The leaders of the triumvirate huddled.
"I volunteer for the breach." Schalk raised his hand. "With my booster armour and my talents, I should be able to hold the Teleportation room until the rest of you can safely arrive."
"Schalk, you're too reckless," Izette, Pretoria's Diviner, dissuaded her captain. "Neither mine nor Mayuree's Divinations showed weal."
All three teams were keen on the idea of teleporting into the enemy base while their main force was distracted by the Golems kicking through the front door, but then the question arose of who would breach the great unknown. If Ghouls and acolytes held the entryway, then all would be well. If Ghasts and Bone Monarchs, supported by Senior Necromancers, held the portal, then doom awaited the intruder. Yet, no matter the difficulty, someone had to be first, for the PLA would not wait to make their assault.
Of the three Abjurers, Schalk suggested that he could withstand whatever spells, curses, and afflictions the Necromancers threw at him.
Richard conveyed that he could instantly flood the vicinity to extinguish any opportunity for retaliation.
Whetu assured the teams that nought would bypass his Pounamu barrier.
"How about we send in our Familiars?" Jean-Paul meekly susurrated, shirking the artificial daylight, his complexion so pale as to glow. "Umzokwe can independently manifest. As can Caliban."
"But then we'd lose control of them. Besides, how're your vital stores?" Gwen countered her companion. "I've got supplements... and Eunae if need be, but if our connection is cut by the ward..."
"Umzokwe's stores will suffice." Jean-Paul wheezed. "If not, I can replenish once we're inside."
"…" Gwen felt as though she should issue a rebuke. But since none of her fourteen compatriots batted an eye, she realised that perhaps, she was the weirdo and not Jean-Paul. Wistfully, Gwen felt once again struck by the banality of her old world sentimentality. Even now, she felt no desire to murder NoMs, nor become a cannibal; no matter if her victims were Necromancers.
Watching the others luridly vociferate the methods of accredited murder, she felt dirty. In her mind, death should be clean, not obscene.
Sighing, her eyes wandered toward Golos.
A thought took root.
"WAIT—!" she slapped the table, causing the others to stare. "I have a better idea!"
"... Let's hear it." Schalk folded his arms with mild annoyance.
"Gogo can breach for us." Gwen jabbed a thumb at the diminishing mountain of SPAM. "As a Thunder Wyvern, he's highly resistant to all kinds of magic, even Void. His element is also directly opposed to Negative Energy users and Necromancy. He's stronger than a bone golem, AND he's also immune to status attacks due to his mythical bloodline. If need be, I'll front up the extra HDMs for his weight-class."
The students' eyes wandered to the burping Wyvern, then back to the Teleportation Circle. Somehow, the prospect of dropping an eleventh tier Thunder Wyvern into the midst of a Necromancer's lair seemed— utterly amazing?
Indeed, after Golos cleared the Teleportation Circle, they could leisurely teleport in, leading with their Abjurers, then branch off in their irrespective group to hunt the named Necromancers.
"What a wonderful idea," Yue cooed in gleeful agreement, her eyes full of anticipated mayhem. "Gogo go-go!"
Golos lifted its head, wondering why a stumpy peasant was hollering his name.
"I…" Schalk struggled to think of a disadvantage. "Well... Let's do it."
"Great!" Gwen exhaled with some relief. She turned toward her SPAM-eating Wyvern. "GOGO! Finish up! It's time to earn your keep!"
From the blueprint of the old PLA fortification, the hidden megastructure comprised of eight tiers.
The ground floor consisted of a fortifiable lobby connected to a guards' barracks, an administrative sub-floor, and levitation lifts proceeding up and down the stratum. The upper floors, involving Levels I, II and III, were the heart of the bunker, with shared rooms for Mages, a command theatre, a mess, and storage rooms for HDMs and equipment. A different set of lifts, however, descended past the Lower Ground floor, accessing Basement levels I to III.
