At Llyn Alaw, Gwen and her crew teleported into a clearing burned clean of Triffid infestation. From the portal to the pavilion, the landscape resembled a No Man's Land, with the lake itself smothered with ash, emerald with Triffid spores, hinting at the battle that must have taken place overnight.
At the edge of the Teleportation Circle's raised dais, Gwen and her companions hailed the guards, then joined Magister Maxwell Brown, who had been waiting for them.
Inside the overlarge pavilion, Gwen met with many strange faces and shook hands with every Magister and Magus until her fingers grew numb and her face grew partially paralysed. Jean-Paul likewise received benedictions and praise, though Gwen suspected her companion's Master had far more to do with the introverted sorcerer's popularity than his Triffid-count.
"Gwen, how is your health?" Brown corralled his trio of Void sorcerers once Gwen had performed her social dues. "Mind you. We won't be summoning the Shoggoth until we find that Primus."
"I am all charged up," Gwen assured her tutor. "But we're going to Llyn Cefni after this, aren't we? I would like to exercise my Wyvern."
"I admire your eagerness. Having the Purge was a serendipitous affair, wouldn't you say?" Brown raised a cup of fragrant English breakfast. "If it weren't for this fortuitous outbreak of Triffids, you would be between a Dwarf miner and a hard place."
"How so?" Gwen cocked her head. Beside her, Jean-Paul and Gracie came close to hear what the Magister had to say.
"Without the push from the Isle of Man." Gwen's tutor replaced his cup with a clink. "The closest Purge would have been in the Niger Delta, be it the lycanthropes or the Mami Wata— you be looking to consume some very talkative Demi-humans with complex social structures. The Mami Wata especially; most of them are snake-bodied, but their magic-casters are bipedal and near-human, alluring as well, from what the locals say. I suppose you wouldn't be so keen on exterminating those, eh?"
"True. I should be thankful for being put on weeding duty." Gwen pursed her lips. "I don't profess to know much about Triffids, but I sure as hell prefer feeding Caliban salad than something that begs for its life."
"Have you eaten… those before, Gwen?" Gracie gulped her juice beside them; her eyes wide and morbid with fascination. "Things that beg?"
"You want to know? Gracie? Curiosity killed the cat."
Gracie looked to Jean-Paul for an answer.
Jean-Paul gave Gracie an affirming nod of psychopathic solidarity. "Everyone's eaten one at some point. They're a primary source of Wildland bush trade, why, the Japanese…"
"Please don't." Gwen suddenly felt sick. "I would rather not know if my otoro can litigate. Besides, Caliban's doing the eating."
"Have you eaten…" Gracie licked her lips. "P-people?"
"I have." Jean-Paul leapt into the abyss without hesitation. "Umzokwe's first feast began that way—"
"If you must know. Same story here," Gwen lowered her voice. "Not willingly, of course. I was hog-tied in a basement, and Caliban went off the rails. I'll tell you the story sometime."
"Umzokwe has eaten at least a half-hundred." Jean-Paul's candidness made Gwen wonder if he saw their mutual atrocities as a scoreboard. "When I was on a Purge quest in Swaziland, it was the most expedient way of dealing with Rogue Mage warlords."
"You've killed half-a-hundred people?!" Gracie's mouth hung open. "Not Demi-humans, but people?"
"Haha..." Jean-Paul appeared to take Gracie's horror as praise. "It's nothing compared to Gwen's accomplishments."
Gracie turned to Gwen with an expression of pure horror.
"Accomplishments?" Gwen gave Jean-Paul a stern look. "Jesus Christ, JP, that's nothing to be proud of."
"Why not?" Jean-Paul cocked his head. "You're the Devourer of Shenyang! They say it was the greatest victory against the Undead in this decade! How many hundreds of Necromancers were in that city? How many of their sycophants?"
Gwen's blood ran cold even as her mind dug for an excuse.
Inadvertently, Jean-Paul had pinched a nerve that she hadn't ever really considered. Her present labours were not about how many fathers might lose their jobs because she recommended a corporate restructuring so that new hires could reduce overhead; these were actual beings— hundreds and thousands of lives that she had snuffed out on her climb to the top. Looking at Gracie's uncomprehending face, she became reminded of Elvia's complaint against her protean morality. How strange it was that her memories of Blackheath now felt so indifferent.
