Bangor Forward Operating Base.
Gwen and her party of six marvelled at the British-made Cromwell MK VIII Multi-Terrain Golems queued to cross the Menai Bridge. Every third engine of death sported the "Winged Sword" of a Crusader MK V, signified by the distended wand on its shoulder as tall as the Golem itself.
"Not half-bad." Yossari swilled from a flask of Maotai hanging from her wrist by a leather strap. "Your Runesmiths have developed variant algorithms different from our Spellswords: less precision and control, but an abundance of range and firepower. I guess yer'd have ta, what with yer ceiling having no lid. Very rarely do we need that sort of range in the Murk."
Gwen glanced up at the horizon and tried to imagine an enormous ceiling covering the landscape like a potlid.
"We would welcome your expertise," Magister Brown spoke beside the Dwarf. "Many of the Golems are survivors from an earlier time when we traded with your kin."
"Yer won't tease the Clan's promise from me that easily." Yossari snorted at Gwen's tutor, who smiled in that disarming, scholarly way he affected toward everyone but ducks. "What have yer got ter trade?"
"How about an invitation to witness the Shoggoth?" Brown joked. "This sort of transparency between our people has to be worth something."
The Alchemist chose to ignore the wily Magister.
Gwen smiled. According to Brown, there would be several groups of emissaries from the surrounding powers coming to see her Shoggoth show. Names from Berlin, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Amsterdam and Athens have all made requests, each wanting a piece of the Commonwealth's teenage Sobel. The Dwarven master crafter had been a last-minute addition, one the Tower was happy to accommodate.
Across the strait, the B-54-20, a fire trail used for lumber and agriculture, snaked inland. The first contingent of mechanised infantry, joined by the Mage Flights, was already over the horizon, burning back the Triffidus Celestus' alien groves, sending plumes of black smoke rising into the lidless sky.
Out of habit, Gwen checked her gear. As usual, she wore her white-blue Shen-Teī suit, a look matched by Petra in red, their paired silhouettes leaving no doubt that the two girls were related. Richard wore his Shen-Teī as well, though the vibrant teal of the original design had been made into a pattern suitable for the woodland. Opposite, Jean-Paul wore a charcoal cloth-armour outfit that reminded Gwen of distillation suits from a desert space opera. As for Gracie, their final member was comically protected by an articulated suit formed of quasi-magical polymers, encasing her torso with tessellated plates. Her striking visage was so endearing that Gwen had taken to calling Gracie "Ser Hillbrook", bringing a curve to the others' lips.
"Yer not wearing helmets?" Yossari tapped the bulk of her Golem suit.
"Non-specialists are not trained to cast spells in armour," Petra explained. "That proficiency has to be gained. Anything that interferes with natural gestures and invocations can result in spell-failure. Most non-military Mages prefer using Shield. At any rate, it is not as though we possess Dwarven Magitech."
"Yeah. Mana burn's a bitch." Gwen glanced at Gracie. In the Illusionist's case, severe mana burn might mean death.
The Alchemist chided that even the youngest Acolyte or Pilot in the Murk grew up in armour. Most Dwarves, even those from the labouring caste, could jostle about in Golem Plates with greater agility than if they were told to storm the Murk in the nude.
Gwen thanked the Dwarf for the imagery, taking the chance to admire Yossari's heirloom Golem Suit that had Cambridge's Enchanters drooling. Earlier, the Dwarf had been generous enough to let them inside for a show-and-tell, though Gwen and Petra proved too tall for the squat exo-armour to encase their body.
Behind them, the researchers' group consisted of a convoy of ten trucks for storing specimens, two Cromwell units, and two dozen assorted Mercenaries. The leader of the mechanised column was the Botanist, Magister Valarie Banks, who deferred command to Major Halifax, an eagle-eyed Golem-Commander-Diviner from the Shard's intelligence division.
Gwen's party consisted of themselves, though for now, the Tower Flights from Bangor base would be observing their progress.
At the Major's command, the secondary party formed into its irrespective columns, with Gwen's party taking the right-most trail, Banks the left, and the trucks and Golems bringing up the rear. In the sky, a Mage Flight, joined by assorted specialists, relayed information back to Halifax's command Golem.
