"It's a Wyvern," Ollie explained. "It belongs to Gwen."
"So, trouble on wings." The Dwarf appeared to check his instruments. "That's one clunking big signature."
"Spawn of a Mythic," the Mage replied drily. "Or so I've heard."
The two stood in silence, each caught in a world of their own, pondering the reality that there existed a young woman who threw Thunder Wyverns at her problems.
"Yer looks like you could use a ride, laddie." The Dwarf brushed the melting snow off his goggles and his beard. With a CLANK, a section of the tessellated plating slid apart, revealing what Ollie could only describe as a passenger seat tall enough for a child, but wide enough for two men. "I'll save yer some mana. Let's see wot yer wee sorceress is up ter."
Feeling fatalistic, Ollie helped himself into the lowered seat.
His only hope was that whatever Gwen was doing, it wouldn't gouge a pound of flesh from Peterhouse. His position as Praelector guaranteed a particular tuition discount, and he had plenty of Elven Glyph-sorcery left to transcribe.
"Thank you." Ollie hugged his knees as the canopy closed, sealing the two as though a twin-yoked egg. "Ollie Edwards, Magus, Peterhouse. I don't have a Tower position yet."
"Hanmoul Bronzeborn, Hammer Guard, Commandrumm." The Dwarf inclined his chin then licked his lips. "Strap in, lad. Gotta mek sure the lass dornt dae us any more un-negotiated favours. Dae ya mind if we gone a wee-bit fast?"
"Faster," Ollie agreed. "Fastest would be better."
The Devouring of Red Gulch began with a bang.
In places where the fabric of the Material Plane and the Elemental Plane of Earth rubbed thin, Elementals like Redcap Snots and Goblins spawned en masse, becoming as common as crystals. When periods of peace breaks out, these dumb and servile fodder-creatures fed the Trolls and the other, older monsters of the under-hill who have long since marked the land as their own.
Comparatively, above the warren, where the snow fell, there was no feature which made the Gulch discernible from the air. Were it not for the miners tearing apart the countryside looking for the raw, iron-bound crystals emerging from the valley, the hollow in the linen landscape would have been impossible to locate.
To navigate the interior of the warrens, Gwen volunteered a hapless, knock-kneed prospector to guide her Invisible Familiar deep into the hollows. Down and down her Kirin went, past the narrow passageways, the byways, the dagger-like stalactites, the milling Gobs and hibernating Trolls, plumbing the deep-dark.
Upon reaching the warren's heart, the girl was delighted to find that the central cathedral served as the artery connecting the den with a more significant system of caves leading back to the peak. Striking while the iron was hot, her eyes came alive with rainbow hues.
The snow jumped, then seconds later, tendrils of dust billowed from the exits.
Cool as a cucumber, the sorceress resummoned her Kirin before prescribing a dozen more Thundering Shatters, shaking the landscape and collapsing the alternate entries. A minute later, of the twelve entrances, only one remained, the largest and the straightest, perfect for line-based Lightning.
Then began the second act.
With relish, the Void Sorceress called on her twin-Spirited companion from Nightingales. She took pains to point out the girl's Alarune, then introduced the press to "Elvia's" exclusive Draconic Ginseng Spirit "Sen-sen", certified by Golos, the Princeling of Huangshan.
Then, at the epicentre of all attention, the Void sorceress stood with her legs slightly apart, conjuring a great, big swarm of vertigo-inducing lampreys. The observers reeled back, some immediately set to hurling as dizziness swallowed the crowd like a Stinking Cloud. Not far from a nauseated Dominic, a bubbling, boiling, writhing mass spilt from the sorceress's half-formed shield, appearing as though ink oozing from a dark egg.
"Cali! Swarmlings to the walls! Gogo, prioritise eating high-value targets. Ariel, you're on overwatch! Buck! Take care of the Hobs and Trolls when they emerge. Astro, take your boys and hunt down stragglers. Evee, Sen-sen, MORE JUICE!"
"These Trolls better taste good..." the Wyvern looked hungry.
The Kirin was resplendent. The Wyvern majestic.
The Void Creature took on the guise of a grotesque albatross with human fingers, while the dogs split between sleek lightning and slick obsidian.
As for herself, in her white-blue cloth-armour, the girl was a general with a self-summoned army. As a student of the arcane histories and a wordsmith, Dominic Lorenzo recalled an old limerick about a Conjurer who went from town to town, first bringing plagues of vermin, then solving said plague:
Into the street, the Enchanter stepped,
While down below the rats had slept
To trill the pipe his lips did wrinkle,
And green and amber his eyes did twinkle,
Three thrilling notes the Piper then uttered,
And from the depth a hundred Dwarves muttered;
First, the muttering turned to a grumbling;
Then out from below, the rats came tumbling.
