The following morning, Gwen flew Elvia and herself back to London to meet Walken. Once the shellshock passed, she came to a nerve-pinching acceptance of her new reality— that she had once again indulged in what Petra had remarked as gluttonous masochism.
On the one hand, she felt happy. Deliriously happy, like Bacchus drunk-charioting after a Friday grape binge. On the other, she felt disturbed, like an insomniac wondering whether they'll ever lay with Hypnos again. The high was nice, but she had been burned before. What would be the cost of overreach this time? An Icarian descent, perhaps— first celestial, then meteoric.
For now though, with the intoxicating scent of Evee in her arms, it was easy to dismiss the Leviathan of love parked off the coast of Brighton, floundering in the shallows. Perhaps that was why she had declined Walken's offer of a free Teleport to London. The old dog's interrogating gaze aside, she had to post-process the consequence of her choices.
She had told Evee that she loved her for her simplicity.
But now, with Elvia so invested, she felt that their relationship had become anything but simple.
She had told Evee would make her special.
But not like this.
Then what? Her mind demanded her hypocritical self. What does Gwen Song want from Elvia Lindholm? Should Evee remain as a virgin handmaiden?
But that wasn't it either.
Within her pocket dimension, Caliban rested fitfully.
Suddenly, Gwen felt a novel desire to strangle something soft.
"Gwennie, what's the Summon Familiar ritual like?" Elvia yawned, breaking the monotony of constant locomotion.
Glad for the distraction, Gwen did her best to recollect the first time she'd met Caliban and Ariel. She was fifteen, and she had no idea that her Master had pumped a Magister's treasure trove into a tier 1 Spell designed initially for novices. And so, like a little fool, she had gone with the flow without a second thought, letting her imagination run wild.
"Are you aware of how the spell works, Evee?"
"I understand the theory."
"Good. Okay. So, after you mix your mana into the circle, the Mandala does all the grunt work. You'll feel a distortion in the Material Plane— but since Sen-Sen is here already, I guess that part's not important."
"Then, here's going to be a tugging feeling in your chest. Your Astral Soul is going to feel like it has been prodded, or pushed. That would be your Familiar's Ego. Again, Ariel and Caliban were both infants then, so there wasn't anything to dominate. Sen-sen's willing— or it better be— so all you need to do is let it come into your Astral Body."
Gwen paused to find the right words.
"For Caliban, the exchange was more explicit. Cali was a ball of hunger demanding a pound of flesh to keep it manifested in the real world. Ariel was easier, I wanted a companion to counter Caliban, and so it came without compulsion. Again, with Sen-sen, I don't know if you'll have trouble controlling it or not, what with its age and lineage."
Elvia inclined her chin. "I'll do my best."
"I know you will."
She sped up, concurrently ensuring that her shield kept the buffeting wind at bay. If she had been a lesser Mage, she would have long been OoM had she simultaneously maintained Flight and the desired to keep their clothes unruffled.
And with the disappearing distance, the taste in her mouth grew bittersweet.
After tonight, she told herself, Evee would return to her classes at Nightingales and practicum at GOS. Gwen herself would be confined to Cambridge, likely in a dungeon with a train of tutors each eager to bludgeon knowledge into her brain. Other than the rare weekend, she would see her healer twice, at best thrice a month, assuming their timetables aligned.
Would she be sad? Gwen wondered, fearful of the strange relief scratching the inside of her ribcage. She had only two weeks to spend with Elvia, only now, it felt like a lifetime.
After an eye-watering meal at the Tower of Tandoori, Gwen and Elvia arrived at the Tower of London. At lunch, Elvia spoke at length about her brother and her family and how Gwen's Long Range Message Device had been a godsend in keeping contact with her lost kin. Gwen reciprocated by speaking at length about Percy's burgeoning talents in Shanghai, about his girlfriend Mei, and their contributions at Shenyang.
Finally, just past three, they arrived at the Shard. As it was nine hours before the Big Ben tolled in the new year, the administrative staff had made the lobby both festive and inviting.
