"Anything of interest?" Schalk Hertzog, Captain of Pretoria, stood over the meditating Jean-Paul as the Void Mage assimilated his latest meal.
Jean-Paul slowly opened his eyes, his face contorted with bulging veins and dripping sweat. "I do have something. A senior apprentice, I think, one who'd been commanded to gather the materials in the laboratory, then use the attuned Teleportation Circle to escape. I would imagine our junior Necromancer could have made it bar the time it took to stow the ingredients and the spell scrolls. But— then again, returning without them may be yet another death sentence."
"Too bad the circle's locked and warded." Schalk studied the crude Glyphs. "Damaged as well. I can repair it, but not without the Glyph-key."
"You mean this?" Jean-Paul incanted a few invocations under his breath. The Teleportation Circle flickered, blazed for a bright second, then died.
Schalk raised a bushy brow. The Void Mage was turning out more useful by the minute.
"Gelukkige baster..." Lencho, ever the prideful Lightning Evoker, observed sourly. He couldn't fathom why his captain so readily accepted such a disgusting being. If it was Fudan's sorceress, he could understand, but this thing?
"Well done, Jean-Paul." Pretoria's captain glared his damage-dealer into submission. "I wasn't thrilled when you replaced Lukas, but I don't begrudge your usefulness."
"I fear Lencho's right," Jean-Paul replied meekly. "The memories Umzokwe collects are entirely random."
"Is it though? I was informed your Familiar targets powerful thoughts and emotions."
"Ja, but in the moment of oblivion, a lot of things cross people's minds." Jean-Paul stared at his pallid fingers. "Moments of filial beauty, a triumphant Awakening, a lover's hands, a Master's rebuke… or a set of Glyph keys they're told to keep secret unto death."
Though he still found the aberrant Mage off-putting, Schalk patted his teammate on the shoulder. It was the sort of thing a good Captain should do.
"Helia, what say we leave our PLA Advisor and enter the portal ourselves?"
The Diviner took a minute of meditation to reveal her depthless ultramarine orbs. "I sense woe. Great woe."
Schalk regarded the Necromancer's Portal. It was a great opportunity, but as Helia said, it could also be suicide. Hours ago, when Pretoria had been given the task of clearing out an outpost, he hadn't expected that there would be Rogue Necromancers excercising their craft so close to the Dalian border. The fact that these worshippers of death operated so brazenly outside of Shenyang bespoke of a well-entrenched enemy.
Then again, what if he sent in Jean-Paul first? The Void Mage had said that he possessed an impressive AoE and that his abilities were triply as effective against lesser Mages. If so, assuming Jean-Paul could secure the Teleportation room, wouldn't Pretoria hog the CCs at Shimenzi?
Schalk took a deep breath.
It took two seconds for the impulse to pass. How would he answer Meister Bekker in the aftermath? The IIUC wasn't worth bringing trouble to his family.
"Helia, contact Lieutenant Peng," Schalk dismissed the unappetising gamble. "Tell him that we're done. Withhold the key for now, and inform him we're ready to take on other quests."
"Fireball! Fireball! Fireball!"
A triple set of explosions rocked the fortification at Shimenzi.
"FUCK!" Yue cursed out loud. "Fucking gopher bastards!"
"Bro, that ward's choice as," Rongo snorted, grumbling at the soot-laden lake. "Too bad the water's contaminated, could have done something otherwise."
Unlike Pretoria and Fudan, Auckland fully embraced the dozens of micro-Purge missions leading up to the first stronghold of the Black Zone's Necromancers. As a result, they quickly advanced through the Front, destroying hordes of Zombies, packs of ghouls, and even a village haunted by Jiangshi, demonstrating an impressive rapport that surprised even their PLA advisor. To counter each mob, Timoti utilised Quake and Magma Wall to corral the roving bodies while Rongo's Maelstroms, empowered by his He-Mango-Tohorā, swept his victims into a churning pile. Then, with enough victims gathered in one place, Yue would finish with a ten-second Flame Strike in brilliant blue, transforming the salt-water into superheated steam. It was a tactic that worked wonders against the Mermen, and though they were now far from the Tasman Sea, it proved no less effective against the Undead.
By the late afternoon, Auckland had caught up with the main troop of Force-Recon Mages scouring the landscape for signs of Necromancy. At their final Nav-point, the standing orders for the students was to patrol the waterworks' exterior. Bored, Yue wanted to try her luck at puncturing the fort's defences.