Thankfully, the Teleportation Circle Pretoria had obtained was the magical personnel entry built into the Lower Ground, an elaborate chamber about sixty or so square meters, depressed so that it could be accessed from several adjacent sections simultaneously.
Of the lower floors, B-I consisted of a substantial troop barrack meant to house up to a thousand NoMs, a kitchen and mess, segregated showers and bathrooms as well as food stores and an armoury. B-II housed the water filters together with the now-defunct pumps feeding the reservoir sitting adjacent to an engineers' section. Finally, B-III represented a principal objective, covering the control Mandala, the Crystal Core tapping into the ley-line, and the loci for the superstructure's wards.
Each of the levels furthermore possessed sub-stratum and off-shots in the form of chambers, hidden or otherwise, connected by a mole's lair of transmuted tunnels.
"Hello, claustrophobia," Gwen remarked for herself and the others. The corridors' width stood two Mages abreast at best. The cramped space was great for her line-based Lightning Bolts, but the same confinement meant there was no evading her enemies' AoEs either. If she teleported away, she would leave Mayuree or Eunae open to assault.
"Time is of the essence," Schalk said. "One team should circle back and attack the enemy from the back. Another team should push upward into the headquarters, while the last team should aim for the control Mandala. You know your abilities best, so let's hear it."
Yue was the first to speak.
"Alright, maties. I've got firepower bleeding out my nose, Timoti's got both damage and control, and Rongo's got snares well-suited to confined spaces," the Fire Mage transcribed, pointing to each of her team. "We got Whetu as well, and Opi doubles as a CQB Transmuter Mage. Ergo, we'll Fire Lance the Necros right in the starfish."
"Do you need a healer?" Gwen frowned at her friend's bluster. "What if one of you got drained or injured?"
"We'll toast any and everything before they get close," Yue replied with confidence.
"You can take our Eunae with you." Gwen looked toward her healer. In turn, Eunae shook her head vigorously. "… or not."
"I'll be fine." Yue shrugged. "Got pots, got tats, we're sweet as, bruh."
"Right." Gwen looked to Whetu. The big man nodded, affirming Yue's boisterous confidence. "How about you guys?"
The others gave their two-cents.
In the interim, Gwen regarded her Void counter-part. For the whole while, Jean-Paul had remained silently receptive to whatever demand Schalk placed upon him. Was he being bullied? She wondered, but couldn't tell from Jean-Paul's expressionless mien. In the end, she chewed her lower lip, remembering that there were plenty of talented but introverted folks who preferred extra work to contentious confrontations.
".... and I am well versed in Spellcraft theory, particularly the construction of wards and Mandalas relating to Abjuration wards," Schalk stated nonchalantly. "Who here can say the same?"
Whetu remained silent, as did Richard. As for Gwen, she could at best inscribe a cooking fire.
"Then Pretoria shall take the lead down to B-III," Schalk declared. "Miss Song, I guess that leaves the upper levels for you."
"I am fine with that. Richard? Everyone?"
"No complaints here." Lulan was her usual, accommodating self.
"I am game," Richard replied.
"I'll follow you," Mayuree stated.
"So long as we're not reckless." Eunae eyed Yue, hoping there wasn't going to be another offer of rent-a-Cleric.
"Alright." Gwen pointed to L-II and level L-III. These were chambers where enemy Mages resided, a prospect that suited her just fine. "Assuming the PLA is going to be holding the lobby, we'll head for these levels."
"Wonderlik!" Schalk clapped once. "Don't forget, the levitation platforms will be disabled, so you'll be flying up the shaft. Meanwhile, we shall be relying on your Wyvern."
"What sort of resistance is the PLA anticipating?" Gwen asked for a reminder.
"Lower-tier Undead in the thousands. Up to a century of mid-tier Necromantic beings. A few mid to higher-tier constructs. And acolytes in addition to our Magus-tier targets." Mayuree recollected from the briefing. "The lesser Undead will be bolstered and buffed by the apprentices, that's why the PLA will handle the frontal assault."
"That's a tough slog, bro," Rongo remarked. "Poor bastards."
