The Northern Black Zone.
Dengta Forward Operating Base.
On the seventh day of the invasion, the imminent arrival of the Dalian Tower was preceded by the deployment of twenty divisions in the central staging area. Altogether, Dengta alone had amassed some twenty-thousand standing troops, eleven-thousand-two-hundred support personnel, five-thousand reserve infantry, and four-hundred odd Mages of varying talents.
In the distance, Shenyang's wilted silhouette perched in the gloom like the carcass of a dead Leviathan, awaiting its next victim, inviting the invaders into its many-layered tunnels and bunkers.
In silence, the 70th, 72nd, 79th, and 91st Quasi-Magical Divisions settled into the dugouts excavated by the Combat Engineers. As one, the grim-faced NoMs lined the criss-crossing bastion of transmuted fortifications, their positions layered and staggered to form kill zones. On either side of the earthen fort, construction continued, polluting the air with the roaring of Golems, the invocations of Transmuters, and the crunch of ferroconcrete crashing into place. Behind the main battle line, a network of portable Divination Towers hummed, tethered to dozens of trucks each laden with crates of High-Density Mana Crystals. Together, the network fed a beacon Mandala half-a-kilometre wide, carved out overnight by the logistic Mages.
In addition to the entrenched troops, towering Golems from the ubiquitous Dusty 266s to the monolithic Atlas 388s lined the perimeter, their blast wands attuned for artillery. Below their great stature, umbilical cables snapped into mana packs, snaking through stockpiles of enclosed HDMs.
And upon the battlement, Colonel Qíao stood, a technical aide by each side, reviewing the mana scripts.
Thus far, Shenyang had yet to react, though Qían was sure an all-out counteroffensive was coming. Logistically, if the Necromancers lost Shenyang, Beijing would reduce the buffer between Pyongyang and the new Front to a mere one hundred and fifty kilometres of Black Zone. The strategic advantage was the reason why the PLA had decided to go all-in. As the new millennia dawned, China could no longer afford to bleed out its resources on the Undead Front.
"Good." Qíao exhaled mist. The frigid atmosphere of Shenyang's winter was warmth sapping, a necromantic chill that drained the vitality from their bones. Even now, where the city's edge began, a visible ring of rime smothered the crumbling orbital highway, encasing the central business district in decade-old, accumulated ice.
And at the centre of that dark and dilapidated urban preserve sat the seat of a Necromancer who had transformed a living city into an Undead Necropolis.
Qíao wondered if a single Tower was enough to make the difference in numbers. Three decades ago, they had contended with both a Beast Tide and an Undead Incursion simultaneously. The worst of it was that in the aftermath, many of the slain beasts had simply been re-risen in their Undead forms. What he feared now was how many monsters had been dissected, sutured and remade into new abominations. If he was a Necromancer elite, what manner of ritual could he engender if given two decades? Could the PLA, now equipped with the best Magi-tech armaments China could import or manufacture, finally turn the tide?
"Sir." Qíao's aides connected a Message from Lieutenant-General Liang Chu-Rong. "Dalian is ready to proceed with the Teleportation."
"Very well." Qíao turned to face the Mandala. "All troops to their posts. BEGIN the Signal."
Lieutenant-General Liang Chu-Rong stood on the bridge of Dalian's Tower, one of eight mobile platforms China had built for itself since the 1980s. Unlike the PLA's super-structural Tower in Shanghai, Dalian was a modest design bought from the Mageocracy. It was originally a research Tower with a Dwarven-made Levi-plate just under a kilometre in length, the smallest in the Party's national armoury— and the most cost-effective.
Inevitably, battles were fought with currency.
To translocate a Tower from Dalian to Shenyang costs just over a million HDMs. To further activate the Tower's Shielding Crystal without the help of ley-lines, ten thousand HDM crystals had to be consumed each day. Factor in the additional cost of defensive Mandalas, spell amplifiers, embedded blast-wands and troops teleporting into and out of the Tower, another million HDMs may yet be exhausted.