"Yeah well—" Gwen delved deep for the right words. At the very least, she had to instruct Gracie. "Look, people or no people, there has to be a line, alright? This thin, red line, let's call it morality— better yet, ethics, or professionalism. Even if we're Mages of Mass Destruction, there's a boundary, right? We take on monsters that threaten our way of life— help our kin find new homes, colonise new lands. Where possible, we sue for peace. Power, when properly projected, is a deterrent to conflict..."
"Anway... I called it Militant Pacifism," Gwen chugged on. "The more power I— I mean the Mageocracy projects, the less likely other races will choose the Path of Violent Conflict. Of course, there's a whole social contract element involved, and things get muddled— Oh, hey— Yossari, what do you think?"
While her monologue rambled on, their now unarmoured Dwarven Alchemist joined them. Yossari wore a metallic tunic with thick boots, held her hair in a tight bun secured by a Mithril band, and drank straight scotch from the bottle.
"I ain't one to speak, seeing as I am not from the warrior caste." The Alchemist shook her head. "Hanmoul has done well for himself, though. His notches can be counted in the thousands. Very interesting, this Military Pacifism. As for yer flustering..."
The Dwarf turned to Gwen and gently punched her solar plexus. "Let me give yer some advice I once gave Hanmoul a century ago. The only burden yer should live with is yer code. For us, the Code of the Ancestors is very generous."
The Dwarf took a deep breath.
"Care for yer kin, care for yer Clan, care for yerself, care for yer Thane," the Alchemist said. "Not all of us take it in that order of priority, but it's a start."
Gwen grew contemplative.
"Well said. For loyalists like us, its Queen and Country." Brown raised his refilled cuppa. "Long Live the Mageocracy, naturally."
Gwen regarded her duck-loving tutor. "I'll stick with having a conscience if it is all the same to you, Max."
She then turned to the confused-looking void sorceress. "Don't fret, Gracie. I don't think you'll become like us. As for me and JP, so long as we don't cross that thin red line in our hearts, I think we'll do okay. What do you think, Jean-Paul?"
"Honestly…" Jean-Paul said. "I haven't given it much thought."
"Perhaps that is the correct answer." Maxwell Brown golf-clapped approvingly. "There's nothing wrong with a strong sense of duty. Our topic reminds me of a limerick from the Pan-European war."
The Magister cleared his throat.
"'Do your duty, girl or boy—
Learn to survive and never want joy.
You'll all be happy, protected and warm,
and fear no monster, suffer no harm'."
A few close listeners hid their cynicism with a smile.
Jean-Paul and Gracie appeared in agreement.
Yossari cared not for the rhyming propaganda.
As for Gwen, her lips moved with a volition of their own.
"And because I obey, they think there's no injury.
Praise God and Queen, who makes a heaven from our misery."
"Ha!" Yossari clapped at her Gwenism. "Nicely done!"
"I would keep that to myself," Brown cautioned with uneasy wonder. "Gracie, keep in mind Gwen grew up on the Frontier, and has family in China. Her perception can be somewhat radical."
Besides Gwen, good girl Gracie nodded her head.
Gwen sighed. "Well whatever, let's bring out Golos and find ourselves that Primus"
After breakfast, Gwen's party was followed by throngs of curious Magisters out toward the lake, where an earthen platform had been prepared for her demonstration.
Armed with newfound Abjuration and Enchantment, Gwen produced her inscription wand and drew up a passably impressive Planar Ally Mandala with minimal guidance from Petra, completing the magic circle in record time. Once the circuits conjoined, she invoked the rites, vivified the etched Glyphs and spoke the words.
As a final flourish, Gwen materialised the impressive crates of HDMs and placed them in the adjacent fuel-circles. These were enough to silence the crowd, giving her the tranquillity required to complete the tongue-twisting incantations.
"Gogo!" she invoked the contract held within her Astral Body, envisioning Golos' stupid, grinning face as the Lightning mana fled, consuming the crates of compressed HDMs. "Come! Aid me!"