Though the desks were as busy as ever, Walken had paid good CCs for the Tower's time, affording unmolested transit from the marbled anterior to the Shard's multi-dimensional interior. Unlike Sydney's maze of gravitation platforms, the state of the art Shard utilised a system of Teleportation Circles to securely, and discretely, transfer Mages to their desired destination. As the unofficial capital of Spellcraft in the Britannic Mageocracy, the Shard's mastery of dimensional magic was a cut above its central continent cousins.
"You must be Magus Song and Miss Lindholm." A wizened Magister in a crimson artificer's robe, studded with Glyphed pockets, led the pair into his workshop. Bespectacled in gold, the man's wild hair was a proud badge indicating his profession as a master of the Enchantment School. "I am Magister Gilbert Rendfrey, Senior Enchanter here at the Shard. Magister Walken is already inside."
On the exterior, the Shard resembled a minimalist blade of glass, crystal and steel. It's interior's "interior", however, was tailored to each Magister's taste. As Gwen's party would be borrowing Magister Rendfrey's studio, they entered a smoky abode studded with magical bric-a-brac, with exotic materials lining the walls and spilling from every cabinet.
A vision of Walken, prone on his stomach, soon appeared behind the threshold, halfway levitating from the floor, painstakingly etching the Greater Familiar Mandala with a sizzling inscriber.
The chamber itself was atypical of the spacious sub-spaces popularly utilised for discrete experimentation. Once inside, the volume of the room rapidly expanded until it was almost the size of a modest warehouse. The air was crisp, and barring the unsettling grey-space near the edges, there was even a temperate ocean breeze, smelling faintly of morning brine.
For Gwen, the disorientation lasted only a second.
"Eric," Gwen greeted her Magister, sulky at how hard Angie's father was willing to labour.
It took Walken a good ten seconds to realign himself. The Magister was in good health, but he was no longer spry.
“Magister Walken.” Elvia curtsied.
"We have a problem." Walken wiped his hands on a bit of cloth. "Rendfrey?"
"Mmm… yes, we appear to be the victim of an inventory oversight." The Magister touched a guilty finger to his beard. "It rarely happens, but it does."
"What's missing?" Gwen examined the room.
"Dragon blood, actually." Rendfrey adjusted his spectacles. "We have decided to proceed nonetheless because Magister Walken informed me you have access… to live samples?"
Gwen turned to examine the sheepish Walken.
"Audrey and I invested a lot of CCs to get this done as soon as possible," the Magister explained. "Hiccups were anticipated, I would imagine. We should consider our selves in luck that the missing ingredient is readily available."
Gwen masticated Walken's words. "… do you mean Golos?"
"Unless you happen to have a vial of something more sanguine," Walken said. "You haven't been very forthcoming on Golos' origins."
"You'll get the whole picture once you start your job," she acknowledged his concern. One by one, her thoughts flittered through Ayxin, Ruxin and Golos. Of the trio, asking Ayxin for a pint was unthinkable. Ruxin might be willing to part with his blood if given enough incentives, while Golos, as Walken had guessed, was a malleable target. "So I am to summon Golos?"
"I should mention the ritual does not necessarily need Dragon Blood," the Enchanter raised a hand. "Magister Walken is testing my hypothesis."
"We need a resonating medium to act as the catalyst," Walken quickly explained. "Your Ginseng is very old, and bred in close vicinity to the Yinglong, or so you said. Without sacrificing sacred blood to shackle the Ginseng's ego, Elvia may not be able to access that part of its lineage."
"You mean, the part Angie needs," Gwen clarified for her researchers.
"Undoubtedly." Walken raised both hands in defeat.
Gwen's lips pursed.
To her, a committed father was a foreign thing.
But for now, their interests aligned. She wanted Elvia to gain as much benefit from Sen-sen as possible, and agreeably, Walken wished to maximise the potential of Sen-sen being able to produce a panacea. Since she wanted Walken's loyalty, it was only fair that she met her future executive halfway.
"Right, where do I set up?"
"Just over there" Rendfrey appeared entirely enthralled by the exchange. "A Thunder Wyvern with a mythic bloodline? I haven't felt this excited since we started processing Griffin Blood!"
