"THEY'VE GOT A FUCKING LICH DOWN THERE, AND ITS COMING FOR YOU!"
"A lich? Like, with a phylactery?"
"YES! YOU DAFT FOOL! GO!"
Gwen glanced at the Summoning Circle. If she went, how the hell was she going to wrangle her Shoggoth? There was no way she could just leave an intact Mandala here; God knew who might use an abandoned Circle to access her unique magic to pilfer Shoggy.
"Quickly! Else I am going to SLAP you once you get back!" Walken sounded on the verge of a heart attack. "Use my Device as the Divi-Loc, I've set it just outside the western quadrant, GO!"
"One sec... got it!" Gwen turned to her Familiars. "Cali, Ariel, I want you to destroy the Mandala as soon as I am clear."
"Golos, can you follow?"
Her Wyvern nodded. Golos may be inept in Spellcraft, but he could piggyback on her Conjuration, using his innate mana to enable translocation.
"Shoggy... you stay here and clean up."
Gwen addressed the room full of ogling, oozing eyeballs and drooling lamprey mouths. Whatever this "Lich" was doing to her Shoggy, it wasn't pleasant, not even for a kilometre long stomach spawned from the Void.
"Dimension Door!" She opened her conduits. Immediately following her final syllable, electricity cascaded around her body, enveloping her armour. When she reappeared, she should at least be two hundred meters away, ready to recycle her magic. Assuming she took a short break, she should be within range of Dalian Tower within twenty hops.
A jolt of disruptive mana kicked her in the diaphragm, pressing the air from her lungs. The destination beacon Walken had offered abruptly winked out of existence.
The mana that had been manifesting into Dimension Door shunted back into her body, bloating her conduits and seizing her limbs. She couldn't be sure of just how far she moved, but she materialised as though launched from a wand.
"Whoa—" Limbs akimbo, she bounced off the far wall.
Above her, four hundred eyes spun in their slimy sockets. Disgustingly, or perhaps fortuitously, a particularly googly orb cushioned her forward momentum.
Gwen blinked. She righted herself, cheek-first against her Shoggoth, her arms and legs covered in its silky slime.
What the hell happened to the beacon? She tried to clear her head. Did Walken shut his device?
"CALAMITY! We must retreat!" Golos, having escaped her spell-induced disorientation, was beside her in an instant. Unhinging his jaw in the manner of serpents, the Wyvern's chest rapidly expanded, then let loose a mighty Dragon Breath. "ROOOO—"
A line of living lightning erupted against the far wall, passing through a vaguely humanoid something that had made its presence felt.
"—AAAAR!" Gwen shielded her eyes as Golos poured out his soul. Still pressed against the Wyvern's bony back, she felt the heat of the princeling's smouldering skin scald the delicate surface of her face.
She pushed herself away from the Wyvern.
"Dimension Door!" This time, she directed herself upwards. With a clearance of over two hundred meters, Gwen was positive that she could clear the bunker's depth in one leap. If not, then she was also prepared for a world of non-lethal pain, nothing her Essence couldn't absolve.
Her mana fled.
Another wave of dizzying nausea engendered.
She reappeared a dozen meters away, reeling with disorientation.
"Ariel! Cali!" she shrieked like a banshee, landing on her shoulder to soften her roll. Lich or no Lich, she would show Voldermort no quarter.
Her Familiars assumed their battle forms, Caliban transforming into its swiftest variant, the spider Wanka, and Ariel into its Kirin guise. With a word and a surge of will, she convoked as much Essence as she could muster under the circumstances, leaving half for future contingencies. With a layer of Detect Magic illuminating her pupils, she pinpointed the distorted Astral Space in the room's centre.
Emerald Lightning fulminated across the length of her armour, sending her hair and her skirt into a wild flutter. Her fingers finished the somatic components in a flash.
Fearing that there might be a counter to Lightning Bolt, she chose the rarer two-stage Lightning Sphere. A split-second later, her AoE connected, enveloping a quarter of the room in viridescent electricity.
Bathed in emerald, Gwen adjusted her eyes.
Fizzak!—BAM! The second stage nova rang out, so powerful that even under Ariel's control, her wall-hugging Shoggoth lost the portion of its body closest to the ground level. As the electricity drained away, she caught sight of a region where her sorcery was displaced by a subtle shadow.