"Don't worry, Miss Hillbrook, we got your back." Richard looked toward the unnatural green sea that covered the peninsula from horizon to horizon. "Please look forward to Golos. He's very impressive."
"Bless! Aid!" Petra popped off her stowed buffs, suffusing the party with vibrant motes of Positive Energy. "Resist Toxins!"
Gwen allowed the buffs to suffuse her body, tasting the spell as though a connoisseur of Clerical sorcery. As she anticipated, a mundane Cleric's potency was incomparable to Elvia's endowments. The contrast was akin to Yue throwing Fire Bolts in high school, versus when they first witnessed Alesia's Fire Ball.
"Stay safe!" Brown waved the party away. "Richard, Petra, keep Gwen out of trouble!"
The others burst into laughter.
"What's so funny?" Gracie appeared puzzled by the party's high-strung mirth even as Gwen clicked her tongue.
"Rude." She scolded her companions. "Alright, let's go."
Richard couldn't help but grin when, a few kilometres into the verdant forest, the Void Mages exhibited their IIUC prowess. Gwen put up a good show, and he had no doubts that a Scry was in place and that a group of middle-aged men and women were chattering away in Bangor, sipping tea and buttering scones.
Earlier, for an hour, a Mage Flight had been loitering overhead had watched Gwen and Jean-Paul in action. From their public Divination chatter, Richard felt sympathy for their demoralisation.
Theirs was a military outfit consisting of two Evokers, an Abjurer-Transmuter, a Cleric and an Illusionist-Diviner.
Below, between Gwen and Jean-Paul, the Cambridge party consisted of nine Lightning Hounds and nine Void Hounds from Gwen, Caliban in its Stag guise, Ariel in its Kirin form, Jean-Paul's eight Void Hounds, Umzokwe, plus Lea.
In a semi-circle of tooth and nail, the party's minions fanned out in front, foraging through the unnaturally dense forest, leeching back vitality for their owners and ferreting forth the hidden Triffids.
Very clearly, the Void Mages outclassed their would-be helpers.
Another Triffid burst from the twisted jungle that had usurped the island's original flora. To a Mage who had never experienced arboreal battlefields, the ash-pink and lilac thorn-hedges, so unusually tropical and colourful would appear daunting. To Richard and his experienced party of Amazonian wayfarers; the Triffidus-infected trees could hardly compare to the sky-high elder-woods that locked invaders into a Dungeon of timber and fungi.
"SKARRRAAL!" The lonesome Triffid ate dirt.
Before the worm-like flower Sprite could even reach the Mages, the dogs were upon it, tearing and rending its tendrils until a pus-oozing, limbless slug-thing remained. These were left behind for harvest, for Void-tainted wounds took a very long time to regenerate and so could be left alone for the NoM cleanup crew to load into the stasis chambers.
During the first stage of the operation, the going was slow and meticulous. Gwen had initially wanted to summon Golos then and there. However, her Wyvern had to slaughter the Triffids to absorb their Essence, meaning her Core-gathering clashed with Oxbridge's specimen-collecting.
Greedy for Cores, Gwen had even considered sending Golos to party with the main Mage Flights who were clearing a direct route into the heart of the Triffid infestation, aiming for Llyn Alaw, where the Tower planned for Gwen's calling of the Shoggoth. In a rebuke, Richard noted the last time Golos was left out and about, the thing brought back three Big Birds. This time, so close to Snowdonia, Golos could do infinitely worse.
Gwen grudgingly agreed. She would summon Golos once the platform for her Shoggoth was established, both to talk to the creature, and to strike some discipline into the haughty drake after its unsolicited tryst with Elvia.
For now, their party's goal was "Objective Beta". A smaller water source called Lyln Cefni, a place where the scouting parties had spotted a hive housing a Triffidus Primus.
"Our dogs look so different," Gwen remarked at the carnage.
Richard kept his eyes and ears open, observing Gwen as she and Jean-Paul compared Hound Packs. Gwen's inquiry was because much like Jean-Paul's Familiar, his dogs were pale, slimy, leech-like things, soft-bodied and possessed of sucker-mouths writhing with a circular discus of tiny teeth. Comparatively, Gwen's dogs were skeletal, sleek, and jet-black, with a mouth that took up over half of the dogs' torso.
