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A note from Wutosama

Voting for the novel :: Voting button  


This is technically 2 Chapters, I've decided to release it without the cliff. 

"GOGO!"

Golos smashed the stainless steel doors with a resounding CLANG. In his Wyvern-form, it was far easier to brute-force the mechanism until the whole structure failed.

The aftermath, as the party had well-anticipated from the groaning, was a room full of Zombies. As the heaving mass pressed in toward the hovering Mages, what should have been a fatal crash of frenzied teeth instead free-fell into the four-storey shaft.

"What a devious ambush," Gwen drily observed as the creatures continued to cascade, enacting the 1991 PC classic, Lemmings. "They look strong, some of these even have grafts."

"Those Wraiths are still around…" Eunae shivered as the thumps echoed from below. At some point, enough bodies would collate to cushion the rest— after which the accumulated Negative Energy would likely re-raise the inanimate corpses.

While the Zombies euthanised themselves, Mayuree sent forth her Arcane Eye. The chamber directly connected to the Levitation lifts was a central block that led off in three directions, likely to different suites servicing the upper echelon of the base. Within its chambers, Fudan's CCs reclused himself behind his minions, lamenting the cheating presence of a Thunder Wyvern.

"I see a heavily glyphed door," Mayuree soon relayed the Eye's vision through their Mind Link. "The ward barricading the war theatre is at least tier 6. It doesn't look like Imperial Magic either. If this isn't Anton Yermolov, then it has to be Diego Valentino."

"Finally." Lulan exhaled, incanting a self-buff that turned her skin a shade darker. "Vice-Captain, please forgive my incompetence."

"Lulu, don't worry about the Wraiths," Richard discounted the Sword Mage's self-loathing. "I am sure this Necromancer will take a sword to the gut as well as any regular Joe."

"Let's hope so." Lulan glanced at her hovering iron sword. "I'll train harder."

"Why don't you imbue the swords with ego?" To their surprise, it was Golos who interjected. "You Taoists hunt Spirits for a living, don't you?"

Lulan looked to Golos, then to Gwen, embarrassed by her ignorance.

"Gogo, what's an Ego Sword?" Gwen asked in her Sword Mage's stead.

"When I was young drake." The Wyvern's rough-hewn face recounted. "We had visitors from the Sects. Their Masters could imbue their swords with their will— meaning they could strike down incorporeal creatures. In my memory, hunting ghosts and demons was the whole purpose of the Sects, is it not?"

"I've never heard of such a spell, Master Golos," Lulan apologised. "I don't think our Clan possesses the skill anymore."

"Father's feathers, you Humans are so fragile..." Compassion from a Wyvern wasn't something that Gwen had thought the creature capable of possessing. "You should visit my sister, she knows the old Sword Arts. That's why father invited those old scrawny mortals— to tutor Ayxin. I am fairly sure Ryxi has a few scrolls in his library as well."

"I shall endeavour to." Lulan bowed toward the Wyvern. "Thank you, wise one."

"Hee hee—" Golos's horns weaved through the air, apparently pleased with Lulan's patronage.

Gwen meanwhile, was seeing a whole new side of Golos.
Her rooster-brained Wyvern, dispensing wisdom?

Why... pigs might fly—

"GRRRAAAR!" A Zombie, one of the final few, suddenly made a leap, clearing the space between the room and the Mages hovering in the chute.

Her invocation was near-complete when a maced tail swatted her assailant mid-leap. A blink later, it erupted like a pustule, painting Gwen from head to shoulder.

"Whoa— I was wondering if the Zombies had a herder." Richard winced at his vice-captain's dripping face. "And there he goes."

Gwen wiped bits of Ghast from her lips and her hair. "Thanks, Gogo."

"Don't mention it."

"S-sorry." Lulan looked as if she wanted to crawl into a hole. "I was distracted."

"Don't tax yourselves, females, not in my presence," Golos' bone-throbbing voice hummed. A flash followed, engendering a nude giant struggling into a pair of jeans.

"You should have ordered self-fitting slacks," Gwen drily observed as Golos wrestled with his mace. The other girls stood as stoic as statues, wondering how much of the Lumen-cast had to be edited.

Now that they were alone, the party could deduce that the mindless Wraiths had been set as guards. Indeed, in hindsight, had the students arrived on the Levitation platform, they would have been incapacitated or panicked by the ghostly sentries— and then eaten alive by the swarm. Even should they survive the Wraith ambush, the possibility of fighting both an incorporeal and a physical horde was slim, more so when sans Golos.

Away from the levitation lifts, the corridor was as Mayuree had advertised: cramped, claustrophobic and beyond perfect for incorporeal ambushes.