The Party, therefore, could not afford catastrophic failure, not when the annual production of a medium-sized city had gone into the reclamation. Already, the sheer volume of collated HDMs stockpiled for the operation had impacted the exchange rate for Chinese-Minted currency.
"Sir, we will shortly re-enter the Prime Material." His junior officer informed the Lieutenant-General. "Materialising in THREE… TWO… ONE…"
Liang's innards lurched. There goes the first million.
The Tower was protected by a Bothe-Geiger Negation Field. Even so, the once in forever translocation had filled its crew with unspeakable dread. In the most unlikely of circumstances, a misalignment meant that the Tower could end up in the Primary Plane of Fire, or if they were very, very unlucky, in the Quasi-Plane of Ash.
"We're materialising!" The Major's voice rose a whole octave.
The floor thrummed. The lumen-screen projecting the grey expanse outside burst into activity. A second later, a three-hundred and sixty-degree projection of Dengta's desolated plains came into view.
"Absolute altitude, thirty-three meters— holding steady!"
"Stabilising horizontal drift. Dropping Dimensional Anchor!"
"The Ley-line is right below us! Beginning disruption. Switching to internal supplies."
"Weapons are live. Fire crew reports that they are at the ready, sir! Auxillary systems are charged, sir!"
"Shields are at five per cent and regenerating."
"Engine Room reports all systems normal. Capacity at seventy-five per cent!"
"Teleportation Circles are HOT! Maximum range is set at twenty kilometres."
A slew of tactical information washed over the Lieutenant-General, as did a surge of adrenaline tingling his spine. They were back! The PLA was back with a vengeance!
Below his dais, both in the control room and across the plain, a cheer broke out, first in waves, then as an undulant tide of shouts and hoots. A few of the older Mages who had gained their lapels fighting on the Front visibly wept.
But their commanding officer remained stoic.
Poor bastards, Liang forced his fervour to cool. Retaking Shenyang was well and all, but what of the cost? With the Tower now committed, the privilege of a retreat no longer existed. Be it the Mages or the NoM soldiers, their only recourse was to retake Shenyang or die trying. In the worst-case scenario, Dalian would reduce itself and its target to a twenty-kilometre crater.
"Give me a region-wide scan of the city," the Lieutenant-General ordered. "I want the place mapped twenty-meters deep from the Governor's Building to the bunker-shelters."
An enormous illusory projection appeared over the control theatre, courtesy of the Tower's embedded Diviners and Illusionists, some of the best in the nation.
Outside the Tower, a visible ripple of Divination rang out.
The Clairvoyance echo took several seconds to cycle. Once the intelligence theatre parallel-processed the data, the results were then transmitted to the command room.
Within the projected three-dimensional diorama of the landscape, friendly units were outlined as green blips, while the Golems and the machinery were triangular blocks. As Undead units appeared, unmasked by their unique Negative Energy signatures, they manifested as pulsing red dots.
Presently, a sea of green blinked below the Tower's massive silhouette.
Not far, pulsing faintly to indicate their place underground, was an ocean of all-enveloping red. At best, their foe was two kilometres away and slowly moving toward the viridescent markers.
"… Cao…" The Lieutenant-General swore before he could catch himself. "Colonel Qìao! Get your men ready! The Undead are coming! Dalian Tower! All teams to battle stations!"
A blaring proximity alarm indicated that the enemy was close enough to be soon within the range of the Type 95 LANCE-wands.
"There goes tea time." Gwen dematerialised the team's SPAM sandwiches. "Pats, let's get going."
"Will do." Petra cleaned her hands with water from Lea. "Tei, guys, are you going to be alright?"
"Don't mind us," their captain returned. "We've been defending the soldiers for a week. We know how they fight, what they need, and what type of enemies need to be neutralised first. Go help Gwen, we'll wait for the good news."
"Thanks, everyone." Gwen dispensed a round of hugs among her companions, noting their bruised eyebags. "I won't let you down."
