took for the Hulk to close the distance. As it swung its meaty arm, a length of bone, shaped like a scythe, swung through the air.
Her diamond-facetted barrier turned opaque. Gwen smirked. Whatever the power of this thing, it wasn't even half of Golos. As for her Wyvern, it was now circling just out of sight, awaiting the Necromancer's emergence.
"Mia, buff me up!"
"True Strike!" Mayuree invoked the blessing from a distance. Thanks to Mind Link, the range of her buffs was well-extended.
Almudj's Essence boiled over, Gwen called a Lightning Bolt to her lips.
Her complexion turned pink as pippins as the vitality inside her body mingled with the mana she was sending Ariel. When the word came to her lips, it was with great relish, as though the first downpour after a muggy, humid day. "Barbanginy!"
A bean-green bolt of living lightning pierced the Hulk. Where it struck, the vibrant green energy spread through the brute's body, peeling its charred skin like an overripe avocado. A violent viridescence lit up the Hulk's interior, escaping from its eyes and its all-devouring maw.
The mountain of flesh stumbled forward, toppling like a fallen titan.
"MURRRRGGN!" a great cry of confusion and dismay uttered from the lips of some dozen stitched cadavers.
A wave of spell fatigue washed over Gwen's Astral Body.
Before she could catch her breath, the Zombie swarm grew wild. Where the Horde had earlier possessed a singular focus, its members now began to meander. Two dozen came toward Gwen, a handful gathered under her team members, and a clump of close to a hundred roved toward a shivering Eunae.
"Shit!" She connected the dots. "Mia! Where is the Grafter?"
"I sense…" Mayuree swept the compound. "His signature is gone! The Necromancer must have used a Teleportation Scroll!"
"Damn it!" Gwen cursed. "Richard, can you help gather up the NoMs?"
"Sure, I'll do it while I entertain our new friends." Richard pointed to the two Acolytes suspended in mid-air, kept barely conscious by not nearly enough air. "If you can deal with the Horde. I'll find out where our Necromancer has gone."
"HIEEYA!" Lulan was already knee-deep in the dead, pulverising Zombies by the score. Her lack of wide-area AoE, however, limited her effectiveness.
"Eunae, you're with me." Gwen Dimension Doored beside their Cleric. "Don't worry. I'll protect you."
Eunae keened, wearing an expression that suggested she wanted to remain well out of reach of the Zombies' grubby hands. With her vice-captain breathing down her neck, though, she had little choice but to offer up her sweet body to the masses.
Alighting atop a farmhouse, the South Korean Healer conjured Luyi.
"Yi—" Luyi trembled. The smell of death made it drunk with fear.
Embracing her Familiar, Eunae pumped her mana into her Sprite. Luyi glowed, its stag horns extending until they formed a dozen points. At once, the Zombie Horde lost all interest in the NoMs and the Mages.
"Wall of Lightning!" Gwen's newly learned Evocation extended almost forty-meters in circumference, with a height of three meters. With her Transmutation, she had the option of flexibly manipulating the spell's manifestation, to which she chose a circular barrier with herself as the loci. It was the sort of versatile spell-casting that Alesia once showed Yue, utilising the combination of two or more Schools of Magic.
ZAP! SPAK! PSZZZT!
All around her, Zombies sizzled like minute-steaks, filling the air with the rotten scent of flesh gone awry. Momentarily safe, Gwen began a second invocation.
In her hand, she materialised a rod of True Silver, one of a dozen she had specially prepared for this occasion. Weaving the somatic material into her tier 5 Conjuration, she was glad that for once, the spell which Richard had advised her to learn was used for its explicit purpose. Wincing as she overcharged her sorcery, Gwen exhaled as the final invocation left her lips.
The infamous ultra-AoE offensive spell was designed from the Glyph up to possess superior range and coverage. Now combined with Gwen's VMI, her seven tiers of Affinity, her hyper-tier control of Conjuration and the True Silver in her hand, the spell erupted.