"Gogo!" Gwen directed Golos to their target.
"ROAARRRRRR!" Golos let loose another breath, fulminating his guts out, howling so hard he simultaneously farted, irradiating the basement with his retina-searing discharge.
"Ariel! Ball Lightning!" Gwen's intent was to leave no quarter. Learning from her last mistake, she flooded the target space with such an excess of plasma that the concrete cracked and split, spraying shards of white-hot silica.
"Shoggy!" she commanded her Planar Ally. "If you can do something, now's the time!"
All around their fiercely gesticulating mistress, the eyes rotated wetly in their sockets.
"Fine, I guess you're preoccupied— Wall of Lightning!"
Gwen wondered if she fought a vital target, the Shoggoth would react with great urgency. Nonetheless, at her behest, the atmosphere of the bunker grew thick with motes of cascading electricity, arcing from corner to corner. Unlike her Evocation spells, the conjured barrier would continue to strike her target so long as her mana pool held out.
"Ariel! Again!" She added three more Lightning Spheres to the fray. If there was an Undead that could survive such an inundation of offensive magic, then her goose was cooked. Certainly, Gwen couldn't imagine Tei or even Gunther just standing there, soaking her magic like a lightning rod.
Plink! Plink! Plink! CRACK!
The splintering of cooling stones echoed throughout the secret basement. Gwen's pinpoint pupil dilated, adjusting to the low-light. Hanging a few feet above, Ariel sniffed the air, reporting nought but the stink of ozone. From the far wall, Caliban scanned the room with its vitality-vision, finding nothing. Finally, Golos, now polymorphed into his true form, coiled around her protectively so that she was nestled between a white wing and his plated torso.
"Is it dead?" Gwen wondered if the proctors would find her confidence impressive or foolish. "Caliban, get ready."
"Shoggy, wanna make yourself useful?" Gwen asked the room again.
The rolling eyes slowly ceased their erratic movements. By the dozen, their orbs focusing on a particular spot not far from where she had been raining down AoEs.
"Arcane Sight!" Gwen attempted a Divination Magic she rarely had the opportunity to deploy. Unlike Detect Magic, the second-tier Divination allowed her to see both invisible creatures and those hidden in the Astral Plane.
Instantly, she caught sight of a smouldering, shady figure hovering in the shadows cast by her and Golos' illuminating presence.
Caliban transformed into a black blur. Before Gwen could blink twice, her fiend had positioned itself above its target, its gullet fully extended.
"SHAA!" The Void spider's abdomen expanded into an overlarge, misshapen pustule. Distending its underside jaws, her Familiar swallowed the shadow by scooping up a whole semi-sphere of concrete.
"Did we get em?" Gwen loaded up a Dimension Door even as she searched her Empathic Link for evidence of Caliban's meal. If the answer was "Yes, there's a Lich in Cali", she may have to drown her liver in Maotai— as well as murder Ayxin's Ginseng supplement.
Caliban shook its bulbous, arachnid arse, expelling a slab of innutritious concrete. Fighting the premonition crawling under her skin, Gwen scanned the room once more.
Her spine shivered.
"Isn't life a tiresome thing?" a male voice whispered beside her ear, causing both Gwen and Golos to whip around, she with her hair and Golos with his serpentine neck.
"Show yourself!" Gwen snapped at the empty space, as did Golos in less endearing terms.
"Is it hiding in the walls like a Wraith?" Her Wyvern demanded, frustrated by the lack of tangible prey.
"What a curious specimen you make." The hoarseness of her croaking observer called from beyond the grave. "A bloodline sorceress possessing dual-elements, and a foreigner at that. I think the Great Leader would enjoy a component such as yourself."
Gwen eyed the exit. She ha no idea if that was the Lich or not, but she had no desire to tarry and find out. In near-silence, she activated the Dimension Door she'd been nursing for the better part of a minute.
"We're not finished!" the horrible voice gurgled.
A rush of abjuring energy washed over her manifesting magic, suppressing the mana within her conduits.
Just before she lost Arcane Sight, Gwen saw the air near the entrance distort, indicating the subtlest ripple of Abjuration mana.
"THERE!" She exalted. "Gogo! CALI! ARIEL!"
"ROAARRRRRR!" Golos filled the tunnel with plasma, taking full advantage of the claustrophobic battlespace.