"Let's buff up before you go. Mage Armour!" Anita was beyond glad that she was once again reinforcing her own team and not a non-commissioned officer incapable of withstanding a single swipe from a Ghast. That a low-tier Mage could be so fragile wasn't an occurrence the Abjurer had at all anticipated. In her experience, even the petite Mayuree, a Diviner, possessed the VMI and expertise to defend a least a few blows. "Resist Elements! Enhanced Ability! Be safe, Vice-Captain!"
"I will." Gwen gave Anita a pat on the shoulder, touched Rene on the arm, brushed the dust from Jiro's chest plate, then held Tei's mailed hand. "Thanks for understanding."
After the B-Team's arrival, the contestants had shared a few hours of respite, enough to catch up on the events of the last seven days. As Walken had anticipated, the performance of Fudan's B-Team was adequate but unimpressive. Comparatively, Auckland had most definitely fallen behind, while Pretoria's B-Team performance was more pronounced.
Now, the conquest of Shenyang had entered its second stage. From their briefings, the students knew that the rulers of the Necropolis would scramble all available resources under their command to topple the Tower. It was an obvious conjecture, for as long as China was willing to feed crystals into Dalian's mana furnace, Shenyang would remain under siege.
What remained now was a time-sensitive occupation.
But any response from Pyongyang would be intercepted by troops from the 1st Force-Recon, joined by elites recruited from other single-digit Mage Flights. For the occupation force, it meant that within the week, Shenyang had to be cleared and its ley-line activated and fortified.
Dalian Tower would, in effect, transform into Shenyang Tower.
And in the middle of the madcap scramble was Pretoria, Fudan and Auckland's students, hoping to carve out CCs and glory for their institutions.
Which was why for the final leg of the match, Petra rejoined Gwen's A-Team at the expense of a CC penalty so Gwen could bring forth her Allies, Golos and the Shoggoth— Fudan's aces in the hole.
"Which way to G44-P39?" Petra took to the air.
"Er…" Gwen's orbs glazed over. She looked at Richard for help, finding her cousin unhelpfully marking "North" with his eyes.
"This way." Lieutenant Jinwei Hān, their liaison, steered Gwen in the opposite direction she was facing. "The Lieutenant-General has teleported a recon force to the location in order to clear the area so you and your Enchanter may construct the Summoning Circle unmolested."
"Thanks," Gwen said. "How far—"
—B-BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
In the distance, where the Tower faced the Front, the battle was joined. From the Dalian's central column, a line of Disintegration thicker than two Whetus sliced across the landscape like a scalpel, vaporising the topsoil to reveal the tunnels being dug below. An eerie silence passed, then like a poked ant-hill, a horizon of Undead appeared from the frigid earth, clambering onto the cold soil. Suddenly, innumerable bodies formed into numberless throngs, stamping the virgin frost underfoot as they charged.
In retort, the Tower shimmered, dialling its Shielding Core to the maximum allotment. Against low-tier Undead, Shield Barriers served as mediocre deterrents. But, its ability to impair powerful constructs like Golems and Abominations mixed into the Horde was a necessity to ensure victory in a mass-melee.
"Wow." Gwen gasped as a bone-throbbing thrum of mana rippled from the Tower's mid-section.
"The artillery is about to begin—" Lieutenant Jinwei Hān advised. "Hold your ears."
Gwen had never felt so abused by anything so noisy and so intense in all her years. The sounds from the shockwaves were like a construction zone going off inside her skull. Unlike the sharp "CRACK!" and "BANG!" of her Flashbangs, what she now witnessed was a real-time earthquake erupting with spellfire.
"OTHER THAN THE UNDEAD, THE SHOTS ARE BREAKING UP THE GROUND SO THE HORDE CAN'T MOVE FREELY!" Jinwei hollered, shouting despite the Message device on his wrist, deafened even to the howl of his own voice.
"CAN'T THEY USE THE DISINTEGRATE AGAIN?"
"NO! TOWER ARTILLERY CONSUMES TOO MUCH MANA, IT'S ONLY USED FOR SIEGES AND AGAINST MYTHICS!"