From the overcast English sky, a funnel of mana formed, materialising into vivid strikes of lightning that fed into the summoning mandala. With a thunderous crack of unmitigated power, a roaring gash to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning was torn into the Prime Material, forming a conduit that spanned the space between places.
A living rod of lightning struck the dais.
A split-second later, Golos, Wyvern Prince of Huangshan, surveyed the scene below him.
Scant applause filled the banks of the lake where Gwen's observers took notes or otherwise made encouraging remarks.
To Gwen's surprise, it wasn't only the Wyvern that appeared, but also a dozen crates, each about half her size. These were etched with Glyphs, ones pertaining to long-distance Teleportation.
"Gogo." Gwen waved. "I am surprised you're in one piece. What's in the boxes?"
"Calamity." Golos smouldered as his scales cooled, discharging the excess energy from his transit. Seeing their audience, the Wyvern's cruel, toothy lips split into a grin. "Ruxin has sent you gifts."
Gwen remained unimpressed. "A refund for summoning you? How thoughtful your brother must be. Am I to take this as an apology?"
"Take a look." The Wyvern stepped back. "He says if you desire additional morsels, he can arrange more."
"Morsels?" Gwen approached one of the crates. She quickly glanced at her audience, checking that no one shouted warnings or began to weave Abjuration spells. Closer, a strange premonition tingled her spine. It wasn't the spine-wrangling sting of imminent danger, but she was confident that something very unpleasant was about to enter her orbit. "Golos, what's in this thing? More Ginsengs?"
She could sure as hell use more Sen-sens right now.
"Brother says that it's a warning to all who would cheat you." The Wyvern reared his majestic head. Once risen, Golos began to speak in Draconic. "BEHOLD, MORTALS! SUCH IS THE FATE OF THOSE WHO WOULD DEFRAUD OUR KIN!"
"Wait!" Gwen said to the Wyvern, her premonition evolving to encompass a migraine. "Gogo! What's in the box—"
As one, the Glyph-clad boxes opened, their panels falling to the wayside to reveal their precious cargo, the so-called 'gift' to Gwen.
A stink of sick and in some instance, urine, polluted the air.
Gwen blinked, disbelieving her eyes, then rapidly blinked again to make sure she wasn't having a lucid nightmare. The observers around her, most of whom had no access to Draconic, now gawked with their mouths open.
"Morsels!" Golos opened his wings. "For you to bolster your unholy magic!"
Gwen felt the flow of time around her in the manner of a Mage affected by Haste, where everything felt as though moving in slow motion. How could this be happening? She asked herself. She was just summoning Golos so the drake could shit out some cores. Was Ruxin trying fuck with her?
On the elevated dais, the Devourer of Shenyang now stood with a Wyvern and a multitude of men and women in sullied, orange prison uniforms, most of whom she knew by name.
Magister Quin Chen!
Director Tu Guangshao!
Magus Xing Fung!
Magus Jiang Fung!
Magus Bai An Fung!
Magus Teng Cai Fung!
Senior Abjurer Cui Delan Tu!
Senior Transmuter Tian Hanying!
Secretary Duan Zhen!
District Party Secretary Geng Mu!
The Wyvern aside, she had conjured men and women galore! A veritable Mage Flight! Enough high-tier magic users to run a provincial District!
Very slowly, the pale-faced, blue-lipped Mages turned to face her. Like marionettes pulled by strings, their bodies moved against their will until, as one, the group fell, prostrating themselves by striking the floor with their hand and foreheads.
"Now consume them!" Golos pointed a sizzling claw of lightning at the Mages, then at Gwen. "These carcasses stole Crystals from you, Calamity. Show them the wrath of an Elder Kindred! Use them for the only purpose they're fit for— as fertiliser for your calamitous, soul-drinking worm!"
As Golos' enthusiasm washed over her, Gwen became hyper-aware of her observers on the banks.
Magister Brown was holding Gracie, who was near-collapsed in his arms. Richard stood with a shit-eating smile split from ear to ear. Petra appeared impressed and lively, and Jean-Paul looked like he could swallow an egg. Besides her team, the Colonels, Majors, Magisters and Maguses all wore various expressions impossible for her to read. As for Yossari, the Dwarf shook her head, likely wondering what the hell these Humans were up to now.