"Mao, don't you foreigners ever tire?" Lieutenant Xiao, their exhausted adviser, had grown breathless from watching Auckland quest for almost eight hours straight. Were it not for Yue; she would have suspected the giants from the Island of the Long Cloud were demi-humans.
"I could inscribe a Ta Moko for you," Opi offered, pointing at the cussing Yue. "It'll be the non-permanent inscriptions Yue is using."
Compared to Fudan's flamboyance, Auckland's team wore very little armour. In place of Magi-tech bodysuits or purpose-built garbs like Pretoria, they employed tattooed body-buffs. From what Auckland's Enchanter was willing to reveal, Yue's arms held the Mark of the Mangopare, the Giant Hammerhead Shark, gifting her with endurance and durability. On her left thigh and right calve, wrapped like a wedding garter, was the Mark of the Silver Fern, a Ta Moko that regulated mana and stifled the effects of spell fatigue. On her left lumbar was inscribed the Pakati, Mark of the Dog Skin, offering protection akin to a Maki's hide.
"Check these bad boys out." Yue caught the woman staring and pulled down the neck of her top, causing the Lieutenant to flush and blanch simultaneously. Across the Fire Mage's ample cleavage were concentric, circular rows of Unaunahi, Mark of the Fish Scale, warding her against the elements.
"Unaunahi weaved into Moana," Opi offered. "Like the sea, you won't tire, or need to sleep, so long as your mana keeps up."
"Shall we head back?" Whetu stated nervously. He was reasonably sure their orders were to waste time and not start the assault. "We're supposed to wait for the others."
"Hold up, let me give Tandy a swirl—" Yue began a long invocation. Her Nightmare manifested with a neigh, stamping the air with fiery hoof prints. "Tân-Cysgodol, lend me your strength! INVESTITURE OF FLAME!"
A blue cloak of fire wrapped around Yue's body, lighting up half the mountainside. It was an impressive scene, one that would have wowed audiences around the world— until her tank top incinerated.
"Fu—!" Whetu spluttered. One of the many horrible habits Yue had inherited from Alesia was the preference for non-magical clothing made from conventional material. "Mage Armour!"
"Aiiiya!" Lieutenant Xiao waved her arms, at once wanting to cover her contestant while concurrently fearing she might turn to cinders. Whatever the case, the two-second "slip" was NOT suitable for national broadcasting.
"Sweet-ass." Rongo beamed. In response, their Ta Moko Enchanter knocked the Water Evoker over the head with her knuckles.
Caught in a state of elemental clarity, Yue gave no shits about her momentary indecency. Instead, she raised a flaming hand, gathered the force into a pin-point, then evoked a hyper-tier invocation. "SHADOW FLARE!"
A globe of near-invisible, superheated Elemental Fire struck the warded surface of the defunct waterworks. A cascade of brilliant-blue sparks erupted where the sphere connected, filling the fetid pools below with hissing steam. A second-later, gouts of molten silica poured from the granite surface, sizzling with spell-fire as the embedded wards fought back the flames.
Auckland, as well as their advisor, shielded their eyes from the miniature sun. In the eyes of the onlookers, the assault appeared as though an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
"Bloody oath!" Yue's flame-cloak sizzled, then spluttered, leaving her encased in plated Punamu. Though she could arguably employ spells up to the sixth tier, her lack of experience prevented her from accessing ambitious sorcery like Fire Storm and Disintegrate without first deploying a lesser variation of her Master's Flame Avatar. It was a make-shift method devised by Alesia so that Yue could access higher-tier spells by drawing on her Familiar's talents. "How deep did I get?"
"… about sex meters," Rongo observed. "The ward's closing over as we speak. How bleeding strong are these Neecromancers?"
"I don't think its the Necros," Lieutenant Xiao intervened. "I believe the waterwork's wards tie into ley-lines beneath the reservoir. Shimenzi isn't just a filtration facility either. You'll find out in the debriefing."
"Can't the PLA turn the Enchantment off?"
"No, not without accessing the Mandala's nuclei." Xiao shook her head. "Unfortunately, that's also the most secure section of the waterworks. It's right below the exchange-filters and the pumps, built into reinforced bedrock."
Yue growled. "What if our CCs escape?"
Lieutenant Xiao pointed at the Mages in the main camp, patrolling the perimetre in pairs of twos and threes.
"Without access to a Divination Tower, Teleportation Circles have no more than fifty kilometres of range. Even assuming the Necromancers have Teleportation Scrolls, a stockpile is nigh impossible. Each scroll, depending on inscriber, fetches well over a thousand HDMs, more on the black market." Xiao took a deep breath. "Rest assured. The PLA will crack the gate and pry open the bunker. You're all-star students, Miss Bai, leave the dirty work to the grunts."