Gwen shivered, thinking of what might have befallen Almudj if Melbourne and Brisbane Tower had been keen in their pursuit of the Mythic. If a Disintegration Ray had struck her rainbow-hued companion, could her "Kin" have kept its cool? Morbidly, she could imagine the mountainous corpse in the harbour, along with at least one destroyed Tower, besides which was what remained of Sydney.
— BOOM BA-BOOM! CRACK! BOOM!—
Next to unload were the Golems. With their portable artillery wands raised high, an unending fusillade of citrine, cobalt and sunburst filled the sky and the distance between the Horde and the Tower. As the spells connected, Fireballs, Lightning Bolts, Bounding Flames, Elemental Arrows raked the line of Undead from east to west with splendiferous spellfire.
"Gwen," Petra urged her cousin, her face warmed by the heat from the arcanistry. "We need to get to our fight."
"Right." Gwen turned to face the east, her vivid irises illuminated by the refracted spells. "Let's fly."
West of its business district, a flight of Mages from the PLA had secured grid G44-P39.
It was a tedious but humble task, for the battle some six-kilometres to the east had the Necromancers well-preoccupied. As a result, the soldier-tier Undead they had encountered were all dusty old ghouls and ancient zombies, all of which were quietly dispatched by the elite taskforce.
"Magister, they've arrived," a PLA Seargent informed their VIP.
"I see them." Eric Walken, the advisor to Fudan, waved at the incoming foursome and their PLA liaison. "Gentlemen, lets us welcome our star sorceress."
"Bloody oath, Eric!" Gwen could hardly believe that one of the cloaked figures as her instructor. "You're here, personally? Is that even allowed?"
"Where else would I be?" Walken replied, his old face bemused by her excitement. "I promised I'd see you through, didn't I? And yes, my presence is authorised."
"I was expecting you to watch from the Tower's top floor," Gwen marvelled, landing heavily. With a hiss, the Shen-Teī suit cushioned her forceful descent. "It's dangerous here, what if we get attacked."
"I might be rusty, but I should be able to obliterate a small Horde without too much trouble." Walken gave her a puzzling look. "But that's not why I am here. Petra, are all of Gwen's preparation's ready?"
"Yessir." Petra's response was terse. Gwen suspected her Russian cousin didn't have the best opinion of Eric. Both thanks to Wen and her misadventures at the hands of Moscow Magisters, Petra possessed little reason to love someone like Walken. "We may proceed."
"Good— Richard, Lulan, it's good to see you're both safe."
"Allow me to apologise for what happened at Shimenzi, Teacher." Lulan bowed deeply.
"No need." Walken waved a hand. "It was bad luck, coupled with Gwen's inexperience. As for yourself, it was a poor match up. You've done excellent work otherwise."
"I would say Gwen performed excellently, all things considered," Richard retorted in their quiet vice-captain's stead. "She choked that Necro without using magic, through a Bone Shield no less."
"Of course she did. A lesser Mage would have... not done it. But— let us waste no time." Their instructor guided them toward a half-collapsed, abandoned brutalist office building. "Gwen, what do you make of this?"
"A parking multi-storey?" Gwen said, studying the ugly structure.
"Ha!" Walken chortled. "No, there weren't that many cars back in the 70s. THIS is the old MSS headquarters, sans windows and walls. Its northern branch building. Sergeant? If you would? I believe the Lieutenant-General has given you the authorisation?"
"Please follow me, Magister."
One of the soldiers led the party around the destroyed building. Near its rear, they found an intact wall. Urging the others to step back, the Seargent then activated a concealed Glyph console. A slow rumble shortly followed, depressing the base until it revealed a set of stairs spiralling into the depth.
"We'll lead," the Sergeant offered. "Meng, Jei, take point—"
"Hold— allow me to excuse you." Walken waved a hand. "Gwen? Richard? Let's not risk the lives of our helpers, shall we?"
The students conjured their Familiars.
It was a curious juxtaposition. Caliban slithering into being was enough to drive the soldiers back; Ariel and Lea's resplendent forms were oppositionally enticing enough to leave them in awe.