"NO!" Gwen spun, sending her hair fanning out in a semi-circle. "NO! NO! NO! WHAT THE FUCK?! Golos! Did Ruxin put you up to this?"
In the midst of her fury, there was also clarity. Ruxin was arrogant and a bit a of a dick, but there was no possible way the Dragon would spoil their investments by ruining her reputation like this. For the sake of Crystals, she would have the truth! She would have Caliban ferret the facts from Golos' gut if that were how deep she had to dig.
"Er…" Golos stumbled from the force of her glare. "I am just a Messenger."
"And Ruxin told you to say this?" She pointed at the shivering prisoners. "Your brother, the Master of Manipur, Kachin and Nagaland, currently my partner, put you up to this pile of Dragon shit?"
Out of sheer nervousness, Golos began to pick at his snout furiously.
"Caliban!" Gwen called for her Familiar. "Big Bird—"
"Ayxin told me to say it!" Golos hastily spat before Caliban materialised.
Gwen looked to the crowd, within whom the misunderstanding must be brewing like bacteria in a cesspit. She so wanted to grab the fangs sticking out of Golos' face and rip a pair out. Thanks to the idiot, regardless of the truth, sensationalist headlines about man-eating sorceresses would fly its way around the world before reality could even get its pants on.
"Ayxin?" Gwen bit back the vitality necessary for Caliban to beat the Wyvern a new shade of blue. "Why would she do that?"
"Her mate speaks about you incessantly," Golos readily confessed, perhaps realising he may as well tell the whole tale. "When sister complained she was still without egg. I told her if she's anxious about infidelity, then she should share. That way, the first female to bear fruit proves the better mate. Its how we Dragons do it."
"Jesus, you dull-witted bird brain…" Gwen gagged, feeling such cringe that her skin itched. She could just imagine the siblings communing via their Dragon-App or whatever they used to talk. There's Ruxin's boasting about cash, Ayxin lamenting about Jun— then Golos, for some stupid fucking reason, stops ploughing Phalera long enough to deliver Ayxin a shit-nugget of wisdom. In response, choked by a cold and vengeful fury, Ayxin gives Golos an amazing idea to piss on their niece, giving her enough reason to send Caliban on a magical mystery tour. "Bloody oath, Gogo… you've got a god damned death wish."
"… you're not going to eat them?"
"Of course not!" Gwen snapped. "These are people, Golos! They're wearing pants! Tell me, what are Ruxin's plans? His real one this time."
"These are your new labourers," Golos finally explained, revealing the untold secret behind the crates. "They're Essence-bound to obey your every word and will."
"Oh…" Gwen looked toward the prisoners shivering on the floor. "… fuck. What happens if I don't need them? Can I send them home?"
"Then their Astral Bodies will cease to exist, and they will die," the Wyvern explained. "He did say they would make a good example of anyone who chooses to steal from you. He does not wish for the same thing to happen to his Crystals in this land of the western empires."
Gwen opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it.
"Mister Tu," she left the Wyvern to address the kowtowing Mages. "What do you think of all this?"
"Our only wish only is to perish in your service." The once-mighty Director of Finances, Tu Guangshao, kept his head low. "If we may advance your course by one millimetre, Mistress, then our duty is done."
"Are you all glamoured?" Gwen asked.
"Yes," Tu replied with a tone of maniacal optimism. "Master Ruxin would like you to know that this is what we chose out of the paths he had offered us. The ones you see here chose the Path of Servitude."
Gwen sighed. Looking at Golos, she turned again to her old employers. "Magister Chen, are you under duress?"
"It was death— I chose life," Magister Chen replied. "I serve freely and willingly."
"Somehow I doubt that," Gwen said. "What happens if I free you?"
"Consumption by your Void Fiend would be preferable."
"I see…" Gwen mulled over her options. If only Walken were here, she lamented. For now, someone else would have to fill the old fox's shoes. Quickly, she sent a Message to Brown, explaining her dilemma.
"More than anything, these are foreign Mages who have no right to be here." Brown pushed back against the clamouring of shocked Magisters surrounding him, "We'll have to send them to Customs to get processed. What do you want to do with them?"