"That's why we're here." Lencho, Pretoria's Lightning Mage, looked from Gwen to Golos, appearing apprehensive.
Agreeing with the Evoker's assessment, Gwen offered a prayer for the soldiers below. Having sent a thousand Zombies into oblivion, she knew first hand just how troublesome a swarm could be. It wasn't so much that each Zombie was cumbersome to kill, but that the possibility of a group of Mages growing OoM before the majority of Zombies perished was relatively high. Add in ambusher-types like Ghouls with low-cunning or the swift-limbed Ghasts, it was relatively easy for a Mage to be snatched while taking a breather from spell fatigue.
The teams' Message Devices chimed, accompanied by the revving of the Dusty-266's roaring mana-engines.
The time for action was nigh.
Lower Ground Teleportation Circle.
Iosif Mazylak was the senior apprentice to Anton Yermolov, a Ritualist Magus in all but Tower accreditation. Iosif
Like many in his Romanian village, Iosif believed in the existence of the immortal Koschei, a myth whose stories and legends had permeated the collective memory of his people. As the tale tells it, the 12th century Immortal King, without formalised knowledge of sorcery, lived until the twenty-fourth generation of his kin— an impressive feat for a Mage of antiquity.
Thus raised on outlandish tales, Iosif had forgotten all about Tower's propaganda when Anton arrived looking for potential apprentices. A dream-prone adolescent, Iosif was full of delusion and grandeur. It wasn't an unusual trait— for life on the Frontier was boring but hard; it was a place where sudden, violent deaths daily occurred.
While the Tower Masters of the Black Sea ate caviar in Istanbul, the meagre fortune of not starving to death in Poiana Brașov was a luxury few could afford. That and the villagers were predated upon by the Night Hags, Dhampirs, and the Nachtkrapps that roamed the mountains.
"O God so merciful in heaven," the old men in his village would pray when the Dhampirs came for their milk-skinned daughters. "O Lord, Father of all, deliver us from harm."
But it wasn't God who came to save the village.
It was Anton Yermolov.
At once, Iosif knew he had found his calling.
Before he had learned the Craft from his Master, Iosif's greatest ambition was to take Elena, the Mayor's daughter, on her wedding bed. A year on, Iosif had forgotten all about that banal fantasy. He came to realise the vastness of the world, how high the mountains of knowledge, and how fathomless the Spellcraft seas. Very quickly, Iosif exposed the lies besmirching Necromancy and the scourge of the Undead plague. Now, as a senior acolyte, he recognised Necromancy in its true form— art.
For what else could he label magic that could arguably be utilised by anyone with a hint of talent? Like death, Necromancy was an equaliser. All one needed to ply the Craft was knowledge, mana, and the capacity to suspend worldly ethics.
"Mages were born free," his Master had quoted a famous philosopher. "Yet, thanks to the accursed Imperial Magic System, he is everywhere in chains."
Iosif agreed. Compared to the Seven Schools of Magic, Necromancy was freeform and primal, drawing on the raw Essence possessed by all beings.
Where there was life, there was death.
Where there was decay, there was regeneration.
How can one outlaw the foil to life itself? It was absurd.
When he had finished his first half-decade under the Master, raised his first Zombie and watched his minions perpetuate, Iosif felt elucidated. When a decade later, the first of his slaves rose not as a mindless being, but a thinking, feeling Ghast, Iosif attained an epiphany.
"Life is death!" his Master had hollered to his students. "Don't you see? It is reversible! Life is death as death is life! Undeath is sovereignty over the tyranny of nature! It is an escape from the karmic forces of the material world! Undeath is the bottling of God's domain! It's true freedom!"
But the journey to transcendence was long and arduous.
Master Yermolov's Path, as the Tower Mages would say, was one of Ritualism, the prolonging of life through the exploitation of death. It was an easily misunderstood goal, for the actual purpose wasn't life, but the attainment of Undeath— the transformation into an immortal legend known as a Lich.