"ARIEL! Lightning Bolt! Barbanginy!" Gwen mustered up another jolt of Almudj's Essence so that an Emerald line of lightning as thick as her body bounced from wall to wall, leaving Lichtenberg fissures. Together with Gogo and Ariel's duplicated offensive, no shadow was left un-obliterated by their threesome vomit of awesome power.
Now! Gwen attempted yet another Dimension Door, feeding off the steely adrenaline in her Essence-thickened blood.
"CIRCLE OF DEATH!"
Her throat choked.
The bunker's already dim interior grew sullen.
The space surrounding herself, Golos and Ariel turned frightfully frigid. Before her teleport could activate, an enormous clump of vitality fled from her torso. She felt suddenly violated, her lifeforce unwillingly extracted by profane arcana. Before the last syllable even left her lips, her body all but seized up, held hostage by paralysis.
Gwen panted, suddenly short of breath, overwhelmed by vertigo and nausea. Within her arrested bosom, her heart palpitated so powerfully that her ribcage felt bruised. Unbidden, she wanted to vomit, when she reflexively clutched her chest, her left lumbar turned numb.
Terror stirred in the murk of her mana-addled brain. Was the Lich compelling her heart to explode? If so, what about Gunther's Ring? Would she teleport to Dalian or Shanghai, but dead on arrival?
NO! She told herself. Not like this! Not by a soul-stealing monster!
Through sheer force of will, she bunched her right fist, then pounded the left-most chest plate of her Shen-teī armour. Simultaneously, she forced her Essence to circulate, bathing in the warmth of Almudj's blessing as it revivified her extremities, dispelling the tingling magic teasing her Contingency Ring.
A sharp snap in the back of her neck sent a screaming roar of white-hot agony into her body. Gwen shuddered, the pain was exquisite, but it broke the spell.
The chilling gloom ebbed. The world of the living returned.
Gwen reached behind her head, wincing as her hand came away covered in blood. More alarmingly, within her palm, she found a freshly dislodged dragon-scale. Likewise mixed into the gore were the shattered halves of a Zircon Stone, the one that had been mitigating the Negative Energies inundating her conduits. It was the eruption of this crystal that had slived her neck and mattend her hair with gore.
At the sight of her injury, her chest grew tight, though thankfully not from a repeat of whatever the Lich had earlier afflicted.
Besides her, via her Empathic Link, she sensed that Golos had endured the same experience of faux-death. Though subdued, her Wyvern was magnitudes more robust than herself, withstanding the Necromantic AoE with gusto.
Ariel, comparatively, fell victim. As a young Spirit with a manifested body, its vitality was woeful compared to Golos, forcing it to return to Gwen's pocket dimension. Thankfully, unlike Gwen's Void spells, the Necromancy used by the Lich was biological and therefore, spared her Kirin's Spirit.
"You cling to life with such tenacity— how disappointing."
The owner of the ghostly voice stood at the entrance to the bunker, blocking the single physical exit. From the looks of his lightning-licked uniform, her target had not survived her bombardment unscathed.
Slowly, the Lich materialised.
First appeared an overlarge military cap.
Then a salient gold-red star.
Then a deluge of medals that covered the olive garb from neck to crotch.
A General? Gwen felt her mind riot.
The LICH was a FUCKING NORTH KOREAN GENERAL?
But her Familiar didn't matter right now. What mattered was how the fuck she was going to get the hell out of here. Can Liches smell fear? She wondered. Golos was bristling like a hog. As for herself, were it not for the Lich's absurd appearance, she would have made use of her magical underpants.
"You're in BIG TROUBLE, dead man," Gwen replied reproachfully, her brain furiously cycling through her options. If anything, only bullshit can save her now. Her only recourse was to bide for time and find an opening. "Circle of DEATH?! How dare you! Do you know who I am?"
The Lich's poker face was as masterful as its obscene command of Necromancy.
Gwen stared the Lich down, her eyes wide and arrogant.
Without replying, the North Korean General extended a pale green digit. "FINGER OF—"
"OUR PATRIARCH! THE YINGLONG—" Gwen slapped Golos on the torso with a metallic Clang! Then thrust out her modest bosom with so much pride that her indignant neck grew stiff from the effort. "THAT'S WHO KIM IL SUNG IS FUCKING WITH."
The Lich paused, the spell stifled itself.
You would lie about Father? Golos lodged an internal complaint.