Despite being the top floor, the Russian architects who had conceived of Shimenzi were entirely enthralled by concrete. Out of both form and function, or possibly because of the ease of running mana conduits, Fudan's Mages were effectively encased in a visually sterile tomb.

As far as their eyes could see, the brutalist facade of the base's interior was uniform. Each corridor's interconnected pathways shared a similar starkness, homogenous but for the embedded "III".

"Lea, stay with Eunae," Richard assured their healer. Eunae nodded obediently, still traumatised by Caliban's writhing, dual-tone tentacles.

"Shaa! Shaa— Shaa!" Caliban hummed a dirge of oblivion as it shimmied down the concrete path.

Plink! As expected, it triggered an unseen Glyph.

A blast of jagged bone peppered Gwen's fiendish spider.

"Shaa?" Caliban cared not. It regenerated its limbs and continued.

A dozen meters down, Caliban stepping into yet another exotic trigger.

An inundation of Negative Energy flooded over Caliban's spidery body.

"Shaa!" The cold shower was pleasing to Gwen's Void beast.

As before, Caliban had no shit to give.

"I could do that," Golos grunted.

"Save your strength." Gwen chuckled. "There's a lot of traps. I want our MVP well rested for the Necromancer."

Plink! Caliban triggered another Glyph.

Above the team, the lumen globes flickered. A split-second later, the light died.

"Wall of Water!" Richard wasted no time in creating a barrier around the party.

"ROOAAAR!" Golos delivered a Lightning-breath against the floor, arcing electricity all over, jolting Richard so that he half-leapt into the air.

"Bloody hell!" Gwen's pupils were the first to adjust to the abrupt incandescence. Quickly, she filled the darkness with a pair of Dancing Lights. "Dick, are you alright?"

"I am shocked!" Richard wheezed, slapping his chest plate. "Shocked at how well my Shen-teī MK-Custom from Sinomach held up against Dragon-breath!"

"..." The rest of the party groaned with second-hand embarrassment.

"Jesus, Dick..." Gwen felt an ache in her chest. Just how desperate was Richard for crystals? As for Golos, she couldn't believe the bloody Wyvern had wasted a breath within ten-seconds of her sagely advice.

"There! Got one." Golos pointed to a wisp of dark smog hanging about the floor. "Desecrator coward! He should be fighting us head-on!"

"Ariel could have taken care of that." Gwen sighed.

"And what, risk your females?" Golos grunted, grinning at Lulan and the girls. "Have you no shame, Calamity? What if Lulu gets hurt?"

Lulu? A shiver prickled the nape of Gwen's neck, awkwardly, she looked to Lulan, then to Eunae and Mayuree. As one, the girls returned her inspecting gaze with awkward and ambivalent expressions.

"Just..." Gwen paused her party. Whatever Golos' intention, the Wyvern had hit the Glyph on the head. "You know what. Gogo is right. I've been lax. Let me fix this—"

Her finger wove through the air.

"Morden's Hound Pack!"
"Morden's Blood Hound!"

Eight Draconic-deerhounds plus one Alpha materialised beside the team. To summon all her dogs took a toll, but their circumstances called for nothing less.

"Ariel, stay above us and set a defensive perimeter, I want a dog protecting each of us. Astro, stay just ahead of the party. Cali, keep going."

"Shaa!"
"EE EE!"
"Woof! Woof!"
"Arrrroooooo!"

Soon, the newly reformed and starkly lit party began the arduous process of clearing the passage to the central auditorium.

"Wonderful!" Gwen surveyed her team of lightning-charged glow-lamps. Together, the pack was enough to banish all shadow from the team's vicinity. "Let's huff and puff and blow down that door!"

"INVESTITURE OF FLAME!" Yue fought back the taste of iron on her tongue, swallowing the exquisite agony rending her conduits. Although her flame-clad cloak flared out like the feathers of a blue-black peacock, it was clear that the continuous combat had taken its toll.

"Come on, fucker! I can do this all day!" Her vim, however, remained inextinguishable.

All around Auckland's Mages, a stink of scorched flesh immersed the expanse of Shimenzi's foyer, with liquified fat dripping fire and suffocating the air with Elemental Ash.

Not far, holding a smoking stump half-cauterised with boiled blood, knelt Anton Yermolov, a master of Necromancy, a Magus-tier Ritualist.

"Undeath to Living!" the man howled, and not for the first time either. As before, the stump on his arm and his half-melted face remained insensible to his profane efforts.

"HOW?!" the man keened, near-insensible from the anguish. "You're just a Fire Mage!"

"The fuck would I tell you?" the cobalt-clad Evoker mocked the man's despair. In actuality, she WAS the source of the Necromancer's dismay. Tandy wasn't just a regular old Nightmare, it was a mutated Sprite whose flames wove Elemental Ash into its heat. Why else had Gunther paid a city's ransom for the privilege of acquiring it for his wife?