A rapidly expanding fog of scintillating silver fled from her general vicinity, rolling over the fields of cabbage, covering no less than a radius of a hundred meters.
This time, the sizzling was no longer the sound of summer insects dashing into a blue-lit mesh, but the sound of Negative Energy becoming neutralised by the invasive, lightning-charged motes of blessed silver. Whatever the Horde's resistances, the comprehensive coverage of Cloud Kill offered no solace against its corrosive sparks.
The first Zombie fell, then another, a dozen, and a hundred or more. Organs long preserved by necromantic energies erupted. Muscles slid from bone as the gentle repose preventing the flesh from deteriorating disappeared. More and more of the Zombies charged in, while the ring of carcasses around Gwen and Eunae grew by the minute, doubling then tripling in size.
"How many of them are left?" Gwen Messaged her Diviner.
"About a two-thirds," the Diviner returned with the intelligence. "Can your mana pool hold up?"
"I'll micromanage," Gwen said. "Eunae?"
"I am fine." the Healer had by now grown indifferent, her mind numbed by the horrid odour of human fat ignited by Gwen's lightning. "Let's continue."
"Take my hand." Gwen grasped her Healer's frigid little fingers. "Dimension Door!"
"I am impressed." Lieutenant Hān gave Richard a thumbs up. "And no, rest assured none of this will be broadcasted. The PLA will make sure of that."
"Thanks, mate." Richard tapped his data slate. "How about that, eh? AND Shimeizi's our last stop for the night. I guess we'll find the old fox yet."
The PLA officer was inclined to agree.
For a while now, he had watched the half-Asian Conjurer perform his inexpert labour. For a Frontiersman who couldn't be further from a Military Mage, Richard demonstrated the sort of talent that the Ghosts would unquestioningly welcome. Different to the indecisive womanliness of his vice-captain, Fudan's mobile defender was a model Mage in the matter of operational efficacy.
When the young man had entered the commandeered abode, he had allowed his Undine to take one of the prisoners, the man, into the basement. Richard meanwhile took the other, the woman, into a separate room. At first, Hān had imagined something not meant for CCVC-1, but very quickly, Richard demonstrated his "technique".
After the first Acolyte begged for sweet release, Richard questioned his second prisoner. Then, with slate in hand, he cross-examined the survivors' details, meting out punishment where specifics did not match, allowing for air when confirmations could be ascertained.
"Gwen, are you done with the Zombies?" Richard paused to ask after his vice-captain outside.
"Down to the last batch," came the reply. "Should be done before I am OoM."
Hān resisted an urge to exhale deeply. Gwen Song had proven herself to be a one-woman platoon. Her capacity for destruction exceeded any single member of the standard Recon Divisions, and that was excluding her Wyvern.
"Take your time, then some rest," Richard advised as he turned to the woman in the water bubble. The Necromancer's Acolyte was paler than a blanched egg and turning a shade of purple. At Richard's slightest behest, a torrent of information would pour from her tortured lips. "Lea, we're done with this one. Bring Lieutenant Hān the CC surprise."
The Undine's exquisite face peeped out from behind the door. Behind her semi-transparent body, suspended on coils of water, floated a middle-aged man wearing a pair of charcoal pants and a woollen vest. The man was an NoM, and from the looks of his portly belly, he held a position of some merit.
"Found this one in the basement." The Undine giggled, her mischievous eyes sparkled with glee. "He had a wand and a Storage Ring. Also, I found these."
In one hair tendril, the Undine held aloft a Lightning Wand made for NoM usage. In her other water appendages, she held a ledger of sorts and a box of HDMs.
"Good work, Lea," Richard praised his Familiar. Walking a circle around the portly NoM, the Conjurer grinned from ear to ear. "Mr Chen, how are you this fine day?"
The NoM's eyes grew wide.
Lieutenant Hān raised a brow, wondering how Richard knew the NoM's name. It took him a second to realise that the Acolytes had mentioned there was a 'trader' of sorts.