"If I send them back, they're meat," Gwen said. "They're white-collar criminals who failed at playing politics. The Dragon I am doing business with— Ruxin, sent them over to be my servants rather than killing them outright. They're under some form of indentured servitude, sealed with a Draconic Geas."
"No doubt," Brown's voice returned. "Christ, Gwen— this is a bureaucratic nightmare. These are Magisters and Maguses, not NoMs. And if they're loyal to you or the Lord of Nagaland..."
A moment of silence passed between them while behind Gwen, Golos the Wyvern scratched an ear hole with a wingtip.
"Maybe you should let the Lady know."
"Maybe I should let the Lady know…" the two said at the same time.
"Okay." Gwen was glad that great minds thought alike. As much as she felt pity for these sods, they had made their beds. "Good idea. I'll call Ollie."
Once the excitement died down, Gwen's party had two options— to stay at Llyn Alaw and wait for the hunt for the Primus to conclude, or to venture out themselves to join the hunt.
Gwen's first choice, considering Golos' smug face, was to proceed as planned. That was until Richard intervened and explained to her the poor optics of her thumping through the forest with Golos in tow while her 'servants' stood on the dais in the wind and rain, suffering the potential of spontaneous combustion.
"And no." Richard appeared perfectly happy with her new servants. "Putting them undercover doesn't help. Who are the authorities going to talk to when they arrive? Ollie? Magister Brown? They're your responsibility, Gwen. Or do you want them to interview Golos?"
"I didn't want this." Gwen felt such ambivalence. She understood that the lives of these folks were not her responsibility— but she also acknowledged that she alone was responsible for them. In a Message to Mayuree, she had urged her business companion to begin working on sending her a team of auditors for London. Marong had replied that there would be many hurdles, as Frontier immigration remained troublesome— that and most of their management-level staff in Shanghai would not want to leave their tier 1 home.
Assuming word had travelled up the mountain, Ruxin's boon was a natural solution to the Isle of Dog's short-handedness.
Her surface reading was that the Dragon was a good business partner, one providing her with capable, loyal, magically inclined staff with decades of experience in managing things— albeit corruptly.
The underhanded implication, Gwen suspected, was that Ruxin wanted eyes to see what she was doing and that for someone whose Crystal hoard was being held hostage, the Dragon wanted another layer of assurance.
"Fine—" she relented. "I'll take care of this."
She rounded up the docile prisoners, who gazed toward her as though she was the light of salvation at the end of a long tunnel. At her behest, Golos turned himself into his humanoid form, once again wowing the crowd with his spike tail club before Gwen made him wear pants.
Once across the thin strip of land adjoining the platform to the lake's edge, she handed over her "servants" to the military. When Major Halifax indicated that they did not have the men to spare, considering the Magister-tier casters in her group, Gwen conceded to Richard's wisdom.
"Good work, Dick," she commended her cousin, concurrently commanding Golos and her Familiars to keep an eye on the captives.
"That's alright, Duck." Richard patted her head. "Besides, I am sure half of those folks still think you're going to eat them in secret. Maybe make a public announcement?"
"Good idea." Gwen waited until the prisoners were relocated before she turned to address an eager crowd panting for the relationship between a shapeshifting Wyvern and a Void Sorceress. That particular bit of detail had been left out from their briefing, especially the part where Chinese Mages had cheated Gwen out of money she co-owned with a Dragon. Gwen did not mind. The Tonglv incident was an open secret; now, it was merely in the open.
"Alright, you scoundrels—" Gwen imperiously addressed the prisoners.
"A gentle approach might be best…" This time, it was Petra who spoke through a Silent Message. "Gwen, you're in England now. These Dragon-baits might answer to you, but you answer to London's Tower. Be mindful of who's watching."
Their eyes briefly met. Petra nodded her head, nudging Gwen to move in the right direction.
"Worry not," Gwen corrected course at once. "You will wait here with me until Heathrow sends their officers. When you are questioned; tell them what you know. Hide nothing. Your honesty will determine if you can carry out your duties as promised to Ruxin. If you lie, I'll send you back to China or Nagaland to answer to the Dragon himself. Understood?"