Below the exhausted duo, Rongo and Timoti were near-OoM and at their alchemical limits. Yet, the Undead swarm persisted— Even now, at least half remained to besiege both the IIUC Mages and the PLA's battleline.

"Ready to die?" Yue's taunts appeared to enliven her flames.

"Brat, I don't fear death," Yermolov retorted, his lips black with bloody spittle, curtesy of the failed regeneration. "I welcome it."

Yue snorted.

"Tandy!" she called for her Nightmare. "We're finishing this!"

The Necromancer growled, his mutilated face twisting with misery. "Diego will reave your souls and turn you all into Wraiths! See you in the unlife, Tower Bas—"

"SHADOW FLARE!" Auckland's Evoker completed her invocation before Yermolov could finish his rebuke. Instantly, a near-invisible fire swallowed her victim, incinerating all resistance, eating through the man's buffs.

"Another one bites the dust," Yue recalled a jingle Gwen had once invoked. Within her conduits, the euphoric expenditure of power dimmed. In its fiery aftermath, a bone-throbbing agony enveloped her tiny body. At once, the veins on her extremities grew grotesquely engorged, erupting into bruised flesh. When she opened her mouth to swear, a blood-strew mist splattered her chest. Were it not for Yue's Dogskin Ta Moko, her Contingency Ring would have pinged.

"Yue!" Whetu double-checked his Pounamu shield, thinking that she had suffered an attack. He wanted to scoop the girl up in his arms, but he too was exhausted, not to mention Timoti and Rongo were still fighting. "Opi! Yue needs help!"

"Whakaoranga Ngawari!" their Ta Moko inscriber caught the girl in their Abjurer's stead. With worshipful words, she activated the latent healing powers stowed in the Ta Moko she had inscribed on Yue' chest, stifling the internal bleeding.

As for Yermolov, all that remained were Ash-strewn flames— that and a Storage Ring Opi caught in one hand.

"Are the Undead stopping?" Yue groaned in her Enchanter's arms. "Are we winning?"

Unfortunately, even Auckland could see that the Undead weren't perturbed by the heat-death of Anton. If anything, their frenzy had gained a supernatural focus.

"We'll win, eventually." Amidst her platitude, Opi stabbed the Evoker with a Healing Potion. Yue moaned in turn, but for one at their alchemical limits, there wasn't much the panacea could do.

"But I think someone else is controlling them." Opi frowned at the unending battle. Even now, Whetu was warding them against bone-shrapnel and femur-arrows. "Whetu, let's close ranks!"

Thanks to Anton, the big man looked as though he'd lost about twenty kilos. Where he had been a veritable giant before entering Shimenzi, deflated muscles and slackened skin now hung from his massive frame. As he had promised, not a single one of the Ritualist's killing spells had gotten past Auckland's Abjurer, one way or another.

"He-Mango-Tohorā! Return them to Tangaroa's embrace!" Below the clustered trio, Auckland's Water Evoker weaved the raging torrents. This time, the magically-induced tsunami finally crashed over the remaining Acolytes. With the mass of water finally in place, Rongo called for a great cleansing. "Maelstrom!"

With gradual urgency, a magically induced bathtub vortex engendered, sucking the Undead into the Elemental Plane of Water.

"Lava Spike!" Though exhausted, Timoti continued to deliver his molten payloads. Whenever a larger than life Undead construct managed to stem the tide and hold their ground, he would dislodge them with a burst of magma.

When the waters finally ebbed, all that remained was the throaty roaring of the Dusty-266s crashing amidst a sea of skittering, chattering, Undead bodies.

"Fall back!" Opi commanded. Of the party, she alone retained her health and her mana. "Gather up! We're going to join up with the PLA!"

With a resounding crash, the party— or more correctly Gwen's menagerie— poured into the auditorium.

The endless array of traps leading from the lifts to the theatre had been exhausting. Were it not for their born masochist, Caliban, the party would have had to contend with Necrotic toxins, exploding bone-splinters, howling Wraiths and even a host of flesh-eating beetles.

There had even been a close call— a Spine Spear that manifested from behind the party. Had Mayuree not pushed Eunae down, and had Lulan not parried the three-meter lance with her Iron Sword, somebody would have reawakened in a triage bed.

But at long last, they had arrived.

BUNG! BUNG! BUNG!

A triple-set of Essence-infused Flashbangs rocked the theatre's interior.

"Woof! WOOF!"
"Woof! Woof! GRRRR!"

The tunnel swelled with hoots and howls as Gwen's creatures streamed through the door, accompanied by Ariel and Caliban, re-clad in refreshed Invisibility.

Beyond the double-door was the war theatre, the nerve centre of Shimenzi.