Impatiently, Yue turned her eyes below, where two Golems idled beside their pilots; Chinese soldiers from the 209th Armoured Regiment. As for the Iron Golems— they were American made General-Dynamics MK266 Dust Pounders, lovingly known as "the Dusty 266". The variants below were crewed, as automation remained the exclusive privilege of the USA and its Israeli allies. At close to three-tons each, the Golems had a maximum payload of over four tons, capable of carrying everything from artillery-tier wands to crystal-caches that extended its run-time to a week. Presently, the crew had outfitted the machines with sonic excavators used to breach the warded concrete. Once the Golems opened a path into the water work's interior chambers, CQB Mages may then ferret out its inhabitants.
Ding! Yue's Message Device chimed.
"Gwen's here," Yue informed her companions. "Be back later, fellers. Gonna get changed and see how the girlfriend's doing."
A round of cheers broke out when Fudan alighted near the main camp. The military Mages in the 4th, 7th, and 19th Aerial Recon were mostly men in their late twenties, meaning a bevy of young and beautiful idols brought much mirth to an otherwise grim tour.
"Ma'am!" A grizzled veteran with a beard like a bristling porcupine approached Lulan. Behind him, a dozen more waited to see if the scarlet-complexioned sarge would succeed— or eat an Iron Sword to the face. "M-May I have an autograph?"
Lulan stared, her eyes entering fight or flight.
"Of course you can." Gwen shook her Sword Mage by the shoulders. "Come on, Lulu. It's all a part of the hustle."
"The…" Lulan's orbs glazed over. "… the what?"
"Here." Gwen guided the man's photo of Lulan's promotional material toward her, pushing a mana-pen into her fingers. "Sign your last name."
Lulan scratched in her mana signature, punching through the photo-paper.
Gwen grimaced at her friend's uninspiring handwriting. "Ouch. We'll work on it. You better keep that close to your chest, Sargeant. That's Lulu's virgin signature. You're her first."
"I-I'll keep this as an heirloom!" The man visibly trembled. "Mao! Thank you, Miss Li! Please win the competition!"
Hearing Gwen's titillating proclamation, the other soldiers rioted, clamouring for Lulan to sign their things. One soldier even unbuttoned his shirt and asked her to carve her initials on his collarbone so that he would never forget this day.
"SHUT UP!" Lieutenant Hān barked. As an officer of the First-Recon, his reputation preceded him. "Form a line! Proceed in order of Rank! Cue jumpers will be sent into the Necro-den first, without Golem support!"
The men quickly fell into step.
"GWENNIE!" Yue landed a dozen steps from the ogling men, ignoring their licentious attention. "What took you so long? Our advisor said you guys left your last objective four hours ago."
"The locals waylaid us," Gwen explained with a sigh and a roll of her eyes. "When did you get here?"
"An hour ago, we're waiting on the Golems."
Gwen's eyes flashed. "Those? They're huge!"
"Nah, those are chicken-hawks. The 266s are medium-weight models," Yue casually informed her. "Tell ya what though. The bloody walls on that place are warded to hell. Hopefully, the Dusties will dig in through the exterior without drama, maybe soften up the inside a bit.
While Yue spoke, Gwen inspected the two humanoid Magi-tech machines. To her eyes, they resembled squat gorillas in plated mail. As tall as they were broad, most of its two-storey bulk consisted of a central torso, a massive set of shielded shoulders, and robust arms twice as thick as its hind legs. From the way the vehicles' statue hunched, Gwen guessed these were likely quadrupedal machines capable of significant velocity.
Presently, a pair of gloves that resembled a mole's forearms had been affixed to the forelimbs. The pilots, one woman and the other a man, wore high-vis jumpsuits. To Gwen, it was all very Top Gun feeling.
The male pilot caught her looking and waved.
She waved back, pausing when a growl of displeasure derailed her train of thought.
"Alright, come down," Gwen said to no one in particular, drawing a curious glance from Yue.
Much to the delight of the Combat Mages, the giant Wyvern they'd seen back at Dalian descended from the dusky sky, circling over the Shimenzi until it skidded to a halt not too far from where the girls stood.
"Calamity!" the Wyvern called out. "HUNGRY, NOW! Those horses were inedible!"
"Alright, alright. Hold your Harpies."
Yue, together with dozens of soldiers, watched with fascination as her friend approached the monstrous brute to deposit an enormous crate of stacked SPAM almost as tall as herself.
"What in Father's name is this?" Golos stretched his wings, tucked them against his sides, then sniffed the small mountain of cans.