Collectively, the Mages bowed. "Yes, Mistress!"
"Good, now talk." Gwen curled Caliban under her so that she instantly possessed an impromptu and terrifying bench. "Now— tell me everything."
Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as bad as she had thought.
According to Tu and Chen, after their arrest, they and their family were kept in stasis until they made the ISTC journey into Yangon. There, they were transported by Marong's people, the private militia servicing the House of M called the Shadow Men of Manipur, to Nagaland.
Upon their arrival in the Jade Palace, the hundred or so prisoners had kowtowed in Ruxin's presence to face his judgement. The Dragon's displeasure swept over them, and about a dozen of the weaker members died right there and then.
The survivors weren't nearly so lucky.
The Dragon had used its Draconic tongue to compel the truth from their teaming brains. Each by each, the men and women confessed to every crime and perversion. All admitted to bribery, theft, false bookkeeping, lovers outside of wedlock, bastard children. One even professed of having silenced a mistress and another to having impure thoughts about a threesome with Ayxin and Jun. Nothing was left unturned as the Dragon's Essence-tinged Mind Magic picked over their brains, turning their egos into mushy rice.
Once satisfied with their blabbering, semi-moronic semblances, the Dragon gave his sentence. The intent was that they would die eventually in the jade mines, be it from abuse or exhaustion, Ruxin didn't care—
— Until Ruì intervened.
Out of the unsullied goodness of her heart, Ruì felt compassion for those men and women who would have murdered her over a mere hundred HDMs and suggested they could be put to use for Gwen in England. If even she, a mere mortal of so little power, could find it in her heart to feel for these miserable cretins, Ruì explained, why can't Ruxin, who was so much wiser and kinder?
The survivors of Ruxin's interrogation eagerly agreed, even when Ruxin said that he would mark them and that they would die a death of ten-thousand cuts if they displeased him or betrayed Gwen in any capacity. If she commanded them to die, Tu spoke without expression; they may very well die more horribly if they failed to kill themselves.
"I command you to live," Gwen said immediately, then shook her head in disgust.
It took an hour for Customs to arrive. In time, Heathrow's very friendly and accomodating officers arrived with Ollie, who looked like he wanted to wrap his hands around Gwen's slender neck and just squeeze until something snapped. Gwen played the matter off with big smiles and fluttering lashes, telling her Praelector that here was an opportunity to give the Isle of Dogs project a kick in the behind.
Grudgingly, Ollie relayed that Lady Grey would take custody of the Mages. For now, her new aides from Shanghai would be registered as illegal aliens, and only if they passed muster would they be expatriate labourers under Magister Walken's care. Considering how much influence Gwen had over them, the Lady has advised that they work for Gwen, but not directly under her— as the implications of slavery were something of an anathema to the British, who had weaned off that particular teat some centuries ago.
The process of watching over the second round of preliminary interrogations took several more hours. During that time, Gwen grilled Golos about the incident with Elvia. When her Wyvern revealed nothing of note; she believed his ignorance. If the Yinglong was as wily as she supposed, there was no reason it would trust Golos to do anything other than act as a conduit between her and itself. From the way Golos blurted out its death wish to Ayxin, then revealed Ayxin's plot to herself, the drake was either the dumbest lizard alive, or more devious than a Dragon who plotted to drag the Tyrant out of its lair without losing a single scale on its back.
Dozens of interviews later, her head throbbed, and she was hungry to boot.
To her surprise, an extraordinarily sumptuous meal of curry was teleported in for Golos, who must have demanded it from the accomodating staff servicing the Magisters coming to see her Shoggoth. To assert dominance, she spitefully ate his Chicken Tikka Masala.
The overall atmosphere of the encampment returned to mirth once Golos' simple-minded tomfoolery became apparent, chiefly when half of the Wyvern's dialogue consisted of how many broods he had hatched with Phalera. If this world had smartphones, Gwen shuddered, she could just imagine Golos with one arm around the neck of a sweating Magister, scrolling through copious pictures of his "babies", oversharing the occasionally compromising photo of Phelara.