When butchering Triffids, Gwen's animals took bite-sized chunks from the screeching, walking flowers, while the Afrikaner's leech-dogs piled on, then hung on, turning Gracie two shades paler.
By mid-afternoon, the party had ventured past the tree line and arrived in the woods' inner sanctums. The map marked the place as Ceint, though now there was neither a village nor the road that at lead into it. The terrain was sodden with foliage and rotten wood, while all around them, with exception to the path they had cleared, alien vines with orchid flowers as large as their heads hung like listless, purple tongues.
"JP, how do you want to do this?" Gwen stuck a thumb in the general direction of what she imagined to be the lake. "Elemental Swarm?"
Richard helpfully corrected the direction of her digit. "Too slow. With a mass like this, the swarm would take far too long. Best to think of it as a Plant Mage's Wall of Thorns or something. If you recall, the Triffidus Primus has Druidic powers."
Just as he spoke, one of Gwen's dogs ventured close enough to the tendril wall to trigger a reaction. From the tangled mess, a lashing vine ripped out from the knotted greenery to wrap around her dog. There was a brief struggle as purple ichor pumped through the thorn-strewn tentacle, then the Void Hound bit itself free and staggered back into the whinnying pack. It's body momentarily shuddered; then it vomited forth a bubbling jet of hissing venom.
"That looks like it could hurt," Gwen remarked.
"Best keep our distance." Richard studied the thorn-hedge. "Try a Chakram?"
Gwen performed as told, flooding her conduits to unleash a disk of Void as large as a dinner table. The silent discus managed to slice about two meters into the mass of jade-green vines, felling an enormous stack. Like a burst vein, a fountain of ichor sprayed into the atmosphere.
"Lea—" Richard commanded his Familiar. An enormous Water Shield materialised, enough to envelope the party, repelling the foul liquid.
"Looks corrosive." Yossari's Golem had in-built diagnostics and so ran some measurements once the spray died down. "Mild, but in enough volume, it'll do some damage."
"They're regenerating." Petra pointed to the wall. "So much for cutting through."
Where Gwen had made the incision, a busy susurration of vine-flesh began to sprout rapidly.
"Let me try." Jean-Paul raised his hand, then pulled at the air as though trying to take control of some unseen foe. "Consumptive Orb!"
Where Gwen had struck, a tiny sphere of Void materialised, eating away at the bio-matter in its immediate vicinity to suddenly bloat and grow. Within seconds, the blob of pulsing Void was a metre across.
Jean-Paul gritted his teeth and held on until the Consumptive Orb was the size of Caliban's stag-form, then uttered an ejaculatory "Void Burst!"
Like a popped balloon, the Consumptive Orb discharged its payload in a forward-facing spray of tenebrous and uncontrolled Void matter, splattering the writhing vines. A great commotion of shrivelling flesh resounded as the Void-splatter began to eat away at the wood.
"Something's coming," Yossari reported, checking her Golem's HUD. "Two— no, THREE Hydraffids!"
"Thank God, finally." Gwen perked up. "The sooner we get our specimens; the sooner Golos can come out and play. Caliban! Ariel! Get ready!"
"Vitriolic Mist!" Jean-Paul put in place a Signature Evocation-Conjuration Void Spell, materialising a fine haze of floating Void-motes in a wide semi-circle arc far from the party.
"How are you two casting all of this?" Gracie almost bit her tongue. "So many spells at so many tiers!"
Richard glanced at the disbelieving Void Sorceress while willing Lea to conjure the beginning of a Shield for each of their members. Like Gwen herself, he too had done the hard yakka since arriving at Cambridge. Different to his cousin's Omni-path, Richard always knew that his way forward lied in greater efficacy with Lea. A Water Mage, particularly a Conjurer, was limited only by their imagination and the volume of water they could manipulate at once. As such, he had been training Lea's affinity through an array of odd-jobs around London. Now with access to the Shard's Grey Market, he had been spending both CCs and HDMs on acquiring Wildland ingredients that would increase his VMI, his Familiar efficacy, as well as empower Lea herself.
With a roar more hiss than bark, the infested woodlands parted, spilling forth the contorted bodies of a trio of Hydraffids. These waded through Jean-Paul's fine mist of Void matter, crashing through the intangible barrier, growing slick with ichor as their' outer dermis melted.