Within, a hundred screens had displayed a panopticon array of images from inside the base, illuminating the otherwise ambient chamber with flickering projections. Now, they fell about in pieces, shattered by Gwen's Signature stun spell.

Quickly, her party spread through the dark chamber.

Thus far, everything had gone according to plan. First, Fudan swept the theatre with disabling-spells, then, they had entered hounds and Familiars-first to avoid additional arcane pitfalls. After that, the Mages flew in, ready to counter whatever foes the hidden Necromancer would throw at them.

"I see him!" Mayuree marked the clump of Negative Energy through their shared Mind Link.

In front of the wall of fissured screens, appearing as though a spider perched on a web, stood a man in the simple black garb of a priest. His attire was clean, humble, and unadorned, as one would expect to see on a pastor. On the first impression, the Necromancer known as Diego Valentino appeared amiable and ancient, a sad man whose body had been eaten alive by his craft.

A spot of movement attracted Gwen's eyes. On a surviving Lumen-screen, she caught sight of Pretoria fighting what appeared to be an enormous Bone Golem.

"Welcome, students of the IIUC." The man's voice was barely a croak, spoken as though by an invalid on his hospice bed. "My name is Father Diego Valentino, formerly of the Ordo Praedicatorum."

With a thought, Gwen's lightning dogs surrounded the man from every angle.

In the illumination cast by her hounds, the man in the priestly garb grew somehow sanctified.

"Gwen Song," Gwen announced herself. She stepped toward the central dais, her courage bolstered by the man and women beside her. Silently, she ordered her Familiar to take to the ceiling. "By order of the People's Liberation Army, we are to take you, dead or alive."

"Alive would be preferable." Diego Valentino choked out a broken smile. "Undeath is better, but I'll not rebuff your offer."

Gwen felt the man's milky eyes crawl across her armour. She wasn't sure if the man could see, but to say he made her skin crawl would be a gross understatement.

As insurance, she raised a hand in warning. In anticipation, her team half-held spells upon their lips, each ready to play their part.

In the half-lit gloom of the broken lumen-screens, the venerable Necromancer audibly exhaled, then tittered from the dais. "My child, what do you suppose will happen to me?"

"That's not for me to say." Gwen tried her best to keep her voice calm. For reasons unknown, her pitch had risen an octave. "Keep your hands up. And also, I am not your child."

"Ah— but we're all God's children..." The Necromancer obediently raised both hands, then stepped off the dais with a painful grunt. In the light of Gwen's dogs and the lumen screens, his ancient hump was well hunched. Even his scarred and wrinkled face was entirely pale and bloodless, with sallow cheeks that draped across what once had been youthful cheekbones.

Step by step, the man shuffled closer.

"STOP!" Gwen's shrill voice pierced the gloom. She willed her dogs forward. "Don't come any closer!"

"Why?" The man's measured pace continued with the tick-tock of a metronome. "Can I not take a good gander at my capturers? My eyes... they're not what they used to be."

"HALT! Astro!"

Her leading deerhound leapt. It landed a few meters from the Necromancer, then let loose a growl that was enough to send a mortal man to his knees.

"Draconic... dogs?" Diego's milky orbs were two pools of cloudy azure, piercing into her soul. "And a Wyvern too."

Unbidden, the Necromancer continued his approach. When the man passed the growling Astro, Gwen came to the realisation that she may be leagues out of her depth.

When was the last time a college course taught how to negotiate with a terrorist? Despite having lived two lifetimes, she had never learned how to apprehend a monster with the blood of a thousand men on his hands.

"Richard," she thought aloud through the party's Mind Link. "What do I do?"
"Cut off his arms legs?" Richard answered with his usual pragmatism.
"Good idea. I'll do it," Lulan concurred.
"He's an old man!" Eunae verbalised her horror.
"Don't be fooled, Eunnie," Richard advised. "He's an old Necromancer."

"Well?" The Fatherly Necromaner kept his hands well-exposed. "What's the matter? Is my surrender insufficiently compelling?"

Gwen wanted to return a quip but found herself lost for words. Between an opponent whose motives she couldn't untangle and one who would fight her to the death, she preferred the latter.

Why would the Necromancer give himself up?
Didn't he know what awaited him in Tianlanqiao?
How could she accept his surrender but then demand his arms and legs?

Would it gain or lose CCs for her team?

To play it safe, her mind turned to Mayuree.

"Mia, what say you?"

"I can't tell," their Diviner proffered the limitations of her diluted bloodline. "The threads of fate are too tangled. Anything could happen."

Gwen shifted her thoughts to Golos.
If the Necromancer reneged on his offer, Gogo could break an arm or two... or a spine... or a neck.