At first, Iosif had disputed if such a tier of mastery existed.
But after a visit with his Master to Pyongyang, all doubts had ceased.
After an august audience with what must be a Magi, Iosif knew that God, or Gods, or at least a facsimile of divinity, did exist on the Material Plane.
"Master Iosif…" a voice more juggling stones than vocal cords addressed the day-dreaming apprentice. "When may we… feed?"
Iosif frowned. He disliked being interrupted, especially by a slave.
The Ghast that spoke was Paul, a dear friend and Elena's fiancé. In his youth, Iosif had been greedy and had practised his Craft on Elena before his skills had matured. Luckily, his friend promptly arrived at the end of a two-year sojourn searching for his fiancée. Full of remorse, Iosif had welcomed his friend into his Master's abode, after which, the rest was history.
"You may feed when the PLA has had their fun, or when reinforcements arrive from Shanyang," Iosif stated. Disgracefully, the PLA's assault had caught them all by surprise. Their contacts in Dalian had been told that it was a routine military drill— until reality had caught up, too fast for many of the Masters to preserve their experiments. From what he had heard from upstairs, Master Valentino had lost a senior apprentice in his haste to retreat to Shimenzi. Having then lost his precious materials, the Mage had flown into a rage and Soul Flayed a lesser apprentice when the girl was clumsy enough to bump into him.
Now, caught in the cramped confines of Shimenzi, the brooding Masters bid their time.
In the gloom, Iosif's Ghast nodded, then returned to staring blankly at the Teleportation Circle.
Together with Paul were a half-dozen of his Master's lesser creations, as well as a few of his experiments. Though Iosif felt he could be arguably be made useful elsewhere, someone had to guard the portal in case allies arrived.
Suddenly, the ground swayed.
"Whoa—" Iosif muttered when the ground shook. The PLA's assault on the front gate had begun. "Death preserve us."
Paul said nothing. Other than the occasional complaint about his eternal hunger, the Ghast voiced little of anything.
The floor shook again.
Iosif's greatest worry was the stock of fresh flesh in the larder. Economical Undead like Skeletons and Zombies could be starved for years and indeed, possessed higher functions when frenzied, but not so intelligent variants.
Unlike their bio-mechanical cousins, conscious Undead required maintenance and sustenance. One of Iosif's tasks for the first decade of his apprenticeship had been precisely that, a Ghoul farmer whose job was to throw meat to the howling horrors while avoiding being eaten himself. Indeed, of the ten gathered from his village for the test, only Iosif survived.
Dust fell from the ceiling. The PLA were really giving it their all, but Shimenzi wasn't an easy fortress to penetrate.
Iosif yawned. The Undead made good guards but made terrible conversationalists. If he was bored, maybe he should take the time to pick apart one of his Master's Clawed Ghouls? Or perhaps one of the Mutated Zombies to see how their imbued enchantments caused Negative Energy to warp their flesh?
The Teleportation Circle churned, filling with mana.
Another ally, arriving from an outed outpost? Iosif frowned. With the PLA assaulting the upper levels, wasn't it a bit convenient for someone to be visiting?
But then again, only senior apprentices knew the key to the teleportation array. Even if an acolyte encountered a Mind Mage, the Death Geas would ensure they drained themselves to death before a single Glyph could be uttered.
—NMMMMM— the thrum of silvery Conjuration filled the air with static. The amount of mana being channelled through the portal was terrific.
It must be an ally. Iosif relaxed. The size of the thing coming through was at least the volume of an Abomination or a Hulk.
"I hope the chamber's big enough," Iosif muttered warily. The individual rooms were generous, but the corridors were barely two and a half meters high.
The circle deposited its cargo.
"Welcome!" Iosif hailed the new arrivals in guttural Korean. "You've come at a…"
His lips grew transfixed.
A man appeared amidst the firefly motes of Conjuration, a nine-foot giant.
"What the—?" Iosif muttered in his native tongue.