PLAY ALONG! Gwen pleaded. OR WE'RE BOTH MEAT.
With a silent grunt, she flooded their surrounding space with all the Dragon Fear she could manage. Clearly, like Diego, the Lich was wary of the Yinglong. If so, maybe she could negotiate a ceasefire treaty, such as that she would call back the Shoggoth if it allowed her and Golos to go their way unmolested.
"You—" The Lich spoke, Gwen noted that its lips moved out of sync with its voice.
"YOU've heard correctly." She squared her shoulder. "Gogo here is a Princeling of Huangshan, and I am personally related to the foremost Princess of the Mount. Me and Granddad, we're peas in a pod, see? How else do you think a magnificent Uncle like Gogo is acting my bodyguard? Not only that, Ruxin— that's the crown prince— he and I? We're tight!"
She made a gesture with her thumb and her forefinger.
"...like this. Tell you what, dead guy, THIS ONE TIME— I might just forgive you for your trespass— but if you dare attempt my life again…"
Gwen narrowed her eyes, circling lightning through her emerald orbs so that her irises burned cobalt. Caught in her delusional deception, Golos growled in tandem, crackling with power.
"… Aunty Ayxin is going to shunt your withered ass into a Prison Dimension. Uncle Ruxin will rain down a TEMPEST on Pyongyang for Seven-Seven Forty-Nine days until nought but dust remains. And when our Patriarch gets wind of your actions— and trust me, he's the God of Wind... He'll separate North Korea from the Asian Continental Shelf and send it into the bloody South China Sea! How would Dear Leader like that? EH—? WHAT SAY YOU?"
The Lich was visibly shaking. "You..."
Gwen faced the creature with defiance, urging the still-confused Golos to do the same. As one, woman and Wyvern stood side by side, facing off against the General.
The Lich's LED-eyes dimmed, then burst into sickly green fire.
"YOU… DARE MOCK THE GREAT LEADER? SPEAK OUR FATHER'S NAME IN VAIN?"
Lich-fear or whatever Liches used to emulate Dragon Fear, exploded across the room, suppressing her and Golos' aura. Then, for the first time since their encounter, the Lich raised both hands.
FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! Gwen raised her hands as well.
"VOID SHIELD!" She called first for protection, then started on her next invocation. "DIMENSION DOOR!"
"FOOL!" A burst of abjuring spellfire washed over woman and Wyvern. As before, she choked on the feedback. This time, the delay in her recovery was enough for the Lich to complete its malicious magic.
"SHAAA!" Caliban closed in, too late to help its mistress but close enough to disrupt the Lich's future casting.
"CALAMITY!" Golos concurrently enveloped her armoured profile with twin layers of leathery wings. With a sizzle, the death-spell struck her Wyvern's wingtip. "GAARRRRGHH!"
"Gogo!" Gwen's vision struggled to adjust to the anarchy. There was a horrid stench of decaying flesh, then she caught the hideous sight of Golos' afflicted wing, decayed to a stump. Suddenly, her chest burst with indignant fury. If Lightning didn't work, how about Void? Could the Lich spell-drain a Void Seeker?
"RUN!" Golos nudged her with his body, sending her reeling backwards. The Wyvern then teetered, too proud to lie down, too afflicted with death magic to fight the Lich in melee.
"There's NOWHERE to run!" Gwen kicked her Wyvern back. "We have to fight! CALIBAN! SHOGGY!"
The Lich had kept itself out of reach with micro-teleports, but now Caliban grew to four times its usual size. With a sickening crunch, its carapace erupted, birthing two additional heads. While five was her limit, the Lich's Circle of Death had usurped enough vitality from Gwen that she no longer had enough to max out her Familiar.
Up above, plastered across every wall and ceiling, the Shoggoth watched impassively. Gwen fumed, but her frustration was impotent. In all likelihood, the Void being was far more invested in penetrating deeper into the bunker network, where its foes possessed life and vitality.
"INSOLENCE!" The Lich dodged a corrosive glob from the three-headed Naga. Its fingers were a flurry of arcane gestures as it activated its suite of Necromantic sorcery. "If you're so proud of your bloodline, then I will present your corpse as a gift! If the Yinglong dares come to Pyongyang, we shall gladly receive it as our eternal servant!"