As one, the Hydraffids reared their heads.
"Dick!" Gwen called out. They had seen the same display in Burma.
"On it! Water Prison!" Richard reacted before she even finished, conjuring bubbles of water around the heads of the monsters.
His anticipation proved correct; a second later, globs of corrosive poison struck the prisons he had conjured, filling the pristine water with venom.
"Recycle!" he commanded Lea. Effortlessly, his Familiar willed the contaminated liquid back into the Elemental Plane. "All yours, Duck."
"Thanks, Dick!" Gwen commanded her mix of dogs to go for the second and third Hydraffid while Jean-Paul's minions leapt for the first. "JP, we need them alive for the researchers!"
"Understood!" Jean-Paul pointed at the tail segment of his prey. "Consumptive Orb!"
"Lea! Keep them shielded!" Richard spread his awareness so that he could encompass the entire battlefield. "Don't let them use range!"
The woods to their east exploded with activity. A sixsome of Triffids newly arrived on the scene, slithering from the thorn-wall to join the fun. Like the Hydraffids, these ran head-first into the Void tinged mist Jean-Paul had conjured.
"Duck! Keep them pinned!" Richard called out.
His cousin concurred, "Ariel! Chain Lightning!"
Rapid incantations thundered from Gwen's lips as the Lightning Kirin lit up like a Christmas Tree at Trafalgar Square. From its horns, arcs of living lightning struck the Hydraffids before making their way toward the Triffids, striking with such force that orchid-coloured flesh exploded from their writhing bodies.
"Here's another!" Gwen appeared to have spell focus to spare. Her second string of plosive syllables was enough to send two Elemental Spheres into the creatures' midst. "Ariel! Fry-em!"
Richard expanded Lea's many Shield spells, making sure that the blowback from the thunderous explosions did not impact the damage-dealers.
"They're still alive!" Yossari confirmed through her suit's Scrying capabilities.
Much to the party's surprise, the Hydraffids carried on. It wasn't that the Void or Lightning Magic were not sufficient— more so that the plant-creatures appeared perfectly happy to function without heads or torsos and most of their limbs. Added to their resilience were a high spell resistance and the ability to regenerate wounds not sustained from Void, acid or fire, it was little wonder regular Mage Flights found them to be a living nightmare.
"Caliban!" Gwen chose expedience. "Do it!"
"SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban expanded like rising dough. In a moment, it transformed into an eight-metre Hydra far more robust than the sinuous Hydraffids. With six-heads writhing, it was just enough to intercept two of the creatures. Once in melee, Caliban split open the mouths of its faceless "heads" to reveal rows of gnashing teeth glistening with grey globs of saliva.
"Umzokwe!" Jean-Paul's creature proved less protean. Tapping into its vitality, it grew to three times its usual size, becoming almost six-metres, coiling itself around the Hydraffid. At its master's command, its corrosive, pink-veined stomach inverted, exploding forth from its nozzle-like lips to splatter the Hydraffid as though casting a net of tangled flesh.
"BLURRRRRGGH—" Gracie fell to her knees and cleared the contents of her stomach.
Next, the dogs closed in.
"Lighting Bolt!" Gwen was relentless with the mid-ranged artillery from Ariel. "Lightning Sphere!"
"Void Burst!" Jean-Paul took out the mobile part of his victim's lower body. "Umzokwe! Control yourself!"
Not far from the white leech, Caliban rendezvoused its twin Hydraffids head-on, frenching the creatures with its many maws. Where the plant monsters' heads got severed, the stumps spurted pus-like, fungal blood.
Behind the clashing titans, where the Void mist had dissipated, the triple pack of dogs made short work of the regular Triffids, with the Lightning Hound tearing off wriggling limbs while their Void counterparts feasted on chunk-fulls of vitality.
Richard kept an eye on their surroundings while he studied Gwen's rival. Like his cousin, Jean-Paul possessed the means to imbibe vitality through his leech. Unlike Caliban, the thing known as Umzokwe was overtly gluttonous, choked full of flesh meandering through the Familiar's semi-clear, bloated body. Even so, Jean-Paul appeared stricken while Gwen grew flush from head to toe.