For the first time in the history of the Britannic Mageocracy, the city played host to a scion of the Yinglong.
"You want my blood?" Golos breathed down at Gwen and Elvia's face, sending their hair flying all over.
"Just a litre or two," Gwen covered her nose. "You've got plenty to give. Just look at the size of that gut. Not much exercise at Ruxin's?"
"You've reneged on your promise," Golos sulked, his scales and spinal feathers bristling in turn. "I smell the scent of death on you fresh as a fat Eel-kin. You've been having fun. Did you eat another Wyrm?"
"A foreign worm," Gwen nodded. "It was disgusting. All slimy and earthy, very gamy, you won't like it, trust me. How's your brother?"
"He awaits your promised hoard."
"On that front, we're on track." Gwen felt a vague camaraderie with the Wyvern she hadn't seen for a week, like meeting a companion from the past after a lengthy absence. "How's Phelara?"
"Still brooding. Ruxin has a keen interest in her homeland. Big brother wants to know when you're going back for the Da-peng."
"In good time," Gwen promised. "Best let sleeping birds lie for now."
"Hmm…" Her Wyvern huffed at Elvia.
"Greetings, Lord Golos," Elvia beamed. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Sen-sen, say hi."
"SEN!" The Ginseng fell on its face, performing a kowtow. "Sen! Sen!"
"Mmm…" Golos' nostrils flared. He sucked in the air around Elvia, then licked his tongue, tasting her presence. "And something else as well, the old one?"
Gwen knew that Golos had a better nose than most, but the lizard's present perception was impressive beyond all comprehension. "Very nice, Golos. Not only does your nose detect magic, but it also detects Essence?"
"Not all beings that can be eaten should be eaten," Golos announced wisely. "Ruxin says this is because you never know when someone's progenitor decides to eat you in turn."
"Wise lad, that Ruxin. Did you catch up with Ryxi lately? I asked about Lulu before."
"Missing your Kenshi mate already?" Golos' laughter came in rolling waves. "She was a feisty one. Ryxi says she's a handful."
"Gogo..." Gwen was glad that Elvia could not speak nor translate Draconic. "Just as not everything can be eaten, you should also learn the difference between friendship and fornication. For example, we're friends, right?"
Golos leaned in closer.
"I wouldn't want to mount you anyway." The Wyvern huffed snot over her chest. "Too old."
Elvia stared on innocent while Walken choked, then began to cough uncontrollably.
Gwen pushed the massive, reptilian face away. "Thanks, Gogo. That makes me rest easier at night. Now pass me a pint, you sleazy slug."
The Wyvern appeared hesitant.
"I can compel the root," he offered, simultaneously unfolding its massive wings. "Sen! In the name of thy creator— TYRTROL!"
"SEN!" Sen-sen turned over to show its belly, then laid flat on the ground— a root on chopping board, awaiting inevitable dissection.
Gwen's cutting-finger itched. Give her another hundred grams of pure, unadulterated Sen-sen for her future cache of Maotai and the Dwarves shall be dancing in the palm of her hand.
"See?" Golos grinned, looking more smug than usual.
"Walken?" Gwen turned to her Conjurer.
"Rendfrey, what do you think?"
"With all due respect to Lord Golos here." Rendfrey appeared wholly impressed with the Wyvern's amiable performance thus far. "I am ill-equipped to comment. Dragon-tongue is not Spellcraft. The direct alteration of reality through force-of-will is a higher tier of study than mortal magic, I fear."
"Blood it is then." Gwen turned back Golos. Pointing to his wings, she made a cutting motion with her hand. "You want to do this— or me?"
"Bah—" Golos extended his neck until a particularly thick part presented itself. "Take it from here, Calamity, between the feathers— wing wounds itch."
"Good boy." She stroked the Wyvern again to show her approval. "Keep this up, and maybe we can go for a stroll in London, get you some genuine Chicken Tikka Masala from the Tower of Tandoori."
Golos sniffed her lips. "Intriguing. I have scented something familiar near Ruxin's abode, though only on the plants."