"FATHER WILL HEAR OF THIS!" Howling even as he limped, Golos covered Gwen with his remaining wing, knowing that the Lich could dispell her shield.
As Golos' warning echoed, Caliban reached its foe. Without hesitation, it attempted another Consume, aiming to end the threat to its mistress once and for all.
"USURP EGO!" The Lich's spell casting continued without interruption. Without warning, a beam of viridescent Transmutation struck Gwen's Familiar.
SNAP! Caliban's central maw closed around the Lich's uniformed body.
The Void Naga's head, together with a portion of its torso, burst into a shower of Astral dust.
"SHAA!" the larger of the remaining heads screeched.
"Shaa!" the smaller appendage writhed.
Caliban struck the floor, squirming like a cut-up worm. It was one thing to be hacked, lobbed, pierced and crushed, and a whole other to be reduced to powder.
Gwen meanwhile, heard the splintering shatter of the mind warding earrings she wore on her lobes. It was the left-most Creature Core, the larger of the two inscribed for fettering Mind Magic that now broke, painting her left cheek with blood.
This limp-prick bastard! Gwen flinched as the residual Mind Magic caressed her psyche. Was this it? Was this where Gunther's heirloom met its end?
She staggered against Golos. With the Lich's unparalleled command of soundless casting, she understood that turtling was no option at all. To protect herself, she would need nothing less than a Force Cube, but that was a 7th tier restricted spell, one she had no hope of accessing for some time.
If so, what the fuck was she going to do? All she had in her arsenal of spells were single target invocations and AoEs. Golos was already getting his ass kicked, and Caliban was getting pummelled to dust in the literal sense. Worst of all, after taking her vitality, her Shoggoth gave not a shit about her well-being, and Ariel was effectively banished. Cloud Kill? Could she flood the place with True Silver? She could use more Void Spells, but the feedback might just kill her.
"You are well provisioned." The Lich rose into the air. "You Tower Mages have Continency Rings, do you not? Is that the source of your courage? I tell you now, wyrmling, nothing will save you from the Great Leader's Wrath. GRASP HEART."
"Void Seeker!" Gwen panicked. In her haste, she had forgotten about her Conjuration-Evocation's significant travel-time; that and the Lich chose not to use a spell that Golos could block with its body.
"URGK!" the high-tier Necromancy struck before her Seekers completed their journey. Conjoined with the feedback, Gwen grew insensible as an otherworldly force took hold of a sorceress' second-most important mana-organ.
"G-Gogo— I— I can't breath—!"
Within her chest, the last of her Almudj's Essence battled the heart-stopping Negative Energy atrophying her cardiac tissues. Beside her torso, her arms fell limp as the precious lifeblood that sustained her body slowed to a trickle. Her brain, abruptly starved of oxygen, robbed the lustre from her eyes.
Her world grew cold— so cold.
Upon her finger, Gunther's Ring twinkled.
An explosion of silvery Conjuration suffused her whereabouts, followed by a burst of viridescent vitality.
Suddenly, air suffused her lungs.
Unbidden, the frigid cold invading her body evaporated; instead, her tortured body filled with Evee-blessed motes of unadulterated life.
"Aella! Spirit Guardian!" came the howl of a fatherly, endearing voice. Above herself and Golos' prone and groaning form, a great feathered serpent, twenty-meters from head to tail, engulfed the space around them with vibrant strands of golden lightning. As for the Mage now beside them, he brushed the ash of the spent scroll from his fingers, then flashed toward her a winsome smile.
Eric Walken observed the Flight-forms of Petra, Richard, Lulan and Fudan's rented PLA guards. It had taken some coaxing for the children to accept that they were liabilities in the event of Gwen's retreat. Lulan, in particular, was fiercely combative until he had explained that if she was taken hostage, their fool friend would fight to the death.
But now Walken felt torn.
Despite his promise to the girl's companions, his prized student had not materialised after banishing the Shoggoth.
In fact, he hadn't heard a peep. Worse still, no amount of Divination had penetrated into the bunker since he received word that a signature synonymous with a Lich was headed her way.
Walken hadn't heard of such a name since forever. For all he knew, the damned things were an academic curio. Mythologised to be the ultimate form of arcanistry made to simulate immortality.