"Its SPAM, Gogo. Nothing but the best for my drake." Gwen touched the Wyvern's snout, feeling her fingers grow numb from the static. "There's regular SPAM, Turkey SPAM, Teriyaki SPAM, Smoked SPAM, Bacon SPAM, Cheesy SPAM; I had them shipped from Hawaii."
Grunting, Golos transformed into his human form. Unlike Polymorph, the Wyvern's Draconic-racial didn't involve twisting bones and moulting skin, but rather a blast of retina-searing lightning. A second later, a nine-foot giant with horns pulled up a pair of jeans, slipped on a tight t-shirt, then adjusted his mace so that it slid down a trouser leg.
Gwen felt a nudge in her ribs. Beside her, Yue's brows came alive as though two jostling caterpillars.
Taking a can in each hand, Golos began.
"Mmmm…" the humanoid Wyvern masticated the punctured aluminium. "Not bad. The metal skin of this meat fruit adds a particular crunch."
Gwen raised a finger, opened her mouth, then allowed her hand to fall.
"It's great with rice," she said finally before returning to Yue.
By now, Whetu, Richard and a few others had joined them.
"So, what delayed you?"
"Ah." Gwen tugged at the collar of her Shen-teī armour, loosening the neckband. She was beginning to envy the comfort of Yue's fitted tank top. "We ran into Centaurs."
"No shit?" Yue swore, the warmth of her breath steaming the air. As advertised, Liaoning's temperate rapidly fell as the sun dipped into darkness. "The half-horse, half-human ones?"
"Undead ones," Richard cut in, having supervised Lulan's meet-and-greet with fans. "Great galloping bastards. They were shooting arrows and throwing spears too. Almost got us a few times. Who would have thought? Bloody Undead Centaurs, you live and learn."
"Yeah, those Centaurs were no cake-walk," Gwen continued. "We were ignoring them until they started galloping below us. When we crested a hill, they got close enough to start throwing spears."
"Zombies can use weapons?" Whetu inquired contemplatively.
Gwen shook her head. "They looked like Ghasts to me. Lean and gaunt with lots of ribs showing. Long, skinny legs, big long manes. Strong as anything."
"They followed us for almost twenty-minutes at close to eighty kilometres an hour," Richard expressed his admiration of the Centaurs' prowess. "And they didn't tire either."
"How'd you fight them? With Cali?"
"Golos took em down." Gwen gestured to her Wyvern. "We took to a higher altitude while Golos strafed them with Lightning. He picked off most of them, but a dozen or so ran. Our advisor wasn't too happy with that. He said that the NoM battalions had a hell of a time weathering centaurs, so we had to chase the rest down. That took AGES."
"Lulu's not a good flyer," Richard explained. "Neither am I. Gwen had to do most of the work herself."
"Sounds like a hassle." The diminutive Evoker inclined her chin. "Your advisor's right, though. While WE're hurling Fireballs from the air, the grounded Mages and the armed NoMs are ducking arrows and trying not to be trodden. Even armoured convoy trucks are no match if they run into something higher than tier 6. You remember that Land Shark back in the Hunters?"
"Don't remind me." Gwen grimaced.
"One of those can demolish a fleet of vehicles," Yue said. "They eat metal as well as flesh, and they're built heavy enough to erupt from the ground and knock a transport truck over. Whetu and I saw it happen in Tauranga. Local militia got bogged down, lost half their men before we arrived from Auckland."
"Mobility is life. When—" her friend pronounced sagely before suddenly pausing. "Finally, they're here! Let's get this show on the road!"
Six dots appeared on the purple horizon.
Gwen's eyes searched for Jean-Paul. "I wonder what took them so long?"
"I would have kept patrolling if I knew we had to wait this long," Yue grumbled. "I take it there's a good reason those Golem units are still idling."
Two dozen Daylight Flares hovered around the Shimenzi's general vicinity, turning night into midday. As super-charged Dancing Lights, the Military staple covered a range of almost half a kilometre each, underneath which a shadowless, all-enveloping light ensured Shimenzi was laid bare.
In better times, the winding canyon would have arguably made an impressive panorama. Under the guardianship of the Undead, however, cold granite met with shattered shale, giving the river's vista the likeness of an upturned graveyard half-caught in a rock-slide.
"Students!" A uniformed Magister in pressed olive presented himself as Colonel Qin Qíao of 1st Force-Recon and the Field Officer in charge of the Reclamation of Shenyang. "Many of you may be wondering why we are so invested in Shimenzi. Now, I shall elucidate you."