The man's stature was enormous, akin to an Armoured Revenant, possessing arms like trunks and a body sculpted of Grecian marble. Atop the man's brows grew two horned ridges that ran the length of his skull, half-hidden within a mess of platinum-white hair.
The man looked around, his silvery orbs refracting the lumen-globes like the eyes of a cat.
Iosif swallowed, fighting the panic in his heart.
"ATTACK! All attack!" He wasted no time summoning a staple invocation to his lips. "Agonising Enervation!"
A stream of Negative Energy, conjured by the inscribed artificial Sigil drawn into his Astral Soul, flooded through Iosif's warded mana conduits. Of his collection of spells, the fourth-circle debilitator was his favourite, for it afflicted the target with spine-wrecking agony while transferring their vitality back toward the caster.
"Sisargh hofiba!" the demi-human uttered in a bone-chilling, alien tongue.
Iosif's charm struck.
A split-second later, nothing happened.
The Senior Apprentice grew confused. There was no fizzle— his spell had been successful. He had seen its dark miasma connect with the demi-human. If so, why didn't it work?
Paul had by now reached its enemy. From all ten digits, it distended blade-like claws pumped full of ghastly venom, fully capable of disabling the stoutest of Mages.
The demi-human looked up, frowned, then moved like a blur.
The Ghast halted mid-stride, suddenly caught in an iron vice.
Iosif's eyes grew impossibly wide, then fuller again, pressing against his sockets.
While the Mutated Zombies gnawed on the Demi-human with their distended jaws to no avail, the man effortlessly reached out, catching Paul's head like a ball. Then, with a single, fluid motion, the giant tore the Ghast's skull, spine and all, from his torso.
"GRAAA—" Paul made just one sound before his Necromantic energies expired, washing over the man's well-muscled body like water off a duck's back.
Iosif shook, his fingers trembled, spells long recollected failed to pronounce themselves.
His assailant began swatting at the lesser Undead.
Whack! With a bone-shattering blow, a Zombie's head exploded like an overripe melon.
THWAK! A quick stomp sent the lower half of another Ghoul flying into the distance to splatter against the wall.
CRUNCH! A simple sweep cut six Ghouls in half, mutilating both flesh and bone.
"HA!" The demi-human giant swung Paul's head like a mace, smashing apart Iosif's and his Master's beloved creations with Paul's profaned remains.
Across the chamber, the Necromancer acolyte felt as though his brain was spinning like a top. What the hell was this? His soul rioted. Who was this monster, and why was it here in Shimenzi? For Iosif, there was only a single recourse. He had to inform Master and bring reinforcements! Surely a Bone Golem could best this creature!
"Shield!" Iosif preemptively erected a barrier. He wasn't an Abjurer, not to mention his minions usually blocked his foes. Unfortunately for Iosif, his present defences rapidly deteriorated as the humanoid dreadnaught pounded his pets into mincemeat.
"Blood Walk—" In desperation, he opened a vein.
"LOREAT!" came a cry more bark than speech.
Iosif was a few incantations from completing his limited-range teleport when his long-neglected testicles suddenly shrivelled up into his torso. A spine-wrangling, strength-sapping wave of fear overwhelmed his faculties, turning his frontal lobes into quivering soup. Something indescribable relaxed in his gut, his innards revolted, and the room grew suddenly heavy with the scent of excreta.
His mouth filled with bile, Iosif looked down in disbelief.
Was he the first Necromancer in history to suffer Mana Burn because he shat himself? What would his Master say?
But he needn't worry about that. Not when the collated strength of a dozen Ogre Ghasts punched through his feeble grey shield to take him by the neck.
Moments later, against the concrete fortification, Wyvern and former Necromancer painted an impromptu Pollock.
"… Gogo's done." Gwen licked her drying lips. It was unexpected, but Link Sight somehow worked on Golos, bypassing the ward. "We're clear, for the moment."
Schalk, Whetu and Richard stepped into the circle.
"Miss Song." The captain of Pretoria inclined his butt-chin. "See you on the other side."