On record, the most famous of the monsters was arguably the mad monk, Grigori Rasputin. Though accounts wildly vary, it was said that the equivalent of no less than six high-tier casters, including three Paladins sent by the Moscow Patriarchate, were involved in the Lich's subjugation. Even so, the vacuum of power left by the Necromancer then all but condemned the fate of the Tsarists.
But North Korea? Walken was utterly sceptical that North Koreans could produce a Lich of the same calibre.
Still, the acidic anxiety of Gwen's continued absence was burning a hole in his abdomen. For a horrible second, he even considered venturing into that Shoggoth-infested warren to search for his student.
"Magister Walken." A Message blossomed beside his ear. "We can't Scry what's happening inside the bunker presently, but your contestant's biometrics just fluctuated wildly enough to encompass half-a-dozen lives..."
Walken's hands felt suddenly slimy with sweat. "Did her Contingency Ring trigger?"
"Surprisingly, no." Magister Jamison's tone was grim. "I hope she's got a good one, though. I don't think Dalian is furnished with whatever help she is going to need... unless she can 'CPR' herself."
"She's equipped with the best Contingency Ring. It'll take her to Beijing." Walken quickly cut the Chief Proctor off. "It's a peerless item, as you should know. You did the equipment check."
"Yes." Jamison's tone withdrew some of its steel. "But she's facing off a Lich, not a hog. Liches embody the worst of us. They know how our Rings work..."
And there it was. Walken groaned inwardly. Only this time, Gwen's conundrum wasn't just the girl's fault. It was also his miscalculation. With the Tower cutting the ley-line, the Wards under Shenyang would have lost their spell-jamming capabilities. That was why, smelling an opportunity, he had proposed for Gwen to field-test the questionable applicability of her Void Ally. Whether they succeeded or failed, a question of academic value would have been answered. And should they succeed, Fudan may yet salvage the competition.
And what else? A guilty bit of cognisance demanded.
Walken's clenched fingers unfurled.
There had also been naked ambition.
Of course, he and the girl had both consented and considered the consequences. He had even asked her to re-consider, though she had adamantly expressed her desire to repair her misstep. But the dilemma now was that he, Eric Walken, was safely outside, barely a few kilometres from the Tower's strategic Ray of Disintegration, while Gwen was duelling a godless, communist, necromantic demi-god.
"Magister Jamison," Eric was surprised to hear his own voice speak without an explicit command from his brain. "May I ask you to relocate to the Tower's triage chamber? I don't trust the communists' healers."
"… good. I shall await your return." Jamison's voice drifted across the Divination channel. "Good speed, Magister Walken. Should you return, I will personally make an appeal for Fudan."
The glowing Message blinked out.
Walken double-checked the contents of his Storage Ring.
"The girl's stupidity must be infectious," he muttered to himself, wondering if he should see a Mind Mage to get his sanity evaluated. "Goaded by a Yank, what would my friends think? Henry must be laughing at me from beyond the grave."
He looked down. Dimension Dooring into a room with so much concrete, Shoggoth, and potentially a Lich was suicide. He would have to employ more subtle means.
"Aella." Walken materialised his Couatl Spirit. From his Storage Ring, he produced a golden idol in the shape of a feathered serpent, the type worshipped by the Aztecian Theocracy. "If anything should happen to me… go to Gwen, or go home."
"Eric! Eric!" the feathered serpent bopped him on the nose. Serpents, as a whole, were woeful at miming mammalian expressions. "Protect!"
There was no more time for sentimentality.
With both hands, he invoked the first phase of a tier 7 teleportation alternative known as Ethereal Jaunt. The spell was an old one, favoured by Mages who preferred delicacy, for it allowed one's physical body to temporarily cross the liminal space of the Astral Plane. Once a Mage was shifted in-between the material and immaterial, he was then free to spontaneously traverse short distances.
"… Ethereal Jaunt!" Walken finished the Mandala with a final flourish.
The world turned colourless and transparent.
Below his feet, he saw the dimension-warping body of the Shoggoth, so enormous as to bend the Astral current, displacing the edgeless grey gloom. Within that colossal, oesophagus-like body of the Void creature was the tunnel that had descended into the MSS's old secret base, inside which sat a clump of hyper-dense Negative Energy. And not far from that solidified malevolence was the vibrant silhouette of his protégé, flickering like a candle caught by the Astral wind.
"E-Eric?" she spluttered, scarcely believing her eyes. "Why are you here?"