The commander cleared his throat.
"While our troops clear the way to Shenyang, you have been offered the chance to PURGE Shimenzi. Lieutenant Xiao, the map."
A projection of the waterworks and its internal chambers materialised into view, vivid and brilliant under the unnatural daylight. The students' stunned faces stared at the architectural layout, knitting their brows at the sight of the extensive underground bunker.
"Shimenzi… is not just a water filtration plant for the local farms," the Colonel explained. "In the late sixties, we commissioned Russian engineers to build it as a military base during the defence of Liaoning. Apart from the Undead, the base was also built to repel Americans..."
"Strewth." Yue rolled her eyes. "No wonder I couldn't punch past the first layer. It's a legit habitat bunker. Fuck."
"You tried breaking in?" Gwen whispered.
"Destroyed the wall and everything," Yue remarked. "But— no luck."
"Firepower, firepower, firepower?" Gwen grinned.
"Not enough firepower. Master might be able to do it. Gunther could probably blast straight to the core."
The girls zipped their lips.
"… Presently, we anticipate that Shimenzi is home to at least forty individuals engaged in the practice of Necromancy. Of these criminals, at least THREE have attained the level of Magus. Here are their profiles—"
A three score of headshots materialised mid-air.
The Colonel stood below the first floating face, a Mage with ash-blonde hair and sunken blue-green eyes reminiscent of arctic ice.
"Anton Yermolov, Russian. Sixty-Seven years of age. He served as a Biomancer in Moscow before turning to study Necromancy. He's a freelance Ritualist researching Undeath and immortality. Wanted in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and of course, China, Mister Yermolov is worth 400CCs dead or alive. Should you encounter him, expect dangerous Familiars and spells affecting the mind, as well as your Astral Body."
A second image appeared. This time, it showed a pale-skinned man in the garb of a priest. The most notable aspect of the Necromancer was his hawk-beak nose.
"Diego Valentino, Italian. An ex-communicated priest from the Ordo Praedicatorum. Fifty-seven years of age. Spent the first thirty years of his life hunting down Necromancers. Now, he's one of them. His spells principally focus on Essence and Spirits. We have it on good authority that he controls incorporeal monsters. His Tower Bounty currently sits at 550 CCs, with an additional 250 CCs if his Storage Ring and certain contents can be returned to the Ordo. If you do find it, I suggest handing it to the PLA for processing."
A third face materialised. This time, there was very little bio-metric data. To Gwen, the last Necromancer was a slim-faced North Korean woman in her forties.
"Finally, Sung Min-Seo. A local. Information regarding Sung's whereabouts was recently gathered thanks to Fudan. From what we can deduce, she is a Magus-tier Grafter, so expect monstrous creations such as Hulks, Abominations and at worst, Demi-human Bone Golems. Currently, the PLA will offer 300 CCs for her and 50 CCs for each of her upper-tier creations."
The Colonel paused, then raised his head to survey the students.
"All three have been pushed from their laboratories and hiding places. All three should now be in Shimenzi. These are your principal Quest targets, in addition to the complete Purge of the fortification."
The Colonel pointed to the Golems.
"When the operation begins, the PLA will breach Shimenzi from the Front with our mechanised units, distracting the innumerable Undead defenders who will meet us. As for your teams…"
The Colonel pointed to three separate sections on the map.
"You may choose an entry point cleared for your convenience or breach the fort by individual means. If you are unsure, I want to remind our guests that this mission is not compulsory and that you may continue collating CCs tomorrow and in the next six days until we reach Shenyang. Note that requests we are offering you are neither easy nor safe. It will test every spell you have at your disposal, as well as stretch your resources to the breaking point. Do you understand?"
"Yessir!" the students answered as one.
"Good!" The Colonel cleared his throat. "Fudan, will you proceed?"
"We accept!" Gwen's husky voice reverberated through the day-lit night.
"None shall survive, Colonel!" Schalk crisply answered, standing to attention. His movements were curt and flawless, despite his cumbersome seeming Armscor booster-plate.
"We'll kill em all!" Yue snapped a salute, her heels clicked. "Nothing will survive, not even a Zombie rat, sir!"
"That's what I like to hear!" The Colonel returned to the cross-section diagram. "Now, pick your entry points."
"Sir!" Schalk raised a hand.
"Yes, Mister Hertzog?"
"We would like to offer an alternative entry, Sir! We have obtained the Glyph for Shimenzi's mid-level Teleportation Circle, Sir!"
The Colonel paused.
"Well, well..." The man's countenance then contorted in the manner of a smiling wolf. "What wonderful news!"