"Young one!" Golos separated himself from the crowd of Magisters to greet Ollie, who he recognised from their last adventure. "Why the long face? Did the Calamity trouble you again?"
"Of course." Ollie's teeth gnashed as he looked up at Golos. "I don't know how you do it, Ser Golos. Have you thought about eating her?"
"She's not so hard to handle," Golos snickered. "Did you know the Calamity's one weakness is love? I can give you some tips. I am, after all, the father of a hundred chicks..."
At dusk, the search party returned with a Primus kept in stasis on an enormous, levitating barge, ready to be teleported back to some undisclosed location in London.
Gwen whistled as the raft floated by their encampment. The Primus was enormous, a verdant colossus if she had to guess by its pre-capture size. From the looks of the ichor-splattered Golems thundering back into the clearing, they must have knee-capped the thing somehow, and then worked their way up from there. Two of the Golems looked like they would need new canopies; one was missing most of its outer shell and was being towed across the sunken earth by its sibling on a Disk of Levitation.
Once the show was over, the party returned to their tent to await the inevitable call for Gwen's show and tell. Yossari, now that she was no longer a part of the party left to join the VIPs. As for Golos, the Wyvern wandered the camp, awaiting her pleasure. Once they began, she would be alone. During the Planar Ally's deployment, only Gwen and her minions were immune to the Shoggoth.
"Not all of the team came back," Richard remarked once he was comfortable. "But since everyone's smiling, I assume no one died. We're close enough to a Tower, even for shorter-ranged Contingency Rings."
"I guess this means it's my turn soon." Gwen yawned. Dealing with Heathrow's Custom officers had been taxing. She had no idea how Ollie could survive the repetitive, constant interrogation and could only be glad for his presence. "Too bad I couldn't exercise Golos."
"You're not at a loss. Since the college is paying for his ticket to London." Petra sat on her bunk, fiddling with a Spellcube. "And Walken's got some new helpers. That's got to be worth more than Cores."
"We could have gotten both," Gwen pointed out. "You guys need funds, don't you?"
"Nothing urgent." Petra shook her head. "I can do Enchanting work, especially after I learn from the Dwarves."
"And I've been doing odd jobs." Richard shrugged. "We're fine, I think. I am receiving pay from Walken as well for work on the Isle of Dogs."
Gwen looked across to Jean-Paul.
"I've got Crystals." Jean-Paul touched his ring. "Do you need Crystals, Gwen?"
"… I am good." Gwen gave the man a thumbs up. "Thanks for offering."
"I have some savings." Gracie raised her hand since it appeared that everyone's talking about their finances. "Er… I get an allowance; for surviving."
"Oh, Gracie." Gwen walked across the tent to pat her new companion on the head. "Crystals are the least of your worries. Once your health improves, we'll focus on getting you up to spec, hmm? I am sure there are lots of ways we can see if it is possible to get you up to spec. With Evee's Sen-sen and my help, you'll be fine. I promise. A Void Illusionist! You'll be breaking new ground!"
"Okay." Gracie's expression grew so hopeful that Gwen felt a pang of guilt. "I've seen and learned a lot on this trip. Thank you, Gwen. You too, Jean-Paul."
"Aww, you're too sweet." Gwen gave the girl a big hug, pushing her shoulder against the young woman's.
On cue, a Message Glyph, red with urgency, blossomed beside Gwen's head.
Gwen answered the call.
"Magus Song, we're ready for you," came the reply. "Please gather your team at the main pavilion. Final checks have been carried out. We're green-lit to go."
"Understood," Gwen returned the Message. "I'll see you on the dais."
The array of instruments set up around the summoning platform reminded Gwen of a concert, while she was the diva taking centre stage.
Spectrometers of all kinds with confusing Latin names bobbed in the water, hovered in the air, or were anchored to long steel piles driven into the soft earth. At her insistence, the observers forwent the bunkers the Transmuters had conjured from stone, and instead took to the open air. There were no shockwaves that followed a Shoggoth; she had told them; only tentacles coming out of dark places where ectoplasm could collect.
Finally, with warnings delivered, Teleportation Beacons affixed, and mental wards assigned and tested, the gathered Mages were ready, and so was she.