It was a curious juxtaposition. Richard wasn't sure how contracts between Master and Familiar worked for Void Mages, but it would appear Jean-Paul had gotten a rather bum deal compared to Gwen.
"Stop!" Petra suddenly shouted, her eyes aglow with Divination. "They're almost dead. Don't forget, the longer it takes for the specimen collection to complete, the longer we're stuck here."
"Cali, return!" Gwen commanded her Familiar. Caliban withdrew its many heads, shook off the gore, then wandered back, burping loudly from two of its six heads.
Umzokwe viciously tore out a final chunk of Hydraffid before it too returned, engorged and massive, trailing clear slime that dissolved the dense foliage beneath.
Richard took some mental notes, then sent Lea to patrol the perimeter. Knowing one's adversaries was half the fight.
"Buck! Astro!" Gwen recalled her dog pack as well, urging Jean-Paul to do the same. En route, three headless, limbless Hydraffids rolled on the rotten foliage, spilling lime-green juices all over the floor.
"This one needs a stabilisation." Petra pointed to the one Jean-Paul had left behind. "Dick, cover me."
Richard encased his cousin with water while the Enchantress approached to dispense a Cure Minor Wounds, injecting the quivering mound of knotted flesh with just enough Positive Energy to keep it from expiring.
Richard turned to Gracie, tasking the Illusionist with something useful. "That's three Hydraffids and six more Triffids. What are we at?"
On the forest floor, Gracie wheezed while she relayed Richard's question. "… Ten more Hydraffids and forty more Triffids. There are no Primus sightings as of yet."
"How's your mana?" Richard asked Gwen.
"I am good. Jean-Paul?" Gwen's cheeks were positively glowing.
"I can keep going."
"Great." His cousin placed both hands against her hips. "I think I've got a good idea of how we can clear this wall."
"Cali-wyrm?" Richard recollected at once. "Would it work?"
"Worth a try. Either way, I am up to my neck." Gwen tapped her throat with one hand. "Let me tell ya; these Triffids make for RICH eating."
With the winter light dying over a smothered horizon, the party chose to camp at a township formerly known as Llangefni. Formerly— because after the Triffids had taken over the land, the brick and mortar buildings had all been reduced to rubble.
At the town's centre, the only surviving structures were a regional government building and a church. Further excavation reduced the foliage, revealing a clocktower choked with Triffid spores.
Gwen's dogs, who had fanned out into the town once they ate through the vines, soon returned with the news that they had found something. The party proceeded to the church; in the basement, they found the drained bodies of no less than fifty-odd men and women, children too, tethered to the walls by withered vines.
"JP, you stay with Gracie," Gwen told the two.
Team Cousins, joined by a curious Yossari, ventured down into the ancient base-level.
The scene was as she had observed via her Ariel VR.
"You get folk like this everywhere," to their surprise, Yossari spoke up. "Yer can tell a town to evacuate, but there's always folk who think they know better. Or who think yer a joke or the danger's a hoax. Yer say this is a temple?"
"Yes—" Gwen covered her nose and mouth, fearful that her enhanced smelling-sense might overwhelm her olfactory functions. As it turned out, there was no need, for the poor sods fell apart the moment Richard touched them— much in the manner of clumped loam having lost all its moisture. "Oh— Jesus, Dick, careful with that!"
Yossari shrugged. "That'll explain it. Even in the Murk, there's folk who think the Deepdowners or the Ancestors will save them, or that something or someone's looking out for them. They refuse to leave their Citadels even when the monsters are scratching at the walls, flooding into the forge— of course, by then, it's far too late."
"The Triffids are invaders, right?" Gwen asked her cousin, her jaws grim. "From another Plane?"
"Something like that." Her cousin nodded. "I wouldn't overthink. We're here to exterminate them. They'll cease to exist in three days. I wouldn't bother with the academics. Not our job."
"A fair point." Gwen looked around. It was easy to think of the Triffids as monsters. They obviously ate humans, and they were definitely in-human. "Do we bury these people?"
"We can collapse the Church," Petra advised. "I don't think they're moveable. If Elvia was here, I bet she's trained in the Final Rite."
"I can do that for you." Yossari waved a manipulator arm, revealing a Spellblade. "I'll return them to the earth's embrace. The Earth Mother doesn't discriminate."