"Gogo," she intoned, feeling guilty that her princeling was made to fetch. "Can you—"

She needn't have imposed, for as the old man walked within strike-range of Golos, her Wyvern's nostrils flared. Before she could react, a fulminating surge of outrage swelled within her creature.

"CALAMITY!" Golos' voice filled the auditorium. "STEP AWAY! That's no MABLIK! His stench exceeds even those desecrated souls!"

Gwen took a double-take. In Draconic, Mablik meant mortal.

In the next moment, her incensed Wyvern transformed. His twenty-meter body blocked the entrance to the chamber, his expansive girth battering away Fudan's Mages, sending them skittering into upturned chairs and tables.

"KAEGRO! Return to dust!" Golos's jaws cracked with fulminating electricity. "ROARRRRR!"

It was her Wyvern's final breath, and he gave it his all. A line of vivid lightning struck the priest where he stood, swallowing the man wholesale.

"Gwen!" Richard's voice came through the Mind Link.

On reflex, Gwen triggered the latent energies empowering Ariel.

"Ball Lightning!"
"EE EE!"

A dozen spheres pursued the priest.

"Panzerschreck!" Lulan launched all five blades at once, taking full advantage of Mayuree's pre-buffed True Strike. Even among the hysterical electricity, they saw the blades connect.

The spells converged. Fulminating lightning, iron blades and a thrashing Wyvern annihilated the dais, cracking the concrete and vaporising the screens. In the aftermath of their assault, the auditorium shook, its base quaking like mad. A cloud of dust billowed out from the epicentre, obscuring all vision, swallowing the constants whole.

Surely, Gwen narrowed her eyes to ward against the dust and the heat. Nothing could have survived that.

"Is he dead?" Gwen turned to Mayuree.

"I don't sense—" Mayuree focused her Detect Magic. "His body's gone! I think—"

DONG!

Came a resounding peal.

A spine-chilling wave of enervating energy soundlessly permeated the walls, pervading the auditorium in the form of an invisible shockwave. Glyphs long inscribed, marked by blood and bone, ignited with ghostly fire, vivifying a buried Mandala a decade in the making.

"NO—" A violent dizziness silenced Gwen's better faculties. From her mouth came a half-strangled utterance, after which all sound ceased.

Without warning, her Astral Body dimmed. Deep within the recess of her subconscious, the metaphysical manifestation she had internalised in the Cognisance Chamber winked out.

DONG!

Again, Fudan's Mages heard the peal of a grand church bell.

Her deerhounds flickered, then died— un-summoning themselves as the connection between Master and monster untethered. Ariel, as well, unable to anchor itself via her Astral Body, forcibly returned to its pocket dimension.

DONG!

Gwen attempted to call Golos, but her lips had grown insensible.

"WEAAAAAARRRRAH—!"

A deluge of ghostly keening abruptly filled the theatre, setting her teeth to chatter like mad. Like an inverted bog, two dozen Wraiths mounted her Wyvern, grasping at Golos' thrashing body, launching themselves so that they ignited against the Wyvern's lightning-wreathed scales.

"CALAMITY!" Her drake squirmed, thrashing wildly. The Wyvern weaved its head back and forth in a desperate attempt to crush the unseen Necromancer yet again. "FLEE!"

WHOMP! Golos' anarchic defence against the incorporeal beings sent her tumbling into a set of anchored chairs. With a clattering thunk, her armour compressed, absorbing all impact.

From the floor, she watched with fascinated horror as Golos' tail rammed into her likewise insensible party. Her friends tumbled through the air. Were it not for their Shen-Teī armour, the consequence would have been unimaginable.

GO HOME! Her mind positively shrieked. GOGO! CANCEL THE ALLY SUMMON!

Desperately, she tried to reach out, to utter an invocation, to channel her mana.

"WEAAAAAARRRRAH—" More Wraiths appeared, swarming her Wyvern, polluting his demi-divine body. In the flickering light, Golos looked as though he was being smothered by a single sheet of midnight chiffon.

CRACK-WHOOMP!

A bolt of lightning vivified her Wyvern's trashing bulk, blinding them all. When finally Gwen's eyes re-focused, her Ally had returned to its natural home.

FUCK! Gwen screamed internally. What the fuck just happened? Why isn't the Necromancer dead? What was that spell? Could she have prevented it? Why couldn't she use spells? Was this the anti-magic they used in Tiaolanqiao? IF the Necromancer had an invocation to incapacitate them all, why all the effort? Why was the man surrendering if he could—

A shadow caught her eye.
Her stomach revolted.

A surviving Wraith was fast approaching Eunae.
Across from Gwen, her healer's eyes were wild with terror, staring at Gwen but also straight through her.

"SHAA!" A remaining Empathic Link tingled.