"Cali, you take the lead," Gwen commanded her Void serpent. "Ariel, stay behind us."
"Lea, scout ahead." Richard turned his Undine transparent and misty. "Report back any enemies you encounter, do not engage."
As the Familiars took to the basement, Walken explained their present course of action.
"Originally, I was expecting to take us to a rooftop to conjure the Shoggoth. BUT, the Lieutenant-General was thankful enough for your selfless contribution to Shimenzi that he proffered the MSS's drafts for the installations under Shenyang. From the civil blueprint, we can discern that there's a long-sealed escape tunnel that connects into the main bunker at the heart of the city, under the People's Hall."
"Incredible, and the shelter had remained undiscovered?" Lulan enquired with disbelief.
"The MSS's transit tunnel was naturally a well-kept secret," Walken explained. "As for its present state of occupancy, we shall shortly find out. Richard? What does your Undine see?"
"Magister Walken is right." Richard kept one eye open while he focused on Lea's Empathic Link. "It's safe down there, but…"
Richard's mien was expressionless. "Gwen, take a gander through Link Sight and tell me what you think. I'll get Lea to guide Cali down to the central chamber."
His cousin obliged. A minute later, she let loose a yelp.
"Oh, Eric, it's horrible…"
"Are you being vague on purpose?" Walken loathed having partial knowledge. "Out with it, girl, what is it?"
"I think it's the MSS agents." Gwen felt the blood drain from her face. "They're… they were trapped inside when Shenyang fell!"
"We'll arrange for them to be buried and their families contacted." The Sergeant saluted at the two-dozen bodies sitting by the wall of the spacious chamber. Once, the vast vault may have served as an emergency bunker of sorts, now, it was just an elaborate coffin. "As true sons of the motherland. They died with dignity."
When the team had earlier arrived in the building's belly, they were met with a dozen carcasses hunkered in a row. Each by each, the slumped cadavers had assumed a kneeling position, their skulls blasted apart by a wand. In a far corner, the agents' executioner sat with his Type-22 stuck in between his clenched teeth, bits of brain decorating the concrete behind him.
"How morbid," Gwen muttered. What was worse was that she could empathise. Weighed against a slow death brought on by thirst, starvation or asphyxiation, or being raised as a Revenant, wasn't sudden death preferable?
"Detect Magic." Walken ran a scan through the bodies regardless of the delicate sentiment of their observers, briefly illuminating the cadavers with motes of Lightning. "Good, they've passed on."
The Sergeant glared, dismayed by the Magister's paranoia.
Walken ignored the soldier, in Shenyang, he was taking no chances.
"I'll watch you set up the Mandala here," the instructor's voice echoed through the high ceiling. From the looks of the different furnishings and the incomplete construction, the bunker was initially intended to be an underground archive. Now, it served only as an enormous concrete coffin. "Richard, Lulu, our PLA colleagues, can you check the lower ground access, maybe unlock the transit tunnel. Let's give the girls some room."
"Yessir." The others moved for the sealed exit opposite the entrance.
"Right." Gwen gulped as Petra produced her inscription kit and its many-layered toolbox. Though an inexpert Enchanter, she aided her cousin by setting up the Mana Cache, bundled in crates Marong and Mayuree had helped prepare. According to the House of M's general manager, some of the HDMs were sourced from the Tyrant's despoiled lair, meaning they were very dense indeed.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
Crate after crate landed. Despite the seals designed to retain the mana contained in its precious cargo, the room felt instantly more alive.
The PLA soldiers sucked in breaths of frigid, mana-rich air. For the Mages whose mana pool had been taxed by their earlier Purge of the grid, the natural recovery of their internal mana doubled.
Without warning, here were more HDMs than any of them had ever seen at any point in their lives.
"Gwen, take the Mithril Thread," Petra requested of her vice-captain. "Once the cache is done, start by marking out the Summoning Mandala. First, we'll bring back Lord Golos."
The drawing of Glyphs wasn't an impossible endeavour once an Enchanter learned the patterns. In training, the chief preoccupation of junior Enchanters consisted of line tracing while attuning their mana to match the ebb and flow necessary to imbue arcane symbols with mystical power.