Behind her, her Wyvern grunted.
Gwen had initially entertained the idea of having Golos sit outside the Mandala, for such was her annoyance at the brute— but then she recalled that in Shenyang, the Amazon, and Nagaland, the two of them had fought shoulder to shoulder, and had bled together, his huffing snout against her breathless bosom. Under Shenyang, in the gaping maw of the Shoggoth, Golos had even covered her with its stinking, fear-drenched body. The Wyvern was a fool and an innocent, this she had to accept. If she could forgive and find trust in Eric Walken, whose actions had orchestrated the fall of her Master, then why shouldn't she give the benefit of the doubt to Golos? Therefore, armed with sentimentality, she told Golos to sit inside the circle so that when the Shoggoth descended, they were both protected.
"Alright," she muttered to herself. "Let's get this show on the road."
Stepping into the epicentre of the Summoning Circle, she flooded her conduits with Essence to offset the life-leeching Void. The first time she had called on the Shoggoth, she had not anticipated that an actual 'thing' right out of Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness would materialise so readily. Now, she had experience, knowledge and confidence.
Though the night was clouded, Gwen in her blue-white Shen-Teī suit was lit by a bright nimbus, making her appear as though some old-world priestess. It was because a dozen Day Lights had been set up by the observing Magisters, momentarily banishing all shadow from the vicinity of Llyn Alaw and its calm, mirror-like water.
Gwen wetted her lips, then began.
"Yog-Sothoth!" she repeated the words from her last conjuration. She had no idea if the make-believe itself was necessary, but she was invested now in the old paths. "Lä, Shub-Niggurath! Bring forth the creators of the mad cities! Birth unto this world ye servants! O ye Manglers from the Mount! Hunt mine enemies! Iä— YE MOUTHS OF MADNESS! CONSUME THESE TRIFFIDS!"
The Mandala darkened with Void mana, its silvery burst of Conjuration consumed by the ink-like rushes of crow-black energies hungrily lashing at the air. As before, her once glowing face grew anaemic, though this time, she could feel her abundant Essence fighting the Negative Energy drain, preserving her stamina.
Gweeegn— Gweeegn— Gweeegn— Gweeegn—
The strange gale she had heard in her dreams grew suddenly tumultuous within the recess of her mind. At her nadir, the Mandala connected the Prime Material and the Quasi-Elemental Plane of the Void. Toward her zenith, the clouds began to swirl and turn, forming into a descending funnel, not unlike Golo's descent.
Thus far, everything other than the uninvited howling was as she had anticipated. Just as she wondered if the strange hoots existed only in her mind or if it was wailing in real life, Golos began to shout.
"Calamity!" Golos appeared bewildered. "What is that noise?! This isn't like last time!"
"You can hear it too?" Gwen said, suddenly realising that she could barely hear her voice. "GOLOS! WHAT'S THIS NOISE?"
Even with Clarion Call, she couldn't hear herself. It was as if a million voices were chanting at once, their cacophonic choruses pouring through the conduit she had forced into the Void to extract her Planar Ally.
Golos said something, but like a dark tide, the sound of the Weee— went up and down, filling all space, bouncing off every nook and cranny in the interior of her skull.
Ding! A Message spell bloomed, though Gwen could no longer hear the ringing.
Above, the cloud boiled then parted, revealing an enormous eye some fifty meters across, with a strange "W" shaped iris, staring straight down at Gwen and Golos.
A foetid stink of ocean water mixed with fish guts and ancient soil fell upon the dais in a violent squall, plastering both cultist and Wyvern in what was absolutely not semi-gelatinous primordial ectoplasm. When Gwen raised her hand, she could even see bits of fish scales, half a lip, and what looked like a chewed fin, platter within their general vicinity.
Gwen's mouth moved, but no sound could be heard. The sudden, fishy tempest that muted her hard-bitten syllables had also filled her half-open mouth.
From where the Shoggoth was supposed to emerge, the giant eyeball erupted as a dozen tentacles burst through its meniscus lens, revealing a formless protoplasm from primordial times— an all-enveloping, all-consuming hunger made into a writhing, slithering mass of mouths.
That— and a torrential downpour of dismembered fish.