Gob rats, fat rats, grand old codgers,
Elf rats, orc rats, slim young dodgers
Dad rats, Mum rats, gay young friskers,
Bouncing pups with pricking whiskers,
From alley to alley the Enchanter did blow
And mischief to mischief the swarm did flow!
Or so the children's tune went. The difference between Gwen and the Piper in the famous fable, Dominic supposed, was that the Piper didn't also possess a Kirin, a Void Beast, and a Wyvern. Gwen's dogs, as well, were extraordinary. The Lightning Hounds had a sleek, reptilian look about them, but were at least dog-like enough to pass off as multi-hued greyhounds. Conversely, the Void dogs were living horrors, possessing more mouth than their torso. The worst was their faceless mien, which split when they panted, revealing rows of glimmering white teeth on purple gums.
Just what was the girl's VMI? Dominic had lost count. Even a Magus had to take a breather after so many manifestations.
"Hey, Dom." One of the lumen-recorder wielding reporters gave him the upward nod. "Thanks for the scoop, I owe you one."
The carnage hadn't even started, and his colleagues were already scribbling away at the weekend edition's future front page. At first, they had been amazed that Dominic knew where "Mycroft's secret daughter" had recused herself. Now, they cared only for the mass-scale Void demonstration. It was terrific that, unlike any other Void Mage under the Tower's roster, Gwen openly displayed her craft without reserve, performing her feats with wholehearted enthusiasm, a far cry from the secretive colleges.
Besides the girl, her Wyvern snorted.
"Alright, here it goes— Cloud Kill!"
At the remaining entrance to the cavern, a green, noxious cloud began to develop. Dominic recognised the variant as catalysed by Halite, more commonly known as earth salt, a substance found all over the peak. When mixed into the infamous AoE, the result was an acid cloud that burned the eyes and attacked the respiratory systems of living creatures. Against Rock Trolls, who possessed enormous regeneration and external resistance, there was no better strategy.
In a second, the noxious miasma flooded the cavern's entrance— pushed forward by an unseen current.
"Gogo! Do it!" the girl commanded her Ally.
A whirlwind of air began to flow around the Wyvern, visualised by the swirl of snow now dancing around the creature's head. Dominic raised both brows, at first unsure of what he saw, then realising that the Wyvern was the scion of a Winged Dragon commanding the weather system over China's southern rice bowl.
Steadily, as a stream, the acid cloud flowed into the cavern's hidden passageways. Quickly, Dominic asked a fellow reporter for a map of the Warrens. Tracing the entrance and its tunnels with his fingers, he soon perceived the full extent of Gwen's ploy.
"Outrageous!" Dominic audibly mouthed. "She's planning to smoke them out?"
The reporter double-checked the crude print. Topographically, the Red Gulch consisted of a narrow valley with granite cliffs on either side, wind-worn by time, forming a passageway as twisted as a tedious argument. The map itself was born from Prospectors daring death and danger, selling what knowledge they uncovered as consolation for their failures. From the looks of the annotation, the Troll's warrens extended about a hundred meters deep, branching into lairs and vaulted cathedrals. Assuming Gwen could put enough volume into her Cloud Kill, she could blanket the first few hundred meters, more than enough to flush out the Trolls, Hobs and Gobs resting in the dark.
The gathered crowd waited with bated breath, wary of the noxious gases now seeping from the crushed passageways. Then without warning, from the depth, came a crash of indistinct scrambling. Over what seemed like an eternity, the scrambling grew to a grumbling, then to a shuddering rumble. Standing amidst the ice and snow, the Void sorceress began to shake and shiver, her face turning pink with undisguised passion. Having seen her work in Cuzco, Dominic could only assume that her lampreys were at work.
Lumen-recorders flashed; a few emphasising the sorceress, others waiting to see if the girl's ambush would bear fruit. With her striking face and shapely silhouette, the girl's optics reminded Dominic of Alesia.
Their answer arrived a few breaths later.
"GARRRARK!" a bestial wail rocked the gulch. From the cave's depthless maw, a long-limbed Troll, a dozen lampreys hanging off its legs and torso, stumbled into the open, peeved as a pissed badger.
"Chakram!" Dominic noted the girl was neither quick nor particularly apt in her use of Void-based Evocation.
"GARK—" Nonetheless, the dark disc struck true, taking the creature's lower limbs. With a choked cry, it fell into the pool of squirming, all-consuming grease.