Naturally, the concentration required was no mean feat. Thankfully, Gwen, with her phantom age, was no stranger to tedious chores that called for meticulous attention to detail. In a way, the stressful concentration was therapeutic, for even now, the suspense of days past threw up unnecessary remembrances, writhing like mired worms in the murk of her memory.
The misery was almost burlesque. Even during Gwen's peppy forays with Yue and Jean-Paul, no matter how she distracted herself, the pallid face of the Necromancer molested her mind.
But why worry? She wanted to say— Another day, another victim, wasn't that the rational way of things? Logically, it was easy to placate the ambivalent loathing bluntly hammering at her conscience. One would think she was used to it by now. Didn't Babulya warn her that the Path of Violent Conflict was full of thorns? If so, why worry over a little bloodletting? With her friends' lives threatened, what better excuse was there to exercise her wrath? Without her spells, how else was she going to nail a reborn Necromancer?
Was it the pleasure then that was eating her from inside out? Seeing the Necromancer's despair before Caliban's maw closed over him? Or the infusion of Essence that had mangled up her guts and made her eyes roll up inside her skull? That for almost fifteen minutes, she had felt the closest she had ever been to the time Almudj possessed her mortal body?
"Gwen, you've messed up the Piguet-Cox parallel, your Marden Glyph is missing a syntax." Her instructor complained, standing on the sideline. "Focus."
"Sorry, I'll fix it right away."
Or, Gwen wondered. Was it that she wanted to avoid the hard road of raiding Shenyang with Richard and Lulan?
The rationale behind borrowing the Void's malevolence was inevitably tied to her close call in Shimenzi. No matter the pretty words Walken used to dress her fears, the reality was that she neither wanted to lose the IIUC outright— nor did she want to risk Lulu and Richard— nor subject herself to another Soul Flayer.
Like the old saying goes, once bitten, twice shy.
That feeling of helplessness...
It was almost like she was back in the cave with Edgar.
"But what of the living beings still residing inside the city?" She had confronted Walken with her hypocrisy. The Necromancers still ate mortal food, meaning the number of NoMs living in Shenyang should be in the thousands.
"Collateral damage," Walken answered without pause. It was the same horrible phrase she had heard so many times in her old world.
"Don't turn the nincompoop now, Gwen. Did you really think the PLA will let anyone live? Let these NoMs roam its cities? Whether those people were livestock, servants, aides or otherwise, nothing dead or living will be leaving Shenyang— Even in England, we're not so kind as to be THAT stupid. Make a call, 'vice-captain'. This time— make the right one. If not, it would be better if you head home and start preparing for London."
Gwen recalled feeling hurt. Yet again, her mawkish predilections had been checked. But injury aside, she was astute enough to see that Walken was offering to bear her burden. Her instructor was offering her a way out, an excuse to clear her conscience by saying, "He made me do it, I didn't want to. I was goaded."
Like the gutted wife of the Thane of Fife had once said, in an earthly world, to do harm is often lauded, while careless altruism was dangerous and foolish. As a learned sorceress equipped with the means, why shouldn't she be bloody, bold, and resolute? Why shouldn't she laugh to scorn those who wished her harm? Even assuming there was a place for the milk of human kindness, and it sure as hell wasn't in Shenyang, not when her team had near lost their lives.
When almost a million people in Shenyang had already lost their lives.
"Gwen, are you alright?" Walken's voice drifted across the room.
"I am fine... and Eric?"
Gwen took a deep breath.
First, she would bring back Golos.
Then, her all-consuming Shoggoth would follow.
Gwen stood in the Summoning Circle, gently inbreathing.
Re-summoning Golos was easy.
She knew the Thunder Wyvern by name and scent, sight, sound and Essence.
She also knew him by blood, first as foe, then as a comrade against her enemies.
When the princeling re-appeared, angrier than a trodden cane toad, she had hugged her Wyvern's snout to placate his frustration. Gogo's response was to scrape her suit, growl against her body until his upset was spent. After that, she asked her friends and her instructor to wait in the relative safety of the outside world, where they could reliably flee from kilometre-long, rampaging tentacles.