"I strongly advise against that— " Walken interjected. "Outside of this pocket dimension, I am afraid Lord Golos is going to fare very poorly indeed. Assuming he can resist the resonance given off by the city's four-dozen Shielding Cores, the Griffin Guards shall subdue us within the minute, and then we'll be in gaol, all of us, with her Majesty's Cabal blanking our minds."
"… the shop does take out." Gwen tapped the golden vestibule against Golos' electrum scales. "Eric. How long are we going to be here?"
"That depends on the subject," Magister Rendfrey indicated to the quivering Sen-sen, quivering and ready to meet its maker. "And of course, the subject's master."
"Calamity, I shall not be denied this Chicken Tikka Masala you speak of—"
Gwen passed a smidgen of Void between her fingers.
"Bosh! How the hell else am I going to get through your bloody diamond-armour?" Gwen tapped the vessel filling with dark, potent blood. "Look at the size of that neck of yours. That incision was a centimetre thick, tops. Your bleeding's already slowing."
"Your wounds are most irksome." Golos nudged her again until Gwen almost lost her balance. "I demand recompense."
"If it's not too much trouble. I'll tell an Apprentice to bring up this Tandoori fellow," Magister Rendfrey volunteered. "It's no bother if Lord Golos desires it. Him being most accomodating and courteous. I'll pay, of course."
"If you insist, Magister." Gwen moved over to Walken's Mandala with the heavy jug of still-bubbling blood polluting the air with a stink of rust and iron. "Fair warning, Gogo eats just as much in his human form."
"A humanoid morphic field! Astounding!" Magister Rendfrey rubbed his hands together. "Come! I shall give you my Apprentice's Message Glyph. Use Giles as you see fit. Magister Walken! Shall we?"
Walken took possession of the austere vessel of dragon blood. On the levitation platform, a host of ingredients already churned within an automated ink-blender. When Gwen's eyes wandered over the interior, her Magister helpfully obliged. "Asphodel, Hippogriff's Bezoar, Lionfish Core, Eye of Ash Newt, Coral Pearl Dust, Fireseed, Ice-laced Rocksalt and ingot of True Silver— am I missing anything?"
"That's all, Eric." Rendfrey applauded his fellow Magister. "It's a shame you've chosen not to take up alchemy proper."
The addition of Golo's blood prompted the keg of inscriptor-ink to simmer for a half-minute before the concoction settled. Though the smell was foul, the gathered could sense the palpable power of the blood-laced gloop swirling within.
Meanwhile, Magister Rendfrey thrice-confirmed the Mandala's every wand-stroke. "Miss Lindholm, if you would take your Spirits— both your Spirits, into the circle's midst, we may begin."
"Now. Are you completely certain neither of your creatures will subsume the other? Don't say I didn't warn you," Rendfrey spoke as he coaxed the admixture from the pot with the length of carved yew that had been hanging by his side. Into the grooves of the base granite, the liquid seeped, lighting up with the silver-sheen of Conjuration as it touched the Mandala. "There's no crying over spilt milk if one— or both, perish as a result."
Elvia's eyes widened.
"You got this," Gwen gave her healer an encouraging squeeze on the shoulder. She possessed absolute confidence her friend would succeed. "Golos is here to help as well. Sen-sen should prove no trouble."
"Kiki!" The Alraune showed its determination by flexing its tendrils. "Kiki!"
"Sen!" The Ginseng followed Elvia obediently into the middle of the Mandala, waddling as it went.
"Alright!" Gwen finished inscribing the Message to Rendfrey's Apprentice. After today, her Evee would never be underestimated by the Mageocracy, or anyone, ever again. "Let's get this show on the road! Evee, your ascension is at hand!"
Elvia sat in the lotus stance, trying her best to relax both body and mind.
To her left rested her Alraune Spirit, waving gently against the invisible breeze. To her right, held captive within a triple-layer of Octogramic Warding, sat Sen-sen, staring at her with its eyeless face.
"The Circle's powering up!" came a warning from her present and future partner. "Start probing Sen-sen with your mind! Reach out and try to envelop him with your Astral Body!"