Richard flipped through the ledger, then passed the book to Hān. "Gwen's probably better at this than I am. As such, I am going to keep this short—"
"I'll talk!" the man squealed. "Mercy, Masters! I was captured— forced to work for these monsters! It's true. It's all true!"
"My heart bleeds with sympathy. But first, who is your employer?"
"I—" The man blanched. "I am just a bookkeeper— I was taken here against my will."
"It's not that I don't believe you." Richard smirked. "All things considered, you're rather calm for an NoM. You're not from around here, Mr Chen-Du-Li from Tianjin, are you?"
The "trader" began to shudder violently.
Hān recalled that Richard had demanded a list of names for the NoMs. Unsurprisingly, even under the water rack, the Necromancy students couldn't remember the names of their servants. The female prisoner had said something about a Du-Li, while the male Acolyte had referred to the trader as Chen.
"Candidate Huang." Lieutenant Hān wasn't an intelligence officer, but it didn't take a Ghost to join the dots. "Do you mean to say…"
"I do." Richard snorted. "You've got folks from the living side supplying the Undead, Lieutenant. That's fucked up."
"What for?" the military man's eyes instantly turned to obsidian. His colleagues, his comrades, had all suffered through the Front. A multitude of many millions had lost their lives pushing back the Undead, and now, a student was telling him that living men were trading with the Rogue Necromancers? "Food? What do the Necros have to trade?"
Richard placed Chen's hand against the briefcase.
"Open Sesame," he invoked an old fable.
The lock unlatched. Within its velvet folds were shimmering crystals of soul-sucking darkness.
"... Alright." Richard whistled. "Not what I expected, but just as well..."
"Negative Aligned High-Density Crystals!" Lieutenant Hān spat. "Mao's Crystal Tomb!"
Negative Energy existed in places where death and decay ruled. In a Plane full of life such as the Prime Material, it was rare indeed that such a sphere could grow a crystal counter-conducive to the germination of life.
As for the unusual HDM's uses, there were many. Weaponisation, research, and most importantly— Necromancy. The creation of higher tiers of Undead was near-impossible without Creature Cores, Crystals, and a host of grotesque materials. For the everyman of the Communist Party, the most they knew about the Negative Aligned HDM was that it empowered Mao's Crystal Sarcophagi with a perpetual Gentle Repose. Outside China itself, religions tied to pseudo-resurrection, from the Catholic Theocracy to the Jackal Priests of Anubis, ensured there was forever a bull market for such unusual commodities.
"Mr Chen" was by now sweating enough to fill an asphyxiation bubble all by himself.
"Good value there," Richard hypothesised. "Gwen once said that for a tidy profit, men are willing to flout the law. For doubling the profit, traders will disregard all ethics. Beyond that? Human greed grows to the size of Leviathans."
"Accursed NoMs!" Lieutenant Hān growled.
"Not NoMs." Richard studied his indignant advisor. "Just me— even you and I have a price."
Hān did not approve of Richard's aphorism. Mao, in his "Red Book", had warned of this exact thing, though the enemies were the capitalists and the foreign imperialists, not the people of the republic.
"How shall we proceed?" Richard jabbed a thumb at Chen. "I could interrogate him, but I am certain you'd prefer a Mind Mage to rake over his brain. There are the other NoMs as well, hiding here and there, assuming the Zombies didn't eat em."
Hān inclined his chin. "I'll request transportation."
"Good." Richard looked away for a second, then returned with a grin. "Miss Lei and Mister Nowak are officially deceased, please don't forget our CCs. Is there a bonus for the NoMs?"
"I'll put in a recommendation," the Lieutenant promised.
"Gwen should be about done." Richard checked his Message Device. "Shimeizi's how far from here?"
"Two hours as the crow flies."
"I look forward to it." Richard caught a strand of his materialising Undine's hair. "Gwen is very good with confined spaces, did you know?"
Besides Richard, his Undine giggled. Though her mien was beautiful beyond measure, Hān felt an undulating sense of unease in the Spirit's presence. In their natural habitat, Undines lured children into their lakes and waterways to drown them; ofttimes, it was for nourishment, mostly, it was for sport.