CALIBAN! Gwen exalted. Caliban had survived the tolling of the bell! She didn't know why nor how, but her heart filled with sudden gladness.

Her immediate command was to send Caliban down to rescue Eunae.

Caliban's reply was to remain still and stoic.

Gwen baulked; at once confused and horrified. By the time her rioting thoughts caught up, her healer's youthful mien had deflated, her chubby cheeks fading to grey.

NO! NO! NO! Gwen felt as though a flensing knife was being twisted through her diaphragm. BASTARD! BASTARD! She called out over and over in her mind. CALI! CALI CALI! She wanted to send out Caliban, to transform him just so that she could say that something was done, that she tried. EUNNIE! HOLD ON!

In the Wraith's embrace, Euane's eyes grew dull with resignation.
A familiar burst of silvery Conjuration engendered.
Then Fudan's Cleric was gone.

Suddenly, terror turned to relief, then with equal abruptness, relief turned to frustration.
Why hadn't Caliban obeyed her command?

Her answer came in the form of a collating, ghostly body standing where their Cleric had been. As it formed, the horrified members of Fudan's crew saw that the Eunae-fed Wraith now regenerated into the guise of a man.

Diego Valentino.

Her frustration now turned to cold rationality.

A trap.

It had all been a trap.

The ambush at the lifts was a trap.
The traps along the way were a part of it too.
Even the old man's act— all of it was a trap.

It was all a manoeuvre by Diego Valentino to make them think that their target was weak, that he needed underhanded methods to survive. It had all being a ploy to draw them—

Into range?
No, Gwen discerned.
Into the room.
There was something in the chamber.

How could she have been so stupid and blind? Look at those lumen-screens! The man had been watching them since their ascent! Since their first spell! The whole time, they were dancing in the palm of his hand! They should have nuked the fucker from orbit! Or at least from the fucking tunnels!

And Eunae!
Her soul ached.
She felt like such a hypocrite, boasting that she would protect Eunae to her face, playing the Sunbaenim.

And as for the competition itself.
Their mindset had been wrong from the beginning.
The whole while she had thought the IIUC a competition, that she was here to vanquish Necromancers. They had joked about CCs!

This wasn't a competition. This was real life.
She was here to take the lives of living, breathing, free-thinking beings. They accrued CCs, but the actuality was that their foes were fighting for their lives. And when a man is in defence of their continued existence, what means were taboo?

With a heart in revolt, Gwen watched as Diego Valentino's re-constructed body descended. The Soul Flayer was as white as a newborn babe, yet fully grown and in the prime of life.

"I should thank you all," the newly risen Necromancer declared, filling the theatre with his vibrant voice. "Without your intervention, I would have never had the courage to complete the rite."

Diego Valentino wondered if he should thank the Maker of Man for his good fortune.

Unlike the fool Ritualist, he knew well that there would be no reinforcements from Shenyang. If anything, Diego scoffed, Shenyang may already be knee-deep in the living.

He knew this because he was the Master of Shimenzi, a region he had been given to tinker at his leisure and thereby his to defend. Such was the stratagem the deathless ones in Pyongyang deployed, for the same buffer-tactic had precedence in history— be it the Ming's use of Khitanic Demi-humans. Or the Russian Empire's alliance with the Cossak Centaurs.

Shimenzi was but one of the many cushions between China and the well-cemented Necropolis of Pyongyang. For researchers like Diego, it was a region of great autonomy.

And now came the cost of that autonomy.

As his Astral Soul collated, mote by mote, he was beset by unfathomable anguish. SOUL KNELL was a rite unique to the Cabal of Kane, first of his name. In Diego's misguided youth, he had hunted his colleagues, until one day, through its Master, he came to know love for the Craft.

In Undeath, all sins were reposed.
In Undeath, all beings were equal.
Be it Man, Elf, Dwarf, Orc, Centaur or Faye— all who practised the Craft escaped the tyranny of karma.
Became free agents of their individual wills.

And so it was that in his hour of despair, Diego Valentino exercised an apex invocation unique to his Craft. In offering his Astral Soul, in shedding his physical body, he would be born again, just as the holy Tomes had told of the Nazarene.

For Diego, his crisis was also his baptism.
Though the holy rites of the Cabal taught the ritual to each of its high-ranking elders, few were the ones who succeeded in regaining their body. More often than not, their Soul was blown to pieces by the Astral winds before their flesh reconstructed itself, ending decades of dedication to the Craft.

And yet, here and against all the odds; set against a hundred Mage-souls collected over two decades, bolstered by the heart-blood from a thousand sycophants, he had succeeded.

All that was left was to survive Shimenzi, a comparatively trivial task.

Luckily, the very same adversaries who had him cornered would now provide him with additional leverage.

Such hap, Diego grinned, feeling his lips move.