Then came the witching hour.
"Yog-Sothoth!" she recalled what she could of the books she had obsessed over as a sullen adolescent. With a mother like Helena, the idea of calling upon an Elder being to destroy a shit-stained world was a fantasy she had entertained daily. As for the visualisation portion of the invocation, she hoped a pastiche of Shakespeare and Lovecraft would suffice; at worst, she'll toss an added verse of Poe.
"Lä, Shub-Niggurath! Bring forth the creators of the dark cities! Birth unto this world ye servants! O ye Manglers from the Mount! Hunt mine enemies! Lä— YE MOUTHS OF MADNESS! CONSUME MY FOES!"
"SHAAA! SHAAA! SHAAA!" Caliban sang.
"EE! EE!" Ariel cowered.
"Calamity!" Golos swore. "The Dragon father preserve us!"
With complete liberty, the Fudan's Worm Handler offered up the collated vitality from the Soul Flayer.
Instantly, her glowing face turned anaemic.
Unlike Golos, summoning the Shoggoth was an exhausting endeavour.
It was coming.
"Yog-Sothoth!" Lei-bup wept salty tears as bubbles blew from his greasy lips. Finally, the Great Being had responded to his call.
"Lä! Great Elder One! O key to the Gates where the Spheres Conjoin!" The chieftain of Turd Island howled in his fishy way, his tooth maw gnashing with spittle. "Come! Come to us! Saviour of the Deep!"
With one claw, Lei-bup crushed a fistful of roe, splattering the unhallowed earth with lives of a hundred young.
"Help us, Shub-Niggurath! Master of the woods that wend! Birth your children!"
All around Lei-bup, the stones grew suddenly slick.
Unbeknownst to the Merman performing his daily ritual, sympathetic magic channelled across space and time conjoined, harkening to the desperate desire of the Jifen-folk of the Dawugui archipelago.
A dark ooze wept from the Summoning Circle left behind by the negligent human Mages. Unbeknownst to them, Lei-bup possessed enough knowledge of his kindred to scrap together the most rudimentary of Conjuration. The circle won't be enough to manifest even a ten-thousandth of the great Shoggoth's form— but for the Mermen, any evidence of the Elder One's meagre mysticism would suffice.
The air sang.
Lei-bup freely wept.
Ever since the Pale Priestess had gifted the Mermen a hundred kilos of brown rice and a whole container of mysterious meat in cans, his tribe had thrived.
It was for this reason that ever since the departure of the Pale One, Lei-bup had anointed the sea in her master's name, blessing the circle with unseeded eggs.
And what BOON the rite had brought!
Under the guardianship of the Pale Priestess and the Elder One, the thriving Jifen Folk had subjugated all the surrounding tribes, adding new females and slaves to their domain! And when the newborns grew up healthy and well-fed, they had ventured further, foraged deeper, and dominated the whole island chain!
And with every new victory, Lei-bup believed more and more that his conjecture had been correct. With every tribe flocking under the Jifen's banner, the number of faithful grew. Their prior meekness now seemed ridiculous.
Before the tribe had received nourishment from the Pale Priestess, they were a plate of loose sand snails, subject to the undulating tides of fate.
Now, they were united by the strength of something larger than themselves! Already, the other elders had started to call Lei-bup the Priest, for it was Lei-bup who had won the rice, and it was Lei-bup who had given them mysterious meat for the winter!
"Praise be to the Pale Priestess!"
"Praise!" a thousand voices answered.
"Praise be to the Shoggoth! It of many eyes!"
"Praise!" a thousand voices echoed.
"Praise be to the Elder ones, who art Mother and Father!"
"Praise!" a thousand voices cried out.
The Summoning Circle sizzled.
And so it was that on Turd Island, a thing of the Void, a formless protoplasm of primordial ages past, sullen, intelligent, all-enveloping, half-mad with teeth and all-seeing with its wealth of eyes...