The Shen-Teī armour loosened, allowing Gwen to peel the plated-fabric from her torso.
The magic from her laundry Device began to remove the embedded odours from her hair, her thermo-layered skinsuit, and the armour itself. In her opinion, she had discovered a significant design-flaw— for though the exterior was self-cleansing, the interior had an inadequate deodorising function, meaning all she could smell after the battle was the scent of barbecued human flesh.
Beside her, Eunae dry heaved, likewise victim to the deluge of assailing scents baked into her armour. Human bodies, so packed full of bone, ligaments and most importantly, fat; possessed a uniquely offensive fetor. If Gwen had to find words, she would depict the smell as acidic, with a twangy pungency that made one's eyes water.
While she recovered, Richard emerged from within the house with Lieutenant Hān.
"The Necromancer's fled to Shimeizi." Her cousin wasted no time. "That's our next stop. The main force should be arriving three hours ahead of us. I suggest we go straight there — far better CCs than grinding Zombies in remote villages. From the sound of it, there's a whole nest of the bastards holed up under the reservoir. Also, how long do your dogs last when out of range?"
"A few hours," she replied. "Why?"
"Need one to keep an eye on the NoMs until the PLA picks them up."
"The NoMs survived? That's great!" Gwen mopped her face with a towel. Even with the enchanted skinsuit, she was sticky with sweat from the expenditure of almost 300 VMIs.
Even in the Amazon, she hadn't OoMed so quickly. The eradication of a thousand Zombies was equivalent to a high-intensity workout of not only her body but her mind as well. Even now, her frontal lobe throbbed.
Across the field, three rings of Zombies littered a demolished acreage of cabbages the size of human heads. The first pile was nearly three meters high, forming a gently smoking circle of flayed corpses. The second and third were more modest, while here and there littered dozen upon dozens of stragglers slain by Lulan, Ariel and Caliban.
"Sir, we're clear," Mayuree indicated to their advisor. "I don't sense any hostiles."
"Good." Gwen repositioned herself so that her face caught the mid-afternoon light. "Give me some space. There's one more thing I have to do."
The team moved to one side. It was happening. Gwen had discussed it prior, but to see it happening for real made the team's kidneys ache.
"Lulu, I am going to do it once, and then it's your turn, alright? Don't forget, our sponsors paid good Crystals for optics."
"What's this?" Lieutenant Hān turned to Richard.
"Extra-curriculum revenue." Richard scratched his nose. He had heard Gwen boast but didn't think to see it live. How was it possible that his cousin was capable of doing something as embarrassing as selling herself, but be incapable of imploding a building and every NoM, Acolyte and Necromancer within it? Granted, the building had been warded, but he would have liked to see Ariel sneaking through a window or a chimney, and then open up with an Essence enhanced Thundering Shatter. If that didn't blow out the structure and turn the inhabitans into jelly, she could follow up with triple-set of Elemental Spheres. Better yet, a pyrite Cloud Kill would have completed the Quest like a house on fire.
Even as his imagination exercised Gwen's lost opportunities, the fresh-faced sorceress turned toward an invisible lumen-recorder. With one hand, she dramatically wiped sweat from her brow, then surveyed a vista of smouldering Undead. Suddenly, with one hand on her hip, she materialised a bottle of Maotai from her Storage Ring. Unstopping the cap with her teeth, Gwen then turned the ceramic jug so that a good handful of the precious liquid sprinkled across the fallow earth.
"For the fallen," she said to no one in particular.
An arc of cobalt electricity blazed across her pupils. She raised the same bottle so that it rested beside her exquisite face.
"Maotai— Peace for the dead, life for the living..."
She drank, allowing a few drips to slip past her lips and fall onto her bare collar bones.
Her team watched; their mouths pursed and mute.
"Okay, Lulu." Gwen gestured to the red-faced Lulan, looking as though already drunk. "Your turn, Miss superstar."