With a flutter of his long lashes, Diego opened his eyes.
Slowly, with articulated care, he stretched his reformed fingers.
He felt magnificent.
His vision was no longer clouded.
His back no longer ached.
His limbs, long and lithe, sang with grace.

"I should thank you all," Diego announced, delighted by his sonorous voice. "Without your intervention, I would have never had the courage to complete the rite."

One by one, he regarded the remaining members of the team that had breached his sanctum.

First, he was glad the Wyvern was gone. That one, he dared not slay. To kill a creature so choked full of Draconic Essence was trouble personified, and Diego was far too knowledgable to attract the ire of a High Dragon Patriarch.

Then there was the stone-faced Water Mage, a Conjurer with a most curious Undine as his spirit. The young man had not panicked, even when his Astral Soul was banished from his body, a quality that Diego admired.

The Sword Mage, conversely, was clearly a mad dog. Even with her limbs made insensible, the lass looked as though she wanted to tear his throat out with her teeth.

The Diviner was a disappointment. Compared to the Abjurer and the Sword Mage, she appeared nothing special, barely a nourishing meal.

And finally, there was his grand prize. A living, breathing Void Sorceress! One who could also utilise Lightning. He had never heard of such a thing. What a bargaining chip she would make!

Gingerly, delighted by the suppleness of his new feet, he approached the worthless Diviner.

"I must borrow some of your health, my child," he intoned, studying the others. "Worry not, you shall soon return to safety."

Without the need for somatics, Diego activated Drain Life, an ability now innate to his blessed new form.

Spontaneously, the Diviner's brow turned the hue of lilies.

He gave her a flick across the forehead.

A burst of silvery Conjuration enveloped the unconscious seeress.

"There... aren't I generous?" Diego was in a good mood. "Now there are only three of you. A far more manageable larder, don't you think?"

With great amusement, he noted that Gwen Song— the girl who had called herself their leader, appeared as though she could gnaw through a mithril collar. Her beautiful eyes were orbs of glowering rage. Such was the fury in her trembling body that her face turned scarlet, fuelled by an undercurrent of resentment mighty enough to ignite mountains.

"Child, just what are you?"

The girl's murderous glares were delightful. From the aura of her nascent soul, Diego, an expert in the reading of souls, knew her to be different from the rest.

Indeed, the girl was unique, and not just for her talent.

First, the lass' Astral presence was enormous, warping more space than even Diego himself. Just the same, her aura radiated the same scintillating rainbow as the Wyvern, only purer, more vibrant and with such saturation that Diego had initially doubted her mortality.

Was she a scion then of a Draconic-Clan? He hypothesised. If so, there was no transmuting her into a minion. As per the Wyvern, Diego desired no trouble from lizards whose grudges outlasted the longest-living Lich.

"Can you speak?" Diego wondered out loud. "Well, not yet, I guess. You can't even move a finger until the resonance passes."

He continued to inspect his prized hostage, noting the uniqueness of her armour.

"So, Gwen Song of the IIUC. Who are your parents? What is your Master's name? Tell me, and I shall leave you unscathed. Your voice should have returned. Don't hide from me, child. I know you better than you think."

Diego Valentino approached for a closer look, flanked by Wraiths on either side.

Finally, the girl opened her lips to speak.
He liked the way she squeezed the sound through gritted teeth.
It was pride, Diego recognised the look.
Pride was good.
Pride was the hallmark of the Dragon-kind.

"C— "

"Yes?"

"Ca—"

"What is it, child?" Diego came closer. Up close, he noted that the girl's comeliness was exquisite. Someone somewhere, he felt more confident than ever, would pay a king's ransom to get her back in one piece.

Considering her age, the payee would likely be a spouse, or even better, an influential set of in-laws.

"There's no need to look at me like that. I didn't kill your Wyvern, or your Healer, or your Diviner. You are all my prisoners until the term of my freedom is negotiated. Worry not, the other survivors will join you soon. Even now, my Dread Wraiths descend below to subdue your companions."

"Ca—"

The girl's lips moved.

"CALIBAN!"

With a sigh, Diego raised a wall of bone with the flick of a finger, so confident in his new form that incantations needn't even part his lips. From behind, the girl's Void fiend, the very one that was missing in action and which Diego had first assumed banished with the Kirin, ran tentacle-first into a jagged bone-barrier.

"SHAA!" The creature frenzied, skittering against the concrete. The fiend's insane limbs cut and jabbed at his barrier with such barbarity that Diego had to concentrate his mana where the assault was the fiercest.

"NETHER SCYTHE!"

Diego called upon yet another of his many spells. This one conjured a rip through space and time, jarring the fragile folds of the Material Plane.