"SHUT UP and listen." Her instructor's berating tone cooled her feverish head. "The barrier's not going to hold. I am not a Faith Caster, and that's a stolen Relic. We've got a minute..."
A green ray of Disintegration, perfect for destroying barriers, struck the golden halo. Aella screeched defiantly, flapping its wings.
"... a dozen seconds at best!"
"We will Dimension Door in tandem." Walken pulled her up by the wrist. "The Lich can't dispel both teleports. We'll piggyback each other."
"That's— brilliant!" Gwen's eyes, so dull a moment ago, lit up with hope. "If that's the case, I'll dismiss my Planar Allies! Cali! Keep the Lich busy!"
"Shaa! Shaa!" Her now twin-headed Naga persisted in its harassment. Outside the barrier, the Lich flittered to and fro, effortlessly teleporting around the chamber, evading Caliban's projectile spittle while testing the halo for weakness.
A second splash of emerald energy sizzled the Guardian Shield.
"Protect!" Aella hissed, still holding the barrier. "Gwen! Gwen!"
Her instructor took her hand.
His grip was hard and warm and firm.
"No matter what happens next," her steely-eyed mentor informed her. "Don't leave the Tower again. Your friends are waiting for you. Richard and Petra, and Elvia in London— they're ALL waiting for you."
"Okay!" Gwen conjured the courage that the Lich had previously beaten out of her inch by inch. "Gogo! Thanks for everything, I'll make it up to you! Shoggy! GO HOME! BANISH!"
The Summoning Mandala burst into brilliant silver as it sizzled out. Golos could return home or stay at its leisure, though for now, a retreat was obviously the preferable course. As for the Shoggoth, it shouldn't be able to maintain itself for long once she cut it off at the source. As for its continued duration— that was also a subject of the field test.
Gwen clutched her instructor's bony digits, feeling such gladness that her heart verged on bursting.
"See you on the other side." Walken squeezed her trembling fingers.
Walken brushed the scroll-dust from his fingers.
He breathed out, suddenly relieved.
The girl was safe.
His conscience was at ease.
With this, he had paid back some of his debt.
"You Teleported the blasphemer?" The Lich's consternation was as stark as blighted ice. "That wasn't a Dimension Door."
"Didn't expect that, did you?" Walken grinned at the Lich. It was impossible not to smile. When the Lich's Greater Dispel had washed over them both, it was hard not to burst out in laughter. "Wasn't that great? Scrolls can't be countered— and I know you Undead lads have no talent for Divination. You could Teleport after her if you like. For all I know, you just might pop into the Tower's range."
If stares could kill, Walken was sure the Lich would raise him just to kill him again.
"I know. I know. You feel cheated." Walken opened both hands to show he meant no harm. "Could you blame me? You were killing her outright, after all. What's the use in delivering a corpse to Beijing? In lieu of her absurdly expensive Contingency Ring, I opted for a reasonably costly scroll inscribed by none other than Magister Moseley. Do you know who that is? I don't suppose you receive the Oxbridge Almanac in Pyongyang, do you? How do you bumpkins keep up with the times?"
Yet another beam struck the barrier maintained by Aella. While the shield held, the strands of gold woven into the spell visibly decreased. The Relic Walken had hidden in his possession since acquiring the Couatl from its homeland would last a few more gloats at best.
"Relax, old chap. Don't be so hasty." Walken forced down the reflux simmering at his throat. "Let me introduce myself. My name is Eric Walken, a Grey Faction Magister. I'd like you to know that in our Faction, we are not completely averse to your kind..."
Aella shrieked, shedding feathers like softly falling snow. Its power infusion was at an end.
Walken's sped up his pitch.
"YOUR FREEDOM IN EXCHANGE FOR MY LIFE—" the Magister materialised a Divination Beacon in one hand. It was his Message Device, designed to resemble a pocket watch. "Having anticipated our encounter, this device is glyphed with a Divi-loc that will take you at least ten kilometres in the direction of Pyongyang. The city might fall, but you don't have to. My little girl's experiment might have taken down your goons, but I am sure the Great Leader would be amiss if one of his Generals were to perish."
The Lich paused.
"As a token of my sincerity..." Walken gestured to Aella.
With a wail, his feathered serpent returned to its pocket dimension.