Elvia closed her eyes and shut out all distractions. A healer's concentration was different from that of a Combat Mage. A Cleric's focus was inward-facing, generating an immutable sense of calm that drove away all unnecessary stimuli. Drawing upon that third-sense now, she sharped her insights until Sen-sen came into direct focus.
Around her, the Mandala burned, igniting the Dragon Blood.
Within the swirling world of conscious and the subconscious, Elvia's world imploded.
The bonding had begun.
The physiology of an NoM, lacking the reactive motes of mana that made one's body near-transparent to the diagnostic magic of a healer, was a dull and uninspiring affair. Comparatively, a Mage's body, depending on their expertise, could appear as a well-lit network of conduits, beneath which she could see the vessels of the body ferrying forth the lifeblood from the central mana organs— the brain, the liver, the heart. Gwen's interior, when Elvia had sought to satiate a forbidden curiosity, was a whirling network of Lightning and Void, criss-crossed in every which way and yet running in perfect parallel. It shamed her that, in the Frontier, she had been flooding Gwen with raw Positive Energy to stimulate her body's healing potential. In those dark days, it was little wonder that they emerged from every battle utterly exhausted and craving the sweet embrace of slumber.
As for Sen-sen, the stowed vitality crammed within the root's tiny body was akin to diving into a celestial cluster. Within, she needed to locate Sen-sen's Spirit, and with sufficient will, overpower the Ginseng's ego.
Deeper and deeper she dived, headlong into the nebula until, from that strange, metaphysical firmament, she began to tumble, limbs akimbo, falling and falling without end.
A growing panic took hold.
Something was wrong.
This was not at all what the Spellcraft theory had prescribed, nor what Gwen had foretold.
"AEEEEEE!" Lacking the means to fly, and missing her partner's guiding hand, Elvia's mind tumbled through the Astral world. "Gwennie!"
"Tyrtrol vur qe Meagea!" Golos spat forth a mouthful of volcanic Vindaloo. Draconic— with its forceful, plosive tones, wasn't exactly the best language for simultaneous speaking and eating. "O-rigato dout Navnik Zhren!"
A spot of curry sizzled against the burning Mandala.
Gwen's nose twitched.
"Lord Magister," she quietly enquired of their hired aid. "Vindaloo doesn't impact the efficacy of Mandalas, does it? Elvia won't bond to curry, I hope."
"I certainly hope not!" The Magister had taken one sniff at the oriental concoction, then backed away from the tubs of sludge-like spice. Adjusting the Arcane Eye embedded into his spectacles, he quickly confirmed his hypothesis. "Imagine the scandal. We would have the owners on stasis in a heartbeat! 'Tower' of Tandoori indeed!"
"Golos is certainly enthused…" Walken's voice took a tone of concern. His eyes glowed with the light from a Glyph-studded spectroscope. "Your Ally is feeding the Mandala— you know, usually, an expenditure of Essence comes at a drastic cost to the caster."
"Good on Gogo for giving it his all." Gwen did her best via her Detect Magic. "Sen-sen might not have the brains, but it IS five centuries old and bred for Dragon-chow. Evee's just recently eighteen. I imagine there's quite the existential difference to be balanced out. Kiki as well is at least half a century old. What a rout, eh? I'd like to see her competitors bitch now."
"True, and our Mandala is holding steady," Walken remarked. "You've tamed your pet Wyvern in ways we cannot begin to comprehend. In the future, you may wish to volunteer some of your methods with the Bestiary section of the Tower. The Griffin Tamers, in particular, have considerable trouble pinning down alpha specimens. Once the birds get a taste for human flesh..."
Walken made a chopping motion with his hand.
"Caliban— I mean— 'I' can be very charming..." Gwen had never clarified the precise particulars of how Golos came to fear her, nor would she share it. For one, her prideful Wyvern might rampage if Humans started giving him looks of pity. "There's not much to it. Golos is just a big ball of raging Draconic testosterone. He eats, shits and fucks. How hard can it be to satisfy that?"