The crowd sucked in cold breaths of frigid air. A few of the reporters sent their hovering lumen-recorder forward, risking their precious instruments for the best action shot.
Next, the throat of the cave regurgitated a troop of Redcap Hobs, armoured in bits of scavenged Dwarven gear, smashing at the silken eels crawling between their armour. Behind them, a dozen lumbering outlines could be seen, guarding what could only be the quintessential member of the Troll's matriarchal hierarchy.
By the dozen, the sorcerer's prey lined up, fleeing from the acid cloud, wedged by the encroaching swarm.
"ROAARRR!" Golos introduced the indigenous residents of South Wales to the fury of Huangshan.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen and her re-conjured Kirin joined her Wyvern, sending a threesome of sizzling beams into the cave, banishing all shadow as the air turned to plasma. The Hobs melted at once, disappearing like dew in the afternoon sun. The Trolls faired better, their Earthen Cores resisting the livid lightning as the hysterical electricity grounded itself, likely re-directed by the Hag.
"Dol-ilrag ushhuth thuritcarg!" Came a guttural, scarcely female cry from the dark. "Isharuku shrakloomar!"
"Guardian of Faith!" From behind the fulminating sorceress in blue, a golden nimbus rang out from Nightingale's Cleric. A vibrant manifestation of Faith grew to encompass the duo, forming a bell-shaped halo.
The barrier materialised in time to intercept a rain of dark blood stinking of spoiled meat. The Void sorceress reeled, her mind invaded by the Curse, though thankfully, the Faith-charged Guardian was enough to de-curse the malignant energies of the hidden Hag.
Out came the Troll guards, each one larger than the next, their skin crawling with electrical burns.
But the battle's momentum had only ever belonged to the Void sorceress. All around the cavern's entrance, a dark tide swept up the emerging Trolls, splashing against their stone-caked bodies. Lampreys as thick as Gwen's thighs, engorged from the abundant vitality borrowed from their mistress, sought entry into the Troll's bodies.
Undeterred, the Trolls came on, heedless of the creatures devouring their flesh, hell-bent on breaking the invader of their home in half.
"SHAA!" Caliban seethed at the incoming combatants, opening its wings to intimidate and intercept.
As one, the Hound Pack made their move.
Dominic and the men felt such a thrill as they had only seen in times of total war. As Gwen's creatures closed in, bylines and headlines filling all the tabloids from Liverpool to Brighton blossomed.
Ten minutes from the heart of the action, shielded by a cresting hill, Ollie and Hanmoul disembarked from the Strider. They had decided to move toward the gathered crowd of cheering, shouting, complaining Mages on foot, because one was a wise man and the other was a wise Dwarf, and over yonder was a rather special sorceress.
When the duo crested the saddle, they came face to face with the unbelievable sight of a one-woman mass melee.
Three rings of mortal combat spilled from the entrance to the Red Gulch and its infamous warrens. The outermost ring consisted of stickybeaks, protected by what looked like uniformed Tower Mages keeping the public safe from the ensuing spectacle in the second ring. Now and then, they pushed the wayward Troll back into the fray.
The second ring consisted only of ranged combatants— that of Gwen, protected by a semi-dome shield of midnight-black, flinging Volt Bolts and Lighting Bots like a vengeful goddess, her hair flying this way and that as she commanded the battle below. Not far, a hovering Cleric in plated white, ringed with a golden halo, dispelled each Curse thrown at her companion sorceress, concurrently supplying a viridescent stream of vitality. Behind the eye-catching duo, knee-deep in the dirty, trodden snow, a Knight of St Michael threw up shields and buffs, aiding the two girls as best as he could.
And finally, where the action was thickest, a Wyvern, clad in blue-white lightning, duked it out with an enormous Brutaliser easily the size of a house, beating the creature senseless with its tail while keeping it off-balance with the immense reach of its neck.
Here and there, a scattered troop of armoured Trolls, each carrying clubs, battled a swarm of oily serpents while simultaneously assaulted by a dozen dogs, some Void, and some Lightning, nipping, tearing, and harassing their limbs.
"Deep Ancestor's Cog!" Hanmoul felt his mouth turn dry. "She's Purging a Troll Home? All by her lonesome self? Does the lass have magma fer blood?"
"N-not exactly alone." To Ollie, semantics were important. "There's a Knight of St Michael. Maybe he's in command? Maybe they're doing this to defend the prospecting folk? I am sure there's a perfectly plausible rationale for Gwen to go this far."
"Shaa!" A commotion engendered near the main entrance of the warrens.