"SHAA!" The girl's creature raged for a moment more before it fell limp, all life siphoned from its spell-hewn corpse. The beast shuddered when its carapace split in twain, spilling forth an inordinate volume of goo-smothered stuff.

"A curious thing," Diego exalted in his mastery. "I would have loved to study it. For now, as you have tested my patience— URK—!"

A pair of slender hands, their gloved plating ripped and torn, assaulted the bone-barrier protecting Diego's upper torso. As they smashed through the closely criss-crossing thorns, the lacerating bone-splinters flensed the girl's extremities, stripping away the fabric, mangling her wrists and forearms.

To Diego's utter astonishment, the girl's fingers did not shrink in agony, but instead wrapped around his neck.

"Futile—" he choked out a feeble cry, feeling such disappointment that he couldn't enslave the girl's soul as punishment for her impertinence. The girl's grip was firm; possessed of more strength than any mortal girl should possess, but Diego wasn't fazed.

Without words nor gestures, he activated a healthy dose of Drain Life, one that would keep the girl pliant for the duration of his negotiation with the PLA.

Viridescent vitality spontaneously flooded his conduits.

"JESUS!" Diego's eyes rolled to the back of his skull. What came through the girl's hands wasn't vitality, but rapture. It had been only a trickle, a taste, but already he had ascended into Seventh Heaven. Every pore on his body opened as though panting for air, every sinew felt renewed, every muscle was crammed full of vim and vigour. Even the apparatus between his legs, a thing he had long since forsaken for its senselessness, grew suddenly engorged. "C-CHRIST ALMIGHTY!"

Diego Valentino shuddered, his digits curled. Here in Shimenzi, in the most unlikely of places and most unusual company, he was emptying of one life and filling with something greater, grander and older than any Essence he had ever tasted.

"W—GHrrrk—" Diego tried to speak, though the girl's fingers remained an iron vice crushing his windpipes.

Through the misty vision of his dilating eyes, he caught sight of her emerald-amber orbs and her pinpoint pupils, depthless like the Void.

Thralls! He commanded his spectral minions. STOP HER!

"CALIBAN!" The girl's voice was a roaring gale filling every recess of his ecstasy addled mind. "CONSUME!"

Caliban rose from the dead, as girthy as the grandest Naga it had fought in Burma.

At Gwen's behest, its rejuvenated carapace split, enveloping the Essence-gorged Necromancer, Bone Barrier and all. A split second later, Caliban's lips closed with a sickening crunch, pushing away Gwen's mangled hands before sliding its prey deep into its gullet.

"SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban sang, its innards boiling with turbulence.

"Caliban! Return!" Gwen commanded her Familiar, paranoid that her beast might regurgitate its once-risen victim. Only in her banished Pocket Dimension was she confident that there existed no possibility of the Necromancer resurrecting again.

Across the aisle, Richard nodded imperceptibly. A few chairs away, Lulan's eyes spoke of triumph.

And all around them, the Wraiths recoiled. At first, the soul-bound creatures appeared confused by the disappearance of their Master. Then, whatever the Undead equivalent of cathartic release from existential slavery dawned, gently fading as the Negative Energy decayed.

Very quietly, the trio sat in the now-empty auditorium.

"I couldn't save Eunae," Gwen's voice drifted across like that of a spectre. "Mia. as well."

If her companions could speak, they would.

But they knew that for now at least, there would be no solace for their vice-captain's pyrrhic victory.

"..." Richard made a move to speak.

"What is it, Dick?" Gwen wanted to stand, but she was too drained to even crawl over to her cousin.

Richard's blinking grew desperate.

"I know, I am sorry," she apologised. "I'll beg on my knees for their forgiveness. I was a terrible leader. I overestimated myself and underestimated our foe. I walked us into a trap."

Richard's agony only grew in intensity.

"I know. Golos as well." Gwen choked, her voice full of sorrow.

Richard was blinking so hard his eyes watered.

"I know you blame me, but—"

"Y-yOU A-ATE Him!" Richard finally squeezed out his warning.

Gwen paused. Her eyes widened. She had finally unravelled Richard's charade.

As if on cue, her breath quickened.
With every passing second, the sensation in her abdomen grew in intensity.

Together with her abducted Almudj's Essence, there was also an unfathomable volume of undigested vitality spilling over from Caliban. What she had anticipated as a smidgen of a man inundated by Negative corrosion was now proving himself the better part of a dozen Nephres.

"Oh— NO NO NO—" her eyes grew misty. Already, her cheeks were vermilion. She had to fire off a Void Bolt, or TWO, or A DOZEN. She had to do something.

But how could she?
Right now, she couldn't even access her Astral Body.

Right now— all she could do was curl into a ball, hug her knees, cover her face, and hope to God the IIUC could edit out the next fifteen minutes.

 

 

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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