"All Dragons have hidden depth," Walken warned her. "No pool insufficiently deep can hold a Water Dragon, that's an oriental saying, I believe?"
Gwen looked over at Golos stuffing his face silly with naan and globs of curry, having the time of his life.
"I'll keep an eye out," she answered sceptically. "Say, do you know any Dungeons, parks or Wildlands hereabouts that's Planar Ally friendly?"
Through the displacing dust, Elvia found herself alone and atop a blasted building torn to smithereens by the force of a recently passed AoE.
The city below, a silhouette foreign to her memory, smouldered as though a rolling wave of coal-fired lava had erupted from the earth's core. Screams, thick as the steam, filled the air, joining the barrier sirens to form an unholy requiem of death and destruction.
"What…" Elvia circulated as much mana through her conduits as she was able to muster, concurrently calling on Kiki and Sen-sen.
As expected, her Spirits failed to make an appearance.
Where could she be? Caught in an illusion?
If so, which city now boiled below?
Elvia focused on empowering her vision. There wasn't just fire; there was water as well. No city with skyscrapers and avenues like that should be so inundated by the sea.
"SVA DRONG ANNYO!"
A shrill, soul-piercing shriek resounded across the horizon. Elvia's gaze followed the howling gale to see a moving, shifting, quadruped silhouette roving through the oily, aubergine atmosphere. Rippling waves of black-red ash fell from the blue-dark like October snow, smothering the city with its suffocating gloom.
A BLACK DRAGON?
Her heart seized.
"Calm Emotion!" Elvia weaved the subconscious Clerical sorcery through the air. The spell failed to manifest, though she did feel calmer for the placebo. Momentarily, the charcoal creature pierced through the cloud bank.
"… Ariel?" There was no mistaking it. The stag horns, the stout body, the lion's claws and the rear hoofs she had molested so often, as well as the goldfish's fantail.
A Kirin. An ashen Kirin shrouded by malevolent vapours of Negative Energy.
Her body began to shiver. If that was Ariel, then where was Gwen? If that was Ariel, then what of Caliban?
She scanned the city below.
Presently, the milling mass of dark motes continued its onward march. There was an awful familiarity about it all, the way it flowed and ebbed, reached out with tendrils to test the distance, tasting the direction in which it spread.
Undead! Elvia's mind was now in full revolt. Millions of Undead! A whole host of them— enough to swallow a capital!
Why was she in the midst of this horrid vision?
“Gwen?” She called out. “Gwennie? Where are you? Lord Golos? Magister Walken?”
"Evee…" a voice answered her from behind.
When finally her mind caught up, her lips parted with incomprehension.
The boy— or perhaps she should say, a young man now, appeared wiser than his years.
"What are you doing here?" Elvia's head abruptly filled with conspiracy. What if, for example, she and Gwen and everyone had fallen under the Curse of a malignant Hag's nightmare. Or if there was a wide-scale terrorist attack on the Shard? "Where's Gwen?"
"The great Saviour Song is getting ready to deploy her Shoggoth," Percy's tone was churlish and provoking. Closer, the young man's salt-encrusted armour crumbled. With a grunt, he dispelled the upper layer, revealing a shrivelled body speckled with combat-damage. "Tianjin is gone, I am afraid. They're letting Gwen clean up. This time tomorrow, there'll only be a husk of a city left."
"She's using her Shoggoth?!" Elvia gulped. "I need to get to her! Why am I here of all places? Why is there Undead here in Northern China?"
Percy appeared confused. "Don't worry— Lulan's with Gwen. Sis told us to wait for her here, at the Observatory, don't you remember? The city is overrun. The PLA is in full retreat. Beijing Tower's not coming. There are nine million souls down there ready to join the Undead Tide from Pyongyang. The Party won't let that happen, not with the Forbidden City a day away."
"Jesus Christ." Elvia glanced at the carnage below. She could just make out pockets of fighting. A Squad of PLA Golems, burning blue with jets of exhaust, laid down lines of radiant fire into the avenues of the flaming city. Where the dark swarm retreated, a dozen tendrils emerged, each led by howling Wraiths and screeching Death Guards riding monstrous drake-steeds the size of semi-trailers. Behind the line of spluttering Golems, the city's fleeing defenders— an endless multitude of crying, churning civilians, scrambled over one another. "Percy, how did this happen?"