As a spell, Spirit Guardian directly taxed the Essence of the tapped Spirit. With both Aella and its birth-relic burned out, Walken was at the Lich's Mercy, as exposed as a new-born babe.
"You would play traitor to your people?" The Lich's disgust was palpable. "And you call yourself a Tower Magister?"
"Better than DEAD to my people." Walken waved the device. "Not to mention, the Chinese are hardly my people. I've got a wife and two daughters waiting for me in London, you know. Now that I've sent the girl back safe and sound, I've got all the more reason to live…"
"Why should I trust a traitor—"
The eyes on the walls shifted, oozing its distinctive grey goo.
One by one, the orbs shifted in their sockets until altogether, they stared down at the duo still in the belly of the beast.
As one, a dozen mouths opened to speak.
"Please don't die."
"You tricked me!"
"Not like this!"
"If you die… I'll kill you!"
Walken wasn't sure if a Lich could shiver, but he sure as hell did.
In all honesty, though Gwen's sweet moans echoed from the mincing, drooling mouths mated to the wall, the spectacle was horrific beyond belief. He wasn't sure how the phenomenon worked in theory, but he wasn't averse to taking advantage of the unexpected.
"The perils of teaching." Walken fought down his unease with a smile. It was delightful listening to the girl's woes, but he would have preferred that it came from her petals and not a chorus of lamprey-lips lined with razor-sharp teeth.
With a straight face, he turned to the Lich.
"Looks like her ASTRAL DEVOURER is finally coming home to roost. It takes effort to wrangle a beast that consumes REALITY ITSELF, you understand. But I digress. Your men are scattered, your troops annihilated. Your city is ripe for the taking." Walken dangled the pocket-watch so that it swung like a metronome. "So, General, what will it be? Is the life of a single Magister worth losing an eternity of blessed Undeath?"
The North Korean General's gaunt face remained unreadable.
Walken held up the Divination Beacon in one hand.
A bluff could only go so far without committing himself.
"Suit yourself. Telepor—"
"—Arrrghk!" Walken staggered, allowing the Message Device to fall from his hand.
A little too late, a Lightning wreathed Mage Shield then sprung into place.
"HA! Worm of the Tower!" Twiddling a finger, the Lich summoned the device into its hand. "You foreigners and your weak-willed conviction will never overcome the Path of Juche!"
"You scoundrel!" Walken coughed as the magically-induced cardiac arrest seized his heart. A split-second later, a near-instantaneous and uncounterable Contingency Teleport enveloped his convulsing figure.
"I wish you repose in the afterlife," the Lich intoned, swinging Walken's Message Device gloatingly. "Until the day I call upon your service."
"ERIC! Thank God! You're alive!"
Eric Walken, Instructor-Advisor to Fudan, slowly sat, aided by none other than the premier healer-researcher of Stanford, Chief Proctor Maryam Clark Jamison.
Unexpectedly, there was a tear-stained young woman in his arms and pressed against his chest, a sensation he had not felt since leaving London.
Reflexively, he cupped the girl's face. But rather than familiar azure of Audrey or Beatrix or Angie's eyes, he met with a pair of moist green irises speckled with amber.
"Thanks for the demonstration, Eric." Magister Jamison removed her hand from his back. In her off-hand, she held a recording slate, while behind the Chief Proctor stood two medical officers with Lumen-recorders. "I wasn't expecting a live demonstration— and yet, here we are."
"A what? Of… what?" Walken's lucidity trickled back. He touched a finger to his lips and felt the warmth there. There was a sweet floral taste in his mouth. When he looked down, the girl was red-faced and buried in his dishevelled robes.
His chest ached like nothing else.
"The CPR, of course." Jamison looked a though she'd just finished an intense session at the spell range. "The girl broke a few of your ribs, but I've since restored them. I have to say, I am impressed."
Walken patted the girl in his arms. "Happy now? You gave me a heart attack."
In response, the girl hugged him so tightly that his spine groaned.
"NEVER MIND THAT!" Walken suddenly lifted his body from the gurney. This seemed to surprise the girl, who slid off with a yelp, falling onto the floor.
"Sorry, now's not a good time to play house."
"Wha—?" Gwen's adorable blush turned to one of indignation.
"G44.22.1-Q22-41-98!" Walken almost howled out the coordinates. "Quickly! Someone lend me a Message Device! I need to let the Lieutenant-General know! We may yet catch ourselves a Lich!"