A great big bird emerged, its body half wrecked and covered in rot and filth, exposing pulsing organs, missing one wing. With its "head" still fizzling with acidic burns, the bird's faceless neck-stump opened up to reveal a tooth-lined maw, then coughed forth a half-eaten Hag.
To no one's surprise, the Hag instantly usurped its Brutaliser's stowed vitality, turning upright on its decimated body so that it could scramble away on one leg and half an arm. Where it ventured, rot and decay followed, displacing even the lampreys. Amidst shouts from the crowd, it rolled itself into the mass melee, making halfway before the Wyvern, batting aside the Brutaliser, bashed the Hag with one sweep of its mace-tail, sending it face-first into the earth.
"GAAROORL!" The Brutaliser's scarred skin darkened as it frenzied, as conditioned by its flesh-warped existence. In the guise of a certain lumbering green giant with anger-management issues, the creature charged.
"SHAA!" Blocking its path was Gwen's regenerated bird-beast, perched on its elegant finger-claws, equally impressive in power. Answering the challenge, the Brutaliser balled its fist, then tore into the sorceress' avian Familiar, striking it on the head so hard and so fast that a splatter of dark, semi-opaque goo sprayed across the unsullied snow.
However, the grotesque albatross remained wholly undeterred. Even as the Troll's momentum was spent, six elegant fingers wrapped around the giant's arm, then squeezed.
"AWWWRRGH—" The crowed collectively winced.
Had Ollie or Hanmoul ever seen zucchini fettuccini being squeezed through a press, they would have felt better for the analogy. As they had not, the duo now developed a phobia of green pasta.
Once the Brutaliser lost all but one of its limbs, it fell into the ankle-deep pool of writhing, lively eels hankering for its vitality. The blackbird then turned in the manner of a gangly raptor and stalked its way besides the still-living Hag to pin it under one claw.
"Chain Lightning!" The bombardment never stopped.
A dozen exchanges later, the final act played out. A few of the Lightning hounds dissipated in their selfless combat with the Trollish warriors, as did two unlucky Void dogs. Gwen's Wyvern stalked from Troll to Troll, finishing their foe while the Void sorceress starved the swarm, allowing the mass to crawl into the depth to seek out survivors.
"Sini!!" the Wyvern barked at the bird in Draconic. "Batobot jahus sia svent!"
"Shaa!" The bird hissed back. "Shaa! Shaa!"
A standoff ensued until the sorceress intervened, throwing the bird a dozen HDMs. Begrudgingly, the albatross retreated, allowing the Wyvern to disembowel, then swallow the Hag. The Brutaliser soon followed, finding a new home in the lightning-charged furnace of a Thunder Wyvern's belly. It was a fate that drew much solace for Ollie and Hanmoul, for the heat-death of a Thunder Wyvern's digestive systems was preferable to eternal oblivion.
Then, almost as if there had been no battle at all, it was over.
From their overhead vantage, Ollie and Hanmoul felt that the most disturbing aspect of the engagement was that in its conclusion, there were no bodies remaining. It was as though Elves had whisked away all the combatants into the world of the fay, leaving nary a trace to be seen.
"Arrghk, I could use a stiff drink," Hanmnoul confessed.
Ollie Edwards, Praelector, nodded.
Gingerly and with great solemnity, the duo approached the crowd of silent Mages and prospectors listening to Gwen's closing speech.
"Give it six hours to play it safe, and the lampreys should dissipate," the girl explained. "Other than that, I think we're good. I can't say much for new Trolls or Hobs tunnelling in, but for the next few days, there shouldn't even be fungus alive in those warrens. For this boon, you should all thank Elvia here—"
With one hand wrapped around the blonde healer's shoulders, the Void sorceress began a great speech about her friend— a bonafide survivor from Sydney, and how she was the best healer in her class, bar none.
"Why have you taken it onto yourself to perform this dangerous task?" a reporter asked. "You are not claiming the HDMs in the warrens?"
"Not at all," Gwen answered with complete earnestness. "Unless Elvia wants her cut..."
"I can't," the Cleric pipped up. "I can't take the miner's lifeblood."
"Then good for YOU!" Gwen addressed the crowd. "Enjoy the crystals, lads! Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year! What do we say to the Miss?"
Ollie's mind performed a summersault. Did Gwen just say the Cleric was the source of all this commotion? Did Gwen just say she Purged a thousand CCs worth of Trolls for her friend, gratis?
"Hazzah for Miss Lindholm!"
A great tolling of cheers filled the valley, ringing from peak to peak, quaking Ollie's heart and greatly disturbing the troubled mind of Hanmoul Bronzeborn, Commandrumm.