"The cult of Juche, how else? But enough questions— I am badly drained—" Percy stumbled forward.
Without thinking overmuch, Elvia caught the young man in her arms. "Are you alright?"
"Does it look like I am right?" Percy's cheeks appeared sallow, his eyes, now that the young man was closer, she could see that his eyes had the lustre of dead fish.
"Sorry. I'll heal you now."
"My gratitude is boundless." Percy placed a hand around her shoulder, using her body as support. "How's Richard? Did he make it?"
"Richard? What happened to—"
A booming roll of thunder snapped across the heavens.
From the impenetrable dark clouds, a meteor rapidly fell, a white-scaled body clad in living lightning— though much diminished and missing one wing. Together with the tumbling mass of its sleek, elegant figure was a deluge of corrupted blood, carapace and spellfire.
"Lord Golos!" Elvia's eyes went wide. "Is— is GWEN there? Fighting?"
The Ashen Kirin re-emerged in hot pursuit.
"JAKA, shio sia Irlymi Wharac sva sia KILITH!" Hearing the Kirin's croaking voice was like having claws scratching the inside of her skull. Her skin crawled. It almost sounded like the monstrous being was speaking in their general direction.
"Axun, sva Drong Annyo," answered a voice an inch away from her neck.
Elvia snapped her face around to see Percy's eyes grow suddenly cruel.
Suddenly, she couldn't breathe.
"I am sorry, Evee…" The boy who was Gwen's brother gripped her neck with one hand, the other pressed against her abdomen. Unbidden, her mana, her vitality, all the warmth from her body drained away. Negative Energy hammered her brain, nullifying all thoughts into the consistency of soup, preventing her from conjuring of even the most rudimentary of spells.
GWEN! Elvia wanted to awake from the nightmare. The sensation, the pain, the fear, the soul-crushing feeling of life drain, none of it felt like an illusion.
"… but it was a matter of time before Gwen finds out about Uncle Jun..."
"... and I think we both know Sis well enough to guess her mad dog antics..." Strangely, Percy's eyes were not focused on his victim, but the flickering, dark horizon, denying her the final dignity of having her murderer stare her down. Acutely, she felt her flesh turning to crystalline salt. The agony, in a clinical sense, was beyond the sensory limit of her nervous systems. "So this isn't anything personal. If anything, I'd call it self-preservation."
Reflected in Percy's eyes, Elvia saw a great tendril descend from the churning heavens. It was the Shoggoth, and it had arrived to undo all the follies of man.
GODS! This can't be real! None of this is real! An internal voice howled in desperation. By the Nazarene! WAKE UP!
Her eyes snapped open.
There was light, and once her pupils adjusted, she saw rock formations bustling with pine trees that grew like sinuous serpents—all around her, cloud banks and rolling seas of mist cascaded down calico granite cliffs. From the burning city, she was now floating listlessly through a stone mirage.
She raised her head.
Amongst the vague, mystical mountains, a mutton-jade rise pierced the heavens, shrouded in toiling cumulonimbus, cracking with blue-white lightning.
Her heart ballooned until it was on the verge of bursting. Was this the domain of Almudj? The fabled Unformed Land? The air here was different— the atmosphere was so thick with mana that she felt it permeate her mortal lungs.
The clouds parted.
A singular eye— cobalt and emerald and enormous beyond all comprehension, appeared and disappeared into the uncertain fog.
"GWEN!" Elvia called out, her spine growing rigid with alarm. There was no way this was Almudj. Here was a whole other Mythic, the one from Gwen's stories, one with whom she should have no discernible business.
"Thou art at a crossroads, companion of the Calamity..." a great, booming voice toiled in the recess of her head, filling her skull with its presence. Her host was enormous, stretching from peak to peak, coiled about the landscape as a roaring river. "Little Ginseng, O seed of ruin, thou shall choose which grain shall grow, and which shall wilt and rot..."