Gwen nodded her head sadly, then backed away toward the basement stairs. In the depth of her Empathic Link, Caliban informed her that it had finished patrolling the town. Ariel reported no more hostiles. "Alright, I think the Familiars are done. Let's head up. We'll set up on the roof of the town hall."
"Should we inform Gracie and Jean-Paul?" Richard was the last to leave.
"Naw." Gwen recalled Jean-Paul's story about the Nun. "JP and church basements don't mix."
Gweeegn— Gweeegn— Gweeegn— Gweeegn— Gweeegn—
Gwen slowly opened her eyes.
"What the fuck was that?" she demanded of the frigid night air, made lightless by an overcast sky. "Cali, was that you?"
"Shaa! Shaa!" Caliban's response came from below, where it waited in ambush for the wayward Triffids filtering in from the forest.
Twice now, she had circulated her Essence to ward away sleep, and both times, the moment she entered a meditative stance, some god-forsaken voice started to resound in her head.
"Is somebody Singing the Snake?" Gwen considered the possibility. She continued to circulate her Essence until she felt on the verge of bursting. "Almudj? Is that you?"
Her reply came in the form of a splintering crash northward of the town hall, followed by the sound of her Alarm Wards firing away.
The constant harassment was the reason why Gwen offered to take watch. With the Triffids crawling into the cleared square like clockwork, sleep was all but impossible, and only she and Jean-Paul could comfortably keep individual monsters at bay.
And as only Gwen could arguably keep awake via Essence, she offered her team the Portable Habitat, while herself, Caliban, Ariel and the dogs held the fort.
"SKARRR—!" the howling abruptly cut short.
A minute later, Caliban burped. The dogs soundlessly returned to their usual spots, with Astro's pack lighting up the perimeter while Buck's crow-black cabal hid in the dark.
Gwen returned to her meditation, though like tinnitus, she could still make out the "Weee— Weee—" at the back of her skull.
Throughout the night, her teammates came out to join her on the second floor of the abandoned town hall every odd hour while Caliban carried out an unseen carnage below.
At dawn, the party emerged into an ichor-strewn street painted green with blood from what must be thirty-odd monsters. Most were dead, though a dozen, yet to bleed out, could be collected by the convoy.
"I think I am good to summon the Shoggoth," Gwen informed them during breakfast, her appearance so hale that one would have thought her awakening from a 10,000 HDM spa treatment. "Who would have thought there were so many of those Triffids left?"
"I say the grove is growing them as we speak." Richard performed a quick stretching routine. "We checked before we camped, it was all clear."
"Such a shame Golos isn't here." Gwen sighed. "All those wasted Cores..."
"How'd you sleep?" She turned to Gracie, who emerged in her bulk armour once more.
"Well enough," Gracie replied, tugging on her hair with a brush. "Its… very quiet in there."
"Ha, the Ethereal Plane is like that. It takes a few nights to get used to it."
A Message pinged the party.
"Yes?" Gwen put the Message on an open channel. "Magus Song's party reporting in."
"Magus Song," the incoming command resounded. "This is Bangor Command. The main party has arrived at Llyn Alaw. We await your rendezvous at Check Point Alpha. The capture mission will continue. There's no sign of the Primus."
"Understood," Gwen reported. "We're at Llangefni, about twelve kilometres out. Shall we make for Objective Beta?"
"Negative. A Teleportation Circle has been set up at Alaw, please secure your perimeter and set up a field Circle. Do you require aid? We can fly a Specialist over."
"No need. I'll do it." Richard raised his hand.
"Negative, Bangor Command. I'll see you on-site soon," Gwen replied into the Message. "Please send the gate codes."
"Roger that." There was a pause. "Sending codes now."
Once Gwen memorised the flashing Glyphs, the Message spell dimmed, then died.
"JP, you and I will set up the perimeter." Gwen turned to her partner. "Let's get the dogs out and about. We'll have to unsummon them before we port over."
"I'll help with the Teleportation Circle," Petra offered. "I know the script, though Richard will have to provide the mana and the spell."
"Great." Gwen breathed out, observing the wall-to-wall exotic greenery surrounding their party. Already, the path they made via Cali-worm was creeping back. "I just hope Golos can find some Cores before we unleash the big dog."