The Mandala sizzled out.
Within the confines of her Divination-infused vision, Elvia's mana presence doubled— perhaps tripled in intensity. It wasn't so much a matter of volume, as per Gwen herself, but density and purity. For a mid-tier Spirit and a mundane Conjurer, a significant boost in Affinity was expected. In Elvia's case, her transformation was transcendent.
"How is it?" Gwen turned to her betters for an answer, her basic knowledge insufficient to offset her anxiousness.
"No need to fret. I believe we have achieved our goal." Magister Rendfrey clapped his hands happily. "Most importantly, without incident! Without even a single contingency Glyph tripped! My word, Magus Song, are you certain your companion doesn't have a little mystical Essence in her?"
"Maybe she does. Evee's special," Gwen smugly replied, relieved that Almudj has Evee in her sights.
"No doubt. No doubt." Rendfrey nodded without refrain. "The diagnostics from our venture should serve the Tower well, I think. Dual-Spirits! And using only a Seventh-Circle Mandala following a classical Margulis-Gessner cross-modulation! I just knew the Dragon Blood would do the trick. Ah, but do not let me detain you— here comes our future saintess!"
Within the dissolving circle, Elvia emerged from the cascading sheets of silvery Conjuration, her complexion as pale and oily as lambswool. The girl was soaked in sweat, her blouse diaphanous enough for Gwen to materialise a towel.
"Evee!" Gwen approached without hesitation. "My God! You must be exhausted."
"I am alright." Elvia raised a dainty, trembling hand. "Gwennie, look at what I've got— Sen-sen!"
Her healer squeezed the Ginseng in her arms.
The Cleric's cheeks flushed crimson.
The air around Elvia shimmered.
Gwen's body froze, not just at the sight of Elvia looking so radiant, but out of bone-deep, primal instincts ingrained into the genes of her ancestors. Walken as well, stiffened and grew pale, while the jubilant Magister Rendfrey sunk to his knees and whimpered.
"… Oops," her healer quickly relented. "That's enough, Sen-sen. Sorry everyone, I am not sure how to use him yet. Gwen is going to have to coach me."
"Sen!" Sen-sen attempted to wiggle out of Elvia's arms.
"Kiki!" Her Alraune slapped the Ginseng across the mid-section. "Kiki!"
"Sen-sen..." Sen-sen quailed before the bulbous floral Sprite.
Gwen waited for her jaws to re-hinge, forcing through Almudj's Essence so that ligament by ligament, her muscles warmed up. Next, it took all her courage to make her next enquiry. "Evee… is that— Dragon Fear? What the hell did you do?"
With a subtle gesture, her healer released her root vegetable from the Material Plane. After a final, relieved "Sen!", the Ginseng disappeared into its newly-formed pocket dimension. When Elvia gazed back, Gwen's healer appeared taller somehow, more dignified.
"You said you would make me special." Elvia's blushing face was such a juxtaposition against the sphincter-crunching horror Gwen had just endured that she suffered from whiplash. "Now— I am."
Gwen licked her lips, her tongue parched, her mind tabula rasa. Gods, Evee was beautiful— and terrifying.
"Are you... not pleased?" Elvia cocked her head. "But..."
For several seconds, the silence in the room grew thick enough to be sliced.
"Hahaha…" Golos' abrupt, interrupting laughter crowded the room like the stink of a suffocating, Draconic-curry fart. "So you've chosen. Well done, Moxt Myvish."
Gwen's brows furrowed as her Translation Stone performed its terrible divination.
"Little… S-sister?" She spun around toward Golos.
She knew it! She just knew it was too good to be true!
Gogo, an accommodating, considerate drake?
There was no such thing as a free lunch!
Fucking Golos, helping out, making Sen-sen obey!
She couldn't possibly be angry at Evee, so all she could do was steer the freight train of her anger elsewhere.
"GOGO! EXPLAIN YOURSELF! OR I SWEAR TO EVEE, YOU'LL BE EATING CURRY OUT OF A TUBE!"